August 28, 2016

Dear Madam Secretary

I heard your speech this past week, the one where you very adroitly framed your opponent using his own words. But what concerns me here is how you used your voice. All went really well until the last few minutes when you tried to make a big impression, and unfortunately ended with something of a yell. Not a good finish!

Listen. I want see you win, vocally speaking. That's why I am writing this. So, I am taking the liberty of giving you a few pointers.

I've read you practice yoga in the morning. Great stuff! I do too. This tells me that you probably know something about breathing. What you probably don't know is how singers and speakers were taught to use the breath, that is, by wildly successful voice teachers like Manuel García and Francesco Lamperti.

What did they teach their students to do?

They taught their students to practice inhaling with the mouth shut for up to 18 seconds. Yes, you heard that right: 18 seconds. Seems like a long time, and it is if you are in a hurry. But stay with me here.

All you have to do is be gentle with yourself. Don't be in a hurry. Inhale gently for about 10 seconds, and then work your way up to 18.

Why is this done?

To obtain full vocal control for your voice, you need to keep the sensation you have while inhaling with your mouth shut when it is open. To put it another way: Once you learn how to breath with your mouth shut, keep the same feeling when it is open. The 18 second margin will teach you what you need to know.

What will you feel when inhaling with your mouth shut?

You will feel your ribs expand and open, your spine elongate, and the muscles of your body—including your abdomen, back, upper chest, neck, head and face—come alive. With practice, these sensations are felt regardless of the amount of air in your lungs. In fact, true vocal readiness means having these feelings before you inhale. This is not hard to acquire. You can do it every time you get in your transport and have a few minutes to yourself, or while you are practicing yoga in the morning.

Ok. What's next?

Once you have a handle on how to use the breath, you need to be aware of a few things:

  1. If you want to have a more powerful oratorical style, you need to let the feeling of the breath intensify when you use more volume or speak in the upper range. I'm not talking about pushing air. I am talking about anticipating the feeling of the breath that you've acquired from the instruction above. It's a whole body feeling. The body—all of it—swells when scaling the heights.
  2. The higher you go, you must hear your voice as coming through your face: Rooted in your chest, clear as a bell at the front of your mouth, and coming through your face. Without this, you are yelling from the throat. And this you do not want.

Guard the feelings you've acquired while breathing. They will bring you great control with practice.

August 24, 2016

Your Purpose for Practicing

Being able to understand and perform professional-level singing gives a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction, even if a career in music is not being pursued. When listening to music or observing a virtuoso performance that fills one with awe and exhilaration, we are the effect of the music. Imagine what it would be like to be the cause of that awe and exhilaration—to reach the ability level of the musicians who have inspired us, and then cause the feeling in other and ourselves. 

Before you being studying singing, follow these steps: 

  1. Decide to be a singer, regardless of your current ability level. This is the foundation of your involvement with music. Stay true to your intention—it is the fuel that will keep you going.
  2. Ensure the intention to be a singer is yours and yours alone. It must come from within, not from others pushing you to be something that you do not want to be. 
  3. Keep your focus. Do not let the problems of life overshadow your musical goals. 
  4. Be wary of people who discourage your singing goals in the guise of being concerned for your well-being, perhaps suggesting you should do something that "isn't so risky" or "will earn you a better living." Your goals belong to you. 

Adapted from "Piano Practice and Performance" by Barry & Linda Wehrli.

When I was just beginning my life as a singer, I had a teacher who thought I would make a better conductor. She wasn't exactly wrong seeing that I had conducted, and was even quite good at it. But I hungered for something else, so didn't listen to her. Instead, I followed an inner voice which led me to a teacher who changed my life, and resulted in a multi-decade career at New York City Opera. 

No one can listen to your inner voice but you. 

August 21, 2016

Let's get five notes right

Is it really necessary to point out that vocal exercises are useless unless you know how to sing them?

Apparently so. 

This past week, a young voice teacher wrapped in post-graduate degrees got in touch with me, having heard the Janet Spencer vocal exercises that appear in Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based upon the Famous School of Manuel García. (They can be found at Soundcloud and Youtube.) The conversation went something like this: 

Could you send me a copy of the recordings? 

Sorry, I am not able to do so. But thank you for your interest in the book. 

Yes. I know about the book. It's on my list. But I have so many other things to read first. 

Let me get this straight: You want me to drop everything and send you an audio copy of the exercises, but know nothing of their context, and aren't in a hurry to find out? Don't you know that vocal exercises are useless if you don't know how to sing them, which is what the book provides? 

But you misunderstand me. 


Offline, I thought to myself: No, I don't think I misunderstand you all all. Like Maya Angelou noted: When someone tells you who they are—believe them

I believe you haven't a clue, but hope you can find your way onto the learning curve that is staring you in the face.

He reminded me of another fellow who called me up having read my post on Lilli Lehmann's exercises, begging me to teach them to his daughter. They would make her famous! 

If only it were that simple, I replied. 

Subsequent discussion revealed that he was hell-bent on the matter and would hear of nothing else.

No. That didn't go well either. 

Exercise collectors exist. They may be fine, good people. But don't expect them to know how to make use of what they hoard. 

Exercises aren't magic. And more is not better. 

As Margaret Harshaw would often say: "Let's get five notes right!"

August 6, 2016

Manuel García I at Pere Lachaise

He wasn't hard to find since I had been to Pere Lachaise two years ago. That time, however, I didn't have a camera with me.

Paying homage to the great singer and teacher who died in 1832, I found Manuel García's resting place fronted by a motorcycle which belonged to a gentleman working on a tomb across the path. "Would you like me to move it?" He asked in perfect English. "No." I said. "That won't be necessary." He went back to painting, and I went about picture-taking, a metaphor forming in my mind of the old and new sciences of voice co-existing rather than cancelling each other out.

But here's something to consider: Manuel García has been tomb-raided. At least, that's what the upside down lid—which is slightly ajar—suggests. I came to this conclusion having noticed that the lettering on the rear end of the tomb is upside down, the words in question being Consession a Perpetuite—burial plot held in perpetuity.

And this thought came to mind: It's one thing to raid the teachings of a great lineage (Manuel García the Younger set about recording his father's teaching) for one's devices, but another thing entirely to encounter them on their own terms.

Having been traveling in Europe for a month, I am now back in Manhattan teaching García's principles.