The Larynx: High, Low, Depressed…What’s Right?

I have a very close colleague who often says a low larynx helps in the achievement of a rectangular fold posture. In my experience, this is true. Achieving a low larynx seems to induce activity in the TA (Thyro-Arytenoid) muscle pair responsible for deeper fold closure, resulting in what is called rectangular fold posture (if the ability for deep fold closure is already trained). First let us define rectangular fold posture!

For a given pitch, the folds may take on three possible shapes:

  1. Convergent: /\ (each side of the /\ represent the vertical edge of each vocal fold meeting at the upper edge).
  2. Rectangular: | | (in this simple model, the two vertical lines represent separated fold edges, which would look like one vertical line when they come together).
  3. Divergent: \/ (each side of the \/ represent the vertical edge of each vocal fold meeting at the lower edge).

The different modes of phonation relate to different states of balance of the vocal struggle (lotta vocale, in traditional Italian technique) between the two main muscle groups (the Crico-Thyroid or CT and Thyroid-Arytenoid or TA). Convergent suggests that the CT group overpowers the TA such that the folds do not meet at the deeper vertical aspect. Rectangular suggests that the muscles achieve some level of balance (note that the deep closure of the folds does not guarantee ideal posture of the CT because the third leg of the phonation triangle is fold closure. More on this later). Divergent suggests that the TA group has overtaken the CT group to the point that the folds do not meet on the upper edge (nevertheless the folds are being stretched but the deepening is exaggerated).

For a given pitch (Fundamental Frequency), the folds are expected to vibrate a specific number of times per second, releasing a specific number of compressed puffs of air every second that strike ambient air molecules, which by a domino effect end up striking our eardrums at exactly that frequency. If the rate of vibration is 440 pulses per second we hear the pitch A4 (middle voice for female singer, high voice for male singer). That note may be sung in many different ways. From a fundamental acoustic point of view, that pitch depends on how much mass participates in the vibration and how much tension there is on that mass. Imagine a violin’s E-string! It is called an E-string because that is its optimum vibratory state when it is tensed appropriately on the violin. But if it is loosened, it will be lower in pitch and if it is tensed too much it will rise in pitch. But its mass is constant. The fundamental difference of the vocal folds as a pitch making instrument is that the vocal mechanism can set itself up in many different configurations that vary the amount of vibrating mass and the tension on that mass.

There is an ideal tension and mass for a given pitch!

If we take the simple model of a triangle, there are three parameters on fold posture that determine a given pitch: CT stretching the folds, TA resisting the tension of the stretch and the amount of pressure (Inter-Arytenoid muscles or IA for medial pressure) that the folds apply to each other depending how hard they are made to close (loose, balanced or pressed). In balanced fold closure, the breath compression applied below the folds is released in the production of sound and does not effect the balance of the phonation triangle (in an ideal world. Vocal balance is always in flux). Pressed or loose phonation have a direct impact on how much mass (amplitude) will participate in the vibration since it would impact directly on the amount of time it takes the folds to open and close, which would affect the number of times the folds vibrate each second (the very determinant of pitch).

Simply put, stretch, mass (resistance to the the stretch), fold closure, and breath pressure determine pitch.

I will not deal with the change of mass relative to chest and head voice in this post. I will address this at a later time. However I needed to explain phonation in such a way that we understand that the height of the larynx is not necessarily a function that is independent of fold posture. In an ideal, balanced fold posture, breath pressure/flow would be balanced and the natural weight of the larynx would cause it to achieve its natural, at-rest depth. A pressed phonation mode would cause the larynx to rise out of its at-rest depth and require an additional force to keep it low. The result at the extreme, is an “unsubtle cracking.” We usually accomplish this with the tongue root. A loose phonation would not obstruct the desired depth of the larynx but unfortunately the tone would be dull, lacking in the necessary resistance to the airstream to create a strong sound and would require compensation from outside forces to keep the folds from totally falling away from each other resulting in a “gentle cracking!”

A divergent or convergent fold posture has less available vibrating mass. The tendency in those phonation modes is pressed voice (deeper medial pressure of the folds against each other) to make up for the lost mass. Pressed voice does not always sound as labored as we are used to hearing it. A singer who is aware of the discomfort associated with the pressure of the breath below the excessively adducted folds can release the air pressure by loosening the closure at the back of the folds creating a gap, while simultaneously keeping the excessive adduction along the rest of the folds. The larynx will remain raised from its natural depth but the emission might not sound so extremely forced. It takes experience to hear the difference. The amount of volume/power (sound pressure level) the singer uses will have an effect on the sound since greater volume requires an increase in mass (think of the violin’s bow addressing the string more deeply! The bow becomes a part of the vibrating mass).

Furthermore, the singer’s speaking habits come into play. If the singer speaks with a raised or depressed larynx and/or a loose or pressed closure mode, maintaining ideal posture in singing (even if the singer can identify such balance) will be difficult. Many singers find it difficult to retrain their speaking voice (if it is unbalanced) to match their more balanced singing voices.

My personal experience is that it is better to teach the singer a balanced (i.e. rectangular) phonation posture first before addressing refinements of the open throat. This requires closure along the entire upper edge of the folds and along the entire vertical aspect of the same, which gives both brilliance and richness to the tone (chiaro e scuro–brightness and darkness not either or). Once this is achieved, one can deal with the subtle laryngeal adjustments necessary relative to vowel acoustics. Naturally, the larynx has to be addressed in the case that it is extremely raised.

This discussion should make a singer think:

Wow! This is complicated!

Indeed, it is not easy! I do not need to say how much illnesses that cause inflammation of the vocal folds (e.g. allergies, reflux, gluten for gluten-intolerant singers, etc) would affect fold mass and flexibility.

Blessed are those who come into singing with a relatively balanced set-up. But it is also supremely important to listen to our vocal heroes with a bit of objectivity.

They were/are not Gods!

Even the best of them did not fully understand their instruments. They were always searching for the ideal! This Pavarotti?

Or this one?

To my ears, the difference is not subtle. There are strong opinions about the young Pavarotti and the difference that began to emerge in the mid 70s. You judge. It does not make him a less great singer but how was the sound experienced by listeners who heard both versions? I only heard the later Pavarotti in the 80s. So I cannot really judge, except for the videos. I prefer the earlier version.

One of my favorite bass-baritones ever!

But does the taking on of lower bass parts over the years force an unconscious search for darker colors?

Possibly? Still one of the most exciting male voices I ever heard at the MET throughout his career. But I must say, I prefer the earlier sound. I was a Ramey groupie in my earliest singing days and heard both versions. One may argue that age darkens the voice. But how do we tell a deepening of the voice from the strength to handle greater volume (i.e. mass) and a slightly depressed larynx?

Arguably one of the most beautiful soprano voices in our art form’s recorded history:

1959 studio recording

It seems Tebaldi was always looking for a balance between “velvet and steel.”

1960s

I would say the first version is more velvety and the second steelier. Perhaps the effect of live performance vs studio recording! However, the difference is notable and the vacillation between the two is heard throughout her career. Some say she was inconsistent. Well she, like these previous great singers, was HUMAN. Not a goddess! The steely version sounds to me as if she was struggling with “relaxing the throat.” Laryngeal position seems slightly higher. As explained above, balance is global! A steelier production (medial pressure) can have an adverse effect on laryngeal flexibility if exaggerated.

One of the most celebrated mezzos ever began her career as a soprano:

1962

Did her change to mezzo have an effect on how she thought about timbre (and therefore the depth of the larynx)?

1983

Beautiful either way! But was her larynx high in the Bohème clip? I think not! But others might have a different opinion. Or we may ask another question! Does her search for laryngeal depth required a bit of help from her tongue root, as discussed above? (Note, I am not saying that Horne was a soprano by nature. Many singers have played around with different voice categories. Indeed some singers can be viable in different repertoire that might seem extreme today.)

One more tenor, because this example is very interesting. This is my favorite clip of this great tenor:

1983

The low larynx (la gola aperta–open throat) became the fundamental aspect of Giacomini’s technique as expressed from interviews regarding his technique. The necessity of a low larynx (appropriate to the given singer) is a scientific fact relative to operatic singing. The question is one of measure. Did Giacomini go too far?

2006

This does not take away from the proven fact that this man was one of the great tenors of recorded opera. But it is worth listening to the progression of his career from the 1969 live recording of him singing Cavalleria to his latest concerts at an advanced age in the first decade of the 21st century. More than 40 years singing! Is it necessary to work on opening a throat that is already open? Yes! If not for anything, to help the singer understand the correct measure, so they don’t go too far. Between Pavarotti and Giacomini, we see two interpretations of the open throat. Pavarotti began in the early 1960s with what seemed a very balanced voice but he migrated towards a slightly higher larynx. Giacomini’s fully formed recording of the 1980s as a starting point finds the tenor seeking greater depth. I could theorize on a number of reasons why (That could be a point of discussion in the comments section) but I will stop here. I’d be interested to know your preferences and why!

©27 February 2021

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An Operatic Rapture Is At Hand! And It Is Necessary!

The musical world panicked at the announcement that Columbia Artists Management, Inc. (CAMI for short) has seized operations as of the end of August 2020. One of the most influential players in the world of opera (indeed of classical music in general) CAMI was assumed to be one of those entities that was too big to fail. The dissolution of CAMI (it is conceivable that some of the individual agents might return post-COVID) is a signal for many of a sort of Operatic Armageddon. Even in biblical terms, Armageddon is understood as a sort of cleansing! With all the empathy that I feel for fellow singers and musicians, I have been writing on this blog for over 10 years about the unsustainable nature of the operatic business model as it has been since the 1990s. I’ve always said that a correction would be at hand. The pandemic revealed how fragile that structure has been and how even top artists became vulnerable at the height of the pandemic.

I often point to the success of The Three Tenors as an event that determined the realities we are now living. Before The Three Tenors became superstars, Opera, like Ballet, and Classical Theater, were specialty art forms, that were distinguished by high-level skills requiring years to hone in. After the fame of The Three Tenors reached meteoric levels, pop singers began covering the tenors’ hit arias and songs. For worse, arias like Nessun dorma became as much pop music repertoire as they were classical, as is evident in variety talent shows like America’s Got Talent and others. On the heels of The Three Tenors’ success, The Three Sopranos emerged, followed by The Irish Tenors, 10 Tenors, Il Divo, 3 Mo’ Tenors and others. From this crossover mania, Andrea Bocelli became the ultimate incarnation. Unfortunately, the paying public made no distinction between Bocelli as a pop singer singing operatic music and a bona fide opera singer. To add insult to injury, many people responsible for the casting of opera singers did/do not understand the difference either.

The popularity of The Three Tenors crossover concerts (done in large arenas with microphones) was not discussed at the time. The usage of microphones in those situations paradoxically made those events fundamentally non-operatic! Why?

The ability of the opera singer to be easily audible without a microphone in the presence of a large orchestra is not only a question of audibility! The vocal setup that produces that kind of audibility also produces a sound that is close to a primal utterance that impacts the listener emotionally. It is not an accident that The Singer’s Formant has the same frequency range as the acoustics of the human inner ear. In other words, when the microphone replaces natural resonance, it also removes the primal utterance that would impact the listener emotionally.

The popularity of The Three Tenors inspired interest in opera among a large number of young singers around the world. In the United States, for example, the number of schools offering operatic training increased exponentially, but unfortunately without the quality that serious performance schools had offered. Thus, every year for the past 30 years, instead of hundreds, tens of thousands of young operatic aspirants graduated from music schools, with the hope of achieving operatic stardom, like The Three Tenors and Renée Fleming, the first soprano to emerge with pop star status. Netrebko and Kaufmann followed.

This pop star model unfortunately took the model of the pop world. Public relations teams begin to crown every new singer as the second coming instead of allowing them to be raised to popularity by the audience’s response. The singer’s physical appearance became as important (in some cases more important) than the vocal-musical-theatrical talent. Lastly, the rise of the pop star opera singer ran parallel with the rising dominance of the Internet and digital musical consumption. When opera companies can make more on an HD Simulcast in movie theaters than they can make from a week or even a month of ticket sales in the opera house, the importance of the opera house itself became reduced in the minds of general directors more concerned with their financial bottom line than the quality of opera experienced in the house.

The result is a small number of pop-star opera singers traveling all over the planet to present their limited repertoire. Therefore the repertoire that is experienced in the opera house is extremely reduced and worse, hundreds of thousands of aspiring young singers, unprepared for the ever-changing nature of the new market, are left without hope.

In summary, hundreds of thousands (instead of hundreds) of new operatic aspirants came into a system that does not make a clear distinction between real opera and popera (short for Pop-opera)! Those hundreds of thousands became the target of a worldwide opera business. Since schools do not prepare these singers for the business they embarked on, private voice teachers, repetiteurs (pianist-coaches), stage-directors, pilates teachers, Alexander Technique and Feldenkreis teachers, Yoga teachers, photographers, fitness coaches, business coaches, all, became the private experts that young operatic aspirants would consult in order to fill in the gaps left by inadequate operatic training.

The unforeseen byproduct is that hundreds of thousands of potential opera audience members became singers themselves, usually giving up on their operatic dreams with such bitterness that they would not return to the opera house as audience members. The passionate amateur, who would have been an operatic patron, became a disillusioned operatic failure who distances himself/herself from the operatic field altogether.

It is not by accident that the Viennese newspaper, Wienerzeitung, came out with this article, which essentially indicts an operatic hierarchy that concentrates great wealth on top-tier singers, while ignoring the excellent lower tier singers, who often are more viable in the theater than their star colleagues. Another recent article (cannot find it at the moment) reports that 75% of classical musicians in the UK are considering leaving the field altogether.

That 75% of classical musicians should leave the profession is not an emergency. It is a correction! A correction of an ill-conceived model based on the totally different art forms of popular music and cinema.

If Popera is a lasting newly emerged art form, then let it develop! However, it must be distinguished from the art of opera, which is based on aesthetics that are totally different.

The reality is that a great time commitment is required to become a viable opera singer. Not many people can commit the time to it that is necessary! There are enough jobs for the thousands of bona fide opera singers worldwide. However, the hundreds of thousands should be happy, passionate amateurs, who participate in excellent community productions in their cities and populate the audiences of their regional opera houses.

The rapture is here! It is not something to fear. It is a correction of excesses that have emerged in our field over recent decades.

© 1 September 2020

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Knowing and Doing Are Two Different Things

In one of these insomniac nights, as I walked home from a midnight walk on the beach, I was reminded of something my tennis coach said to me back around 1981:

“You understand the techniques of the serve so clearly! But your body is not yet in the shape it needs to be to execute what your brain has already figured out! Give it time! “

I had my first tennis lesson a few hours before I had my very first voice lesson in the summer of 1981. Towards the end of the summer, I had developed a very fast and elegant serve but it was inconsistent. When I was in the zone, I defeated the top player at the club. When I was not, I lost to a very weak and defensive player in the finals of our youth tournament that same summer.

Coach was so right! And I see singers struggling with:

“Why can’t I get this consistently?”

The disconnect is the following:

  1. Your brain is faster than your body. When you think you understand a concept, most likely you really do! But the fact that you understand what you want does not mean your body is ready to execute consistently.
  2. Because your brain has figured it out, your body is trying everything it can to catch up. Every repetition is building the engram (the mental pathway) that constitutes a new memory, a new muscle memory, a new habit! Hundreds, if not thousands of conscious repetitions are needed to build a permanent mental pathway for a given physical activity.

Therefore, it is necessary to repeat with trust even when the results do not happen. Permanent habits take time! The body needs many repetition to build true coordination and muscular strength in balance.

Unfortunately, students stuck in a need for immediate gratification do not give their bodies time to catch up with their brain. Babies get frustrated too. I watched my son cry as an infant when he got frustrated because he could not pick up his cup to drink from. But I watched him laugh when he tried to walk as a toddler and fell on his ass. Frustration and excitement for a new skill are the emotional Ying-Yang of physical development. The key is not to abandon the vision!

What does success look like?

My Kung Fu teacher often asks us that question! “Eyes on the prize!” He often says. Vision! Imagination! That is the key to success! You have to imagine it before it becomes a reality. The way the mind-body relationship works confounds human beings who lack vision. We are so powerful, yet so impatient to allow our visions to manifest into reality. Our need for magic, the genie in the bottle, the magic wand, the immediate gratification, leads us to abandon our vision and seek some momentary tangible short-term solution.

A pianist practiced since childhood many hours a day and developed great skills only to forget how s/he developed those skills. That same pianist in adulthood has no patience for a student who appears not to have achieved those skills because perhaps s/he began later.

The acquisition of skill is not only a brain-body relationship. The fundamental relationship is indeed so simple but the obstacles are emotional and they are engrams too. The anger, frustration, and self-deprecation that comes, when the result is not immediate, cannot be ignored. In the process of training anyone, we come face to face with their raw psyche, their open wounds!

The singer’s psychic awareness plays a great part in whether they succeed or not. We must be conscious of our psychic wounds, acknowledge them and then say:

“Get out of my way! I have a job to do!”

Or as my Kung Fu teacher often says: “Talk to the fear! Tell it ‘Thank you for sharing Then focus on the job at hand!” What brings true and lasting results is vision and a commitment to the same. In tennis, the facts of technique are the facts! And as my coach said, I understood a lot very quickly. But my body needed to figure it out and my psychic baggage needed to be processed, whether fear, lack of confidence, etc.

The “facts” are not enough, because they change with time!

Almost a decade ago, we discovered that the Crico-Arytenoid muscle, the lengthening muscle, also called The Pitch Muscle, in some cases is synergistic (resistant to TA activity as opposed to actively contracting). It maintains a stasis while the Thyro-Arytenoid contract to create longitudinal tension. Thus the idea that the head voice is CT- dominant is a fallacy, but the jargon persists in vocal pedagogy circles because the concept is easier to grasp.

And we should consider the Bel Canto in this way. The easy jargon does not represent the complexity of the philosophy!

Fold tautness increase F0 (raises the pitch) not necessarily fold length. One of my favorite voice scientists, Dr. Zhang Zhaoyan (featured on this blog before) gives us this piece of research, which I will address in a near future blog. He also refers to this other piece of research by Doellinger, based on an in vivo canine larynx that confirms that outside of fry-voice, (also called pulse phonation) where the TA is unopposed by CT, the interaction between the two muscles (modal phonation) is fundamentally TA-dominant. Other studies also show that the best coordination for higher F0’s in modal production (which what we do in classical singing) is fundamentally TA dominant.

It is the tautness of the folds that increase pitch levels, not increased length. In a TA-CT dynamic, shorter and tauter folds yield higher pitches with deeper fold contact contact and lower sub-glottal pressure.

Dr. Zhang’s paper puts us in a philosophical quandary. But a welcome quandary! Scientific study makes our understanding of vocal function more and more complete and complicated. But the traditional experience of singing remains in a way simpler.

Head and Chest are still very relevant!

The fundamental experience of the singing voice in classical singing is even today based on the definitions of Head voice and Chest voice. But science gives us a way to define the complexity in the simplicity. Phonation involves three closure mechanisms (also called flesh points) as we discussed, regarding the paper by Ingo Titze that we analyzed recently. Mechanisms A, B, and C represent the three closure flesh points. Chest voice is made up of A and B (see future blog) and Head voice is made up of B and C. B is the dynamic mechanism that is often not considered in a binary model. A coupled tertiary model is a lot more accurate although the singer can experiences the voice in a binary fashion.

Yet A+B and B+C are simplistic ways of explaining proprioceptive experiences. A well-produced tone (the so-called rectangular posture) includes closure at all three flesh points but the way we might experience chest voice might be localized.

Is it possible that the inferior aspect of the vocal folds comes to slightly firmer contact in chest voice? The logic based on the science reflects that. Is this function felt through bone conduction in the chest? Also logical. Where is posterior closure felt? And is the mask sensation related to closure on the anterior-superior quadrant?

These are important questions to answer and perhaps we will have answers through measurements of fold contact that do not require painful electromyography that requires inserting needle electrodes into the intrinsic laryngeal muscles (ILMs).

In essence, the facts explain more and more accurately the possible completeness of our proprioceptive experiences. But because the facts expand as we learn more, it would be a mistake to adhere to what we imagine are “finite” facts!

The trap we fall into (I am guilty of this too) is to imagine that we can figure out a method that covers everything.

The facts we know are crucial and the more sophisticated the scientific discoveries the better. They will serve not only to explain our proprioceptive experiences but also guide us to understand what we have ignored proprioceptively. Yet, we may have sensory experiences that are so clear that science has not yet made sense of. Are they worth exploring? Of course!

Singing technique is as incomplete as life itself. We come to this life with an incomplete map! Those were the words of my college philosophy teacher, Dr. Bob!

In singing, there will always be theories in an effort to make sense of the uncharted regions. To ignore them is to be lost without knowing it!

Trust and confidence are essential to performance! Thus we must decide what pieces of information we will value above others. Those constitute our methods!

But absolute certainty is the opposite of living and just another way of hiding from the uncertainty that is the true nature of being human.

Our subconscious, as soprano Laura Aiken suggests, holds many answers that are not accessible on the conscious level. We are only beginning to study this in Western science in a way that does not have to do with psychological disorder.

And so I close as I began. My tennis coach spoke a great wisdom! The concept of time itself, which is being pondered by scientists, plays a crucial part in the harmony to be found between vision (imagination, inspiration) and physical manifestation of the desired skill. Will be become conscious of the non-linear nature of time, as scientists are suggesting? If so, will we find the answer to the immediate understanding if time indeed is non-linear? Lots to ponder!

In the end, the experience of development is the greatest adventure in life and in singing. Apparent shortcuts only prevent us from becoming truly trained, truly wise, truly artistic.

© 11 June 2020

In Opera, Nothing is Sacred

“What is musicality anyway? The composer is dead. We should be able to do whatever we want with his music…”

That inane buccal diarrhea, followed by some other drivel, from someone who is supposedly a trained opera singer, was enough to make me leave a social media group that I created. Right now, I would prefer to finish a rather important blog about Vitamin D that I began a week ago. But I could hardly sleep last night after the sheer self-important arrogance of that statement forced me to reflect on the artistic environment that we are in and how it may very well be contributing to the quasi apocalyptic anarchy we face with a pandemic, racial riots and great democracies like the United States in peril of becoming a dictatorship, led by equally self-important narcissists attempting to cancel our civil liberties, using the pandemic as an excuse.

Normally, I would have dismissed this pathetic statement as the ramblings of some unfortunate who did not receive a proper music education, but the brazenness of that statement was made more shocking by the assertion of the performer’s needs for self-aggrandizement to be so important that the composer becomes literally insignificant. Just a tool for the performer’s need to “feel important”:

Why should we repeat what everyone has done? We need to feel important!”

We’ve already seen this in Regietheater! Stage directors who have an economic emergency in needing to make their production of Die Zauberflöte stand out among 20 other productions in a 50 square kilometer area of Germany will purposefully desecrate a theater piece to incite shock value and lure an audience that is curious about reports of theatrical scandal–As significantly different from serious theatrical experimentation.

It’s lazy! It’s desperate! And on some cases it is sheer incompetence…

… from stage directors who do not have the minimum amount of musical training to understand that the dramatic argument of an opera is in great part dictated by the composer through harmony, rhythm, program music, atmospheric interludes and even a measure of choreography.

A generation ago, a popular movie was made on the legendary figure of Mozart and his fictitious rivalry with his contemporary Antonio Salieri, based on the popular play by Peter Shaffer. In the following clip, Salieri describes in very poetic rapture the simplicity yet almost superhuman feat that was Mozart’s composition:

A generation ago, we were still awe-inspired by the power of great musical masterpieces. That was the generation when I became a musician and when it was still the norm that a great classical vocal performance was judged by the singer’s ability to make sense of the composer’s notes and use an advanced vocal technique to bring that music and it’s specific structure to the fore.

What liberties do we have relative to a musical score?

We know for instance music from the baroque through the first half of the 19th century, at least in Italian music, was ornamented. Performers were expected to play or sing variations (ornamentations) on repeated sections, etc. Yet, as a blockflötist, I can ornament the music of Telemann or Handel or Vivaldi at sight. But I dare not do that so much with the music of Bach.

But why not Bach?

I’ll use one reason among many: Harmonic Rhythm. Harmonic changes in Telemann, Handel, Vivaldi and most baroque composers are periodic. Sometimes one harmony per measure, sometimes two. With Bach, there could be 5 or 6 or chromatic changes and equivocal harmonies within a harmonic period. To be able to ornament this music, it would be necessary at time to compose an altogether different line of music that followed Bach’s intricate counterpoint. To ornament Bach the way one does Telemann would be the equivalent of jazz improvisation without knowing the changes.

  1. What this so-called musician does not understand is that the importance of the performer is made manifest in the uniqueness of their personality and physical make-up. That ten performers singing the same aria or song would never sound the same to begin with. Just on a physical level! The physical ability to sing what is in the score is already a great feat that different singers will experience differently. Not every singer has the same strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Using the rules of harmonic hierarchy, 10 singers can find ten viable solutions to the shape of a phrase, without having to violate the structure of the composition.
  3. The text has been already set by the composer, but depending on the harmonic structure and rhythmic/declamation solutions of the composer, there is a lot of room for choice, without violating the structure of the music.

A generation ago, putting one’s stamp on a piece of music was dependent upon finding musical nuggets that others had not found before. Are there still nuggets to be found?

The argument of this person was that it had all been done before. That statement revealed the one-dimensional thinking of many singers. Too often singers have no idea about harmony or even take time to ask themselves why a composer choses a certain rhythm. It just does not cross their minds, which is why singers need a coach to fix their rhythms. This too is a source of great problems.

In an ideal world, singers would be able to play the entire music they are singing and understand harmony and rhythm, etc. Singers would have composed music, and through that understand the choices a composer makes and respect them or even have the experience to determine whether the composer made good choices or not.

Unfortunately, singers are coached within an inch of their lives, turned into sound machines with no personal input on the music that they are to perform.

How boring is that!

So they try to find some level of control so that they feel important.

  1. High Notes: They will work on their high Cs ad nauseam so that they can stop the music for a moment and demonstrate their physical prowess, even if it means destroying the phrase structure. Some high Cs are meant to be held, some are not! If singers developed their entire range instead of up to the notes written in their scores, a high C might not seem like the Holy Grail, but just another note to be used to the benefit of the music.
  2. Text: They might decide to inflect a text in 10 different ways like an actor. But then again, a great composer has already made choices. Unless the text relate to the harmonic hierarchy and rhythmic values, a choice made on melody alone could destroy the phrase. But text is somewhat easier. Music is a language of its own and like all foreign languages, it is not easy at first! Too many do not have the patience to become musicians and complain when they are not hired for a great vocal noise.

Yet unlike the previous generation, singers are encouraged to be silent. Conductors by and large do not like singers to have ideas. 1) They have less time to put a performance together 2) Singers are often not musically developed enough to have ideas that reflect an understanding the score beyond their melodic line.

Therefore a coach is needed to act as a bridge between singer and conductor. But how many pianists say: “I like this recording of so and so, you should do it that way” instead of teaching the singer about fundamental issues?” Too many! How many ever respects a singer as musician to ask: “Why did you chose to phrase that way?” Too few! (there are truly some great singer-musicians out there, despite this environment of non-musician-singer as sound-machine).

Singers being reduced to “sound-machines with big tits or 6-packs” is one reason for the desecration of the operatic art form. But it is more insidious than that.

We live in a world where education is considered elitist and facts are an insult to fragile egos or the survival of con-artists (pun definitely meant).

The internet age makes it such that we tend to isolate ourselves with people of similar opinions, shielding ourselves from information that does not support our paradigm. That “unfortunate” who does not respect the composer’s music and when asked about Callas’ statement that “…all the answers are in the score” responds: “that’s just her opinion” grew up in an environment of “Alternative Facts,” and that everything must feel good and everything is about me!

I cannot blame him for being a product of his time, but likewise I could not stand being a victim of mine.

Throughout the aftermath of the many racist killings, I have reflected upon my upbringing and saw where I was wrong. I recently had a passionate yet respectful debate with a friend on the role of the police and it’s historical roots. At the end of it, we both learned something and I believe it has made us better human beings and better friends! The reason that happened is because 1) we both respect facts 2) the discussion was about the world we live in and not about us as individuals.

The reason I abandoned my own group was that I allowed elements that were driven purely by self-aggrandizement and ego and not about facts and the art form. The reason why I cannot just ignore these things is that the greatest pandemic we are living through, and it has been for at least the past three decades, is one called Narcissism. It’s all about what I get! It’s not important unless it makes me feel better, greater; it’s not good unless it is just like me!

We do not have a Kennedy in our times to remind us that our service to the community is more important than what the individual gets out of it. We have lost all humility before the art form.

I joked on my Facebook feed that I would now go out and paint over Picasso’s Guernica! But that painting is considered a unique work of art worth preserving and discussed and pondered. Whatever ideas we have about that painting, we have it to relate to.

What we experience of Opera or Ballet or Classical theater is what we see and hear onstage. When that is routinely distorted into a parody of the original relative to modern needs for superficial entertainment, It’s hard to see our way out of the abyss. There is light opera for light entertainment. But some works (most operatic works) are written to makes us ponder the lives we currently lead, whether the racial divide we currently experience or the global pandemic or political chaos in a land once taken for granted to be stable.

When we reduce it to 3-hour can-can, we weaken the art form.

Opera is a community art form. The village green we gather around is the composer’s score. That is the first source we proceed from. It is as close to empirical as we can have. Without respect for it, there is no common ground, no point of departure, no interpretation…no opera!

Just pseudo-operatic masturbation!

The Complexity of American Racism–And An Apology To My African-American Brothers and Sisters

A few days before the George Floyd murder, I wrote a blogpost on my experience as a Haitian-American and the difficulties I have had in my relationships with African-Americans (not all obviously) and that it was a source of deep sorrow for me. I took the article down the next day because I realized my African-American brothers and sisters would not understand my experience. Why would they? I took offense and held a deep grudge for the fact that throughout my life in the United States since age 11, many African-Americans treated me as “Other!” Well, in a sense, I am other. I was deeply hurt when an African American colleague in graduate school told me to my face that I was cast in an operatic leading role because I could pass as White (referring to my lighter skin). But whether she was right or not, I was not equipped with enough experience to empathize with her frustration.

I refused to accept the obvious: that I am in fact different!

Being a Haitian-American, who speaks French as a native language, and with lighter skin color, in everyone’s mind, Whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians (except for me), made me different. My dear voice teacher in Undergraduate college, who saw how my Black colleagues at Westminster Choir College treated me (never mean, but different), warned me that I may find myself in the middle of a racial imbroglio as I prepared to begin graduate education at the University of Michigan, which had experienced open racial conflicts in the 1980s.

As always, my teachers never treated me differently. People like George Shirley, Willis Patterson and Earl Coleman, back then, had enough life experience to understand the difficult dynamics I was living. They made a space for me, while my colleagues, for the most part, emphasized the foreignness of me.

I worked really hard! But in my self-centeredness, I never saw the fact that, in an operatic context, I came with extraordinary privileges:

In undergraduate school, I learned Italian so quickly that the Italian teacher took it upon herself to eat lunch with me every day during the academic year and help me develop faster–Because of having French as a mother tongue, Italian might as well have been a French dialect.

When I arrived in school in New Jersey, in the 6th grade, the class was doing long divisions. The teacher had a student up to do such a division and after she had finished, the teacher said: “Good job!” But I raised my hand and said that the operation was incorrect! The teacher asked me how I can possibly know that? I told her I proofed it. She checked with her calculator and saw that the operation was wrong. She asked me how I proofed it, I went on the board and did an X proof (I doubt that many Americans, who have not studied math as a major in college, would know that proof. As a result of this experience, I was sent to the library to study more advanced math, when math was being taught in class.–My Haitian education gave me an advantage. But how can I think anything Haitian is an advantage, when I was routinely teased for coming from a backward, poor, dirty country?

When I started my undergraduate education at Westminster Choir College, my only deficiency (other than voice) was sight-singing. I had not formally learned it. But that took me no time. I was advanced in acting! I had worked professionally. I was hired my senior year to do a two-person play on the subject of Open Admissions in colleges, playing an inner-city, African-American youth, who objected to always getting a B-grade from his teacher, who admitted that under the “Open Admissions” system, she was to give preferential treatment to inner city Black youth who were considered underprivileged. After doing that role in my senior year of high school (sacrificing my prom for the opportunity and gaining my classmate’s ire for it), I thought of myself as more African-American than ever.–Yet, I got that opportunity because I went to a small private school, where I got to experience advanced theatrical skills through plays, workshops and performances.–I chalked up my opportunity to hard work! Yes I worked hard, but I had advantages that I did not recognize as such.

Thus, arriving to Westminster Choir College with linguistic and theatrical skills, what could my less privileged Black colleagues compete with? Their gorgeous voices, which they attributed to their experiences in the Black Church, of which this foreign, French-speaking kid was not privy too. At Westminster Choir College there was so much to aspire to that the difference between me and my African-American colleagues was minimized. But it existed.

I felt it as a continuation from my first years in public school, through my private school experience and beyond. I was always treated differently!

This pattern would continue through my experiences as an academic at the college level:

When I experienced very ill-treatment at Utah State University after doing what everyone called a stellar job my first year, I assumed that I had been threatening to my predecessor, who ran an opera company in town, since he threatened me with lawsuits for maligning his name, although I had never met him. It was definitely political, but I never assumed that it could be racial. As a Haitian, I am proud of the fact that my African, ex-slave ancestors defeated Napoleon and assisted Simon Bolivar in his campaign to free South America from Spain. I never felt like less than anyone and so I presented myself with confidence and fortitude (from my point of view). —Is it possible that in a town where I only saw one other Black family that there might be the thought: “What is this uppity nigger think he’s doing?” My own part Hispanic, part White ex-wife told me through the worst part of that crisis that maybe it was my fault for being to fort-right!

“The fact that I never even considered being viewed as an uppity nigger is the proof of my privilege!”

The fact that I had a Black colleague at the University of Florida who called me a “jack of all trades and master of none” because the orchestral conductor chose me to sub for him when he was away might be further proof (Never mind that I studied orchestral conducting for nearly 6 years under one of the world’s finest conductors). That the local newspaper treated me with great deference whenever I had an event of any kind could have been because of my lighter skin color and my foreign accent.–Again, I felt marginalized by a Black colleague, plus the Good Old Boys’ Club at the University of Florida School of Music (that is what a white colleague told me regarding what she taught was a biased tenure process) without ever consider that it was because I appeared daringly threatening as a Black man with extraordinary attributes.

Thus the Uppity Nigger shows his ugly face again! The fact that this never crossed my mind is the proof of my privileged.

In retrospect, I can see the same issues at play in North Carolina, Delaware and even upon my return to teach at Westminster Choir College for a year.

I thought a fort-right Black man was to be revered! It never crossed my mind it was insulting to those of my White colleagues who were racist and to my Black colleagues who saw my conduct either reflecting badly upon them or disrespectful of what they had to go through every day!

The fact that these issues never crossed my mind is the proof of my privilege.

It took watching the murder of George Floyd to feel the burden that African Americans feel every day. It was just one more experience beyond history, beyond Rodney King, beyond Abner Jean-Baptiste (a very dark-skinned Haitian sodomized with a nightstick by New York cops), beyond Kapernick, etc, for my privilege to become obvious to me.

Yes, the police in the United States does not treat me any differently than they treat other African Americans, but it takes me uttering two sentences to realize I am different.

And as much as I hate being treated as “other” by my fellow African Americans, because it makes me feel that I don’t belong anywhere in the United States, they are right. I am “other” and all my privileges confirm it. And all of my difficulties in Academia may have sadly been a result of me not being aware that in the United States power structure, in the eyes of too many I never suspected to be racist, I behaved like an Uppity Nigger, who needed to be put in his place!

Thus I owe an apology to all my African American brothers and sisters for being too “nose-deaf” to understand what they were going through!

In my defense I will only say the following: I never thought that a kid from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, from that ‘shithole country,’ could ever be an Uppity anything!

© 30 May 2020

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