Kashu-do (歌手道): 10000 Voices To Mastery

It is always a time for contemplation when I leave one of my homes to the other. As I prepare to leave for Europe tomorrow, I feel a rare sadness at leaving my New York students.  This time in New York passed very quickly. 28 days felt like 28 hours and it feels like I taught during most of it. I felt particularly inspired by my group of regular students. When I decided to leave academia and go freelance a few years ago, I swore that my only criteria for teaching a student would be that the student needs to sing.  My late mentor, Glenn Parker once said that a singer is someone who must sing and low and behold I have a studio full of singers who simply must sing. This explains why they persevere when it can be so difficult and discouraging and frustrating, and why they ultimately triumph.

As some of my students who have had difficult changes begin to experience balance, they begin to have expectations about the nature of the path to their ultimate mastery. This is a new problem. One I remember clearly going through about 18 months ago. Particularly for my ex-baritone tenors, when basic coordination has been achieved and they can do tenor things, they begin (as I also did) to have a sense that they are reaching a level of functionality that might permit them to audition or perform. During this new phase of functionality there usually comes the disappointing feeling that stamina seem to be inconsistent from day to day. That certain specific notes can be easy one day and difficult the next. These are the things that vocal pedagogy books do not talk about.

Teachers often concentrate on the qualities of the final phase: pure concept of vowel, optimum resonance space, peak efficiency of phonation, perfect pressure/flow conditions, etc.  I cannot find any pedagogy book that speaks to the 10000 stages of relative vocal imbalance or tenuous balance before the true stability and strength of mastery. Among them are most notoriously the wobbly stage, the phlegmatic stage, the mucousy stage, the cracking phase, the squeezing phase, the beginning of true balance stage, the euphoric stage of first abilities, etc.  Many different voice qualities peek out during each of these phases and the student sees them all as undesirable. But they are all necessary and to a certain extent inescapable. Whether the student gives himself/herself permission to crack or wobble during the formation phase, they will crack and wobble, even if they try with all their might to avoid it.

There are more than a dozen muscle pairs that govern the balanced working of the larynx and they need to be appropriately developed to work in synergy. Yet the principle that “the larynx should be passive during singing” confuse teachers and singers into thinking that everything in the larynx should be inactive, when in fact it is the very active working of these muscles that set up balance between breath pressure and breath flow, which feels as if the larynx is not doing anything. Unfortunately, we tend to listen to singers who developed unconsciously.

Imagine a young girl in the bronx who grows up playing in the streets with her young friends always calling out to her friends from many blocks away! She develops very strong vocal muscles. Imagine in her teens she joins her church’s gospel choir and sings regularly this very muscular vocal music! Imagine this young girl is then discovered by her high school teacher and taught to better coordinate her already strongly developed voice! Is it a surprise that she has a stronger voice than most of her colleagues at conservatory and ends up winning most competitions and ends up having a professional career?  That in fact is the story of many young African American singers that are often said to have special voices because of their race.  This is a wrong assumption. The girl has a powerful voice because her environment gave her the opportunity to develop her voice.

Imagine such a singer one day becoming a voice teacher because she had a good career!  What will she teach?  She never realized that her voice was being developed when she was yelling in the streets playing double-dutch with her friends. She never realized that she became a star of her gospel choir at church because of the same unconscious training in the streets. She will teach what she learned consciously. She will teach attention to breath flow and releasing the jaw, and singing intelligible vowels, but will be surprised when the students do not achieve a high levels. How could they when they did not have her muscular training? But since that training was unconscious, she never imagined that this was a factor. So she deems that her students were not very talented. They did not have a “God-given” voice like hers.

As one of my students reminded me today: “…I thought vocal study was about coordination!”  <> This latter quote is one of the biggest misunderstandings. It does not take conditioning into account. An opera singer is to the average amateur singer as an olympic marathoner is to the average jogger.  Or so it used to be.  There are a lot of current singers who have charisma, a pleasant vocal color and strong musicality but who are not muscularly fit to handle the rigors of operatic rehearsals and performances.  

Great opera singers develop in environements that train their voices before they knew they were being trained. Whether playing loudly in the streets of the bronx or being part of the choir system in Sweden from age 7 or growing up speaking Italian, great singers have an early advantage. Nowadays, most singers coming out of the conservatories and colleges come out with some basic coordination but not the muscular training to handle the requirements of opera. In order to be prepared they have to find a teacher who puts them through the paces, and makes them experience 10000 voices of relative imbalance before achieving the unique vocal quality of a fully developed operatic instrument.

I am proud of my students. They have come to realize what a fully developed operatic voice feels like and sounds like and they are dedicated to developing their own voices muscularly to that level. When so many singers are muscularly under-developed with respect to their voices, a path to success consists, in large part, of developing the voice to its fulles potential.

© 09/13/2010

4 thoughts on “Kashu-do (歌手道): 10000 Voices To Mastery

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  1. Right on! And well put!

    The next step is a good series of vocal strength building exercises that can be done the same way soldiers do their daily pushups and swimmers do their daily crunches and volleyball players do their daily squats. And then the discipline and trust to work out every day.

    I also wonder if there isn't some sort of taper-effect that can happen. When I was a swimmer we would start the season with long, high-yardage workouts, but taper before big meets. Tapering meant more sprinting but less yardage. More rest for the muscles to rebuild. This is awfully similar to what happens in the average opera rehearsal process, where you might sing a role more than once a day for two weeks (give or take a couple of high notes if marking) and then you get one day off after the dress rehearsal before the first performance.

    – Klaus


  2. Excellent points, JR. The issue of coming into serious training with a strong or a flaccid throat is rarely addressed. My vocal environment in an agricultural village in Iowa, for example, was very quiet. We rarely shouted, and speaking quietly was constantly stressed in and out of school. Our choirs, while plentiful and popular were places of extremely light singing.


  3. This reminds me of Malcolm Gladwells' book Outliers. One of his points is that what we think of as genius or talent or natural ability is more a function of our environment combined with the passion to work at something.
    One example he gives is how, because of the cutoff age for playing youth hockey in Canada, almost all top hockey players are born in the first three months of the year. They got all the attention because they were, on average, bigger and stronger within their year. And the only way to become the best at what you do is to constantly get the best opportunities, as these boys did.
    It seems likely that the loudest, clearest voices throughout school get the best opportunities for further vocal development.


  4. Absolutely on point, both! Brian I think this one of the most crucial issues. Must determine what kind of strength and balance the student comes in with.

    Klaus, I have quoted Outliers here often. The Matthew Effect makes perfect sense to me. A wonderfully logical book, if you ask me!


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