Kashudo (歌手道): A traditional and revolutionary concept: A tribute to Glenn Parker

A dear friend who recently read my latest post, responded with “Gesundheit” when he saw the term, Kashudo. I had to explain that it was a concept that came to me spontaneously as I reevaluated my experiences with martial arts and most recently with Bikram Yoga. I feel a need to dedicate a post to the concept of Kashudo. The need to articulate this, as I am working on a book (a guide to the experience of studying singing), has become very important to me. In teaching I am experiencing a widening of horizons I knew could exist but that I have not really experienced to this extent during my many years as a student of singing. The one teacher who embodied this concept in a lasting way in my life is the late coach-accompanist Glenn Parker. We became particularly close while we were doing our doctorates together at the University of Michigan. But he was my greatest teacher during my undergraduate years at Westminster Choir College. Much of the philosophy of my teaching come from my experiences with him. Glenn Parker died in the late fall of 1995 (correction, February of 1996). I was in my first year of teaching at Utah State University and I remember cancelling classes for the day. It was the most devastating loss I had suffered up to that point. Because of duties at school I could not attend his memorial service in the east coast and it killed me. I never told him in just those words how much he meant to me. He asked me to sing his last doctoral recital at the U of Michigan. It was Brahms’ Magelonelieder. He narrated from the piano and I sang those beautiful songs. A few years ago, in the process moving from North Carolina (yet another academic job that often feels like a waste of time in retrospect but taught me important lessons about the dark sides of human nature and the courage of a precious few), a friend from my undergraduate days took the drive with me from the South back to the Northeast where I grew up. Among the recordings in my car was a cassette of that performance with Glenn. She was also a student and friend of Maestro Parker and she was curious what our performance together might have been like. We both cried many tears, not only in solemn memory of that unique man, but also in gratitude for what he had instilled in us.

By his side, I was a fearless performer. Although my vocal technique left something to be desired, my spirit was bold and implacable. He instilled total confidence by making the music absolutely crystal-clear. Musical interpretation was not whimsical. It was a product of hours of considering musical issues objectively. He in fact was the one that taught me that the best way to perform a piece is by knowing it inside out, which made it possible to improvise in the moment without fear of going against the nature of the music. In early 1995 when we performed that cycle together, he had transformed me from being his pupil to being his colleague. He asked me questions about the piece because he knew I came completely prepared. He had seen me conduct opera and respected my musicianship. Little did he know that my entry into orchestral conducting had much to do with my desire to become as thorough a musician as he. He even shared his fears with me during that time. A kind of intimacy developed between us that I had wanted so dearly during my undergraduate years. Back then, I often felt as an outsider among the chosen few of the Westminster Choir (the smaller touring ensemble). When I finally had that joining of the spirit with him, he already had AIDS and was not to be long with us. He was only 40 years old.

Kashudo (歌手道), The Way of the Singer, is what I learned through martial arts, tennis, yoga and Glenn Parker. Those activities have nothing to do with arrival, but rather with a lifelong process of self-improvement relative to an ideal that is paradoxically attainable and fleeting. Glenn Parker in no uncertain terms made me feel that I was ready to sing now and simultaneously that on my best day I was not up to the ideal requirements of the music. I could be infinitely confident and humble at the same time.

After one year and three months of training to make the change from bass-baritone to tenor, I feel ever closer to my technical goals. I have felt limited to a full voice high B in context even though I could occasionally touch high C#. Recently, the lighter high voice that I’ve always had that made one teacher say I might be a Rossini tenor may years ago is now connecting to my fuller voice and becoming more substantial. The journey continues with absolute clarity. I am not in a hurry and that feels right and good.

The Way of the Singer however is not just about vocal technique. It is about musicianship at the highest level because the musical truths of a piece of music dictate what we need to accomplish technically. It is about mastery of languages because we are less complete when we do not have a total image of the complex package of information that accompanies every word; that the English word table is accompanied by different pictures in my mind when compared to the exact same word table in French. It is about a philosophy of people, how they interact in this life, and indeed what this life and the experiences therein (both emotionally subjective and empirically objective) mean to us as a collective of souls. It is about the obvious significance of art and artists in our lives and the paradoxical devaluation of them in our daily existence.

Every artist has had many significant apprenticeships. I should honor each of my masters and probably will right here over time. My significance as an operatic artist, with all the disciplines I have had to experience, took shape in the presence of that magnificent teacher who inspires Love even though he has been physically gone for almost 15 years. We have all had such teachers. In a time when the operatic art form seems more precarious than ever, we need to be confident, bold and indeed humble before the art itself, in order to speak the truth as we see it, forgetting for a few moments the political fallout that might threaten our career aspirations. The careers of artists is about bringing light to the darkness, about investing our souls to bring out change in the narrow minds of those who value material goods over substantial humanity. The operatic art form maybe becoming a business first and an art last, but none of us need to take it lying down. That is the meaning of Kashudo. It is a means of changing our art form from within ourselves. By developing our inner potential, we dare our colleagues to meet us at that level. If each of us is true to himself and the depths of his/her potential, then all the managers will be compelled and happy to sell a substantial product as opposed to just one that can be packaged, the general managers can concentrate on making money since the artistic product is of such quality. In the end, we can change the art form to the ideals that we hold dear simply by holding ourselves to those ideals. That is the meaning of Kashudo. That is the eternal lesson of Maestro Glenn Parker.

None of this is new. It only seems new when we as artists have forgotten our calling. I do not have the luxury of forgetting because the spirit of Glenn Parker lives in me forever as it does all of his students, many of them very famous opera singers, and pianists and conductors.

I miss you Glenn!

© 07/02/2009