Kashu-do (歌手道): The Security of Insecurity: Letting go of control

I am a short time away from achieving my technical goals. I have been waiting for a long time for the “small” voice, which had become a medium voice, to become the only voice. I am done building strength, I think and now I can work the different elements with and against each other.  Like every tenor, I am a little obsessed about my high C. I have gone a long way from just wanting to have one, but rather to master it and go beyond it. When I recorded the “small” voice and sang the Bohème high C, it was a beginning of an interesting coordination that permitted a quality slightly fuller than the average Rossini tenor but not quite full enough to be my full voice. But then, the baby cry began to invade my passaggio in a very wonderful way. I began to be able to produce a pure sound, that was weighted enough to allow a natural resonance transition in the appropriate places depending on vowel.  The moment G4 became fully pure, a high C became just another note that requires a balanced approach.  I was first able to go from the full voice to the small voice. Then the full voice became the baby cry, what my friend Gioacchino (Jack) Livigni would call voce magra (lean voice). He has some interesting proprioceptive thoughts on the subject on his new blog, Tenor Talk Blog.  Jack explains that the voce magra (he also calls it the cry; I call it the baby cry) is necessary not only in the top voice but also in the middle, lower and speaking voice.  I could not agree more.

The lean voice is much more than proper closure, or focus as some might call it.  It is truly a complete balance between closure, flow, purity of vocalic concept (given that vowel modificaton occurs as a result of balanced phonation not as a cause), adequate breath pressure/flow, etc. What comes with this exact balance is what Pavarotti also calls “elastic voice”, referring to the quality of his own instrument.  This elasticity feels totally naked, without artifice, a raw voice, a sensation of walking a tight rope, etc.  But a skilled tight rope walker maintains unusual balance in a situation that is very precarious.  Great singers achieve this precarious feeling often in their speaking. Like a baby who learns to walk, these lucky singers learn to talk in a way that builds a perfect balance having gone through imbalance at a point in their development when noone was judging their vocal quality.  I hear this unusual balance in certain young people, pre-teen and early teen and young children. Much more rarely in adolescents and adults.

Most classical singers however have to learn balance over time when they are both conscious of their lack of balance and self-conscious about exposing the same.  In the past, a singer cracking on the way to vocal balance was par for the course. Today, fearful voice teachers do not want to hear their students make any sounds that is remotely questionable. So training is carried out with the goal of some kind of immediate security, producing a sound that does not offend, one that is pretty and risk free.  We forget the animal nature of the proper operatic sound. A scream becomes a powerful balanced tone as Pavarotti often implied!  A tone that wandered from flat to sharp becomes a stable, clarion operatic voice. Every note begins with a clear, small voice that becomes a full lion’s roar. Such is the immediate interplay between gentle, efficient closure and the fullness of a vocalis-induced full voice that results in balanced pressure/flow.  The leap to any high note is a release into a small voice that becomes full again.  There is no note that feels like a rigid place of security, but more like the mastered balance of being able to stand flexibly still on one leg. There is movement, there is elasticity. So is the high C produced and notes beyond it as well. The crico-thyroid dominates the sound but the vocalis grounds it. The dynamic interplay between the closure and depth of the vocal folds is felt like a grounded wild voice, like an untamed mustang who allows himself to be directed by a trusted rider.

Here we go beyond mere concept, beyond mere knowledge, but the refinement of sensing the body at work. I have gotten to the point whereby my knowledge can take me no further.  The rest of the road will be by feel.  Yes my knowledge has instructed me about how to sense the function of the muscles, but now it is about feeling elastic balance, not about finding a secure place.

To find this new level of experience, I made a 180° journey from a baritone voice that was driven by vocalis but with decent CT participation to a tenor voice driven by the CT but balanced by adequate vocalis activity. That balance changes with every note, and I am learning to allow it to happen without my help.  The reason that the change from baritone is particularly hard is that it involves a diametric shift in the way the voice is felt.  As a singer said to me today, training as a singer is difficult because most singers are not willing to give up what works functionably well in order to find their best, true voice. That fearful protection of a less than ideal product is the surest reason for the diminished number of individual, viable voices.

In the 1980s in the United States, something called brick-facing, became very popular.  The concept entails putting a thin layer of bricks or rocks over wooden houses to give the impression that they were made of stone or brick.  The design was superficially pleasing, but it did not strengthen a house with a wooden center that was being ravaged by termites.  The house might appear strong as stone on the outside, but was in fact relatively frail on the inside. Such I believe are the majority of voices in our times. Voices like that come and go because they do not withstand the test of a travel schedule or a two week grueling rehearsal period when one has to sing sometimes for hours. Marking with a frail voice makes it more tired, whereas a strong voice marking actually strengthens because it is structural sound in its function.

This journey has been grueling, instructive, scary, challenging, doubtful, courage-inducing, faith-strengthening and many other adjectives both discouraging and affirming.  In the end, this is not a journey into a career, athough I am certain this will and has already improved my career.  It is a journey into the fragile but powerful center of every singer’s soul. When you know the fire you have gone through, you are not so afraid of the heat that this business dishes out.

In my musical training, I always went beyond what was considered adequate. For musicianship, I spent six years studying conducting with arguably the most sought-after conducting teacher in the world. For acting I found opportunities to do lead roles in Shakepeare and Dickens with great actors, for language proficiency I learned to speak so far 8 languages at different levels of relative fluency. I have gotten excellent reviews for my work as stage director.  I always wanted to know my field inside and out. I overcame stuttering to became unafraid to approach top directors, conductors and singers and agents, simply because I wanted to know what made them tick, not to ask them for favors.  They were always open and obliging.

As a singer I was a good student. I listened to my teachers and became a bass, then a baritone then a bass-baritone. I did what I was told and became pretty good. Good enough to earn my living as a singer more or less since around age 22, whether by full-scholarships or by teaching positions or concert and operatic engagements at various levels. I did better than many.  But in the end, the process was not complete.  The voice was not bass or baritone or bass-baritone, it was unquestionably tenor (now I know that).  16 years of studying vocal anatomy and acoustics in my spare time and applying that knowledge to get to the point where I can do it again like natural singers do. By feel!

Who or what could I possibly be afraid of now? I believe one becomes a true singer the moment the career does not control his/her destiny. The Security of Insecurity is not just a vocal concept, it is a life concept for me.  I am not wreckless!  I know I have one voice and I have learned to find its limits and found that it is able of  far more than even I ever expected if it is trained.

Likewise, I know the limits of the voices of my students, but for them to access all the possibilities, it is incumbent upon them to want to find their true voice and not settle for whatever they can get.  Some students I have only accompanied part of the way and then they reach the limits of their imaginations. Believe me, it is a very heart-breaking thing when you can hear what is possible but the singer does not want to go there.  I have learned to let those singers go and find the rest of their own path, which may or may not have anything to do with ideal vocal training. But I am blessed also to have seen some singers through their final stages, like this fantastic Donn’Anna I worked with today and this amazing student who sent me a clip of her Tacea la Notte from Verdi’s Trovatore.  More than that I must have 30 students who have freed themselves from the fear of the system to be able to develop their best product.  This is most humbling.  I believe we are accomplishing something remarkable together and the fruits of our labors is showing more clearly every day.

It is not that we do not get afraid. It is simply that we are not afraid to be afraid! Fear comes and goes, but we persist on our personal journeys regardless. That is what artists do! None of the greats had it easy. None!

© 10/07/2010

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