Kashu-do (歌手道): Of Oil-Rigs and such: Final Stages

At a certain point, a student will say: “now you are sounding like other voices teachers!”  That is because suddenly I start to concentrate a lot more on head voice, squillo, focus, brilliance, exactitude in vowel modification, etc.  They will often ask why I did not center on these issues at the very beginning.  The answer is simple:  they were not ready.

I find an apt analogy in the construction of an oil-rig. I imagine it takes a great deal of energy and time to set up an oil-rig and probably an eternity before modern technology made such things much easier to construct. But in the end, the oil-rig itself is not the important product. It is merely a means of arriving at a much more important end, which is to extract the oil. 

On that score, I contend that many teachers work on fold closure and squillo before the instrument is set-up to achieve such final coordination.  The fold posture necessary for flow phonation is not automatic in any singer.  Of course, fold posture readiness is a matter of degree.  Some singers have such speaking habits that foster excellent fold posture for singing, at least in parts of their range.  But adequate CT-TA balance throughout the three-plus octaves of modal range is required before efficient fold closure that yield a sustainable flow pattern can be achieved.  For that reason,  I may do full-voiced lip-trills with a student for an entire year throughout the range, until the folds have been balanced to a proper pressure-flow balance.  As a tenor, I could not sing a high-C until I was able to produce a full-voiced lip-trill on that note. Even today, producing a full-voiced lip-trill on a high C is not easy. But once I do it, the head-voice high C becomes possible and flexible.  I also know that there are notes beyond that C, because I teach a dramatic tenor who can do the same up to F5 and we have recordings to prove it.  I am waiting for the clips from his lesson to feature that phenomenon on the blog.

When the rig has been set up, the harvesting of fluid, brilliant tones becomes possible.  Then spontaneously, a coloratura wonders why the high Fs and coloratura was ever a problem, or a tenor wonders why a high C is considered such a difficult note when he can sing a fourth above it in full-voice.  Yet it should not shock anyone to hear that it took this husband and wife team of heldentenor and dramatic coloratura two years of a steady occlusion diet to achieve the strength for such feats.  I had a lesson with said coloratura yesterday. A short while before, the high Fs where unpredictable and the coloratura passages of the Queen of the Night’s second aria was uneven and she did not feel she had the breath capacity to achieve it. Yesterday, she was another singer.  After she vocalized on occlusives to A6 (a 6th above high C), it was clear to me that she now had the strength to trust the structure (the rig).  Now she could concentrate on head voice, breath flow, efficient closure without a squeeze and that sensation that the entire thing rides on a cushion of breath.  And it was all easy and immediate. Simply because she was ready to do it. 

But when a teacher does something that people might consider unconventional (even when science supports it) it is a great joy when students achieve the final product, and the process is proven.  As a singer this helps me personally to see the process work so well.  In fact the majority of students I teach currently, I have teaching for about two years.  That seems to be the amount of time it takes to get the instrument to peak readiness throughout the range.  With younger students who did not cultivate bad habits, it take less time.  With singers who have had a 20 year deficit in the wrong fach (like me) it can take longer.  It is the most exciting thing to hear yourself begin to sound like your heroes. 

The point here is what Orson Wells said in the wine commercial: “Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time.”  Indeed we cannot extract any oil before the rig is set up.  This is the hard work that the traditional teachers used to do. Muscular training until the instrument is ready to handle the work of singing difficult repertoire. And do not fool yourself, dear reader!  There is no easy repertoire until the instrument is ready. But when it is trained (as in muscularly strengthened in balance), suddenly everything feels easy.  I submit that great singers are made not born.  I do believe in a higher consciousness and if God instill a gift, it is a gift of passion—An unrelenting need to follow the path of a singer, with all of its traps and barbwires.  Along these lines, in Kung Fu class we were talking about the tests that Shaolin monks had to go through to become ready. The tests were death-defying and some monks died in the process.  Then I watched a movie called The 8 Masters that featured precisely such a test.  Perhaps a singer’s tests are not physically death-defying, but they are at least life-changing in a spiritual sense.  True singers (those who simply must sing, no matter what) are challenged to their core to achieve their highest purpose. And there is a physical part to this training.  It is an extreme workout that touches on every muscle in the body at some level.  Vocal training, like Kung Fu, challenges our spirits by challenging our bodies and our minds.  Indeed every discipline taken to its highest level challenges in this way.

© 02/05/2009

One thought on “Kashu-do (歌手道): Of Oil-Rigs and such: Final Stages

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  1. Well said, as ever, my friend. I had to laugh at the last paragraph – if you have a mo, look at my last blog post – I was saying exactly the same, making comparisons with the ballet dancers I had just watched 🙂


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