For all intents and purposes, I was raised more or less French! In my early formation until the age of 10, I was taught by French (in some cases French Canadian) Franciscan Priests in a highly admired school for boys in Port-au-Prince, Haiti called Jean-Marie Guilloux. After spending many years in France over the years, I realize how very French my upbringing was and how those formative years colored my life. At home, it was strongly encouraged that we speak French as much as Haitian Creole. The mode of behavior in classes was thoroughly based on the French system, with a great emphasis on discipline, memorization (both serve me well as a singing-actor) and a dogged aim for “perfectionnement” (perfecting oneself).
This last aspect taken to an extreme (and the French often do take the concept of perfecting oneself to an extreme) can be defeating rather than helpful. This I observed in a very gifted French-born singer today who has made amazing strides in so many ways. By far one of the most vocally able singers I have ever heard, this singer used to be paralyzed by the need to have one aspect of singing perfected before moving to the next thing. At best, one gains great awareness of the problem at hand, but at worst one can become obsessively one-sided to the detriment of other necessary parts, including the most important aspect, musical expression. And the singer has experienced precisely that until recently.
Today, the singer was balanced, aware of faults but not obsessed. The singer was able to sing with a relaxed precision that I had not heard before. Obviously great strides were made. Yet as we talked, I noticed familiar refrains:
“So, once the legato is mastered, everything will fall into place!“
To which I replied: “No, it is just one other thing that contributes to the whole.”
Then came: “In this new repertoire, it seems that much more pressure and connection is needed!”
“No” I countered. The fact that singing felt effortful in the training phase does not mean it needs to remain this way. You are at a point in your singing whereby the relationship between your brain and your body needs to be simple. The brain desires, the body does. And the body is able now to respond and do whatever you ask of it. No extra effort is needed!”
I too have experienced very important technical strides the last two months. Singing is becoming simpler and a lot easier. And so I am considering accepting an audition opportunity. I have always had a particular ability to let the voice do what it can in the moment of performance without interfering too much. When practicing, perhaps I have had a need to interfere too much. One might think the former to be a virtue and the latter to be more of a vice. Balance is found actually between the two. One should allow the voice to do what it can but with a firm conviction and commitment to a technical philosophy. Certain parts of my technique have become almost automatic and others not. As I practiced today, thinking about the audition, I tried to conceive myself in the audition situation. In many ways it was exciting and I allowed the music to carry my imagination. Everything felt easy until a high Bb that I rarely miss got caught. I stopped and redid it and it was fine but still more effortful than I wanted. Suddenly I realized that I was thinking so much about one aspect of technique that I allowed a very important fundamental to escape my attention: Open Throat! That rarely happens. Later when I had a minute, I tried the passage again with a better organized mind and the Bb was simple, flexible and relatively effortless.
The tendency to focus on one thing, no matter how important is an eternal trap. Life is a tight-rope act! There is the rope and its particular tension. Then there are the feet and the special shoes for tight-rope walking. Then there is the fitness of the legs and the ability to balance. There is the long pole used for balancing and there is the placement of the two hands that hold the pole. There is the angle of the arms bent at the elbow and there is the strength of the arms to maintain the pole in balance, changing the angle with every step, etc…If the tight-rope walker concentrate on any one thing to the exclusion of the others, he will fall! The singer fails for the same reason! The human being fails in life when his attention is governed by an obsession with one thing, whether career, family, work or play. In life as in singing, one thing depends on all the other things. At any given time, one thing may take priority. Hence the Art of Life as the Art of Singing is based on the ability to give priority to what needs it. And that is ever changing!
Continuing with my French upbringing and heritage, I became a student of Dalton Baldwin, eventually meeting some of the stalwarts of the French Song repertoire, such as José van Dam, Gérard Souzay and Ely Ameling. I relished the many years of work with the great Baldwin, a superlative musician and a gifted collaborative pianist. The concerts we did together still stay with me. What was always difficult were the classes with him. There was a sense that a certain French song had to be sung a certain way and there was no variation. There was a certain necessary “perfectionnement” that occupies my mind until this day. The need to sing a beautiful mezza-voce was so all-consuming that I would do it in any way I could, never thinking that certain technical fundamentals had to be accomplished before I can master such a skill. Indeed when I became a tenor, of a more robust kind than usually sang the French song repertoire, I had to put the work of my life to the side. After concentrating on Otello and Don Alvaro and Don José for five years, the ability to sing Poulenc’s Bleuet, a song I was obsessed with, is becoming seriously possible. The needed well-supported mezza-voce as I heard in the recording with Nicolai Gedda and Dalton Baldwin, is becoming consistent throughout my range. By putting the song and all it represented to me to the side, I was able to find my center and in so doing, the song becomes possible in my voice and not as an effect that required me to go against my nature as was the case for some 25 years.
A defining time in the progress of any person occurs when s/he is strong enough to get rid of an obsession. To take distance from something that means a great deal and trust that if that thing is supposed to be part of his/her life, it will return and with a more appropriate relationship to the self.
Artists too often confuse passion and obsession. To be passionate about something in balance is to know when the best thing to do relative to that something is to put it aside or go away from it.
French classical singing is rooted in early French Opera, which has its roots in French Theater at its apex during the Age of Enlightenment. The French prize their language and its beauty perhaps more than other culture. While the spoken word in theater may be articulated in “purity,” most of the 14 vowels in the French language must modify considerably in order to preserve vocal balance. The French singer who is not willing to modify his/her obsession with linguistic purity is bound to experience extreme vocal imbalance. For the profoundly artistic nature of the French people as a culture, it is nevertheless not a mystery to me why so few native French speakers have developed world-class careers in the last century as compared to Italians or Germans or Swedes or Spanish or Americans. The Belgian baritone, José van Dam understood this and consequently said that he does not sing with a “French” technique. It is also not surprising that the most vocally pleasing performances of French mélodies are to be found in the recordings of van Dam himself, Nicolai Gedda, Jessye Norman and William Parker, who loved the French language and mastered it but who did not have to be prisoners to the obsessions of the “perfectionnement de language” as most native French speakers are.
“The Devil (which we create) appears in surprising guises!” Yet it appears dressed in all the things we hold dear. Obsession is the killer of Art and Life.