Kashu-do (歌手道): Hit the long drive and then learn the chip shot

George Shirley, my very wise teacher, often used the golf metaphor that titles this post. Mr. Shirley felt it was necessary to sing before one attempts to control the sound. It is important to learn to be a singer before one attempts to behave as an artist. It can also be said that the quality of the art is strongly influenced by the quality of the voice.  A great part of my music education was spent at the crook of the pianos of some legendary collaborative pianists. One of the things it has taught me is that their influence is indispensable when the singer is technically ready for it and most often frustrating when the singer is not..

Conductors and directors are very similar to collaborative pianist in that they all expect the singer to deliver expressive results. They are often the bane of a voice teacher’s existence when the student that goes between them is not ready technically to execute correctly what the coach says. I work with advanced students for the most part and most of them are ready to enjoy the information a coach has to offer. Some do not.; particularly with respect to soft singing. There are many ways to execute soft singing badly. Singing piano correctly is the most difficult thing to do. It requires greater strength. The great singers often said so. But today, particularly in the performance of art songs, singers are willing to sacrifice quality of tone in order to croon the poor semblance of a piano. I did the same for years: trying to make what feels like artistic choices but with no true vocal substance, a concept one of my students aptly calls “polishing turd”. (I think he said he picked up the term from one of his former teachers).

Few singers executed as well-supported a piano as the Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda, so deservedly celebrated for Lenski’s beautiful aria from Chaiskovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

Leontyne Price’s immense control is captured in this historical farewel performance of Aida’s O patria mia. How many singers today exhibit such control at any point in their career let alone at the end.

Franco Corelli, here in Japan displays remarkable control for such a large voice in a spellbinding rendition of the Tosti Neapolitan setting, A vucchella.

In truth, the size of the voice does not matter as to whether one can sing a truly supported piano or not. The only advantage for lighter voices is that they have smaller intrinsic musculature to develop and they more often than not develop the instrument fully and consequently they also develop the flexibility and control that comes from a fully developed instrument.

As the possessor of a more dramatic instrument I understand now how truly difficult it is to develop a dramatic instrument. I am reaching full development of my instrument and it is both satisfying and challenging. The security and control of  this big instrument requires STRENGTH.  For lack of strength, I was trained as a baritone and used all kinds of tricks to get my voice to sound viable (unbeknownst to me at the time of course).  After a month and a half of an upper-respiratory infection, I had lost some strength. But not much. Coming back to singing the past few days, I realized that I had lost some stamina and the voice requires a little more time to recover from a 90 minute practice session. After such, I need to take the next day off. But I am now singing with my entire voice and I have not lost my top. Quite the contrary, the fullness of the voice makes the top that much easier.

For the strength and stamina I will need, my entire body will have to be in the game. To sing softly in a supported manner and controlled does indeed take a lot more strength, as all the great singers often said. That strength will come in the form of the physical rigors required by the art of Kung Fu. After a 15 years absence from practice, it has called back to me, and has brought me to the teacher I was looking for. That subject requires a post of its own and it will come later today.

The purpose of the present post is simply to reiterate that to sing softly one must first learn to sing fully. The way the vocal folds are set-up in a well-focused, full tone, is precisely what is necessary for soft singing.  That set-up (the fold posture) must be very stable in order for the singer to maintain it while changing breath pressure/flow. The folds react to reduced air pressure by medially tightening slightly. That is logical. To send out the same number of puffs of air while reducing volume, the folds must allow less air for every vibration cycle. This will increase sub-glottal pressure to a certain extent. For the laryngeal musculature to remain constant in their balance while sub-glottal pressure rises, they must be very strong. Otherwise, the fold posture will change, usually the folds would thin out and press to maintain pitch. This we do not want. The other alternative is cracking. We also do not want that long term (some cracking is part of training).

The building of vocal musculature is gradual and it changes the way a singer feels certain notes as the strengthening process occurs. I have witnessed the change in different areas of my voice during these past two years. There were times when high notes were easy and middle notes were difficult. Than two months later it was the reverse. Now finally all parts are nearly equally strong. A new level of strength and balance requires further training to become stabilized.  I look forward to the next few weeks. Beautiful pianissimi will not come from me yet. For those we have to go to Youtube and enjoy Gedda, Price, Corelli and company.

© 03/22/2010

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