Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Jussi Bjorling: Failing Heart, Triumphant Singing Voice

The Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling enjoyed a status as king of the singing world until his untimely death at the age of forty-nine in the year 1960. He graced the stages of the Met and Carnegie Hall in the United States as well as the great opera halls throughout Europe and the rest of the world with his beautiful Bel Canto singing voice. He left behind a great legacy of his art, readily available in all leading music stores throughout the world, both audio and video recordings.

What many people didn’t realize about Bjorling when they hear him sing, however, is that he suffered from a deadly heart condition. Whenever he had a heart attack he was placed on a medication that was designed to broaden the arteries of his heart to allow the blood to flow more freely. Over the years of taking this medication his heart became increasingly enlarged until his early death in September 1960.

At that moment in time just before his death Jussi Bjorling was the greatest singer alive. During the last year of his life Bjorling’s voice was becoming more and more dramatic. He was starting to take on more of the dramatic roles in opera. This was due to the maturity of his mind and the depth of his spirit. It had absolutely nothing to do with any degree of physical strength. His body was growing weaker and weaker while his singing voice was becoming stronger and stronger.

Bjorling’s last recital was on August 20, 1960 in Stockholm, Sweden, less than three weeks before he died. It was a truly spectacular performance. Recordings of it are still available today. I encourage you to go out and buy a copy and have a listen for yourself. You won’t be able to tell that you are hearing a man whose heart is failing. You will only hear a triumphant and majestic singer.

Monday, October 14, 2013

An Innovative Approach: Group Classes to Achieve Individual Progress

While I was receiving my own Bel Canto singing instruction in both London, England and Bologna, Italy my teacher Julian Miller frequently invited me to sit in on his lessons with other students. We would all open our imaginations to discuss what was happening in the student’s voice as well as ideas to make further progress towards VOCAL FREEDOM. Sometimes we would gather several students together in a discussion. It was a most rewarding and exhilarating exercise. I saw the potential for us all to learn from one another and build each other up.

When I began to teach singing in Germany and in London I followed in that tradition by getting my students together in groups of two or three and encouraged similar types of discussions. I soon found that I was gathering larger and larger groups together in addition to each student’s individual sessions with me. The students enjoyed collaborating with one another and encouraging one another about their singing.

Now it is my regular policy to hold group classes at the Bel Canto House School of Singing in Dublin. Led by myself or my associate teacher Edwin Williamson, the students learn from each other in a relaxed setting, each taking turns singing a variety of songs from Irish ballads to showband classics operatic arias. The cardinal rule of my school is that every person’s statement or comment must be positive and constructive. Negativity is simply not allowed at the Bel Canto House. My school is a place of learning and growth and joy where each person is made to feel welcome and encouraged.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Problems Inherent in “Method” Teaching

I have talked previously on this blog about the advent of "method" teaching, where teachers instruct their students in "breathing exercises" and "vocalizations" and other tasks set upon the overphysicalization of singing. The first and most obvious effect that such “method” had upon students of singing was to outright rob them of the natural synchronicity and balance that they would need to express their art. They were taught to separately “watch” their breathing, their tones and their pitches all at the same time.

Now, I ask you to consider what would happen to you if you tried to watch your feet each time you took a step to walk. You would fall right on your face as soon as you got up out of your chair, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t get anywhere, and in fact all that you would be accomplishing would be to teach yourself to be anxious about something that you never before considered to be a worry.

The second deleterious effect of the “method” teaching was to mislead aspiring young singers towards the false conclusion that singing was a primarily physical activity that could only be done properly after being trained with strengthening exercises like an athlete, or even like an animal. The fact of being a whole person was removed entirely from the concept of singing.

The “maestros” invented “vocal callisthenics” which really only taught their students to imitate sounds and tones and to imitate the voices of others, as well as to embellish the sound of their own voices in unnatural and awkward ways. But the exercises were intended to “build them up” as singers. Only a person with a well-developed physique (as relates to “singing muscles” and “breathing muscles”) was believed to be able to sing well– singing “correctly” meant being strong enough to follow a precise set of physical movements to produce a specific sound.

If the “maestro method” were an effective path to proper singing, then the best singer in the world would be a computer or a robot, not a human artist.

The “maestro method” cheapened the art of singing by (1) reducing singing to the level of a “product” that could be mechanically churned out of the body and (2) reducing the singer himself to a collection of “pieces and parts.”