Last Saturday, I arranged for fourteen of my New York and Maryland students to experience a Tai-Chi/Mental Focus seminar with my Kung Fu Master, Sifu Karl Romain. It was magical on so many levels. An hour or so after the seminar I taught many of the same students in our weekly masterclass. After the voice masterclass, a few of us went out for dinner and one of my students said: “Do you know you have become a better teacher since you started studying Kung Fu?” Three days later, at my private Kung Fu lesson, Sifu told me that my Tai Chi has really improved; followed of course by the constructive comments that I need to pay attention to my posture and stance alignment.
First, thank you to my student for her kind comment. She is correct, my teaching has improved significantly since studying Kung Fu and particularly the Tai Chi part of Kung Fu. The reason is that I found in Kung Fu/Tai Chi a visible, tangible physical activity that relates completely to the process of learning to sing and by extension, a confirmation of my theories about the nature of physical training as it pertains to the voice. Tai Chi done well, seen from the outside, looks like the most graceful, most fluid, easiest movement imaginable. But it hides extraordinary strength, without which none of the fluidity and flexibility would be possible.
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At one point in the seminar, Sifu asked me to perform Tai Chi Walking so the students could have a model. It was a performance and it entailed all of the things we performers face. To my students, who were experiencing Tai Chi for the first time, I was an expert. Of course, I am not. With Sifu watching me, I tried the best I could to perform the walk as I had been practicing daily for more than a year. I performed meditatively, focused, yet I was aware of the faults in my alignment which manifested as discomfort in my stance. I was aware of timing errors between hand movements and feet movements, which must be coordinated. I was also aware of the timing of my breathing being sometimes off. When I asked my students what they learned from the Tai Chi walk, one of my tenors told me that watching me perform the Walk he understood what legato means. It was another compliment for which I was grateful, yet I was very aware of how much further I had to go before I could claim true fluidity without tension. Tai Chi is humbling and it is empowering.
In Tai Chi we do Qi Gong exercises to build strength, flexibility mental focus and inner energy. The first time I did them in a class, I thought I was going to die because my legs hurt so much. And I was watching classmates in their sixties and seventies perform those exercises easily. Now I wake up in the morning and perform a half-hour of Qi Gong exercises and then practice my form for another half-hour. I do not feel tired at the end, but I feel that I had been working out. My strength in general has improved remarkably as manifested in the other Kung Fu styles that I am learning. When I perform my forms, whether Tai Chi or Kung Fu, I am keenly aware of where I am relatively strong and where I am noticeably weak.
Sifu Romain’s teaching is practical and philosophical. We learn principles that lead gradually to skills. No martial artist is perfect. Some do extraordinary things but they seek always to improve. We are never just good or bad. We are in an endless path of improvement. Like a baby who is learning to walk, we lose our balance and fall sometimes, and sometimes we look horribly ungraceful in the attempt to perform the task correctly based on the principles.
That is the reason why I opened my transition from baritone to tenor on this blog. Before I began studying Kung Fu/Tai Chi, it was my desire to document the grey areas from the beginning to the end. I wanted to exhibit humbly how my beginning as a tenor were forced, tense, weak, uncoordinated to gradual strengthening, relaxation and refinement. I have seen quite a few professionally performing singers through this process in the past few years and I know the principles are sound. I teach over 160 students worldwide and have no doubt as to the viability of this process. The strange paradox is I have had the longest road to follow, to undo the wrong singing I had done as a baritone (although extremely praised for it). As I improve, I find that there are very few people who can hear the nature of my improvement. That I am able to go through the role of Radamès twice in a row without fatiguing is a testimony to the strength I have developed. The fact that I can warm up to a high C# every day is a sign of obvious improvement. This strength does not mean that the sounds that are coming out of me are finished sounds. But they are strong sounds resulting from three years of muscular development that I did not have as a baritone. As a baritone I developed a very pretty, warm sound that a lot of people enjoyed listening to. But it was not a bona fide operatic sound in the true sense of the word. It lacked core strength, but it had a kind of superficial polish. Most people are more impressed by my superficially polished baritone sound –that could not withstand big orchestral environments– than they are by my strong but unfinished tenor voice.
In the last couple of weeks I have noticed that I have become strong enough to begin approaching the voice with grace and lyricism. I have waited for this for three years. I can start letting go. The functions are enough trained to begin to be reliable with what feels like much less effort. I am beginning the polishing phase. My coach, Steve Crawford, is the vocal version of my Kung Fu Master. He has worked with the greatest singers of the past 30 years and he understands the principles of my process. At my last coaching with him, he heard remarkable improvement in my sound and complimented me on the improvement. Then he proceeded to help me improve it further. The principles he teaches compliment good vocal technique. He is not just complimenting me just to be nice. He so believes in my process that he constantly sends me students. The joy of working with Steve is that he is uncompromising about quality, but he understands that true growth takes time and he has such a fine ear that he hears incremental growth even in very unstable sounds.
The operatic culture of our times is so much about quick results. It is either black or white. Almost no one is interested in the gradual growth of singers. For that reason, even though I expose my baby steps here, I keep my students protected as much as I can. I advise them to expose their baby steps in situations where they are free to make mistakes and falter without being judged by power-brokers in the business.
First no one believed I was a tenor. Then some believed I am in fact a tenor but that it would take too long to retrain. Then the same believed that I had made remarkable steps but could use their help to learn lyricism. I am sure very soon I will hear them claim they can polish me up and make me a great career.
Well, I practice Vocal Tai Chi! I know that grace does not come without fundamental core strength in all the muscles involved. I know that in the beginning I would be weak; then I would be stronger but awkward, and then I would begin to look graceful and fluid and then would spend the rest of my life developing mastery. That is the commitment of real singers and I am blessed to have more than 160 wonderful students at all different levels who help me see clearly every step in the process from beginning to mastery. Thank you Sifu! Thank you Steve! Thank you my 160 students and the rest of my coaches and friends who make this process (as difficult and frustrating as it is sometimes) a joy that brightens every day!