June 27, 2013

Show Me How You Practice

Manuel Garcia the Elder
Five words that strike terror, or something close to it, into the heart of the student. 

You mean I have to show you what I do when I'm at home?  

Yep. That's the whole idea. 

I only ask after the student has had the opportunity to get a grasp on things, that is, has been given specific exercises and detailed instructions on how to do them.

The demonstration is revelatory, revealing everything from the need for me to be ever more specific and systematic, to the student's ability - or lack thereof - in keeping everything we have worked on together viable.

Did you ever see the Ed Sullivan Show? The episode featuring Erich Brenn spinning plates? There are times what I think singing is like that, there being no more than 5 or 6 things to do at any given time. More than that and singing becomes impossible.

What are some of the plates in my conceptual pantry? The ability to maintain the 'singing position,' 'open face,' 'open throat' (an auditory sensation), and 'voice placement' (another auditory sensation), the latter always more present in awareness, bell-like and ringing. 

Getting these plates in the air at the same time? That's the real trick, one which requires a teacher with skill on his or her plate. 

Manuel García the Younger talked about his father not allowing him to descend after singing an ascending scale. Can't I go down once? Nope. Not allowed. He had to get that one plate in the air, which is the kind of detailed practice young students need. Singing, like composition, having its laws: you have to learn them before you can break them. 

Show me how you practice. 

June 25, 2013

Letter from the Committee to Save the New York Public Library

Central Library at 42nd Street, NYC


Dear Friend, 

On May 1, 2012, some seven hundred well-known scholars, writers, researchers, and teachers, alarmed by a plan for radical redesign of the interior space of the iconic central building of the New York Public Library and radical distortion of its institutional purpose, affixed their names to an appeal addressed to NYPL’s president, Dr. Anthony Marx. I also signed this petition, authored by Professors Joan Scott and Stanley Katz, in the belief that the president of the New York Public Library and his trustees, although misguided in their ambitious designs, possessed an impeccable conception of fiduciary rigor. 

The appeal was one of polite dubiety; its reservations were heuristic rather than confrontational as the signers sought to comprehend what seemed to many a paradigm of drastic self-reinvention, the Central Library Plan (CLP), profoundly antithetical to the history and mission of the magnificent institution entrusted to President Marx and his trustees. “We appreciate the fact that you have established a committee consisting of some critics of the CLP to advise you,” the distinguished signatories acknowledged. But they hoped President Marx would “take a hard look at the plan you’ve been given and revise it so that the splendid culture of research embodied by the NYPL can be maintained. We think the money raised can be better used to preserve and extend what already exists at 42nd Street. Change is always necessary, but not of the kind envisioned by the CLP.” 

Twelve months and some days after this first collective demarche to the officers and trustees of the NYPL, the greatest public research library in America stands empty of its books, its seven levels of stacks supporting the singular Rose Reading Room but days away from removal at a price tag and engineering risk unrevealed to the public and, it is to be feared, that neither Dr. Marx nor the trustees have yet precisely assessed. Its interior space is imminently fated for reconfiguration as a cross between a vast Starbucks and a gleaming Apple store, unless the ill-conceived CLP can be stopped on its well-oiled course to self-destruction. In the twelve months and some days since the original May 2012 appeal was presented to the officers at 42nd Street, many names have been added, a good number famous enough to enjoy celebrity status, along with scholars from Poland, Canada, France and the UK; faculty and graduate students from all over the US (and especially the NY area); as well as writers, poets, and many others who regularly use the research library’s collections. Several fruitless meetings with library officials have occurred. Caveats voiced by the canonical Ada Louise Huxtable and the authoritative architectural critic Michael Kimmelman have fallen on the deaf ears at 42nd Street. Scott Sherman’s investigative journalism twice channeled in the Nation gamely detailed the absurdities of the CLP. Under the informed sway of community organizer Jacob Morris, a half dozen municipal community boards have passed resolutions of disapproval. 

Thus, from that interval in 2012 of apparent mutual good faith to what is now an impassioned standoff in June of this year, the legion of critics of the CLP has long since awakened to the practiced legerdemain of the NYPL’s officers and trustees as the Library’s spokespersons have continually served up patently illogical rationales for their CLP, buttressed by data dubious and invented: (1) zany metrics purporting to give more public library access by shoehorning 300,000 square feet of auctioned library space (Mid-Manhattan and SIBL-the Science, Industry, and Business Libraries) into 80,000 square feet at 42nd Street; (2) voodoo economics that combine $150 million tax dollars with revenues from the NYPL’s own liquidated properties that are calculated to fund, variously, $300 million to $450 million in construction and endowment replenishment, while celebrity architect Norman Foster’s air-terminal sketches of a deconstructed Carrere and Hastings’ palace of learning await (pace Ada Louise Huxtable) their blueprints even yet; (3) institutional mendacity to justify millions of the Library’s books trucked to New Jersey caves and Westchester warehouses on the specious grounds that the stacks (air-conditioned in the 1980s and upgraded in the 1990’s) are somehow inimical to the books’ preservation and that the extensive storage space under Bryant Park at first unmentioned, now at least acknowledged, is to date unutilized despite an announced 8 million-dollar contribution for this purpose. 

For a time of puzzling duration, a truth that dared not speak its name reigned over the CLP debate, or so it seems to the astute Le Monde, whose New York correspondent, writing of one of the climacteric controversies of the Bloomberg era, recently opined: “le plan municipal de rationalization des bibliotheques masque des ambitions immobilieres.” The hypothesis that, stripped to its bare, base essentials, the CLP is a real estate masquerade has occurred to some of us even without the benefit of Cartesian clarity. The hypothesis of “ambitions immobilieres” would perhaps also explain the curious indifference of the mainstream media to the CLP controversy, their virtual silence as the valiant volunteers of the Committee to Save the New York Public Library (CSNYPL) and the Citizens Defending Libraries (CDL) have marched with signs and song and stood in serried ranks on the steps of City Hall, 42nd Street, and numerous public buildings in one borough after another. 

The hypothesis of real estate development in play in the CLP would suggest why the issues of the NYPL and its branch libraries fail to find traction in many circles at a time when library usage in New York is greater than attendance at sports events. One can only suspect that a unique combination of complacency, confusion, complicity, dubious compensations, and cravenness explains why a work of vandalism in progress proceeds apace in the cultural capital of our country with surprising inattention from elected representatives, public officials, press lords, guardians of cultural and eleemosynary institutions, heads of research universities, and even, indeed, from the very population of writers and researchers at risk of an existential calamity. 

It is to this population of writers and researchers that this eleventh-hour appeal is addressed, for we are at risk of an indictment by history as deserved for our failure to make our cause one of the defining intellectual and professional commitments of a lifetime as will be the eventual obloquy history reserves for the NYPL’s president and trustees. Before the stacks are ripped like entrails from the body of this living entity guarded by two muzzled lions, we, the well-known scholars, writers, researchers, and teachers, whose ranks boast Pulitzer laureates, Library Lions, MacArthur fellows, celebrity authors, have what will likely be one last meaningful opportunity to prevent a cultural atrocity that beggars the vandalism that befell this city with the destruction of Penn Station, and the near misses of Carnegie Hall and Grand Central Station. Understandably, some of the signers of the May 2012 petition have not followed the lamentable saga described by me. Others may well have become disheartened. All of us have urgent demands placed upon our charged professional calendars. 

A year ago, however, we pledged our commitment to save the New York Public Library. A few days from today, history affords us as citizens of the republic of letters a dramatic opportunity to redeem our pledge. On June 27th, a Thursday, the Standing Committee on Libraries and Education Technology of the State of New York, chaired by Assemblyman Micah Kellner, will hold a public hearing in Manhattan at 250 Broadway to examine “the practice of selling public library buildings to private developers.” The public is invited to submit written “pertinent testimony” as soon as possible. Oral testimony to be limited to “10 minutes duration.” Indeed, your statement for Assemblyman Kellner’s committee could certainly serve also as an arresting newspaper op-ed or indignant letter to the editor. The following LINK provided by the Committee to Save the NYPL facilitates timely compliance with the requirements enabling your participation either in person, via written statement, or both. 

David Levering Lewis, Library Lion, 2002 


PLEASE NOTE: 

If you wish to testify at the hearing, the Assembly requires speakers to pre-register by submitting a 
Public Hearing Reply Form NO LATER THAN TUESDAY AFTERNOON, JUNE 25. 
The form can be submitted via email or fax, and can be found online here: 
http://assembly.state.ny.us/comm/Library/20130610/ 

If you wish to attend but not speak, there is no need to pre-register. 

If you wish to submit testimony but cannot appear in person at the hearing, you can still send a statement in the form of a .pdf or Word document to: 

Lindsey Facteau, Legislative Analyst 
Assembly Committee on Libraries and Education Technology 
Suite 1147, Alfred E. Smith Building 
80 South Swan Street 
Albany, New York 12248 
Email: facteaul@assembly.state.ny.us 

Phone: (518) 455-4881 
Fax: (518) 455-4128

June 24, 2013

Herman Speaks

One can learn quite a bit about how voice teachers taught from a short article such as the one below. What are some of the particulars? While Manuel García and his student Herman Klein knew a great deal about anatomy and physiology, they knew better than to foist it on their students. Why? It confused them. I could say the same thing, since every time I hear myself talking about the action of this and that, pharynx and larynx, it rarely, if ever, helps the student. Why? It doesn't help them do anything, not in the beginning anyway. After they can sing? That's another matter. Then it makes more sense. Anatomy and physiology may be good to know, but singing - from the student's perspective, is less about knowing and more about doing

What is the teacher's task? To give the student a series of exercises and experiences that lead said student to sing. It's really that simple, and is the difference between a 'declarative' and 'procedural' approach, and having everything to do how we learn (see my posts on Katherine Verdolini and motor learning for more information). Knowing what to do, and how to do it? That's the responsibility of the teacher. 

Enjoy the article! 


*****

The Musical Herald of London, in its January number published an excellent portrait of Herman Klein by Mendelssohn, and an article that also mentions this celebrated teacher's visit to the United States. We quote some points that may be of interest to students of the voice: 

Do you go into the physiology of the voice? 

Only so far as regarding it as essential for a teacher to understand. García understood it, but did not confuse his pupils with it. I remember he once brought me a papier maché model of the human throat, but he never used any terminology but that which the merest layman could understand." 

You recognize that there are certain registers? 

Yes, their existence is unquestionable to my mind, and the summa ars its to obliterate them. In the case of women's voices, I speak of three registers: chest medium and head. I do not recognize the existence of intermediate registers, though I do recognize 'intermediate' qualities of tone which tend to unify these registers. I should describe the man's voice as divided into two main registers, with a series of notes of 'intermediate' quality of tone to combine them. 

You spoke of singers' needs as to languages? 

I speak three languages besides my own, and to my mind the whole secret of singing well in a given language is to listen carefully with one's musical ear and imitate like a parrot, but at the same to preserve the beauty of tone, no matter what my be the vowel or the word. Many singers imagine that in singing in a foreign language they must distort their throats in some peculiar way. 

How would you describe such bad tone?

The singer bawls or barks, or declaims as we frequently hear Wagnerian singers do. There are also singers  who have never been taught to give a ringing, resonant tone, which is something more than breath and hardly worthy of being called voice. These two extremes worry me. They are weeded out by the concert agents before long, but during training the teacher must put up with them. 

You must have wooden pupils sometimes? 

Yes. I was rather referring to the cold, dull, monotonous singer who things that one tone does for a whole song. I also deprecate efforts to overdo interpretation. Some singers sacrifice everything to the word, the result is that the beauty of the voice or the song disappears. 


The Musical Courier, January 29, 1902

June 21, 2013

What Manuel García Didn't Teach

See this guy on the right? The famous Manuel García, who is credited with being the first person to see the vocal folds in action during singing via the laryngoscope, and the father of voice science? The guy who knew more than anyone else during his time about the inner workings of the larynx, and who's teachings on the matter have been borne out after 150 years?

After I wrote my last post, and the comments came flooding in, I thought it prudent to be clear about what Manuel García didn't teach: falsetto. The man who codified his father's teaching, which is understood to have originated in the Old Italian School precepts of Nicola Porpora through his student Giovanni Anzani, did not allow this students to sing in falsetto. One statement which supports this assertion comes from a student with a long association with Anna  E. Schoen-René, who studied with Pauline Viardot-García and her brother Manuel.  

Schoen-René was opposed to the use of falsetto and quoted García as equally opposed to it. They believed, instead, in using throughout the entire male register a very carefully controlled mixed voice, supported by a highly developed breath control but never permitted to break into an out and out falsetto tone.   

Of course, there are those who assert that García and his father changed the way people sang, that before their time, men were falsetto-ing all over the place. But I find this a weak argument (it's also a weak register), one that arises from a misunderstanding of the word itself, and its use in earlier writings.

My aim in research has always been to find out what the teachers of the Old Italian School actually did in the studio, and what their conception of tonal production was based upon. Ok then. This much we know. Whatever they taught: it did not include singing in falsetto. Why?  It ain't bel canto! 

June 19, 2013

The Folly of Falsetto

Eric Lewis for Conté Nast
I recently attended a professional event where falsetto was discussed as being a primary tool in acquiring correct vocal function in classical vocal technique. It gets the vocal folds to stretch and isn't that a good thing? In fact, entire vocal pedagogies have been founded on it. Well, I thought: I'm the odd man out since I don't see the merit of the argument. Why would that be? Because it has nothing whatsoever to do with il bel canto.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a purist who thinks falsetto singing is wrong. In fact, I have a young tenor student who could make a pile of cash on Broadway singing in Jersey Boys, since he can sing falsetto with the best of them. However, he'd rather mine the American Songbook and the art of Tony Bennett, which suit him perfectly.

We all make our aesthetic choices. What we should refrain from doing, however, is confusing those choices with historical vocal pedagogy. 

When you sing in falsetto you are breaking a cardinal rule of the Old Italian School, which finds the larynx remaining in its position for singing. This "singing position" is acquired by first speaking, then singing, clear, deep and resonant vowels on lower pitches which lower the larynx slightly, this lowering being a result of audition rather than manipulation. "Singing position" is dependent on chest function, that is, the action of the thyroarythenoids within the larynx, even if that function is greatly lessened during mezza voce singing. This is why falsetto means "false" in Italian. It doesn't contain this function, so it can never give the singer his position for singing!

Both men and women were taught to keep their singing position, which has everything to do with the function of the vocal folds. If the singing position isn't attained, you may be singing quite nicely, but it won't be bel canto.

What accompanies singing position? The aural awareness of "open throat" and "voice placement." Like the legs of a stool, each support the other, and cannot exist alone. 

June 14, 2013

Ira Spaulding & The Park Slope Singers Perform Elijah

Ira Spaulding 
I spent a lovely evening in Brooklyn two weeks ago, listening to The Park Slope Singers perform the second part of Felix Mendelsohn's Elijah under the excellent leadership of Ira Spaulding, who also sang the baritone part of Elijah.

While listening to Mendelsohn' arching melodies in the Gothic Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Bay Ridge, I was reminded why professional and amateur  choruses enjoy performing Elijah: it's a great sing! In this, the Park Slope Singers did not disappoint, their voices blended beautifully.

Mr. Spaulding has done right by his singers: diction, phrasing, dynamic contrast and tonal balance were in evidence, as was the unquantifiable yet plainly evident commitment to Musick.

I'm starting at the end, but one thing became clear at the after-party in the adjoining meeting hall: Ira Spaulding's five year tenure has been a very good one. His singers clearly adore him, and with good reason: his gesture as conductor is clear and concise, while his manner of making music is infused with enthusiasm; three qualities that are often in short supply on the podium.

One of the high points during the evening? "Oh come everyone that thirstest," the penultimate number sung by a quartet of soloists (Julia Poyer, Netania Steiner, John Hicks and J. Robert Charles) chosen from the ensemble. One could see Mr. Spaulding is as exacting as he is nurturing: demanding much, he obtains much in return. You simply can't get singers to follow you so closely if 1) you don't know what your are doing, and 2) you aren't highly skilled.

Another high point was hearing Mr. Spaudling sing. He has a refined voice; full, even, with ample amplitude and a burnished beauty, especially in the upper range. I was reminded of my student days, when the singer's training focused on tonal beauty and textual meaning in equal measure. It's the kind of approach that is, oddly, being neglected in our Conservatories in the mad rush to the stage. Quicker, faster, sooner, yesterday instead of today: you have to take your time in becoming an artist. Mr. Spaulding clearly has.