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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 1991. 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

Opera: Evolution or Devolution? Ask the Squillo!

The first time I sat in the Metropolitan Opera audience and heard Margareth Price, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes and a host of other singers singing smaller parts,  was the day that any offer from Universities or from the military academies to pursue another career vanished from my thoughts.  It was a singular experience!  For all those voices to get to my ears in that balcony so far away from the stage through that rich orchestral sound was a miracle to me.  That it was accompanied with dramatic and musical excellence was another level of experience and then there is language besides.

I don’t remember that well how those singers looked onstage, whether it was Domingo’s leaner or plumper look, whether Milnes looked taller than him or not or whether Ms. M. Price could have fitted a size 0 dress.  But that they sounded so powerful, as if they were in front of my face in that huge expanse of space, will never leave my sensory memory.

Opera require so many skills that it becomes difficult for some to remember what it is that distinguishes the opera singer from other singers.  A pop singer can make a beautiful sound and even sing through operatic music. A jazz singer can sing in many languages.  A musical theater singer can be a wonderful actor.  A rock singer can be a great musician.

The only attribute that distinguishes the opera singer is the unique resonance that makes it possible to be heard easily in the presence of a symphonic orchestra.

Even Monteverdi’s orchestra was known to be very loud and even noisy, given the difficult of tuning natural instruments like sackbuts, crumhorns and trumpets.

It is not how loudly a singer sings or the size of the voice that determines audibility. It is the ability to generate strong acoustic energy in the region of 2000-3000 Hz, which coincides with the most sensitive acoustic range of human hearing. Most babies, barring deformity accomplish this when they cry or when they laugh.  However, most young people lose this ability as they become socialized.  Speaking loudly in the home or in small gathering spaces (where we spend most of our time in life) is not considered polite in most cultures. The coordination of breath, vocal folds and resonance that was instinctive to us as babies gets transformed with language, social norms and education to something more acceptable in confined spaces.

That special resonance, traditionally called Squillo (or the ring of the voice) and in science terms, The Singer’s Formant, is a possibility for any human being, barring deformity or some illness.  Some people have a pharyngeal structure that makes it easier to accomplish even when they produce their voice in less efficient ways. There is an acoustical theory that the pharynx must be at least 6 times the size of the epilaryngeal tube in order to produce this resonance.  The size of the pharynx is increased when the larynx is in a lower position.  The low larynx has been the traditional way of accomplishing the Squillo.  In more recent times, singers have been experimenting with the possibility of narrowing the size of the epilaryngeal tube to achieve that 6:1 ratio between the two spaces.  However, someone whose pharynx is naturally larger may be able to produce that resonance easily even with a high larynx.

The spaces are not the only factors.  The laryngeal vibration, also called the source tone must be efficient enough to produce a strong sound to begin with.  The science confirms that a so-called rectangular vibration is the most efficient manner to produce a source that that would be rich in harmonics (overtones) and set up in such a way to not necessitate a tight closure of the vocal folds.  That rectangular posture can be called full voice with a relatively fluid closure on the superficial, flexible layers of the folds.  Such a set up also reduces subglottal pressure and facilitates the natural decent of the larynx (as long as the laryngeal depressors are doing their job and are not overbalanced by the laryngeal levitators).  This kind of source tone also facilitates a more flexible breath emission, requiring less effort from the breathing musculature.

Other than a few singers (called gifted for good reason, both for acoustic advantages relative to the pharynx and speaking habits that foster a good source tone),

this coordination is not easy to accomplish.

I remember when I did not have a strong Squillo when I began to analyze my voice with a spectrogram. But now I have an ever present one.  In my case, it did not have to do with a low larynx because mine was always relatively low. But my source tone was out of balance because I was manufacturing a baritone sound (because I believe I was one).  The more my tenor voice became more balanced (between length and depth of the vocal folds) the more the squillo strengthened.  And breath management became much more flexible.

Because of my false baritone past, it’s taken me the last 38 years of active learning (since I started with voice lessons at age 16) to accomplish this coordination.  If I had given up, I would never have accomplished it and might have taught that it was simply not possible with my anatomy.  I my 30 years of teaching and searching, other than some abnormal vocal deformity, I do not see any reason why a singer should not be able to produce that resonance and become a viable opera singer.

It’s taken me a lot of words to say that:

most people can develop a voice capable of singing opera.  

But it takes physical training unless you are gifted, as explained above.  Then of course comes the additional skills to sing slow and fast without loss of air (No machine-gun colaratura please.  The fastest coloratura passages can be done legato)!

I can play tennis pretty well.  But I am not Roger Federer!

Why do we take for granted that athletes have to train but singers just have to be able to sing the notes? When I was in my teens, I once got my tennis serve clocked at 102 miles per hour.  But I could not serve that fast often and it did not go into the service box with any consistency.  The singer has to be able to maintain that squillo throughout the vocal range and while singing very difficult music.  The consistency of that coordination is dependent upon a fine balance of all the muscles in the body, supporting the laryngeal musculature in particular.

A singer can spin a beautiful phrase or very fast coloratura into a microphone and be very impressive.  But if it does not have that specific setup that makes it the most present sound in the presence of an orchestra, it’s not operatic in the true sense of the word.

What about chamber opera?  I wrote a 10 minute chamber opera for young singers who were just developing.  That’s part of studying opera in the beginning.  But what if I scored the piece for a symphonic orchestra instead of the piano? Would the young singers be able to be heard in the theater?  At that time, no!

In a discussion on my Facebook feed, a young singer suggests that opera should evolve to include singers using a microphone.  But then, that special resonance would no longer be necessary and we would not be able to distinguish between the singer who developed the skills to turn the natural un-amplified human voice into a miraculous instrument and those who make a lovely sound but without squillo.

There is the additional factor that the presence of squillo in the voice may invoke primal emotional responses from the listener that may not be as easily achieved without. The way we respond emotional when we hear a baby cry may very well be because of the squillo.  There is a theory that the squillo exists in our voices (matching the most sensitive range of the human ear) because in the wild, parents needed to hear their children in case of danger.  Therefore, the presence of squillo in the voice could have helped the propagation of our species.

Because of this specific acoustic phenomenon, I have heard singers sing very quiet sounds with large orchestras and are heard as if they were whispering directly to my ear.

So it is not about loudness in terms of decibels, but rather about the relationship between the primal human voice and the human ear.

It is an elite singer who works very hard to develop the ability to sing at all speeds, at all dynamics, in different linguistic configurations, in different musical vocabularies and maintain the primal, human resonance through all of it.

Acoustic singing of this nature is a very special skill!  The moment the microphone came into play, the squillo became a problem.  Recordings of opera after the late 1950s already includes editing that reduces the squillo, because it was considered distracting.  So in recordings, it is difficult to distinguish between singers who have squillo and those who do not.  That a singer is musically highly artistic on recordings unfortunately does not guarantee that the singer will be audible in a live operatic performance.

From Monteverdi to Menotti, nearly 500 years of operatic development did not necessitate a microphone.

Perhaps opera will evolve into an electronic art form the way musical theater has, but then we would lose the very essence of what makes it opera! It would have in fact devolved!

Pélé’s scissor kicks:

 

Michael Jordan flying

 

George London’s Squillo (Even in Speech)

 

The Greek word Apotheosis:

1. The highest point in the development of something; a culmination or climax
2. The elevation of someone to divine status.
The word was often used in the early Olympic Games, to describe athletes who developed their skills to such a high level that they would seem godlike.  Likewise in opera, the term Diva was assigned to a female singer who had achieved the highest level of skill.  Unfortunately the term has taken on a pejorative meaning.
Squillo is not the only skill that an opera singer should have, but it is the one that distinguishes the opera singer from any other. Squillo amplifies all the good qualities. Without it in the opera house, it is the equivalent of turning off Martin Luther King’s microphone during the Dream speech.  Lots to say but no one can hear it!

An Apology to Andrea Bocelli

I sit in my kitchen, preparing a late meal, because I have had a full day. A day of teaching, a day of sharing knowledge with my dear and respected colleagues, Rachelle Jonck and Derrick Goff, who kept singers around the world engrossed in a 9-week Vaccai Project on Facebook, giving not only something to do proactively during the pandemic but also inspiring hope for a better continuation after the Covid19 crisis.  Afterwards, I found myself in a nostalgia-filled fest with my sisters, Nadine LaFond, a talented painter and singer, and Karling LaFond (a hero nurse in these times), reminiscing about our musical heritage.  Later, I found myself in the Youtube rabbit hole, face to face with the personality that is Andrea Bocelli, a figure that cannot be ignored, but that has been lampooned and ridiculed by the classical singing community, myself included. To be fair to myself, I never ridiculed Bocelli, but labeled him in previous posts over the years as a “pop singer using opera!”  I promise that all the subjects touched upon in this paragraph are relevant to the current discussion!

What is Andrea Bocelli?  

  1. First and foremost, a pop singer with a more substantial and flexible voice than the average pop singer, including the Josh Grobans of the world.
  2. An Italian who speaks the first language of opera with elegance.
  3. A musician of exceptional directness and musicality (I loved him as a pop singer first)
  4. A blind man who meets his audience through a very warm speaking voice and then enchants them with beautiful melodies, some composed by him and some taken from the finest of classical compositions (e.g. Aranjuez and Rach 2)
  5. A man with an unusual voice that in terms of substance, falls between Corelli (his teacher) and Tino Rossi, a Corsican singer in the 1930s-1950s, who also used opera as a means of expression but also brought operatic music to a pop audience.

When I first heard Bocelli, it was in this performance:

 

Franco Corelli was my vocal god at the time, especially after having the unusual opportunity to have three lessons with him in the late 80s.  When I heard this performance of Pavarotti and Friends back in 1994 or 1995, I heard that voice and thought I was hearing a smaller version of Franco Corelli, I did not know that Bocelli studied with Corelli. But I heard something uncannily familiar.

If you listen carefully, you hear Corelli in that voice!

 

 

It is said that when one loses one of his senses, the others are enhanced.  Possibly…Possibly, Bocelli used his ears to sense Corelli’s timbre!  Of course, Bocelli’s voice is not as substantial as Corelli’s but here are some pluses:

  1. Legato:  whether his Italian nature or his connection with Corelli, Bocelli sings legato.
  2. Purity of language: whether Italian or his connection to language, Bocelli sings beautifully in his native language.
  3. Emotion:  whether Italian or his connection with Corelli, Bocelli is an emotionally immediate performer.
  4. Top notes: Pop singer or not, his top notes are exciting!!!

 

The argument against Bocelli has been that he does not sing a tone supported enough to be a bona fide opera singer!  I was critical early on of his attempt at Werther at Michigan Opera Theater in the 90s.  He wasn’t present in the hall for much of the opera but quite powerful with “Pourquoi me réveiller?”  In truth, the voice has never been that far away from real operatic singing.  This is not Michael Bolton belting Nessun dorma! He is closer to the real thing, the way Tino Rossi was in the time of Gigli.

 

I grew up with that voice as my favorite! (I was a tenor from the beginning. Just didn’t know it).  That Rossi was a French/Corsican/Italian pop singer who approached his top notes in falsettone doesn’t erase his extraordinary legato, musicianship and charm. What Rossi did for the early 20th century, Bocelli provides in the early 21st century.

Tino Rossi was an international star, making waves in Rome and Paris, as he did in New York and L.A.  In my estimation, it is possible that in the developing postwar world of Melocchi, del Monaco and Corelli, the omnipresence of Tino Rossi in the Italian psyche may have given way to the voices to Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and LoForese in a post Gigli/Pertile world.  The lyricism, the legato, the purity of the text, the elegance of the phrasing! All Bel Canto attributes, which may have seen a confrontation 50 years before between the music of Tosti and Donaudy on the Bel Canto side and Respighi, Malipiero  and Casella in the Verismo side.

Bocelli’s place in the late 20th century and early 21st century is sealed.  As he benefited from the visionary Pavarotti’s influence in bridging the gap between popular and classical music, Bocelli himself continue to unite the classical and popular through collaborations with great artist of both camps as exemplified in the following clip:

If one reads the comments below this video, one understands why Bocelli has sold more records than any classical singer of his time, even though he is fundamentally a pop artist.

He did, in short, what his classical colleagues could not accomplish! He grabbed the hearts of his audience with beautiful melodies, direct emotion and a singular charm! His blindness is an incidental exclamation!  One cannot sustain this kind of commitment from his fans if he did not deliver.

The important factor is that this pop singer crosses over to classical and obliterates the bona fide classical singers. Kaufmann included!

To be fair to our top tenor, Kaufmann has to deal with a big orchestra, sans mic! Bocelli does not! But here is the rub! When Opera decides to go the route of Popopera, it will always lose.  And I believe that is the central problem! Bocelli, does not stand a chance, side by side with Kaufmann.  And that is evident with the first clip between Pavarotti and Bocelli. However, in that battle, Bocelli acquits himself positively! He stands toe to toe with one of the greatest tenors of all time and says:

I studied with your predecessor and I got game! As a pop singer, I am to be applauded!”

And he is correct!  If Kaufmann is inaudible in the theater as Siegmund or Parsifal, the reality of the day is not in his favor!  I wrote here, years ago, that Kaufmann is the first tenor in the world for important reasons, but that he should have avoided Wagner!  Because news is immediate, we get to celebrate Kaufmann for his HD simulcasts of Walküre and Parsifal, but remain disappointed in those roles in the theater. Yet, I am the first one to applaud his Cavaradossi, which is appropriate.

It is not Kaufmann’s fault!  Theaters are willing to pay him lots of money for his services. Why?  Because theaters are about now! Not about the future of this art form. Therefore, Kaufmann will be a footnote, just as Netrebko who takes on roles that are far beyond her vocal possibilities. But they will be rich!

But history will speak only of Bocelli and what he contributed to these times.

He might be falsely remembered as a classical singer, but indeed, he may have contributed more in favor of classical singing than his bona fide classical colleagues. Kaufmann as a pop icon does not come close to Bocelli’s power. However, Bocelli as a classical singer is confirmed in the mind of a vast public that could be drawn to opera, if only opera could deliver LIVE!

Tino Rossi brought average people to classical singing, including opera! Mario Lanza brought simple people to opera for similar reasons. And Bocelli will be the hero who calls to the average person and says: “Classical music is beautiful! And not so different from pop music!”  It is not Kaufmann who does that job!  But it was Pavarotti who did!

My friends, Rachelle Jonck and Derrick Goff, spent 9 weeks, convincing singers of our time that operatic success is about the fundamentals of beautiful singing, a fact that the operatic establishment has totally lost cognizance of!

To be audible while singing beautifully is the first and foremost principle of operatic singing!

6-packs are nice and so is a beautiful face. But without audible beauty, it is not opera!  If 6-packs and a beautiful face is your thing (first and foremost), you are better served by Hollywood and Pornhub than you would be by Opera.

In my heart, Pavarotti remains one of the most beautiful men who ever walked this earth when he opened his mouth and sang.

In that big open space of a theater, whether the MET or Scala, whether Covent Garden or Vienna Staatsoper, whenever I heard that man, I could not concentrate on anything else.

For the last time, whoever has influence in Opera must understand that Opera begins with beautiful singing.  Anything else is added bonus and must not supersede THE VOICE! 

And as my sisters, Nadine and Karling, reminisce about our childhood musical influences, I find that whether Antonio Aguilar or Miguel Aceves Mejia or the singers of the great Haitian bands or Tino Rossi, or the great singers of the early Motown era, or the great crooners, what my father, André L. LaFond loved and introduced us to was always beautiful singing! 

Dare I say: Bel Canto?

I would be remiss if I did not include this link to Rachelle Jonck and Derrick Groff‘s next Vaccai Bootcamp, three weeks from now!  I will be there as a participant, because it is important!  I recommend strongly that you join!  It is free!  There is no catch! But contribute if you got something out of it, because these wonderful people give a lot of their time and energy to bring something crucially important to us. The rescuing of the art of Opera, in my estimation, begins with Rachelle Jonck’s Vaccai program.

© 18 May 2020

 

 

Appreciating My Teacher: Judith Nicosia

I have had great teachers throughout my life! Voice teachers, directors, conductors, math teachers, and more.  As I thought of the teacher who was probably the most influential in the course of my life, it is Judith Nicosia.  She was my voice teacher, my last year at Westminster Choir College, but more importantly, I had her for three terms of Vocal Pedagogy and she opened a world for me of vocal science, critical thinking and holistic teaching.  She is a gifted singer and the most supportive voice teacher I have ever had.  She inspires confidence and shows possibilities!  She respects the singer she teaches and remains a source of guidance throughout our lives.

I know many who have felt her guidance and support…and love!  She is a caring human being, too.  

If I am a successful voice teacher, she is the example I look to.  I’m terrible at keeping in touch with her and I should do better.  I wanted her to know that I hear her voice often and that the last lesson a few years ago is still paying dividends.

I am so fortunate to have you as a teacher and when this virus is gone and I can travel to the United States again, I will pay you another visit.  Thank you for a lifetime of guidance!

 

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R.I.P. Donald G. Miller

I sang a recital in Montreal in 2005. After the recital, a dear colleague at McGill University, Winston Purdy, who attended the recital at L’Université de Québec à Montréal, invited me to his house the next day to experience something fascinating. It would change my life. In Winston’s living room I discovered the lanky man with a deep resonant voice next to a laptop and a strange contraption. That contraption was VoceVista, a vocal diagnostic tool including acoustic analysis and electroglottography (EGG) was as its name suggests: The Voice Seen! Donald Miller and his colleagues Harm K.Schutte and the late Prof. Janwillem van den Berg produced this magnificent instrument, which has become an industry standard in the field of Vocology.

Following that meeting (we were like three nerdy teenagers with a new toy), Don invited me to Fredonia University in Upstate New York to be a participant at a VoceVista symposium, where I met several colleagues who would become lifelong friends. Later on, Don visited my studios in New York and Berlin, where we presented “wired masterclasses,” in which we had access to real-time glottal and acoustic information for the singers in performance. Having already had a passion for vocal acoustics, I found a real friend and mentor in Don Miller. He later invited me to his home in Groningen, Holland, where we exchanged voice lessons, listened to an impressive performance of Schubert’s Winterreise, which he had sung during his professional career in Germany, years before. We also took in a Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast of Boris Godunov at the local cinema.

Don Miller was a very generous colleague and passionate about getting the word out about VoceVista. I regularly received his newsletters as well as emails to his VoceVista group, the Fryers (vocal fry is used to isolate formant resonances in vocal acoustics). We met frequently over the years and encountered each other often at voice and vocal science symposia around the world.

Just a few days ago, after a few months of silence between us, I received an email from him, wondering how I was doing with the isolation imposed by the Covid-19 crisis. I was happy to receive his email and responded immediately. I had no idea he was ill (I don’t suspect it was Covid-19-related).

Don was in his 90s and lived a very full life and contributed to our art form first as a wonderful bass and later as a remarkable scientist.

In my mind, Donald G. Miller was a pioneer.

In 2000, when I began teaching at East Carolina University, one of my colleagues who was responsible for vocal pedagogy was very proud to introduce me to his new toy, a special computer system with a particular fast processor that made real-time acoustic analysis possible for singers. The Kay Elemetrics Computerized Speech Labs back then cost the University over $15,000 and was the standard tool for the analysis of speech pathology and disorders.

That year I received a faculty laptop that included a processor of enough speed to make real-time acoustic analysis possible. I found some free software online and began my love affair with acoustic analysis. Obviously, those tools were not optimized for singing analysis and my knowledge was pretty superficial. Less than five years later, there I was in Winston Purdy’s living room with Donald Miller, making a quantum leap in knowledge acquisition with the guidance of a leader in the field. Don was a pioneer!

The cost effective nature of the VoceVista software and Electro Glottograph machine turned my studio into a lab. I was able to observe thousands of singers over some 15 years, learning a great deal about vocal acoustics. I could not have done this without VoceVista and more importantly I would not have been able to do this without Don’s generous instruction. The low cost of VoceVista and the constant tweaking of the equipment (leading to VoceVista Video) has turned it into the industry standard ubiquitous in studios and voice labs all over the world.

Beyond the software itself, Don also produced a wonderful, short book, Resonance In Singing, written specifically for the beginner in vocal acoustics, which I reviewed here on the blog, on August 5 2008:

Because of Don’s instructions, I was able to make my own observations about the acoustics and glottal dynamics of the voice. We were not always in agreement in our conclusions but we were always able to discuss and I certainly learned a great deal from Don’s observations and he encouraged my own conclusions as well. He was a real teacher!

After our latest email exchange, I was looking forward to reconnect with Don and we wrote about seeing each other after the quarantine. I’m very saddened at his passing.

The new generation of Vocologists would not have taken their quantum leap without Donald G. Miller’s contributions. We are grateful to him and we will miss him very much.

I often quote this poem, Fear no more the heat o’ the sun… from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline for those dear to me who have departed:

…Thou, thy earthly task hast done, Home art gone and taken thy wages…

…Quiet consummation have, and renowned be thy grave.

Requiestcat In Pacem!

© 22 April 2020

Breath Support: “Back Asswards!”

Singers spend so much of their times “learning to support!” If your friend is about to walk in front of a bus, you would yell: “Watch out!” Your body would go into automatic compression to emit a sound that would get the attention of the friend in danger!

What makes us think it is different for singing?

It is not only the support system that cannot respond for singing, it is the clarity of our imagination that is underdeveloped. Indeed the body can be too weak to support our desired vocal expression adequately,

but is it not also that we are unclear as to the sound we should be producing?

The true voice, in most cases, is discovered. Most singers do not have a clear idea as to the natural quality of their fully developed voice. Few opera singers have fully developed voices at the onset. Italians, African-Americans with Gospel singing backgrounds, Koreans and Black South Africans have proven very consistent in the winning of career-making competitions. It would be logical to conclude that a certain amount of cultural conditioning prepares some of the singers from those cultures relative to the desired operatic product. Eastern Europeans and Germans have very strong operatic traditions and those mechanisms may produce aural expectations that help developing singers along.

By and large however, young opera singers count on recordings of the singers who inspired them for a vocal aesthetic. Those models are not always evocative of appropriate reaction in the breath support system.

The central problem may be found in the definition of “self-sustained oscillation of the vocal folds.”

A primary prerequisite for self-sustained oscillation of the vocal folds is that the net transfer of energy from the airflow to the tissue be sufficient to overcome friction forces (Ishizaka and Matsudaira, 1972; Stevens, 1977; Broad 1979; Titze 1988).

The word “friction” is key to the definition. There is little discrimination these days relative to a viable operatic sound. As long as the singer is successful, it is assumed s/he is producing a viable operatic sound. This issue of friction speaks directly to the Italian concept of morbidezza (or flexibility).

Is it not possible that the singer’s personal sound aesthetic requires greater glottal resistance (friction) than necessary?

Hence, is it not possible that in many cases, it is not greater breath pressure (breath support) that needs to be developed but rather a tone concept that requires a normal amount of pressure?

In a balanced system relative to breath pressure and glottal resistance, the issue of development would be one of increasing the time that a singer can maintain a sustained oscillation as opposed to the increase of sub-glottal pressure to accommodate excessive friction at the glottal source.

Therefore I will list some causes of excessive glottal friction:

  1. Faulty Fold Morphology: The vocal folds must have a certain specific shape relative to F0 (pitch in layman’s terms) and vowel. This includes appropriate fold thickness (superior to inferior axis), the length of the folds (anterior to posterior axis) and acoustic/vocal-tract adjustment (vowel formation) as related to beneficial supra-glottal inertia that would reduce glottal friction. Faulty set up in this regard would cause compensatory tensions that would yield greater friction and require increased sub-glottal pressure.
  2. Medial pressure: How tightly the folds approximate (right-left axis) is the primary mechanism of glottal resistance. Should the folds approximate so firmly as to trap the oscillating mucosal layer (fold cover) against the TA muscle (fold body), the vibrating tissue would become considerably greater and stiffer, which would require increased levels of sub-glottal pressure.
  3. Fold Viscosity: When the folds are too viscous (less movable) because of disease, ranging from inflammation due to allergies, GERD or dehydration, the resulting stiffness requires A) firmer closure for a clear tone and B) therefore greater sub-glottal pressure to compensate for the combination of stiffer folds and greater closure.

These problems occur to some degree for most singers. Some are aware of the glottal problem and work patiently to find solutions that do not require excessive activity in the breathing mechanism.

Others will simply work to increase sub-glottal pressure (enhanced breathing techniques) to combat the un-natural glottal frictions.

All of these problems could lead the singer to have an unhealthy sound expectation that requires greater breath compression than normal. In the case of Item 2, medial pressure, the pre-phonatory (before onset) posture may be largely influenced, not by disease as in Item 3, but by inadequate (i.e. excessive friction) timbre (sound quality) expectations relative to the nature of the native vocal fold anatomy.

Relative to the final point, singers often begin with a desired sound quality as opposed to discovering their most efficient production relative to their native anatomy.

Since the glottal posture cannot be considered without the breath, a faulty tone concept yields compensation in the breath management. It can be surmised that barring disease, tension in the voice begins with faulty fold posture, leading to inefficient breath management.

© 22 April 2020

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