April 30, 2018

Beauty Incarnate

I've been singing choral music since I started singing in ninth grade, slowly making my way deeper into classical music and then opera. Even during my whole 23-year onstage career with New York City Opera, I was singing choral music in churches: getting up at what seemed like that crack of dawn after singing two performances the day before and finding my place in the choir. 

All music is sacred to me, and while I can't say I have a definitive belief in the god department, I can say this: I believe in music. It's my tether to a transcendent place that I know is real, but you'll  forgive me if I don't give it a label. I'd rather let it be. For me, that's what the Muse wants.

So much of the choral music I have been privileged to sing is beauty incarnate like the piece by Morten Lauridsen above. And while incarnate is a religious word, how about we forget the association and simply let the music enter in through the top of our heads and find our hearts? Don't we all need a bit of that right now?

Meet you on the other side. Then find your way here.

Abandon entouré d'abandon,
tendresse touchant aux tendresses?
C'est ton intérieur qui sans cesse
se caresse, dirait-on;
se caresse en soi-même,
par son propre reflet éclairé.
Ainsi tu inventes le thème
du Narcisse exaucé.

Wildness surrounding wildness, 
Tenderness touching tenderness, 
It is your own core that you ceaselessly caress, ... as they say. 

It is your own center that you caress, 
Your own reflection gives you light. 
And in this way, you show us how Narcissus is redeemed.

TRANSLATED BY Matthew Dufresne

April 24, 2018

Greg Robbins: Jazz Man on the Rise

Greg Robbins at the Manderley
It's not often that I jump on a Citibike after dark to venture downtown to a jazz club, in this case the Manderley Bar in Chelsea, to witness a gifted young jazz artist drop his first album. But I'm glad I did. 

His name is Greg Robbins. His album is On Your Way. And you certainly will be hearing more of him: The kid sleeps, eats, and breathes jazz. It's in his bones, on his lips, and pulsing through his veins. You hear it in every sound he makes.

He's also a bass, which is not your usual voice-type for a jazz singer. Lucky for him that he studied voice at a small college in Georgia with a beloved friend of mine—Harry Musselwhite—also a bass. The kid knows what he's doing in the vocal department, his fine bel canto training enabling him to sing from top to bottom with a rich mellifluous voice—one that calls to mind something of Ol Blue Eyes. No, not imitation of that great artist, but rather, the speaking of a common language—one that is word oriented. And that's a bit unusual too: While many young artists can be heard making an impression, Greg Robbins is busy making music with real craft. Having studied the great jazz singers of the past, Greg Robbins is poised to become one of them. 

April 16, 2018

World Voice Day

World Voice Day is now a real "thing," having been created by a Brazilian laryngology society before spreading to other latin American countries, then Northern America through leading voice scientists. 

The purpose of World Voice Day? From the Wikipedia article we find: 

A goal of World Voice Day is to encourage all those who use their voice for business or pleasure to learn to take care of their voice, and know how to seek help and training, and to support research on the voice.

Seek help and training? That rings a bell if only because I currently have a number of students who've had training. Really bad training. They've been yelled at and harassed by their teacher(s) and came to me all muddled despite having earned advanced degrees—as if earning a degree teaches one to sing. Ain't that a trip! Here in America, you can spend a lot of money for an advanced degree in vocal performance/pedagogy and come out on the other end a total mess with no real technique. And to top it all off you can be gaslighted—made to think that your lack of technique is all your fault. 

So, on this World Voice Day, I would like to encourage the reader to conduct due diligence. If you are searching for a voice teacher, are young and applying for schools, find out all you can about the institution and its faculty. If the teacher teaches privately you can contact their students and listen to their performances. Does this take a lot of work? Yes. Did I do it when I was starting out? No. I was as clueless as most young students are today. 

What makes one clueless? Assumptions like the one that puts stock in the letters behind someone's name. Doctor this and Doctor that. All these letters really tell you is that the person who has them jumped through a lot of hoops. That's all. Did the hoops teach that person to sing as well as enable them to teach others to sing? These questions can't be answered without some investigation. What should investigation reveal? The teacher's ability to embody the principles they teach as well as the ability to impart those principles.

And speaking of imparting principles of singing: It can take a good six months to unravel the knots that a student has been tied-up in as a result of bad training. Yeah. It takes that long if not longer. No one wants to hear that. But that's the deal. And that unraveling only happens if both the teacher and the student are patient enough to do the work. 

The teacher who gave me the most would often say that learning to sing is like going into a jungle and hacking away a clearing, then keeping the clearing open. This takes a hell of a lot of work—work that is hard to do in an institution which requires repertoire from the get-go. Yet, if it is done the right way, the student can be rewarded with the ability to sing for a very long time. And isn't that the point? 

April 3, 2018

The First Law of Tomatis

I'm living proof. I swear I am.

I obtained new hearing aids about a week ago after acquiring my first pair nine years ago. My first pair were made by Phonak. Top of the line. With a music program and two microphones in each ear. Teflon coating that meant I could wear them in the rain. You get the idea. They were good stuff. 

Now I have two spanking new Resound aids from Denmark, which has taken the market by storm—zipping past competitors with a chip that processes higher frequencies better. My new guys even talk to one another and utilize an app which interfaces seamlessly with my iPhone—all fine-tuned by my excellent audiologist who tells me there were four leaps in technology while I was having fun with my Phonaks. Why didn't I get new ones sooner? They are expensive, and I was doing quite well until one of the four microphones started to give out. So I made the leap. 

But let's back up. Living proof of what exactly?  

Tomatis' First Law, which states that the larynx cannot produce sounds which the ear cannot hear. 

I do not say this lightly. After a week of tooling around, I believe I am singing with the full ability or function I was born with sans genetic hearing loss; which was first noticed—and dismissed—by the audiologist who tested me the year before I entered college.

My range has extended at either end and I am experiencing a delicious sense of ease—so much so that I am teased into thinking I'm not doing a damn thing at all. Of course I am. I know my P's and Q's technique-wise, which is the result of many years of teaching and working on my voice. Yes, the knowledge I have stuffed into my brain and the hours spent practicing counts for something. But here's the thing: give a guy the ability to process technical knowledge with better input to the brain via the ear and it will amount to something. All this to say: Tomatis was a genius—and I believe I prove him right since my new aids give me increased function via better perception of higher frequencies. It's a real kick and something of an odd sensation to hear one's voice as though for the first time. 

I've been singing all my life. I had a 23-year career with a major opera company. I wasn't doing badly. In fact, I believe the technique I was taught made my career possible. Yes, luck had something to do with it, but even luck needs preparation. But let's be clear: even a small drop in the listening curve isn't inconsequential.

Was I was intuitively interested in matters of technique as a result of hearing loss years before I knew it even mattered? Probably. You could also say that addressing that loss gave me the means to understand the principles of the old Italian school of singing in a new way. 

I have colleagues who are terrified of anyone finding out about their hearing loss. Not me. It's the deal, in as much as anything is the deal in our lives. Better to face it so that others can face it. That's why I write about it here. If you are a singer or voice teacher with hearing loss you owe it to yourself to do something about it. Your voice and students will thank you. On that score, I should mention that before one of my microphones starting failing, I had a 10-day tune-up via the Listening Centre in Toronto, which has proven to be the perfect jump-start for getting used to my new processors. Really good people who do life-changing work, I recommend the Listening Centre to you highly, especially if you are dealing with matters of audition.

Some day, a different kind of genius is going to invent a way to regenerate hair cells in the cochlea. Until that happens, those with hearing loss have better options than a decade ago.

April 2, 2018

García & Lamperti in the Studio

What did these legendary voice teachers do in the studio? That's what I've been studying for a long while now. Aside from the differences in their approach (García taught privately, while Lamperti taught small classes of 4 or 5 students), they were after the same thing: beautiful singing. How did they achieve it? Firstly, by making their students do simple things like sing long tones on all  5 Italian vowels.

They would start in the middle of voice, then work their way up and down the scale. Often, they used the chromatic scale—which hardly anyone does anymore. It's unforgiving. Try it. Sing between—say— C and G—going up and down half-step by half-step. See if you can do it while keeping the voice clear, open-throated, steady and full. Not so easy, is it? If accomplished, the exercise teaches the student one very important thing, which is that the tuning of the piano is foreign to that of the voice (btw: earlier voice teachers used the violin as part of their tuition, which—as Tomatis has observed—introduces high frequencies into the awareness of the student—a centering mechanism). Lamperti called this enharmonic tuning. 

What did both García and Lamperti require the student to have? A good ear. What happened if the student didn't have that, and couldn't do the exercise outlined above? If they managed to have an audition, they would have been discouraged from the outset. But we aren't so discriminating, are we? Most schools today take just about everyone who can pay the tuition. And I've heard quite a few doctorate students who can't sing very well, and have witnessed others who began their studies with a good voice, but ended up Humpty-Dumpty fashion—seemingly broken beyond repair. But I am getting off track. 

Simple to complex. That was the trajectory of the old school teachers. The elimination of vocal faults was part of the deal. Students were not allowed to sing in the nose or in the throat. That means, of course, that most of the vocalism heard (and taught) today on the Broadway stage would not have passed muster. 

What else? 

The august teachers mentioned in this post did not allow their students to sing with words before their voices were fully formed, that is, before they could sing all 5 vowels clearly and beautifully within a 2 octave range on a plethora of vocal exercises. The high goal was to obtain an absolute vocal technique. Who approaches vocal study like that today? No one that I know of. Every teacher I know gives students songs to sing from the get-go—or allows students to sing them. Me? I will work on technique in every lesson, allowing songs and arias insofar as to keep the student's interest. It's a devil's bargain since the work to be down remains to be completed. But what student will submit to a year of exercises? The smart ones take what I give them and work for the long haul.

Back to the big boys. 

Those 2 old legends must have been either monsters to deal with or patient—or both. Lamperti had a baton he whacked students hands with and was known to be the most strict with those who were the most talented. García threw books at his students and ruled with an iron hand. If you did not follow his advice, studied with another teacher, and wanted to come back, you were refused outright. It was the survival of the fittest. Now? The voice lesson is student centered, product oriented, and market driven. 

Both men had their tricks of the trade, to be sure. Both taught multiple generations of great singers. Both insisted on beautiful singing. 

What do teachers do now? You tell me.