#TCH16: 16th Tchaikovsky Competition Still the Best

Four years ago, I wrote enthusiastically about the Tchaikovsky Competition as the last truly fair competition on Earth. Other competitions do good work in helping singers that are already chosen in launching a career in difficult times. I missed Cardiff this year because I was in the process of moving and broadcast was restricted to the UK. Cardiff needs to get with Medici TV. Period!

First, Medici was the first to comment on the fact that they were not ready for this level of traffic. Some problems with replays were frustrating but over all an excellent job considering they had 6 categories this time.

I did not have time to follow the instrumental competitions in depth, but in the Voice competition, the jury made up of the regular casting agents was complemented by some truly legendary figures of singing including Feruccio Furlanetto, Matti Salminen, Neil Shicoff and the unsurpassed Edita Gruberova. I believe these singers made the difference in judging a group of 46 singers that were less imposing than those of the previous edition by and large. However, the finalists were mostly at par with those of 2015 and gave excellent performances in true competitive spirit. I particularly enjoyed the moment when Gihun Kim encouraged his rival, Alexandros Stavrakakis between arias. Those two gave us a friendly rivalry equal to the Terfel/Hvorostovsky battle at Cardiff.

The Jury made bold choices in both male and female categories. The choice of Maria Barakova, the 21 year old mezzo over the more exacting coloratura soprano Aigu Khismatullina parallels the one of Alexandros Stavrakakis over Gihun Kim. In short, emotional commitment over technical exactness! But it’s not so black and white. I will discuss these wonderfully talented young finalists with encouragement and some cautionary advice. #TCH16 did a great job in making us aware of these potential stars of tomorrow but it will take the unsung heroes ( the teachers who took them this far) to make sure that the coming opportunities do not destroy these young talents before they fully mature.

I find that over the past 10 years, my job has become as much about career guidance as vocal/music pedagogy. These young finalists need both in a world more geared toward a “flash in the pan” than about career development for longevity. I went to the opera last night and heard/saw some interesting “young” talent that are already on a downward spiral but they do not know it. Vocal degradation is very gradual. The young baritone feeling emotionally satisfied about a pushed high G (because it feels exciting to him) doesn’t know that he is inaudible most of the time and that the bass singing with him with a similar size instrument resonates in the house impressively with much less effort. Method acting, which was developed for capturing a moment on camera, does not transmit on an acoustic stage (sans microphones) very well. A measure of emotion must be calculated in a way that does not interfere with the instrument’s ability to project. Shakespearean actors spend years developing vocal resonance and emotional measure for the purpose of giving the audience what it needs to respond emotionally. Feeling “more” doesn’t mean the emotions are transmitted to the audience. Knowing how much to give emotionally and maintaining vocal balance is an inspired, purposeful act of committed action. The audience gets the impression that it is very real. When overly felt, the audience gets the impression they should not be there for this moment that should be private. Paradoxically, when the act is purposeful and measured (not randomly or just felt), the actor can actually go very far and the audience feels involved in witnessing a performance that evokes real emotions from them, rather than an act of theatrical masturbation that they are not comfortable witnessing. Great acting happens on a fine line of vulnerability and technical control. Barakova and Stavrakakis have developed this empathetic sense. Even on my iPad screen, they came alive. That’s why they won!

The two gold medal winners are greatly developed “operatic” actors. They understand music with all its components (harmony, rhythm, phrasal architecture, language, melodic contour, etc) as a vehicle for dramatic expression and they have sufficient vocal technique to sustain the music-drama. Stavrakakis is a great bass-baritone who sounds like a bass because he has not yet mastered his resonance. As often with lower voices, there is a tendency to exaggerate the darker colors of the voice. He conflates the sub-glottal resonance that can only be felt strongly on specific pitches with the vowel resonances that must be always changing relative to pitch. In other words, the larynx needs to float low, without the tongue root getting involved. Therefore he does well with the [i<—>E] vowel spectrum and less so with the [a<—>u] spectrum. Some faulty vowel strategies cost him in Wotans Abschied, for instance, and throughout the competition. But he won nonetheless and deservingly so for the touching nature of his performances, his musicianship and focused stage presence, even against a mighty competitor, such as Guhin Kim, who must be disappointed. The difference in the scoring could not possibly be substantial. Stavrakakis and Kim are a greater story, in my opinion, than Terfel/Hvorostovsky at Cardiff. The question remains whether they will be marketed appropriately and with patience. Kim was masterful and poised throughout. He is linguistically at home in Italian, German and Russian, impeccably prepared musically, dramatically committed and technically the most consistent singer in the whole competition, barring none. However, like my hero Cappuccilli, when I was still a baritone, there is an emotional distance. One can be theatrically masterful and dramatically measured, as Kim was throughout but not be emotionally vulnerable to the degree that both Stavrakakis and Barakova were.

For these two magnificent young talents I have a few cautionary words. Mr. Kim has his technique together and unlike Hvorostovsky, who was fundamentally a lyric baritone with dramatic presence, he is a burgeoning young Verdian baritone. But he is young! He is already a soloist on a fest contract in Hannover. It would be a grave error to give him anything heavier than Posa at this stage. If Hannover wants to help him, they should plan eight years of Bel Canto repertoire, Tchaikovsky and some excellent French works like Thomas’s Hamlet and Poulenc’s Les mamelles de Térésias. All these roles would be vehicles of artistic and physical growth. Balanced voices grow in balance and will handle greater volume (breath pressure) over time if they are challenged appropriately. This is something the operatic world has forgotten. Just because one has a Verdian voice, does not mean one should not sing Mozart or Donizetti. Guhin Kim will follow a long list of great Korean baritones to an early demise if he sings the heavier Verdi and Verismo roles before his mid to late thirties. He is more than a voice. He is a special talent who needs to be encouraged to become emotionally vulnerable and to choose his repertoire carefully. I pray he gets the chance! Wolfram lies fundamentally too low for such a voice and Amfortas too heavy for another 20 years.

Alexandros Stavrakakis is a future Wotan like Terfel never was. That Terfel and Hvorostovsky sang Wagner and Verdi at the Cardiff finals made unknowledgeable PR agents and managers package the two greatest male voices in recent generations wrongly. They assumed Verdi and Wagner too early respectively and in inappropriate roles. I would have killed to hear Terfel as the greatest Amfortas ever and maybe the greatest Jago of his generation. But he’s big and looks like Wotan. That was not enough. I’d hate to see two more top level young talents ruined by the operatic machine. Terfel is one of few singers who inspired tears from me. Stavrakakis has that potential and he is a future Wotan. Give him at least 15 years! Despite his bass-like quality, he should avoid true bass roles. Filippo II, yes! Banquo yes! Fiesco no! Sarastro, though not hurtful does not feature his best tessitura. Figaro, Leporello, Guglielmo in the original writing. Villains and devils! All three Mephistos (Gounod, Boito and Berlioz). Prince Igor. Boris later. Also 15 years. Until the resonance issues are worked out, any role that involves great orchestral forces will hurt him. For a bass-baritone, he is young and should have time to develop for the great roles that await him. It would be a shame if he does not become the Wotan we all hope because houses want to fill a few extra seats and agents want their 15%.

For the third place winner, the tenor, Agagzanian, I had the same thought as I do now when he won several prizes at Operalia last year: There is only one Domingo! A fine singer with a fine instrument that seems geared at every turn to copy the great Domingo, vocally, in physical mannerism, even aping Mr. Domingos signature bow at Operalia. I was happy to see that he stopped that horrific habit. My advice is develop a top and try to figure out the true unique color of that voice. We can learn a lot initially by copying our heroes but at some point we must find our personal truth unless we want to remain a pale copy. Enkhbold and Kuprianov are two excellent baritones that confuse pressing the voice in search of mask resonance for true squillo. I enjoyed them both.

For the gifted young mezzo (21 years old), Maria Barakova, I recommend slow development of breath support to manage the extremes of the voice. If anything, the length of the competition (10 days) revealed that this magnificent young singer doesn’t have the physical stamina for sustained singing of the type that would be required for rehearsals and preparation of a substantial role. Her first round was spectacular. As she went on, one could hear the wear of the voice and in the final round, her beautifully managed lower passaggio, which I enjoyed in the first round degraded into common, pressed chest voice and her elastic top became labored and out of tune. There are many great Russian singers to look up to. Obratsova and Borodina come to mind. Take it slow! I would love to enjoy that total artistry without vocal stress when I’m in my 90s. It’s worth it. Other young mezzos have taken the big Verdian parts in their mid 20s to their detriment even if they don’t know it yet. Deterioration is slow, but once we reach the tipping point, it hits like a hammer: swift and detrimental.

The other two winners, Khismatullina and Motolygina, have similar issues: a slight medial squeeze that contributes to a consistently high larynx, which in turn makes for slightly pushed or slightly shrill high notes. Khismatullina is very musical and the high larynx affects a light coloratura voice less than Motolygina’s lirico-spinto. Khismatullina though playful in her excellent Zerbinetta was emotionally protected throughout. Her physical language attests to this. Motolygina has a great instrument but either because of weaker musicianship or technical limitations giving her fewer musical options, I found her less convincing. Mayorova would have won third if weak breath support did not hamper her rich Tebaldi-like dramatic voice. The beginning of her Forza Leonora finally showed the true nature of the voice. One to remember! With further technical work, she could surpass all of her competitors here.

As always, I’m just one voice teacher commenting and one can never be totally sure how a voice sounds through three levels of filtering: 1) the microphones used in Russia 2) the internet and 3) my iPad and headset. Yet, as a voice teacher who advises professionals, I cannot help but worry for great young talent coming up through these competitions, no matter how well-meaning. Let’s face it! We’ve seen too many such promising young singers crash and burn way before they ever should have seen a top international stage.


The Way of the Singer: The Long Road Home

On Saturdays, here in the North, public transportation is scarce. I’ve paid the price several times coming home on a Saturday from some other country and finding myself stuck somewhere and having to pay a very expensive taxi to get home. Over the past year, because I was not able to drive my car, I have gotten to learn the public transport system pretty well and so today I did not panic. But I was only able to almost make it home! The last bus left me some 6 km from the house, and for once in no hurry, I relished the idea of walking home in the Nordic Spring. And as I walked under the little bridge that leads to the straightaway road towards the little village that I called home for the last four years, I found myself a teenager again.

Whether walking home from a soccer game, or singing lesson or from the movies, I relished the time alone in my teens. There was also a bridge then on my way home and I often looked forward to getting under the New Jersey Turnpike overpass when no one was near and started to sing one of my songs. I smiled under this bridge and wanted to sing, but I had not slept much the past few days and so I only imagined belting out the Esultate in the opening of Verdi’s Otello. As I walked the first few hundred meters, the Nordic landscape opened before me and beneath the very distant sky, and surrounded by the very tall birches and dwarfed by the substantial hill ahead, I felt small… young in the middle of this ancient landscape.

As in my youth, I felt the weight of my backpack driving my body and feet into the giving ground, then the spring in my youthful limbs recoiling upward from the ground much faster than they went in. I am still young! In mind and body! Yet this walk, the first leisurely stroll I’ve taken for myself in this adventurous land–this nature–was never inviting before. It is beautiful, yet foreign! It is not inviting now either, but I can cherish it at this moment. In my winter jacket, the Spring does not feel warm. I remember being thankful earlier for sunny weather because I would not enjoy walking for an hour in the rain. Just as my thoughts relished the late afternoon sun, I felt drops and heard a weight of rain ahead indenting the ground as heavily as my feet felt earlier.

My mind was back in Haiti, where rainfall was abundance. A cause for celebration! I smiled as I remember myself with my little friends showering naked in the ample tropical rain. Now, I expected my clothes would be drenched in seconds but no, it all felt dry. It was a flash hail storm, with tiny hail the size of sand. It seized as quickly as it came. Nothing was wet!

This disappointment of rain brought me to the deep disappointment of these years, as with this rain, full of promise that quickly vanished. But with the vanishing of this false rain vanished also my disappointment, my bitterness, my loss, my sorrows…All that was left was a sense of near weightlessness! I released this place into my past and with it its promise of stability. Its promise of settling. The beginning of dying.

I have walked many foreign lands and like false cognates in foreign languages, each has familiar features, which then reveal an entirely different reality. As I come to the entrance of the village, for the first time by foot, I realized that the welcome sign to this New Land, as it is poetically called, is actually quite old and rusting. And the crimson red paint of the houses, which shone blood red at the reflection of the moon over the snow in the winter, is as dark and dusty as decaying blood. In this forest of Birch, I missed both the tall, arching coconut trees of my homeland and the majestic Red Oaks of New Jersey.

Before I turned the corner to witness the deluded grandeur of the structure I called home, and the sleeping river behind it, I stopped at the only eatery in the village–a pizzeria that scantly doubles as a restaurant–to have a beer in celebration of this hour’s exercise. I did not feel tired. This was barely a warm-up, but I felt the tingling of my muscles saying: “How about a run?” …But not here!

My refreshing pint was indeed a celebration. My mind was limitless and free; the shackles of these illusive trappings of security and stability were no longer with me; in my mind, the grandiose shell of this house, of which value I shall take nothing with me, succors for me only the diminutive soulful trinkets that I must pack with me. My music books, a few trinkets that friends gave me or that I acquired during memorable trips and a few kitchen knives from a dear friend, whose presence softened the dark sorrow of the past years.

As the last bit of sun revealed that grand shell of a house, the clouds of my illusions parted to reveal the old building as it truly is. A mirage, chosen for me by others, to give the sacred title of Home. In my soul’s prayer, I thanked this house for the eternal reminder of illusion. “No one picks your home but you,” the mantra echoed softly inside my head.

Before approaching the door, I looked again upon that river, that seems as dead as when it is frozen in the winter, and the little island inside it, where birds kill the trees with their droppings. A dark omen perhaps! The story was told me with humor. That stillness stood often opposite to my turbulent interior.

But this negro does not speak of rivers! I am of the seas! In a moment of meditation, my soul showed me its home, the tiny feet imprinting in the sand of a laughing child whose clear voice lights up the late afternoon Caribbean sky with a clarity that makes distant the roars of both sea and thunder. How I miss the thunder, the turbulent waves, and the conch! My heart awakens my dreams, which are the shades of the Mediterranean–a sea less turbulent, but so salted as to keep my body afloat in relaxation, where the tender voice of a sweet friend chased away the memory of a near-drowning accident in an American pool! My feet have known its rocky and sandy beaches. I’ve feasted on its succulent fish. My voice has never failed there. It must be the salt of that sea! In my heart’s prayer, I thanked the river. It was foreshadowed by the sea of my fears. The North Sea–The Flying Dutchman, Hellespont, the floods of Greetsiel, symbolized by the monument in the town square of its several deadly overflows. Myth and Reality merge to form a Symbol–Fear. The river, in turn, foreshadowed the Baltic. That brackish water that I find hard to call a sea.

And as I enter that structure, I looked back upon two walkers-by. They seem content enough–as content as those who have found their final resting place. Their gait is strong–strongly downward, without the upward spring. Interesting, I did not see that before! In my mind’s prayer, I thanked them, for they made this journey through purgatory with me! Perhaps as my guides!

As I entered the old house, I expected to feel the weight of it again. But no! The weight was shed during my long walk home! Not to this house, but to my soul! I feel the shadow of that weight as I look around and see how much of this heaviness will stay here. How very little I shall take with me! I will grow to love the memory of this place! …But not now!

Life has perhaps four stages I can imagine: 1) The unconscious beginning: it is linear, logical, arithmetic. We grow from small to bigger. Then comes 2) Transformation: earth-shattering, dark, disorienting, lost, philosophical. We become aware of how small we’ve been. 3) Manifestation: Awakening, freedom, joyful uncertainty, becoming ourselves, truth–naked truth, absence of fear, new, informed adolescence. Then 4) Surrender: Releasing ourselves back into the Universe. There is no knowing how long any of these stages last. They are different for each person. Perhaps everyone confuses Transformation for Manifestation. They are in a way both adolescent stages: One is half-asleep, a kind of dreamscape, the other fully awaken. The disorientation of Transformation puts us in a tailspin and we seek harbor wherever we can find it and convince ourselves that we have truly come home. Any lighthouse is a welcome sight when one is lost at sea. It is easy after the maelstrom to imagine the place of the lighthouse to be home. There we risk entering another storm on land.

As I eye the things around this place, I’m grateful. First and foremost, grateful! I take with me the memories of this great, dark, painful journey, but I leave the weight of it all behind. I am thankful to once and for all walk towards the light of my path: the real road home!… Forever!

In a real sense, so is our vocal journey. The beginning stage is not the same for all of us. By the time we begin to sing with seriousness, much has been programmed. Some things good, some others will require work during the transformation stage. How difficult transformation will be will depend on how far from our true selves we have been during the unconscious early period. An easy transformation may lead to an equally easy manifestation. However, while talent may play a bigger role in transformation, it is the human being that the voice inhabits that must be present to inform manifestation. This is were things like patience and wisdom and work ethic will be of extreme importance. When we are smoothly on our path, then the rest depends on how much time we spend here having a more direct and visible impact on the world around us. I would not be surprised if the development of our talents go hand in hand with our developments as people.

© May 4, 2019

Bel Canto: What Was Really Meant?

A simple Google Search of Bel Canto yields a very excellent Wikipedia article as an excellent starting point for discussing Bel Canto. The first paragraph interestingly enough goes as follows:

The phrase was not associated with a “school” of singing until the middle of the 19th century, when writers in the early 1860s used it nostalgically to describe a manner of singing that had begun to wane around 1830.[2] Nonetheless, “neither musical nor general dictionaries saw fit to attempt [a] definition [of bel canto] until after 1900”. The term remains vague and ambiguous in the 21st century and is often used to evoke a lost singing tradition.[3]

By this alone, one could not possibly claim to teach Bel Canto technique with any degree of confidence but one could attempt to understand the principles of Bel Canto by not only investing time reading the many treatise of the Garcia and Lamperti families and their contemporaries like Marchesi and others. But particularly in the Internet age, where short impactful oneliners and soundbites are much more appreciated than any attempt to explain concepts more profoundly and truthfully: Who would you go to? A charismatic teacher who claims a direct line to the Bel Canto Tradition, or one who states deference to Bel Canto Principles as s/he understands them?

I would say that the average singer trying to make their way through would be more attracted to the grand claim, naturally. Substance and scholarship is boring to most. In a performance field, students are attracted to performers, whether they be singers or teachers. The fantasy is more interesting than the reality of hard work, no matter how often successful professionals speak about it. Let us go through this a bit!

Let us take one of the most popular terms from Bel Canto: Appoggio! Do you understand with certainty what this word means? Where as an average single-word search on Google brings up the definition of the word first and foremost, the search for appoggio brings up an entire first page of hits relating to singing. I will concede that the fact that I am a singing teacher could have been factored in by Google and factors in relative to the resultant hits. I go directly to Garzanti, a respected producer of Italian dictionaries (Click here for complete definitions):

1. cosa che serve a sostenerne un’altra; sostegno: era solo l’appoggio del bastone a sostenerlo

In English: Something that serves to support another (thing); support: (There) was only the support of the cane (walking cane) to sustain him

This definition is particularly interesting because it deals with the interaction between two objects: the cane that supports what appears to be a masculine object (lo, masculine objective suffix at the end of “sostenerlo”). But we should consider that without the person leaning on the cane, the cane itself would fall, the ground being a third element in the system. Likewise, in the interaction of breath and vocal folds, we should ask ourselves, what is supporting what and is there a third element in our vocal system. The answer is yes. The system of expiratory musculature that gives a ground (compression of the breath) is the third element. Via that compression, one could say that the breath leans against the folds. Yet, if the folds do not close appropriately, the compression of the breath would be diffuse and there would not be adequate compression to maintain fold oscillation. In a sense, the folds efficient closure might feel also like leaning against the breath. The words leaning against translate to Italian as appoggiarsi a or appoggiare su, which is what the idea of leaning on the breath derives from.

Let us assume we have achieved this sensation of connection between the compressed breath (the cane and the floor, in our analogy) and the vocal folds (the person leaning on the cane). The system is complete! But let us go further in our analogy! Is the cane strong enough to sustain our person without snapping (meaning is the breath compression enough to prevent a collapse in support whereby compensations by other muscle systems would be required)? And if so, would our impaired person end up straining his/her back when the cane breaks (would the larynx have to compensate by squeezing when breath compression is inadequate)? Is it possible that our impaired person is putting more pressure on an otherwise good cane than it can handle (In vocal terms, how would adequate breath compression respond to a pressed tone)? With me so far?

A certain balance is required between all parts of this system. If one part is overactive, it will cause a compensatory response. The system is organic. Therefore, what is the ideal balance? Can someone getaway with a slight bit of pressed phonation or over-compression? Yes. It depends greatly on anatomy, native strength, training etc. There is not one way to maintain the system. However, there is a most efficient balance, and that is the one we seek after throughout our lives. Some of the greatest singers say that when they decided to retire from singing they were just beginning to understand true balance.

Now imagine we have figured out the sensation of breath pressure in the body involving compressed air (via expiratory musculature) against the closing vocal folds, interacting to maintain a manageable balance. There is then the question of how the muscles of inhalation (external intercostals, levator costalis, the diaphragm itself, etc) behave during this compression. Ideally, they should not collapse or they will add breath pressure to the system. Furthermore, if the collapse of the ribcage is the first compression to occur, the actual muscles of exhalation that should activate will not be immediately active until the contribution of costal collapse has been exhausted. It is, therefore, necessary to prevent costal collapse to allow the correct musculature to active for proper support (appoggio).

Now let us introduce the term, morbidezza! I did a search in Google for definition in Italian:

1.Cedevolezza al tatto o alla pressione, spesso associata a delicatezza e tenerezza.”la m. di una stoffa”

In English: Compliance (pliability) to touch or pressure, often associated with delicateness and tenderness. “The pliability of a cloth!”

If morbidezza (pliability) is an added ingredient to our system, it is no longer enough to feel in our bodies the breath pressure associated with compression of air against oscillating (compression during the closing phase of phonation) vocal folds. It must be done in a way that keeps the entire system flexible, while maintaining compression. How does that effect the person, leaning on the cane connected to the ground? The amount of pressure by the person upon the cane, the cane’s material, and the nature of the ground, all lead to the nature of flexibility of the system. Therefore, the nature of the closure of the folds (complete closure, without pressing), the amount of air in the lungs (affects pressure) and how the muscles of breathing, both inspiratory and expiratory act upon the breath. Obviously, it now becomes a little more complicated. Can we maintain flexibility without under-adduction and under-compression?

Let us add another often used Bel Canto word: gola aperta!

A simple definition: Open throat! But what does that mean truly? How open is too open? The Bel Canto teachers did consider a “measure” of openness because they also used the term “voce spalancata” or “wide-open voice”. What is the measure, then? What is considered wide-open? There are those who talk about yawning or pre-yawning or avoiding any such talk about yawning. We have additional direction from the Bel Canto teachers: ” Si canta come si parla!” “One sings the way one talks!”

The measure of “open throat” must be taken “in the context” of the appoggio system, as discussed above. To what degree does open throat help in the balance of appoggio and morbidezza (I’m tempted to call it appoggio morbide–pliable support, but then again, I would be creating one more new term for the modern singer to deal with)?

Modern science allows us to see the vocal tract as one unit including the laryngeal pharynx and the buccal pharynx (excluding the nasal pharynx that tends to weaken the resonance–currently there are diverging opinions on the role of the nose). In terms of the open throat, how does the opening of the jaw, depth of the larynx, velar activity, tongue, and lips interact to create the perfect open throat? And does that conform to the idea of “singing as we speak”? How does the shape of the vocal tract, relative to the tone created in appoggio coordination and in morbidezza, give us the sensation of a gola aperta in a way that contributes positively to the resonance of the tone? Is yawning the best way?

For my part, I believe most ideas can be used short term and produce great results, short term. But eventually, all of these functions must relate to one another to produce a tone that requires the right amount of work from all the different muscle groups. Yawning may help a severely elevated larynx. But is it the best set up in the final phase of technical coordination? Glottal plosives may help a singer who’s been singing very breathily to develop a sense of glottal efficiency. But is that plosive necessary when the singer’s folds are already closing efficiently? Is a tight closure conducive to morbidezza?

What is over-working? What is lethargic?

The current culture is more ready to consider a working singer as an authority regardless of the nature of the product. Is it possible to sing a very pushed sound and be exciting in the opera house? Definitely? Is it possible to sing a relatively unsupported tone and be considered the master of piano singing? Also yes. The operatic singer is a package that includes vocal technique, musicality/musicianship, stagecraft, emotional presence, physical beauty as judged by current ideals, name recognition, etc. It is, therefore, necessary for us to consider a singer’s viability as a package and still determine that substantial improvements can be made on a technical level. In other words, a successful singer is not necessarily a model of great technical balance relative to Bel Canto aesthetics.

In this post, I ask more questions with every answer! That is the nature of our art. We cannot put Bel Canto in a box and say we teach Bel Canto technique because we toss a few Italian words in the air with native pronunciation. It is a lifelong quest for betterment using principles that lead to a better and better understanding of the same principles.

There are so many other Bel Canto words I could throw into the mix to show how profoundly complicated the simple process of singing can be. Simple because the vocal instrument is automatic and responds to the level of precision of our imagination. It is easy to imagine “a” sound, but it is another thing to discover our own best sound.

And thus I leave this post with the words of an Italian singer I don’t know; a young Italian tenor making his way into the world. I found him while looking for a quote, from Gigli, that I have forgotten. From what I hear of this young man, he still has work to do to become one of the greats, but there is something I hear in his singing that suggests discipline and adherence to a process. From what I read, he was a skier who discovered Gigli:

“La differenza tra un cantante d’opera e un altro è che noi ci mettiamo in gioco ogni giorno cercando sempre la perfezione e di migliorare il suono – precisa – Ci vuole uno studio costante e continuo. Non c’è differenza tra un cantante d’opera e un atleta che fa agonismo. In tutto questo però non bisogna mai dimenticare di tenere i piedi per terra”. —Aleandro Mariani

The difference between one opera singer and another is that we (the opera singers) place ourselves in play every day looking for perfection and improve the sound–He clarifies: A constant and continuous study is necessary. There is no difference between a singer and an athlete in terms of competitiveness (determination). In all of this, it is necessary to keep our feet on the ground.–Alandro Mariani

The world of opera singing is dangerously made simplistic, these days, for the sake of young singers who do not have that determination. I don’t know how far Mr. Mariani will go, but with that attitude and the knowledge of what it takes to succeed, I would bet on him succeeding. In a sense, with the above words, he understands the Bel Canto principles better than so many who claim Bel Canto pedigree by just tossing a few well-pronounced Italian words around.

© 30 April, 2019

Voice Teacher and Student, a Dynamic relationship

After more than 30 years of teaching, I am still learning about the dynamic relationship between teacher and student. In the best situation, the relationship is a match. We are after the same kind of relationship. I see vocal study as a lifelong process and my most natural students are process-oriented. They sought me out for sound technical guidance over the long hall. We work on concepts that lead to lasting development, which leads to mentorship ultimately and even friendship. Some of my students have become like family. But that is rare and it should be rare! The mistake is to assume that every student seeks the same type of relationship.

Some students just want to try a lesson or just get a short term perspective from someone outside of their normal circles. That’s where we should begin! That first lesson should not have the pressure of a lasting relationship. Yet, a student may be seeking a new vocal home and the teacher should be ready for that. But whether it develops that far will depend upon how that first “trial lesson” goes.

A typical first lesson–Two types:

I generally begin a first lesson with a short greeting, some small talk about where the singer is coming from, etc. Then I would typically ask: “How can I help you today?” There are two possible answers to this situation: 1) “I would like help with this particular thing” OR 2) “I’m here for a consultation and would like to know what you think I need work with.” In this post, I will not be dealing with the process of a consultation or how I would help with X. That is for another article! Instead, I want to deal with the kind of clarity that is important such that the first encounter might lead to appropriate developments. Either of those two situations should lead to technical/musical work whereby the student understands the subject at hand more clearly. Information is passed from teacher to student and depending upon the level of the student, the exchange can even be profound. In the end, no matter how it goes, it is only a first lesson.

Problems occur when either party has expectations beyond a first lesson scenario. A student may learn something about the teacher before the lesson and behave consciously or subconsciously in a way they think the teacher might prefer. If the teacher is aware, he or she will make sure the dynamics remain as one would expect: “a trial lesson”! Obvious enough!

A less clear situation is the 10th or 20th or 30th lesson. This is enough time together to begin considering if this is a long-term relationship!–At leat one would think. But for some teachers and students, it’s never about a relationship at all! It’s a series of non-committal encounters that have nothing to do with process or long-term development. It’s like going to a kickboxing class to get a workout. There is no real involvement with the other person. Just a cordial “I am here for my workout” situation. Some teachers like it that way! Some students like it that way. There is nothing wrong with it when both parties are clear. The problems occur when the two parties are not on the same page relative to the nature of the relationship.

I am beginning to realize that despite my very modern sensibilities on a great many subjects, I am fundamentally old-fashioned when it comes to teaching. As I wrote above, I believe the best type of relationship for opera singers is a type of mentorship. My core group of students falls under that type of relationship. But life is about balance. The casual student is crucially important to my own structure. Mentorship requires time and being available for the mentee, often at all times. How does one manage that from hundreds or thousands of kilometers away, for instance? It’s a challenge even with available communications technologies! Therefore, when the casual student shows up and we have a cordial business exchange, it can be very low stress. It is pleasant, even when we have a difficult lesson because that student does not have to return next week or next month unless they chose to.

As for the singers that I have a mentorship relationship with, it is important to check occasionally whether they are getting what they need, not to mention that their needs change over time. Their lives are dynamic, especially if they are professionals. Do I have what they need and if not where can they get it? In the best situations, I am only one member of that singer’s team. They rely on me for technical, musical, artistic advice and occasional advice about life. But they have, friends, spouses, agents, coaches, parents, therapists, etc, who help in their decision-making. This too is healthy. In fact, the development of Kashu-do was designed to give our students access to multiple teachers with a common goal. Having different points of view in a relatively homogenous technical environment made sense to me. But even that has its pitfalls. Sometimes a student has access to too many points of views, even within the confines of a system. There are times when a student needs one source of information. Yet they may not realize it themselves.

In order to take advice from different sources, a singer must be able to filter all of that information through a process of their own. Without that, they will feel pulled from several sides when they sense conflict (real or imagined) between the sources from which they receive their information.

The worse case scenario is often not even considered. It is when either party uses the other as disposable. Even my casual clients aren’t disposable. It is a big difference between a casual situation and using the client. A casual client is entitled to my complete attention for the time we are together. We deal with lessons seriously as with any other client. The only difference is we deal lesson to lesson, as opposed to expecting that we will have a future time to continue work begun. For my part, I take into consideration what I can teach within the hour I have with that student and limit my scope to specific doable things. The casual client pays for a product and deserves my best effort. From a pure business point of view, they tend to come back if the lesson was engaging and focused. Yet still as casual clients.

On the other side of the equation, singers also can treat a teacher as disposable–the hired help paid to facilitate what they need. They may not call to cancel a lesson or call to say they are arriving late. What constitutes being treated as disposable? Indeed it varies depending on the nature of the relationship. Even in the most casual of situations, there is interaction and the possibility to metaphorically step on someone’s toes. As much as I can see the virtues of a casual business relationship in singing (because it is more and more the norm today), I do not believe it is the best model for artistic development. A teacher does better work when he or she is invested in the progress of the student. As I wrote above, I am old-fashioned that way! Therefore neither the teacher nor the student is disposable, in the best case scenario.

Often, one party is not even aware it is treating the other as disposable. One such scenario is the serial guru-seeker! There are singers who began their singing lives imagining their teachers to be all-knowing! And when the teacher ultimately becomes more human to them, they are quick to seek the next guru, the next religion! Those situations do not end well usually, because they begin with false expectations of infallibility!

In fact, I have been considering renaming Kashu-do: The Way of the Singer, for exactly this reason. It does not matter how many posts I write about the concept of Kashu-do, the title confuses people. It suggests something a guru might write and perhaps people come into our situations with such expectations. Classical singing, to those who practice it seriously, is a lifelong endeavor of self-improvement. All the top singers I have had the joy to encounter often say this, but that is not the dominant narrative in our current fast-food culture. Therefore to the average singer, who does not yet have a sense of the kind of work it takes to become a professional classical singer, anything that sounds like a process must by definition be cultish! And thus I wonder if my own desire to articulate this “lifelong process of self-improvement” isn’t sending the wrong message about what I fundamentally believe (basically humility before the grandness of the art form). Hence, the first interaction with a student may be colored by the way they interpret the title, “The Way of the Singer”. In a world based on an online reality, the relationship begins even before we meet face to face.

This is a subject that requires several articles, but at least we begin to brush the issues. I would be interested in your experiences and thoughts as both teacher and singer. Feel free to comment on the blog!

©April 18 2019

Kashu-do Voice Lessons in New York City

Kashu-do  Voice Lessons in New York City

13-20 April 2019

 Dr. Jean-Ronald LaFond and his frequent teaching partner,  soprano-voice teacher, Anna-Maria Niedbala will be available in the Big Apple for voice lessons, alone or together (a masterclass is being arranged. Check this page for updates)!




Dr. Jean-Ronald LaFond

Dr. Jean-Ronald LaFond has been active as a pedagogue for over 30 years and currently advises over 100 active professional opera singers throughout Europe and lovers of singing throughout the world.  His studio locations include Vienna, Düsseldorf, Dortmund, Berlin, and Gothenburg. He teaches regularly at the Gothenburg Opera.  He also teaches a full operatic curriculum at the Opera Studio at Härnösands Folkhögskola in Sweden. “Despite his enormous technical knowledge at the forefront of vocal pedagogy, his teaching is clear and easy to understand, perceptive and constructive, demanding and individually flexible. In addition to his musicality, his immense talent for languages and his patience he is,  in a friendly but firm way, both a model and fundamental support along the way for each singer who wants to improve. I would recommend Dr. LaFond at the highest level to anyone who wants to work seriously and consistently with one of the world’s best vocal pedagogues“–Nadine Weissmann, dramatic mezzo (Bayreuth Festspiele, Teatro del Liceu, Komische Oper Berlin, etc…)


Anna Niedbala

Anna Niedbala has appeared as a mezzo-soprano at Sarasota Opera, Baltimore Opera, Chicago Opera Theater and Minnesota Opera and recently made her European debut at the Salzburger Landestheater in the soprano role of Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito. Having worked with Dr. LaFond and the Kashu-do process for over 7 years, Ms. Niedbala has emerged as a talented voice teacher and director in her own right.  She has recently taught and directed at Härnösand Opera Academy and Festival and several masterclasses in Sweden, Austria, Germany and Spain.  She teaches privately in Dortmund, Germany.  “Anna Niedbala has both the large and dark tones for the expansive role and makes clear both the vulnerability and hurt of the scorned [Vitellia]; moving and truthful in  true Mozart style” -Salzburger Nachrichten.

But the big star is Anna Niedbala’s Tosca. An amazing lyric soprano that alternates unobtrusively between crisp heat and full strength. It really was her performance!–Allhända.se

Click below for desired lessons package: