August 30, 2011

Mastering Technique

A Professional Dedicates Himself to Mastering Technique
The professional respects his craft. He does not consider himself superior to it. He recognizes the contributions of those who have gone before him. He apprentices himself to them.
The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come. The professional is sly. He knows that by toiling beside the front door of technique, he leaves room for genius to enter by the back.   
From The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield, p. 86

Water Boy

The title says it all. A week after I got back from Umbria I had my first swimming lesson. You'd think after being a member of the West Side Y in Manhattan for 15 years that I had been in the pool before then, but you would be mistaken. Never did. Why? It wasn't fear of the water. I could get back and forth across a pool. But real swimming, as in swimming with grace, élan and a modicum of technique? Never. I just made do. I always told myself that I would get in the pool eventually but never did. What made me dive in? Perhaps it was the physical I had the day after I got off the plane and being told that while I had perfect blood pressure (two weeks in Umbria and lots of laughing and singing and Grappa will do that) my cholesterol was out of wack.

Il Dottore said I had to cut out the eggs and get more exercise. Heart pounding exercise. And swimming being very different than being on an elliptical trainer, I thought it was time. Nothing like being in the water and swimming for your life, or at least a better blood test in three months. 

So what does any of this have to do with bel canto singing? Plenty! After you get in the pool and learn how to swim freestyle you start to really understand the art of breathing and what it means to endure. Training in the water is like singing Bellini or Wagner. It's all in the breathing. 

Yes. There is a great different between breathing for singing and breathing for swimming. In the latter, one's head is face down in the water and the emphasis is on exhalation (the secret is to keep making bubbles), while in singing the emphasis is on the gesture of inhalation. The Old School called this inhaling the voice- inhalare la voce. You'd think that one would not have much to do with the other, but they do. Active exhalation aids the mechanism of inhalation (the Lamperti School called the interplay between the two the vocal struggle). 

To sustain the gesture of inhalation implies that there must first be an exhalation. And swimming certainly strengthens the latter aspect. Once you get the hang of exhaling with your head in the water (and not holding your breath because of the fear of drowning) things get a lot easier. And this is my main point: fear and inadequate technique in both singing and swimming takes you right to the bottom. The body literally contracts, shortens, and the light goes out of the eyes. As a consequence singing through a phrase or crossing the length of the pool seems impossible. You're drowning. 

Get the exhalation right when your head is in the water and the air will come into your lungs without effort when you turn your head. And when you are able to sustain the gesture of inhalation by hearing that your vowels are clear the exhalation will take care of itself. An unclear vowel is like thrashing in the water: both go nowhere

The key is to feel buoyant when you are in the water or singing an aria. Limbs and vocal lines both need perfect placement. 

Like the beautiful tile? It's from the Moravian Tile Works c. 1926. A place worth visiting in Bucks County, the owner also built one of the first houses out of concrete in America. It's in the style of a French Chateau. Now a museum, it is filled with amazing tile from all over the world. Apologies for the florescence which lends everything a garish tone. That said, I hope you can see the craftsmanship that went into creating this Temple of Beauty.  

Beauty in art and life. It takes discipline and work, simple unrelenting work. I started out only being able to go one lap before my chest starting heaving and I was out of breath. Now in my second week (I've gone every day) I can go two. A small improvement. But improvement nonetheless. The short term goal is five laps without stopping. And then ten. And then fifteen. And then twenty- and so on.  

Those Old Italian School voice teachers had their students sing on long tones for twelve to eighteen seconds. And then they did it again, over and over on every note of the scale. Think that was easy? 

Everyone in the pool! 

August 16, 2011

Tomas Luis de Victoria: Vere Langoures Nostros at Norcia, Italy, with the Umbrian Serenades

Umbrian Serenade founder Paulo Faustini and I at Il Panciolle, in Spoleto, Italy

I'm in Umbria withdrawal. I thought I was Ok, but I'm not. I want to be back, sitting at lunch with my Umbrian Serenade buddies at Il Panciolle having that wonderful dessert with peaches and Cointreau. I've replicated it twice already, but you know, the peaches aren't the same! There is a dolce about Umbria that extends to everything, from the light, the taste of peaches, and the color of egg yokes which actually have an umber color to them. The acoustics are sweet too. I've already written about the concert at Norcia. This post includes one piece from that concert, perhaps my favorite on the program. The video was taken by a family member of a participant ( can come as non-singer), and while you can hear all kinds of things in the background- birds twittering (I think a door was open), the audience etc, it shows the viewer a whiff of what the program involves. What an amazing space to sing in! I've written this repeatedly, but it still astonishes me. After all, how often do you get to sing under 14th century frescos in an acoustic that sets your hair on fire?

I should be writing about music in this paragraph, but I really have food on the brain. As a "Choral and Cultural Tasting in the Green Heart of Italy," the Umbrian Serenades achieves both aspects with aplomb: I haven't had so many beautiful and unremittingly amazing meals in a long time. Like the dessert mentioned above, they linger on the palate. The wine tasting was memorable too, none the least of which was my knocking over my glass on the tile floor (it was sitting at my feet), and being told to put my finger in the spilled red and dab it on my neck for good luck. No. I wasn't drunk. Just giddy with joy with the simple and exquisite pleasure of bruschetta topped with virgin olive oil and rubbed with raw garlic. Heaven with antipasti. Oh yes. I brought back a couple of bottles from the vineyard. All gone now, along with the Grappa di Sagrantino. What to do? Return next summer! 

It's not often that you get to travel to a beautiful place and rehearse and concertize for two weeks and have a heck of a great time doing it (Paulo and his co-founder Holly Phares have found the perfect balance between work and play..or should I say play and play?) Perhaps it's only the musician who understands this, but there is a joy in music making that you don't find anywhere else, though I should amend this by saying that singing is in itself a distinct joy. Singing with others chorally? It only magnifies the effect. Add wonderful spaces to sing in into the mix -with ardent audiences - and you have spontaneous combustion. 

I won't exaggerate here: I cried every day at some point. The music, the warmth and comradery of my colleagues, the purple hills at dusk, the care with which everyone gave their all to Art, the sublime experience of a magical evening, sitting in front of the beautifully lit Duomo, drinking Proescco, and talking about life. I had been to Spoleto in 1985 as part of the Westminster Choir, but this was more than a fond trip down memory lane. This was connecting to what mattered in life. 

Enjoy the Victoria. I think of his music as the paintings of El Greco in motion (both the painter and the composer are Spanish). Elongated with beautiful lines, a conversation with a scholar after a concert reminded me that El Greco was originally a Byzantine iconographer. The curious thing about Byzantine icons is that there aren't any straight lines. And there aren't any in Victoria either.

The road to heaven is full of curves, as are the hills of Umbria. 

Vere languores nostros ipse et dolores nostros portavit cujus livore sanati sumus. 
Dulce lignum, dulce clavos, dulcia ferens pondera quae sola fuistis digna sustinere regem cloelorum et Domininum. 
Truly, our failings he has taken upon himself and our sorrows his had borne. By his wounds we have been saved. 
O sweet wood, O sweet nails that bore his sweet burden, which alone were worthy to support the King and Lord of Heaven. 

August 13, 2011

The Beginning of Bel Canto

My recent trip it Italy- the Land of Song- reminded me just how far removed we are from the beginning of bel canto singing. While the courts of Florence and Venice of the 16th century have been touted as one source of bel canto, the other lies within the church. And it is this latter branch that has largely been forgotten.

Museo San Francesco, Norcia, Italy

What brought this thought to mind? Singing chant in three beautiful spaces. The last one especially, the San Francesco Church Museum in Norcia, had an acoustic that was at once elevating and clarifying. You could hear the top of the pitch when singing as well as the core of the tone. The tone shimmered on gossamer wings. In pedagogical terms, what I heard was 'head tone'. You can't sing chant any other way really, that is, if you are singing chant correctly. And what does that mean? You don't sing chant like you are singing an aria. You don't use your chest, or as the science-types are wont to say- AT action. It's not full voice singing. Singing chant is a CT driven activity. That said, chant isn't sung in falsetto. It is a rich, dense sound, one that carries very well. Is this easy to do for the untrained singer or monk? Of course not. Tradition has it that a novice would spend a year or two just sitting in the choir before beginning to sing. And why would that be, do you suppose? I believe this is because it took time for the sound of chant- a language all its own- to worm its way in the novice's brain.

I sang with three other men, two tenors and a baritone. And I swear, the whole time, I had to think very carefully about what I was doing, listening to the tickle of tone inside the center of my head. It wasn't hard to do, but opera singers don't often get the chance to sing in this 'heady' way. And I swear it's better than cigarettes. You get a high from it. (I should note that I've only smoked in Carmen.)

Again: chant singing involves singing with a dense, rich tone. One that can grow into full voice if you know what you are doing. And this is the point of this post: you have to know how to sing messa di voce before you really know what singing in head voice means. Bel canto singing thrives on this dense, rich tone.

It was a real thrill to stand where monks stood and sing chant in spaces that were created for just this purpose.