Kashudo (歌手道): Principles of The Way of the Singer

As I have gone through the 18 months that have given me my tenor voice, I have acquired clarity about principles that I learned, perhaps long before I knew what effect they would have in my life as a whole. Recently I was thinking about what principles I found indispensible to the road that a singer must travel (indeed the road that anyone travels on the way to success). I came up quite spontaneously with the following, which I have left on my Facebook Page for the last couple of months:

Faith, Courage and Patience. Hard work is a given.

Faith: I see a great difference between Faith and Religion. I find the former indispensible and while I have respect for the latter, it has no purpose in my life. Why Faith and what is it? Faith is simply the belief that the Universe is not a random occurence, that there is a design to it and hence, a designer, and by extension a purpose to the existence of each of us.

I am awed by the fact that a hummingbird’s wings may flap at 90 strokes per second. But as a singer, I find greater wonder in the fact that the world record for the highest pitch sung by a human being is C#8, which means that Mr. Adam Lopez was able to vibrate his vocal folds at approximately 4480 times per second.

I am fascinated by the fact that a baby’s cry has some of the same acoustic properties that are important to an opera singer, particulary the strength of all the harmonics and most importantly that of the singer’s formant.

Baby’s cry spectrogram on Bb circa 487 Hz

Babys cry.bmp

Pavarotti’s Bb from Celeste Aida “Ergerti un trono…” spectrogram of Bb circa 487 Hz

Pavarotti Bb Celeste Aida.bmp

It is remarkable how similar the three harmonics within the vertical orange lines (2000-3000 Hz) appear for the baby and Pavarotti. The fact that the vowel formants are different has to do with the inexact vowel of the baby’s cry and the specific one intended by Pavarotti for his Bb (something near a schwa). But the crucial Singer’s Formant region is uncannily similar.

What is more fascinating to me is that opera singing at its best is driven by this singer’s formant region. This region happens to be the sweet spot (the most sensitive frequency band) for the human ear. Is it by accident that a baby’s cry happens to match the sensitive acoustic region of its parents’ hearing? Or is it so designed such that parents can hear when the child is hungry, in danger or otherwise uncomfortable. This is necessary for the propagation and survival of the species.

It is therefore extremely interesting to note that a singer is heard easily with an orchestra because of this factor. A singer who has strong harmonics around this area will strike the human ear with great intensity and will give the impression that the orchestra is softer or further away, because while orchestral instruments can play in that region, their resonance mechanisms yield a considerably weaker sounds above the 500 Hz level.

I am fascinated by the fact that my art is rooted in at least one of the fundamental primal functions that guarantee the continuation of our species.

If there is design and a designer, then my own existence and my life’s work (driven by an inner desire the origin of which is otherwise unknown to me), must be a part of that design. I therefore believe that my life’s work is a necessary part of a greater design. Whether this is in reality the nature of the Universe and its creator (which could be the same thing) is immaterial. The important thing is that I have an unshakable faith that my work is important, which encourages my efforts. Such belief, or faith, is indispensible when the singer goes through periods of difficulty. Without that belief, I could not have made my switch to tenor in 18 months. Obviously I do not know the nature of the Designer of the Universe and I am not prone to create fary-tales to that effect, but there is such consistency in the way things in the Universe behave.

This is not about the specifics of a belief system. I am not interested in having followers of my thinking, but rather about any conviction that gives the singer a sense of worth and purpose. In short, we must know why we sing!

Courage: Courage to me is taking my car in the middle of the night and driving 18 hours to see my best friend who called and said simply: I need to see you now! On the way, in the middle of the night, both of my headlights went out! It was 1985 in the middle of south central Ohio, when one could drive 70 miles in little back roads, without seeing sign of human life. I could have stopped. But all I knew was that my friend was on the other side of that drive and my presence was indispensible. I also knew that he would have done the same for me. There are friends, and there are the rare few that you would give your life for without much thought.

Likewise, there are jobs and there is the work of one’s life. Courage is going after your life’s work when the cards seem stacked against you and no one believes that you can achieve what you set out to achieve. Finding my tenor voice is probably the most important decision I have had to make in my career. Somehow I knew that the key to my destiny was beyond the dark journey (without headlights to see ahead). My true voice was over there, and a singer cannot be an artist without his true voice. If I were to die today, I would die with the feeling that I had accomplished the most important part of my journey. I became the alchemist and I changed my reality. I transformed from the limitations of my faux-baritone voice to the possibilities of my vrai-tenor voice. The journey now can begin anew and in earnest.

I will not be falsely modest here. I am sincerely proud of what I have done in the last 18 months. Yes, I have tweaking to do and I have a few notes beyond my new high C to build up, but I can pick up the tenor anthologies and sing my new arias with greater confidence and better quality than I ever did as a baritone. This is empowering and it required faith in my destiny and the courage to go at it alone because most did not believe. (I promised clips and they will come, as soon as I get over jet-lag and I can find a wonderful pianist to help me record a few arias!)

Patience: It also took patience. Patience is not just waiting. It is a strategy for waiting without despair. It is the ability to see victory in a fuzzy note, or in a note that cracks, or in what most people would consider an undesirable sound. But just like a baby wobbles when it first tries to stand up, or falls down when it attempts to walk, so is the muscular development of an operatic voice. The baby hides neither its wobbles nor its falls, but often laughs in utter triumph at accomplishing a half-step before falling. When we rejoice in enough little victories, we suddenly find ourselves winning the war. Patience is not a virtue that is valued very much in our times. It needs to be. It is the hallmark of all great achievers and their accomplishments.

Hard work is a given: When you have the unshakable belief that your treasure is at the end of the rainbow then you must walk to it. When you are willing to walk in the dark to find the light beyond it, then there is no need to fear the dark, for indeed neither exists without the other. And when you are able to see opportunity where others see barriers, victory where others see defeat, then you are able to brave roaring rapids, and dragon-fire even, to reach the goal. Hard work is the easy part. Having something to work for is what is hard to find.

So today I began my 30 day challenge for Bikram Yoga. Why now? Because I know the kind of strength and flexibility and stamina I will have through it. All these I need for the last few half steps in my upper range and the perfect balance of my voice throughout. This I do for myself because I am a singer and the work of my life must be completed. By extension, I do this for my two beautiful children (and by further extension to my students). I may give them all the advice in the world, but I know that nothing inspires more than to be the alchemist that transforms not base metals to gold, but a base life into a golden one (Something Paulo Coelho would say)! It is never too late to be the best of oneself.

And to end with another Coelhoesque axiom: One must take the journey of the Santiago trail to find his sword if he is to do the battle of life. My sword is my voice and the trail is within. I have found it and now I am sharpening it. The glorious battle, whatever it may be is at hand.

© 10/13/2009


9 thoughts on “Kashudo (歌手道): Principles of The Way of the Singer

  1. Thank you Sis! I find great inspiration in that we are both blogging in an attempt to further this art we love so much. I read everyone of your posts by the way. You are as busy as I am and you know that writing the next post often takes precedence over responding to one. I am always touched when I see your commentary.

  2. Well said, my friend, as always. I found the comments about patience particularly relevant – “a strategy for waiting without despair”. Definitely to be cultivated – personally I find dragon-fire a lot easier to deal with than despair, but patience is indeed proving to be one of the vital elements in the weird alchemy of becoming a singer. Enjoy the Bikram!

  3. I always enjoy your comments and I enjoy your journey from baritone to tenor. It is amazing how miraculously diverse an instrument can be and how hard it can be to discover what it really is.

    I think we all are in some stage of a journey and getting where we want can be frustrating at times. I am a very high tenor of some sort. I have a fairly expansive chest register up to F4 and a head voice that has become so unbalanced as to be practically falsett (it still can connect without glitch but it is just no good not to mention throaty, tense, and often painful). I have too much muscular tension which often leads my voice to go up higher that often unbalances my already high speaking voice. The worst part is that I like to sing and I don't know how to fix my own problems.

    I am the most stubborn person in the world and I never want to admit that I need help on anything. But my attempts to fix my head voice (it is hard to sing anything without a good head voice when you are regularly wanting to sing above an Eb4) and bring my voice back to stability have been disasterous. I am currently seeing a good vocal coach and though the going is slow, I think I am going somewhere. I just wish I had the finances to get more frequent lessons. Patience always seems to be the watchword.

    It is so hard to know that your voice should be able to hit a high C or D or.. and not be able to sing anywhere close. It is agony to know that voices that are built lower than mine can easily hit notes that I currently can't manage to hit with quality or legitimacy.

    It is really frustrating to have an unusual voice. You are always thinking.. what can I sing, what can I do? I have bright tenor colors but I sound almost more like a female than a male so I can't really sing high tenor lit as it would be a joke. And though I venerate and adore the female voice (I think it is much prettier than the higher male voice), most haute contre have nothing like the range or vocal structure of female. It is a frustrating thing that can be beautiful but ugly at the same time.

    My voice is often a reflection of some of the best and worst in me. It requires tremendous balance and doesn't allow for deceptions at least not if it is to sound decent or be in tune. It is that mirror that you hate and love. It points out things about who I am as a person that sometimes I wish were kept in the dark. I love normal natural things and sometimes I don't feel like a normal or natural thing.

  4. So, the baby has his singer's formant already figured out, great!

    But… wait a minute! Look at those spectra! The baby has not turned the resonance! It is first-formant dominant! No Pavarotti yet…

    (Forgive me, couln't resist…)

  5. I'm glad somebody caught that, Martin. I say, give baby a break! It would seem he is at least at the level of Di Stefano or Kraus. (Thanks for the smile. I do mention that somewhere).

    But on a serious note, it makes one wonder why Baby is F1 dominant on this Bb portion of the cry.

    I am beginning to think that the acoustic turn is dependent upon that balance between vertical distance of the folds and the nature of the closure. Singers who sing too thin (reduced vertical dimension of the folds) are not able to turn. I have experienced this with every tenor I have taught and some sopranos as well.

    This could indicate that Baby's voice is pretty strong but not so perfectly balanced as to produce the expected F2 dominance here.

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