October 31, 2015

When the tone holds you

I recently read the following on a yoga teacher's Instagram account:

When I try to do the poses they don't work out so well. But when I step back, assume the form, and listen, my body somehow knows what to do.

Then my voice-teacher mind heard:

When I try to sing it doesn't work out so well. But when I hold back my breath, assume the form of the vowel I am going to sing, and listen, my voice somehow knows what to do.

Holding back the breath? It has less to do with the amount of air in the lungs than it does the feeling of lift (extension) from pelvis to crown of head.

This same action happens when practicing yoga, and is illustrated in the pose on this page. To assume this form, the student first elongates the spine by "lifting the heart" before bending forward, or placing the foot behind the back. In fact, this lifting and elongating makes bending possible. You can't have one without the other.

So, just as when the yogi lifts his heart in order to bend forward, or the archer draws back the bow before releasing the arrow, so the singer can sing when held by the tone.

Photo Credit: Pinterest 

October 28, 2015

Umbrian Serenades: a personal view

Candles in a church in Rome 

Pantheon, Rome 

Sant'Andrea delle Valle, Rome 

Pantheon, Rome 

Detail of a door in Rome 

Vatican Square, Rome 

View of Rome from the cupola of St. Peter's

Caesar Augustus, Palazzo Massimo alla Terme, Rome 

Bronze Youth, Palazzo Massimo alla Terme, Rome 

Ivory mask, Palazzo Massimo delle Terme, Rome 

Hotel Gattapone, Spoleto, Italy 

View from my balcony at Hotel Gattapone, Spoleto, Italy 

Piazza del Mercato, Spoleto, Italy 

Teatro Nuovo Gian Carlo Menotti, Spoleto, Italy

Sala 17 Settembre, Teatro Nuovo Gian Carlo Menotti, Spoleto, Italy 

Sala 17 Settembre, Teatro Nuovo Gian Carlo Menotti, Spoleto, Italy 

Sala 17 Settembre, Teatro Nuovo Gian Carlo Menotti, Spoleto, Italy

Convento de San Francesco, Spoleto, Italy 

Museo de San Francesco, Montefalco, Italy 

Sacro Bosco, Spoleto, Italy 

Roman Fountain, Spoleto, Italy

San Salvatore, Spoleto, Italy 

San Salvatore, Spoleto, Italy 

San Salvatore, Spoleto, Italy 

Castelluccio, Italy 

My trip this summer with Umbrian Serenades began with a few glorious days in Rome before I joined participants at the airport and traveled to Spoleto, Italy, for two incredible weeks. I can't say enough about this beautiful program! For more information, contact Paulo Faustini at Umbrian Serenades

October 27, 2015

Umbrian Serenades 2015

For the past five summers, I have been a staff member of Umbrian Serenades, a program that is truly transformative. 

Oh, such a big word for a two-week choral program in the heart of Italy, where you sing in amazing spaces with wonderful people and have incredible food and wine. Well, yes it is a big word, but it's also an accurate one.

After my first year, I came home and knew I had to write a book. Just knew it in my bones. What had been an idea for a long while turned into reality—and if you know me, well, writing the introduction to Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based upon the Famous School of Manuel Garcia was a big deal. I had been sitting on it for a long while. Too long in fact. Singing in Italy with Umbrian Serenades was the catalyst for change: I came home knowing what I was going to do, and how I was going to do it. Boom. The introduction practically wrote itself.  

Anyone who has spent time singing as a choral artist and a great conductor (Umbrian Serenades will be welcoming new guest conductor DAVID HAYES to the program) knows what I am talking about: singing and making music with others is all about transformation. There is science on this actually, showing that hearts and minds really do sync together when music is being made. Umbrian Serenades simply ups the ante. If you think I am exaggerating, read this and this. This means that participants connect to the deepest part of themselves.

The sacred forest located on top of Monteluco mountain adds to the effect that singing with like-minded participants brings, which I must have climbed at least eight times over thirteen days this past summer. A great workout, climbing Monteluco mountain provided me—and many other program participants—with something of a retreat. You find yourself in a forest that has been protected since Roman times—if not before, and where the trees are more than four thousand years old. You feel the pulse of history as well as the repose of silence. It is a very special place which changes those who are open to its quiet magic. 

Since Italy also contains more than sixty percent of the art in the world, there are ample opportunities to see beautiful works by renowned artists—the fresco above of San Francesco di Assisi being but one of many. It can be found in Montefalco, Italy, were participants sang in concert this past summer at the Museo di San Francesco.  

Rehearsals for Umbrian Serenades are held in a beautiful space—Sala 17 Settembreat the Teatro Nuovo Gian Carlo Menotti in Spoleto. And as luck woujld have it, participants from this past summer also had the opportunity to rehearse on the stage—the very same stage where I appeared in La Fancuilla del West in 1985 with the Festival dei Due Mondi. Yes—you can go home again!

The food! My god the incredible food! Here is a beef tartare that I had during lunch at a wonderful bistro in the park, very close to Hotel dei Duchi—a four star hotel where participants stay. Unusual for me, I could not remember the last time I had beef tartare before this past summer. The accompanying grilled vegetables and wine? Heaven. A very rare treat—pun intended! 

Having attended the program five times now, I have some favorite dishes, and interestingly—they are simple ones like scrambled eggs with truffles—a regional delicacy that is totally scrumptious. I can't have it too many time while I am in Spoleto.

The wine you see above is a glorious Trebbiano that you can't find anywhere else in the world. Lemony and dry, it was the perfect compliment to my favorite dish. 

The freshness of the food is like nothing you have encountered before: simple, beautiful and elegant, the field greens brazed in olive oil were exquisite. This were my second course after the eggs and truffles. 

This house red was captured at Il Panciolle, a lovely hotel and restaurant with a great view of the Umbrian Valley, and the site of many Umbrian Serenade gatherings. Famous for its grilled meats which are cooked on an open fire, Il Panciolle is the perfect place to sit and watch the sun set while the twinkling lights above and along the valley appear. Mind you, the photos I have here are only a small example of the culinary riches that participants enjoy. 

Another is La Barcaccia, which is a stone's throw from this passage. Walk down this corridor, past the Duomo square, then make a left up a flight of stairs, and you will find fantastic Penne alla Norcia which is made of cream and truffles. Yes! More truffles! 

Here is a fresco in the Museo di San Franceso in Montefalco, Italy, where one of our concerts was given. It is a beautifully resonant space with an intimate wooden choir, above which is the wondrous art that you see here. 

Another vibrant fresco is located near the front entrance of the building, where a friend an colleague took a moment to sit and look into its depths.

The most ancient place in which program participants gave a concert this past summer was at the basilica of San Salvatore in Spoleto. Combining Roman and Byzantine elements, it dates to the 4th century, if not even earlier.

My friend John standing in a doorway at San Salvatore, right before our third and final concert. 

The last day of the program this past summer, we journeyed to a tiny town high in the mountains, which you can see in the distance over my right shoulder. Called Norcia di Castelluccio, it is famous for its lentils, a bag of which I managed to bring home. Perfect with Italian sweet sausage and dry Sagrantino wine, I cooked up a batch for a party of participants recently, and felt myself thousands of miles away, longing for more experience in Umbria, which more and more, feels like home away from home. 

Come sing with me in Italy! It will be like nothing you have experienced before. You will sing your heart out and return not only renewed, but full of real purpose. It's that what life is all about? Apply to this wonderful program today! 

October 22, 2015

Head Resonance

We have found many students who were unable to combine head resonance with their ordinary tone, though each could be made separately. In such cases, if the following directions are accurately followed, the desired result will be obtained in a few days. While singing a full round tone on the vowel "o," pinch the nostrils until they are fully closed. Now change the vowel sound to "oo," as in pool but do not alter the position of the lips; the result is a nasal sound full of head resonance. Now release the nostrils, and the vowel sound will return to "o;" moreover, the head resonance will remain in the tone with no trace of nasality. 

Except the "ng," there is no other nasal consonant sound. In producing this the position of the tongue against the soft palate prevents free head resonance. The tongue also fills the larger part of the mouth, and thus prevents all natural development of the tone; hence this sound is to be avoided. 

Very few singers attain perfection in tone production, but in one's study the head resonance must not be neglected, if a symmetrical development is expected. 

George E. Thorp, W. M. Nicholl, Text Book on the Natural Use of the Voice (Robert Cocks & Co., London) 40-41. 


William Nicholl and his curious book have appeared on these pages before (click on his label to find my previous post), the even more curious thing being Nicholl was a student of Manuel García. 

Those who read the full text will find that Nicholl, like many others during his time, believed that the soft palate should not totally seal off the passage from the mouth to the nasal passage—which is, of course, an explanation—no matter how wrong—of voice placement. Physiological explanations aside, the idea that one should sing with head resonance is a very old idea indeed, and one that is a hallmark of the old Italian school. 

Of course, when I read this passage, I could not help thinking of my own teacher who would often demonstrate to students in substance what Nicholl suggests above, which is the articulation of vowels with a non-moving mouth. Extraordinary to witness, she would say: "This is how you make your vowels!" and then intone [i] [e] [a] [o] [u] with a barely opened mouth and hardly any movement of the lips and jaw—thus illustrating García's assertion that the true opening of the mouth was the pharynx. 

October 16, 2015

Falsetto, Voice Type & Middle Tones

I have trained tenors up to E flat in alt. without any trace of falsetto—an abomination which is taboo in the Italian school of voice training. Another test for the tenor is the ability to enunciate clearly and easily on the upper notes. This was one of the methods of Lamperti, who also used a system of "master notes" for mezzo-sopranos and sopranos, the upper F and the upper G being the characteristic note for each type of voice. In addition to the foregoing test the mezzo-soprano partake of the heavy quality of the contralto and mezzo-contralto in the range of notes below lower D. With these aids to guide him, in addition to wide experience, even a skillful teacher will sometimes be in doubt as to the type of voice at first hearing. But the plan adopted by all successful trainers is to find the easy range of tones in the middle voice, and the type will reveal itself in the process of development. The following table shows approximately the middle tones:

Clifton Cooke, Practical Singing (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co. LTD, 1916): 21-22. 


Many are the modern vocal pedagogues who take it for granted that Lamperti and García trained their students to sing in falsetto to exercise and develop the voice. As we see above, Clifton Cooke—a student of Manuel García—decries the practice as an abomination. Such a strong word that! Be that as it may, Cooke also gives the reader quite a bit of practical information regarding voice type which will be useful for those who can't quite figure things out. My own thoughts about the matter? The acquisition of correct "singing position"—a García School teaching—is very useful—if not expedient, in this matter. Of course, "singing position" itself is the antithesis of falsetto vocal production, but you already knew that, right? Find out how to do it in Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based upon the Famous School of Manuel García. 

October 15, 2015

Extension Leads Flexion

That's the Rule, which is so simple as to be overlooked. What does it mean? Well, for one thing, knowledge of the Rule reframes the singer's idea of "support," which, I have to say, is not a word you will hear from my lips—and that is because it commonly refers to the action and sensation of flexion rather than extension. 

Flexion is easy. But to extend—which is what ballet dancers do in a graceful and unified manner, is not easy for many—and I would even say—most—students of singing. 

But you don't know what the hell I am talking about, do you? You see the picture but you haven't the faintest clue what I am talking about. Ok. So let's make this simple. 

Extension is what you feel in your muscles when you shut your mouth and gently inhale through your nose for 14-18 seconds. That moment of suspension before you start to exhale? That's the feeling of extension. In fact, if your proprioception is fully-functioning, you'll discover the feeling of extension somewhere around the 9th or 10th second. 

Got that? Try it and you'll see what I mean. 

Oh yes, your ribs will open (some of you will notice that I am sure) and that's fine and dandy, but if you pay attention, you will observe that all the muscles of your body—inside and out—from pelvis to crown of head—will feel lifted and extended.

This feeling is what must be cultivated regardless of the amount of air in the lungs. The old school bel canto teachers understood this as singing on the breath, and even thought of the feeling as indicative of a column. They also called it The Singer's Sensation. By-the-way, we're not talking about rocket science or mystic mumbo-jumbo, but observable phenomena—stuff that happens in nature. 

So here's the deal. If you make an effort to "support" your voice by merely contracting your muscles, you are flexing rather than extending. And your voice needs and wants extension. Once you get a feel for extension, flexion will by-and-large take care of itself. However, flexion can never do the work of extension. Guess what you need when you sing up the scale? 

Extension leads flexion. 

That's the Rule. 

Photo Credit: DrawingBooks.org

October 8, 2015

Mack Harrell Sings Bach with True Expressivity

Baritone Mack Harrell was a student of Anna E. Schoen-René at the Juilliard School in Manhattan in the early 1930's, and later taught at his Alma Mater and at Southern Methodist University. He straddled the opera and concert worlds, appearing with the Metropolitan Opera for many seasons while simultaneously maintaining an active concert and recital career. Harrell also sang in New York City Opera's second season at City Center in 1944, in the role of Germont in Verdi's La Traviata, the New York Times noting that Harrell sang with "refinement and true sentiment" while displaying an "extraordinary voice and mature musical talent." You'll hear the extraordinary beauty of his voice in the Youtube video below, Harrell singing in a manner which is instructive for students of the voice today, his voice illustrating a highly cultivated legato and portamento, which is—in all too many quarters—actively discouraged as being too mannered and emotional.

Harrell's teacher Anna E. Schoen-René once noted that singing was 75 percent technique, her teaching encompassing the acquisition of an open throat and placement in the mask, portamento, legato, crescendo, decrescendo, staccato, et cetera, the assertion being that technical accomplishment lead to the remaining 25 percent—true expressivity. This is what you hear in Harrell's singing, which has little in common with the thin, straight-toned approach often heard today. 

To better understand the art of portamento and legato singing as taught by Madam Schoen-René and other exponents of the García School, I encourage the reader to acquire Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based upon the Famous School of Manuel García and then listen to the accompanying recordings at Youtube.

October 5, 2015

Blanche Marchesi: Visible Motors of the Voice

Blanche Marchesi (1863-1940)
What are the principle motors producing the voice? 

The heart is the first. It is the principle source of action. The lungs are the second. 

If the heart is the motor of life, the lungs by procuring breath act as the driving power and by pumping the air keep the first motor going. 

The third motor is the vocal instrument itself. Sound is formed by the glottis, the details of which are explained in another section. 

The production of sound necessitates that all organs of the human body should exercise their normal functions, but the three mentioned above are the direct motors without which nothing an be done, nor a sound be produced. It goes without saying that the nerve centre of the brain controls the movements executed by the body. It is the power station of motion. Altogether, not one part of the human body can act unaided. The larynx is subject to the same law. It does not, as many people believe, stand alone in the throat, like a tree on a mountain. It is as complete and complicated as a watch. As there we see wheels within wheels, so here muscles and nerves react upon each other. Some connect the larynx directly and indirectly to the smaller and larger motors. Disconnected from any one of the motors, the voice fails to act. 

Can we alter or interfere with any part of throat or chest belonging to the production of sound? 

We not only can, but we must know our throat, and all that appertains to the production of sound, so thoroughly and intimately as to be able to influence, for better or worse, different parts of the vocal organs, and their subordinate parts. 

Can the windpipe be altered at will? 

The windpipe, if subject to illness or wrongly uses, will produce a noisy breath. If it is healthy and left undisturbed whilst a deep diaphragmatic breath is taken, and every part of the throat relaxed, there will be no involuntary noise produced at all. But the wheezing and indeed all forms of audible breathing caused by ill-health can be artificially produced by deliberately squeezing the windpipe. 

Can we alter and interfere with any other part of the throat? 

Yes, several more. 

The larynx, in its movements, obeys our will. We can change its position quickly or slowly, and we can be right or wrong in doing so. 

The vocal cords can be used both in the right and the wrong way. We shall be right in closing them firmly but gently, wrong in not closing them, thus letting the air through, or closing them with a violent jerk, hitting one against the other, so to speak. This fault is disastrous. 

The palate, that is, the soft back part of the palate which has the uvula for its centre, can at will be left alone or strongly contracted and let down like a sail on a boat, as vocal production may demand. This last process is called "covering." When the female voice uses head register the soft palate lifts slightly.

As women possess a capacity for covering their chest tones also, so, like men, they can change the condition of the soft palate and contract the pharynx. 

Tonsils, like every other part of the throat, can be lift alone or altered. By lifting the root of the tongue and letting the soft palate sink. contracting the whole pharynx violently, we may draw the tonsils out of their position, making them approach each other and is some cases meet. This may be observed chiefly in men who do not know the use of their upper notes and try their best to reach them by squeezing their tonsils. This produces a bad, if not comic effect, and should never be allowed. 

The pharynx, which is the whole box containing the vocal instrument relaxed at will or used to perform certain functions necessary to singing, provided that the correct registers and sounding-boards are employed. 

The back nostrils, through which the nose conveys the air received through the front nostrils, are of the highest importance, a fact that cannot be sufficiently emphasized. They play a serious part in the formation of beauty and power in the human voice. Like the other parts forming the whole vocal instrument mentioned, the back nostrils may be manipulated at will; they can be opened or closed. 

When the singer suffers from an acute cold, the back nostrils are generally inflamed and swell to such a degree as to leave no space for the air to come and go. In some cases they are completely closed. The same effect is produced when chronic inflammation, adenoids, or any growth obstructs the passages, and the air finds its way with great difficulty. or not at all, until the hindrance is removed by cure or operation. 

Perfectly healthy back nostrils it lies absolutely in our power to close or open. To use the detestable and impossible method of singing through the nose, which is an offense to any musical ear, is to leave the back nostrils wide open in emitting sound. No greater mistake could be made. Men and women equally must keep the back nostrils closed when singing. The inside of the nose may be compared to a dead lump of cotton, and the way to it must be barred while tone is produced. 

Tone cannot be made without a sounding-board and, I cannot repeat it often enough, must find in in whatever register happens to be in use. The back nostrils, therefore, can only yield when the pronunciation of certain consonants like m or n imperatively compel the singer to open the nasal passage for an instant. The consonant having been pronounced, the back nostrils must be immediately contracted again. 

These seven parts of our vocal instrument we can an must specially control. 

Whilst singing, no muscles of the throat must be made to work except those actually required. All must begin by being completely slack, so that as the notes are taken the required parts may contract and again relax whilst other in turn contract. But, needless to say that, when running through the whole scale, the instrument will never be entirely relaxed. 

Singers should always avoid crying of laughing violently. The air passages change shape, the blood-vessels of the larynx are flooded, and congestion is created. One of the great endeavors of a singer must be to avoid congestion. 

Blanche Marchesi, The Singer's Catechism and Creed (J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1932): 57-60. 


Who talks about the back nostrils today? No one that I know of. More commonly, one hears of the manipulation of the soft palate, right? And then there is the matter of the larynx, which is nowadays referred to as being in a "neutral" position (of course, I can't help thinking of a car that's going nowhere). Not so the method of García, which correlated tonal color to that of laryngeal height within the vocal tube. 

Methinks Madam Marchesi was trying to get her reader to listen.

My own teacher dealt with the matter of back nostrils, though they were never called that. Instead, the student heard her refer to "oo space" in tandem with demonstrating an inward breathing technique not unlike the yogic maneuver called "ujjayi." But nothing mystical was meant. Rather, the student was simply given instruction that made one—again, like Marchesi—listen. 

Photo Credit: Wikipedia: Blanche Marchesi as rendered by John Singer Sargent.