July 29, 2013

Start where you are going


Ah! What a lucky fellow I am: singing in the green heart of Italy with Umbrian Serenades for the third time. Flying into Rome this past week, I spent a few days wandering around the city before joining my fellow Serenaders in Spoleto, Italy.

While in Rome, I stayed near the Pantheon, which I visited a number of times, standing awestruck under its oculus, contemplating the effect scale and proportion have on   the  senses.

Such spaces inspire both awe and wonder, which open ear and psyche, both being necessary for beautiful singing. It's really not any more complicated than that. But we do make it complicated, don't we? The trick, of course, is to be more simple.

My teacher would tell her students to "start where you are going," which I heard as an instruction to listen to vocal placement ('ring' if you prefer) as well as the position for singing which involves an understanding of breath. Yes, it is all those things. But now I also hear her instruction as an admonition to open to heaven and earth - and this whole awe and wonder business. If that sounds too woo-woo for some of you, well... just stand in the Pantheon for a long time. Then come and sing with me in Italy. We'll have an amazing rehearsal like we had today, where the music-making moved many—including myself—to tears.

July 15, 2013

Finding a good voice teacher

García-Viardot Method c. 1915
You can find interesting things when you conduct research at a library that has access to historical newspapers. Of course, there are many databases in which to search, newspapers being but one place to look. You have to know where to look and what terms to enter. That's the joy of the hunt! 

You can see the terms I was using and what I found in the photo to the left. What did I do with the name of the voice teacher I found? I dug deeper, or at least tried to, using other databases. Unfortunately, I came up empty-handed, at least for today. However, I do know that a Mrs. Charles G. Hurd announced to the world that she was teaching the García-Viardot method in a California city in the first decade of the 20th century. She probably studied with Viardot-García herself, or one of her students. 

Have I encountered liars and fakes? To be sure. The thing is: they alway seem prone to overstatement which rings false. I see voice teachers do the same thing today.  

Learn to sing in 6 easy lessons! Anyone can sing! The only vocal technique you will ever need! Blah, blah, blah! Youtube is full of this kind of stuff. Guess what? I could show you pages of copy from a hundred years ago that indicate the same thing. They used to call it charlatanism. You don't have to actually know anything: you just have to look and sound like you do. Talk fast, put a smile on your face and utter superlatives at every juncture. Either that or look serious, and spout lots of facts about anatomy and physiology (which can't teach the student to sing). Of course, you can combine approaches and really mess with a person's mind. Such is the art of artlessness. 

But let's be constructive here. How do you know if a voice teacher is worth their salt? Check out the teacher's students (Viardot-García herself said "students make the teacher"), and where the teacher studied and with whom. Find out if the teacher can demonstrate what they teach, that is, can they sing? (Would you learn to speak French from someone who knows all about the history of France, but has never been to Paris, and doesn't speak French?) Then go and take a lesson or two. This will give you a lot of information. 

Mrs. Charles G. Hurd? I'd love to know if she was the real deal. I'll find out eventually. 

July 10, 2013

Yogic Breath: Ujjayi

Recently, a reader found my post on Ujjayi breathing (which you can find here) and sent me a message, quite concerned that  it would restrict his throat. Should he do it? Would it hurt his voice? That's what he wanted to know. 

This blog is intended to give the reader information with a historical and - at times- personal perspective. What I can't do is tell the reader what should be done with that information since I am not- strictly speaking- the reader's voice teacher. That said, I remember my own teacher encouraging me to listen to other singers, and 'try on' what I heard, the idea being to judge for myself the usefulness of a concept or idea. The implication, of course, was that I had to know what I was doing. 

Once, I experimented with holding my ribs out. The result? I was slightly hoarse. Did I repeat the experiment? Nope. "Freezing" my ribs open taught me that I should never do that. It prevented the muscles of my ribcage from doing their job, the result being air was forced between my vocal folds which resulted in said hoarseness. Was it stupid on my part? Not really. I learned something. What would have been stupid is if I had kept at it day after day, ignoring the consequences of my actions. 

Back to Ujjayi breathing and the reader's concern. It is performed while practicing Ashtanga yoga, is accompanied with a slight smile which 'rounds' the vocal tract, and is designed to concentrate energy and breath within the body. I did not find that it made me hoarse, not did it close my throat. Why? I was not singing when I practiced it! Yoga and singing aren't the same thing, even if the former informs the latter. Speaking of which: the Old Italian School taught that there should be no sound whatsoever in the throat while inhaling. None! One was taught to keep the glottis wide open. The moment before singing? The vocal folds come together, an action which, for most people, remains below conscious awareness.

Are the two teachings opposed? On the face of it one might say yes, but as always, the devil is in the details. Every tool has two edges, one of which will cut if used without skill. The reader must develop that skill,  use common sense, and judge for himself. 

July 4, 2013



1. A trace of something that is disappearing or no longer exists. 2. The smallest amount (used to emphasize the absence of something): "without a vestige of sympathy. 

It never surprises me when the student, upon singing really resonant vowels on ascending scales, starts talking about having an odd sensation in the head.

"I'm dizzy!" "I feel like I am going to faint!" "I'm spinning!" 

The sensation doesn't last more than a moment or two, then is gone, which is when they look at me astonished, cross-eyed and befuddled.

No, I tell them. You are not losing your hearing nor do you have a brain tumor! None of that. Your cochlea is being stimulated with rich dense vibration. I tell them how I had like sensation while at the Listening Centre in Toronto as a result of being stimulated by high frequencies, and found in my research that the old singers called it vestige,  a word you don't hear anymore. Having it means you are on the right track. It's a sign of progress, a marker on the road: once it is passed it usually doesn't reappear again, that is, if you keep singing.

Remember when you were a kid? I tell them. When you were out on the playground screaming your head off in glee with the other kids, and felt like you could take off and fly? Vestige is a vestige of that.

July 3, 2013

Larynx: barometer of emotion

Manuel García

RECOVERY OF THE VOICE - The Musical Times - July 1, 1924 

SIR- As biographer and for four years pupil of Manuel García, I hope you will permit me to protest against the sentence 'García's discovery of the laryngoscope did incalculable harm to singing and singers, 'in Miss Aubrey's letter in the May Musical Times.

Garcia had formed the theory that the glottis alone had the power of engendering sound, and that the different positions taken by the larynx had no action in the actual formation of sound. His desire to confirm this theory by direct observation of the throat during the process of singing led to his inventing (not discovering) the laryngoscope. By his examination of the glottis he had the satisfaction of proving that all his theories with regard to the emission of the voice were absolutely correct. 

How can discovery of truth cause incalculable harm? García did not teach with the laryngoscope, neither did his pupils. During twenty years as a teacher I have never used it, neither did García use it while I was under him. 

When there is reason for supposing that there is anything the matter with vocal cords or throat, pupils are sent to laryngologists, who by means of the instrument can discover the condition of the larynx. 

Is this doing incalculable harm? Three per cent. of the human race has benefited from the invention according to statistics. 

The larynx is as it were a barometer of emotion. If it remained in a fixed position - either high, low, or at any point in between  - emotion and tone colour would remain fixed. This would be neither art nor nature. 

Sterling MacKinlay 

July 1, 2013

Eric Whitacre: When David Heard

Eric Whitacre
We hear about a work or person and go our merry way until something happens that stops us in our tracks and makes us listen. Really listen. In this case, it was a status line on Facebook which included Eric Whitacre's choral work When David Heard. Having heard of Whitacre's work, but never having actually heard it, I clicked on the link and listened in an act of solidarity, suddenly finding myself in a liminal, numinous world.

I've sung a lot of choral music over the last 30 years, most of it terrific, some of it terrible, very little of it reaching into the center of the heart. Whitacre's work does that, primarily, I believe, through the canny use of silence.

Silence is the one thing lost in our culture of smart phones, iPods, huge flatscreen TV's and cars that tell us where we are going. We are rarely silent even for a minute, much less for any real length of time.

Music needs silence. Singing does too, those Old Italian School voice teachers talking about the pause, suspension and lift that happens before the tone springs forth. You can experience this while panting slowly and silently with the accent on the inhale—small moments of stillness that make one feel lifted, suspended and timeless. 

If one delves into the matter further, we find that the breath is suspended when two things happen: when we are 1) afraid, and when 2) we experience joy and wonder—bliss even.  

I experienced the former when I was robbed many years ago while subletting a ground floor apartment in northern Manhattan—my first summer in Gotham in 1988. It was very hot, and the apartment didn't have air conditioning, so I left the window in the kitchen open. I awoke at 3 in the morning, thinking I had left a light on, since I saw light streaming in from the living room. Getting out of bed, I walked three feet around the corner, and saw a kid standing in the kitchen (he had turned the light on), taking a swig from a fifth of whiskey left in a cabinet. Standing there buck naked, I heard myself say in a hoarse whisper: "What the fuck are you doing?" Ear, breath and body firmly closed, my voice sounded like it came from another room. The kid, seeing me standing there in the dark, ran for the door, taking my wallet and new Walkman with him. 

The latter? When practicing meditation, I found my breath became still when a refined, altered state of consciousness was attained. Without limits, borders and boundaries, I was lifted up, empty and full of Presence. 

Two ways of being; one pulled down for survival sake, small and hard: the other lifted, opened-hearted and expansive.

Mr. Whitacre? He makes silence sing.