Rediscovery as New Discovery

Constantly searching for a radically new technical approach?  Some “magic bullet” to deliver instant technical perfection?  What a waste of time and energy!  To do so is not unlike searching for the exotic (even expensive!) diet that will shed those omnipresent 20+ extra pounds, while the latest research shows that simple monitoring of caloric intake is the best approach for weight control…not great news for authors of diet books.

Good singing is not unreasonably complicated, not “rocket science.”  Singing is a skill (actually a group of skills), and has much more to do with coordination than intellect, more with imagination than knowledge of physiology and acoustics.  Continuing growth can be a way of life, if a few essential techniques are consistently made new.  As with common tasks (driving a car, e.g.), virtuosity is gained through discovery of how to apply and adapt relatively few technical intentions.  Other than “low larynx, high palate” (the essential open throat), low/efficient support and a pliable system of resonators and articulators, what other technical fundamentals can there be?  Yes, the overarching principle of poise and balance, instead of tension and over-pressure, is vital.  The essentials are relatively few, though, as agreed on by most good and reputable teachers.

My disclaimer for the above paragraph is that most of us can certainly benefit from reading, listening, and studying voice pedagogy and related disciplines.  However, much is to be gained in simply maintaining a fresh commitment and openness to newly comprehend those Bel Canto fundamentals that are our tradition.  [There is a distinct difference between comprehensive, systematic “technique” and “technique” as particular, individual tasks.  A future post may further explore how new and insightful ideas/approaches can honor and support the essential, comprehensive technique that has been with us for centuries.]

Rediscovery (to newly comprehend) is much more than simply reheating yesterday’s tuna casserole.  It may be sparked by varying the tried and trusty old recipe.  Growth and progress often result from reexamining the lessons and truths learned yesterday.  In the same way that a performer recreates the truth of music and text with each performance, we seek far more than dull repetition.

Young singers must not allow themselves to become confused by words or teaching approaches that seem unduly complex and mysterious.  The fact is that not all teachers are good communicators.  On the other hand, I have long suspected that some teachers are intentionally vague — “stringing along” the worshipful student who is in a disassembled technical state, at the mercy of the master with the wisdom to put the voice back together and set the student on a path to stardom!

In developing a comprehensive vocal technique, it is important to understand the motivation for calling on a particular technical concept or vocalise, not to sing mindlessly.  The mind of the singer, though, is not only found in the left brain, it is (to quote an earlier blog entry) to “think with the body.”  As the person and the body change somewhat each day, fundamental techniques must be reinterpreted and rediscovered.  There can be no substitute for consistent, centered, observant and inspired practice.

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The Confident(?) Performer

Is your apparent confidence well-founded, or are you misleading all of us — yourself included?  The attractive and socially-adept performer can seem prepared, due to the abundant poise and charm that he/she wears like a glove.  When blessed with a beautiful voice and sensitive musicality, this smooth but unprepared performer can fool many of the people, much of the time.  Audiences can be tricked (for a while!) by a veneer of gestures, expressive smiles and flashy vocalism.  The voice may impress with beauty, size, or “the sound” that is thrillingly appropriate for certain repertoire, yet the illusion of authority will eventually collapse.

Even if the performer does not suffer a meltdown or encounter obvious problems, the impressive veneer will ultimately wear thin; one cannot forever hide the lack of imaginative preparation.  The honesty and power of the performance will be lost, for if the singer-actor does not practice imaginatively, he/she cannot call on imagination to render a performance that rings true.

In preparing a song, aria or role, one must find the essential truth of both text and music, early in the process.  Ideally, the artist begins to internalize texts, even before getting melodies “into the voice.”  For this reason, the tasks of translating, identifying dramatic context and poetic intention, and other literary study are much more than busy work demanded by the teacher or coach.  They are the collective down payment that the artist makes on future, confident performances.

Those confident performances are not simply efforts to duplicate previous outings.  Each performance is a newly created event, so that the performer is essentially a re-creator.  Effective preparation of a song, aria or role lies in discovering choices (interpretive and vocal) that lead to an honest and powerful performance.  With clear intentions guiding the way, one’s improvisatory energy serves as a lens through which the imagination releases a dynamic, fresh, creative beam.

Often, I remind students that notes are not the music, and words are not the thought.  One cannot effectively personalize a performance without a relatively broad and deep knowledge of what the composer and author have created, as represented by those ink marks that comprise the score.  If the artist imaginatively brings the printed page to life during preparation, the imagination will ultimately help to unlock consistently strong performances.  With thorough and diligent preparation, the performing artist earns the right to be confident.

I enjoy the anecdote that I heard from Lee Trevino, the beloved golf champion with such a gregarious public persona and surprisingly philosophical mind.  The interviewer (Roy Firestone, on ESPN back in the late Eighties) remarked that winning the US Open as a young, unknown, Mexican-American athlete must have been a huge confidence-builder.  Trevino immediately disagreed, “Oh, no.  Let’s say I have a 90-yard wedge shot to the final hole of the tournament, with a simple 2-putt to win.  If I haven’t successfully made that shot hundreds of times in practice, all the positive thinking in the world won’t help me to win the tournament.  Confidence is gained in the practice rounds.”

In preparation and in practice, one identifies and incorporates choices that allow the most honest and effective performance.  Repeatedly carrying out those choices leads to dependability, thus confidence.  Relying on talent, intelligence, adrenaline, superhuman effort, or good luck is no substitute for that confidence.  Get yourself to the study hall and the practice room…make a deposit into your own confidence account!