Kashu-do (歌手道): The Road Least Traveled

I had wanted to write a blogpost honoring a dear student of mine who has made real what I always believed.  About 18 months ago, I was introduced to an excellent soprano, with such a soulful outlook on life, that it was destined that we would become very good friends.  She and her family make up an important part of my Germany-family and it is with great joy that I am able to see her make her final steps into the higher levels of our field.  I will not name her only because I wish to keep her process private.

It has always been my contention that despite all we are told by agents and intendants that age truly does not matter.  To tell people that they have “aged out” of a anything is baseless and just a cowardly euphemism for “I don’t know what to do with you!”  It is one thing to state this philosophically.  It is another thing altogether to see the philosophy made real by someone’s persistence and pure optimism.

After years working in a small East German opera house, my excellent student who was a fantastic soprano before ever meeting me has begun conquering important opera houses throughout Europe with a series of flawless auditions.  I revel in receiving her constant updates after every audition and it tickles me that this extraordinary artist should gain the recognition she so richly deserves.

Our 18 months together consisted of a steady diet of lip-trills and other occlusives to 1) alter the CT/Vocalis balance to yield a deeper fold posture 2) induce air-flow along a vibration pattern dominated by the superficial mucosal layer of the vocal folds.  In essence have her sing her fullest voice!  A deeper posture makes pressing unnecessary, whereas a shallow fold posture necessitates medial pressure to make up for the loss of time during the vibration cycle.  This is my approach with most singers I teach (not all) because most singers sing what I would refer to as a “shallow sound” that necessitates a glottal squeeze (at least in parts of the range).  Not every such voice sounds squeezed because some very sensitive musicians are able to keep the squeezed adduction along the folds and release pressure by relaxing the arytenoids–a kind of exaggerated falsetto production (only it does not sound like what anyone would refer to as falsetto).

That this soprano is exciting a bunch of people with her extraordinary talent has to do first and foremost with a tireless work ethic that saw her instrument become its best in the last 18 months.  She was already excellent, but she personally felt that there was more to her talent than merely being able to do what was required.  There was a voice made for the dramatic roles but had been treated as an overgrown lyric up to our time together.  A thinner production might have made certain things easier, but it robbed her of fullness in her upper range and made it difficult to access her sopracuti (her upper extension).  Yes a soprano who sings Turandot and Fidelio Leonora, etc can warm up regularly to  F6 and should.  To trust the many high Bs and Cs in the spinto/dramatic repertoire, a full voiced soprano must have those notes.  It used to be normal that spintos and dramatics sing F6 and sometimes beyond.  Coloraturas should sing beyond that.  This too used to be normal!

This soprano so thoroughly exemplifies the Road Less Traveled because she achieved complete technical development at a time in her life when the average singer accepts that their lack of progress is due to natural limitations of their native talent.  The words, “natural limitations of their native talent,” are insidious because of the plausibility and logic that seems inherent in their cold combination.  Sounds curiously academic, in the worst of senses!  Insidious because limitations are only self-imposed even if influenced from without.  What I applaud is the valor of this wonderful woman for envisioning better.  I can certify that during the last 18 months I did not hear from her that she wanted to sing in big houses, although I am sure she wanted to.  What I heard was a desire to sing her best.  Once that was achieved, it was as if the Universe needed to put such talent to work.  I often say Be the light, not the moth! The light attracts, the moth burns out because it is attracted to a light that it cannot endure! By achieving excellence, this soprano attracted an excellent agent who then put her in contact with those who would value her superior talent.  It is indeed that simple!

But this is not about one student, although I feel her achievements should be celebrated in particular.  Today, while sleepless in Gothenburg, I received a touching email from a Canadian student who besides expressing commiseration with my new diet also wrote the following:

…Second, I would like to give you a vocal update that really speaks to your success as a teacher- feel free to use it as an example of your success on your blog or however you like.  Now that I have graduated from my Artist Diploma at the Royal Conservatory and have time to work on technique again, I have been working diligently every day applying the techniques you taught me.  In addition to weekly yoga, I have been doing the chromatic scales on ‘i’, ‘e’ and ‘a’ through and over the passagio and have seen a stunning impact.  6 months ago I could not hold a C5 for more than a second before it cracked and died.  The file I am attaching of my practice today shows a C5 held for NINE seconds.  I also have other sound files if you are interested from today where I warm up to F5, but the notes above C5 are not 100% yet.  They will be, though, thanks to your help…

I love the assertion of the last sentence: “They will be, though…” This student travels many miles for his lessons and by his perseverance honors the process.  He is not alone.  My host in Gothenburg is another source of great pride for our studio.  He in some ways, more than most, exemplifies the principles of faith in one’s talent, courage to have a vision, and patience to see it through. Hard work is a given! I often have to encourage students as they face the difficulties of the process.  This tenor seems to  not need the encouragement.  When the top C does not come out, he will say before I have a chance to: “It’s a matter of time and practice!” Hearing the confidence in his singing this time and the consistency and strength of his top is downright inspiring.  The progress is also notable in his four colleagues (all tenors) that I worked with this time and the young coloratura with the C7 who travels to Gothenburg despite financial difficulties to have her lesson. And so it is with the growing studio in Berlin.  Seeing the joy of achievement in the faces of my students there is such that if I died today, I would feel that I had contributed something to this field that has occupied my attention for the last 30 years.

This is not narcissistic chest-beating!  It is in fact deep humility that I should have the honor to work with such courageous and visionary people, such patient and faithful people, such soulful and loving people.  They give me a means of making a living and furthermore they inspire me on my own less-travelled road that began with choosing singing over engineering, a three-year technical journey and a fach-change to my dedication to Kung Fu and Yoga, and now to a drastic diet change, all in keeping with a vision that will not die as long as I draw breath!  The Way of the Singer is a road less traveled.  That of most of the singers I work with is The Road Least Travelled because it asks so very much of them in terms of personal integrity and faith in a vision that may have begun with thoughts of a career in music, but that goes so far beyond that to the realm of developing as an artist for art’s sake.

With a loving shout-out to the continental American studio, from which I have been absent for a month, I thank you all, my studio-family, for sustaining a Quixotic vision that is greater than our individual dreams and inhabits a collective consciousness that constantly changes us and those around us.  I am so very blessed to be called your teacher.

© 06/06/2011

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