"Which comes first, Music or Text?"

What a trick question.... Voice is first.

1000 Words on Chickens, Eggs, Opera and Singers

Posted by on Mar 29, 2014 in Blog, Opera

The question is about the order of things, like: “Which came first, the Chicken or the Egg?

The answer is dependent upon what you assume to be true. It is a grand scale dividing line that separates people of faith. For the person of the Christian faith the assumption that His Scriptures are telling the truth gives rise to answering that the chicken was created before it could lay that first egg. A person who has faith in another god will be much harder pressed for an answer. Wikipedia sort of rests my case.

The “HOT STUFF” of which I wrote on 8 March gives me ammunition for a much smaller argument. It’s about what is going on with “Opera” these days. Which came first; “Opera” or the “Opera Singer”?

Let me put this question in perspective. I have always felt that the craft of singing and the performance art in which I participated was not much more important to Life on Earth than flower arrangements might be to a soldier in a war zone. So this question, as applied to “Opera” “Opera Singer”, is not as important as “Chicken” “Egg”. The soldier needs to be fed breakfast: “Egg” and then for dinner: Roast “Chicken”… If you’re a Southern boy: Fried “Chicken”. If one part of the equation is missing the soldier may eventually starve and not be able to win the war. If both parts of the “Opera” “Opera Singer” or “Flowers” “Flowers in Vase” dichotomy are absent the soldier can still be fed and fight battles. Life will go on. The war for survival can still be won. My interest in the “Opera”  “Opera Singer” question is critical to all Opera Singer types, but seems to be carelessly disregarded by most members of what has become an “Opera” conservancy.

Opera News deserves applause for giving Matthew Epstein a chance to explain the tug of war in which he engaged at Chicago Lyric Opera.  He became disengaged by the loss of his grip on the rope in Chicago, but, happily, Matthew relocated to NYC to take a new position at CAMI where he can continue to influence the fate of “Opera”. The Opera News article shows us that Matthew Epstein and William Mason have strong opinions about the future of “Opera”, and, unfortunately, they do not agree.

Lets let Matthew start the argument:

“Look, there’s a dichotomy between the old-line New York and Chicago subscribers and the younger audience that goes to BAM and some of the smaller Chicago theaters. There must be a way to satisfy both groups, but it is a mistake to do only what keeps our rapidly aging big-money subscribers happy when the future is in people who aren’t yet at that point. Maybe it’s a younger audience. Maybe it’s a more last-minute-ticket-buying audience. Maybe it can’t or doesn’t want to purchase a full subscription a year in advance. But it is an audience – and a growing audience, and an audience that is going to be tremendously important. And we can’t eliminate from our seasons the very works that may bring in this new audience.”

Matthew introduces the premise that his way “may” be the way to keep “Opera” alive.  Bill Mason tugs in the opposite direction with:

“The creative decisions and wishes of a music director and/or artistic director can only be realized if there is the money to pay for them. Financial integrity is no less important than artistic integrity. If your ticket-buying public doesn’t like what you’re presenting most of the time, they will stop buying tickets and stop contributing. This is not to say that Lyric will cease presenting new opera or new and possibly controversial productions. But balance is the key.”

These guys arguments are interesting, and can be a source of syllabus for University types, but that Egg equivalent (Opera Singer) is kind of ignored until Matthew starts talking about the opera singers who have always been his bread and butter:

“The future of opera in America depends on the realization that stars won’t do the trick anymore. There are any number of excellent singers out there, but very few real stars left who will always sell out a house – and that number is diminishing all the time. The future lies in ensemble-oriented productions – well-directed, well-designed and well-conducted productions of interesting repertory, fully rehearsed, and cast with the finest singers available for their parts. And if the stars won’t commit the time and energy required to perfect such a production, you engage other singers.”

Matthew Epstein seems to suggest that the link between “Opera” and “Opera Singer” is really getting frail, and the “which came first” question irrelevant. “Chicken” is dependent on “Egg” for species survival, but Matthew seems to say that “Opera” cannot depend on “Opera Singer” to sell the seats. Why not?

Matthew’s explanation of his vision for the future is unique. It is the first public argument over the future of Opera I have heard or read that included any mention of opera singers. It’s sad that a great agent to the “Stars” only mentions singers in context of his loss of faith in them.

Matthew, from his Worldwide Director’s chair at CAMI’s vocal division, might have suggested ways to increase the number of “Opera Stars”, if he thinks they are needed, and why their number is dwindling, anyway. No. He suggests abandoning those few remaining “Stars”, if found uncooperative, to pursue the perfecting of production values.

So, let’s summate.

Matthew Epstein believes:

The “Opera Singer” isn’t worth an “Egg”. Opera singers, if we follow Matthew’s published logic, are interchangeable necessities that can detract from the genius new Operas and Opera productions that Matthew suggests as key to keeping Opera Houses healthy.

Bill Mason believes:

If he gives the public what it wants, then the public should keep coming to his theater, and contributing to his fund-raising campaigns.

Do opera singers really matter???

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Posted by on Mar 8, 2014 in Featured, Opera


The Book is open, but only just. I took a stab at updating one of my vanity pages a few days ago and decided to google Matthew Epstein for another innumerable time looking for a link to embed with his name. What I found is a Gold Mine.

Tim Page titled his lunch report “The Book of Matthew”. Tim’s scan of a very few pages in the book that is Matthew’s mind should have given him a better title, like: “The Title Page of the Book of Matthew”. That quibble aside, his article opens a small window on the arguments taking place in the inner circles of the Opera World.

Matthew looks great in the photo that Johannes Ifkovits took back in 2006. If the out of focus space behind Matthew in the photo is his Ansonia apartment, I fancy that at least one of the plants soaking up sun in the background to be a Blake donation to his decor. I love that sunny apartment, and I expect Matthew, a man of good taste, (He signed me up as an artist, didn’t he?) to hold onto it as long as his grip will allow. The “strong right arm” Tim quotes him putting on offer to artists should be matched on his left side, if his personal trainer is worth his/her salt. And, if he has been wiser than most tenors about his personal finances, then his rent will never be more than he can afford. A bit of tenor trivia… I remember Matthew telling me that his space at the Ansonia is a fraction of a larger apartment that belonged to Enrico Caruso.

Matthew’s health report that Tim includes in his “book” article is good news indeed. Once upon a time Matthew shared the news of his HIV positive report with Debbie and me at a restaurant on Manhattan. He told us that this news was fresh out of his doctor’s office which he had just visited that afternoon. He swore Debbie and me to secrecy, and we did our best to be supportive familial stand-ins and felt honored to be promoted to such intimate standing at table with him. It was only a few days later that his news was being offered to us again and again, always with the demand to keep it secret. No, Matthew didn’t forget and tell us again or again. Now that Opera News has made it public, I guess we can talk about it too.

There is a great big difference between personal and public information, and I respect the strictest interpretation of that division, but I wish Matthew would treat the world to a larger view of what he could call the public content of his “Book”. It would be wonderful if he cast even a little of what he knows and thinks into the communication universe in unfiltered form. The Tim Page article in Opera News is a nice teaser worth printing on the inside of a dust cover to a real book entitled “The Mind of Matthew” or on the landing page of a blog sight: http://www.MatthewEpstien.com or how about http://www.TheBookofMatthewEpstien.com.

Come on Matthew!! Tell us more! Forget Opera News. You’re too big for such small pages.

Matthew Epstein in the day.

Matthew Epstein a couple of years ago.

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Replacement Pedagogy

Posted by on Mar 3, 2014 in Featured, Opera, Singing, Teaching

Replacement Pedagogy

I’ve been chewing on a bit of Ha, Ha trivia I received in recent light conversation (Remember, I’m not so young, so “recent” is a relative term given my 63 years of hanging about). I have a friend, well plugged into the World of Opera, who described for me an unbelievable proposal made by a gNATS big wig. I’ll keep my source anonymous because being called a friend by a tenor can be harmful to one’s professional life in some circles. I think I will use the name “Jack” for this Opera Operative.

Jack attended a major gNATS/singer Employer Confab this Century. It was also attended by a soprano I worked with back in the day. This soprano was a joy, because she had it all. Good voice, especially good personality and intelligent mind. Let’s use “Jill” to refer to her. I bet she is a card carrying gNATS member who may not like having her name dropped by a tenor taking pot shots at The National Association of Teachers of Singing.

The President of gNATS stood up and spoke…. Tenor moment…. It could have been the President Elect or the Past President, Vice President, Vice President, Vice President, Vice President, yah, there are four of them, or even the Secretary/Treasurer given my tenor memory, but it was someone BIG in the hierarchy. So let’s label this gNATS bigwig “Harry”.

Anyway, now that the players are all described, and named, the play can begin. Harry got up and essentially declared gNATS a consulting business ready to help the non-teachers in the crowd. It is logical to assume that a professional of high standing in gNATS may hold in low esteem the abilities of people who actually get their hands dirty putting together entertainments based on the employment of vocal talent. I believe the membership could support Harry believing that employers need a lot of help to discern good singers, and gNATS membership could applaud being offered as the staff of Harry’s consultancy. However what Harry offered elicited no approval from Jill.

Jack told me that Jill lost control of her jaw at the moment it became clear that Harry was declaring his faith in technology. Harry let all those non-teacher attendees know that gNATS was ready to point out future stars for the Arts Industry by processing submitted recordings with Voice Analysis Software. All those tiresome, leave the office, travel across the county or down to the auditorium, rent a hall if you don’t own one, organize pianists and spread the word about auditions could be, like, so yesterday. Harry was suggesting that Arts Organization Management stop wasting time, and let gNATS’s computers lead the way to the new Renata Tebaldi, George London, Maria Callas etc.. Jill’s jaw dropped. Jack did not mention applause.

We have seen an early version of the techno helper (Click Here) that Harry seems to regard as a mature technology. Just because they don’t use pen and paper anymore doesn’t really mean that the present “advanced” state of the technology is any better at replacing “Ears“. Silly is as silly does. I wish gNATS’s Consulting every success among the stuck on stupid, but what about the rest of us?

I believe that Jill’s jaw dropped with surprise because of the outright silliness of the proposal. It is one thing to play with computer toys and even create University departments to house them. It is another thing entirely to try to sell the idea that a computer could replace the discernment of casting directors in Opera houses.

If I were a gNATS member, and dependent on teaching voice as a means of paying the mortgage, rent, food on my table and keeping the tax man happy, I would feel very uncomfortable with a high official in my trade association suggesting a mechanical or electronic replacement for auditioners. By un-silly extension one need only travel a little to arrive at Harry telling Universities that the same techno- service could replace voice teachers. Last I heard, the standard work load of a Music School voice teacher was a one half hour lesson once a week for each student. If one can replace a few of those sessions with “Voice Lab” under the tutelage of a technician then the staff at the voice department could shrink a lot. Where will all those gNATS members, replaced by Computerized Voice Coaching, go to earn the money necessary to pay their dues? Oh! I forgot. Maybe teaching advanced courses in Vocal Analysis (oops, not at MIT,,,, yet).

By pushing the above silly logic a lot farther down the road, a future “Harry” might suggest that gNATS could populate Opera auditorium seats with the future tech voice terminals that our present “Harry” might expect to see available. They could be programed to applaud the singers who had received training from their sister terminals at major Universities. Given ticket sales trends around the world, there should be plenty of seats available by the time those Voice Appreciation Appliances become objects of admiration of future “Harrys” at gNATS.

I’ve waited a while since I heard about Harry promoting his Opera Star Recognition Software. I just wanted enough time to pass so that I could stop seeing RED when I thought about it, and for the real name of my insider friend to become hard to discover. No one should suffer for talking with a tenor, or even singing with one.

More links for believers:




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White Christmas Extended

Posted by on Feb 23, 2014 in Blog, Featured, Garcia, Teaching

White Christmas Extended

Remember the Water Walk in White Christmas? That white ice is still mostly there. We just need a little snow to refresh the attractiveness of that walkable water, and our Frozen North would again look pristine. Some other northerners up here wish for Spring while I pray for decorative snow, but one wise citizen of these here hills proposed we should be grateful. While a fellow Plattsburghite and I were blocking an isle at Sam’s Club exchanging pleasantries that included opinions on the weather, my interlocutor proposed that we should be thankful for Global Warming. “Can you imagine how cold it would be without it?Siberia might come to mind.

Frozen Strandberg

Frozen Strandberg

Just a few days ago we had sonic events that disturbed the peace and tranquility of the evening. These booms that brought a few of us curious northerners out into the dark with flashlight or oil lamp in hand were reported as cryo – something events,,, “seisms”,, blamed on moisture, some of which is visible as white stuff scattered about us, and freezing cold that insists on penetrating the soil. We had little mini earth quakes because the ground is freezing under our feet. I guess Global Warming, manmade as it is assumed be, has some self-help blessings most of us just never considered, like saving us Rock Eaters from the permafrost suffered by Siberia, but I’m wondering if the thaw will be accompanied by the same sort of unsettling seismic activity in Plattsburgh and in Toronto, Canada. If we do, I expect someone will be thanking or blaming Global Warming for it just like the freezing that brought it.

OK, I’m back from the edge of politics and ready to talk about the important things of life. The snow may still be with us, but our Christmas tree is down, and in storage, so we have more room in the…… Wait… I said important things, didn’t I? OK! OK!! Let’s regroup. How about a question? Like: What should follow “Lesson One.001”?

Dividing lessons with such minute decimals would seem ridiculous but for the problem of keeping within my own blog size limitation. The word count necessary to cover everything I want to say may be inestimable, but I count on my word processor to warn me when I’m going overboard in a blog. My wife, Debbie, is good at it too, but Microsoft Word just keeps adding up my words for me in the lower left corner of my screen as I type my thoughts. Rules, rules, rules. If I make them, like: 1000 words per blog, shouldn’t I follow them?

Label the rest of this blog “Lesson One.001-A” because it’s about the vowel “A”. So here goes. I’ve got five hundred and fifty one words to go. Wait, I just used eleven of them. Ooops there goes another seven… OK! I’ll get to the point.

The “A” vowel is the best vowel. It is the central station of vocal color. The full character/personality/beauty of any vocal instrument is best heard in that vowel. It is true for everyone and not just certain voices. When that vowel is just the best for the voice at hand then we can advance to the rest of them.

Capture2So what is the “best”? The best is always a hyphenated best: Personal-Best. Each instrument has a personality. Something really brought home to me when Bruno Price presented a violin blind tasting party after Soovin Kim played a whole bunch of PaganiniCapture for LCCMF at the home of the Vermont Youth Orchestra in Burlington, VT. Mr. Price came packing a trunk load of violins. Jessica Lee and Nelson Lee played each of these instruments for Soovin’s Paganini audience. It was great to hear the differences among the violins and compare the results that two different expert players could get with these precious violins. I was totally blown away. Unlike humans, these instruments couldn’t be bothered to try to sound like theCapture3 one that the majority of the audience picked as having the best sound, the Strad. Singers, however, face a vocal world today that invites bad choices even at this “.001-A” early stage of training. Tenors will try, or be advised to try to emulate the “A” vowel of Pavarotti, for example, when to do so is to distort the instrument with which the tenor is gifted. Some of the non Strad violins I heard in Burlington might be “improved”, somehow, with chisel, sandpaper and varnish to bring them closer to the Strad, but such work would destroy the personality of each and every one of them. Among the lesser violins played for us was a southern Italian number that truly fascinated my ears. I won’t get into the why or how of it here, but, because that Neapolitan grabbed my mind, the whole affair refuses to leave the premises.

In the day, nothing has changed, violin makers did the best job they could to fulfill their ideal. The collection that we Paganini appreciators heard in Burlington gave evidence that mans’ hands are capable of wonderful things, but every craftsman producing a Strad, even if it were desired, is not Historicity. Those violins all sounded different, and refused to change character even under the influence of the pros playing them.

In the day, a lot has changed, voices were appreciated for the individual character that each displayed. No parallel here, right? I heard within the differences among those violins the best examples of what pedagogues are told by Garcia to discern in voices. The beauty of Pavarotti’s “A” vowel may have been our Strad of the day, but trying to copy it would be just as bad as dismantling those non-Strad violins, gratefully heard in Burlington, just to push their individual sounds toward the sound that the lone Strad had in the group.

28 words left.

An “A” of beauty that a vocal instrument can produce has a personality unique to itself. Promote it! Not Pavarotti, or Strad, but the beauty in vocal difference!


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Lesson One.001

Posted by on Jan 26, 2014 in Blog, Featured, Garcia, Singing, Teaching

Lesson One.001

My mind’s eye view of Garcia’s lessons, which I mentioned in “Lesson One“, started out with visions of this great maestro telling new students about the famous exploits of his father, the glory of the singing of his sisters, the fun he must have had, surrounded by his family in the first Season of Italian Opera ever presented in New York City where he made his Operatic Debut as Figaro in the Barber of Seville, the trial by fire of his debut in Naples where he was unable to prove himself a professional of star quality, and the new, if short lived, freedom from music he discovered when he was able to present his bad reviews of that debut to his daddy. Any ordinary maestro di canto would fit nicely into these images, but, the better I knew the story of Garcia and his father, the more I saw him as a serious professional unlikely to engage in such superficial banter. I now have an idea how he would have sought to guide his newest students toward perfecting the beauty that he recognized in the voices of each of them.

In “Lesson One” I quote Garcia telling us that teachers must deal with many “faults” endemic to untrained voices, and one could be forgiven for misconstruing the negative spin Garcia gives to: “tremulous, nasal, guttural, veiled, harsh, schrill and the “lack of power, range, steadiness, elasticity, or mellowness.” It might seem obvious to some that Garcia was giving us a list of affects that the trained voice must never display, and if one were to fail to read Garcia’s second book, then those so convinced might never find a reason to doubt their conviction. It is in that second book that Garcia describes some of these “faults” as interpretive tools. Yes, they diminish the beauty of the singer’s voice, but they were essential to the interpretive artist of Garcia’s day.

In that second book Garcia gives advice for interpretation that relies on the recitation of words separated from melody, and with this advice he makes a full circle return to using some of the very affects he has told us we will discover in the untrained voice. First, he advises that these vocal “faults” should be eliminated, but then, he wants the singer to reintroduce them as expressive tools after the singer is able to successfully avoid them. When strong emotion is not wanted then the singer should avoid those several faults which may have tainted the singer’s voice at the start of training. But Garcia is most emphatic that the singer be free to put them back into the voice when needed on the stage. More than free to use them, the singer must use them when he wants to impart the correct emotional effects of various degrees of personal disaster or delight which one finds written into the greatest music and even some of the modest music a singer might be called upon to interpret.

So what does the above full circle have to do with Lesson One.001? It has to do with how I believe Garcia sought to “discover and develop, among all the qualities of tone which the student’s voice presents, that one which combines to the highest degree all the desirable conditions.

My daydreams of Garcia’s first lessons are full of his advice intended to carve away the “faults” presented by the student’s voice, just like Michelangelo carved away marble at “fault” for hiding his David from his eyes. What did Garcia want to chip off the voice? His sketch of things to carve off is quoted above. But why do the listed “faults” haunt and obscure the “germ” of beauty in the voices of the singers that Garcia allowed to enter his studio? Where do the faults on his list come from? Vocal faults are all traceable: some to speech patterns, some to pathologies and some to insufficiencies. Garcia was careful to tell us the qualifications necessary in a student, and if he followed his own advice, pathologies and insufficiencies would not have crossed his studio’s threshold. The student’s speech pattern is certainly another matter. The work of purifying the vocal sound, eliminating offensive accretions on even the first vowel “A” makes me think of “My Fair Lady”. The highly entertaining frustration of the elocution master in this musical stands as one of the best negative examples of what a Student – Teacher relationship should not be. The process I believe Garcia used for instruction was collaborative, not Warlike. Unlike Professor Higgins of the musical, Garcia did not want to make those speech pattern “faults” disappear forever, and so would seek to have the student voluntarily give them up, not avoid them from fear of reprisal.

Garcia Jr. tells us to listen to all the tone/color qualities that the student’s voice presents and guide the singer to promote those positive qualities the voice already presents while guiding the singer away from those tone/color qualities that are detrimental to the “beauty of the voice”. That “beauty” is what Garcia Sr. claims to be the most powerful tool a singer has when, seeking to “command” the attention of an audience.

Garcia Jr. never gets closer to discussing the subject of personal color qualities than the quote in ”Lesson One“. I wrote about the distance he maintained from this discussion in “Why Garcia” and “Factory Made”.   He does not suggest the use of Clear Timbre or Dark Timbre, and neither does he say that Chest Voice, Falsetto or Head Voice are relevant issues in this voyage of discovery. His advice is that the natural/untrained voice displays all the “qualities of tone” that we are to seek to promote. They are specific and endemic to each voice, present because of the structure of each individual instrument, and, in the case of these qualities being beautiful, they must be nurtured with the greatest of care. Not covered with Dark or Clear timbres.

This lesson is about treating the student with great care. We must understand that the beautiful voice is a rare item, and deserving of the time and effort to purify the striking qualities that it alone possesses. No teacher can create such a voice. Any teacher can destroy it.


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White Christmas

Posted by on Dec 27, 2013 in Bible, Blog, Christian, Featured, Living, Personal History, Philosophy, Singing

White Christmas

Our Christmas tree is up in our living room again. We exchanged gifts, and we celebrated. I pray everyone has found reasons to celebrate this Christmas season, especially if the Birth of Christ isn’t one of them. His birth has no equal among my list of reasons to celebrate this Christmas and, come to think of it, this is true of every other Christmas I have enjoyed since I signed up to follow Him. Among this long list of other things to celebrate that enlivened our 2013 celebration of Christ’s Birthday is the marking of two years of existence for this blog. I am so happy to have the struggle of putting this little pile of pages together.

Ice Bronzed back yard at dawn.

Ice Bronzed back yard at dawn.

I believe the reason I have come this far is the Birthday Baby our Christmas celebrations are all about. He has shown me value in things that, without His guidance, would have had little value to me.  His promises He keeps and I rely on them. I believe that if you are reading these pages, and find something useful or even just some entertaining things on them, your discoveries validate a small part of my enlistment with Christ. For His part, and it is a very small sliver of what He has promised, every moment of being at a loss to know what to do for a student or lacking something to type into my little computer for this blog, He comes to my rescue. He always comes to my rescue.

The words I keep adding to these “RockwellBlake.com” pages I think of as little blessings. My blessings, that is. You reading this blog I also count among my blessings. Thanks for coming. If you keep reading, then I have my confirmation that these pages are worth writing.

Celebrations are usually full of interesting tidbits of entertainment. This year we have the best twisted weather.

Global Warming!

Global Warming!

No doubt about it. It’s a first for me. The snow that came down all pretty and powdery just a little while ago is now “bronzed” in ice on our roof and in our back yard. Oh yes, we cannot forget the trees. They were not left out of the coating program. For me it is another reminder of just how interesting creation is. When Christ was born, shoes were not for babies and too simple to deserve electroplating . Besides, electroplating didn’t get invented until the 19th Century and didn’t get used on shoes until the 20th Century, but what we have on our roof, backyard and trees sure makes me think that Christ’s Father can remind us in many ways of His Pride and Joy. After all, insurance companies are always talking about the Power of Christ’s Father with the words: “Acts of God”. Why not fulfill my dreams of a “White Christmas” by freezing one into an H2O “bronzed” snow sculpture?

Better than Bronze

Better than Bronze

If our temperatures stay low enough, the ice will keep, our Christmas season will be white for quite a while, and we could slide across the ice directly into the New Year.

Part of our traditional way to celebrate is to view some of our favorite movies that use Christmas as their central theme. “Holiday Inn” always inspired me to reach for the Kleenex in previous viewings, but, this time I found myself focusing on the singing so much that I was distracted from the emotional flow of the play. Bing Crosby and all his friends have lessons to teach, and I studied so hard that I did everything but take notes….. Tenors don’t take notes.

The Little Ausable River

The Little Ausable River

On the other hand, “White Christmas” came through for me. There is nothing like sniffles and nose blowing to confirm that such a work of art has had the intended effect. Debbie and I, each Christmas time, dust off these old classics as a reminder of what once was seen as really valuable, even by Hollywood. We still have “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” to visit again this year. I have my big box of Kleenex at the ready.

Up Close Ice at Dawn

Up Close Ice at Dawn

Please accept my gratitude for coming to read what I have to say. Two years ago, I didn’t expect anyone to be interested. Wonders really never cease. My prayers are with you that you have blessings to celebrate this “Holiday Season”. Come back, please, and often so that your visits will add to the great number of blessings I have available to help with any attack of insomnia that I may suffer in the New Year coming. I pray that we all sleep well, when we want to, in 2014, and that we all find ourselves enjoying ever more blessings. Bing Crosby will remind me to count them next Christmas.

Rocky Blake

How to walk on water.

How to walk on water.

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Lesson One

Posted by on Dec 16, 2013 in Featured, Garcia, Teaching

Lesson One

Life is full of interesting things. So full, in fact, that a tenor, like me, has a really hard time just keeping things in order. I made reference in my last blog to the cold into which we are moving with the seasonal and political climate change that is taking place in the North Country, where I live. This year’s “climate change” has been particularly interesting, and distracting for this tenor. If you care about life as a local issue, and want to have a look into the gazing pool that’s been distracting me from singing, Garcia and other important matters, come have a little look: “Public Hearing or is it Public Debate?” or “Rules, rules, rules why can’t we just count the votes?

Many years before I arrived at retirement and the distractions of local climatology, my thoughts began to drift toward an image of what a very young student may have encountered in his/her first lesson with Manuel Garcia. This daydream has been with me for a long time and recently tugged my attention off the Plattsburgh political puddle long enough to write this blog.

First things are often not numbered #1. This happens in Garcia’s books. Chapter 5 of his first book speaks to this truth with the words “this first study”.



By this first study we prepare the tone, the basis of the talent of the student. The quality of the voice, we could not affirm too much, is the most precious element in singing. My father often said that the beauty of the voice constituted ninety-nine percent of the commanding power [puissance] of a singer. Now all uncultivated voices are, without exception, tainted with several faults, or less developed in certain regards than their usual good qualities may allow. Some voices are tremulous, others nasal, others guttural, veiled, harsh, schrill, etc., while many lack power, range, steadiness, elasticity, or mellowness. The teacher should not only correct these natural or acquired faults, and, while correcting them, prevent others from taking their places, but also discover and develop, among all the qualities of tone which the student’s voice presents, that one which combines to the highest degree all the desirable conditions.

Garcia part 1 page 36

If it takes Garcia four chapters of definitions and explanations to get around to talking about teaching the newest arrivals to the vocal life, I guess it’s OK for a tenor to take two years of blogging to get around to it!

In his writings, Garcia advises to make students work with the “A” vowel at the beginning of a student’s vocal voyage. I believe his advice is the best and the above quote gives us a wonderful send-off on our quest to discover the best “A” a student can make.

In my first lesson daydream I see a student positioned in front of the full length mirror that stood sentinel in Garcia’s studio. I hear Garcia telling the student to affect a relaxed smile and to begin singing a note on the vowel “A” with a precise beginning (Glottal Attack) and to sustain it for the duration of the breath available to the student. I can hear Garcia telling the student to keep the same volume from beginning to end of the note sung. I can hear him correcting any deviation in pitch. I have many images to insert into my daydream of that first lesson with the ideal maestro; all of them from his or his student’s pen. Considering all the years that have passed since Garcia last trained a singer, the relevant knowledge we moderns have discovered, which Garcia didn’t write down, seems to amount to almost nothing. That is why I often tell my students that lessons are not about me. They are about Garcia. As a small aside: the Garcia “secrets” are where the true danger to the student of singing resides. A teacher unaware of the secrets can ruin a beautiful voice or any voice for that matter. But, I will get to the secrets one step at a time.

Getting a student to phonate the “A” vowel I believe Garcia wanted to hear is a special task. It is a good idea to review “Round Timber” because it became one of his secrets when Garcia deleted it from the later editions of his big book. As you will note in the above quote, Garcia’s, and therefore my, first objective is to clean house. Get rid of extraneous affectations that sully the vocal instruments “natural” character. Now this word “natural” is going to be a problem for many, if not the majority of pedagogues. If you are one of them, get over it! I could annoy you even more. I could take inspiration from Garcia Sr. who “often said that the beauty of the voice constituted ninety-nine percent of the commanding power [puissance] of a singer.” The “beauty of the voice” is a gift of God, and Garcia retains only 1% of merit for the pedagogue. No one but The Creator can build a “Stradivarius” Soprano Voice.

So, what should we do with a messed up “A” vowel? Corner the singing student into producing the correct “A” without singing it. That is to say: just speak the “A”. If you know what a person sounds like when he or she expresses extreme satisfaction with only the vowel “A”, then you know what we are looking for. Have a quick look at “Trick and Treat”. In the seventh paragraph resides the advice that I reiterate here. Singing the best possible sound (most beautiful) that your voice can produce will ultimately include a message and the best one would be “satisfaction”. “Joy” would be good also, but satisfaction usually suffices. Yes, one vowel and one message may seem a piece of cake to produce, but I was surprised to discover how difficult it can be to get the job done.

So let’s get down to it. Think of a tenor, and a soprano out in the sun playing soft ball. They are so intent on winning a hard fought game that they forget all about drinking enough water to keep their mucous membranes expressing fluids that do not coagulate.1_7Annah The soprano throws the final pitch and the tenor strikes out; end of game, soprano wins. After congratulatory hugs all round, the soprano makes the discovery that her mouth is really dry. The tenor eventually comes to the same realization and both head for the water cooler. The soprano is ushered to the front of the line that had quickly formed at the plastic oasis, and the tenor is pushed aside to make room for her, she receives a big glass of wonderfulStrike ice cold water. She puts the glass to her lips and very un-daintily downs the contents in one fell swoop. When all that cold liquid gets down to cooling the sopranos overheated interior she inflates her lungs to the maximum possible and expresses the most satisfied “Ah!” imaginable. Now you have an idea of the sound I want to hear sung. I believe Garcia would have sought this sound as well.

Anyway we are coming to the close of lesson 1. One note held, expressing satisfaction with the vowel “A”. If the voice is beautiful, even just one note can satisfy someone like me, thirsty to hear the best sound the best instruments on earth are capable of making.

So, are we supposed to forget the tenor who can’t bat softballs thrown by sopranos? Yes, because the noise I expect from him is for another lesson.



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How to use Classical Music

Posted by on Nov 22, 2013 in Blog, Featured, Living, Opera

How to use Classical Music

I think it’s an idea who’s time has come. “Young Person Repellent.” Please click on the live link.

Maybe some of us could suggest our favorite recordings to the McDonalds Corporation. The last time I sat in one of their outlets, in Europe by the way, I would have loved to hear something with a tune. If I ever get to Australia, I’ll go looking for the Opera loving MacDonald’s outlet mentioned in The Telegraph article.

I am sad that there is a people deterrent quality attached to Classical music and Opera. It has been hard at work, of late, at the Box Office in the venues built for these musical styles, and it was only a matter of time that the effect would be recognized and used by the likes of McDonalds.

Perhaps we can expect water boarding to be replaced with exposure to full length Wagner Operas. I know I would give up all the secrets I have if I were faced with that threat.

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Trick and Treat Part 2

Posted by on Nov 4, 2013 in Blog, Featured, Garcia, Living, Opera, Philosophy, Singing, Teaching

Trick and Treat Part 2

Shiver time is upon us. Temperatures are down to ice forming levels, local candidates are telling us what they want to do to us…… pardon me… for us, if they are elected on November 5th and Halloween is already in our rearview mirror. Scary things are still everywhere to be found if one just looks for them. It makes sense to me that people should shiver at what some of our local politicos say, given the arriving cold temperatures outside. It seems to me that many of them would not mourn to see some of us, as a result of taxation, shiver in our

Town Board of Plattsburgh New York

Town Board of Plattsburgh New York

own homes… that is if we can even afford to keep our little huts. I hope a few of my fellow North Country Citizens will find the signs of these times shivery and get out to vote on 5 November… That’s tomorrow isn’t it? Being out in the cold is a long tradition in Clinton County, and tax auctions are especially shiver inspiring.

My favorite hut - I wear fur so I don’t shiver.

My favorite hut – I wear fur so I don’t shiver.

Shivering isn’t fun, but at least it’s not somnolence inspiring. After publication of my previous blog on the trick of talk, I received a note from a reader. In part he wrote:

In those brief minutes of run-throughs of Operas traditionally granted in German/Austria etc. houses, I would often ask a younger singer to not sing but try to recite the text and then sing it as you said. Unfortunately 90% of them were unresponsive and as a result they sang the “telephone book”. But those few exceptions who tried it went from student to artist in a heartbeat. 

Rico Saccani via Email

 Now, if you think of it, there is no way to imagine the recitation of names and numbers to be much more interesting or entertaining than traffic noise. Take it from me, even traffic noise can promote sleep. At least that was my experience when I spent long periods on Manhattan Island singing at Lincoln Center. Going to bed over Broadway was a special challenge at first, and then little by little the taxis, busses and trash trucks were just as good as the crickets of home for lulling me to sleep. A bedtime story read from the top of the “L” listings in the New York City White Pages would certainly have had the same effect.

 Stark wrote some supporting words for my trick:

Despite the disagreements in the pedagogical literature, we cannot ignore the common theme that runs through so many works – namely, that there is something special, perhaps even ‘secret,’ involved in singing according to bel canto principles.

 Stark, James (2003-03-28). Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy (Kindle Locations 346-348). University of Toronto Press. Kindle Edition.

Vocal author Edgar Herbert-Caesari maintained that the foundation of the old Italian school, from Caccini onward, is the ‘completely natural voice … that, without training, is able to articulate, enunciate, and sustain with perfect ease and freedom all vowels on all pitches in its particular compass’ (Herbert-Caesari 1936, 4). These views are unrealistic. Why one may ask, if the techniques of bel canto are so simple and direct, has great singing always been the art of the few and not of the many? Or, if Herbert-Caesari thought bel canto was just natural, untrained singing, why did he bother to write a book about vocal technique?

Stark, James (2003-03-28). Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy (Kindle Locations 361-369). University of Toronto Press. Kindle Edition.

James Stark tells us there is a bel canto “secret” running around in vocal literature. He further tells us that Edgar Herbert-Caesari did not capture or cage that runner in his theories. It is an interesting tactic that Stark employs to set up Herbert-Caesari as a crazy believer in “Natural Talent”. After all, why do we need voice teachers at all if the theories that Stark says Herbert-Caesari wrote down are true? (I know how to use the open question argument technique, even if I don’t like it much.) Voice Builders of the World should unite under the banner: “Hebert-Caesari – HERATIC” and advocate the burning of his books. That would be honest.

It is a joke, isn’t it?

It is a joke, isn’t it?

Garcia had his say just a few years before the trio of Blake, Stark and Herbert-Caesari was born.

The true accent which is communicated to the voice when one speaks without preparation, is the base on which the singing expression is patterned. The chiaroscuro, the accents, the feeling all then take an eloquent and persuasive aspect. The imitation of the natural and instinctive movements should then be, for the student, the object of a very special study; but there is another means which will not serve less to initiate him into the secret of the emotions, and which we recommend to his zeal; here is this means; to isolate himself completely from the character which he is supposed to represent, to place himself face to face with that character in his imagination, and let him then act and sing. By reproducing faithfully the impressions which will have been suggested to him by that creation of fantasy, the artist will obtain much more striking effects than he would attain by beginning work straightway.

A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing Part 2 PAGE 140

As a footnote to the above text:

This advice is precisely that which Talma gave to a young man. This beginner was wearing himself out with vain efforts of declamation in the study of the role of Oreste; “You are deafening yourself: it is impossible for you to know what you are doing, because you do not know yet what you want to do; you have not determined in advance what effect you want to produce. Declaim your role without pronouncing a word.

Place your character before you, and then listen to him: judge his manner of acting and his delivery; finally, when you are satisfied with the performer [t'artiste] which your imagination portrays for you, it is then that you can imitate him and declaim aloud.” This precept of the most capable French tragic actor applies to every point in the art of singing. When the singer has learned an aria, if he wishes to render it with as much expression as he can impart to it and to embellish it with all the ornaments which the melody and the nature of the piece permit, he must concern himself with the conception before thinking of the performance. He must sing mentally, as it were, while his imagination places before him the character he will portray. When he has thus strongly conceived the dramatic situation, when he is well penetrated by the emotion traced by the composer, in short, when he has created for himself an ideal which is as perfect as possible, it is only then that he will put to work all his imitative faculties, that he will display all his means of expression and execution, in order to approach the pattern which his thought has offered to him as a model.

A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing Part 2 PAGE 140, 141 FOOTNOTE

As you can see in Garcia’s text, my trick is not new. The principle underpinning it is one of the “running secrets” Stark would like to capture. Herbert-Caesari may have inflated it into his own “Theory of Singing”, but Stark gives us no theory at all. It’s Garcia who gives us something to work with. See “Expression

I simplify the Garcia advice down to the bare essentials. How you say what you say can live happily inside how you sing what you sing, and without a lot of magic mystery. The tools you use to make the spoken phonation and the sung phonation are the same tools in both cases. There is no magic here. What you hear you can mimic, and that includes mimicking yourself. These things rest on natural abilities, but they do not replace vocal technique. They can, however, confuse the ignorant….

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Trick and Treat

Posted by on Oct 26, 2013 in Blog, Featured, Opera, Singing, Teaching

Trick and Treat

Parents are towing kids to cash registers all across America carrying flimsily made scary costumes, some with accessory makeup kits, in preparation for the big haul of chocolate that the little people so look forward to collecting every 31 October. With the way things are going nationally and locally, I can imagine there would be many parents seeking alternative costuming. Take, for example, the organic number displayed in the photos a proud Grandparent is allowing me to embed in this Blog.photo 1 use By the way, behind those traditional inorganic costume preferring parents at the registers are people like us. You know: the home owners who can pay our land taxes and still have enough in the budget to afford Halloween candy. The Trick/Treat word paring that’s been bouncing around my mind lately has inspired a new thought into the mix of the many echoes in there that won’t go away. I teach a trick that has turned out to be a universal treat.

The treat is that it works. It works in many ways, not the least of which is the liberation of the voice from the tyranny of the thinking part of the brain. The idea of the trick is to put the ears to work, and the calculating part of the brain out of the way. photo 2 useI keep repeating a principle in my studio and on the Master Class road so much that I forget to mention it with the same insistence on the blog. Now I shouldn’t forget, because it underpins so much of my understanding of vocal matters and should challenge quite a few of my readers. You cannot think your way to excellent singing or even good singing. Do think “Tenor”. He doesn’t think, he sings. You know: “I sing therefore I am!!!..Uh!….. a tenor.” Oh! Just a minute… For the tenors: I’m plagiarizing a quote: “I think therefore I am”, which is a bastardization of, and plagiarizing the Bible for God’s self-definition: “I Am”. Let’s get past the looming argument over the meaning of “Truth”, and just remember chronology is important. Who wrote what first is all I care about here, because chronology is also an underpinning principal of the trick I want to talk about.photo 3 use

Trick: Recite the words of the song or aria you are seeking to interpret. (My apologies to those who say interpretation cannot be taught.)

The recitation I’m talking about is more than correct pronunciation. I’m talking about speaking the words with every ounce of emotional content you can give them. As if you are reading the words for a radio program. The listener needs to hear in your voice as you recite every bit of character and drama necessary to give the listener everything necessary for understanding and believing what you say and that you mean it. Listen closely to the sound of your voice, and then sing those words intending to drag every inflection of your spoken rendition into the melodic line.

Treat: You will sing those words with at least some of the expressiveness you attain in your recitation. If you are able to appreciate the result, you should be able to bring more and more of the emotional content of your recitation into the song or aria in question. You may also begin to have some cross pollination from your improved singing back into your declamation. Trick 4

Now I’ve got to warn you away from the inhibition consultant that might tell you to be careful not to disturb the composer’s music. If you go for the gold and do a great job of recitation, you will certainly have your own rhythm for the words, and if you allow (please do) that personal rhythm to distort the rhythmic structure of the composer’s melodic line, you will have created a unique interpretation, and probably gotten your pianist/vocal coach all upset.Trick 7 I know that was the effect I had on some of my good friends at the keyboard. Not every pianist I ran into was a stickler for rhythmic purity, but the majority was. Please don’t let injecting a little language inspired jazziness into the note values be the end of the game. Listen carefully to yourself declaim the words. When you do a convincing job. The inflections in your voice are going to be very complicated and the variations are not going to be limited to rhythm. You will hear lots of variables related to volume and color. Volume differences you make among the words will be easier to inventory than the many color differences which your voice will put into each phrase and even each word.

Trick 2My last bit of advice is to work the song or aria or recitative or duet or trio…….. Ok!!! I know I do run on a bit. Work one sentence at a time. Get each phrase of the words you say as close to your spoken expressiveness as you can. If you feel you are not as successful as you would like to be, work the text one word at a time until you get results. It is beyond difficult to describe with any accuracy or completeness the sonic result of a great recitation of a text. The ability of your brain to retain a memory of it is also beyond measure. Trick 6

Lately I have been listening to a lot of success taking place with the implementation of the above trick. One of the participants in this game is so good at the mimic process that he is deluged with requests to put various famous figures on display by mimicry just about any time he finds himself in friendly company. I’ve seen this happen even in the hallway of a public building. “All the World’s a stage.” Forgive the depressing message in Shakespeare’s play, but just imagine getting someone with a great singing voice to sing those words just as the actor declaims them in the clip. Trick 3If Mr. Sandow’s nightmare for the future of classical music doesn’t happen, then my students have a shot at finding a home in Classical Music. If they follow the above trick, they will also stand out in the crowd that mostly seems to be reading the telephone book when singing.

There will be a Part 2.

I hope you will look forward to it.

If I can pull my eyes from the fall foliage, it will come.


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