A full, brilliant tone! My operatic life may very well be defined by Pavarotti’s rise as King of the High Cs. No voice more singularly sparked interest in opera as that of the great Pavarotti and in the time when I began to sing. The genius of Pavarotti lies in the absolute abandon of his baby-like cry. His was a voice that was fully open yet never spread or rarely so. Pavarotti seemed the singer with no fear, yet simultaneously with near perfect control. He was a singer blessed with a special, balanced coordination (a gift perhaps), yet he always talked about how hard he had to work to master his voice. He seemed to have had the easiest production, yet he always talked about how much of an athlete one has to be to sing.
I have worked with a lot of singers at a very high level lately and interestingly enough some relative beginners as well. Whether professional or beginner, there are two types of singers in my experience: those who aim to perfect their instrument and those who will take any trick available to have a sense of consistency. They are happy enough to sing all the notes they need. Quality is less important. I also find the latter group to be an “either or” crowd. They navigate from one solution to another, always looking for the key to vocal bliss. The former group, either through some early bad experience or intuitive wisdom learns that developing vocal skills is like walking a tight rope. A great tight-rope artist falls a lot at low altitude before braving the heights. A potential great singer realizes that singing is about coordination of several parts (i.e. breathing: core musculature and full lung capacity; phonation: fold depth and fold closure; resonance: purity of vowel concept and the reality of modification), and coordination requires strength from all elements concerned. The wise singer hears ease and understands the physical effort that produces ease. The one dimensional singer hears ease and thinks s/he has to do nothing. Is it not obvious that if singing was about doing little or nothing that anyone could do it right away? I maintain that anyone can do it, if s/he does the work necessary.
Pavarotti’s ideal was Giuseppe di Stefano (a great artist with a great voice but incomplete technique). Pavarotti took the best of Di Stefano (the wide, open italianate vowels) and complements it with a fullness that promotes spontaneous acoustic change (register rotation in the passaggio), a necessary skill that the great Di Stefano never learned. In essence, Pavarotti bettered his hero. This says a lot about the man’s drive and his ideals.
I often rant about the fact that active singers sometimes need to take time out to reevaluate their technique and in general they do not. But recently I have had contact with several singers who do so. I admire them very much. They sing well but often take time off of their schedules to refine or reevaluate their skills. This takes courage and commitment to oneself and to the art. Likewise, I had a first lesson the other day with a relatively inexperienced singer and she wondered if would really be interested in teaching her since I teach singers who are so much more advanced. I told her that there was one criteria for me to teach someone: the singer must need to sing. Those who must sing are not happy to be able to sing notes. They want to be able to make music with their voices. They are usually very multi-dimensional, interesting people who sing because something inside them insists that they must.
The singers who fearlessly but intelligently go beyond their limitations, taking risks, are the singers that interest me. The level of vocal coordination is unimportant. That is what I am here to teach. But what gets a singer from point A to point B is absolute dedication to their personal covenant relative to the art. Some singers can learn this. Some other do not want to and this latter group is totally uninteresting to me.
This brings me to the other side of the paradox, the unknown singer named Paul Adams. Paul Adams has a Pavarotti level voice. He was a classmate of mine at Westminster Choir College, who, when his little body sang, had the power of an Orpheus. He made entire audiences cry. His singing is born of Faith, his process of Courage and his accomplishments of Patience. Anyone who was at Westminter Choir College in the mid 1980s cannot say otherwise than that Paul Adams possesses the voice of God. He inspired me greatly and he has a heart of pure gold. He onced told me something that serves me until today and particularly now. He said he gained a half step every semester. Paul did not care about singing high notes that did not sound good. He was happy to sing a fabulous Eb one semester, an E natural the next and then an F after that. I remember when he sang each. The role of Mendelssohn’s Elijah will never have a better interpreter. He made the entire school cry at performance classes when he sang. If Providence did not give Paul the rest of what was needed to be a top professional (he was back then the physical antithesis of his magnificent voice–small of stature and a very humble person), perhaps there is a different purpose for his substantial talent.
I have not seen Paul in 25 years but I will never forget his voice, truly the greatest I have ever heard. But I remember Paul mostly for his personal discipline. He is one of those singers who valued the special quality of his voice and developed every note to match the best quality possible, not to impress anyone but because he felt he had a duty to develop his talent as well as he could. Other things did not come easily to him and frankly I don’t know how he coped or turned out. As a teacher, I have a preference for soulful students who are more concerned about their long-term development than their short-term “flash in the pan”. I honor students who will go through tough times with principles that guide them in their insecurities–principles they do not abandon when things get difficult. I have watched them accomplish what others might think impossible if hearing them at the beginning of the process.
In truth, I am one of those singers. Maybe that is why I appreciate them. I live the paradox. I am being trusted by singers with high level careers while I build my own voice anew through an improbable change from bass-baritone to tenor. Today, I had my best practice. I warmed up to C#5, sang Don Carlos, Max, Duca and Ottavio and all of it was clear and relatively easy. My core muscles got tired before my voice did and that was a beautiful turn of events. My wonderfully soulful students trust me because of the principles I teach, not because of how I sound. But they also hear my voice making wonderful changes for the better every day. Every month I can do something I could not do before. My change is not so easy which is why the great teacher Edward Zambara once said that perhaps one out of 50 who try the change from baritone to tenor will successfully make it. Today I felt like the tenor that I am and there is no going back. There will be a time soon when those wonderfully faithful students will be proud to say, you should hear my teacher sing. Afterall, I am a singer first and like a wonderful tenor said to me today, there is nothing more frustrating for a musician than to survive a performance. When you are born in the same country as Jussi Björling, your expectations are high. When you were classmates with Paul Adams, your standards are also high. Today Paul would be proud of me and so would my soulful students who make my life better every day.
My darling students, you call me, a singer in training, “Maestro”. No greater paradox than that! In my teaching I have earned this I believe, but that is not enough. A true master must be able to do what he teaches as long as he is healthy enough to do it. I do not hide behind my title as teacher. I am a singer and I will sing at such a level as to make you proud. Your faith, your courage and your patience deserve no less. My own faith and courage and patience deserve no less! I am close and I will achieve every skill I ask of you. Nothing makes me angrier than my skills being questioned because I am going through a Fach change. I could have remained a baritone to protect my teaching credentials, but that would have been cowardly. But nothing will quiet the visionless other than me achieving the highest skills. I am no longer a baritone and I will be angry with anyone who assumes I am still a baritone. That time is long past. If you call me an unfinished tenor, I will smile, because that is what I am. But I am close to finishing that job. The Italian masters recommended 10 years to finish a voice, I am at year 3 and I believe I will have it done in less than 5. My confidence does not come from hubris or boasting but rather from principled practicing and a deep longing to be the performer I once was. Like my very accomplished student said: I want to have fun making music, not just survive a performance. So this highly respected singer took time off to become the singer he wants to be and not just a surviver. I honor him by personally accompanying him on this journey, as I do each and every soulful singer I teach who sees beyond their limitations, who dream high ideals and most of all work hard to make their visions real.