Singing is a science. It is predictable, repeatable, and can be taught in a uniform manner. You simply learn to apply the correct muscular control to breathing, phonation, resonation, and articulation, and then sing. There is no mystery to it. Your mind controls it. There is one technique that works for everyone. You must learn the names of those portions of your anatomy that are involved and how to control them. For instance, you learn to keep the larynx low. Beware the teacher who uses metaphorical language or concepts of tone.
The previous paragraph aptly portrays the opposite of what vocal technique is and what technique accomplishes. Shinichi Suzuki tells teachers that what we must aim to create in teaching music is beautiful souls. Teaching students technique is secondary. How do we help people realize the beauty of their souls? By nurturing them in love. This is not "pie in the sky" idealism that knowledgeable people rightly reject; it is the hard work that surrounds building trust with a student, teaching her technique in a way that builds her self-confidence, and encouraging that student to perform openly and freely at her level of competence.
In 1984, I witnessed Carlo Bergonzi teach at the Bel Canto Seminar in Busseto, Italy. Bergonzi displayed greater vocal knowledge and artistry than any teacher I had seen. He succeeded with all types of voices and personalities, in the face of all types of vocal problems. At the same time, he demonstrated little knowledge of vocal science and scoffed at the need to know physiology and science in approaching the art of singing.
Perhaps a certain amount of quantifiable knowledge is necessary in order for teachers to let go of that knowledge and get on to the business at hand, the business of creativity. Certain concepts about good singing are universally accepted by singers and teachers of singing. Describing these concepts is easy; putting them into practice and making them second nature proves difficult.
The technique of singing deals with concepts of tone and beauty, musicality and meaning, and expression and identification. It is a way of achieving beauty, goodness, and truth. Technique helps one find what is best and brightest within each person involved in singing, both performer and audience member, the performer by drawing out her inner beauty, the audience member by resonating with that beauty. Technique leads to artistry, which in turn leads to enlightenment and sharing the richness of life.
We start with creating beautiful souls.
As a voice teacher, I translate this to mean that, in working with each singer, I begin by helping the student find the voice that best suits his individual personality, the voice that most aptly reflects his spirit and character. Only then can the student build a technique suitable to his temperament and talent. Technique must be tailored to the individual needs and to the individual mindset of the pupil.
My approach is to keep the student's personality uppermost in my mind during training. First we establish the one point deep within the student where he focuses his breath and from which the pure sound emanates. Next, we seek the projected sound, the part of the sound that reaches the audience. This part of technique defines why some small voices project better than some large voices; it is the sound defying amplitude and allowing the basic miracle behind opera to take place. This miracle is the voice traveling to the back of a large hall, despite the imposition of an orchestra making sounds of great amplitude.
At this level of involvement, emotions color the voice and the projected sound. Projection requires emotion and singers must embrace, as actors do, the art of projecting emotions. Here technique meets interpretation. Here the singer literally breathes life into the music. Here it is most important that the singer not vocalize the music, but transcend vocalism and tone for the sake of creating her art. In fact, should the singer revert to vocalizing, the voice diminishes, the projected sounds evaporate, the meaning becomes "practicing," and the singer loses the excitement of performing.
Horowitz was asked if the number of extremely talented young pianists concerned him. Did he fear losing his position among the stellar performers? He responded no, that he didn't fear them. They are very talented, he agreed, and they practice like demons, making high demands of themselves, and then they go on stage before an audience and practice some more.
When singers reach the point of projected sound, using the words and emotional energy as the basis for tone, they establish naturalness of sound before developing tone and line of voice. By establishing this point of balance first, the student can develop his tone and vocal colors while referring repeatedly to the feel and texture of producing natural sounds. The voice need never become encumbered by tone, space or color to the point where singing becomes burdensome; rather the singer seeks that place where natural sound and tone meet, the place where the voice rides the breath in an easy manner, not overly colored by tone, not overly strident in articulating words.
This point of balance is a tender area for singers at all levels of artistry; many professional singers fall into the trap of trying to sound too much like a professional singer, too much like a "mezzo" rather than herself, vocalizing rather than singing. In trying to make the sound different from what it naturally is, the singer finds herself losing the very color and tone she meant to augment. The voice responds to losing the balance between naturalism and tone by closing, by becoming either precious-and-small or large-and-strident. Often the problem emerges from the singer's profound efforts to maintain technical progress and refinement.
Obsession with technique limits the singer's performing and limits the singer's technique.
Many technical devices can be compared to accelerating one's automobile: Once one finishes accelerating to the desired speed, one must let up on the acceleration. Some singers use a valuable technical device to the extreme and lose the very progress they made with it.
Or they use it out of fear, obsessing the device and its limitations for fear of returning to the problem for which they first used the device. I asked a young lady to sing vowels more forward and freely through her passaggio, and she told me that she feared she would sing flat if she were to sing freely. I then asked her intentionally to sing flat for me, and what she created were gorgeous, open, free vowels precisely on pitch. Sometimes permitting a singer to do his worst allows him to create his best.
When a singer achieves total commitment, transcending technique and putting real emotion in the sound, she creates something new continually. Spontaneity and intuition take charge over the well-planned and well-constructed tone. The singer really doesn't know what will happen, because she is "playing the moment" to the degree that she relies on her memory to create what comes next while her awareness focuses on the immediate moment. Much of vocal training is letting the student's technique become second nature, in the same way that executing a turn signal while driving a car becomes second nature. Some part of the driver is responsible for turning on the turn signal, but it requires no conscious energy and takes nothing away from the focus of the moment. Much of vocal learning is grounding the technique, anchoring it into the subconscious realm where it becomes predictable and comfortable, without becoming self-conscious. Then the student can consciously make music; she can focus on the drama of the moment and have fun while performing.
How do you reach that point?
First you struggle to master the concepts of good singing: open, free, pure vowels riding the breath; tone emanating through an open throat; articulation of natural-sounding words that utilizes the vowels and tone, not manipulates them. As these concepts become grounded in the voice and psyche of the student, as he moves from focused attention to second nature, you ask the student (or yourself) to sing unselfconsciously. Perform the phrase without letting us know that you know it so well, without letting us know that you know the high note will work; sing it differently this time. Hopefully this suggestion allows the student to overcome his limitations of technique and flip into the performing mode. Singing then becomes a natural extension of personality rather than a technique imposed on someone.
This point of departure may not come for some time; it may not develop during the undergraduate years of vocal training, because the confidence and second-nature sense of using the voice may not develop before the student matures technically, emotionally, psychically, and, of course, physically. At the same time, teachers of beginners and intermediate students who have not yet reached this point of confidence can continually prepare students for it, teaching the small increments of technique in a "let's move to the unselfconscious use of it" fashion, returning again and again to the natural sound, the sound that the student creates without efforting the technique, making music at every level of singing.
Working with this attitude toward technique and performing also prevents much of what is called stage fright. If we practice with our focus on "what's wrong?" we will perform with the same focus. If we practice performing, however, and shift into performing mode as often as possible during practice, then we acclimate ourselves to perform with a focus free from fears and free from "are we doing it right?" We create a musical and dramatic message by focusing on projecting the meaning behind the words. Transcending the balance between freedom and discipline is an important concept to be taught and to be practiced by the teacher and pupil. Too much focus on freedom leads to singing that loses its technical base; too much focus on discipline leads to singing that loses its spontaneity and confidence. There is a point of focus in our awareness, a form of energy, that transcends the either-or-ness of maintaining balance, and integrates both within a loving attitude.
How do you know when you can ask this unselfconsciousness of a student or of yourself? You know that you can when the sound defines itself as good vocalism, honest to the musical meaning, and free enough to try something else. There is a sense of beautiful singing that demands something else. There is a sense of beautiful singing that demands something be added to it. I own a recording of Kiri Te Kanawa singing Strauss songs. She performs them with beautiful vocalism, exquisite breath control, and adequate musicality, yet something is missing--call it passion, spontaneity, or risking. Her singing lacks this special dramatic quality, this rendering oneself emotionally naked before the microphone. She sings a beautiful rehearsal.
Ms. Te Kanawa is not the only one caught in the rehearsal syndrome. Paul Hogan says that he tells his American friends,
I have to remember as a teacher that students reflect the attitude that I project in lessons. If my approach is creative, spontaneous, not knowing what will happen next, then the student will be creative, responsive, and spontaneous. Likewise, if I'm going through the motions, caught in habitual patterns, stuck in the rut of another day's teaching, the student will be predictable and lackluster. Inspiration is not totally reliable; we are, after all, human beings. I may be at my best and the student not able to do anything; I may feel the BLAHS and a student comes in and inspires me to teach better than I should.
My responsibility in teaching is to try to reach the same creative centering and breath focus that I would have my students reach in their singing. Then I apply to my teaching the same technique that I would have the student apply to his singing. If I reach that point of creative balance and tension, I am beyond the dilemma of being attentive to the student while not being intrusive. I am beyond it because I am teaching by example.
The development of technical skill leading to the point where the singer can flip into unselfconsciousness involves perfecting the basics. It includes developing grounded support, tone, pure vowels, and free articulation. Students perform successfully at different levels of technical prowess. You need not have the skill of Te Kanawa to sing a beautiful "Ave Maria." You need encouragement, grace, and the guts to risk yourself emotionally. You need a modicum of technique. Robert Shaw reminds us that in music we strive for perfection knowing we fall short. Perhaps this is the meaning of grace in our lives, that perfection is not "consistency" but "completeness." Some theologians interpret Christ's admonition, "Be ye perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect," to mean "try to be complete as God is complete." Consistency/perfection is not within the possibilities of human nature.
I learned in college that mathematical models are either consistent and incomplete, or complete and inconsistent. I choose as a singer and teacher to strive for completeness, recognizing inconsistency as part of being human and not an obstacle to growth. Inconsistency, in fact, is necessary for creative growth: Improvement requires change in behavior, or inconsistency. No artist stands still; one improves and grows or one's artistry atrophies.
The greatest singers of our time have more bad days than the next greatest singers, who are consistently good but rarely inspiring, rarely lifting the audience beyond the scope of everyday-ness. Sammy Davis Jr. once said that what makes a professional is how he sings on a bad day. The professional knocks your socks off on a good day, but when his child is in the hospital, or when he has a cold, he will still sing well enough to justify your cost of admission.
So technique remains a means to an end, the end being to know that no end exists. Technique exists only as a means to bring out of the singer (to "educate" the singer to) the colors, the emotions, and the depth of personality within her in auditory form. The moment technique becomes the goal, the art dies.
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