Eternity

A fundamental truth has brightened my mind and spirit in the last few minutes. I think I’ve known this for a long time, but now it seems so very clear. (Btw, I was listening to Al Green sing “Don’t it make you wanna go home?” when I was enlightened. There’s the singing reference that makes this post at home here on Kavbar’s Blog.)

As a Christian believer, gifted with faith, my long-term (if you call eternity “long-term!”) happiness and well-being are assured. However we conceptualize Heaven – we actually know little or no detail, based on the Scriptures – our eternity will be absolute joy and fulfillment – yes, Life itself.

In the meantime, the life we lead here is best and most joyfully carried out in service and love towards each other, and to the world as a whole. This is the fundamental basis for Christian mission, ethics, morality, et al.

I surely want to be reminded of this clarity of thought and identity, and intend to search the Scriptures for the countless references that lead to such an awareness. Now I’m on record, and want to be held accountable!

Please note: as one gains “chronological maturity,” essential and basic truths like this, that we’ve heard and read for so long, seem more simple and tangible.

Also note: a follow-up to this post could well explore the context and role of worship and its centrality to everything written here. Maybe later.

Salt

His use of the language was surely better taken in by native German speakers. For me, it was not easy to understand much of the Sunday morning sermon in Vienna’s spectacular Augustiner-Kirche. The priest spoke considerably faster than those who had delivered sermons on previous Sundays. Come to think of it, even if he had spoken in English, I think the pace was a bit too quick. But that’s not the point.

The point is that I “got” a few essentials, largely because the woman who read the Gospel spoke more slowly. It also didn’t hurt that I already know the words of Matthew 5:13-16,  the lectionary assignment for that day. “You are the salt of the earth…”

The scripture speaks to what I believe is the chief reason we are here–to spice things up! But salt is more than a flavor enhancer. At least two other vital characteristics were highlighted in the sermon. Here’s where my thoughts began to turn towards singing…

Salt is a preservative. Before easy access to refrigerators and freezers, it was much more common for meats to be salted in order to keep them edible for months, not merely days.

Salt also melts ice. To melt ice and snow is essentially to destroy them. True, they actually only change form, but think about that the next time you want to build a snowman!

So, salt has the power both to preserve and to destroy–two dramatically different actions, yet both essential. Salt is less likely to destroy foods, and it certainly does not preserve the ice on your driveway.

Breath support/appoggio is a lot like salt. (Here it comes…you knew we would get around to vocal technique.) The basic nature of salt does not change, however it is used. The determining factor is how, when, where and in what measure it is applied. Likewise, the singer’s use of breath energy must be appropriate to the needs of each moment.

Extreme Balance

Liberal, conservative. Democrat, Republican. Blue, Red. Us, them. Right, wrong.

Wasteful, managed. Uncontrolled, contrived. Offensive, defensive. Public, private.

Left, right. Hot, cold. Up, down. Forward, back. Bright, dark. Loud, soft.

Left brain, right brain. Spontaneous, planned. Allowing, making. Instinct, calculation. Imagination, discipline.

You get the point. These are pairs of apparent opposites, at least strongly contrasting. Consider further:

Clear, veiled. Focused, spread. Chiaro, oscuro. Onset, release. Resistance, flow.

Florid, sustained. Dynamic, static. Principal, interest. Expansion, compression. Give, take. Talent, technique.

Balance. Balance is found not only through compromise. Sometimes it exists because of independent, complementary qualities or activities.

Balance is not always a 50/50 equation. Sometimes it may seem different from day to day, or moment to moment.

In the human and political arena, it is increasingly difficult to find moderation or balance, as people are grouping themselves at the fringes. Balance is not always a matter of  right or wrong; sometimes it is “how much” or “when.” I often say in lessons and classes, “never say never.” (To quote Captain Corcoran in HMS Pinafore, “hardly ever.”)

Not only politicians, voters, and institutions around the world negatively label others and their views. Singers and artists often do the same. Sometimes, as we mature (not simply chronologically!), we learn to respect “the other” and learn from those who advocate it.

The singer/student must not fear exploring new and apparently contradictory techniques. The wise teacher will encourage the student to experiment.

Specific application of truth and technique may change, as specifics of the situation change. Yet, if one is diligent and honest in his/her work and practice, basic truths will be more deeply comprehended and trusted.

We must not approach today’s opportunities with yesterday’s stale understanding of valid techniques and concepts.

Update your relationship with the truth. Don’t be afraid. Truth is not limited by time.

True in life. True in singing.

Choices reflect who you are, and they shape who you become. To rue past bad choices, or to spend undue time in self-congratulation, makes it difficult to find current options.
 
The voice, body, mind and spirit will not be at their best and most responsive when trapped in yesterday. If a singer too often looks back (except in purposeful times of evaluation and learning), he/she will not enjoy today’s freshness and energy.
 
Few choices are irreversible. Likewise, no desireable choice carries a guarantee for future success; each choice must be constantly renewed. Today’s choices are actually empowered  by accepting the old ones; even if they were “bad choices,” they were made in the light of that day’s understanding and perception. Just as significantly (perhaps even more so for young and ambitious students), true and lasting progress is elusive in the face of desperate preoccupation with the future.
 
When seen from a larger perspective, each phase of the artist’s creation (including the re-creative art of the singer) is valid; it is one day’s version of the artist’s work. In the same way that we value works from each period of a composer’s or painter’s catalog, singing must be respected and valued at each step of development. Live/sing in the present, with an eye to the future.

Why Artists Should Avoid Shortcuts

In the great wisdom that I find as a maturing artist (seasoning at varying pace for a few decades now), a number of things are becoming more clear to me. Here is one.

Many of us want to excel, to follow the rules, to be responsible and obedient servants of the art. It is too easy to diligently target some “perfect version” of a piece  from recordings or live performances of other artists, style manuals, instruction from teachers and coaches, etc., then work very hard to reproduce it. Not the best strategy.

What is better, is that the student (aren’t we all students?) develop skills, musical-dramatic concepts, and personal sensitivity that allow him/her to perform or recreate a specific work of art. In other words, we must not be content with “as though” expression, but actively choose truth at the moment–the truth that we are convinced enlivens the piece (song, aria, visual art work, etc.). For example, one can sometimes easily identify an acting performance that is emotive, even resembling truth, but it does not “touch” the audience member, because it is simply not true. The cure for a bland or unconvincing performance by an actor is not to over-act. What may be missing is the research that would make the character and situation more clear to the actor. In this case, reading, listening, seeing other performances, and taking to heart the advice of directors and coaches will help the actor make informed choices that can be confidently carried out.

As a singing actor–which is essentially the calling to everyone who sings text–one must become aware of the difference between merely following instructions to ape another’s performance or standard, and the honest performance that emerges when an artist faithfully commits to process.

One is sometimes tempted to jump too far ahead, to attempt repertoire that is well beyond the reasonably expected, earned and trusted skill level. (I am reminded of the Lee Trevino story in my earlier post, The Confident(?) Performer, where I quote Trevino’s observation that confidence is earned in practice, not in performance.) Yes, tackling more difficult rep is often the path to progress, but students and developing artists must be certain not to jump in too deep. The artful teacher and wise artist develop a sense of how much challenge is too much, partly based on experimentation in the practice room. However, one must not assume that somehow making a given piece “work”–by hook or crook–elevates him/her to a place of greater skill and qualifications. Precocious children may have great intelligence or talent in certain things, but they are still children, and should not yet be presented as adults.

Here are a few practical areas where the singer must beware the short-cut, microwave oven approach to learning and presenting a piece. Future posts here will follow-up on some of these ideas, as much more can be said.

Pronunciation and articulation are not the same thing. The IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) is a valuable tool for singers. It graphically represents how a word is pronounced, not how it is sung. IPA is essentially a tool that helps us to know how to say a word, not how to sing it. An accurate pronunciation in the background of the singer’s conciousness is the genesis for articulating or shaping the resonance while singing. Furthermore, simply choosing to darken or brighten the vowel does not necessarily affect the tone in a positive way; do not expect merely a different pronunciation to lead to the desired ease or quality of sound. Vowel is not tone. Consonants are often not articulated the same way in singing as in speech.

Translation and interpretation of texts are not the same thing. It is better for a singer to create his/her own translation, word for word, if possible. If language ability is not sufficiently strong for that, find a trustworthy, literal translation of the text as a starting point. Even better, learn the language in question as well as possible. I often say that the singer must be fluent in the text’s language, even if only for the few lines of words that make up the poem or libretto in question. There is more to understanding language than knowing how it sounds or how it feels to articulate the sounds, even if the syntax and musical quality of the spoken language are noticed. There are differences of thought, attitude and expectation that one begins to experience when living with a language over some time.

Tonal result and a cohesive vocal technique are not the same thing. Similarly, the student who learns to make a positive impression on a given aria is not necessarily suited for nor capable of singing the entire role. An aria may show a very limited slice of the character’s attributes. Successfully singing one note with a desireable timbre does not guarantee that it can be presented in the appropriate context. It would be embarrassing to spend the entire budget on an extravagantly expensive, beautiful, finely tailored shirt–only to wear it with worn, out-dated trousers and overly casual accessories.

Easiness and relaxation are not the same thing. Ease of production and expression is desirable; indeed, not only should it seem easy to the audience, but the performer would prefer that the singing actually be relatively easy. Additionally, we seek repeatability and the ability to recover well. Investing super-human effort, simply to present one good performance, is too costly a choice for the artist who desires to perform at a consistently high level.

Legato and avoidance of consonants are not the same thing. My students know that singing auf Deutsch, for example, does not mean that the singer grudgingly leaves the concept of legato to Italian, nor does the execution of consonants rule out beautiful, musical flow. Lyric singing is based on legato; there is a commitment to line and momentum or flow of the music. However, vowel is not to be exclusively worshipped and consonants eschewed. A feeling for line should enable the singer to manage his/her energy in such a way that relatively longer or shorter vowels and stronger or more gentle consonants can all live in the language, while the musical line progresses. The entire text (long vowels, short vowels, glides, consonants, consonant groups) must be supported, thus energized. Inflection of language and the pursuit of musical legato are not mutually exclusive. Far from it.

Guarantee and faith are not the same thing, far from it! There are no guarantees; it is precisely that element of risk that makes performance so exciting for all of us. To end this post on a cliché, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.

New Eyes and Ears

Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” This is inescapably true in the process of learning to sing, of learning repertoire, of learning to recognize and appreciate art, of learning to live richly. So very much is already in front of us, around us and within us! We need only to perceive it — actively, earnestly, deeply and more clearly.

A singer can expand his/her abilities by gradually perceiving what the notation on the page actually represents. For example, “Caro mio ben” (as arranged by Floridia, contained in the 24 Italian Songs and Arias anthology) has not changed on the page for approximately 100 years. At first glance, it contains a simple melody based on the diatonic major scale, with simple and balanced phrases — rather straightforward, a suitable study piece for beginning singers. Music and text of this song can be easily comprehended, so that essential vocal technique and musical/dramatic character are successfully explored in lessons, practice and performance. In other words, the piece is easy enough that many students will be able to find its essential character almost immediately, and it becomes a means for technical and artistic application and growth — not an overwhelming challenge.

When a singer is confronted with a song or aria that is more complex, with musical and/or textual language that is not immediately heard in the inner ear, basic accuracy is a challenge. To be insightful and authentically expressive with such a piece is a very tall order indeed. This is often the case with 20th and 21st century music, due to more advanced compositional language. Yet if the singer’s musical and literary skills are well developed, and if that singer is experienced in dealing with such challenges, he/she can see beyond apparent confusion on the page and hear the sound world of the piece.  It becomes more and more clear that composer and author/poet actually have specific expressive ideas, and more details begin to emerge.

Over time, even the most ornate or severe printed music becomes more simple for the artist who invests the needed effort to convert ink into meaningful sound. Melody, harmony and rhythm on the page somehow relate to each other, and the artist is able to express truth that has been there all along. Familiarity with what at first seems incomprehensible on the page develops with time and focused observation.

In the same way, all singers — young and old, those who are developing their technique, and those who are maintaining and adapting their technique — discover capabilities that they already possess, but have not yet properly recognized or validated. The singer who desires to grow and improve must be willing to experiment, to sense the voice with new ears and keenly observant body and spirit.

I think Proust would agree.