Kashu-do (歌手道): Polishing Turds, The Unfortunate Relationship Between the Under-developed Singer and the Modern Coach-Pianist

I begin the year boldly because this new year must see the repair of many dysfunctions.  I always begin with myself.  I am an unfinished singer!  After nearly four years of trench-work on my voice I am happy with certain things: the physical and muscular stamina that allows me to sing through Radames twice without feeling vocal fatigue.  Yet the quality of the tone still needs work in order to be truly beautiful on a consistent basis.  At 46-years of age, an operatic career is not what drives me.  A vocal ability that reaches the level of the great singers is my goal, and so I don’t care how long it takes.  But indeed I want to sing.  Why develop this ability if not to use it?  On a very practical note, almost no one will have any serious professional interest in me unless the quality of the product I bring out is exceptional.

I want a perfectly consistent, reliable and well-supported high C, the ability to sing all dynamics on every note, flawless coloratura and the ability to trill, a seamless legato and no obvious gear change in the transition between registers.  The rest I have!  No one can dispute my musicianship, stagecraft and linguistic skills.  So I am not a self-hindering perfectionist of the impractical-idealistic type.  I am a practical idealist.  This means that I believe practical achievements are only truly possible with excellent skills.

I know what I have accomplished and I also know what I have yet to accomplish.  I am a performer, first and foremost, and those who have performed with me and know me can imagine how painful it must be for me not to be performing in someway on a weekly basis like I used to as a baritone.  Still I do not want what I had before.   I want the clear, unmitigated excellence that I could not have achieved as a baritone because I am a tenor.  I want no less than this excellence because it is the only thing that I can be truly proud of.  It is also the only thing any decent manager or impresario or serious coach-pianist would be interested in.

In other words, I am not interested in Polishing Turds.  The term “polishing turds” came from the former teacher of a student I currently teach.  The colorful expression can more delicately be described by the following metaphor:  Imagine donning a fresh coat of paint on a house that is crumbling inside from a termite infestation!  Better yet, imagine a singer who makes very pretty sounds on a vocal instrument that would collapse if any kind of adequate breath pressure is applied to it.  We live in a world of digital recordings where so much electronic enhancement can make a substandard voice appear to sound like that of a great predecessor.  The only problem is that acoustic truth can only be altered so much.  The average recording engineer does not have enough knowledge about the acoustics of the voice to transform Bocelli into Corelli.  Besides if he did, the difference in a live performance would be obvious to all.  So the best that he can do, is manipulate the balance between orchestra and voice to make the singer sound a lot more present than he might under true operatic conditions.  The important thing then is that the singer can create a sound that emulates a bona fide operatic voice enough to create the illusion for the modern operatic fan, whose ears may have been conditioned by manipulated digital recordings.  In truth I am not criticizing Mr. Bocelli!  He was a superior Italian pop musician before he ever sang operatic music.  He studied with Franco Corelli enough to acquire the ability to manipulate his resonance to emulate an operatic sound.  But the muscular development necessary to produce a proper operatic sound has not been done in this case.  Nevertheless, Mr. Bocelli is a very sensitive musician who can give the impression of a musical line better than most.  He also has a homogenous voice with easy high notes.  His became the standard for Pop-Opera!  If all of his concerts are held in large outdoor venues that require electronic enhancement, he has all the elements to convince the average, Opera-lite audience member.  That number is a lot larger than the number of bona fide opera fans.  I would not want a world without Andrea Bocelli!  Because his Opera-lite fans (in a world where the difference is made between Opera and Pop-Opera)  could become real opera fans, providing that they have an experience in the house that satisfy their electronically schooled hearing.  Herein lies the problem!  In the opera house, Bocelli’s voice is not viable, otherwise he would be filling opera houses throughout the world!  He tried to sing Werther at Michigan Opera Theater a number of years back and it did not work! Incidentally, his blindness has nothing to do with it.  The balance with the orchestra was the problem.
At least Mr. Bocelli and his handlers recognize the difference and are content to top the charts singing operatic music on recordings and in situations where the sound can be electronically controlled.  Bravo, Mr. Bocelli!

However in many cases, those who hire opera singers do not make this crucial distinction. Hence the title of this first post in 2012.  More Bocelli-type voices are being trained than bona fide, theater-ready operatic voices, first by some voice teachers who are afraid to address the muscular weaknesses of the voices in their care and second by coaches who are taking fragile voices and teaching them to make effects in a small room that does not translate to an orchestral environment.  Lighter voices can manage to sing unsupported pianissimi and create musical effects that simulate the requirements on the musical page.  The average coach-pianist is trained to help a singer become aware of what the composer has written. However, those musical directions are written relative to the bona fide operatic voice.  The superior coaches understand that one must first develop a well-supported sound before they attempt to sing musical directions.  Legato, staccato, portamento, pianissimo, forte, all have a different meaning when the voice is a fully-developed operatic voice.  The coaches who truly grasp the difference are few and far between.  Indeed, singers with bona fide operatic voices, but with unfinished techniques, will have problems in the current system.  Even if they have voices that are more suited to the operatic/orchestral environment, they often do not get pushed forward because their technique does not meet the requirements of the page, which drives both the record industry and the training of the average coach-pianist. The only solution for a singer with a well-developed voice is to finish the job and develop the ability to make all of those musical effects, particularly softer dynamics really well.  Without those skills, an unsupported voice who is able to simulate a pianissimo will get the job over a bona fide operatic voice that has not yet developed the ability to sing softly.

Thus hundreds of coaches make a decent living trying to help under-developed voices sound like the electronically enhanced recordings of pop-opera stars.  No ill-will for the coaches!  They are just doing the job that the environment has made important. Indeed the continuation of the relationship they had with singers at the University level, doing song recitals–All about twisting a fragile voice into a pretzel to create interesting momentary effects.  The days of Hermann Prey and Jessye Norman are gone.  Great songsters who could sing perfectly supported pianissimi and understood the meaning behind the dynamics, as opposed to young singers copying the Dieskau and Schwarzkopf choices that have become standard, whether in Lieder or in the few Mozart Operas where these voices can somewhat be heard.  Thank God for the few professionals that defy the trend–Kaufmann, Pape, Damrau and a few others are just as convincing in Lieder as they are in Opera for the simple reason that they have extremely well-developed techniques and superior musicianship, which they apply to the great music and text they chose to interpret.

What is the point I am trying to make in analyzing this complex scenario?  Simply this:  sending the young under-developed singer to a coach-pianist is tantamount to derailing his/her career.  Either their fragile voices will be twisted into a pretzel in an attempt to satisfying the aural expectations of the electronically-trained ear of young coaches or they will suffer the indignation of the same coaches who will label them unable–unable to twist into a pretzel.

For that reason, I send the aspiring young singers that I teach to old-school coaches who understand their level of development and how to help them develop further into bona fide opera singers.  Until they have developed a real voice, I caution them not to go to just any coach, particularly when they are going through the necessary unstable stages of operatic development.  Those difficult periods are already likely to challenge the singers sense of worth.  They do not need someone reinforcing those feelings of insecurity.

The average modern coach is a finisher, like a house painter or a cake-decorator.  S/he needs a well-baked cake or a house with a perfect frame and shingles.  S/he does not have cement nor extra batter to fill the holes in the singers sidings or cake.  They get very upset when there are holes to fix, since it is not their job.  They do not want to polish turds either!

So singers, save yourself the money and the indignation and save the coaches the frustration.  Give yourselves time to develop real skills, not tricks!  If you have no skills, you put the coaches in the position to teach you tricks (unfortunately, too much of this is taking place). You will find the same coaches become extremely helpful when you bring them something to work with that is within the scope of their trained skills!

For my part, as an unfinished singer, I will not pay someone to get upset with what I am not able to do, but rather go to someone who can make suggestions that will complement my technical work.  To that end, a shout-out to the few coaches I have chosen to spend my time with:  Steven Crawford in New York, a long-time coach at the Metropolitan Opera who understands voices better than most voice teachers I know. His input has helped my own development significantly; Susan Morton of Sing-Through Central provides a great service to young singers, teaching them appropriate roles in a nurturing atmosphere.  As a developing tenor, I have benefited from her friendly tutelage; Alessandro Zuppardo, in Leipzig, a long-time colleague and friend, who was there on the day I decided to pursue the transition to tenor.  His attention to detail made me realize what skills I needed to accomplish before presenting myself to the average coach.  It is great to have knowledgeable and experienced coach-friends who provide a safe environment, where a developing singer can make mistakes without being treated like a total loser.  Thank you all three for everything you do! In addition, I offer my heartfelt thanks to Kanako Nakagawa and Andrej Hovrin, in Berlin who have contributed to the building of confidence in the students I have the honor to teach.  They are demanding and loving, the paradoxical marks of great teachers!

There are other great coaches of course!  I would advise you to seek them out and avoid polishing turds: your own or that of others!

© 1/5/2012

3 thoughts on “Kashu-do (歌手道): Polishing Turds, The Unfortunate Relationship Between the Under-developed Singer and the Modern Coach-Pianist

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  1. Some of this really resonates with me! I began studying classical voice seriously when I was 54 and was not singing with my full voice. Somewhere around my 59th year people realized I was a dramatic mezzo and that that was the rep I should be working on, however imperfectly I still sing it. As an avocational singer in mid-Manhattan, I do most of my singing in a (high level avocational) church choir, as a choir member and soloist, because that's what's available, basically. I had a big “aha” moment reading things you wrote here about pianissimi. Because I can sing a high A I was of course put in the soprano section (most choir alto parts are too low anyhow) and was artificially lightening my voice in a way that was not healthy. Now I am able to sing a supported pianissimo up to an A flat, which is enough. Yes, I think lighter voices are preferred in general these days, as you say.


  2. J-R,
    This is a bold, brave, and wise post. Thank you! This is important reading. In Washington DC, I would add Gillian Cookson to the list of coaches who understands where singers are on their journey, and does not teach “tricks” of any kind. She has worked with some of the greats, as well as teachers in the trenches such as myself. I have worked with her for about three years and she has always been supportive of whatever technical issue I was working through/experimenting with.

    I love the truth, the boldness, and the encouragement in your writing. Cheers, Brian


  3. JR, I have heard much of what you have said here before, but not in such clear terms. I had my share of “teachers” who are really such coaches, or well-meaning friends who don't provide the safe, nurturing environments. I have had my share of crying after these sessions. BTW, can you add some names on the West Coast (of US)?


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