It took Bikram Yoga to remind me of an obvious lesson I had learn unconsciously years ago. I had remarkable grace as a soccer player in high school, but never thought of it as anything special. My coach of my senior year (he came that year and unfortunately I forgot his name), when he found out I had accepted a scholarship to music school (I was supposed to study computer engineering or something math and science related), was disappointed. He was hoping I would attend a school that had a soccer program so that I would continue developing my skills. But I was born in Haiti, where young children, who played with makeshift balls, without shoes in the stony dirt, had greater flair than me. But if we deny our skills because of our reverence of those we think are greater than we, we destroy our means of contribution.
Later, my beloved teacher, George Shirley, who I still consider my teacher, once said: “You have to be able to just smack the heck out of the golf ball before you can really hit a chip shot!” That was a metaphor for singing. I did not have enough experience back then to fully appreciate the wisdom of that statement relative to singing. But as an athlete, it made sense to me.
Recently in Bikram Yoga, I was reminded how my arm strength is a major asset in my striving for flexibility. I thought that the leg muscles were simply tight and it would take forever for them to loosen up. But Bikram teachers said I had an advantage because of my arm strength. Low and behold that because of my arm strength, I was able to touch my head to my knees and with my fingers under my feet as anchor to maintain the posture, I gradually straightened out my legs. I was astounded.
Changing from baritone to tenor has been the test of a lifetime. I have watched my strength improve, and my ability to warm up higher become more consistent. Still, certain age-old weaknesses remained. Why was the passaggio still an issue? George Shirley once told me that he hoped I would keep focus in the voice when I made the register change. The truth of my voice was often lost when I made the register shift. Yet many others congratulated me on my skill because I was able to achieve a smooth change from the low voice to the high. It was however a neat trick! A trick that today confronted me. I warmed up to my high C in a very natural way and then tried to sing a few arias. Some really good things, and then gradually more phlegmatic, and difficult! Then I took a break and it was better. Despite just opening my mouth and singing like a healthy yell (thank you Pavarotti), the voice always turned (acoustic shift) in the right place. My vocal tract is a thing of grace (it takes great strength to make this affirmation) but I have been avoiding the centered truth of my larynx. It was weak, unstructured, uncoordinated. I was a wonderful trickster all these years despite the correctness of my pedagogy. Now I am strong enough to be aware of how weak I am in phonation. Strong enough to have wonderful vocalises, but too weak for that coordination to behave in context.
On a totally technical point, until the muscular coordination is strong enough, it will not be possible to take advantage of the fluidity and efficiency that comes from a fully breath-driven production. Supra-glottal inertial air is the golden fleece of vocal pedagogy in my opinion. It relies on the ability of the folds to approximate close enough to complete closure without unnecessary muscular tension. Once this coordination is achieved with security and strength, then flow-phonation becomes the attainable prize. I have had moments when a completely breath-driven system has been my reality. Yet it is not sustainable where I am muscularly weak. Two months ago, I was able to warm up comfortably to a Bb. A month ago, the B-natural became consistent in warm-ups. Now the C is there every day. Yet there are many uncoordinated Gs and Fs and low notes that in context cause problems. Meanwhile, I observe how stronger voices behave. One of my students has a powerful soprano voice. Despite some weakness in the extreme top (most dramatic singers do not develop the extreme top. We will!), she has great control in her necessary upper range. I would be happy with that much as a tenor (to have a reliable and flexible high C#). Yet the path is clear. Strength comes with doing! Knowledge about the voice is one thing! It helps me train others. Training myself is another matter altogether. I must have the strength to separate the singer me from the teacher me. I do! Otherwise I would have gone to the teachers who would want to experiment with my voice and take the easy way out in the end. Truth of it is I could continue to sing as a baritone, but I would be that “lazy” tenor who took the easy way out.
The majority of famous singers who become teachers know what they want to hear, but have very little idea how to get one to that point who is not already nine tenths of the way there. All objective information makes me a tenor. But practical ability makes me still a tenor wannabe. Well here’s to strength! Building up muscles has no shortcuts! Real strength-building takes time and patience. My tenor students who made the change from baritone to tenor in a short time were already very strong in the ways they needed to be. I just gave them the structure in which to safely make the switch. I on the other hand have had the structure but needed to just work hard every day.
There is a legend that strength is not necessary to sing opera. That legend is the myth of those who already have strength. When you are very strong, you can bench-press your own body-weight and it does not feel like much. But when you are weak, it is a different experience. When you are a strong ballet dancer, you can carry your partner over your head and still look graceful while doing it. Such are the needs of a singer: to make the difficult not only sound achievable, but look and sound easy!