Kashu-do (歌手道): Baritone to Tenor: Inch By Inch…It’s a Cinch!

I would not wish the transition from baritone to tenor on anyone!  And I am sure that those who have made the change successfully, particularly at a later age would agree.  I must always reiterate that one cannot make a true baritone into a tenor, however many true tenors begin their careers as baritones because it was easier in some way or other.

A lasting transition is often slow, arduous and froth with challenges at many levels, physical, psychological, spiritual and most definitely social.  There is no lack of nay-Sayers!  It is always easier to see the faults and difficulties than to have a real idea about how to find the solutions.  When one does not have a vision beyond the difficulties, the only answer is “It’s not possible!”  Lucky for me I am part of a very special Kung Fu School (where I learn the saying: Inch by inch…It’s a cinch!) where impossible is not a vocabulary word.  I am not shy about advertising my Kung Fu School.  It makes my life easier every day!

Because I travel so much, my dear teacher, Sifu Romain, gave me the option of training privately so that I do not fall behind in the curriculum.  One of the privileges (Thank you Sifu!) is that I get to train side by side with the most advanced students early Monday mornings.  So I get pushed beyond what I thought I could do.  When I practice my forms after a Black Sash workout, I notice the difference in my fundamentals.  This morning, my drop-stances felt much more flexible after some tough drop-stance stretches.  The workouts with this exceptional group of people are extremely challenging, but I thrive on them.  My week begins very differently.  I am pumped!

Pumped to practice my singing with the same vigor, the same commitment, the same approach to precision!  I have always been an athlete of sorts.  In high school I played soccer.  I was a center-forward, the goal scorer.  I had to finish!  Whether my team won or lost rested heavily on my shoulders.  I had to score and it takes a single-mindedness in a split second to score.  I scored 37 times in four seasons. No I do not forget that.  As a freshman in a high-level public high school team, I had to learn to finish. It took the last three games of the season before I scored my first four goals. I was a right wing then (also responsible for scoring, but not the main scorer).  That experience prepared me to lead my private school team my last three years. During the summers I played tennis, quite seriously. Sometimes 12 hours a day.  Winning meant finishing a point, then a game, then the match.  My coach kept yelling, “one point at a time!” Yes, “Inch by inch…” with different words.

What I learned in singing over the 30 years I have been doing it seriously is that it requires three phases to become physically proficient: 1) Fitness 2) Coordination 3) Polish.  I find the same in Kung Fu every time I practice a form.  I had achieved Phase 3 as a baritone.  My most critical teachers felt I had an excellent technique but could not figure out what was not working.  Well, I was singing lower than where my voice could have maximum intensity.  I was at a disadvantage because I was singing the wrong repertoire.  Fine for middle-level work and certainly good enough to get a job in Academia (go figure), but not good enough for top professional work.

One of my students, who is also making the transition, a couple of months ago said to me: “I thought you were crazy, allowing yourself to make sounds that were not very pretty, but now I get it!”  What he got was that I have a lot of stamina! Meaning I can sing through some very difficult arias, but sometimes they are not very pretty. Is it that I don’t want to sing pretty? Certainly not!  I am not interested in ugly sounds. But often, doing the right thing in training means somethings will be a bit shaky, a bit wobbly a bit unrefined.  But those are the very steps that lead to quality singing. Effortlessness does not come because we simply relax!  Relaxation happens when the right muscles are strong enough to do their part, such that other muscles do not compensate.

In Tai Chi, one of my favorite styles, I used to always have tense shoulders–usually up to my ears!  I am sure I still carry tension in my shoulders, but I know it has improved because Sifu comments on other aspects I have to correct. I am sure he will come back to the shoulders because I tend to carry tension there, even in singing, but it is less obvious now!

So in a read-through of Idomeneo yesterday, the first role I have sung all the way through since an ill-advised Pagliaccio six months after I began training, I felt good. At the end of the run, I felt I could sing the whole thing again twice.  I used to feel that way in my baritone days.  This is significant.  I have built the stamina and the notes.  I warmed up to C5# in full voice yesterday and began to feel I will be accessing notes above that. Just more practice. Beyond C was not even a dream a few months ago.  So I am beyond my phase 1.  I estimate I am toward the end of phase 2.  Coordination to me means consistency in balance throughout the range.  Some notes still are harder to coordinate than others, particularly A3 and the passaggio D4 to G4.  Each time one thing improves, the fault in something else becomes more obvious.

Now I can concentrate on making beautiful tones, not just the basic coordination of notes, which require basic muscular strength in balance.  Now it will be about clarity and fluidity, exact fold posture and a perfectly relaxed throat.  Not that those elements where not part of my thought all along, but now they can be accomplished in a real way (No longer dealing with gluten allergy symptoms is certainly a plus). 

Phase 3 is about dynamics.  The job is not done until one can sing a perfect pianissimo-crescendo to fortissimo-and back, on every note in the range.  That was the old school expectation. Phase 3 is about how long a note can be sustained, how fast one can sing and the performance of an honest trill on two distinct perfectly tuned pitches, not a wide vibrato on one note.  Some of these skills I already have, but they are made much more impressive when coordination is really exact.  So the same way I waited for fitness (and health) before I tackle real coordination, I must wait for excellent coordination before concentrating on final high level skills.

How low is your Horse-Stance? But how long can you sustain it? If not for long then maybe you are pushing it too low too soon! Patience…Inch by Inch! But stretch a little lower every day!

How high can you sing? But how long can you sustain the highest note? If not for long, then perhaps you need to sing a little lower for a while!  Patience…Inch by Inch! But stretch a little higher every day!

Kung Fu is everywhere! Singing is everywhere and in everything we do!


Just one point on a long road that must be walked.  That aria has been in my practice regimen ever since I started the road to tenor.  It is a barometer for me.  It seems easy, but it challenges the voice in ways that are unimaginable until one has to sing it.  Every Mozart aria is like that.  When sung by the right voice type, those arias teach a great deal!

Take time! Envision perfection, but forgive your human imperfections!

© 11/14/2011