Reflections on Tai Chi and Voice Training
In August of 2015, I attended the Kashu-Do Voice Studios Teacher training and Härnosands Summer Opera Academy and Festival in Härnosand, Sweden. This program was designed by Dr. Jean-Ronald LaFond as an intensive Operatic training camp based on his philosophy of voice training. As Dr. LaFond has stated:
“The aim of Kashu-do (歌手道) Studios is to bridge the gap between where the singer is and where they need to be in order to be viable, marketable and employable. There is no great mystery here, for singers must have certain skills and it takes time to acquire those skills. The greatest lie that is continuously propagated is that talent is a gift. Talent is an inspiration developed by hard work. The singers I love to teach must sing and they will not take no for an answer. Their lives will take many twists but they will stay the course.”
He has based much of his voice teaching philosophy around lessons learned studying Kung-Fu and Tai Chi Chuan, and daily Tai Chi classes for the entire community are a central part of the Opera Academy.
The teacher training that preceded the academy was a week-long intensive that looked into how we as voice teachers effectively assist voice students in their goals while rooting our teaching in a solid foundation of physiological knowledge. There was a general acknowledgement that while there were certain objective elements to be found in voice function, the process of applying complex ideas practically in a voice studio setting could be highly subjective, and that none of us had all the answers. What follows is a reflection on my experiences and lessons learned, not only from my time at the program in Sweden but in my own study of both Tai Chi Chuan and singing.
I am not certain if I was looking for any mind-shattering revelations about singing and voice teaching when I chose to attend a three-week program this past summer built around the intersection of Tai Chi and Operatic Singing. I was perhaps looking more for confirmation of my own instincts as a voice teacher and as a singer who has struggled for years to figure out how to reach my own vocal potential. In sixteen years of voice lessons and ten years as a teacher, I have experienced both triumphs and failures, and I have had both positive and extremely negative experiences working with voice teachers. I have immersed myself in literature to find some sort of objective understanding of the often nebulous terminology we casually throw around in voice studios. And in all of this I have dealt with an all-too-common anxiety about my own skill with which many singers and voice teachers seem to struggle.
It was during a year of studying Tai Chi Chuan, primarily for personal fitness reasons, that I found that the most traditional approaches to teaching Tai Chi Chuan as a physical art are very similar to the old ways of training singers as found in the accounts of the 18th and 19th century Italian schools of singing. In applying these approaches to my own practice and, by extension, to how I encouraged my voice students to develop their technique, I found that there are pedagogical approaches that exist within both traditions that can be very powerful in developing crucial skills.
Day One of Kashu-Do Teacher Training in Nyland, Sweden: The first order of business after Tai Chi and breakfast is to get introduced to each other and our backgrounds. As the only member of the teacher team who had not previously worked with Dr. Jean-Ronald LaFond, I am first. I talk about being one year into a doctoral degree in vocal performance after 8 years teaching and studying in Washington, DC. I speak about the two attempts (one successful) to switch fach from Baritone to Tenor. I mention the fact that I found this program from a Facebook connection after I had taken up Tai Chi in South Carolina primarily to fulfill some personal fitness goals. I am warmly welcomed, but I start to feel a bit out of my depth as the other members of the teacher training program speak about being on contract in European Opera Houses or having 20+ years of teaching and performing experience. One member of the teacher training, Dr. Katherine Osborne, has recently completed her doctoral degree with Scott McCoy as her advisor. There is a consistent theme I pick up on, however: Everyone is completely open about their personal struggles both as singers and teachers, and no one claims to have completely solved them. The mindset is that we are all here to learn from each other in open, frank, discussion.
The rich parallels between Tai Chi Chuan and classical singing are intriguing. For one, the art turns out to be deeper and more complex than most would assume. While the term Tai Chi is often associated in the West with a long, elaborate set of movements, this is only one of five aspects of a rich tradition that is rooted in Chinese philosophy and cosmology. Dan Docherty’s concise description of the art is:
“Tai Chi Chuan is . . . . . .a chuan governed by the changes of Yin and Yang. For martial purposes Yin is soft or indirect, while Yang is hard or direct. Soft is not necessarily better than hard, or vice versa; it’s a matter of using whatever is most appropriate under an existing set of circumstances. . . . . . Beyond this, we need to be able to switch from Yin to Yang or Yang to Yin with ease.”
The five aspects of the art are the hand form (Tao Chuan), pushing hands exercises (Tui Shou), self-defense (San Shou), weapons, and internal strength exercises (Nei Kung). In working through all aspects of this art, students are able to work towards physical and mental well-being. Likewise, singers that seek to maximize their vocal potential need to engage in training that is not always clear to the outsider. Audiences will readily see the finished product of a song or aria, but they are often unaware of the training and exercise that is required to accomplish that one aspect.
Looking toward the requirements of the art, the movements of the Tai Chi hand form demand a sense of “physical legato” in which there is constant connectedness in the slow sequence of movements and a sense of simultaneous stillness and energy. The foundation for the flow of chi, or energy, comes from a sense of rootedness into the earth and a sense of the breath filling into the lower dantien, the area three inches below the navel and three inches into the body. One sees both best practices in posture alignment and breathing in these ideas, elements which easily transfer to critical areas that singers deal with.
Beyond the external parallels, there are internal elements to the art of Tai Chi Chuan that offer perspective on the challenges singers face. In the world of Chinese Martial Arts, Tai Chi Chuan is categorized as belonging to the Nei Jia Chuan, or the internal family of martial arts. This means, among other things, that the sequence of movements that encompasses the Tai Chi form, and even the other four aspects, are considered a means to an end, not necessarily an end in and of itself. Those that practice Tai Chi Chuan are in the end working towards a sense of mental and physical stillness that have applications in fighting and self-defense as well as in general well-being. In martial application, the theory is that a peaceful mindset is crucial in self-defense situations. If one panics, then it is easy to lose the advantage. On the other hand, an individual who is able to maintain a clear head in these situations is able to yield to and redirect an opponent’s energy in a way which will end the conflict quickly. Doing this often requires doing the opposite of what a panicked instinct would suggest, and this can only be accomplished through disciplined mental training. It is for this reason that one of the foundational exercises in Tai Chi is the standing meditation, where the goal is simply to stand in wu chi stance, close one’s eyes, and quiet the mind. Students are encouraged to make their goal to be able to do this for thirty minutes.
While the act of singing is not a self-defense situation, there are useful lessons to be learned from the way martial artists train both mentally and in terms of muscular coordination. Dr. LaFond refers to opera singers “doing battle” with orchestras:
“The Opera singer is a special vocal athlete. The fact that someone can make a pretty vocal sound does not mean they are ready to do battle with an operatic orchestra, without a microphone. The Opera singer must win this fight every time. This incredible battle is won by a singer’s innate acoustic superiority in relation to the orchestra, providing the singer is using all the resources available to him/her. Though this superiority depends on acoustic law, the muscles of the throat and of the respiratory system must be strong enough to generate and transform the powerful compression of air inside the lungs into an acoustical energy of a very specific kind.”
In the context of Opera in particular, it is true that singers are training to reach the pinnacle of what the human voice can accomplish without electronic amplification. To accomplish this requires training one’s mind and body into the opposite of what natural instinct suggests. While one is aiming to focus the flow of energy in the form of air vibrations in such a way that maximizes sound output, this is done in high pressure situations that can cause the unprepared performer to become paralyzed by nervous instinct.
It doesn’t take much to acknowledge what often seems like the utter absurdity of what the trained singer is asked to do. They must be relaxed, yet energized. They must sing soft dynamics that project. And the highest level singers are asked to be completely open and vulnerable when performing, yet operate in a business environment that requires a thick skin.
Days Two through Five of Teacher Training: There has been rich, open discussion in both formal and informal settings on everything from the physiology of vocal function to the current environment in European opera houses. Ron LaFond and Dr. Osborne have facilitated discussion regarding some recent research regarding the vibrating surface of the vocal fold; an understanding that in many ways reconciles longstanding debates between advocates of “top down training,” “bottom up training,” and “middle out training,” while adding new dimension to the old Italian concept of “chiaroscuro.” I find this reflective of the philosophy that underpins our Tai Chi exercises each morning before breakfast; we must find a point of relaxation and energy that is not a compromise between the two seemingly opposing concepts, but the simultaneous presence of those two elements.
Beyond the daily discussions, it is during the morning standing meditation that I am confronting the roots of my own challenges. We are encouraged to relax and “be” during the meditation, but this becomes difficult as I’m determined to do things “right.” The two goals seem at cross purposes, as an over-determination to “make” the right result happen results in undue tension which prevents that result. My own approach to singing has fallen into the same pitfall time and again.
The underlying philosophies of the Chinese martial arts school, or gwan, demand an environment conducive to attentive, detail oriented learning. In my work at the Columbia Tai Chi center for the year prior to the singing program in Sweden, I was introduced to an environment that balanced respect for more experienced students with the understanding that on a certain level, everyone is a student and has room for improvement. The philosophy of Wu De demands that students repeat what they are given to work on until they are given something new; it is considered inappropriate to demand new material from one’s teacher. The result is an approach toward learning the art that is very slow, yet highly effective in building a solid foundation for the art. In my personal work, certain moves in the forms have required repetition, correction, and repetition for months before I was allowed to move on to the next part. The approach has been known to frustrate students, but those who have had the patience realize the value in the end. Sifu Wes Adams, the owner and head instructor at the Columbia Tai Chi center, acknowledges the difficulty for students and often jokes that it is a small miracle he stayed in business with the often excruciatingly slow approach he takes to teaching the art.
Additionally, the basic exercises in developing Tai Chi Chuan are considered critical to success in the art. It is often said that anyone who has become a master of the art has at some point gone back to the most basic fundamentals reworked them, sometimes for a span of years. It is not uncommon during instruction to have a group of students that span multiple levels of experience all spend a significant period of time on fundamental skills such as basic stances or forward walking. No one who studies the art is considered too good to go back and revisit the basics.
Teachers of singing face this same dilemma; those of us who have spent time studying the physiology and reading the literature know that real vocal change and development takes time. The legends of our tradition acknowledge the fact; we have the disputed story of Nicola Porpora giving the castrato Cafarelli one page of exercises to work on for six years and then dismissing him with the statement that he was at that point the “greatest singer in Europe.” Additionally, accounts of European conservatory training in the 17th through 19th centuries emphasize an almost militaristic approach to musical training in general. Given the knowledge we have in the modern age coupled with the tradition, it seems that the raw repetition of certain fundamentals should be a cornerstone of vocal development in aspiring singers. We are, however, expected to often deliver rapid results in the form of public performances. The tension between offering good training and achieving business success is a palpable one.
Day Eight, the end of Teacher Training and the beginning of the Opera Academy: With the voice teachers relocated to Härnosands Folkhogskola and fifty more students added to the mix, things are much bigger and busier. Dr.LaFond addresses the large group at the Tai Chi class before breakfast, and states that above all, this is the most important element of the program in terms of bringing our community together each day. After Tai Chi, breakfast, and announcements, the event affectionately referred to as “Death by Aria” commences. Every student at the academy gets up and sings something. I am with the teachers furiously taking notes on what I am hearing, but over the course of the day I am floored by certain performances. A young tenor decides to attempt “Mes amis,” and does quite well. Another individual is incredibly nervous in front of the group and then proceeds to floor us with a stunning lyric rendition of a Lied. The Academy participants run the gamut; some are post-high school students at the Folkhogskola, some are active professionals in Europe, and some are community amateurs. There is no pretense that any one singer is more “worthy” than another, but instead a shared goal of everyone finding improvement during the program.
Martial Arts and Singing have both had their share of contentious arguments in terms of best practices and pedagogical approaches. Singing has perhaps had the easier time, due to the fact that there has been less opportunity for these disagreements to erupt into physical violence. Nonetheless, both arts deal with long histories full of unverifiable legends and descriptive vocabulary developed from empirical practice prior to the advent of modern scientific understanding.
How to retain the integrity of the art while adapting to a modern environment remains a challenge for both Tai Chi Chuan and Singing. Some teachers will hold fast and hard to a single technique or approach while dismissing others and lamenting the impending death of the art. Others will do their best to carve out a middle ground. Sifu Adams, in discussing small and large differences between approaches in Tai Chi Chuan, has said that correct question to ask when dealing with these conflicts is not “what are they doing,” but “why are they doing what they are doing?” Understanding the root problems that differing techniques are trying to address can bring about common ground, and ultimately results in better experiences for students. This inquisitive and flexible approach seems to spring from the philosophies inherent in the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, and is seen in the outlook presented by Dan Docherty. In looking at both the history and modern practice of the art, he comes to an interesting conclusion:
“The majority of Tai Chi Chuan practitioners only practise a few aspects of the art, and in most cases are also only aware of a few, and this applies to Chinese and non-Chinese alike. Furthermore, despite claims to the contrary, no-one alive today is practising precisely the art that Yang Lu-Chan brought with him to Beijing around 1852. Since that time, successive generations of teachers have added to, and just as often have subtracted from the art; moreover in many cases the additions have been as detrimental as the subtractions. Nevertheless we must accept that any art, if it is to thrive, must develop and change to fit the circumstances of the society in which it exists.”
In the long and storied history of singing and teaching singing, there are the same desires for both integrity within our tradition and adaptability to the modern environment. Voice teaching communities would do well to take a lesson from Tai Chi Chuan and see that it is possible to maintain a tradition while acknowledging the changes that occur over time.
The Summer Opera Academy in Härnosand seemed to embrace the idea of different perspectives in pursuit of the same goal in the way student lessons were structured. Over the course of the two week academy, each student took lessons with four different teachers. In setting up voice lessons this way, students were able to gain a multitude of perspectives in a short period of time. The result was that each student was indeed able to grow and learn over the course of the two-week intensive.
The End of the 2015 Opera Academy: The two weeks became so hectic that it became difficult to summarize every single day. I taught lessons to eight different students and took lessons myself with four different teachers. I sang in three student concerts, one teacher ensemble concert, and a public masterclass with George Shirley. I found that my own approach to singing changed, but importantly, I began to feel more comfortable in my own skin as both a performer and a teacher. I had started teacher training feeling like the least of the teachers, but during the Academy I had a number of participants tell me in casual conversation that I had (somehow) managed to tell them and others exactly what they needed to hear at certain times. In a practical sense, the daily routine of exercise, breakfast, practice, rehearse, teach, etc. left me feeling that the two-week academy had truly embodied Wu Chi and Tai Chi, stillness and movement, in that during those days I had felt very internally peaceful despite a packed schedule. Moreover, the community I had worked with over the three weeks felt like a new-found family. Since returning to my work in South Carolina, I have continued to correspond with my fellow teachers and students from Härnosands Opera Academy, not hesitating to check in if I have a question about a student I am working with or a struggle in my own singing. The experience changed me, and continues to do so.
Docherty, Dan. Complete Tai Chi Chuan. Crowood, 1997.
LaFond, Dr. Jean-Ronald. “Kashu-Do: The Philosophy.” <http://www.kashudo.com/kashu-do-philosophy>. Accessed 12-8-2015.
For more information about Kashu-do Teacher Training and Härnösand Summer Opera Academy and Festival, please visit www.kashudo.com