On May 29th of this year I passed my Black Sash Test in Kung Fu at the Edgewater Kung Fu Academy. I spent the previous 5 years learning fundamental skills and the last 6 months training hard to really hone in those skills. Yesterday, I celebrated with my fellow Black Sashes at our yearly Black Sash Graduation. The Black Sash Test was truly a challenge and not everyone passed it. It was difficult for some that trained hard the previous 6 months but had not mastered the material well enough to move forward. Our teacher, Sifu Romain, told my class five years ago that Black Sash training began on our first day as White Sashes and that “A Black Sash is a White Sash who never quits!” Setting a goal like that and working hard every day to see it through is something that will serve for the rest of my life! It is also a discipline that has helped me hone in my skills as a singer and definitely as a singing teacher. What is a Black Sash? A First Degree Black Sash is a beginner! Perhaps in a sense we are always beginners, because every level opens a new kind of awareness and wisdom.
THIS USED TO BE THE PRINCIPLE BY WHICH THE GREAT TEACHERS OF THE BEL CANTO FUNCTIONED! YOU STUDIED FOR MANY YEARS BEFORE YOU WERE READY TO BEGIN STUDYING REPERTOIRE!
THAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF KUNG FU/TAI CHI IN MY VOCAL TRAINING
We live in a time of immediate gratification. Children under 3 years old are often babysat by TV screens and Ipads and develop a relationship of immediate gratification from very short video events. This makes our youngest generations mentally wired for very short attention-spans. The Arts and Sports (particularly non-commercial sports) are the last resources we have for teaching traditional values of discipline, process-oriented work and long-term strategic planning.
The Art of Operatic Singing, unfortunately has gone the way of the dinosaurs in the West (where it began)! Extinct! The truly formed voices are coming from Latvia and East. Because Eastern values are compatible with Old School operatic training. Musical training of a profound sort has little place in the conservatories of the West now. Singers for the most part (instrumentalists are different because they must learn to play an instrument outside of their bodies) get a superficial, rudimentary level of preparation in their first few years of study and then they have to play catch up for the rest of their singing lives. The expectations for what we call “operatic singing” are very low today. A pleasant sound is not necessary operatic, but if accompanied by a physically attractive, charismatic personality, it is accepted at the highest levels of opera . A traditional operatic voice is visceral, powerful, and intensely resonant to the ear at close range. Opera is meant to be sung in a large space with an orchestra and no electronic amplification. What is often accepted as operatic today is the equivalent of playing football (soccer) with a balloon, or baseball wit a whiffle ball, or Formula 1 with a go-cart.
REAL OPERATIC SINGING IS INTENSELY PHYSICAL. WHEN ALL MUSCULAR SYSTEMS ARE STRONG, THE VOICE WORKS SEEMINGLY EFFORTLESS, LIKE A POWERLIFTER LIFTING 100 KILOS AS EASILY AS YOU AND I LIFT A BASKET OF CLOTHING.
THAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF KUNG FU/TAI CHI IN MY VOCAL TRAINING. IN KUNG FU, GRACEFUL, FLUID, TENSION-FREE MOVEMENT COMES FROM YEARS OF DEVELOPING APPROPRIATE MUSCLE STRENGTH AND FLEXIBILITY.
The core strength and flexibility I have developed in the last five years of Kung Fu/Tai Chi training have given me the basis that resulted in a successful transition from my false baritone past to my confident tenor present. Kung Fu even helped develop my vocal musculature. When we count our repetitions we are expected to count with a strong, present voice. I, the professional singer, had problems with this when I began five years ago, two years into my baritone-to-tenor transition. Now I am the most authoritative voice there (as it should be, since I am a professional singer) and I can get up and sing the American National Anthem with full operatic resonance for Belt Rank graduations without any concerns and people are impressed every time.
To become a successful and lasting operatic singer is a long road with many challenges. One of our Masters, at graduation yesterday, said the following to the graduating class. I paraphrase:
Becoming a Black Sash is a long process. Your teachers broke the process in many smaller manageable pieces and after years of taking care of the little pieces, your goal of becoming a black sash is a reality. How do you eat an elephant? One small bite at a time!
AN OPERA SINGER HAS A MULTIFACETED LONG-TERM TASK IN FRONT OF HIM/HER. MOST ARE SO OVERWHELMED BY THE MAGNITUDE OF THE TASK THAT THEY DO NOT EVEN WANT TO CONSIDER HOW THEY WILL GET THROUGH IT. INSTEAD THEY SEEK OUT PEOPLE WHO CONVINCE THEM THEY ARE GREAT AS THEY ARE SO THEY DO NOT HAVE TO CONFRONT THE SAD TRUTH THAT THEY ARE NOT YET COMPETENT AND THEY DO NOT SEE HOW THEY CAN EVER MASTER ALL THE SKILLS NECESSARY.
THAT IS PERHAPS THE MOST IMPORTANT REASON WHY KUNG FU/TAI CHI PLAY SUCH AN IMPORTANT PART IN MY VOCAL TRAINING AND TEACHING. WHEN A SINGER (BEGINNER OR PROFESSIONAL) LEARNS THAT A BIG TASK CAN BE BROKEN DOWN TO MANAGEABLE BITS, THEY QUICKLY “LEARN HOW TO LEARN” AND HOW TO PLAN FOR SUCCESS. CONFIDENCE COMES FROM HAVING A VISION OF THE PROCESS OF DEVELOPMENT. WE DO NOT GET THIS FROM OUR CONSERVATORIES AND MUSIC SCHOOLS IN THE WEST ANY MORE. NOT COMMONLY! THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS!
The process for each student is very individual. Although the fundamental skills are the same for all, not every singer comes from the same experiences. Some come with native, genetically pre-disposed strength and environmental conditioning (both good and bad). Others come with great learning skills and and a conditioning for not giving up and persevering. These things must be taken into account when a teacher constructs a process for a student.
Yesterday I received an additional honor that I did not expect. I was honored with the title of Si-Hing, which in our system means I have been elevated to the status of “First level teacher!” As I look forward to continuing a working relationship with the very special Opera Studio at Härnösands Folkhögskola in northern Sweden, I am overjoyed that my colleagues there made Kung Fu and Tai Chi a required part of the curriculum beginning this fall.
In the last year, I have walked down the streets feeling a physical robustness and vigor I have not felt since I was playing football and tennis in my high school years. I feel this vigor also when I sing, as if there is root and grounding to my voice in a way I never had before. I am preparing scenes from the roles of Siegfried and Turiddu and Otello and I feel that all the notes are comfortably there, steady and reliable. And so I went to one of my old teachers to work on ease and lyricism and beauty of tone, a work that did not make as much sense in the past because I had no real physical-vocal core before.
In a sense, I realize that I have accomplished not only my Black Sash in Kung Fu, but if there were a system in Operatic Singing that were similar, I would be getting my first degree Black Sash in Singing: The beginning of the path to true vocal mastery! I achieved a certain level of musical and theatrical mastery years ago, but the voice was not up to that level since among other things I was singing the wrong repertoire. I have not in my vocal life been so excited about any period of development. I will be 50 years old in December and I feel younger than singers 20 years younger than me. It is not a boast, but a realization commensurate with the work I have done in the past 7 years between my own technical theories (incidentally being proven true by current research) and my physical and mental work in Kung Fu/Tai Chi the past five years.
I have so much to write about and I hope I will return here more often to share my experiences with both my students and my own singing.
Black Sash is a beginning! I thank all my teachers both vocal and in Kung Fu for the wisdom they have brought me, which leads me evermore to greater humility. The day after the Black Sash test, we began a new form in preparation for the next test one year from now. In my singing, I began right away to dedicate myself to the process of vocal ease, and beauty of tone and flexibility of expression, which will require more precise balance and trust and courage and patience and faith. We all need guidance and a certain self-determination. In balance!
My eternal gratitude to my Kung Fu Master, Sifu Karl Romain for showing me how Kung Fu relates to every aspect of life:
Kashu-do (歌手道) is The Way of the Singer! Not my way! It is the complete process, the complete technique of which each of us understands a part. In Härnösand, all our students work with all our voice teachers. No one owns any student. We are there for them. Very much like in our Kung Fu school. We learn from all the teachers. Sometimes one specific teacher says things in such a way as to bring clarity to a specific student in ways that another does not. We leave our egos at the door and we do the great, beautiful work of teaching and learning.
I have always aimed to make a difference in my field. But like Kung Fu, the best way to teach is to be an example of what we aspire to for our students. To make a difference we must begin with ourselves. Only then do others who doubt begin to see that the long road difficult road begins with one single first step, and then the next. We need an environment of committed fellow roadies!
One of my colleagues who began around the same time as I did and has been an exceptionally great role model and fellow student was also honored with the title of Si-Hing. He already teaches a few classes at our school.
In a school, there should be common purpose; a philosophy we can all aspire to; a fellowship and support system that takes us through difficult time; a caring for the individual as an integral part of the greater whole. Schools used to be that way! Today rarely! That is why a traditional discipline, like Kung Fu has direct relevance to our art form!
We also need colleagues more advanced than we who inspire us to greater heights! Our Kung Fu school has many of those. Our teachers call themselves fellow students, and they inspire us to reach their heights!
These two especially have been my constant teachers along with my Sifu (Master)! Without their inspiration and encouragement as both my teachers and fellow students, I would not make it to Black Sash! This school is so very special! I am not leaving it, but rather extending the principles I learned there to my new home in Sweden. Kung Fu is not “fighting”! It is a way of life. It means “great skill.” One can have great skill in anything if one approaches that thing with passion, discipline and respect.
Our Ying-Yang symbol is about interdependent parts–Paradox remains my favorite word. This point of arrival is a new point of departure. Tying the Black Sash the first time is both a celebration of an arrival and a preparation for the next part of the longer journey.
Not accepting mediocrity is not a judgement of others but rather an assertion of personal values! If we as singers wish to enjoy our art form in the ways we imagined when we first began, with a sense that anything is possible, we must search deeper in ourselves for the answers we did not get in the course of our studies! I have had great singing teachers throughout my studies. It is not their fault that the systems we went through, even the very best ones, do not meet the rigors of an average martial arts school. It is my believe that we need to use every new technology that is available to us, every possible experience that is accessible today to further the Old School principles that developed great operatic artists. Among these principles are Faith in our destiny, Courage to pursue our dreams and Patience to see our hard work yield fruit!
A Black Sash is a White Sash who never quits