I took it for granted for years that most singers, especially if they have sung for a long time knew the difference between training the voice and the actual process of singing. Lately it has become clear to me, even as I read old posts on this blog, that I always knew that what makes the Kashu-do process different is that “training” in the true sense is at the center of what we do, with the stipulation that training is not singing in the true sense. Practicing volleys at the net in tennis is totally different in timing and even in technique when actually playing a game. The practice helps develop proper reflexes and a sense of how body, racket and ball align whether on your feet or diving for a hard shot down the line.
With singing, there are several fundamental functions that cannot be taken for granted. No singer I have ever worked with, no matter how naturally coordinated has all functions muscularly developed or coordinated in balance.
I have developed specific exercises (soon to be published on my video site) for developing the Vocalis muscle for vocal substance and its partner the Crico-Thyroid for elasticity–they must be developed in tandem; for appropriate fold closure and a sense of flow; for long breath emission without collapsing the dynamic antagonism between muscles of inhalation and exhalation; for optimal resonance space development relative to functions of the muscles of the jaw, tongue and laryngeal stabilizers (thereby developing a sense of vocalic identity); development of efficient consonant articulation relative to optimal resonance; a sense of ideal body alignment relative to stage presence, etc.
These functions can not always be worked together in exercise. In fact a singer cannot be thinking about all these different processes. However, when all the necessary fundamental functions have been exercised and muscularly trained, a singer must learn actual singing coordination. Singing coordination cannot be separated from the music. Indeed the final coordination for singing begins with the imagination. The musical phrase must be sung in the mind before a sound is ever emitted. Music making must be deliberate and specific. In the process of making music we often develop a sense of where the mechanism maybe weak, which in turn gives us a clear clue of how the next training session will go.
In a singing philosophy that does not include “training,” the only remedy for weakness is compensation. By the same token, singing cannot be reduced to training exercises. There must always be a sense of “context.” An exercise cannot be created in a vacuum. It must serve in the development of a total vocal skill. For that reason, I believe all voice teachers must perform. It does not have to be at the highest level, but they must understand what it feels like to sing and what is ultimately needed in terms of skills and strength to sing a short song, a long aria, a role. Whether a small concert, the reading of an entire opera with my students or a coaching session, the process of performing educates how I develop vocal exercises.
Along those lines, I discovered early that great singers have powerful speaking voices, whether they speak softly or loudly. The speaking voices of Christa Ludwig, Simon Estes, Mario Sereni and Piero Cappuccilli in particular stuck with me over the years. I remember how “ordinary” I felt the first time I spoke with Sereni. His speaking voice was so powerful, I thought mine was too ordinary to be an opera singer, even though I had gotten compliments about my speaking voice throughout my life. In truth only recently have I felt the true core of my voice and that it is indeed extraordinary. With that, vocal coordination is so much easier as compared to before I developed “my vocal muscles.”
Paradoxically, everyone’s voice could be developed to sound extraordinary and if it were so, everyone’s voice would become ordinary. Ordinarily developed! Then the criterion for being a great singer would have more to do with music. But imagining everyone developing their native instrument would be the same as imagining everyone developing their bodies to a professional athletic level. And that is the point! A trained voice does not sound any more “normal” than a professional athlete looks physically normal in their task. Yet doing push-ups and jumping rope does not make a great boxer. It prepares the boxer’s body for the skill of boxing.
The training of singing can be very complicated at times, but the process of actually singing has to be a very simple one. The more I train, the simpler the process becomes for me. Singing has become about emitting breath/sound/phrasing/emotion/ideas/harmony in one spontaneous deliberate stroke. The space is already trained! The phonation is already trained! The vowel modifications are automatic and spontaneous! The consonants are articulated efficiently! When a note or passage feels routinely difficult, I ask myself: what aspect of my instrument is lacking strength and what part maybe compensating and creating an imbalance? Then I go to my practice room, work on that weakness and then go back to my “simple process” of singing.
In my high school days, I played soccer (European football). I scored 36 goals. Three as a right-winger and 33 as a center forward. I still remember each one. They were special events and they happened lightning-fast! I had no time to plan. It felt like instinct! I knew when the distance was right and how hard I had to hit the ball to get past the goal-keeper. I knew when to commit right or left to get by a defender, etc. If was always a feeling in the body!
A month ago I spent a week in New York to do a concert with my students and was able to go to my Kung Fu school to train in preparation for my black belt. My teacher said something so wonderful during a Tai Chi session with our more advance members. He said: “At this level, Tai Chi is in the body more than in the brain. You cannot be thinking about what is the next step. Your body should know it and it should know what correctness feels like!” Singing is the same for me. I know what the note should feel like before I sing it. If it does not occur properly, I do not question my instinct. I realize then that my body was not physically tuned enough to produce the sound I was sensing. So I go train. Just like training Kung Fu reveals that my left leg is my weaker standing leg, even tough it is my better kicking leg. I must train that left leg to have better stances in my forms and more weapons at my disposal during sparring sessions. Likewise, I must train different vocal functions so that in the moment of music making I have options and am not locked to “lifting palates” and “lowering larynges”!
As I prepare to teach a 7-day Workshop in France, I keep this thought of balance in mind. When is it time to suggest a training exercise and when is it time to suggest: “Just sing!” Like good Yoga, singing feels differently everyday. But when well trained, like good Yoga, it still feels more or less the same. Because of consistency of process, the daily changes do not feel so foreign. They just feel like different experiences driving the same road home.