Kashu-do (歌手道): Of Walking Through Storms and Volcanic Clouds

I wrote to a student recently and on my Facebook page that “Singing costs the singer, but must not be a burden!” I cannot imagine that any singer who makes a career of it could survive in today’s music business without a philosophical ideology.  The precarious life that artists in general live (and particularly aspiring opera singers) offers such challenges as to make anyone wonder why we do this. Indeed some might even think we have lost our ability to reason, and have commented along those lines on this blog.

Not every singer in doing this for the same reason. Some opera singers hope to become famous. Others dream of money and believe their voices to be a means of accessing wealth. Some see it as simply a job, and some see it as a large part of their destiny. For each singer the relationship to the art is different.  I am of course particularly interested in those singers who understand this to be a crucial part of their existence and have embarked on a journey that is sometimes difficult and uncertain. Those are the singers I teach.

May brought with it questions and concerns:  Singers who are amazingly talented who wonder if they will get a job because they are too old or they have vocal issues to work out still or others who have made a Fach change and are hoping they will see the completion of that part of their journey. Some of us have had to deal with the Icelandic volcano and have our travel schedule altered and that means more complication when it comes to international travel.  I am also in the middle of two productions (directing Barber’s A Hand of Bridge and jumping in to sing Frank in Fledermaus for a very talented young director).

Adding peronal issues to all of that, I have not handled this amount of stress in a while and for once in a long time I felt my courage, faith and patience wane. The world looked grim and dangerous and uncertain. When I sang Frank some 15 years ago, I had never sung it before and had to jump in two days before opening night. I miraculously sang the orchestra Sitzprobe from memory the day after I was called and only made two minor errors. I was actually amazed.  By contrast, here I was doing a role I had done before, had plenty of time and was having a hard time memorizing text. It made no sense!  I was also concerned that the opening of Bridge was coming on and I still had not found two extras for a 30-second fantasy sequence.  Panic. I felt tense and alone. Then I went further. I judged myself as weak for not being able to live by the principles I teach. Where are the courage and faith and patience? One of my best friends was in town and stayed with me. He is one of my favorite coaches too and was the first to hear me as a tenor the day I made the decision to make the Fach change. He heard me six months ago and was impressed with my progress. Now that my voice had lost the baritone weight, I was interested to hear what he had to say. The fatigue and stress affected my middle range and I sounded heavy. I was extremely disappointed. As a consolation, he did say the tessitura sounds easy for me now. Still, I wanted his approval.

Then I received a phone call from a dear friend who is almost psychic when it comes to my state of mind. It took two minutes for me to realize that the hell I was in was of my own making. She did not have to say much at all. Some people exude such Peace that they challenge us to remember that Peace as such is found from the inside not from without.  I had been having dinner with my coach-friend and a colleague, both of them very caring people.  I decided that instead of worrying about things that I would be proactive.  I enjoyed the company of my friends, decided the next day to take it easy. I did not teach except for one student who traveled from afar for a lesson.  Then I went to the Berlin Radio Tower after plans for a movie did not work out. I cannot believe I have been here more than 5 years on and off and have not gone to the Tower. Berlin looked so beautiful from above.  From there it became clear that all I could do was act upon those things I could control and forget the rest.

I am able to learn my lines for Fledermaus and I have tentatively my extras for Bridge. Much better than 72 hours ago.  My travel issues are improving because I have a clear vision on how to approach it all. In truth, through my conscious despair, I was not so totally lost. During this stormy phase I wrote the following on my Facebook page: Every unforeseen inconvenience is an opportunity in disguise!

Now for the vocal part! What would my blog be without a vocal part? My dear coach/friend did tell me that I needed more Pavarotti/Di Stefano in my middle and one of my students who was there during that session told me that my top released so beautifully and that my middle should have the same.  At the time I was not listening. I was in a fog. During a break of Fledermaus rehearsals, I went to the practice room and discovered how simple vocal technique could be after the work I had done the past two years. I realized that I could take my chest voice for granted, and I could take even resonance adjustments for granted. The only things I needed to concentrate on what the lean little voice that often seems fake. What I call my Rossini-tenor voice that seems lile a point on the bridge of my nose was all that was necessary along with a thought that the onset began also like a point deep in my pelvis.  This is not a technical advice for basic vocal study. This is almost a meditative sensing of the voice when basic elements are there. I could do this throughout my voice.  It was fun to sing after that and to speak on stage as well. My dialogues felt strong and clear in the large theater. I practiced later that night and had the same results with my singing. A complete simplicity. A clarity I had always hoped for.  Now this must be applied to my daily speaking and I have to develop strength and coordination to sing softly and above high C. All in good time, but the seed of my final training phase has been planted and that at a time that seemed so somber and uncertain.

Perspective is everything. Berlin is even more wonderful from 300 meters in the air. A different view on life is often all that is necessary to be able to go peacefully forward. So thank you to my coach/friend for always being so honest and to my students for always being so caring.  You all bring so much beauty to my life.

© 05/11/2010

3 thoughts on “Kashu-do (歌手道): Of Walking Through Storms and Volcanic Clouds

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  1. It's SO much in the mind, isn't it? That simplicity, that letting-go of our self-imposed restrictions – yet how difficult to have the faith to simply allow it to happen. Considering how much you helped ME in this respect, I am so glad that you managed to rediscover it for yourself at the right time. Inspirational as always. Thank you!


  2. Thanks for sharing this, Ron. Always a source of inspiration. Good luck in your two simultaneous productions!

    It would be interesting to know the different reasons why different singers pursue this strange and difficult path. For me, it is a little bit difficult to put into words. I began singing because I was a musician who enjoyed making music and was told as soon as I tried singing that I was good at it. I had grown up addicted to going to musicals in London's West End and listening to all the recordings of the great musicals, and when I first appeared onstage in high school there was something unbelievably satisfying creatively about being a part of it. But as to why I continue now on this long and arduous path of changing fachs, it is something deeper in a sense. While I enjoyed and was encouraged performing as a baritone, from the time I first heard singers like Di Stefano, Lanza, Corelli, and Carreras, there was something about the romantic expressiveness of the full-bodied italianate lirico-spinto tenor that connected with me on a visceral/emotional gut level. It expresses something that I feel is an essential part of who I am, that I myself long to express. Singing the funny sidekicks and arrogant bad boys of the lyric baritone repertoire has been fun enough, but the deepest part of me longs to pour out the sad, passionate strains of romantic operatic lovers like Werther, Lensky, Romeo, Don Jose, Cavaradossi, and Andrea Chenier. Somehow I feel in my heart that this was the music I was meant to sing, and that I won't be complete until I can. There you have it.

    Thank you for taking this journey with me. It's been such a time of learning and discovery, and I know there is much more to come for both of us.


  3. I have been waiting for a nice clear day to go to the Tower. Unfortunately, there have not been any all month. :/ Wait until next time or go anyway?


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