Roles Singers Play

When I started out singing opera professionally, I had some very naïve views of ‘the business’. One of them was that if you sang well, you’d be a success. Simply by the fact, in opera, that you had a bella voce with a good, reliable technique, so my belief went, you’d be successful. The years as a singer, as a teacher and as a teacher of teachers taught me that it just ain’t so.
The list of things a singer needs to master over the years to keep up a successful career is long indeed. If you’re not a natural talent in any of these areas, you have to learn it. Most of this learning, I found, is by trial and error. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you find a mentor, teacher, agent or coach to either teach it to you, or do it for you. Sometimes these inspiring role models are found outside the realm of music.

Classical singing in its essence is an art, a creative act. Creativity across fields of endeavor have much in common. One of my mentors, although we never met, was Walt Disney. Here is someone with a profound creative gift, who found fame and success by mastering some other very important disciplines. It is said, for example, that Disney had three separate rooms, each dedicated to a particular activity and a particular role. These rooms, these activities and these roles were all essential to his success. In other words, he nurtured his creative spark by going in and out of three distinct ‘head spaces’.
The first is called “THE DREAMER”. In this ‘space’, he allowed his fantasy and creativity full rein. You’ve heard the question: “What would you do if you knew you COULD NOT FAIL?!” Or the statement: “If you can dream it, you can do it!” The dreamer generates ideas as if there were no limits and success were guaranteed. Like a happy child at play, the sense is truly that anything is possible.

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The second is called “THE CRITIC”. In a different room, in a different ‘space’, Disney took all the ideas the dreamer generated and looked at them through the conscious filter of “What’s wrong with this?”, “What will not work here?”, “How is this a bad idea?” For some of us, as you can imagine, this role is the easiest. If not, we can certainly find good examples of people who will quite willingly play this role for us. At least in my corner of the jungle, there is no lack of people and memes who will tell me how my ideas won’t work. As uncomfortable as this may be, it is an essential step towards the third room.

This third room is called “THE REALIST”. This space is something of a mediator between the first two. In addition, the realist is a high-end strategist and hard-nosed goal setter. Using the best ideas of both the dreamer and the critic, the realist forges a viable plan of action and sees it through.
This is a well-known business strategy called “The Disney Strategy”. It’s been found effective is business coachings and consultations for years. It inspires the creative process and develops a necessary tolerance for those who think and act differently than we do. This is essential for teamwork. It implies the ability to role play. It also implies the ability to keep the roles “THE DREAMER”, “THE CRITIC” AND “THE REALIST” separate, at least for a while. Fortunately role play is something opera singers do constantly.
These three rooms and these three corresponding roles are not nearly enough to describe what an opera singer needs to be successful. Using the concept behind the Disney Strategy, I’d like to elucidate, in no particular order, the roles a classical singer needs to effectively play while forging a successful career.

The role that pops first into my mind is the one I mastered only late in my career; “THE NETWORKER”. The networker develops a net of connections over time. One very important thing about networking for an artist is that the people in your network have the sense that you really like and respect them. Because this is not always the case, this is another form of play-acting. Noone likes a phony and everyone, in one way or another, wants to be liked. That’s why I always admired really good networkers. Being TOO socially honest isolates you over time to those who think and act as you do and those of whom you approve . Being too phony and pretending to like EVERYONE has a tendency to isolate you as well, you lose your own sense of authenticity.
I erred on the side of ‘too honest’, especially when I came to Germany. As I found out much later, people thought I was arrogant, when I was merely insecure with the language and way of thinking. Those really successful, especially in the “Festvertrag” created a real relationship with the ”Betriebsbüro”: the Indendant, the GMD, the regular stage directors, etc. As I mentioned, I only learned the importance of this later on.
There was no course which taught this in school, in apprentice programs or in Opera Studios. Communication soft skills, social intelligence, conflict management, negotiation tactics is taught in business, but not in the business of singing. As business seminars and workshops show us, it IS teachable. Entering into this ‘role’, into this ‘head space’, if only to ascertain your own skills in this important area, is essential to career making. Filling your “Rolodex”, or contact list, with a net of brilliant people you know well solves many career problems, often before they start.

The next role that I found singers get good at over time, I call THE PHARMACIST. If you tell an experienced singer that you’ve got a head cold, fever, post-nasal drip, sleep problems, digestion problems, the flu, or any other of the common maladies we all get from time to time, that singer will, more often than not, have an entire list of suggestions for you to try. If you’re essentially healthy and robust, in the middle of rehearsal for an important production and suddenly find yourself with one of the above maladies, it’s excruciating if you don’t know what to do. That’s why singers learn what to do fast. What exactly is going on and what exactly can I do to keep performing? THE PHARMACIST knows. Of course you can call this part “The Naturopath”, “The Inner Doctor”, “The Healer”, or whatever else represents the function for you. Main thing is that you isolate it in consciousness for the later exercise and get a strong sense of your own competence (or lack of) in this area.

Another role that I got to know WAY too late is THE MONEY MANAGER. Depending on who you talk to and your own very personal style of living, this usually ranks somewhere near the top, especially over time. One of the best and most lucrative productions I’ve ever had the honor of performing in was “Le Tragedie de Carmen”, directed by Peter Brook and at Lincoln Center. I was making, per week, what amounted to me then to a small fortune. Yet, at the end of the season I had all of $5.000 in my bank account. Where did it all go? Parties, nice dinners, stuff I didn’t really need. If I got in touch with my inner “MONEY MANAGER” one year earlier, my life would look very different now. The word ‘savings’ was not in my vocabulary and the word ‘invest’ could just as easily been ancient latin. When I first came to Germany a year later I could (read should) have bought an “Eigentumswohnung”, an apartment, as an investment. Because I couldn’t afford it and didn’t even realize what a good idea it was, I didn’t do it. A few years later, this actually became a wake-up-call and I began to study investing. I wasn’t bad at it. “If only…”, right?
As you’ve probably guessed and as most financial advisers will tell you, ‘money’ isn’t just about money! It’s about time. It’s about your own sense of values. It’s about residual, less-than-conscious fears. It’s about risk tolerance and management, and so much more. When you commit to a lasting relationship, money becomes about even more. In one of my astrological schools we used to say; ‘ask a couple about money, and they’re really talking about sex. Ask a couple about sex and they’re really talking about money!’
Why?
Shared values. Surrendering important parts of the “I” into a new “WE”. Trust. Object constancy. Change management. Compromise. Distance-Closeness calibration. Bounderies. Intimacy, etc., etc.
These are all things the inner MONEY MANAGER can make explicit before problems and conflicts develop. Here too, money management for singers was not taught when I went to school. The ability to manage your resources in ways that are authentic for who you are and how you live make the difference between success and failure on the highest imaginable levels.

Some singers encounter this next role early in their career, some later. THE EVENT MANAGER becomes important when you begin to arrange and program your own concerts. I know some singer that are so good at this, that they become agents, intendants or concert series managers in later years. When you really start writing your own ticket in your career and become less dependent on auditions and gigs that you either get or don’t get, contact with The Event Manager gives you an intuitive sense of what your next creative step is, plus a direct line to the market-place and what it needs. Even if you’re a successful, young singer in a “Festvertrag” in Germany, or working regularly in the U.S., it’s of essential importance to get in touch with this role or function. You never know what the future may bring.

This next one is familiar to us all. Even those poor mortals (just kidding) who do not sing for a living have heard and perhaps even used this most operatic of terms:
THE DIVA
in its highest sense is what we’re all about. In its less mature form, it’s either something to be worked through as quickly as possible or avoided. As you already know if you’ve read my earlier blogs on the subject, I feel the distinction between the mature and immature Diva to be of the utmost importance for us singers.
The qualities of the mature, conscious DIVA are what we all experience when we hear one sing and use the term to describe it:
Mastery of technique.
Goddess-like presence.
The ability to set appropriate bounderies for others.
A strong, enduring sense of self-worth.
Extreme sensitivity combined with a robust toughness.
“Heart”. “Spirit” and on the deepest levels; modesty.
An appreciation of the noble traditions of our art with a unique ability to interpret them.

The qualities of an immature, less-than-conscious diva (what we jokingly referred to in school as a DIT DivaInTraining), are what gives the term its derogatory, negative spin:
Not-yet-ready-for-prime-time technique.
Inauthenticity.
Uncomfortable bossiness or pushiness.
Extreme and inappropriate sensitivity usually used as emotional manipulation.
Deep insecurity.
An overbearing, uncomfortable, a-social, egotistical presence.

These important distinctions are like day and night for an artist of all ilks. Another reason this “role” is so important is because it’s so easily accessible. In a lesson or coaching, asking a young student to imagine standing on stage as an acknowledged diva and singing a phrase always makes the voice more balanced and resonant and the phrasing more sophisticated, at least in my experience. The assumption here is that there is, within all of us, a sense of our potential which the role, or archetype, DIVA represents. Calling her forth, even only in the imagination, puts us in touch with this potential. Theoretically (and practically too, with the right learning strategy), this makes the development in the direction of potential much faster.

THE PSYCHOLOGIST
I remember one of my earliest voice teachers told me, in reference to teaching voice, that a good teacher always possesses something of the professional psychologist. This was a slightly disturbing statement when I was young. Now I KNOW it to be true. And not just for voice teachers. I’d venture to say that every successful, professional singer, after years of dealing with the DITs, the drama queens/kings and the deeply, creatively disturbed has developed some very similar skills as the professional psychologist.

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Even if this isn’t true, the ability of a singer to align and balance the inner world with the outer world has enormous personal advantages. The ability to see through lies and half-truths, in ones-self and in others can save the professional artist from a great deal of pain over the years.

One the one hand these roles are a set of behaviors or ‘best practices’. On the other, they represent a constellation of beliefs and values about yourself and about the world. The advantage is, of course, that through these roles or archetypes, you can come into not only contact with these behaviors and attitudes, you have a user-interface to change them.

Try a brief exercise: close your eyes and imagine one of the roles I mentioned above. Even if you don’t believe yourself capable of inner visualization, humor yourself and pretend. Introduce yourself to this inner figure and thank her/him that she appeared. When you’ve introduced yourself and gotten to know each other, choose a second role/archetype and introduce them. Ask them if there’s anything they need from you. Ask them if they’ve got any new ideas for you. Let your imagination and personal needs be your guide. Pick one of the roles below:

THE SALESMAN……(’selling’ a song, ‘pitching’ a concert, writing a resume.)
THE SHAMAN……(making fantasy reality, onstage and off.)
THE GOURMET…..(only the best is good enough.)
THE VAGABOND……(falling in love with travelling, excellent for that long opera tour!)
THE INNER CRITIC….(what are your highest standards and how do you communicate them to yourself?)

I first began practicing this regularly after a particularly intense meeting with my inner critic. I was always MUCH harder on myself as a singer than any critic, teacher or coach could EVER be. This got to a point where I’d hear criticism from my inner critic onstage during an audition or performance. When I first encountered my inner critic, he took the form of a combination of Darth Vader, Adolf Hitler and Genghis Khan. With repeated encounters he changed this appearance dramatically. He would say things like “you’re just not good enough”, “that was TERRIBLE”, “what are you even DOING on the professional stage?”. Not exactly optimal. When I informed him that this kind of commentary wasn’t exactly helping and asked if he could possibly express himself in more useful ways, he changed his tone to things like “you have not yet lived up to your potential”, “there is much more mastery in you than you’ve imagined”. MUCH easier to digest!

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At the very least, exercises like this will increase your fantasy sense. At the most, you will have gained access to unconscious resources which will change your life dramatically. If you discover a role/archetype that you find particularly interesting, don’t hesitate to write me. I LOVE to hear success stories!

Evan Bortnick Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden

www.theheavenswithin.com www.musa-vocalis.de www.vocalimpactpotential.de

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ODE TO THE GUARDIAN ANGEL or “Serendipity Streaks”!

I asked myself recently how I represent “Luck” to myself. Is there even such a thing as luck? Depends on your standpoint, of course. Positive things that happen with no explanation and no effort on your part are defined and explained by different people differently. But how we represent that to ourselves, in my opinion, is crucial to living ‘la dolce VITA”. As I don’t need to tell you, it goes hand in hand with “Thankfulness” as a value….as a principle….as an essential ‘need’, in the Maslowian sense.
Especially interesting is how these little droplets of serendipity seem to come and go in waves. People seem to be fond of telling you about their present streak of bad luck. You seem to hear much less about streaks of serendipity. Probably cause people don’t want to jinx it. Or they don’t want to evoke envy, or sound big-headed. But maybe it’s also because they’re simply not aware of it! Especially the little things. I’ll give you an example. I’ll give you two!
I was driving in Frankfurt through one of those S L O W constructions sites, where two lanes merge into one, then another second lane merges also into one. In front of me was a very large transport vehicle transporting a very large construction machine. So large that I couldn’t see that there was a traffic light and it was red. The moment I noticed, it was too late, I had already rolled through it. As fate would have it, right next to me and a bit behind was a police car. Looking at me very sternly, the cop in the passenger seat gestured for me to roll down the window. He then told me I’d run a red light. “What!” “Oh my God, I didn’t see it, because of that truck”, an excuse which, in the entire history of the galaxy has never worked. Both cops took a deep breath and said; “be careful, you could get your license revoked for running red lights!”. They then rolled up their windows and drove on.
HUH!
Now that’s never happened before. I looked carefully over my shoulder to see if my guardian angel was hovering.
Just last week, for the second example, I was doing an evening workshop and a participant with a very familiar face came over and told me what a nice surprise it was for her, that I was doing these seminars. She had been a coaching client of mine years before. Oh, and also, she was looking around in an old drawer right after registering for the course and found an envelope. It seems, she completely forgot to pay for the last coaching (I had too) and when she realized it, all those years ago, she put the money in an envelope with my name on it. Because the coaching was successful and she didn’t need another one, she’d forgotten the envelope. And, of course, because it was Christmas, she gave me a present in addition. Again, I sensed some beneficent force hovering.
Now of course you could say the cops didn’t give me a ticket, cause they rolled through the red light themselves and that was money I earned, so it wasn’t really “serendipity”. But that would be missing the point.
And the point is…….drum roll please……”serendipity” is a consciousness filter!
In other words, we filter our environment, internal and external, in very specific ways. A filter for streaks of serendipity is a consciousness for things to be thankful for.

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To make the idea clearer, just imagine for a moment that your filter is something close to the exact opposite. Let’s call it the ‘crap filter’, in which you scan your environment, inner and outer, for anything and everything that’s shitty. As I don’t need to tell you, if you’re filtering for crap, YOU WILL FIND IT! I know about this one so well, cause I’ve done it so often. I’d venture to say we all have. It’s interesting to notice amongst older people, how these filters trickle over and into posture, gesture and especially facial expression. Imagine what decades of using the crap filter will do to your facial muscles. Part of the fun of people-watching is intuiting such connections between inner attitude, consciousness filters and facial expression.
Consequently, if it is at all possible to control which filter you currently have loaded and to change rapidly when you realize you ain’t happy with the current one, then the “serendipity” filter comes highly recommended.
In pre-modern times many referred to the ‘guardian angel’ when filtering for serendipity. I’ve always been fascinated by the different explanations for luck, serendipity, free-flowing good fortune….anything positive that comes unbidden and un-earned, at least directly. God, a guardian Angel, Fortuna, Karma, Jupiter, Akshaya, Pure Chance, Personal Power, the Causal Body and so many more over times and through cultures are attempts to explain and even control the flow of serendipity. Whichever standpoint presently suits your perspective, one way or the other, you are representing it somehow to yourself. When Jeanne M. above says “Invite it. Watch for it. Allow it”, she’s not inviting you into a sect or an indoctrination of belief. What she’s saying, I believe, is my point here:
Leaving conscious space internally and externally for the unexpected positive does something extraordinary with us. Being thankful, in advance, for something that hasn’t happened yet, that you haven’t intended and that you cannot yet imagine encodes our nervous systems, our breathing, our inner representations, our muscle tone and our feed-forward consciousness filters to something grand deep within us. In “Anusara” Yoga, my most recent passion, they call this “Open To Grace”. It’s a thing. Yet even if you’re interested in neither Yoga nor Grace, it’s worth trying this out for a day or two. Be thankful, in advance, for something unexpected which will move you in some positive way for a few days and see what it does with you. It’s a profound experience.

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Talent, Potential and “Trainability”. What exactly DO we look for in a student?

It’s often seems to me like there are three kinds of singers. The first is what the Germans call a “Naturtalent”, a natural talent. We’ve all heard the stories; Caruso sang Rodolfo when he was 19, Angelina Patti made her Met debut with Lucia at 17, Judy Garland also at 17 (who had already made many films) sang that unbelievably mature “Somewhere over the rainbow”, not to mention Michael Jackson and so many more. It’s like they hit the road running, like they were born to sing. It’s all just there. TALENT.

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The second has great potential but needs either maturity or there are some limiting physical or mental habits in the way, or both. POTENTIAL.

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The third is the student who perceives him/herself as having minimal talent, which is verified by teachers, judges and mentors. Yet this student loves the art so much, that she is willing to work her butt off and to do what it takes to make a career. TRAINABILITY.

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I know when I went to school; there were definitely the school ‘stars’ right in the first year. Then there were those who became ‘stars’ in their later semesters, when they were a bit more mature. Then there were those who, it was pretty much acknowledged, were sort of on the back burner; ‘they’d probably go into music education, or arts management’, it was slightly derogatorily said. The irony is; in many cases 10 years later it looked WAY different. The early or late semester ‘stars’ had pretty much treaded water and the back-burner students were having careers in major houses, with agents, great roles and high salaries.

How could this be?

There are many factors involved, as always, but a major one is, of course, a certain attitude towards the work involved.

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Einstein, on a broader scale, is a good example. It’s said he didn’t speak until his fourth year, was ‘left back’ in school when he was 14 and his teachers were sure he just wasn’t very smart.

Einstein!

It might have even been true, except for the fact that, to paraphrase what he himself said;

“I may not be the smartest or most talented person in the room; I JUST STICK WITH THE PROBLEM LONGER!!!”

And there we have it; talent and potential are subjective and non-measurable. Work ethic, Einsteinian Stick-to-it-iveness, perseverance and “Trainability” are really what make all the difference!

 

Evan Bortnick                                                       http://www.musa-vocalis.de

 

 

 

 

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“La Lutte Vocale”: The Battle that really isn’t. Thoughts on Linguistic Ambiguity and Reflexive Antagonism.

How many times have you expressed something, only to have it misunderstood? If you’re like most people, your answer is most likely: ‘frequently’! One of the advantages of language is that it’s flexible and multi-dimensional. One of the disadvantages of language is that it’s flexible and multi-dimensional. What I mean is that of all the advantages that language has given us, many words are filled with linguistic ambiguity. They can be understood this way or that. There are many examples of this. One of the most amusing and sobering actually happened to me.

Driving with my wife through the countryside, I was dozing lightly in the passenger seat. She came to a crossing where there were trees blocking her view to the right and asked me to lean forward to look. I said “OK”. As she began to make her left turn I screamed “SOMEONE’S COMING”. I meant “OK, I’ll look”, and she heard “OK, you can make the turn.” A simple enough yet potentially deadly misunderstanding.

Another good example is the “Bel Canto” term “La Lutte Vocale”. It literally means The Vocal Battle or The Vocal Struggle. It’s attributed to the great teacher Francesco Lamperti from his “Treatise on the Art of Singing.” I say ‘attributed’ because Bel Canto is an oral tradition. In other words, it has its origin by word-of-mouth from teacher to student and the term may have been originated by a colleague and/or teacher and written later by him. These were master teachers and master singers from the golden age. “La Lutte Vocale” describes a very specific balance in breath control. But as you’ve surely already noticed, “Lutte” or struggle, lends itself to profound misunderstanding. Is there really a struggle going on while we’re singing well? If not, what is really meant?

Lutte, as a metaphor for balanced breath control, is best understood by considering the word “Antagonist”. When we refer to someone as antagonistic, we generally mean that person is being hostile, engaging in enemy action or ‘struggling’ with us. But consider muscles. The bicep and the tricep are considered antagonists. I doubt if you would say that these two muscles are fighting or struggling with each other. Every muscle has its antagonist or flowing movement would be impossible. Just so with breath control. This is much easier to demonstrate than to describe, but singing, especially opera singing is obviously more than breathing in and breathing out. Because of the nature of efficient phonation, the M. Vocalis, M. Cricothyroideus and surrounding muscles, muscle chains, fascia and so much else, simple, high-pressure exhalation will not only damage the vocal lips over time, but also produce a less than aesthetic vocal tone. That means that the exhalatory impulse is regulated to a large degree by the inhalatory impulse. This is necessary to ensure optimal air flow and subglottal air pressure to the vocal lips. This balance is REGULATED by the vocal lips and NOT the lungs, rib cage or diaphragm. This cannot be emphasized to greatly. In a closed, or half-closed, pressure system, the regulator is the valve and not the motor. Those who misunderstand the breath function in singing often try to regulate the voice with the breath. A dangerous mistake. When the sense of phonation through the vocal lips is optimal, there is automatically a balance between the inhalatory impulse and the exhalatory impulse. The “Bel Canto” masters called this ‘inhalare la voce’. This inhalatory/exhalatory balance also changes within any given sung phrase according to lung volume and lung capacity. Exactly which pressure centers are activated or felt vary, of course, also according to the myriad factors of physical structure. In other words, the ectomorph, mesomorph and endomorph (with so much in between) are going to develop different strategies for managing breath. Many claim that endomorphs have distinct advantages in singing opera. But there are enough counter examples that show clearly that any body type can develop effective strategies.

The implications for pedagogy are profound. If you, as a teacher, are long and thin and understand “La Lutte Vocale” only from your own experience and standpoint and you’re confronted by a student singer shaped like a refrigerator, you need to stretch your experience to match your students’ body type. If you don’t, you’re not teaching, you’re filtering. What I mean is, you’re sorting your potential students with a filter called: ‘who is most like me?’ I’ve seen enough of this to know that the bigger a ‘star’ you are (or think you are), the stronger the tendency for this filter and the more effort it requires to become aware of it.

“La Lutte Vocale” belongs to a whole class of vocal pedagogy terms, forged in the golden age of Bel Canto, which by their very nature are easily misunderstood. When you first hear “La Lutte Vocale”, “Coup de Glotte”, Vocal Attack or assorted others, you’d think singing was a form of martial arts! When accompanied by a true, accomplished teacher, demonstrated, heard in all its subtlety and integrated, these terms become linguistic anchors for masterful singing. Read about, bandied about or used superficially and without good singers’ instincts, they become an invitation to vocal abuse!

Not only can we learn about singing through the understanding of the essence of linguistic ambiguity and the principle of the ‘antagonist’, there are powerful lessons for coaching as well. I’ll give you a brief example. In a seminar I gave a few years ago, there was a young participant with a typical problem. One the one hand, he loved the idea of being super fit. One the other, he was something of a gourmand. Each and every meal needed to be not only scrumptious, but also excessive. To be sure, these are “antagonistic” and very human needs. To make both these important needs clear, I evoked a typical coaching complexity reducer and asked him to isolate in his consciousness the personality part which desires fitness. Admittedly, there are clients who find this kind of inner dialogue (inner child, inner warrior, inner archetype) somewhat silly. Not him, though. He isolated this inner ‘part’ with ease and carried on a lively dialogue. Then I asked him to isolate his “Inner Epicurus”, the gourmand. Here too, he enthusiastically made intimate contact. Then I asked him if these two parts knew each other. They didn’t. After he introduced them, I asked them both what it is they wanted. I kept asking until it was clear that they both worked in the direction of health, vitality and joie de vivre. Before the coaching it seemed to the client as if these needs were working against each other. After the coaching it became clear that these two needs and these two ‘inner parts’ were actually a team, working towards the same thing in differing ways.

Now imagine for a moment that any and all conflicts you yourself experience are nothing more than a simple misunderstanding. The moment that you realize that these inner ‘antagonisms’ were actually misunderstood ‘teams’, doing something vital and important for you, you’ve understood something profound about yourself and about life.

So “La Lutte Vocale” can be thought of as a metaphor for life and maturity. In actuality, it is not a struggle. It is the e-string on the violin of our life, pulled in two directions for the purpose of making beautiful music!

 

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http://www.musa-vocalis.de             Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden

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Hold on! Let go! Task Positive and Task Negative.

I can remember it as if it were yesterday; puberty and that feeling of longing. I had to get a girlfriend. It completely occupied my daytime and nighttime thinking. There was something about this extraordinary, hormone-induced longing which sent out clear signals as well. Potential girlfriends ran in the other direction as if I hadn’t showered in 2 or 3 weeks. I’m rather sure we’ve all, in one area of life or another, felt a similar frustration. At some point, whether from frustration, or survival, I basically just gave up: “OK, there’s a secret here somewhere, and I just don’t get it!” Low and behold, there I am, with a girlfriend. And to my further astonishment, others are not running away any more. My shower frequency had not changed, but suddenly I’m getting attentions, where before there was just scorn.

WhatTHE….?

Took me years to even approach an answer to the question; ‘what’s going on here?’

Later on, as a young, professional singer in New York, there was a role I was dying to sing. I learned it in Italian. I learned it in English. I went to as many performances as possible. I bought one recording after another (before YouTube, remember?). I called my agent (repeatedly). I called coaches, directors, conductors. I auditioned the arias again and again and again. No go! Months went by before it occurred to me that perhaps I just wasn’t ready to sing that role. Just like in puberty, I gave up and let it go. Low and behold, within a week, not only do I get a production, but 2 more offers come in for future engagements.

WhatTHE…?

OK, so there I am, I’m a little older and a bit more self-reflective. The answer is starting to formulate. There is something about ‘holding on’ and then ‘letting go’ which is dynamic in the achievement of goals. Letting go isn’t enough and holding on certainly isn’t either. But some magical combination of preparedness and distance, of intense focus and loving release sends powerful vibrations within and without, which seem to increase the chances of success.

The most fascinating thing is that now neuro-researchers are getting some insights into this process. Of course, they don’t take it quite as far as I might, with my tendency towards archetypal, esoteric or magical thinking! Still…the combination of this research and my love of non-material energies has given me more to think about in this regard. These researchers speak of a dichotomy of organization within the brain that they’re calling “Task Positive” and “Task Negative”. They refer to it as a dichotomy because research has shown that these ways of organizing activity and consciousness are mutually exclusive. In other words, just one can function fully at a time. And of course, each has its advantages. Task Positive; clear conscious focus, holding on, grasping, pit-bull-like biting down (for me, at least), has an enormous motivational and learning advantage. Task Negative; dispersed multi-focus, letting go, releasing, zen-like non-attachment, has an enormous advantage in health and well-being, in work-play-life balance and extraordinarily, in the manifestation of goals.

Culturally speaking, at least in my corner of the jungle, “Task Positive” has a good reputation, while “Task Negative” is often scorned as a lack of focus, or competence or seriousness. The truth is, at least as I experience it, it’s the balance between the two that counts! I’m sure no one out there is a stranger to the fact that often the best, creative ideas occur in the shower, or while aimlessly walking, or just sitting and daydreaming. I get some of my best, new ideas early in the morning while half asleep, or playing my favorite computer games, or just closing my eyes and following my body’s natural breathing.

This has profound effects in any teaching or training. The optimization of a student’s neural network involves powerful introspection and self-knowledge. How many of us have heard, or said; “you think too much!” This is what is meant. Our ability to let our bodies, brains and resources do what they do optimally is an exact function of our own unique back-and-forth between “Task Positive” and “Task Negative”!

So if you do find yourself ‘thinking too much’ or pit-bull-like grasping onto a certain goal, the next question is; how exactly do you not think about thinking too much? How exactly do YOU grasp letting go? And there’s the rub. The techniques you develop for creatively, playfully and skillfully going from task-positive to task-negative and back again, are crucial for understanding both creativity and goal-setting!

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Evan Bortnick         Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden       http://www.musa-vocalis.de

 

 

Posted in Authenticity, Coaching, Concentration, Congruence, Creativity, Inner Game, Mental Training, Mind-Body, Performance Training, Teaching, Work/Life Balance | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Thermals. A Metaphor for “Ease” in Singing and in Life.

I doubt if there’s anyone who would deny that life is hard, at least sometimes. Yet these same individuals will also doubtlessly admit that on some hours, on some days, things flow with ease. One of my voice teachers, one of the true greats, used to say: “If it ain’t easy, it ain’t right!” Yet as every opera singer knows, as every “Life Artist” knows, the effort involved in mastery is often blindingly difficult. So here we are, faced with a dichotomy.

“Life is hard.” – “Life is easy.”

“Life is suffering.” – “Life is joy.”

As a voice teacher, THE most important thing to impart to students is the fact that it’s sometimes one AND sometimes the other! As a coach, in business, art or personal life, THE most important thing to impart to clients is the inner flexibility to anticipate and respond to this contrariety.

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Both beliefs and their corresponding values have their advantages and their disadvantages. ‘Life is hard’ prepares the body and mind for concentrated work and the effortful expansion of habitual boundaries. Yet a bit too much of this belief, especially for the singer, induces by suggestion too much helping tension and effortful muscularity. ‘Life is easy’ evokes balance, flow and joyful self-expression. At the same time, it can discourage growth, by the tendency to take the ‘easy’ way out.

This makes me think of S. Freud’s definition of neurosis: ‘an intolerance for ambiguity’. This means inner flexibility and the ability to shift with the punches is a sort of anti-neurosis program. To paraphrase Nietsche: “What doesn’t kill us, makes us flexible!”

 

On a long walk recently, I noticed a hawk in a field. They never seem to look quite as elegant walking in the dirt as they do flying in the air. I got too close for comfort, startled him and with great effort, he took flight. He was one of those hawks with a large wing span and ‘sport-studio’ legs. And he really used them for that take-off; a powerful leap and strong, muscular flaps. I was close enough to see the effort involved. I was close enough to hear it as well. Hard to tell if the noises on take-off were air currents or hefty, hawkish grunting. Not at all hard to imagine that hawk making noises like a weight lifter going for that last lift…..hawk version, of course. I was so fascinated by the effort that I watched for a while. He flew his way to the center of the field, rising higher and higher with those robust wing strokes, grunting all the way. Then something interesting happened. When he hit the center of the field and rose to a certain height, he stopped flapping his wings, raised his head, flew in slow deliberate circles and kept rising higher and higher. Interesting, that. He sought and found a thermal. Finding it was effortful. After that, as long as he remained in it, flight, lift, air-flow and altitude happened as if by themselves. This was the birth of one of my favorite metaphors for singing and for life. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s hard. And it seems that the mere anticipation of easiness, of hardness or of a precise balance of the two, induce both muscle activation and psychological processes that allow us to rise in our own thermals.

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I recently had the opportunity to work with a very talented student violist twice in one month in the context of 2 separate seminars; Performance Training and Mental Training. One of my initial questions revolved around the distinction between playing alone at home and playing solo for an audience. What exactly, precisely were this violists’ inner pictures, dialogues, sensations and movements between the two? When that became conscious and clear, I asked her to, as well as possible, alternate between the two. She complained about rigidity in her wrists, vague back pain and stiff shoulders. By alternating between extreme effortful playing, as in a concert situation and relaxed joyful playing, as if she were alone at home, it became clear that not only her belief, but also her habits revolved around the conviction that playing was invariably ‘hard’. It required great effort, always. Her body actively reflected this. No amount of rationalization or explanation would remove these extraneous tensions. The solution here is not to be found in rationalization or explanation, as interesting to some as these might be. The solution lay for this musician in her inner life, in how she represented her own playing to herself, in all its complexity. She spent a lot of time in nature. We had that in common. So my metaphor for the thermal had her nodding enthusiastically. That inner picture of rising in a thermal, combined with an imagined sense that she was already a successful professional, promoted an optimal balance between ease and effort. Her playing sounded, for her and for us, more natural, freer and generally more musical.

 

This metaphor and others like it, seem even easier for singers. Singers, especially Opera Singers, live in a world combining the auditory, the sensory and the verbal, in a way which instrumentalists don’t. That makes these kinds of inner pictures for most quite easy to produce. In a lesson just the other day, a soprano was having trouble with an OH vowel on a high note. She’d sung this phrase countless times to her own satisfaction, but something recently was bringing her to exert way too much effort in its production. Here the Hawk-in-the-Thermal metaphor induced the idea that the higher you get, the easier it becomes. This may not be always the case or the best metaphor for all singers, but in her case, it was money in the bank! After singing the high note a few times, she actually said: “It’s as if the tone comes by itself!” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

 

It’s always fascinating to me in my own life and in those I know, how the exquisite combination of Effort and Ease raises consciousness and increases effectivity. You know how it is to want something so bad that you clutch onto it until you cramp, only to have it manifest later through release. You also know how it is to wish and hope and long-for and yet do nothing for the longest time, only to have right effort bring it about. These are examples of exaggerated, one-sided thinking (if you can call that ‘thinking’). Maturity brings a more complex and balanced view. Self-Knowledge is synonymous with finding this balance. It is essential that we teach our students, our clients and our children to find it for themselves.

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Evan Bortnick                                                                   http://www.musa-vocalis.de

 

Posted in Authenticity, Coaching, Creativity, Emotional Intelligence, Gesang, Gesangslehrer, Gesangspädagogik, Inner Game, Learning, Mental Training, Mind-Body, Pedagogy, Performance, Performance Training, Uncategorized | Leave a comment