Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Art of Singing (for tenors) Part 3

Aria #3 - Nessun Dorma

We ended yesterday's post with some Lithuanian talent, and unfortunately that leads us to our last aria - let's see if his technique improved as he sings one of the most famed tenor arias of all time in the Semifinal round of Lithuania's Got Talent.  You may want to take your dogs outside now, so they don't howl for 3 minutes straight!

Yes, you saw that correctly.  He got a standing ovation. And, in case you have said "well that didn't sound too bad", let's get some things straight.

Besides the fact that there are thousands of tenors that can sing Nessun Dorma better than that, you probably are considering many other criteria and attributing them to being a "singer". For example, Susan Boyle is an average singer - technically that is - but some believe she is a great singer because of her personal story and that emotion comes across in her performance. It's ok to say that you enjoy her singing because you feel so inspired, but you are likely not separating her technical ability from things that have nothing to do with her voice.  This is really common in pop music - an average singer may be a very gifted performer - and with the help of techno beats and auto-tune, they are a multimillionaire.

Well, tenors, most Americans, as hard as they try, will have difficulty separating singing and performing.  So it is important to be proficient at both!  Some are so bad at determining a great singer that they will insist that Susan Boyle has the best voice ever given to a mortal.  However, from past experience, they are likely just trying to make you mad.  If that's the case, you should ignore them - or if they're family, a nice religious or political jab should do.

By the way, I am completely terrified to hear what Lithuanians actually listen to.  In the end our guy eventually lost to an accordion.  I give him credit for trying, but that just doesn't cut it, except in Lithuanian pop culture obviously.

So what does a tenor do in a world that doesn't know any better?  Well, Pavarotti made this aria a pop culture phenomenon because of his charisma and power and unfortunately many pop stars have tried their luck at it.  People will appreciate music for many reasons, just perhaps not technique - which is a strange thing since people throw around the word "talent" all the time.  In the end, tenors, if you capture someone's emotion beyond their reach of their own capabilities, that's the end game.  Being the best is one thing - being appreciated is another.

If you're not a musician, please take the time to consider technique, before you are "drugged" by the performance.  However, if you are a singer, make sure to always be accepting of peoples' appreciation.  Even though American's aren't the smartest when it comes to art music, they are very generous and have little contempt in their praise.  It can be depressing and lonely when no one appreciates your music like it was intended, but always remember that your performance can touch the inner self of every person out there.  That is the magic and beauty of art.

In the end, being a tenor takes great technique in proper resonance and in breathing, but it also takes a great mind and a performer's mentality to really effect people.  For most, it takes years of tireless practice to come close to being proficient in these things, however there certainly are exceptions.  Some people with little education develop great instruments - still very raw though - here's the story of one such tenor...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Art of Singing (for tenors) Part 2

Aria #2 - Pour mon ame

So, this trio wouldn't be complete without Pour mon ame - famed for its 9 high C's.  Here is a clip of one of the most famous singers in the world today, Juan Diego's a short aria; you should listen to it all.

Besides the obvious high notes, this is a great show of technique.  There is actually a large community of opera fans that do not care for Juan Diego's voice.  He lacks depth and is considered to have somewhat of a small voice compared to most tenors.  But I would argue that he has probably the greatest technique of most any singer alive today.

There's not much we can do to change our voice.  We can cover and mask it with muscles in our mouth and throat and change its timbre (how it sounds), but that all causes tension and stress.  And to sing 9 high C's, you cannot have much tension.  Actually, to sing 9 high C's well, you cannot have much tension.  The less tension/physical stress you make, the better your vocal health is, and most importantly, the better you are at maximizing the potential of your voice.

There have been great singers however that use a lot of tension - most any pop singer you can think of.  That is what makes it sound like pop music and the same thing goes with all the other styles of singing.  However, that is not how we approach the highest art of the voice.  Anyone can sing with tension and bad habits; it is mightily impressive when someone can take that away and sing free.  But with that said, let's see how others fare.

Andrea Bocelli - He certainly has potential in his voice, however he has significant trouble with this aria.  The biggest reason for this has little to do with his high notes, but rather his vowels fall way back (not resonant) as he is manipulating his sound to appear more mature - he ends up pumping his way through and probably was a little hoarse after singing it.  That's never a good thing.  Also, he always covers his neck, but I bet if we could see it, the veins would be popping out and you would be able to tell that he stretches his chin out, literally stretching his vocal chords to make a high sound.  That's quite a lot of tension.

Rockwell Blake - This recording will make most opera singers throw up.  A good kind of throw up.  No one can argue that this is a very impressive example of this aria.  Blake is known for his power and perhaps that got the best of him in his career.  It ended sooner than most, probably because of the years of powering through things like this.  He will say in his masterclasses that most of his power came from his abs, pumping the air through his very gifted vocal instrument.  He kept the throat relaxed and used his air to support the sound. This technique is called appoggio - and most of the greatest tenors practiced it.

Appoggio literally means "to lean" in Italian - to me, I think of it as if someone's fist is pushing my gut in.  I resist their fist when I inhale as my body fills with air from the bottom of my rib cage.  An easy way to think about it is when you see a bunch of dancers finish a routine and you see them in their final pose smiling with jazz hands, but their chest is radically moving up and down because they're out of breath - this is a bad example of appoggio breathing.  Instead, it is the idea that most will find when you lay on your back on your bed and watch your belly move up and down as you breathe.  It is not necessary to force your belly out like your pregnant with a food baby, it should be more natural than that.

If you can get that down, you will have a great chance at letting yourself sing with significantly less stress - and don't forget the proper resonance either - and you will surely be on your way to being a great tenor!

If you are in the mood to watch a Normal Joe have his luck at this aria, let's hear what Lithuania's Got Talent, has to offer...

That's not all...this brings us to the last aria.  More to come tomorrow...

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Art of Singing (for tenors) Part 1

Last week was incredibly exciting on many levels: I sang the Canadian National Anthem at the Sporting KC game (video to come), I was able to go to the Populous Architecture Firm and see the designing of several stadiums including the Houston Dynamo's new stadium and the 2014 Olympic Skating Center; and besides playing tennis and golf a few times, yet another exciting thing has happened as well.  I won't say the name of the person to protect their privacy, but at the Kansas City Vocal Institute - the school of voice studios that I started here in Kansas City - a very special person has applied for lessons with one of our studios.

Now contrary to the many responses I get about these kinds of things, KCVI does provide legitimate professional music education for professional singers and performers.  I started KCVI with the idea to provide the most affordable music lessons in the area and helped to raise scholarship money for children living in poverty to take lessons with our teachers.  It also provides our teachers, all of whom have received a Master's or Doctorate degree in music, with a livelihood all during such a tough economic time.

Anyway, I can't really say much about the "special person" other than that they are an Emmy Award winner and they were in a movie that was nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Picture in 2010.  Good luck guessing!

I have been memorizing like mad for my Chicago trip.  But in the meantime, and to keep my promise from last week, I would like to dive into the Art of Singing - for tenors that is.

I posted this video last week:

The obvious "good singer" is Alfredo Kraus and I have no idea who the bad one is, however this was kind of mean for Kraus to do to him.  They are singing the very end of "Celeste Aida", one of the most famous arias from Verdi's opera Aida.  Of course this singer has no shot of singing this well - because he has a lot of technical issues to work out first - but let's use this to bring up some problematic issues that effect tenors all around the world.

Being a Tenor in Three Arias

Aria #1 - Celeste Aida

This is one of the greatest recordings of this aria - if you love music, you MUST listen to the entire thing.  Even for Pavarotti it is an incredibly difficult aria.  It is so difficult that one of the greatest singers of today, Roberto Alagna, had trouble with it at La Scala (one of the world's most famous opera houses).  The audience actually booed and he "flipped them the bird" and walked off stage.  Shortly thereafter, the understudy came on to finish the role.  Watch the Italian news coverage below of the incident.

What can we learn from this?  Audiences LOVE to cheer for the singers, just like a sporting event.  Opera audiences know what the hardest arias are going into an opera and wait anxiously for them to see how their favorite singers will perform.  However, it certainly gives classical music a bad reputation when an audience boos.  That was very unfortunate and thankfully, you will almost never see that kind of reaction in America.

However, the tenor must perform the hardest arias well, or of course, they will probably not be hired to perform it again.  When tenors try to sing this aria, they must be very conscious about the placement of their resonance.  This is what Alfredo Kraus was showing in the Masterclass when he pretended with his hand to pull an imaginary string from between the singers eyes.  By focusing the resonance up high in the face, it will make it easier for the singer to sing.

Resonance in laymen's terms refers to the rattle that you feel when the air that you use in making a sound vibrates in your pharynx, mouth, nose, and sinuses (you can especially feel it when you have a cold or sinus congestion).  If you talk like a ghost, you are not maximizing your resonance - however if you imitate the sound of your alarm clock going off, you are likely resonating well.

For tenors (and classical singers), they need to effectively resonate, because it actually makes it easier to sing, and easier to hear as it cuts through an entire orchestra.  You don't have to woof out a sound, like what a basset hound would make, instead it is a much smaller but poignant sound - kind of like a duck's quack.  All of this exaggerates the feeling of course.

Difficult? Well, just wait...we don't want to sound nasal either; instead it should have depth (some space in the mouth to give it a more mature sound).  If you have the "quack" thing down, combine that with the voice of an umpire calling a "strike", and you're close to feeling what it is like to be a tenor.  Opera singers rely heavily on how their singing feels, not on how it sounds.  We're too dang loud to hear ourselves anyway!

So how do you make it easy so you don't get red in the face and run the risk of pooping yourself?...come back tomorrow for more...


July 21-August 7 - Sugar Creek Opera - Daughter of the Regiment - August 4, 5, 7 - Watseka, IL (near Chicago)
August 8 - Audition - Kansas City Symphony Chorus

much, much more to come!...soon, I promise!

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Pied Piper

If you build it, I will a child following the pied piper.


The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts will be opening soon!

As you may know, I auditioned for next year's Lyric Opera season and was not hired, however I have been in touch with them recently and they are very interested in having me with their company in the future.   I was sad that I could not perform in their new opera house this, their first season.

However, I did not give up and have talked to the Kansas City Symphony at least six times about their program with the Symphony Chorus.  Unfortunately their auditions are held at the same time that I am in Chicago in an opera production.   Well, thankfully, they are allowing me to make a special audition on the day that I return to Kansas City from Chicago - which also happens to be my 2nd wedding anniversary to my wonderful wife, Dusti.  Hopefully, the audition will go really well, and hopefully I will be able to sing on their season this coming year in the immaculate new symphony hall.

Click on the picture for a closer look!

From all accounts, it is expected to be one of the greatest halls, acoustically that is - and that's all that matters, in the entire world.  Unfortunately, I do not expect that I will be able to witness the Grand Opening Events for each of the halls.  The events will feature Placido Domingo, one of the greatest tenors in all of history (whom I had the great honor of seeing live, with my dad - by the way, Happy Fathers' Day dad - notice the correct placement of the apostrophe), and Itzhak Perlman, the violin virtuoso.  I can't go because to attend the Grand Opening of the Opera House, tickets range from $1,000 to $50,000!!! Comparably, with a little luck from under your couch cushions, you can attend the much more affordable Grand Opening of the Symphony Hall with tickets ranging from $500 to $30,000 - what a bargain!  Want the best seats in the house for both nights? Well, you get a $10,000 discount if you buy the Platinum Package - you'll get to see both concerts in the best seats for a meager $70,000. Interested? Here's the order form.


Nonetheless, I got an audition for the Symphony Chorus.  And, this week I also had an audition to do some solo work for Village Presbyterian Church, the fifth largest Presbyterian Church in the world.  They do almost exclusively major works by the greatest composers (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, etc.) as well as other chamber music of legitimate classical music traditions - which means to me that their congregation must be very well educated and cultured...just my kind of people.

I mention this because (college music students listen up!) as soon as I started the audition, they asked me first to sing a solo.  So, I did.  Then they asked me to sight sing - just like a college proficiency test.  For example: Sing the following example below - you don't get to use an instrument or piano - this is the first time you've seen the music, and you must sing it correctly a capella (alone, solo, without help)

Seems impossible, huh? Well, that is what I had to do.   In college, musicians learn tricks to help us with these kind of things.  Then I did a rhythmic dictation test - it is similar to the example above only if I clapped the notes in rhythm. Lastly, they gave me a German paragraph and Latin paragraph to read, read correctly, with correct diction, and with the correct accents (Americans are horrible at this).  Then we talked for a while about the program.  Well, I just found out hours ago that I got the job.

It should be a great thing.  I feel that they are very anxious to have me on board.  It's nice to feel wanted and needed instead of used, but I haven't felt that way in a long time; the last church I was at, UUMC in Salina, KS was a amazing place for me.  I am lucky to be hired and treated as a professional musician.


Which brings me to another tangent - I am excited that the job doesn't involve Praise and Worship music!!!  Some I suppose will never understand why most musicians don't enjoy this.  The reason is that we spend years, passionately learning and perfecting music, and then we are required to perform the simplest, and sometimes the most abusive forms of it.  Wouldn't that make you crazy?  To me, art music is an education; popular music is a drug.  It is great to rapturously enjoy music (the drug), I certainly do, but in music we can also experience our mind, character, and stretch the bounds of our natural abilities (the education).


This last week I visited the new Livestrong Sporting Park to see the US vs. Guadeloupe Soccer match.  Like most things in life, I am wildly passionate about soccer.  And this was my first game in the brand new stadium in Kansas City and my first game seeing the US National favorite national team of course.

The US National Team won 1-0 and advanced to play Jamaica in our Continental Championship, the Gold Cup - the "World Cup" of North America, Central America, and the Caribbean.  But that's not all, I will also be singing at the Sporting KC game at Livestrong Sporting Park this weekend when they play Vancouver.  And since they are playing a Canadian Team, I will be singing O Canada as well as The Star-spangled Banner.  I hope to see you at the game if you can make it - 7:30 on Saturday, June 25.  That's THIS COMING SATURDAY!

And for some special fun for any geeks like myself out there, click here to visit the virtual venue where you can view the stadium from any location.  Can you find out where I was sitting from my picture above?


My love of sport has begotten my love for sports architecture.  And what is the pinnacle of sports and architecture?  THE OLYMPICS of course.  Now, I have a special place in my heart for the Olympics...better yet, I have a special heart for the Olympics.  It is one of the most exciting times in my is all consuming - be that good or bad - I love it.  And, many don't know this, but I was so captivated by the 1996 Opening Ceremonies in Atlanta, because it was staged almost entirely as an opera depicting the history of the South, that it inspired me to become a musician.  It is just one of those unique events, where money is almost no object, and the imagination and creativity of the world comes together to create a piece of art unmatched in scale and appreciated by everyone on earth.  How often does art effect so many, so effectively?

Anyway, one of my friends from college happens to be an architect at Populous, an architecture firm here in Kansas City.  They used to be called HOK, but they are significantly one of the world's most prestigious sports architecture firms - click here to see a list of their past projects.  And, if you notice, they have designed sports venues including Livestrong Sporting Park and stadiums for every Olympic Games since 1996.

Well, my friend offered to let me take a tour of their work on Thursday.  I am not sure what I will be seeing but I am incredibly excited.  I know that they have been recently working on the Olympic Stadium for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.  They may be working on a different project now, but I will find it all fascinating!


Dusti and I went to Shakespeare in the Park, in Kansas City and saw Macbeth last night.  It is packed with people and runs for 18 straight days, until July 3.  I am loving the culture of our metro area.  It is so energetic compared to many other places in the US.  

And, lastly, next week we'll take a look at the Art of Singing for tenors.  Here's an example of the glory to come...


June 25 - National Anthem - Sporting KC vs. Vancouver - Livestrong Sporting Park - 7:30pm
July 21-August 7 - Sugar Creek Opera - Daughter of the Regiment - August 4, 5, 7 - Watseka, IL (near Chicago)
August 8 - Audition - Kansas City Symphony Chorus

much, much more to come!...

Monday, June 13, 2011


I had the great privilege of being the Administrative Director for the 33rd Summer Choral Institute this last week.    I have to say that it is absolutely one of the most incredible weeks of the year. What's even more exciting is how we are so lucky to witness so many young musicians discovering for themselves their true potential.  My responsibilities were to organize everything about the week - so I have been working for hundreds of hours throughout the year.  The counselors were incredible and equally passionate to give the students the time of their life.  Also, Dr. Julie Yu and Dr. Joshua Oppenheim, the conductors, are not only incredible teachers of music but of life as well.  Lastly, but not leastly, we all give our gratitude to The Master Teacher Institute for the Arts and Bob DeBruyn for their passion and donations so we can bring these students to the Institute on full scholarships.

The students this year were phenomenal.  They are all high school sophomores and juniors.  Now, I listen to a lot of music, and I do not say "phenomenal" very often.  But I just want to give you a clip of one of their recordings from this week.  Remember that they are high school students.

I was so impressed by the recording - the maturity of their voices are years ahead of most other kids their age.  If you are interested in purchasing a copy of their concert, please contact - they are $10 each.

We had kids apply from many states and had several fly in from Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Little Rock, and other locations as well.  Just to let you know a little bit more about it, SCI is primarily a choir camp, but it's main focus is leadership.  Some of the very best singers in this part of the country participate and perform a concert at the end of the week, but they grow as a person tremendously throughout the week.

The students must learn their music proficiently and pass a screening on the first day to attend.  We have had to send home kids the last couple of years because they did not know their music well enough.  During the week, they attend rehearsals, recitals, concerts, masterclasses, seminars on jazz and the Alexander Technique - but that's just the musical side of things.  They also participate in a high ropes course, go to an art museum, swim and surf at a water park, have a talent show, play games and bowl, and do many other things as well.  I think for most, it is the first time that they meet so many people their age that share the same passion as they do.  Everyone lets their guard down and spends their time finding new best friends and dreaming big dreams about the future.

Certainly the best feeling that I have is seeing the confidence of the students at the end of the week, perhaps living the life that they want to live for the first time.  Musicians are criticized all the time for being foolish or wasting their potential, by friends, family, and the world in general.  This can be really depressing and very damaging to someone's self worth.  We all have stories about it.  But I am very confident that after this week, these students won't let anything keep them from their dreams.  It's so exciting to see how excited they are about themselves.


On another note - I hope you listened to the lovely/horrific recording I posted last week.   I got to thinking a little bit and wanted to give a few more examples over the coming weeks on the art of singing.  As you know, operatic singing is the highest art of the solo voice.  Unfortunately many of your favorite pop singers aren't very good, when it comes to singing well.

Now, I don't believe in talent first of all - and neither do scientists - because the truth is that it is all about the time and work that you put into it.  Actually I feel it's kind of derogatory when people tell me I'm talented, because sometimes it comes off as if I didn't have to work at all for it - they are horribly mistaken.  Many pop stars just haven't put a lot of time into their voice, and they don't need to.  If they changed their voice, even for the better, they would probably lose money.  Part of it has to do with your physical make-up, but no one pops out of the womb singing Pagliacci - it takes lots and lots of work.

(climbing off my high horse)

Let's hear some examples of pop singers, even pop-opera singers, singing everyone's favorite aria, Nessun Dorma.  They may all sound pretty to you, and that's a good thing.  It's just that the quality of their voices are vastly different, and that is what matters in the art of singing.  We want to hear maturity and depth, no straining, nasality, or breathiness.  To use a food analogy,  many people like McDonald's but it's obviously not as great as Grandma's secret family recipe that has been honed and perfected for years.

Finally, I am so excited to go to the US National Team soccer game tomorrow, here in Kansas City, at the brand spankin' new Livestrong Sporting Park.  I will also be singing the National Anthem there at a Sporting KC game as well as the Canadian National Anthem when they play the Vancouver Whitecaps on June 25th.  Let me know if you want to go, because I may be able to get some tickets....maybe...


Monday, June 6, 2011

The Art of Song

Why am I so critical of poor singing?...Because singing is an art.  I believe without any explanation I can show the difference between poor singing and artistic singing techniques by playing a recording of this one simple art song most of us know - Danny Boy.  You must - MUST - listen all the way to the end.

I am in charge of the 33rd Summer Choral Institute this week, so my post is brief...but hopefully it gets my message across.

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