January 31, 2018

I Heard a Tenor Last Night

I heard a tenor last night while chatting with a friend online. What did I think of this fellow? Have your heard him? No, I hadn't. So I rummaged through Youtube to find something to listen too, and happened upon two recordings, one from a decade ago, the other made this past year. The younger version? The voice showed great promise and vocal beauty. The more recent one? All beauty was gone, having been replaced by stentorian bellowing. And there you have it, I thought. Another one bites the dust. 

Did I mention that this tenor has a body? Abs and all that. You know what I'm talking about. I am not denigrating abs—I should note. Bodies are beautiful. But in the realm of accomplishments—and we're talking about opera here—the voice should come first. And if the voice isn't beautiful, who cares if you have abs?

So you have a young man in this 30's screaming his head off, trying to sound like something he is not, and getting great encouragement—and likely coaching—to do so. 

Bye, bye, bel canto! 

His head voice—the voice I heard in an earlier recording—was nowhere in evidence. Gone. The attempt at messa di voce? Harsh. 

I suppose he'll go along until they find another kid who shows some promise, but that kid, too, will likely be eaten up by managers, would-be star makers, and admins in a hurry to fill seats with bodies that workout at Barrys. That's the the future, right? 

Done in by the desire to please others. To say yes to things that don't really feel good. And how can bellowing and strain feel good? 

The idea that one should put up with this kind of vocal production because the muscles will get stronger and things will get easier is flat out wrong. The old Italian school thought differently. The voice was built up from correct production from the get-go. It had to sound right and feel right from the beginning—at least on one pitch in the voice.

Yes, a voice like the one I heard last night can recover. But it takes a lot of work. 

Returning to a place of vocal beauty—one which includes real head voice—means opening up to feelings of vulnerability. That's hard when you are primed to impress. 

January 27, 2018

Ass Backwards

Yes, you heard me right. The world of singing—the modern world that is—has everything ass backwards. 

Do I have your attention now? 

The modern voice teacher, the one who knows everything about muscles, larynx, pharynx, posture and protein for the athlete, has a tendency to manipulate the muscles of the body. You know what I'm talking about. You see it in nearly everyone who graces the masterclass stage.

Do this with your body. Do that with your tongue. Don't move your jaw this way: move it that way.  Push, pull and prod. On and on and on. It's endless, ubiquitous, and disheartening.

Manipulation rules in the ass backwards world. Tricks do too. You do a thing you hardly understand—which is akin to rubbing a genie bottle—and hope-to-god something comes out the right way.

Whatever happened to hearing the vowel you are going to make before you speak or sing it? Huh? And how about an Italianate vowel? A vowel that comes from the land of singing—where opera was created? 

Oh no. 

Our American vowels are fine! 

If you think this you don't know your history. Nor are you listening. Your ears and pedagogy might as well be dead.

We hear (ha) about the homogeneity of singing and expression these days, don't we? Sure, the level of singing has improved. Everyone sounds better—and bland. 

(If you don't sound like yourself—a unique self—you quickly become a has-been. Sure, I sound like a times-were-better-then-guy, but how many truly great singers do we have now-a-days? Answer me that. Compared to what was heard up through the 70s—everyone is skating on thin ice with little depth of tone.)

The old way goes like this: you become yourself by learning to hear, speak, and sing Italianate vowels. Yeah. You can't do this without first hearing what this means. No. You don't have to sing an Italian art song.

This is what I was taught and have observed with my own two ears.

Sound moves things. 

Muscles for instance. 

We don't move muscles to make sounds. We make sounds—vowels actually—and our muscles move/react—in as much as we decide to go from from side of the room to the other and our legs move. 

(You'd think this was apparent to everyone, but it's not. We have lots of people staring into computer screens today trying to make things look right without first knowing what it means to sound right first.)

It's that simple. 

Intent comes first. 

Intent in singing means learning to hear vowels and consonants. Not tone. VOWELS. They are monitored by the ear/brain after having been conceived via the ear—an ear that is able to zoom in on Italianate tonal values. 

The canny teacher gives these vowels to the student without even telling the student what he/she is doing. 


Living example. 

This is how it was done in the 18th century. From god's mouth (the teacher) to the student's ear. Back and forth until the seed is planted in the ear/brain—one that must grow. 

One huge hint is contained in Klein's manual (which you can find in the right hand column). He calls it "singing position". Get this right and you have something you can build on. Call it whatever you like as moderns do—a combination of head and chest function—blah, blah, blah—the brain doesn't care.

It's ear training—not muscle training—which is—yes, you guessed it—ass backwards. 

Here's the real honest-to-god truth: The body will respond in just the right way when the ear knows what it's doing. 

January 15, 2018

Hints on Blogging

I started blogging nearly a decade ago, sharing my keen interest in historical vocal pedagogy by creating a take-me-seriously "dark" site. While I loved it, I changed my approach half-way through after conducing research which showed that only 10 percent of readers like "dark" blogs. The result? Readership of VOICETALK increased a great deal—readership itself now zooming toward a million, which is pretty good for a blog with arcane subject matter! With this in mind, here are a few things I can recommend to anyone who wants to get their feet wet. 

  • Do what you love. If you don't love your subject, you won't stick with it, and will ultimately disappoint yourself and your reader.
  • Do your thing. Don't try to copy someone else. Be you. Write like you. Post like you. This will determine a great part of your success. This means finding your voice
  • Go light. Dark blogs can be really cool (I loved mine), but you will find that readership increases with dark print on a light background. The other meaning is: try not to take yourself so seriously. Drop as much baggage as you can along the way. It will just weigh you down. 
  • Keep it simple. This means staying away from fancy color combinations which may look cool, but ultimately tire the eye. A little research in this area can go a long way. 
  • Proofread. It sounds like a simple thing, but it isn't. (I still find typos and mistakes in my old posts.) One way to proofread is the read your piece out loud which catches pretty much everything. And don't assume that spell and grammar check is doing to catch everything. It won't. You reputation is advanced by doing things right the first time. 
  • Don't worry about photos. I used to think that I had to have a photo for every post. Analytics don't support support this approach. What matters most is... 
  • Great content. My own source material is scoured from journals, articles, newspapers etc., with utility in mind. I want the reader to have a "take away", and often rely on the intelligence of the reader to find the gold in any given piece. This segues into...
  • Treat the reader with respect. My own approach has been to cultivate a firm, supportive, and instructive voice, one that (for the most part) steers clear of casting doubt on other colleague's accomplishments & teachings. With this in mind, I require that commenters be registered and not anonymous. 
  • Readability. I conducted research on how people can get the most of out of content online and formatted VOICETALK accordingly. This means a line of text containing no more than 70-75 characters including spaces (the ideal line length is 55). I also use a "drop cap" to attract the eye to the first line. 
  • Keep the header/banner a narrow width. I used to have a full size photo as a header, and while I loved it, the reader had to scroll down to start reading. A narrower header gets your reader into the reading experience faster. All this leads to the recognition that... 
  • Details matter. Your blog should be appealing to the eye (font size is important), while at the same time offering more than eye candy (unless, of course, that's your gambit). In the end, your readers will find you if you make the experience one of welcome, great content, and readability.
  • Find a platform that works for you. In my case, I am staying with Blogger if only because I would likely lose readers and ranking if I transferred to another platform. Stick with it, and you may find that some very interesting that will happen along the way. 

January 14, 2018

A Few Hints for Amateurs

"Of all those arts in which the wise excel,
The best is that of singing; which so few do well." 

There are few exclamations more frequently heard than the despairing one, "How I wish I could sing:" but it would become as rare as it is now common, if the the proper methods for developing and controlling the voice were more generally understood; if the would-be singer would enter upon her studies with a correct idea of the length of time necessary for accomplishing any favorable results, and if more intelligence were brought to the work. 

Katharine Evans von Klenner 
The cultivation of the singing voice is especially beneficial to those in the dramatic profession, for nearly all the new plays to to-day require of some one of the case, a certain knowledge of music, and many engagements have been lost because of the inability to sing some simple ballad. In presenting one of the most successful pieces of the day, it has been necessary to utilize a hidden voice in order to present in the most realistic manner the author's ideal. What would Trilby be without Ben Bolt? 

With few exceptions every human being has a voice which is used with more or less facility as a means of communicating the different states of the mind. Any voice which can express varied emotions in language, can, without great difficulty be taught to express them in song; the singing voice differing from speech only in being a higher development of the same power. Singing is simply musical speaking. Of course, radical defects in ear, or inability to keep correct time, would prevent satisfactory results in training a voice which might otherwise be of most pleasing quality. But even a defective ear may be trained if the pupil has sufficient perseverance and intelligence. 

As a nation, we Americans are in too great a hurry; and although American girls are universally acknowledge to have musical talent and versatility in the highest degree, still almost without exception, they lack the ability to "make haste slowly." In fact this characteristic is so universally acknowledged by the most celebrated European teachers, that the first question usually asked by them of a new American pupil is, "How long do you intend to study?" And I can even now see the look of surprise in the face of Mme. Viardot-García—my own teacher—when I replied to that question: "Until you think I am prepared to do you credit." Whereupon Madam said, "My dear child, that may require years." "Very well," I replied, "let us commence." 

If singing pupils were less impatient and would consider that all must be undergone, all the privations, all the disappointments, and heartaches, there would be fewer failures. They would willingly go step by step, not expecting to become great singers in a few months, but willing to devote years to the work, interested in the daily advancement and improvement, not constantly thinking of the end,—the final triumph. 

More steadfastness of purpose is another quality which students need to cultivate. Select your teacher only after due consideration, and then remain with her. Two years with one method is worth five spent in trying all the "splendid teachers" suggested by your friends. For when you have finished your investigations you have neither one method nor another, and your time has been worse than wasted, for the continual changing brings the pupil to that point she knows not what to believe, and with spirit broken, enthusiasm gone, money vanished, she gives up study altogether and puts all singing teachers down as charlatans and frauds. 

Correct breathing is the foundation of all good singing, and the excessive use of breath is the great and almost universal cause of bad singing. Until thoroughly conversant with the art of breathing, and able not only to take, but also to retain the air so that no portion escapes except as used in tone graduation, it will be impossible for a singer to produce that evenness, purity and roundness of tone which distinguishes the cultured artist. As the ability to control the breath is entirely muscular, it is a question of daily and unremitting practice as necessary as the daily training needful for the development and strengthening of any other set of muscles in the human body. 

As has been tersely said:—"Breathing is practice, tone production knowledge." When the voice is perfectly placed, it always remains, but the breath must be conquered day by day. 

Another fault which I would point out to our would-be singer is the desire to attempt selections entirely beyond her capacity, forgetting that while the limitations of the voice may make it impossible for one to sing dramatic arias, she may still make a great success in the interpretation of German Lieder, French chanson or the English ballad, to sing which well, requires the greatest art. This is an age of specialties. The student in Germany is asked, "What are you, a dramatic, lyric, or lieder singer?" And the honor is given, not to character of the voice, but to the proficiency of the singer. 

The question of ballad singing brings us to one of the glaring faults of the day—poor enunciation. What is more provoking than to hear a singer, with a voice beautifully placed, singing a language which is not English, French or German, but which has become so universal as to be called the "singers' language," Too much time and attention cannot be spent upon the correct production of the tones with the words. The ah and oh are practiced for hours, but how much time is given to the e, i and u, and the keeping of all the different vowels of the same artistic value throughout the entire compass of the voice? How many pupils can sing a scale without changing the vocal shade? 

It is known to almost everyone how exact the educated foreigner is in enunciating the English language. Indeed it is sometimes almost painful to hear the slow, careful attention given to the proper value of each vowel and syllable. The intelligent foreigner when once he has acquired the English language undoubtedly speaks it, so far as enunciating individual words is concerned, much more distinctly and accurately than the average Englishmen or American. This, with equal justice, must be believed of an American speaking any one of the European languages. It is almost impossible for us to acquire the habit of slurring over words and even whole phrases and of running one word into the following words which so commonly characterizes the native speaker. We unconsciously exercise much more care in enunciation when speaking an unfamiliar language. This is even more apparent when singing. There can be no doubt that the average English vocalist sings much truer in Italian, or instance, than in his native tongue, and simply because his enunciation is more careful an accurate, each vowel and syllable being given its full an complete tone value. Could the pupil exercise the same care in enunciating his own language, English, the improvement would be marvelous. But we cannot; we are too familiar with our own language. To produce accurate enunciation and to perfect a pupil in this respect I insist upon her learning at least the rudiments of Italian, that is shall be correctly pronounced and read, even though understood only sufficiently to realize the sentiment of the song words, and thorough and honest practice of all exercises using Italian words.

The question of tone color, is one calling for much attention from pupils, who as a rule do far too little thinking while studying. One of the best requisites of a good teacher, is the ability to make pupils think, for when that is brought about, good singing will be the rule, and song shall become in a higher degree than any of her sisters, "the universal art." 

Katharine Evans von Klenner. "A Few Hints for Amateurs," The Vocalist, 1896: 53-56. 

After her aristocratic husband of Austrian descent died in the great influenza pandemic of 1918-19, Klenner (1858-1949) adopted the title of baroness and never remarried. She had been a student of Pauline Viardot-García in Paris, and while still a young woman, became Viardot-García's representative in America, teaching only women in New York City, and in the summer at Chautauqua, NY. 

Swimming in society, Klenner founded the National Opera Club of America which met at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, taught private voice from her apartment on West 57th Street near Columbus Circle, and dove deep into spiritualism with the publication of The Greater Revelation in 1924.

Find out more about her by clicking on her label below. 

January 7, 2018

Why Singers Need to Sing Scales

I can't tell you how many singers just want to sing. Yeah. Just that. Nothing else. "Just let me sing!" they fairly cry in lessons with their eyes. "Why are you making me sing scales?!"

Mind you, I didn't sing scales either when I was young. Didn't want to do them, and didn't think I needed to do them. Shocked? Don't be. I really didn't know what the hell I was doing until I met Margaret Harshaw at the age of 27. Then I got it. In one lesson no less—and that's because I witnessed the transforming power of a 5-note scale in my own voice. Sure, you have to know what you are doing—and why you are doing it—while singing a five-note scale. That's why you have to have a teacher who knows what they are doing—and boy, did she know what she was doing. 

Which begs the point. There are singers who sing scales very, very badly, going through the motion of doing them with their minds somewhere else. No one has taught them to listen to what they are doing (insert the word feel for listen if you like—it's the same thing in my book since feeling is the vestibular function of listening in the ear—and is why Mandy Harvey can sing), and they tend to think of scale work as a mechanical process—which it isn't. Why so many have this shoot-first-aim-later approach is beyond me. But many do. They want to just get the whole thing over with so that they go back to singing, which amounts to driving with your eyes closed. They even think of scale work as pushing a button or tightening a screw. "There! I did it. Now I don't have to do anything else." (Yes, I am mixing my metaphors, but you get my drift.) 

But the mind is not blind. If you aren't sure how you sound, you don't sound very good. And the technical journey singers endure means learning how to maintain a high level of skill, of awareness of what it means to sing—both the feeling and the sound; what tears at it, what enables it, and how to stay at the top of your game. Which brings me back to scales, a nifty article at the Bulletproof Musician making my point. 

It seems that progressively difficult scales lead to actual ease, the kind of ease that singers desire in the first place. And let's be really, really clear here to those of you who think you are so gifted that you can just sing and don't need to work on your technique by singing scales. You are fooling yourself big time, if only because life is going to knock you on your ass at some point, and you aren't going to know how to get back up. Your colleague, however, who is less gifted than you and but has a lot more training will be able to stay in the game. 

At some point, you have to sacrifice your ego to the work. And it is work. Never ending relentless work. Work that becomes a real joy, something that you can rely upon, and is a great comfort. Scales aren't meant to break you, but to reveal yourself to yourself.

My 97- year-old baritone neighbor Charles sings his scales every morning, and can still sing high G and F and sounds really good. He hasn't given up. He's still a singer. 

Get interested in the work, the craft, and the art of singing‚ which includes scales. They are your friend, not your enemy.