Kashu-do (歌手道): Short-term Memory and Scientific Sanctimony: A Bad Recipe For Completing the Vocal Rubix Cube

When I took it upon myself to create this blog, I wanted to do something that was never done before– I was already a respected teacher, with a knack for common sense writing, bringing some clarity to the masses on the Rubix Cube that is vocal science. — What I set out to do was to expose the many transition steps that a singer experiences in the difficult process of accomplishing true vocal balance.  I started to write this blog at the onset of my transition from baritone to tenor.  I said back then that I was not a baritone becoming a tenor but rather a tenor who thought he was a baritone.  What kinds of compensatory measures did I use to convince my high level teachers that I was a baritone?  To what degree did I throw my voice out of balance (believing myself to be a baritone–that’s what I was told) in order to fulfill the fallacy that I was a baritone?  More importantly, how long would it take to get my voice to the highest level of balanced function? Also, what do the transition steps look like?

Because this blog has become widely read, it has become the target of a “gotcha'” mentality that exists in social media.  Whenever I put up a clip describing a specific transition step, I will usually receive commentary or emails from some trolls and at times very respected teachers about something they did not like about my clip.  On rare occasions I will put up a link to a performance that I have done to exhibit where I am in the process.  But usually my clips are about how concentrating on one element, brings us to awareness about imbalance in another element.  Like a Rubix Cube, we often have to undo what looks like a finished element to find completion in the whole.  After many rounds of functional analysis and physical growth, I am achieving a sense of balanced completion.  No, not that my voice is finished, but having a sense that I can actually experience my voice with what I perceive of as ideal brilliance, with ideal substance, with a sense of solid support and pressure-less flow with the ability to articulate text with astounding precision.

I reached the 7-year mark in my process last April, and felt I was at a new plateau–A state that promised a path to real refinement.  Not just the ability to sing all the tenor notes with balanced formant resonances but rather achieving a sound in balance that was immediately exciting to the listener and felt centered in my own body (that feeling that I was not fighting myself in any way). While teaching at Kashu-Do’s retreat in Magagnosc, France (magic seems to happen here), my fiancée, herself a singer (and who rarely makes any comments about my voice, except to be encouraging) felt compelled to tell me that she was listening to my practice and it was extra-ordinary. She thought our host (who embodies the most extraordinary tenor voice we’ve heard) had returned from his errands and was surprised it was me.  For the first time she also made a criticism: “as amazing as it sounded I would like to hear the top begin a little gentler!”  I could not agree more!

My fiancée rarely makes comments because she has been one of the witnesses to my development.  She knows my daily practice and what I have had to undo and do to achieve a type of final product (as she heard yesterday).  Comments are often superfluous when you understand the process.  Her own voice has grown wonderfully in the past few years because she too practices daily.  This goes to the core of the issue:  those who have had certain abilities from before they were aware, have a hard time understanding that it can be difficult to achieve true balance.  And so it is easy to pick at a sound quality, concentrating at what they perceive is missing (instead of the organization of the whole) or else picking out a word or sentence in a blog post that offends their own technical ideals.

Many singers I know would rather hold on to the completion of one side of the Rubix Cube rather than undoing it in search of completing the whole!

I feel poised to release what I would consider a reliable top-level professional sound within 2016, because I have gone around the Rubix Cube so many times in literally thousands of practice sessions and tens of thousands of voice lessons making sense of this puzzle.  I have experienced students beginning with weak, uncoordinated voices accomplish just that: top-level professional sounds!  I watch with interest how these singers overcome the Opera World’s illnesses the way they overcome their personal vocal illnesses.

One of the illnesses of our current Opera environment is short-term memory.  Our operatic culture has little memory of what made it great or what makes it great actually.  I cite Nina Stemme here so often because she has a remarkable work ethic, always seeking to better herself vocally, musically, dramatically.  I also applaud Jonas Kaufmann who does not let his fame be a reason for not working hard to improve.  Whether one likes Mr. Kaufmann or not is not the subject.  That his technique and artistic process help him to become more and more reliable and convincing is the more important lesson.  In his late forties he is steal peaking, and that cannot be said of many top professionals today.

It is important to remember the steps of development and not be afraid to lose a little something to achieve something greater.  No we do not throw our voices to the wind at just anyone’s behest.  We take risks with the advice of those who know us and want the best for us and have the skills to guide us properly.  And we avoid the cautionary fears of bystanders and couch-pedagogues, who think they understand us better than our own teams.

Another illness is what I call vocal pedagogy in a box!  I have great respect for vocal science as is evident here, but I have less respect for the process that is employed by vocal scientists and many who claim to have a science-based approach to singing.  There is a real danger in attempting to protect one’s “intellectual property!”  The kind of mentally that says: “I published this ten years ago, so I must defend it even if I discover it is not quite correct”; or the type of mentality that holds on to specific terminology the way religious fanatics quote Bible verses with literal dogma!

For all intents and purposes, I am a writer.  I have written close to 400 blogposts on the subjects of opera and voice, plus hundred of articles on classical singing forums and a few in professional magazines.  What I have learned is this:

 words are limited.  At best they crystalize more complex thoughts.  At worst they reduce complicated subjects to simplistic drivel.

I received a well-meaning comment from a very respected colleague relative to a recent blogpost.  He had issues with my usage of the term “great breath pressure” in relation with operatic singing.  From a theoretical principle of final vocal experience, I do not disagree with my colleague that the use of the term could be misleading.  Yet on the other side, some modern pedagogues (not necessarily my colleague here whom I respect greatly) fail to consider the process of the developing singer who when finally experiencing an organized phonation mode finds the body’s muscular responses to be so much more extreme than s/he ever imagined.  Here in Magagnosc, a young tenor who I instructed to reduce volume but imagine a “fuller voice” had a lightbulb experience when he said:  “That is a lot of breath pressure on my body, but remarkably there is no pressure in the throat.  I feel that my body is working much harder than before but it is as if all sensations in the throat disappeared!”  So the student experience complete glottal closure for the first time and experienced a stronger breath compression than heretofore.  Simultaneously, the full closure was so gentle that efficient trans-glottal flow gave him a sensation of effortlessness in the throat.  Pressure, compression, pressure-flow balance…  It was enough for me that the student articulated in his own terminology a sense of relationship between his breathing and phonation. That will take him further than me insisting he uses a terminology he might find restrictive. It was also important to tell the student that:

“next week, the same experience might feel less effortful on the body as well.  The more developed the coordination, the less effortful it feels everywhere.”

The vocal science community invents new terminology all the time to replace what was considered inadequate before.  Yet, the same people will wave the newly accepted terminology around with the conviction of religious zealots.  For better or for worse, I am a geek, in part.  I love knowledge and I love science.  But I am also a bit of a philosopher.  I do not like to be mentally restricted or restrictive.  Teaching vocal function in a vacuum does more to discredit empirical scientific information than anything else.  For that reason, I have one foot in tradition and one foot in science.  I keep my distance from zealots in both camps.

The Rubix Cube of vocal pedagogy couples empirical information relative to the efficient functions of the vocal apparatus with the uncertain physical and psychological vacillations of the human being who is inhabited by that same vocal apparatus.  The goal is to get the human being to be in synchronicity or better yet in symbiosis with the functional necessities of the apparatus inside of him/her.  For that, we need short and long term memories to understand the steps we took in the process.  This includes understand very well our necessary transitory periods of relative imbalance. For this we also need to be free of sanctimonious shackles of pseudo-science.  Imagery, imagination, even imprecise language sometimes speaks to the student more precisely than correct scientific jargon.

Scientific language, no matter how well-meaning, tends to unfortunately speak to one specific localized function without regard to the singer’s experiences on a global level. yet this in no way gets the traditional teacher off the hook.  In the tradition of the most effective teachers, real knowledge instructs our process.  While we cannot absorb every piece of information out there, it is part of our job as voice teachers to be as informed as possible.  This takes an effort that too few of us are willing to make.

© 11/21/2015