I promised my students a warm-up routine that they can follow every day. This was two months ago before activities grew to a fever pitch during my recent trip. I apologize to my youngest student, Rémy especially because he got to a level of commitment whereby he really needed a daily routine. I could have concocted a series of warm-ups that could have been functional, but just about that time, I arrived at a level of clarity about the workings of the voice that required of me a more complete philosophy about the process of teaching. As I have often mentioned here, I am a great admirer of the martial arts. I practiced for a short time. The process of learning to master the art of music is very similar to that of the martial arts. There is a necessity for discipline, daily routine in practice, clarity of philosophy, and a commitment to a proven process. Now I practice Bikram Yoga. The Russian schools of piano and ballet are well-known for the rigorous attention to consistent daily practice and exactitude of technical approach. Most instrumentalists have a similar process, because the instruments they play can be seen, taken apart, analyzed (in fact the instruments were crafted with specific acoustic theories in mind). Because of this, specific techniques for playing the instruments could be developed. Such is not the case with the voice, at least not until the last couple of decades.
For all of the mystery and pomp made of the Bel Canto School of singing as developed by the Italian Masters, it was never truly a systemized coherent process. There have been many branches of the Italian technique, with extreme differences in approach and in aesthetic values. Certain fundamentals have come down to us, such as open throat, high soft palate, appoggio breathing technique, singing on the breath (sul fiato), mask resonance, etc. However, precisely because none of this had been based on verifiable science, it has been easy to dispute what these catch phrases really mean. The one guiding light to the sustaining of the myths associated with these approaches has been the keen hearing of gifted voice teachers who have been able to guide their students by instinct and trial and error to excellent vocal habits devoid of tension and acoustically satisfying. The very best of these teachers have been able to identify the fundamentals that must be addressed: onset (phonation), breath management, resonance adjustment. Because all three elements of vocal production are inextricably tied to one another, it has been difficult for teachers to identify a phonation problem, from a breathing problem from a resonance problem. Jaw and tongue tension are routinely identified as root causes to vocal problems when in fact they are symptoms of more fundamental phonation (therefore breathing) and resonance issues. Furthermore, many malfunctions occur because of a lack of basic core strength in the musculature associated with singing (the whole body really), which in turn causes hyper-function resulting in misalignment of the body and tensions throughout the body, and because of a lack of psychological and spiritual guidance as to the singer’s relationship to his/her own psyche.
Now however, we have enough information to experience real cause and effect relative to the ideal myoelastic-aerodynamic balance of the voice. We have a firm understanding of what a singer needs to do to achieve a strong acoustic signal conducive to the needs of an operatic performance with large orchestra in a large hall. Paradoxically, knowing how the instrument should function does not mean that the instrument is ready to function in that way. The problem of muscle memory must not be ignored. Most singers come to the studio with some muscular imbalances that hinder the ability to correctly produce the desired final result. Yet, in the many lessons I have observed, many teachers will spend the hour attempting to produce that very final result, which in the given state of the singer can only be produced through malfunction. Malfunction also means that the resultant sound is not really the final product that is desired. There are many acceptable sounds, that combined with the singer’s charisma can produce a result that the audience is satisfied with. However, those sounds are a far cry from the balanced phonation that reinforces good physical development of the vocal mechanism and maintains natural and healthy structural conditions. The truth of the matter is that many singers cannot produce the desired final sound when they enter the studio (whether because of the afore-mentioned physical limitations or psychological and spiritual blocks), and in these times, which are conditioned by a desire for immediate gratification, such is not acceptable. Rather than learning the principles that lead to correct development of the balanced, efficient sound, the student prefers to find immediate gratification in a quick fix that has no hope of consistency. Everything about the current state of the arts, and indeed the current state of our societies worldwide, reinforces a quick gain at the risk of long term loss. How can we expect any better from opera and classical singing?
It is for that reason that I did not want to disseminate a series of exercises for my students until I had time to consider specifically what the exercises mean in the context of a greater voice building protocol. The exercises I would have given my youngest student would have been no better than the many random exercises to be found in the many collections of warm-ups, which although excellent, have little effect unless the technical reasoning behind them is understood.
I have assembled a series of warm-ups based on the principles that we have been discussing here for the past year. The exercises themselves are nothing new. The difference is that I will explain precisely what our final product should be and what the necessary elements are and how to arrive at eventual balance and strength. The martial arts, ballet, piano, violin, gymnastics, track and field, tennis, etc are all taught with such protocols as a foundation. The knowledge now exists to produce such a protocol for vocal development. My students and I have been the guinea pigs, so to speak, of the process. And it is worthwhile in the near future to post clips of us along our path of development. This will happen here as I develop a format that is easy enough to follow. And my promised clip of myself will be up as soon as I stop traveling. I am on a train right now on my way to South Jersey and then Washington DC. So I have not stopped yet since returning to New York. More importantly, in the next day or two, I will post that series of basic exercises for developing and maintaining a balanced vocal habit. Later I will also post remedial exercises to help rehabilitate voices that are muscularly out of balance.
Upon returning to New York, I taught a few of my students and was so elated with their development in my absence. So here is a shout-out to Dave Morrow for finding his natural baritone weight through patient practice after singing as a tenor for years; to Donatella Moltisanti for respecting the coloratura nature of her voice and achieving consistently accurate intonation, after years of attempting to sing as a mezzo, and a huge hug to Ross Cruchlow who has made the switch from baritone to dramatic tenor in record time, turning the adversity of what seemed like a bad audition to a triumph. Hearing you sing Eisenstein yesterday is one of the highlights of this teaching year. I can’t wait to the performances at the Liederkranz. The most satisfying thing is that you guys did this in my absence, which means that our process over time does indeed yield results. You had the faith to continue with your exercises and you reaped the rewards. A teacher’s goal is to make himself/herself irrelevant, a bad economic model according to some of my colleagues, but the right pedagogical model if you ask me. Thank you for making me a little more irrelevant.