Monday, May 21, 2012

Is there a doctor in the house?

"Doctor, Doctor, it hurts when I do this!"

"Don't do that!"

So goes the old Burlesque sketch. Why can't curing singing problems be this simple. Just stop doing whatever is getting in the way of your singing freely.

Recently I have been operating the Burtis Hospital for Fractured Voices here at Rood Hill Farm. I have been working with several singers who have been experiencing vocal stress, fatigue, pressure, or discomfort. Or all of the above. They have already tried various changes in their technique to alleviate the problem without much success.

How do singers get in this fix in the first place? Usually, gradually, over a period of time, we allow changes to come into what was hopefully a free, energetic technique, without realising this is happening until we 'suddenly' have a problem singing.

This happens especially when singers are not having someone they trust listen to them from time to time. In the learning stages, a young singer should be seeing the teacher on a regular basis. As a professional, the singer should be singing for the teacher as often as the career permits.

What is apt to happen when one is in a busy vocal career, is that, what with rushing from rehearsal to performance to the plane to the train to the rehearsal- well, you get the idea- singers don't have time to think about how they are singing. They just try to push their way through the day, the week, the season, and hope for the best.

With a few, this may work. Most singers, professional or amateur, need to give themselves time to slow down occasionally to reflect on what their voice is really doing. If it hurts when you do that- stop doing it.

But we can't just stop singing if this is our life. So we need to find someone to listen to us and watch us sing, who may give us some ideas on how to do it better.

With singers who come to me, I find we must begin with establishing a perfect breathing technique. This involves relaxation, learning how to take the perfect inhalation and how to immediately return the air to focused sound. I have written four books on this subject. I'm sure my students are tired of hearing me harp on breathing.

Until they get into vocal trouble. Then I come back to haunt them!

The two singers I have worked with this week, a tenor and a soprano, were both spending a lot of energy fighting their voice. With each of them I started with breathing, posture, relaxation, and phonation. All of this happens in one step if you inhale with the 'aw' breath and immediately return it in sound. This is so simple it actually works. Both of them at the end of the session were singing more easily and making beautiful sounds.

We have to stop listening to what we sound like and discover what we feel like when we sing. Feel first, then listen. It works every time. Get out of the way of your voice!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

You never sausage an evening

This evening I stepped into the world of Alice in Wonderland. I guess you could call it Herbert in Sandisfield. My dear friend Ben Luxon called me last week to ask if I would accompany him and Laura White in a romantic duet they were singing tonight in Ani Crofut's Cabaret at the Sandisfield Arts Center.

This seemed like a great idea. Ben is one of the world's great baritones and Laura has a lovely soprano voice. What an elegant evening, I thought.

The piece they sang was by Lionel Monckton, who wrote for British Music Halls in the early 20th century. That, in and of itself, seemed fine.

It turns out the text of the song relates the sex life of Max and Mitzie.

The kicker is that they are sausages.

Yes, sausages.

Ben's wife, the fine painter, Susie Crofut, created Sausage costumes that have to be seen to be believed.

I thought that this will either set me off on a new career in Vaudeville- (except that Vaudeville is dead), or it will end my career as a classical performer.

What the hell? At my age, who cares.

Fortunately, all of us are fairly well-glazed hams, so it came off very well. I would say that in spite of the dramatic demands, they did their wurst. And they stole the show!

Out of the frying pan, onto the stage, as it were.

On a more serious note, Laura sang 'Mi chiamano Mimi' from La Bohème very beautifully earlier in the show, accompanied by Ben

This is the Sandisfield Arts Center
Be there June 10th at 4:00 p.m. for the
Ferris Burtis Music Foundation Benefit Concert

If you carrot all, you will be there.

No sausages allowed!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Long distance

I have been having a fascinating long distance conversation via email with a singer in Texas, Ron Stone, who wrote to me a while ago saying that he has read my two most recent books which have encouraged him to change his vocal habits, allowing him to sing much more freely. He has decided that he is a tenor, not a baritone, which is the range in which he has been singing for a number of years- uncomfortably. He recently ordered both books, Case Studies in Vocal Pedagogy and Take Two Deep Breaths and Call Me in the Morning from and has been reading and absorbing them.

When you learn how to breathe deeply and allow your larynx to relax with each 'aw' inhalation, wonderful things can happen with your voice. Apparently this is what is happening with his singing. This seems to be the theme of all of my books on singing and vocal pedagogy. Simple is better.

In his first email message he wrote: 'My name is Ron Stone and I live in a little town called Howe, Texas, about 60 miles north of Dallas. I am 48 and have been singing most of my life but really applied myself to it in 1988. In 1974 I taught myself to play the guitar and would sing along with it and considered myself a guitar player who could sing. After 1988, I considered myself a singer who could play guitar. In fact, when I would audition for bands, I would audition as a singer (with no luck). Dallas is a hard town in which to be original.
 Ron Stone

By trade, I am an electrician and am now office manager and operations manager for an electrical sub-contractor. But I have always sung, sometimes good, sometime not so good. And in the last few years of hanging around a vocalist forum, I have gone through many changes and encountered many strange attitudes. And reading your book Case Studies in Vocal Pedagogy was a breath of fresh air, if you will pardon the pun. And so now I am reading your book Take Two Deep Breaths and Call Me in the Morning.  So much wisdom in such a short amount of time.'

Ron then referred to what had began as several postings to my blog, in 2011, when I was answering questions from one of my students about the term appoggio. Another question led to me making a second posting, a third question produced a third posting, and by that time I decided I was on my way to writing another book, which became Take Two Deep Breaths and Call Me in the Morning.

He continues, 'For I, too, have tried appoggio, and it makes me sing sharp'.

Using appoggio as a part of your singing technique, involves attempting to hold the rib cage in a fixed position, basically, pushing outwards on it while singing. This pressure impedes the natural action of the diaphragm and inhibits free singing. It develops a great deal of tension in the body and blocks the free flow of sound. Tension and rigidity never work in singing.

Ron: 'My singing is now bright and ringy and I am learning to accept my voice. I am a tenor, pop, rock, whatever, though I have been accused of having an operatic voice.

I've never had voice lessons, though my grandfather, who sang dramatic bass in church choir and church musicals, would teach me what he knew. I was infected with the idea that I would sing low, like him, one day. But I never did. In adolescence, my voice never cracked.

Giving up the baritone idea has freed me so much. Everything you said is spot on. You really resonated with me, if you will pardon another pun, when you pointed out that many desire to make singing complicated and full of effort. As though if they are not straining and wearing themselves out, they are not doing enough.

Anyway, thanks for writing and keep it up.'

I don't think I have ever had such an enthusiastic response to something I have written. And thus began Ron's and my long-distance vocal technique conversation; a sort of for singers.

After another long email from him, reporting his vocal progress, I told him that he seems to be on the right track. I gave him some technical advice and said 'This is lesson one!'

I also said that I was happy he was enjoying my books and that it sounded like he was doing the right thing vocally. Of course, trying to give technical vocal information without hearing or seeing the singer is like trying to diagnose a medical condition over the phone. I suggested that he might enjoy reading my blog and he wrote that he was already doing that.

Ron: 'I have been reading that, too, with delight. You are an excellent author, which is a skill all its own. Quick, to the point, illustrative. I look forward to reading your other works, as well.'

I am mailing him copies of Sing On! Sing On!, and Vocalizing from the Ground Up!

In another email he continues: 'Specifically, this appoggio  thing. Something which I have tried. And it feels totally unnatural, and it is very much 'high breathing' because you 'engage the core' which is a popular and misused (I think) term these days. No other explanation but that you tense the intercostals and obliques or even the rectus abdominus to hold back the air. It is a strain, and strain causes compensation in other ways. I have tried it and it is just like you described; tension creeps into the upper chest, unavoidable. And once that happens, the extrinsic muscles get tense and, in turn, the intrinsic will follow.'

By now I am thinking to myself, 'Ron is a very serious singer and has gained a lot of very good information both from reading my books, from his exhaustive study of vocal technique, and has a good approach to singing freely'. One has to be careful, however, how many different techniques one tries to absorb. Many singers become confused by too much varied information. It's the man who jumped on his horse and rode off in six directions!

Ron sent me a recording of his singing. He has a naturally high tenor voice of some quality but  he needs to stop thinking about the 'Rock Sound'. In whatever fach you decide to sing, you must find your own voice, your own sound, not attempt to fit in with the 'general' sound pattern that is used in that type of singing: British singers trying to sound as if they come from Kentucky, for example.

Most Rock singers use a pressured, straight tone with very little or no vibrato. They tend to scream high notes. This is fine if that is all you want to do with your voice, but with a voice like Ron's, I'm sure that he can find a much more beautiful, freer sound that be can used in Rock, Pop, or Broadway music. It is much easier for male opera singers, for instance to turn out a 'Pop' album than for female opera singers. It's just the nature of the male voice. Ezio Pinza and John Raitt, for example.  Few Pop singers have tried classical recordings, barring Barbra Streisand's venture into Schubert. Someone once said that instead of using Water Boarding, they should have made prisoners listen to that recording for hours on end. We would have caught Bin Laden years earlier, I'm sure!

Ron: mentioned Dr. Thomas Fillebrown, a dentist, singer, and doctor who rebuilt cleft palates, and who wrote about singing techniques in 1903: 'To compete with other Rock systems, he includes special exercises to create rasp or distortion'.

Trust me, rasp and distortion are not qualities I want to hear in any voice. Louis Armstrong made a career of rasp, but it was his personality, not his voice that gave him a career. Rasp and distortion are throat diseases!

Ron: I don't agree with his most recent shift to 'dampening the larynx'. Maybe it works for him but certainly not for me and my gaining wisdom is to do what it is my voice can do and not do what it cannot do.'

Dampening the larynx probably means 'covering' the sound, which I do not approve of.

Ron: 'Your books are short, concise, like lean meat. All substance, no fat. And that is a skill, all of it's own. Some people can sing. 'Natural talent' or not, it's a skill. Some people can teach, which is another skill set. Not all good singers can teach. Some people can write  well. But not all singers can teach or write well.

You are the exception. The trifecta, a triple threat. Singing talent and writing talent. Each, of course, honed by good study, which I think should always be mentioned.'

I may have to mention Ron in my will! Even my mother didn't think I was this amazing. But I thank him sincerely for the compliment!

He continues, 'The popular singing instruction systems today seem to advocate various overt manipulations of the larynx. Most notably trying to hold it abnormally low'.

I do not think one should ever purposely manipulate the larynx, although there is a whole school of vocal pedagogy that has the singer wrenching the larynx about with his hands. Not a good idea!

I think that the larynx should feel like a piece of fruit floating in a Jello neck. Relax it with the deep, 'aw' breath, and respond instantly with sound. I replied to him that by taking what I call the 'aw' inhalation, and listening to the sound the air makes as it goes down your windpipe, you allow the larynx to relax and lower without purposely moving it. If you inhale and hear 'ih', as in 'it', instead of 'aw' as in law, you are holding the larynx and will begin singing in a very tense position.

I also mentioned my 'tennis ball technique' with which you can time the speed of inhalation to the release of sound. When the tennis ball hits the floor, inhale; when you catch it, sing. This is perfect timing. And incredibly simple. You do not allow yourself time to do something that gets in the way of impulsive singing. If you hesitate after you inhale, the vocal cords close automatically. The epiglottis will cover; the body thinks you are about to swallow and doesn't want you to drown. Then, to produce a sound, you must blow them open with what used to be called the 'glottal attack'. You should never 'attack' your voice, in any case!

My dear friend and Mentor, Madeleine Marshall, once told of a teacher who, as the student took a breath, would then cry 'CLUTCH!'  'SING!' That is no way to treat your voice.

Back to Ron. 'One method appears to advocate 'squashing' the larynx to 'dampen' the sound to create a more oscuro sound.'

This is often referred to as 'covering' the voice, which I do not approve of. If you have a good, free voice, why would you want to cover it up?

Ron: 'Some of this comes from the instructor, who, liking the sound of his own voice, thinks that is how all voices should sound.'

Bravo Ron. I think that you are dangerously on your way to becoming a voice teacher! No two voices, however similar, are alike. One should not try to imitate the sound of another singer but find within your own voice, the best, freest, most comfortable sound. If you admire someone's singing, you may try to emulate the way they sing, but do not attempt to imitate their sound because it is not your sound.

Ron: 'Trained or not, I am a light tenor, as far as tessitura goes. I do have an itch to come up with 'Nessun dorma', but I can guarantee that I won't sound like Russell Watson or certainly not like Pavarotti.

I go to a vocalist's forum and some there think that singing has to be such hard work. They view singing as athletic. Granted, it is a physical thing, aided by being in fairly decent physical conditioning. But I think they go overboard and envision themselves as tri-athelon athletes, requiring a great expenditure of muscle and energy. When, if they would just breathe as you describe, they would release the energy they are holding back.'

This is what I preach to all of my students. One does not sing by main strength. You don't need hard strong muscles to sing well, you need a perfect breathing method, good vocal focus, and a relaxed but energetic technique.

Ron: 'I think the object of voice training whether with a professional teacher or even one's own self, by accessing resources, is that it should get easier, not harder. You are so on the money. Breathing is to be easy and then used immediately, without restriction. Singing is something in motion and cannot be accomplished by static maneuvers like locking your body up.'

I couldn't have said it better myself, Ron. You are doing an amazing job of analysing and perfecting your vocal technique all by yourself. Keep up the good work!

Sound must always be moving, never held. I ask my students to visualize their sound moving from them out the window and down the street. See  where you sound is going. Held energy is worthless; it must travel!

As I said earlier, it is not really possible to work successfully with a singer unless he or she is standing in front of you. I listen and watch the singer to determine what is working and what is not. Even trying to give good critical advice after listening to a recording is a far from ideal way to help someone.

If I were to begin working with Ron in person this is how we would start. Breathing exercises, which he has read about in my books, relaxation, focus, effortless singing. This is not what most Rock singers do. Think of yourself, Ron, as a singer, period. Not a rock singer, not a pop singer, not an opera singer, just a singer. Because singing well is always the object. Comfortable, beautiful, free singing is what will bring you to a career. Everything else is a matter of style.

Years ago I worked with a woman who was having major vocal difficulties. She had had surgery for nodes. She had belted Rock and Roll for years. Her voice was in tatters. I told her that if she continued to sing that way, she would reform the nodes and lose her voice completely. I showed her that by deep breathing, better focus, and relaxation, she could make very acceptable, in fact, better, Pop sounds and save her voice. I don't think she really believed me at first; but she was game. She tried it. And saved her voice.

That is what you must do, Ron. You have a splendid natural voice but you must allow yourself to discover how it would like to sing, not how you try to make it sing. Singing should be like recess! Let's have fun. Find someone you trust to listen to you sing who knows a lot about free singing, and let your voice decide what it wants to be. At your 6 feet 6 inches of height, and a good tenor voice, you should be a great candidate for all sorts of musical venues.

I haven't always had luck with this kind of long distance teaching. Lorraine used to call me from Japan or Grenoble, or where ever in the world she was singing, and we would talk for an hour about what was happening with her voice. We had worked together for so many years, and I knew every nuance of her technique to the point that I could literally give her a lesson over the phone.

On the other hand, once, a young woman emailed me asking my opinion about 'holding' the diaphragm. Her teacher told her that the diaphragm should not move! I told her that to emit air and/or sound, the diaphragm must be free to move; never held. That's just the way it operates. She wrote back saying 'How dare you disagree with my voice teacher!

That was the last time, until now, that I have tried to answer technical questions from strangers via email.

Until Ron. 

To simplify what we have been talking about: if it feels good when you sing, it is right! If it feels bad, stop doing it! Always learn to sing by touch, first; then listen to how it sounds. If it feels good, it is good. Simple rules for great singing!

Thank you, Ron, for co-authoring this blog!

The Cleveland Orchestra

Severance Hall

I have been visiting friends in Cleveland this week. Friday morning we spent quite a lot of time in the Acute Care Center. When I de-planed and walked the four miles to the Baggage turnstile, I had a lot of pain in my right heel. On Friday morning, my hosts decided that I should see someone about it and took me to the Acute Care Center, an amazing facility. There, it was determined, after  an examination and an X-Ray, that I have a heel spur and fasciitis. I was given Prednisone and Tylenol and told to go to a nearby CVS to use the Dr. Scholl's Foot Machine to get measured for orthotics. An exciting start to my time in Cleveland.

Today, Sunday, we attended a concert at Severance Hall by the Cleveland Orchestra. This is a marvelous organization. I have never heard them live before, and in the acoustic of this hall they are amazing! Built in 1931 with a million dollar gift from Mr. Severance, the interior has elements of Art Deco, Modernism, Egyptian Revival and Modernism. In short, it knocks your eye out! It glitters in silver and gold gilding.

Today's program began with Kodaly's Galántai Tánkoc (Dances of Galáta). This is a delightful work with hints of Prince Igor.

The conductor was Lionel Bringuier, a native of Nice, France. He is currently serving as Resident Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He is an energetic and expressive conductor, who, unfortunately,was not always attentive to the balance between the soloist and the orchestra in the second piece on the program, the Cello Concerto, #1, in E-Flat Major, Opus 107, of Shostakovich.

The very able 'cellist was Alisa Weillerstein, a Cleveland native, who was recently awarded a MacArthur Foundation Award, among other honors. Ms. Weillerstein plays with a small tone that was a bit stringy-wingy in the first movement, but which achieved a more beautiful, rounder timbre later in the concerto. She was often over-powered by the orchestra. Thursday's newspaper review of the concert mentioned this problem, but it was still un-balanced in today's performance.
In the solo cadenza her playing was exquisite, poignant, and beautiful. I don't know if the problem in the first and last movements was her playing or the 'cello, or just a lack of communication with the conductor. He did not see to be able to get out of her way.

Interestingly enough, he is a 'cellist himself. Hmmm. Her intonation is perfection itself, which is not always the case with 'cellists. I have been wondering if Yoyo Ma or Zara Nelsova would have been drowned out by the orchestra. Zara had a home in Sandisfield with her late husband, the great pianist, Grant Johaneson some years ago. I knew them both slightly and heard both of them play many times with pleasure. She had a BIG sound.
 Zara Nelsova
I have contacted my two 'cellists, Julian Müller and Melissa Morgan, to get their opinion of her playing. Melissa is the 'cellist with The Elektra Ensemble, and Julian is finishing his first year at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana. Both are under the aegis of the Ferris Burtis Music Foundation. Julian will perform in our Benefit Concert on June 10th at 4:00 p.m., at the Sandisfield Arts Center. For more information on this concert see:

After the intermission we heard a lovely rendition of Albert Roussel's Le Festin se araigné (The Spider's Feast).  This sweet, but rather innocuous work premiered in Paris just weeks before the final work of today's program: Stravinsky's L'oiseau de feu (The Firebird).  This is a work of such genius that I feel inadequate to say anything about it other than if you never get to heaven, This is next closest thing!

It is obviously THE piece for this conductor and in the incredible acoustics of this hall was mind-bending in its presentation. After this, there is nothing else to say.

When I first entered the hall it seemed to me that the proportions of the stage were unusual. It is very deep compared to its width. Avery Fisher Hall should eat its heart out! 

As we left the hall, I said to my friends, Stravinsky and Britten will be the two composers remembered from the twentieth century.

It was a wonderful concert!

Saturday, May 5, 2012


This evening I attended a choral concert presented by the very fine Chorus Angelicus and Gaudeamus at the Ethel Walker School in Canton, CT. The chorus is directed by Gabriel Löfvall, an energetic and accurate conductor.

artsimageThe main reason I was at the concert was to hear my young student, soprano Katie Weiser, who has been working with me this past year.

The program opened with Arvo Pärt's Cantate Domino Canticum Novum. Pärt is not among my favorite composers and I really did not see the point of programing this brief piece to open the program.

Cantata BWV 29 of Bach, 'Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir', was then sung with enthusiasm. Good choral tone and accurate reading of the musical lines. Of the soloists, Jeffrey Conrad Soto, tenor, and Miguel Angel Vasquez, bass, seemed most at ease with their parts. The soprano had a very light, covered voice that was barely audible and the mezzo a bravura, punchy style that was uncharacteristic of the genre. An excellent small orchestra accompanied the cantata.

The final piece on the program was Haydn's Mass #8 in C Major (Mariazellermesse). It is a delightful work that contains all the energy and humor for which the composer is famous. The same tenor, bass and alto sang in this work. Sarah Hager Johnston and Katie Weiser were the sopranos: Ms. Johnston in the quartet and Katie in two solos. Both sang very well. Ms. Johnston needs to find better projection for her voice, but it is a sweet voice and is easily produced. Katie sang her solos beautifully, including a number of trills that we had worked on in lessons.

A real trill is a difficult ornament to perfect. It should involve two pitches, not just one pitch that wobbles around. Katie has learned how to trill. We used a number of my 'trill exercises' to obtain a true ornament. She also prepared her part of the work on one week's notice! And performed beautifully. (Here speaks a proud teacher!) This is called being thrust into the real world of music in one giant leap.

Often this how a career is begun. My friend, the late Dusolina Gianinni, was a student of Marcella Sembrich in New York City many years ago. Damrosch was to conduct a première peformance of a new work by an American composer. The soprano who was engaged to sing the solo parts became ill at the last minute and had to cancel her appearance. He called Madame Sembrich and asked if she had someone who could fill in at the last moment. She recommended Dusolina, who with one rehearsal sang the piece magnificently. Her review appeared on the front page of the New York Times. I met Dusolina in Seefeld, Austria in 1968. John and I spent several days squiring her and her husband around in our little car. This was one of the many fascinating stories she told me about her extraordinary career.

These days one is lucky to get a Times review for classical music at all. 'Fings ain't what they use to be'