Kashu-do (歌手道): The Yin and Yang of Teaching and Learning: A Tribute to Maestro Steven Crawford

“…Life is effort!  You just have to decide which effort you are willing to make.  I can decide whether I will make the effort to stand up from my piano bench with pain or the effort to work out every day so that I do not have to make the painful effort of standing up from the piano bench.  It’s a choice!

Likewise, you may either give the energy (support) to the note you are currently on so that it is well supported, such that the high note that comes after it has the best chance of coming out wonderfully or you can lazily sing the note you are on with the absolute certainty that the top note after it will be ‘effortful’!”

I am paraphrasing Maestro Steven Crawford above; a refined pianist/conductor who worked at the Metropolitan Opera for many years, coached and continues to coach some of the finest singers in Opera today.  What makes Steve Crawford so particularly effective is that he understands great singing and even more, he understands what singers need to do to allow their voices to behave most effectively and efficiently. He understands and can articulate how singers get in their own way!  More than that, he shows them how to be active in their own singing without hindering their own process.

“…What I have to tell most singers, I don’t have to tell you.  You have a great technique and musicality.  You need to sing as if you don’t have any vocal problems, because you don’t!  Let your understanding of the music guide you!”

It is important to walk into a lesson as an “empty cup” needing to be filled (my Kung Fu teacher, Sifu Karl Romain,  always says this).  One of the most difficult things for a singer who has had to fight to develop a technique is that fighting remains a part of his personal journey.  At what point is the fight over?  When do we start to enjoy the fruits of our hard labor?  As wise people do, Steve gave me a choice with the statement above.  To embrace this, I had to put my own process aside in a way.  By simply following his directions I realized how to effectively use the tools that I had built for my self.

To use a metaphor, when my car was broken down, I had to push it.  After the car was repaired, I continued to push it.    Efforts that were necessary in the begin, when I lacked the strength in singing were no longer needed.  It took a leap of faith to simply open my mouth and hear what I desired coming out without excessive effort.

“Singing begins in the imagination.  You must know precisely what sound you want to make and commit to it.  Your body/voice will follow and produce the required sound.”

Steve reminded me of an axiom that I often use with my students.  “Build the machine and then allow it to function the way it was designed to function.  The voice is mostly automatic.  Just make sure that all its parts are in proper working order.”

But do not think that Steve Crawford is all about philosophy!  What makes him so extremely effective is that he gives simple directives that yield astounding results.  He not only understands how the voice functions but he understands the singer’s mind and how conscious thought and the instrument work together.  He teaches precisely how one gets the best results from his/her voice.  It would be belittling to attempt to describe his approach.  One needs to experience it.

How does one get to understand singers so well?  Well it turns out that Steven Crawford sang since he was a child and in very professional situations.  Furthermore, he has the greatest curiosity about the function of the singing voice and wish to understand the singer from the singer’s point of view.  This wonderfully humble teacher who, by virtue of his vast experience, could easily dictate his wisdom from his piano bench, asked me to exchange lessons with him.  And so after my coaching, I taught him a voice lesson.  We have done this a couple of times and we continue to do this exchange.

It was intimidating for me to teach this master who just taught me so much!  Yet he told me he was intimidated the first time he was going to teach me because he had been impressed with what he had experienced with my students.  Indeed, what this exchange is teaching us is that there is no need for intimidation when each of us comes as “an empty cup,” ready and hoping to be filled.  We want the same result but we approach the problem from different angles.  His unique vision has made me a better teacher and when my students go to him, I hope they are now a little better prepared to absorbe his extraordinary knowledge.

I always knew there would come a point when I would need guidance.  I trained myself for 5 years to build the structure of my singing.  Now I have a master who understands what I need to do to maximize my effectiveness as a singer and to achieve true vocal beauty and musical expression.

I could not have found this from teachers who believe that singing should be “effortless.”  In truth Steve makes a distinction between effort and the proper expenditure of physical energy.

“Music requires you to invest energy.  But when you invest that energy properly, music has a way of giving you even more in return.  Making music in a truly invested manner creates energy! It’s really quite extraordinary!”

Steve Crawford does not call himself a voice teacher, but he is a lot more than a coach.  He has a unique ability to bridge the technician and the musician within one person.  Working with him is like being in the middle of a conversation between my best voice teacher and favorite conductor in the same room at the same time.

At the end of a session with Steve, having put my own technique aside,  I found myself on the A Train back to my studio, not having to leave my technique on the side line but rather with a clearer understanding of how to use the technique I have developed.

Indeed this new clarity required more than one session to understand.  In our earlier sessions, I labored to understand and took bits with me from each lesson.  Lately, I feel I understand in my body, what beautiful, expressive singing feels like again.  It’s been a long time! Five years is a long time to take off when performing used to be almost a daily occurrence.

Thank you Maestro Steve Crawford for helping me to be a singer again!  This is just the beginning of a great deal of fun!

© 01/22/2013

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