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                                                         


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


The idea of “Karma” as it was probably originally intended seems foreign to how we live our life. The idea that there is some mechanism by which our deeds come back at us is anathema to many of us, especially when we ask ourselves exactly who or what it is that regulates the process. The idea that this process might be mechanically built into the system often feels wrong. At the same time, the idea that there is a form of higher intelligence which concerns itself with the petty doings of human beings feels in many contexts even more false. There is a great deal in our education, at least in my corner of the world, which speaks forcefully against both an external mechanical agency and a higher-power, magical-thinking agency.

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The reason the idea is valuable to me personally might be based on a much simpler agency. We human beings have, to a more or less greater extent, the ability to ‘feel into’ other people and other things. For better or for worse, we can get an approximate sense of what someone else is feeling. Have you ever watched someone fall on their spine, real or in a movie, and you get a kind of numbness, chills or goose bumps? Or you see someone eat something they find disgusting and you get kind of nauseous? There are thousands of examples of this and we’ve all experienced one or another of them. In fact, research implies that the absence of this is something of a psychological disturbance. In other words, it’s not ‘normal’ not to able to empathize with someone. It’s the result of a malformation in development or of a form of trauma. In other words, it must be actively eliminated for us not to have the ability.

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Even when we ‘know’ that feelings are probably not there, we feel as if they were. Watching an ancient glacier fall into the sea or seeing an old house being demolished, things completely without nervous systems, evoke reactions in us ‘as if’ they had. So if it’s a given that we can feel another’s pleasure or pain, than it stands to reason that we can also anticipate the pain or pleasure that our actions, behaviors and even attitudes might bring. This anticipation sets a process in motion that subtly (or not so subtly) affects our consciousness filters. In other words, our expectation, at least to a certain extent, influences how we perceive what happens.


If you can accept even a little that empathy and our mirror neurons are a part of what karma may be, then there may be some very advantageous consequences involved. What I’m calling here “Instant Karma” is one of them. Doing something with the conscious intention of giving pleasure to someone or something becomes like throwing a boomerang. Sooner or later it comes back around at you. This is something of a double-bind, of course. The moment that you do something for someone else and it becomes obvious that you’re really doing it for yourself, the effect becomes less. Getting out of this double-bind takes practice, but is possible.


I believe this is a capacity which can be learned and can be taught. Just imagine in an extreme sense; we could feel pain or pleasure in someone else TO THE EXACT SAME EXTENT as they feel it. Overnight war would be eliminated. Prisons would be a thing of the past. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” would be completely outdated. It’s built into the system. Not as punishment, rather as “Pleasure Principle”. Wanna feel good? Make someone else feel good!


I often think this is not only our birthright, but the destiny of our species. It certainly would solve a lot of our problems.


Because my specialty is singing, speaking and The Voice, my own filter is primarily concerned with how this intention to give pleasure modulates the voice tone. Contrast in your own experience the voices of people you know who are generous and creative with those you know who are mean or sarcastic. Try it yourself, as an acting exercise. Speak the same neutral sentence in a sarcastic tone and then genuinely. Interesting to notice how the voice modulates and how the frequencies are strengthened differently.


In the realm of singing, especially opera, which quality of melodies and harmonies evoke genuineness and which meanness. This is, of course, the domain of opera composers and we can learn a lot from them in understanding speaking. Our very human ability to communicate multi-dimensionally has evolved our speaking voice to express myriads of emotions effectively. Making that conscious and tweaking our ability to communicate our highest values IS Instant Karma. The way we use our voice and envelope others in our sound and intention IS Instant Karma. Vibration and how our voices set it in motion IS Instant Karma.

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Evan Bortnick

Posted in Authenticity, Communication, Congruence, Creativity, Ecstatic Living, Emotional Intelligence, Singing, Speaking, Voice | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Caffeinated Calmness

You know that feeling of being charged up, ready for action, batteries all at 100%, yet at the same time feeling a profound inner stillness? In younger years, I thought the two states were mutually exclusive. Lately I’ve been experiencing them simultaneously more and more. Sometimes with coffee, sometimes without. Yet even without coffee, we can be sure that there are natural substances in our bloodstream and brain synapses that are very similar to caffeine.

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The first time I experienced this powerful combination was, of course, onstage singing. Singing, especially singing opera, is synonymous with being in an extreme state of excitability or elation. After all, if the libretto didn’t have elements of extreme emotional states, there’d be no reason to sing about it. Singing in general and opera specifically IS ABOUT the lyric and dramatic expression of intense human emotions. The thing is, if you as a singer are in the grips of an intense human emotion, there is some loss of vocal control. That means that singing and acting is a big “As-If” frame and the singer does not go fully into the affect. Took me a while to really learn that. A long while!


My first experience of this degree of maturity was in a production of La Bohéme. It was the second time I’d sung Rodolfo and the aria had become a standard for me in auditions. The role and the aria had become so ‘second nature’, that I found myself relaxing into it. I happened to be on stage with one of those gorgeous, sexy, Las Vegas bombshell sopranos, that seem to be made in heaven for young, passionate tenors. So in addition to the role and the aria, I found myself in a rather realistic state of another kind of excitability. It was in this highly volatile mix that I first discovered Caffeinated Calmness. There is an increased sense of positive control and regulation, especially of the voice and body. The flow of time seems to change somehow. There is a grand sense of serenity, composure and inner peace. At the same time colors seem brighter, harmonies more intense and significant and sensations almost orgasmically expansive. I’m definitely not the first singer to experience this!


“Singen: körpersinnliches Erwachen im Lebensgefühl – Umwälzung im Bewusstsein – Mitschwingen im tiefsten Seinsgrunde…animalischer Wohligkeit zugleich mit der Lust am Klanglich-Geistigen….Aber niemals darf ein erreichtes Stadium stimmlicher Beherrschung etwa gegen den Verlust der Körperverbundenheit und Körperfreudigkeit eingetauscht werden.” Der Wissende Sänger – Martienßen-Lohmann


Singing: the physical awakening into a sense of what life is – a revolution in consciousness – deep resonance with the ground of being… an animal-like ecstasy with a passion for the spirit of sound… however vocal mastery should never, ever be divorced from connection with the body or physical bliss!” Martienßen-Lohmann (Author’s Translation)


Without spending too much time on what little I understand of Tantra, the principles and practices revolve around becoming so aware of natural, organic functions that they become directly or indirectly regulatable. Breathing, heartbeat, sexual response, digestion, sleep, the flow of various tissue fluids and regulatory substances throughout the body become not only more conscious, but less automatic and externally controlled. In other words, we are no longer a mere spectator or victim of uncontrollable internal or external forces. Put even more simply, we become mature!
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In describing this to my teacher at that time, she said; “Ah, you’ve finally learned to sing with a warm heart and a cool head!” Right, as opposed to a hot head and a hot heart. Definitely a good way of putting it. However you put it, it’s got implications for an entire class of activities.


As a coach, to use one example, when I started out and a client, especially a woman, came into my practice and dissolved in tears, something in me dissolved as well. I went myself into a highly emotional state and at that moment lost my ability to coach. Caffeinated Calmness here implies entering into an empathic state with the client, yet maintaining enough perspective and distance to access resources and solutions with the client.


Maintain too much distance and coolness and the rapport with the client suffers. Too much closeness, on the other hand, and too much ‘sympathetic’ vibration and you become as emotionally blind as the client himself.


Another example is the balance found in sports and fitness activities. One of the most ecstatic and important aspects of “runner’s high” is finding this balance between calmness and agitation, between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. Runner’s high is, of course, not only reserved for runners! Swimmers, bicyclists, gymnasts, skiers and, of course, opera singers experience it regularly. It is inherent in any activity which has the potential of autonomically putting your system into overdrive or over-stimulation, yet with practice has the potential of great balance and homeostasis.


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This is of momentous importance for the voice teacher as well. All of us have experienced voice students in the grip of some unbalancing emotion. A bad audition, a frustrating rehearsal, a stubborn conductor, some power game in one theater or another and the student comes to the lesson all in disarray. Since it’s always a good idea to begin warm-up in a relatively balanced emotional state, we’ve all developed strategies for calming ourselves down and getting into a good ‘space’ for singing. In my experience, one way or another, this involves demonstrating first a degree of understanding and then offering, either by example or with an exercise, a new alternative. This assumes, of course, that we as teachers know what Caffeinated Calmness is within the singer’s context.


My last example happened to me just this morning. After drinking two large cups of epicurean, earth-moving coffee and getting into an impassioned discussion with my wife, I realized that both our passions were tending towards long-windedness. We both wanted passionately to talk and to be passionately listened to. Perhaps one or the other of you, my gentle readers, recognize this particular expression of passion. Upon realizing that this combination could only lead to faster and louder talking on both our parts, I decided upon a radical strategy; I would caffeinatedly and calmly listen until the big wave of her passion hit the shore. Miracle of miracles, when it did, she asked me what I thought and actually passionately listened til I was done. It didn’t actually even take too long. Definitely not as long as if we’d both talked at once. Will wonders never cease.

Yes. Caffeinated Calmness!


Evan Bortnick      Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden

Posted in Audition, Authenticity, Coaching, Creativity, Ecstasy, Ecstatic Living, Gesang, Gesangslehrer, Gesangspädagogik, Lessons, Mental Training, Mind-Body, Music, Oper, Opera, Performance, Performance Training, Singing, State, Stillness, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

“I wanna sound like that!” Self-Knowledge in Singing, Speaking and Life.

If I had a euro for every time a student asked me this question, I’d be a millionaire: “how can I sound like that?” Happened again in a lesson yesterday. A young singer listens to Freni and wants to sing like that. We all recognize this. Either we’ve heard it over and over or we’ve done it ourselves in earlier years or both. We fall so in love with a sound,  that it feels almost impossible not to try and imitate. After all, not only is imitation the sincerest form of flattery, it’s the way we all learn as small children.



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I can remember falling in love with Franco Corelli’s sound. One of my coaches would even say: “Ah, you’ve been listening to Corelli again.” Not that anyone would ever confuse my voice with his, (as much as I might have liked that back then), it’s just that many of the mannerisms and some of the formants and overtones were possible to approximate. I even remember my first lesson with the great Nicolai Gedda. When he asked me with whom I’ve been studying, I told him “with you”.

“How can that be, this our first lesson.”

“I’ve been listening and learning from your recordings.”

“AHA…let me tell you; not everything you can hear is what’s REALLY going on!”

Can’t say it better than that! We can learn a lot by listening to other singers, but too much is too much. The graveyard is full of tenors, for example, who tried to sound like Caruso. So where is the optimum here? What is the process of incorporating what we learn from the greats and making it our own? Teachers who spend a lot of time in their lessons singing for their students are encouraging this “Parrot Effect”. But as we know, it cannot stop at mere imitation. At some point the student incorporates the auditory and kinesthetic habits in such a way that it becomes their own. The voice finds its authenticity, its uniqueness and its freedom.


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Much of this optimization has to do, in my experience, with a precisely felt balance between auditory and kinesthetic. In other words, when imitating, the sound impressions are more in focus, more in consciousness than the felt sense. It’s not that this is wrong, at all. It might even be for some a necessary step in the learning process. When it’s integrated, however, the sensations involved in singing have a higher focus than the sound itself. What are these sensations and how can we accelerate the integration process in our students?


First of all, sensations in singing can be divided into two categories; primary and secondary. Secondary sensations are MUCH easier to feel. They are the basis of our HeadVoice/ChestVoice metaphor. We feel resonance in those areas and refer to it as ‘voice’, even though we know it’s not the source. It’s reliable and easy to find. Primary sensations are more in the area of vocal tract tuning and M. Vocalis movements. They are more the functional and muscular fine-tuning of the mechanism itself. The optimum combination of these sensations, different for each singer, is the definition of integration.


This is just as true for speakers. As soon as a speaker tries to imitate another speaker (with some rare exceptions, of course), she sounds affected. Yet this is just what happens in voice training. The client tries out different modes of producing sound over and over again, until that moment when it gets integrated and authentic. Here too, the sensations of resonance and vocal function, solidly anchored in consciousness, make this authenticity repeatable for the speaker.

Another very important factor in speaking and in singing, a little more difficult to describe or evoke, is emotional expression. The physical sensations which signal to us our own emotions have a profound effect on our voice. As a singer or speaker, and especially as an actor, the fine modulation of vocal tone is what gives our voice its emotional impact. The fine tuning of our physical sensations, from the most to the least subtle, allows us an optimal regulation of our voice.


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This could be a fine definition of emotional maturity; the desire and ability to fine tune our emotional responses to appropriately fit each of our life’s contexts……the consciousness of subtle sensations within our body, spirit and soul to such an extent that they become optimally regulated…..the evocation of intellect, emotion and instinct that allows growth and learning in each life domain. Getting close….but still not there. How would you word it?


Evan Bortnick                                  Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden

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The Cheerleader Effect

Who is the “Cheerleader” in your life? Do you have more than one? Are you thinking; why should I even need one? We get criticism from others and from groups, for some of us, it’s almost constant. Wouldn’t you say, just thinking logically, that this criticism might need balance from the other side? In one of my recent voice courses, as feedback, one of the participants told me; “I find it really surprising how often and how honestly you give compliments, even to people you’ve just met”. Of course that was flattering, but I was surprised that he was surprised. Has it come so far in our culture, even our ‘training/teaching’ culture, that encouragement in the form of compliments has become such a rarity? I guess so.


You know how at a certain age kids make stuff, or do stuff for their parents and then show it with the obvious expectation of getting praise? In almost all cases, the “good enough parent” lavishes praise. “Wonderful!” “Fantastic!!”  “How BEAUTIFUL!!!”  I remember when my daughter was that age, it was almost more fulfilling for me than it was for her, just to see her face light up. In my model of the world this creative, resourceful, praise-hungry child lives within all of us. Even if this is only just a little true, it pays off greatly to get in touch with this need, in ourselves and in others. I seriously doubt that we need to worry that praise, compliments and cheerleading will get the upper hand in our lives and we’ll lose touch with reality. The criticism will still come, don’t worry. But wouldn’t it be great to have a regular source of unconditional love and support in the form of a cheerleader?


If your answer is yes, then it pays off to examine both what this would mean for us and how we can communicate this need to others. Think about the mentors and teachers in your life who’ve truly inspired you. Isolate the times they gave you true encouragement, supported you in ways that gave you a sense of your talent, of what you have to give to the world. Was it an outright verbal compliment? Was it a facial expression or body language? Was it a criticism, perhaps even harsh, that gave you sense of your own potential and your mentors’ dedication to it? Whether verbal, facial or gestural, coming in contact with memories like these tells us myriads about how we most like to be supported. Knowing that about yourself, allowing that about yourself, increases exponentially the chances that you’ll get it.

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For whom are you a cheerleader? Another question whose answer has profound implications. I found when I started out teaching singing, that moment when a student gets it right and finds their own vocal beauty and balance, becoming aware of just how profoundly I was moved had great impact on the students’ learning. Every teacher finds their own optimum here, to be sure. There are some voice teachers where you get the sense that giving someone a compliment would truly endanger their health. Joking aside, everyone’s teaching style is different. I remember when I just started out teaching voice and vocal pedagogy at the university level, one of my colleagues told me that I was dangerously blurring the important line between teacher and student. I’d seen that teacher in lessons. She was quite competent but hardly ever looked at the student and seemed withdrawn into her own world while teaching. Some of her students thrived. Others reported in pedagogy class that they hungered for a kind word, a glance, some kind of emotional connection. The point is that for some students less connection with the teacher means more focus on singing itself. For others, singing means less without that emotional connection. My goal in teaching teachers has always been to find and embrace your own teaching style, yet at the same time be flexible enough to give the student what she needs. A balancing act, to be sure. And one that changes over time.

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I know this to be true in other areas of training, teaching and leading as well. Different individuals and different groups need different levels of cheerleading. One thing’s for certain; WE ALL NEED IT SOMEWHERE! Getting in touch with your own cheerleading needs is synonymous with the desire to communicate this need with others. Not everyone. Some people are simply allergic to it. But communicating this need, in precise ways, to those close to you might make you vulnerable, but it opens you, your partners and the relationship itself to new inroads to intimacy. Especially in creative professions (which, in my world, seem to be more and more), this form of emotional transparency is like high-octane fuel for the production engine. Even if you find yourself in an environment where this is not viable, understanding your own needs means giving it to yourself in the form of an inner voice. Ok, maybe not for everyone, but definitely experiment with this for yourself. You may be surprised. You may find that giving in to your cheerleader appetite has you filtering your environment in completely different ways and, as a result, finding cheerleaders where you least expect it.

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Evan Bortnick        Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden


Posted in Coaching, Communication, Creativity, Emotional Intelligence, Enthusiasm, Gesang, Gesangslehrer, Gesangspädagogik, Learning, Lehren, Lehrer, Lessons, Music, Pedagogy, Performance Training, Stimme | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Eudamonia, Gnoti Sauton und „Coaching“

Warum braucht ein Mensch überhaupt einen “Coach”? Was ist unter „Coaching“ zu verstehen? Eins ist sicher: frage 10 Coaches nach einer Definition von Coaching und Du bekommst mindestens 15 verschiedene.

Einerseits liegt das daran, dass Coaches sich, genau wie Menschen in anderen Berufen, in ihrem Bereich hervorheben wollen aus der Menge, einzigartig sein wollen, sich gut vermarkten wollen. Dazu kommt, dass wir unsere Beschreibungen und unser Bewusstsein präzise nach unseren Interessen filtrieren. Andererseits liegt in all den Definitionen, die man zu hören bekommt, etwas Gemeinsames. Wie lässt sich das begreifen?


Selbst der hartgesottenste Materialist muss zugeben: Menschen wachsen. Körperlich geschieht das ganz offensichtlich. Aber auch psychologisch (seelisch, geistig) gibt es Wachstum und ist messbar, erfahrbar und von Wissenschaftlern durch verschiedene Modelle deutlich dargestellt. Wer oder was aber steuert dieses „Wachstum“? Egal auf welcher Seite der „Nature versus Nurture“-Dichotomie Du stehst, eine Steuerung, ein „Template“, ein Plan, ist bei Wachstum deutlich. „Coaching“ nimmt voraus, dass Du, wenigstens zum Teil, diese Steuerung bewusst regeln kannst. Nicht nur im äußeren Verhalten, sondern auch bei interner Verdrahtung, mentalen Prozessen und Repräsentationen.

Vieles dieser Steuerung kommt ganz von allein. Nämlich dadurch, dass wir reifer werden. Schön, wenn das genug wäre! Öfter aber haben wir das Gefühl, dass etwas bei dieser “Reifung” fehlt. Mit anderen Worten: es gibt deutlich etwas in unserem Potential, was wir nicht alleine beisteuern können. Woher aber genau bekommen wir für diese Potentialentfaltung Anleitung, Rollenmodellierung oder Weiterbildung?

Obwohl ich mich nie für einen „Philosophen“ gehalten habe, nicht mal für einen „wannabe“-Philosophen, war ich schon immer von dem fasziniert, was die guten alten “Denker” dieser Welt zu diesem Thema sagten. Zwei meiner Lieblingsentdeckungen kommen von den alten Griechen:


 “Gnoti Sauton” und “Eudaimonia”!


Gnoti Sauton (γνῶθι σεαυτόν) …wurde groß auf die Tore des Appolontempels bei Delphi geschrieben. “Erkenne dich Selbst” klingt vielleicht einfach. Es ist jedoch eine Lebensaufgabe! Es gibt so viel in unseren Gehirnen und in unseren Körpern, das unbewusst auf Autopilot läuft. Es ist jedoch Teil dieser Lebensaufgabe, Automatisierungen in bewusste Regelungen zu bringen. Ironischerweise gibt es sehr viele Menschen, die ich gesprochen habe, die von früheren Lebens-Entscheidungen erzählen, die sie heute als grottenschlecht bezeichnen. Früher aber hielten sie diese Entscheidungen für gold-richtig. Die Ironie ist natürlich, dass diese Menschen berichten, wie wichtig es für sie früher war, diese grottenschlechten Entscheidungen getroffen zu haben. Nur so konnten sie das, was für sie wirklich wichtig war, gut erkennen. Nur so konnten sie erkennen, wer sie WIRKLICH sind! Wenn ich sie aber ermutige, quasi als Witz, weil es doch so gut tat, auch heute solche grottenschlechten Entscheidungen zu treffen, halten sie schnell ihre Hände hoch: “ne, ne, lieber nicht. Ich kann den Schmerz und den Stress nicht gebrauchen!”


Gibt es jemand der das nicht kennt? Es heißt dann, wir lernen uns besser kennen, Gnoti Sauton, zum Teil durch Fehlschritte von früher. Heute aber betrachtet, trotz dieses Lernens, würden wir doch gerne solche schlechten Entscheidungen vermeiden.

Weil das so ist, können wir in diesem Zusammenhang “Coaching” besser verstehen: Die Möglichkeit, heute und hier durch Selbst-Erkenntnis statt Schmerz uns und unsere echten Bedürfnisse (d.h. nicht die Triebe, Launen oder falschen Ziel-Vorstellungen), besser zu kennen!


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Eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία)  ist etwas schwieriger zu definieren. Manche sagen einfach “Glück” dazu (as in “Pursuit of Happiness”). Es ist aber leicht, Glück oder Happiness falsch und oberflächlich zu verstehen, im Sinne von “nur gute Gefühle haben”. Ausbalancierte Gemütslage, right action, Ausgeglichener Lebenszustand, Wohlbefinden, Living Well, Moralisch-Ethischer Instinkt, Sozial-Emotionale Intelligenz….wenn wir nicht zu sehr an der Semantik festhalten und Lust bekommen, spezifisch zu bemerken, worum diese Begriffe tanzen, nähern wir uns dem “Felt Sense”, was Eudaimonia ist. Ich würde behaupten, es ist für jeden Mensch anders, je nach Verdrahtung. Bei manchen ist es nahe einem tiefgreifenden Ernst. Für andere ist es eine spielerische Kreativität oder es hat stark mit laserartigem Fokus zu tun. Für noch andere ist es eine fast wilde Mischung von Multi-Tasking, in etwa wie beim Jonglieren. Für manche hat es mit “Networking” zu tun. Dagegen ist für noch andere Eudaimonia eine H.D.Thoreau-ähnliche Abgeschiedenheit. Genau das herauszufinden, was uns gut tut, nach unserem “Design”, nach unser Vorstellung, ist die Aufgabe von Coaching.

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Coaching hat bei manchen einen schlechten Ruf, weil ihre Assoziation mit Profit oder negativer Manipulation verbunden ist. Mit anderen Worten, die Vorannahme, dass der Coach den Klienten zur Veränderung für seine Zwecke animiert und nicht für die Zwecke des Klienten. Sicher, auch das ist schon mal vorgekommen. Immerhin kennen wir das alle von Lehrern, von Politikern, aus der Werbung, von Predigern, vielleicht sogar aus dem Elternhaus. Wenn es aber vorstellbar ist, einen Coach zu finden, der Deine eigenen Ziele, Deine Bedürfnisse und Dein Streben versteht, respektiert und fördert, ändert sich sofort das Bild von Coaching.

Es ist nicht ohne Risiko, aber welche lohnenswerte, menschliche Aktivität ist ohne Risiko? Eines ist sicher, mit oder ohne Coach, wir alle streben nach unserem höchsten Potential. Die Frage ist nur wie!

Posted in Authenticity, Coaching, Inner Game, Kunst, Lehren, NLP, Work/Life Balance | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tool or Crutch? Support, Independence and Integration in Singing.

Remember when you learned to ride a bicycle? You either had “training-wheels” or your father ran alongside you, holding the bike steady. How long were these tools necessary before the wheels came off or dad faded smiling in the distance? How eager were you to get rid of them and finally ride free? How ready were you to face the risks and potential pain involved in that initial loss of support? The answers to these questions depend, of course, on your own level of boldness and risk-averseness. Many of us have experienced breaking a leg or spraining an ankle. We had to use a crutch for a certain period. Take it off too soon and we augment the injury. Wait too long and we develop unwished for compensations that might take even longer to heal or require even more crutches.

You probably wouldn’t consider training wheels a crutch, although they could be considered one. You also probably also wouldn’t call the crutch in my second example a tool, although it is a tool for healing.

In teaching singing, we often use methods that are intended as tools, but used too long, can become crutches. As singers we often develop habits that are originally intended as tools, but are used as crutches. An excellent example is putting a hand (or hands) to the ear to briefly check vocal feedback in poor acoustics. We’ve all seen it. Some of us have done it. Some of us do it so often in rehearsal that it becomes an automatic habit. A DANGEROUS automatic habit. I remember singing an opera in concert form with an older, ‘name’ tenor. Big part. Big orchestra. Famous aria. Bad acoustics. During rehearsal, because he could barely hear himself, he brought his hands to his ears on the high notes. He did this so often in rehearsal that he forgot himself during performance and the hands went up automatically. Gorgeous voice, great top, but the audience boo-ed after the aria with enthusiasm.

Another example was a “Lucia” performance. The soprano was intensely focused on keeping her jaw open and relaxed. She checked this by moving her jaw back and forth, left and right on the high notes. It kind of looked someone trying to dislodge a fish bone from between their teeth. Not the image you want for Lucia, at least not in the first act. Yet again, she did this so often in rehearsal that it crept in during her performance. Also again, gorgeous voice, great top…but the effect was so bizarre that the audience (and most of the singers onstage) cocked their heads to the side and furrowed their eyebrows.

What was the missing factor with these two examples (and the myriad others that I’m sure you’ve experienced as well): INTEGRATION! In other words, the singer had stopped halfway through the ‘check’ process, without integrating what they were looking for. So the ‘tool’ became a ‘crutch’ which was used automatically and unconsciously. It is possible to integrate this in such a way that it is usable in disguise onstage. How many singers do we know who find skillful ways, in lousy acoustics, to bring their hands closer to their face in a gesture that ‘looks’ expressive, but is more a means to get more voice feedback? Or singers who rock back and forth with the intention of dropping extraneous tension? These are good examples of integrating and using potential crutches as good singers’ tools.

In the voice lesson as well, especially in the functional, anatomical schools, the use of such tools in the experimental phase and before integration, it’s important to emphasize integration and to make clear to the student how the principle is made repeatable. For example, if you’re integrating the rounding of the swallowing muscles (pharyngeal constrictors, superior, middle, inferior) using an exercise like Ah-U-Ah on a single tone and notice the Ah after the U has a much stronger Singers’ formant and a more stable and optimal vibrato, plus the lips remain lightly rounded by Ah, it’s important to make clear that this is function of the swallowing muscles and NOT the lips. For the primary function, swallowing, the lips and the constrictors are both needed. For the secondary function, resonance, the constrictors no longer are dependent on the rounding of the lips. This is easier said than done, because the lips are MUCH easier to feel than the rounding of the constrictors. It’s of primary importance, however, because singers tend to use exterior muscles to regulate interior functions. The danger, as in my examples above, is that the student gets in the habit of over-rounding the lips to initiate and regulate internal rounding and cuts off instead of strengthens upper partials. An emphasis on integration and the independence of these movements makes this clear.

Offstage, this distinction is a bit subtler. In some situations (read: in certain hierarchical power structures) it is inadvisable to express, or even feel, certain emotions. In such situations we develop so-called ‘secondary’ emotions to shield the more vulnerable primary ones. This can be considered a ‘tool’ for protection or intimacy regulation. Who hasn’t shown anger to cover up sadness or shown happiness to cover up disappointment? It’s what some call ‘putting a good face on things’. Others call it a ‘mask’. Others call it a ‘game’, in the Berne-ian sense.

As mentioned above, when we get in the habit of using this kind of tool and it goes on autopilot, it becomes more of a crutch. Do this enough and it’s a recipe for pain. One of the definitions of maturity is finding such tools-turned-crutches and optimizing them. This is the goal of ‘coaching’. When it goes well, we feel more present, more vital and more authentic.

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Becoming more and more of ‘who you are’, more and more Echt, is the work of the creative artist. Whether as a singer, a cook, a father, a husband, a teacher or a coach, honing the skills involved in turning old crutches into new tools is the stuff of living well.


Evan Bortnick        

Posted in Anatomie, Authenticity, Coaching, Concentration, Congruence, Creativity, Emotional Intelligence, Gesang, Gesangspädagogik, Kommunikation, Lessons, Music, Musik, Oper, Opera, Pedagogy, Performance, Performance Training, Presence, Teaching, Vocal Pedagogy, Voice | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Strengths, Weaknesses and Power. Thinking out loud about the Contexts of Vulnerability.

There have been a lot of discussions online recently about what makes a good teacher. It’s probably pretty much the same question as… ‘what makes a good mentor?’…’what makes a good trainer?’… and ‘what makes a good coach?’. Many of these discussions center on contrasting ‘older’ and ‘newer’ teaching/training methodology. The main point among the older advocates (myself modestly included at times and to certain degrees) is that the less politically correct, authoritarian, almost dictatorial methods of old were much more effective in motivating students. In other words, ‘tough teaching’ has significant benefits. The most obvious benefits are in the area of organization, discipline and time management. That means if you’re an authoritarian teacher, ruling with an iron hand and dispensing disciplinary punishment and negative feedback at violations of rules, you’re more likely to keep on schedule, organize your classes effectively and encourage punctuality. This is a significant advantage to you as a teacher. Your students benefit by learning their own structures within time limits and personal motivation in the face of obstacles. The down side, especially for overly sensitive and insecure students, has to do with encouraging self-doubt, damaging creativity through overly harsh negative criticism and establishing inflexible motivational strategies based on fear. Even more profound is the installation of calibrated loops in the form of negative introjects. In other words, the ‘tough teacher’s’ voice becomes internalized to become non-stop, destructive self-talk.

“All mentors have a way of seeing more of our faults than we would like. It’s the only way we grow. “

Padme Amidala „Queen of Naboo“

“Tender Teaching”, or Roger’s “Unconditional positive regard” applied to the teacher/trainer, encourages self-referencing, or the development of structures in the individual based on the student’s own sense of creativity. It also strongly encourages a free-form, open-ended style of working. On the negative side it fails to demonstrate the importance of deadlines, of boundaries and of discipline.

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have a potential to turn a life around. It’s overwhelming to consider the continuous opportunities there are to make our love felt.”
– Leo Buscaglia

To summarize, the advantages of ‘tender teaching’ are the encouragement of a positive self-image and a sense of belonging in the student, while the disadvantages are the possibility of encouraging laziness and disrespect in some students. The advantages of ‘tough teaching’ are setting boundaries, encouraging clear guidelines and the establishment of authority hierarchies, while the disadvantages include discouraging creativity and a sense of self-worth in some students.

“If we just wanted positive emotions, our species would have died out a long time ago.”

– Martin Seligman

At the heart of these discussions, yet very often left out, is the domain of feedback as an „Inner Game“. In other words, how exactly do you encourage yourself internally? How exactly do you criticize yourself internally? What are your own very specific internal standards for what you do, be it in the workplace, in relationship, with your core family and with friends and how do you gauge its quality? Our inner relationship to our own perceived strengths and weaknesses is the centerpiece of our own personal power. How we distinguish and develop our own talent and potential over time is at the heart of our impact on the world. How can we make this explicit and learnable? The model of personality ‘parts’ and the model of ‘archetypes’ are both two excellent ways to understand this inner game. We all have ways of representing to ourselves our ability to both criticize and encourage ourselves optimally. These representations differ for each of us. They also differ over time and context. These inner archetypes or ‘parts’ often become exaggerated. For example, one of the marks of narcissism is a dysfunctional inner Critic, the part which represents our ability to honestly criticize our weaknesses and correct mistakes. The narcissist filters out and/or deflects criticism externally and internally and robs himself of learning experiences. One of the marks of depression, as an example of the other extreme, is a dysfunctional inner Encourager, the part which represents our ability to champion our own causes and support our special talents and skills. The depressed individual filters out and/or deflects praise, pride, confidence and self-esteem and robs himself of the joy of accomplishment. These are extremes, of course, but valuable in understanding the negative potential of even slight disbalance within these inner functions and behaviors.

It’s interesting to observe this in both voice students and in coaching clients. There are those who simply cannot take an honest compliment. They squirm like a fish on a hook if you say something positive about them. Then there are those who cannot take criticism in any form. Even if they perfectly understand that the criticism is meant to improve what it is they’re after. Even if they have themselves have asked for helpful criticism, the knee-jerk reaction is to distract, deflect, repress or deny. Why should this be so? It’s a question with a never-ending answer. More often than not, as a voice teacher or as a coach, it’s best to understand this resistance before breaking it down.

In my experience, what I’ve heard from colleagues and based on much I’ve read, the key factor here can be simplified and summed up by one word: Vulnerability.

“Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

– Brené Brown

If these statements are even partially true, it is of great worth to examine what it is to be vulnerable, what it really means and what conditions prevent or hinder it. Being open to ‘possibility’, to potential, especially personal potential, invariably means moving away from an absolute kind of ‘knowing’. It means developing a tolerance for ambiguity; for what might be, yet hasn’t been and isn’t now. This being open, as opposed to being closed and armored, is synonymous with being vulnerable. By definition, we are woundable when we let our accustomed defenses down. This makes it clearer why this isn’t to be recommended at all times, in all places and with all people. Even if we wanted to, many of our most important instincts, regulated by deeper and older parts of our brain, wouldn’t allow it. The modification of these instincts is the definition of human maturity. That means studying vulnerability, its contexts and its varying degrees of openness is an important part of both state management and the development of personal power.

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How we encourage this personal power in voice students, in clients and in ourselves is a measure of our effectiveness. Honestly discerning our own strengths and weaknesses and communicating them transparently and appropriately is high-octane in the engine of our growth. Finding an authentic, conscious and very personal balance between toughness and tenderness internally; as beliefs, attitudes, inner monologue, and externally; as behavior, habits and body language, is the essence of our humanness.


Evan Bortnick  





Posted in Authenticity, Coaching, Communication, Congruence, Creativity, Ecstatic Living, Emotional Intelligence, Emotional Transparency, Gesang, Gesangslehrer, Gesangspädagogik, Inner Game, Kommunikation, Learning, Lehren, Lehrer, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Voice Student from HELL. Our „Deal Killer” priorities as voice teachers.

For years I was convinced that I could teach anyone. My first “Voice Student from Hell” convinced me how important it is for teachers to have conscious and specific priorities. Part of the arrogance of my youth was a compensation reaction to some teachers I’d had in the opera world. You had to have references, contracts and recommendations before you even got in the door. So they would basically teach professionals, or very advanced students for a few months, then claim them as success stories. From a marketing and business standpoint, not a bad idea. From an artistic, pedagogical standpoint, extremely questionable, to put it politely. During lessons with these teachers, there always hung a Damocles sword for the student who didn’t live up. Not conducive to playful experimentation. So I went to the other extreme and tried to support the highest vocal potential of any student…..until my first “Student from Hell”!

He was a young man with a handsome baritone voice, interested in singing pop and some German “Volk” classics. His span of attention and ability to maintain eye contact was limited in the extreme. Should have been my first clue. Without exception every question I asked him was deflected into another question. Every exercise or instruction randomly altered. When I pointed this out, the subject was changed. After the third lesson, with great internal Sturm und Drang, I told him I could not teach him. When he protested and I convinced him that I meant it, I asked him why he REALLY wanted to study voice. He replied that, if he was being honest, he actually believed he already could sing and basically just wanted to ‘have taken’ voice lessons. That was a lesson for me! My priorities were getting clearer.

The second was the classic DIT “Diva in Training”, — call central casting for DRAMA QUEEN. Everything, but e v e r y t h i n g was stressful and effortful.

This was difficult.

That was impossible.

The other thing was exhausting.

The list was endless.

Plus, the first 5 to 10 minutes of the lesson entailed a tirade of all the A-holes who had done her wrong over the last week. I close my eyes gently and asked myself when I might wake up from this nightmare. One day I did. I told her that although I believed in her talent as a singer, I no longer believed in my ability to listen to her drama day in and day out and that she would need to find another voice teacher. She did. To my surprise, the next day three new students called for lessons. Now I’m willing to admit that this might be pure coincidence. On the other hand, something inside me was screaming that this was a bang-on-the-head message from the cosmos to get my priorities even clearer.

The third was a grown woman, quite successful in her non-music career and with a gorgeous, almost Wagnerian voice. Her demon was a passionate and bottomless self-criticism. Now all singers are self-critical to some extent. I could even argue that a homeopathic dosage is positive, even necessary. But I’d never seen anything like this. Not only could she not say anything positive about her own singing, but when I did, she’d get ominously angry. On the other hand, when I criticized her, she’d get defensive. Now here was a pedagogical conundrum I’d not experienced before. Our work together ended in hell-hath-no-fury fashion, with her phonating in a quite impressive “Sprechgesang” comprised of the worst German curses hell can muster.

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Moral of the story: make your teaching standards transparent, true and authentic to who you really are. Teachers are different and so are standards for their students.

Coming attraction:

Voice Teacher from HELL

Evan Bortnick          

Posted in Lessons, Pedagogy, Priorities, Students, Teachers, Voice | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Oh, it’s a Long, Long While from May to December… Thoughts on Seasonal Filters.

The colder days of September are upon us and with them come some apparent changes and some less apparent. Along with a farewell to shorts and t-shirts and the slowly coloring leaves come changes in our mood, metabolism and selective attention. This might not be true for everyone, but when a typical summer day begins, the basic filter at the back of my mind is something like; “what can I do today that’s fun?” On the typical autumn day, the question is more like; “what work needs to get done today?” So the whole day begins with a different mind-set in summer than it does in autumn. I believe that makes the transition from summer to fall especially rocky. There is always this longing, this yearning. It’s also why, in some ways, an Indian summer is a special kind of torture. Each warm day is accompanied by the thought that this may be the very last one. I have to admit, though, that it’s got a kind of magic to it. I’ve always asked myself where this came from. It can’t just be shortening days.

Since childhood school begins in September. There are things we must do; assignments, studying, homework. The day begins with the filter; “where’s the work today?” Even if we focus on something else, music, sports, our parents will remind us, or ask us, if we’ve done our homework. It’s just impossible to ignore for long. Our selective attention reacts accordingly. Even in later years, those old programs are running strong.

Summer means vacation. The day starts with looking forward to all the cool things there are to do. It becomes a metaphor for joy, for independence, for freedom.

As a singer, in professional life, I of course worked in the summer. But the summer work was more of a “Festival” nature. Summer music festivals, in Aspen, in Lake George, in Cooperstown, in Central City all felt like vacation places with a joyfully vacation-like ambience. We all worked hard, of course, but the entire ‘frame’ was of a festival. When the “Season” began again in September, it had a completely different quality; serious, sober, rigorous.

This makes those last days of summer and those first days of autumn particularly savorfull. It’s interesting to savor the inner visual and kinesthetic submodalities of summer and of autumn. When you’ve got a bead on what really makes summer summer for you, it’s possible, with practice, to invoke at any time of year Camus’ sentiment. The taste of watermelon, the scent of warm, salty ocean air, the inner picture of soft, bright, balmy cumulus clouds over a green meadow, whatever does ‘summer’ for you personally, can be called up and triggered. I find this enhances my own creativity enormously. Even just beyond the practical uses, it feels great. On a good day, I get the sense of being director of my own inner weather and seasonal filters.

So in this time of flowers and fruit, of coolness and warmth, of shortening days, let’s savor the muse in all her colorful glory and bask the richness of her harvest.

Evan Bortnick                    Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden

Posted in Creativity, Ecstatic Living, Singing, Work/Life Balance | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment