Kashu-do (歌手道): Surviving the Career: How Fit Are You Really?

A great number of my students are singing as ensemble members in German theaters and every once in a while, even the very best among them come to a point of near crisis if not for a supportive studio that helps to make the singer aware early enough when something feels wrong.

Every professional singer, even those that have had lots of experience, like to feel that they are reliable and would prefer to hide any problem so that they do not get negative attention, or worse yet, get fired because the house administration loses faith in them.

Like being afraid to go to the doctor because you are afraid to discover something might be wrong, not dealing with vocal issues early is the worst thing you could do.

 This week, I worked with two of the most consistent singers I have ever had the pleasure to work with.
With a lot of productions, having to sing different roles on four successive days and dealing with fatigue, even they found themselves becoming a little uncertain.  Lucky enough they have colleagues they could talk to and I was able to see them as always at least once a month.

  But when you are a professional and everything is going well, you don’t usually think of making time for a vocal check up. —Athletes are required to have full check-ups several times a year. — Singers should see their voice teachers regularly.  Why?

As much as current pedagogy would like us to think that great singing takes little physical effort, this is one of the greatest lies that is propagated.  Strong singers do not have to overexert, but singers who are muscularly more phlegmatic often look like they are working hard when they sing correctly.  Looking like one is working hard is not always the sign of forcing.  It is often the sign of a singer who is working hard to produce the correct vocal coordination.

The remedy should be to counsel the singer to practice regularly so that they become stronger in the correct coordination and thereby not longer having to overexert.  Not work less!

Singers who are naturally physically strong are few.  Genetics does play a part in it.  Some singers are just physically robust and have always supported their voices with a strong breathing mechanism.  Others are by nature more phlegmatic and have to work to keep their bodies in top physical condition.  

One must never forget that the vocal mechanism is also made up of many muscles that must be strong to work in balance with each other. Those muscles too must be developed! 

Without this physical robustness, a singer, even a really good one can hurt themselves when they experience the deadly trifecta of being a member of a house ensemble in a “Fest” experience:

Too many roles + too little recovery time + mental stress ——–> insecurity ———> fear ——-> technical disorganization ——–> vocal injury ———-> doubt ———-> loss of nerves ——-> loss of job.

I am lucky as a teacher that most of my students who sing in theaters are not alone.  They have other colleagues from the studio who are near enough to come hear them (often in the same theater) and I do see most of them at least once a month and often more when they are learning new roles.

A few are alone in theaters and sometimes have to go through anguish alone.  Sometimes family members do not understand.  Those who are the most clear thinking will request a video conference and I, with the use of my real-time spectral analysis on my computer can detect much information that will confirm what I hear.  A good internet connection on both sides can guarantee quality of sound.
Some are still skeptical of video-conferencing for voice lessons and that is too bad.  While it is not ideal as a primary tool, it is an ideal complement for a teacher who knows the voices of his students well.

However the problem is more dependent upon the student’s ability to be honest with himself/herself as soon as s/he detects a problem.  But how can a student find the balance between detecting a real problem and being hypochondriac?

In order to be able to self-diagnose when things are not optimal, a singer must have a baseline concept of what is correct.  That is called technical awareness.  There is a correct, balanced way for the voice to function.  It is a myth that a great technician gets to a point when they no longer have to think at all.  When a process is repeated correctly thousands of times, it becomes more or less automatic.  Yet, singing begins in the imagination.  A singer must have an expectation of their natural sound in order for the body to call upon the correct function.  A false concept of one’s sound, even with correct technical philosophy, will cause disrepair and dysfunction.  

Many young singers enter theater life with a “natural” coordination.  That is to say they learned balanced singing somewhat unconsciously.  They are not aware of all the working parts:  the parts that work involuntarily and the parts that require conscious organization (usually from a mental concept more than physical interference).  Those singers are the ones most likely to have short careers, because the rigors of a “Fest” contract or even a “three-week rehearsal period” for a common repertory theater production, might bring them to a point of fatigue whereby certain aspects of the total function no longer behaves automatically.  Such singers eventually become very nervous and have to be replaced.  School productions are different because the singers have their teacher on the premises.  Today, singers have to travel to work most of the time and they do not have a teacher in the city where they work.

The most difficult element to deal with is that theater administrations are generally populated by people who have no clue how singers function.  They create an environment whereby singers are expendable and can be fired with very little notice at the first sign of normal discomfort, whether from fatigue or a cold or even “marking.”  Most operatic conductors who could act as a go-between do not have the pre-requisite knowledge of the voice to know 1) whether a singer is vocally fit for the job at hand (being able to sing an aria easily does not mean one is ready for the rigors of the role.  Ensembles are the most difficult in most roles) 2) whether a singer is having problems due to fatigue or a systemic technical weakness 3) how to help a singer on the edge find their balance back 4) how to advise singers in the middle of a difficult rehearsal process.

A singer is the darling of the administration as long as they are producing what is expected.  At the first sign of discomfort, the singer is the enemy, the virus that must be eliminated.

It may sound extreme but it is today’s reality.  Longevity is a foreign word in classical singing today because 1) the criteria for professional readiness do not exist in today’s vocal pedagogy 2) theater administrators and even many agents, in large part do not understand music, let alone the complex nature of the operatic voice (that singers themselves often do not understand 3) superficial attributes like being able to sing high, loud  or fast (regardless of quality) or a Barbie doll figure trump a solid technique.

No we are not going to change the administrators or the agents for that matter.  We singers must change.  We are the custodians of the operatic art form because the voices is what makes opera.  So we must be vocally fit, musically well-trained, focused, intelligent, charming and do our best to keep ourselves physically appealing enough (without selling our souls to the devil) as not to be counted out.
All of these attributes are necessary to sustain a career.  Most important is a constant, honest, balanced reassessment of self.

Are you fit and prepared for what you have to do as a professional opera singer?

© 01/26/2014

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