"Which comes first, Music or Text?"

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

The Technique and The Method

Posted by on Jun 30, 2017 in Blog, Featured, Garcia, Living, Philosophy, Singing, Teaching

The Technique and The Method

Recently Debbie and I watched a Public Broadcasting remembrance of a fascinating Frenchman who made the USA his home and adopted nationality. The AMERICAN MASTERS program “Jacques Pépin: The Art of Craft” structured the story of his yet to be completed life into a beautiful biography. The truth of the “Old School” manner by which this unquenchably curios and ever ambitious achiever assailed life shined through in a manner that inspired Debbie to insist I make a blog about it.

This man’s significance to the world of food is already well established and I hope he will keep feeding posterity from his larder of knowledge and cornucopia of inspiration. I’m interested in him because I believe his life to be a great rerun, in the food world, of Manuel Garcia’s life in the opera world. He hasn’t attained to Manuel’s longevity, but he has certainly matched Manuel in the realm of universal respect in his industry.

There is no doubt about his convictions concerning the technical foundation for his “Art”, and so refreshing to read his humble words of estimation of his “Art Form” in the interview, “Blue Collar, White Hat”, in The Columbia Journal of American Studies. One of the parallels I see to Garcia’s time line; Pépin might never have written his books “La Technique” or “La Methode” without a disaster forcing a hard turn for his ascending star as it traveled through time with us. Pépin almost died in an auto accident. It forced him from behind the stove at his restaurant onto a path of advocacy for his “Art Form”. I would say the world of food is richer for this turn of events, even if Pépin had to suffer. He serves society in a much larger way now than would have been possible to him as a chef in even the most celebrated restaurant on earth.

Disaster struck the Garcia family when Manuel Sr. was robbed by bandits in Mexico. They took the fortune he had amassed in the New World from him before he could get it back home. What little money the bandits missed in their search of the Garcia entourage was about enough to pay for their passage back to Europe. The great tenor had to start from scratch to build a new nest egg. When the old man got back to Paris, he had little time to wait before his son recounted his disastrous debut in Naples, and announce his desire to begin building a life outside of music. In the fullness of time the elder Manuel’s voice began showing signs of age and the singer, still short of the nest egg lost, had to turn to teaching to make a livelihood and about this time the younger Manuel set his sights on supporting himself while traveling the world. His mother talked him out of it, and I thank God she did. Papa Garcia had already founded a school of singing in Paris and Garcia Jr. signed on to help his dad. Disasters; dad’s forced contribution to Mexico’s benefits for bandits program, young Manuel’s failure to launch as an Opera Star and papa’s voice surrendering to the pressures of Father Time, set the stage for Garcia’s stellar teaching career and his two wonderful books. Garcia’s “Ecole de García” part one and part two could have been call exactly the titles Pépin used for his two books. Maybe Pépin had a better editor.

Garcia lived 101 years. I pray that Pépin, if he so desires to endure, may exceed Garcia’s record. Given the content of the interview to which I link above, I’m inspired to pray that he keeps talking, teaching and writing. Old School is really hard to find.


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Torino: Once More with Feeling!

Posted by on Apr 5, 2017 in Featured, Opera, Singing, Teaching

Torino: Once More with Feeling!

My ticket is purchased and the dates are set. I will be working with singers with whom I have already collaborated. It will be a singular pleasure to hear how each has progressed since last I heard them. I am eager to guide them toward their goals.

There is still room for more participants, and if anyone of you has been interested in working with me, this Master Class would be a good opportunity:

10 – 16 April, 2017 Sede dell’Accademia della Voce del Piemonte

Please come and give me have a chance to help you.

Rockwell Blake

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Light and Airy

Posted by on Apr 1, 2017 in Featured, Opera, Personal History, Singing

Light and Airy

I mentioned in my last blog a video found on You Tube that features a singer holding a note as if she were showing off a superhuman ability. When a singer does an easy-peasy thing like singing a sustained tone and receives such approbation, I wonder about her competition. Does she have any? It is just plain funny.

No matter how long a singer holds a note, it will always be nothing more than a trick. I have already told a long note story: HERE. It was one of my tricks, and I have to say that I am not the only one in life who could do such things. I was present for just such a show off performance by another trickery expert.

Bruno Campanella

Once upon a time I was in Paris to do Arturo in “I Puritani”. I learned a ton of stuff in that production, suffered terribly and totally entertained myself all at the same time. Our conductor was my favorite, Bruno Campanella, who was a joy to work with and the number one part of my entertainment. My suffering came from a terrible flu that really put me down. I passed my tenor baton to my team mate Aldo Bertolo who sang my dress rehearsal and I think even my opening night.  I suffered and recovered, got back to work on stage, and then June Anderson fell victim to the same flu that put my voice down for the count. She was forced to cancel one show and because her tag team partner, Michelle Lagrange, was doing synchronized sneezing from the same virus, the Salle Favart flew in Mariella Devia to take the strain of keeping the ticket holders happy. Bruno knew her, told me I would love her and in that prediction he was a perfect prophet. At the end or her aria she took her final high note on a walk into the wings. I have no idea how long she held the note, but it was long enough to make me smile and expect every decibel of explosive applause that resulted when she finally stopped singing or maybe she

Mariella Devia

just closed the door of her dressing room. Experts are hard to find, and she has continued to confirm that she is an expert high on a very restricted list.

One can be an expert in almost anything, The Petomane comes to mind. He became famous just down the street from the Salle Favart albeit in a previous century. I know about this particular performer from my wife’s family. Her Great Grandfather knew about and wrote about him because he was of the same generation and owned a string of Vaudeville theatres in the American west. It is sad that Debbie’s Great Grand Dad never had the chance to  book The Petomane for a tour.

Getting back to notes long held, once upon a longer time ago than the Paris “I Puritani” with Mirella, but nowhere near as long ago as The Petomane’s explosive career, I was privileged to work with an expert bass-baritone who hails from just north of me in Quebec, Claude Corbeil. He is an expert stage personality with a richness of voice a tenor can only admire.  One of the many fun incidents I have in my memory bank that include this great and flexible artist is wedged in among my many memories of doing “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”. We were cast together in Ottawa and an opportunity for this tenor to show off and have fun presented itself in a rehearsal. Because of circumstances beyond anyone’s control, Claude missed a few late staging rehearsals leading up to our Orchestral Stage rehearsals and no one seemed to have given him the word about how the staging had changed while he was away. I was already initiated into the great tradition of On Stage Pranks, and when we reached the “Buona sera, mio signore.” in the third act quintet, Claude was way on the other side of the stage from me. He was doing a great job of maintaining his Don Basilio character while pestering our Don Bartolo stage right. The newest staging called for Basilio to shake the hand of my Almavia,,, sorry,,, at this point in the Opera, still my Lindro doing Don Alonso, well you get the picture. I’m supposed to sing “Buona sera” to him. Then he was to go shake Rosina’s hand as she sang her “Buona sera”, then Figaro’s hand during his rendition, and finally to Bartolo when Don Basilio himself has his turn to sing the melody. The four of us were equidistantly spaced across the stage with me far stage left. At first, I thought I’d wait for Claude to make his way across the stage before launching into the new section of the Quintet so that he would have a chance to do the stage movement required by the Director. The silence that ensued, as I waited, became pendulously pregnant, as our Don Bartolo seemed unwilling to inform Claude of the new traffic pattern. I began to feel the eyes of our conductor burning holes in the left side of my head as I watched Claude do what he does so well. When a cat is in doubt, he grooms, but Claude improvises. At the moment the burning sensation of eyes upon me overcame my admiration of Claude’s unflappable stage presence, I was hit by malevolent inspiration. I took a deep breath, extended my right hand, for shaking, in the direction of stage right and launched into the first note of “Buona sera”. Now Claude is one to carry his character throughout anything, including disastrous on stage train wrecks. So I was confident he would figure out the situation and make his way over to my outstretched hand so that the melody could continue and our stage movements could return to the pattern that our traffic planner had invented. I made a bet that I could hold that note long enough for Claude to travel all the way across the stage before I ran out of air. As it turned out, even with Claude greeting a few people on his way across the stage while maintaining the character of his very memorable Basilio, I survived the wait. When our hands met, I still had enough air left over to carry on singing the first phrase of the Quintet while furiously shaking Claudes hand. To an outsider it would have seemed all part of the plan. I loved it. No idea what anyone else thought, but this improvised stage traffic did not actually get incorporated into the production. So…….

Claude is a model acting expert. I encountered many more experts and I may get around to unpacking a few more memories of super fun, silly, happy, fulfilling and warmly appreciated events that pepper my time line. I hope you like reading about them. I’m now over my thousand word limit. So I have to stop here.

I’ll be back.

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Air – Part 4

Posted by on Mar 29, 2017 in Blog, Featured, Garcia, Mechanics, Opera, Singing, Teaching

Air – Part 4

OK! We have air. We need to use it wisely. We have a system for converting the potential energy of pressure we apply to the air in our lungs. The following video gives a good look at the structure of our conversion system:





Isn’t that system wonderfully complex? It is so complex that one could despair of ever understanding how it works. There are labs at prestigious Universities populated by hyper intelligent people seeking to nail down an explanation of how these structures really work to produce the human voice. Until they are able to formulate a real time theory of all the muscular activities as well as the air pressure being converted into sonic energy they will not be able to offer a recipe of muscular activity for any of the millions of different noises we humans are capable of making. So we might just give up thinking about this critical feature of our anatomy and get on with life. You know, go to lunch, catch up with your text messages, do your peer reviews, take in a few YouTube videos, organize the dust on your desk, memorize the music in the program you plan to do next week or struggle to keep your eyes open while your department head, voice teacher, stage director, agent or even your most dedicated fan talks at you.

There is really no value, beyond the fun of knowing things, in being aware of the structure of your larynx while you sing. The knowledge you need as a singer is quite different from putting names to every structure in the larynx. It is the sonic knowledge most everyone has, but very few acknowledge as any value at all. What I’m talking about is best understood as an ability to hear content or meaning in the tone of voice. It is the “subtext” of our communications. Just remember the times your mother said to you something like: “Don’t you speak to me in that tone of voice!” We speak it and we hear it. All the bits and pieces of our larynx provide about half of that subtext, and the anatomy of our ears collects this toning of our words. Our brains processes what our ears collect, and it is sad to say that many of us are tone deaf. If you cannot hear the subtext, you are particularly disadvantaged at air conservation. Forget about interpretation. What you cannot hear, you cannot imitate.

The key to air conservation is your ability to recognize your tone of voice. The lock you must open with that key is maintenance of your tone of voice. If you can recognize the subtext of the sound you are making and you can maintain it as you change things like vowels or volume or registers for that matter, you will be employing everything described in the above video in a balancing act that no singer can execute as a matter of will or factual understanding.

So listen to the key. Listen to yourself. Hear the sound you make on an easy note in the middle of your voice at medium volume. I ask students, who need to be introduced to their voices, to display joy and satisfaction as they sing one note for me. Do the same for yourself. Sing one note as if you are one of the happiest people on Earth. See how long you can hold the note without losing that joyous tone of voice. That is to say, time it. Keep repeating this happy singing with your stop watch. Joy and note longevity are the goals.

For the guys, please sing in Chest Voice. You will have to explore Falsetto later, but for now it’s all Chest all the time on one note at one volume.

When you have the ability of hold your happy tone of voice in one volume on one note using every bit of air in your lungs, I believe Garcia would have moved on to making the student sing using up all available air while dividing the time in three equal parts. On third on the original note then one third on the upper neighbor then the final third back down on the original note. This subdivision would progress along the scale for as many notes as Garcia saw as necessary. In the case of our focus on air conservation, I think we can risk going straight for the jugular.

The great test for air conservation expertise is the “Messa di Voce”. Start with one of the pitches on which you have already sung and measured with your stop watch and found yourself able to hold it for a long time without producing a noise that sounds like you are getting bored or forgetful or disinterested. Start to sing on that pitch as if you were going to just do the long note again “with feeling” as you have already done successfully many times. The difference this time will be that you will make a diminuendo for half the time you know yourself able to hold that pitch in full voice, and then at the halfway point start a crescendo that will bring you back to the same pitch, sound quality and volume with which you started the exercise. The original rule to maintain your tone of voice: happy and satisfied, is to be maintained through the diminuendo and the crescendo. You will find the exercise really difficult as long as you are unable to do this tone of voice maintenance. You will find that your ability to stay with the program while doing the “Messa di Voce” will be equal to your ability to match the “Messa di Voce” length to your sustained tone singing of the same note. Guys! Guess what? When you do your diminuendo, you are going to find singing in Falsetto unavoidable and you will be forced to explore Falsetto as you sing softer and softer. Within this exploration the key is to carry your original tone of voice at the beginning of the note all the way through the exercise. Have fun.

An old friend sent Debbie, my wife, a You Tube video link for a singer who starts an aria in a concert with a long held note during which she slightly varies the volume. She presented the note as if she were doing something as difficult as a gymnast standing on his hands walking around with his feet in the air and then standing still on just one hand. After she finished her “show off” trick she acted embarrassed at having made such a display of vocal prowess which is, after all, not called for by the composer.

Yugo for you?

Ferrari for me!

I’m sorry to say that her display is more like a car salesman selling a Yugo to a guy who wants to buy a Ferrari. Now that would be a good trick. A hand standing gymnast (for the girls) would have deserved the applause that she got. The note that this soprano sang for her audience, almost anyone can do, and for far longer. I can understand how some misguided students of singing can convince themselves that if gathering applause is that easy, the road to fame must be really easy.

Do that “Messa di Voce” thing and don’t give yourself an easy time of it. Many of the secrets of singing are waiting for discovery inside this exercise. Every one of the muscles in your larynx has a part to play. I’ll be back to talk more specifically about them.

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Air – Part 3

Posted by on Mar 12, 2017 in Featured, Garcia, Opera, Singing, Teaching

Air – Part 3

After we organize our breathing system to maximize our capacity to engulf air, we have to pursue the next goal: Conservation. It is a simple word and simple minds may think it to be a simple operation. The truth is quite complicated. It was Renata, my voice teacher, who put the truth about air conservation in my ear, and that truth is still an echo in my head. They are her words: “If you want to sing “Bel Canto”, you must learn to sing long phrases.” It was not more than a month later that I figured out one part of the equation and started using my dad’s bowling ball to do “Pull Overs”. When you don’t have the money for good equipment, you improvise and I knew I needed to make space for more air. My dad got tired of me playing with his bowling equipment and bought me my own bowling ball. I still have it.

If I could afford lessons, why couldn’t I afford a dumbbell set?

Renata comes to Iesi for Il Pirata

Lessons with Renata were affordable because she never charged me anything. It cost my dad a few $ for gas to drive me to lessons. Did you know that gasoline was affordable once upon a time? She even gave me the scores to use for study. I was poor, because my dad, like his dad, was a hard worker in an industry that payed peanuts for his time and effort. I ignored the many social justice weeds behind which we Blakes could have hidden. Some carriers of the Blake DNA from my generation found those weeds quite attractive, but I was happy to work toward searching out my gifts and turning them into economic success.

How to improvise.

I learned about “Pull Overs” from a magazine my dad allowed me to slip into an almost overflowing shopping cart. My aunt was filling it with groceries as she pushed it down the aisles of the old Grand Union on Margaret Street. Every Friday after work he would drive us to downtown Plattsburgh where he could cash his check and pay for the food that would feed us over the next week. Our house sheltered a small platoon of assorted generations. There was my Grandmother, Grandad, two maiden aunts, my dad and me. We were poor, two of us old enough to receive a Social Security check, and like many of the families of the friends I had in the neighborhood we liked to eat. That means that one shopping cart full of food was sometimes not enough to keep us going for a week. By the way, that’s why there wasn’t a lot of money hanging around for fun stuff like dumbbells.

So my dad was serious about conserving the few dollar bills he still had in his pocket when we got back from Plattsburgh on a Friday night. His effort to make his leftover cash meaningful in our lives was a great example to me for how we should conserve air.

Singers are faced with a gargantuan project. Let’s list a few expensive, in terms of air, items that a singer must pay for:

Consonants can cost you a bundle.

“T”s propel air like guns shoot bullets or blanks, depending.

“F”s can fritter tons of air.

“S”s are just as bad as the previous example.

“P”s can be just as penetrating and wasteful as the “T”.

Etc. etc. etc.

So we have a double edged sword to deal with. No one should hide behind the memory of modern victories over consonants and emulate some of my colleagues. Evading the consonants all together gets you off the hook of consonant costs but leaves your listener wondering what the words are all about.

Singing in falsetto at high volume throws a big bundle of air away.  It would be like shredding currency into confetti rather than buying the stuff to throw at your favorite Holiday parade with your AMEX card. I did a little dance on this problem in “What’s the buzz”.

There are other vocal technical deficiencies that dump air, but I really want to direct your attention to how I believe Garcia wants to help you establish the most efficient use of the air you inhale. He tells us to do his vocal exercises in every color, volume and key possible to our voices. He gives license to the beginner to add pauses for necessary breaths. He doesn’t explain how to reduce this necessity. Renata, you remember, my voice teacher, knew this to be important. I believe Garcia expected that telling anyone about this fundamental artistic ability would have inspired people of his day to laugh at him. These days I can’t decide whether to laugh or cry when I hear singers run out of breath before they finish a composer’s phrase.

So how do we learn to conserve? We must convert into sound, as we sing, the maximum percentage of the potential energy we create when we pressurize the air in our lungs. Whatever the volume, whatever the color, whatever the notes, whatever the words and whatever the key may be, if we can phonate the exercise or the melody at hand comfortably, we must get to the end of it. We then make it longer. We slow it down, or we add more notes to sing. The time you can sing without coming up for air must increase. As much as I would like to delineate the physics and physiological manipulations that must take place, I don’t have room to do it in a blog. Besides, I know that there is no amount of knowledge of the conservation particulars that will empower a singer to sing a longer phrase. Focusing on only one or two of the many particulars of this conservation game will do no more than ruin the sound being produced. So why risk it? No pain no gain. No risk no reward.

The only way to establish efficiency of air use while you are singing is by tedious practice. The two key factors are quality and duration. Measure the length of time you are singing while you are singing. As you sing the phrase or exercise stay aware of how much air you have left. Try to mark the half way point. Keep going until you run out of air. That is, sing the exercise/phrase and hold the last note to use up the last bit of air. Do it again and again until you find the tempo or number of notes that use up all your air. Sorry, keep a minimum with which to finish the phrase/exercise gracefully. All the while you are doing this timing thing you must pay attention to the sound you are making. Measure it well. It must never be less than really good. Start simply.

For an exercise:

One vowel, one volume and one color. Then do the other vowels and get the same time result. Then do clearer and darker and louder and softer always getting as close to the time result as before. Then start mixing these things together. ie: Clear to dark. Dark to clear. Clear to dark at the mid point and back to clear at the end. Loud to soft. Soft to loud. Well, you get the picture. Mixing everything together while managing to keep your good sound quality is the apex of air management.

For any melody:

Do the same as above with one addition. When you are at the apex of your air management abilities with the melody, you get to add the words. Follow your instincts about how the character you are impersonating would express the words at hand and when you are able to mix all those variables already mastered into making the words vibrate with meaning without speeding up or taking extra breaths, you have reached the apex of technically perfect artistic interpretation. If you find that singing the words make finishing the melody without extra gulps of air impossible, well, you have to know that if you are truly gifted, your gifts will overcome. So don’t give up and try the next trick. Use only the vowels of the words for your interpretation. Follow the consensus between the composer and librettist but only with the vowels. When you can finish your melody with all the various vowels in place, you then have to make war with the consonants. That war is not absolute. It is more like what gardeners do with fancy shrubs, or what gets done to vines belonging to an expensive Bordeaux label. What Michangelo did to that monster block of marble in which he saw David. Those consonants need to be there, but they need to add to your effect on your audience so you can take their breath away, not allow your “T”s and “S”s to take yours away.

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Parallel Pathology

Posted by on Mar 6, 2017 in Featured, Garcia, Opera, Singing

Parallel Pathology

Debbie, you remember, my wife, likes to share her internet surfing discoveries with me. It was a few days ago she sent me a link to an article by Kevin Williamson.

Mr. Williamson’s in depth discussion of a self-destructive pathology stirs up memories of damaged friends and struggles past. The vantage point from my 66th rung on life’s ladder allows me a rather grand overview of the subject in Kevin’s rumination. First, I have to divulge my own enjoyment of the low stakes life style Kevin indicts. I call my happy easy street retirement. You know. That career capping period when one gets to do just about anything he/she can afford. On the climb up my ladder of time I’ve looked forward to retirement with a knot of emotions that included resentment.

Kevin Williamson

I’m glad Kevin admits to that monster’s influence in his own life. Without his personal struggle, he would not have been able to understand or engage resentment with such aplomb in his article.

I know of and have met quite a few analogs of “Mark”, Mr. Williamson’s acquaintance. Like “Mark”, they take, or took, in some cases, satisfaction from the negative effect they once had or still have on the environment which maintains or once upon a time sustained their lives. That environment puts a roof over their heads, food in their stomachs and enough cash in their pockets to let them make enough choices to allow them the opportunity to avoid becoming so irritating or damaging to those upon whom they have impact, that society is forced to put them out of the way. Our modern society is being evaluated daily as tolerant or intolerant by many measures and one of them is how much damage a “Mark” can do before he must suffer sanction from our society. I’m going to stay away from those social justice weeds around which Mr. Williamson dances so effectively, while I call out everyone who contributes to a parallel artistic pathology.

There is no reality more inspiring of resentment than watching other people live “better” than we do. Once an individual constructs his/her definition of “better” he/she is ready to juggle that specific hot potato. The hot potato issues that inspire resentment are innumerable, but I hope you at least catch the hem of the cape of the masked marauder who hassles everyone’s heart. (For the tenor: I hope you can grasp the principle.) Let me distill my previous resentment statement down to relevance within my career category: There is no reality more inspiring of resentment than watching another singer get more curtain calls, applause, encores,  money, contracts, critical adulation, members in his/her fan club, etc., etc., etc. The generic application of the resentment principle has infinite possible details. After all, it was the downfall of Satan.

Let’s forget about Satan, for now, and get on with my view of Mr. Williamson’s and his bud’s struggle with resentment, something common to all humans, but especially active in the lives of singers. It’s not just us tenors that suffer the slings and arrows of sociological anxiety. It is a common poison offered to all opera aspirants, and failure to flower into a full-fledged artist is a common prognosis for those incapable of at least some detoxification. It’s a major issue that impacts more than the voice. How does a singer get poisoned? Just like any other human. Let’s see…. Three examples come to mind. If my friends read these pages they may recognize themselves. If they have courage, they may have something to add.

It was a long time ago that Debbie and I met a young man who had a very complicated life. On top of everything, he wanted to be a singer and was studying with a friend of mine. That friend invited me to sit in on a lesson, and I was happy to say that the voice I heard was really, really good, and I had lots of hope that this man’s life would carry him onto the stage. I was so few rungs up my life ladder that I had high hopes I would be singing with this man before I stepped on the rung I had already labeled retirement. Yes, I was arrogant enough to believe I would make it to that rung.

It never happened. I never had the chance to sing with him in an Opera production. The why of it may not be what I see from my perspective, but there was one complication in that man’s life that I knew would be a huge obstacle to his success. Back in the day, his family would trundle him out with pride to sing in mixed company when he was but a mini human. Now, that should not be a bad thing. No doubt about it. One can be an entertainer even just out of diapers. I loved singing in front of people as soon as I discovered they liked listening. The problem for this young man was that he hated it. According to what he let drop in casual conversation, he really hated it. Garcia might have called this a deficiency in his personality. I suggest that it is a function of resentment. Like: “Why should I get up and suffer in front of those people so that they can enjoy themselves?” I’ll leave the full working out of such a problem to psychologists, but this resentment has to be flushed out of the singer, or the “artist” will always resent the audience. There is no way that such an individual will fully flower into a commercially viable joy for the ears.

After one or two more rungs and a few more grey hairs, I received a request from an agent who suggested I take a professorial interest in a singer he had discovered. We did sing together. We sang together before I could even attempt to fulfill my agent’s request. In the fullness of time and one or two rungs latter, we landed in the same Opera House for an extended period. I think our agent suggested to her that I might be useful in her crusade to become an artist. I did my best to upload what I knew to her understanding, and found the transfer to be really difficult. It turned out that I now measure my knowledge download from her as far greater than the upload I hoped to add to her database. Her resentment infection didn’t seem to come from her parents. What impeded my efforts came from the student body and professors of her school days. There was no way that my hopes to hear and see vulnerability displayed on this young woman’s voice and gesticulation were going to be realized if she kept her anger and resentment. I failed, but I kept that to myself while I disseminated my opinion in all directions that this young person was gifted with a wonderful instrument.

Now I come to the singer most relevant to Kevin’s indictment of modern life. I had a student not long ago whom I had hoped I could help vocally. There was definitely a misunderstanding between us. I knew he needed to learn how to sing. He thought I should show him how to sing an Opera. It was one of my war horses, so it shouldn’t surprise me that he would want me to teach him how to do it. The problem was that there were so many technical deficiencies in the young man’s singing that there was no way for him to master the Opera he desired to sing.

His deficiencies don’t make him unique; rather so common that one can suggest he is part of the 99%. This statement may be politically provocative, but it is an understatement of my belief. I think that among the population of the world maybe 99.9999999999999% have no hope of mastering a Rossini Opera. Although not numerically unique, my student was the first example of Kevin Williamson’s well assessed pathology of adolescence un-escaped. My student cordially considered what I thought he needed, and shared with me what he held to be essential. We did not agree. The bottom line turned out to be a calculation that Mr. Williamson put so prettily:

The price of being a little bit of a slacker is not very high in the United States, though the rewards for success can be staggering. Life is pretty comfortable, and you can take six years to finish your bachelor’s degree in art history while working at Starbucks, and it isn’t miserable.

Necessity used to be what forced us to grow up. That was the stick, and sex was the carrot, and between the two of them young men were forced/inspired to get off their asses, go to work, and start families of their own from time immemorial until the day before yesterday. A 20-year-old man with adequate shelter, cheap food, computer games, weed, and a girlfriend is apt to be pretty content. Some of them understand that there is more to life than that, but some do not.

I stubled over an article by Olga Khazan who might have a lot of arguments against Kevin Williamson, but certainly had some advice with which my tenor student would agree.

Olga Khazan

My student did the calculation and came up with the formula that so disappoints me every time I encounter it. It goes something like this: “The job shouldn’t be that hard. I’m not going to do that much work, and if I don’t become a star, che sarà sarà.” That is resentment in action.

Mr. Williamson is wrong to point only in the direction of the USA. America does offer the environment he describes, but the USA is a slacker in comparison to the cushy conditions one can find beyond our borders. After all, none of the students I used above as examples have birth certificates on file in the USA.

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Vigata vagrancy

Posted by on Feb 23, 2017 in Featured, Garcia, Singing, Teaching

Vigata vagrancy

Debbie, my wife, and I have streamed the last of a series of films that we found available on the internet that were produced for the RAI. We fell in love with being carried away to a real town with a fantasy name: Vigata.

What has this to do with singing? Actually nothing, but after we finished all the Montalbano magic carpets to Sicily available on MHz we decided to watch a “bonus” interview video added to the long list of episodes that carried us one more time back to Italy. We landed in a conversation with the author of the Montalbano books: Andrea Camilleri. This person is almost as interesting and engaging as the stories he wrote. The point of why I want to talk about this microscopically important facet of our lives in retirement is that Camilleri tells Teresa Mannino in that interview a few things that everyone in THE ARTS should know. Some old people really do know things that the young need to hear. Since I don’t ask you to pay for these blogs, I’m not going to ask you to pay the freight to stream the interview.

First:  Art is not “Work”.

ROME, ITALY – FEBRUARY 20: Andrea Camilleri attends ‘La Scomparsa Di Pato’ photocall at Alfredo Restaurant on February 20, 2012 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images)

In an official You Tube clip:

Camilleri says he had fun writing his stories.

I’ll include the captions they inserted on MHz:

Teresa: The one (book or story) you enjoyed writing the most?

Camilleri: No, I always enjoy writing.

Camilleri: If my writing should degenerate into work, I won’t write anymore. I don’t understand those people who say, “Such exhausting work! God, how tiring it is to write!” Relax! It’s certainly less tiring than unloading crates at the central market. Even though I sometimes do get tired, but without exaggerating. I’ve always said that my ideal is the lady on the trapeze.

Teresa: The lady on the trapeze?

Camilleri: Yes, at the circus. She looks beautiful, always smiling, right? She does a triple somersault the whole time smiling, lightly… And she doesn’t show the immense fatigue of the training. Because if she did, she would ruin your enjoyment as a spectator. It’s the same for me. I want to be a trapeze artist. I don’t want to convey the hard work in my writing. And so, I enjoy myself here. Understand? It isn’t work.

About fifteen minutes into the interview Camilleri discusses his manner of instruction for young actors. He has a lovely way of linguistically complicating a very simple principle. Great joy bubbled up in my heart as I listened to this grand “maestro” of the imaginative arts delineate what I believe to be true.

This is a link to a pirate YouTube that is good only for the fact that it is free: You Tube  The RAI must have pulled the full interview off its servers. The links in the first You Tube clip do not connect to anything. Money may make the world go round, but I try to make my ideas free.

Camilleri: Attention. An actor has a complex personality, and you must play, not with imposition, because with imposition at the most, you’ll end up a bad copy of yourself. You must be astute. You say “A” with someone so that “B” follows. I don’t think I ever was a teacher. Maybe an advisor. I came from a very severe school…. Horace’s. It’s a totally different way of considering didactics. But I was very severe, very attentive in the selection. But once they became students, I tried to understand, at most, what road they were taking. And on that road, I tried to clarify the doubts that could arise, and pave the way in reaching a result that would mirror their personality while it was being created.

Camilleri was well loved by his acting students, and for good reason. He says that he was very selective in choosing students, but more importantly he says he was concerned to guide the artists under his instructions to use the individual gifts they had to develop their interpretations reflecting that which was already part of their own personalities. It is easy for me to understand that Camilleri was seeking to find the core of the talent with which each actor was gifted. Garcia counted this as the first job of a singing teacher.

Garcia wrote:

“Often one needs an experienced judgement (sic) to recognize in the voice of the student the germ of the true qualities which it possesses.   Generally, these qualities are only in the rudimentary state, or well veiled by numerous faults from which it is necessary to free them.   The essential point is to first establish the existence of them; one then manages to complete the development of them by patient and orderly studies.”

The phrases “what road they were taking” + “reaching a result that would mirror their personality” and “recognize in the voice of the student the germ of the qualities” +  “first establish the existence of them; one then manages to complete the development of them” may seem to you to be completely different ideas. To me they are really the same idea. Garcia’s text directs the teacher to look for and discover the true nature of the vocal gift in each student before doing any technical development of the voice. Camilleri guided each of his students to develop characters for the stage that reflected the various facets of their own personality. I would say that Camilleri wanted each individual actor to use the natural personality gifts they possessed to enlighten the impersonation of any character they were working on. Garcia directs our attention toward vocal gifts, Camilleri points at complicated personality gifts. So what’s the difference? Different parts of the human organism. Camilleri certainly didn’t exclude the vocal gift from his attention, but it is only one small complication.

In that first link, Camilleri tells us all about one of my 10 commandments for an artist. He called his ideal a trapezista. An artist must present a sense of satisfaction and enjoyment while doing the work. An agent once told me that he wished I could make my singing seem difficult when I did auditions, but I refused to take that advice. I expect he knew what he was talking about, but my focus was not on pleasing him or the “Gate Keepers” to whom he wanted to sell me. I wanted to impersonate the tapezista that Camilleri was talking about. I wanted to sing the most difficult music and keep on smiling as if it were nothing. So should you. It is sad that “Gate Keepers” would seem to have a hard time recognizing difficult music without the interpreter ruining the composers intended message by communicating the stress under which the music places the artist. That would not be an artist in my book. More like a used car salesman.

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Air – Part 2

Posted by on Feb 19, 2017 in Featured, Mechanics, Opera, Singing, Teaching

Air – Part 2

So, I’m back.

A proud papa of a tenor just getting his feet wet in the business requested some workout advice for his son. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words so:

The photo belongs to Johns Hopkins University and comes with a very good description of the movement I believe every singer should do if they engage in any physical exercise at all. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what about a video? I found a You Tube that does a great job of speaking to my intent for suggesting this exercise:


There are only two ways to become a master of long phrasing. One is to become a meticulous manager of the air we can get into our lungs, and number two is to make room for as much air as our breathing apparatus can contain. Back in the day before anyone had the chance to tell me I couldn’t do it, I set my sights on both goals.

The Dumbbell Pullover was one of my favorite moves, and it put my rib cage in the best shape I could possibly hope for. I might have liked to have a chassis like Seth Feroce’s, but I knew I had better things to do with my time, if I wanted to sing well.

By the way, girls can profit from this exercise too:

Seth speaks a “real guy” kind of language that I find refreshing and is all about expanding the chest for competitive reasons. I may not use many of his locutions, but I want everyone to know that we are both talking about competing for the attention of an audience. Seth has a competition judging panel in mind:


My idea has nothing to do with attracting the attention of a similar panel one normally has to face in a Music program

No. As important as these gatherings are to the educational institutions that marshal them, they are much less important than crowds like this:

It is in front of these ticket paying populations that your worth is determined, and it can be risky business, but I’m getting a bit off track here.

Let’s get back to basics. Being able to sing a lot of notes before having to take a breath, hopefully between words, is a good thing. The more notes you can sing without needing more air, the longer you inspire your sympathetic listeners to hold their breaths. That’s only one benefit. If you get a few of your audience members to gasp for air while you keep putting notes together in a long phrase, you might get noticed by more people than you think possible. In a sold out La Scala performance the numbers can be outstanding. Let’s face it. You can never be sure that even one bored member on a board of judges will even notice that you started singing.

Making lots of room for air is what I have in mind. You cannot make your rib cage larger, but you can force it to present the largest space for your lungs that the bones will allow by working on the muscles and connecting tissues.

No matter how much effort you put into this or other exercises, it will all be for nothing if you slouch and flounce about while singing. Stand up, hold yourself on your feet as straight and perpendicular to the ground as you can comfortably do so.

Take as deep a breath as you are capable, and proceed to exhale as slowly as possible without letting your rib cage collapse. Keep it up there where you started. When you can no longer cause air to flow out of your system otherwise, only then start bringing down the rib cage, until you run out of capacity. Make this procedure your standard way to sing your phrases, and you will discover that the rib cage collapse will become your standby maneuver. Like a reserve tank for saving you from having to gulp air in the middle of a word. When you come toward the end of a phrase, and you notice that the rib cage is starting to go down, just think of it as your air tank gauge beginning to flash “EMPTY”. So what do you do? Quickly find a convenient point in the phrase, between two words, preferably at a comma. That is where you should breathe.

The old school would have you do this deep breathing exercise with a lit candle just in front of you. The trick was to exhale in a manner that bent the flame over away from you. Oh!! The bigger trick is to keep the flame bent over without a tremble in the flame. The next big trick is to vary the bend in the flame in such a controlled way that it moves, but does not tremble.

The pull over is for increasing your air capacity, and the candle trick is for increasing your control over that air.

I’ll be back. You can call me an Air Head if you want, but most of what our audience hears has to do with our manipulation of air. So it’s always on my mind. How much air we can contain has a personal limit, but we can stretch it.

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Air – Part 1

Posted by on Jan 26, 2017 in Blog, Featured, Garcia, Mechanics, Singing, Teaching

Air – Part 1

More than three years ago I put up a blog: Why Is There Air about air management and included lengthy quotes from Garcia’s book. The Garcia quotes are still there, but the pages on external sites I linked to have gone stale. So let’s have another go at it.

I can find Garcia using the word “air” in the reprint of his first book 101 times. Not once do I see an explanation of what is doing the work of air management. If you want to keep me honest and see for yourself just have a look in the book. My first effort to create an index for the book follows:

The word “air” can be found included once on pages xix and xxvi, four times on xxviii, once on xxix and xxxv, three times on xxxvi, once on xxxvii, twice on xlix, one on l, four on lvi, four on lvii, one on lix, two on lxi, three on lxii, three on lxiii, four on lxiv, two on 6, one on 12, four on 23, one on 24 and 25, two on 26, seven on 27, six on 33, seven on 34, 2 on 35, 2 on 38, one on 39 and 41, two on 42, one on 46, 56, 57, 59 and 60, three on 62, one on 131, three on 134, one on 142, four on 197, two on 198, two on 204, one on 208, two on 212, one on 218 and 219 each. If I missed any, please let me know.

At the top of my blog “Why Garcia” I used a Garcia quote, a snip of which I include here:

It is his method (Garcia’s father) which I have wanted to reproduce by trying to reduce it to a more theoretical form and by attaching the results to the causes.

Garcia sets the goal and I wanted him to achieve it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find Garcia’s explanation of what causes the pressure in our lungs which our breath control abilities are to manage. So what is the source of energy that pressurizes the air in our lungs? While I’m at it, what is the mechanism of fine control,,, breath control, over that pressure which Garcia mandates for mastering his most difficult exercises?

In “Mind Over Matter”, I strongly suggest that students are badly served by instructors who dump physiological data on them and then claim that the data is sufficient for attaining their goals. Such dump and run tactics would be laughable if they were not so tragically common. The quick of mind will be forgiven for forming the question: “So what is Blake going on about, if data is useless to the student?” Data is essential to the teacher. Bad data is damaging to the student, no matter who the teacher is. My website is about handing you the ability to shoulder the responsibility for your voice, essentially becoming your own teacher. Just as I had to live the life of the self-critical seeker of artistic attainment, you must to do the same. So I want you to have all the data I have, so that you can judge for yourself how you are doing.

I believe Garcia put everything he knew into his writings, and my not so quick mind was puzzled by his descriptions of passive breathing and air management. I wanted him to point his finger at something and tell us how the thing he was pointing at was the source of energy that ultimately tickles our ears as delightful vocal sounds. (sound, by the way, is kinetic energy) He did not, and I had to work it out for myself. I had quite a few arguments with opinion holders associated with that un-tenor like mental activity, and am happy to say that I survived the stresses of thinking and the dangers associated with arguments.

Given the slowness of the brain with which I am blessed, I am ever grateful that it is equally relentless. While trudging through the open questions I keep trying to answer, it dawned on me that Garcia may not have been able to answer the questions I posed in paragraph three of this blog. His research into the human voice is part of the fabric of History. That fabric is time specific. What was available to be known was all he could know. I wanted him to know a lot more than I knew, but time is on my side. Knowledge has increased. Garcia could not discuss “Potential Energy” in his 1842 book. That phrase was coined by William Rankine in 1853.  “Kinetic Energy” had to wait until 1862 when it was birthed by William Thomson and Peter Tait.

If you slept through most of your science classes, the links above should take hold of your internet surfing hands and drag you on a journey that can get you up to speed. I am pointing my finger of accusation at the diaphragm, abdominal muscles and thoracic muscles. It is in those human sub-systems that we find the source of energy. It is chemical potential energy.

Chemical potential is first used by the diaphragm to execute a diaphragmatic excursion  for inhalation. The diaphragm converts potential energy, (burns calories) contracts and shifts downward causing the chest cavity to increase in capacity which lowers the density (lowers the pressure) of the air inside the lungs. This negative pressure is always condemned by ambient air pressure to uniformity/consensus/solidarity with the surrounding air pressure. That condemnation can be evaded, but not for very long. When the mouth, throat and glottis are opened up, to evade death, the air in our lungs submits to the invasion of more energetic air forced down our throats by what? Ambient air pressure is the answer and the momentary higher energetic state it enjoys is gravity produced. (see Gravitational Potential Energy) That potential energy of ambient air pressure converts to kinetic energy in the air as it rushes into our mouths and down our throats into our lungs equalizing that diaphragmatic excursion produced negative pressure in our lungs. We often say that we draw air into our lungs, but no, no, no, not a chance. Gravity produced pressure pushes it into them.

Now that we have our lungs full, we stand ready to convert chemical potential energy in our abdominal and thoracic muscles to produce air pressure in our lungs. We make those muscles contract and squeeze the air in our lungs and when it gets squeezed it increases in pressure which begins to exceed that of ambient air pressure. That pressure goes higher, like, you know, the second we start compressing it, and then it contains potential energy. If we do not close the mouth, throat or glottis, that potential energy would convert to motion (kinetic energy) instantly. Don’t forget to brush your teeth. This rush of air exiting our mouths can be embarrassingly revealing.

We singers are supposed to conserve as much of that potential energy contained in the air in our lungs and convert it into kinetic energy, sound, by a complex process of alternating movement and mechanical manipulation of that pressurized air. This conversion process is what Garcia got to observe with his little mirrors which he describes in his book on pages xxii through xxiv.

What tickles our ears, sound, is the kinetic energy of molecule movements transferred all the way to the molecules adjacent to our ear drums.  That energy is transferred from the singer’s pressure converting vocal chords, air molecule against air molecule, all the way to our ear drums. You could say that the singer is engaged in “at distance” drum beating.

So why should singers, tenors least of all, know anything about thermodynamics? I have so much to tell you, and I am already breaking my self-imposed word limit. A thousand words should be enough, but,, so ,,, like,, “I’ll be back.

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What’s So Great About Books?

Posted by on Jan 6, 2017 in Featured

What’s So Great About Books?

The great thing about books is that each one can be a stepping stone for a time crossing adventure. I have enjoyed many a Sci-Fi fable that carried me into the undocumented past as well as into an imagined future. Looking into the future is getting ever more popular, but looking into the documented past seems to have ever fewer practitioners. I hope I can entice you to follow me as I try to dust off some of the past. I am especially keen to use the books that Garcia wrote and will include any other that might fall to hand.

Speaking of falling to hand, I found a new book that is the inspiration of this blog. It was published in 1915. That would be nine years after Garcia died, and four years after the birth of my voice teacher, Renata Booth. I managed to trip over it while surfing the net. The title is: HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT, and I am happy I found it for two reasons.

  1. It is a reprint of a book written by Manuel Garcia’s last student and biographer, Herman Klein.
  2. It contains part of Mr. Klein’s effort to create a way to teach singing utilizing the technology available to him.

Unfortunately, the Gramophone disks that were packaged with the original books, THE HERMAN KLEIN PHONO-VOCAL METHOD BASED UPON THE FAMOUS SCHOOL OF MANUEL GARCIA, are still collecting dust somewhere, and are not included with this new edition. I am a tenor. A kind reader found one set of disks for me uploaded to You Tube.

Ideas and actions taken should not be defamed just because they failed to be effective when first conceived and tried. I believe that Mr. Klein had ideas that came to him about 100 years before technological advancement could make his ideas practical.  We hear a lot of talk and read pages populated with the phrases “Wrong side of History” and “Right side of History”. I think Klein lived his life in the wrong epoch of History. If time travel had been possible for him, his ideas would certainly be workable today because of the technology available.

Want to come for a ride?

There is nothing new under the sun.  I keep reading those words in a book I undusted some years ago, and I believe them to be true. My discovery of the Klein book reprinted by Daniel Shigo put me on notice that my thoughts also submit to the above quoted truth recorded in Ecclesiastes. I’m full of thoughts about what we can do to overcome the growing apathy toward our Operatic Art, and how to recover what seems to be getting lost like litter on both sides of the path of History. They are my own thoughts, but I know better now than to believe that they are new.

In Torino, the last time I was there, I laid out much of my thinking while sharing the company of Armando Caruso. He became very enthusiastic about my ideas as I joyfully spoke of them in my delusion that they were new. After all, the technology I wanted to employ is new, and not yet utilized to teach singing. Learning at distance is not new, but, as far as I know, teaching singing in a similar way would be new.

Armando decided he could help me to open a window on the Internet through which everyone could watch the process of preparation for becoming an Opera singer.

Unfortunately, the Master Class that was going to be our debut effort at Internet window opening suffered the same fate as Klein’s “Method”. That does not make it a bad idea, but certainly a bump on the road of History. However, my dream of a Master Class with an open window on the Internet through which anyone can come watch us do what we do, still has a chance to be realized. Whatever the reason for our lack of participants in our first effort, Armando is committed to trying again.

What I want to invite everyone to do is come and work at becoming a better Opera singer. That’s what my Master Classes are all about, and it is a complicated thing that needs serious study. The world of Opera is changing as is everything about the world, but humans are not things,,, well, at least not according to what I believe, and our structure has not changed since Opera became an art. So what I want to do is teach Garcia’s 19th Century method to 21st Century humans in “full” view of the world. Putting Garcia’s book back in print is a good first step. Blogging and putting on the internet my thoughts on what Garcia wrote is another. Teaching that method in front of an open window in a way that visually and sonically explains the content of the book is another big step. In this way all students of singing can evaluate their own work in light of the Garcia way, and at the same time everyone interested in Opera can see and hear Garcia progress in the making.

The advancement that makes Klein’s original intent practical:

This should be in the shoulder/music bag of every student of singing.  It should be the surrogate teacher for every Performance Artist. It can be the best study partner you will ever have. One of the most important qualities you’ll find in one of these things is honesty. It will not lie to you. Neither will I, but what a teacher tells a student should be tested by the student. Your video recorder will either confirm what your teacher is telling you, or you should change teachers. Don’t let any maestro talk you into leaving your equipment at home or turned off during your lessons.

This technology was not available in Klein’s day. We can now judge for ourselves if we are doing well in our studies. It is sad that Mr. Shigo didn’t go the extra mile and include the content of the records Klein produced. It was, after all, the truly new part of Klein’s publication. If Mr. Shigo had reproduced those disks, we all could hear what Klein and perhaps Garcia himself would have defined as good execution. Then with our new technology we could complete the circle Klein may have had in mind.

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