The Bel Canto Karate Kid

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One of my delightful young female students had her second lesson last week. At the end of the session her mother asked, “When is she going to start working on songs?”

This question is posed to me constantly. Students want to get into that repertoire YESTERDAY and sing like their vocal role models.

There is a tremendous disconnect in singing training that needs to be amended, and I hope that I can help settle the issues here based on what was historically successful.

The greatest singers in the history of the art spent YEARS training their voices in scales, trills, appoggiaturas, runs, sostenuto, portamento, and embellishments. After this extensive training, AND ONLY THEN, would singers begin to look at actual repertoire for the operatic stage.

In the Old School there were no shortcuts. Singers had to submit to a rigorous DAILY training.

In our current system, the technical aspects of singing are left by the wayside in the interest of ‘getting into songs’. When the singer can’t sing the song well, they’re given band-aid directives like “Support the tone,””Feel the tone in the back of the head,””Spin the tone more,””Open the vowel more.””Use their abs” or finally – maybe the student just doesn’t ‘get it’ or isn’t that talented.

What students NEED is TRAINING.

HARD TRAINING. DEDICATED TRAINING. DISCIPLINED TRAINING.

One of my favorite movies is “The Karate Kid.” It lays out the brilliance of masterful training in a lighthearted way. Great training is very Zen, after all.

In this clip, Daniel approaches Mr. Miyagi with his frustration over the training he’s been receiving up to that point. He’s doing the most mundane movements, and is clearly FED UP with his training and wants to start learning KARATE. “When am I going to learn Karate?”

Sound familiar?

Watch:

The brilliance of this clip is the exact principle that I try so hard teach: by learning to sing scales and patterns successfully you are actually BUILDING the voice. You ARE learning to sing. It may not be by singing SONGS, but the skills you need are being developed. Once Daniel understands that he HAS been learning the entire time he’s completely shocked by it. This WAS THE training of the Old Italian School of Singing.

HARD WORK IS NOT GLAMOROUS. The results of hard work, however, are. We want to see the athlete win the gold medal. We don’t care about the hours they slogged in the gym to get to the game or on the field in the first place. Those mundane details bore us.

And so we think the same should be true for singing. We don’t want to hear about the HOURS and HOURS of concentrated study and practice to become a great singer. We want to see the results of that work.

And that psychology trickles right into the perceived training of the singing voice.

Michael Phelps’s routine to get to the Olympics was the following:

He’s usually at the pool by 6:30 am where he swims for an average six hours a day or around 8 miles per day. He swims six days per week including holidays. This seems unthinkable for the average swimmer, but for Olympians like Phelps it’s just part of the game.

In addition to time in the pool. Phelps lifts weights to add explosive speed to his regimen, spending around an hour 3 days a week lifting weights as well as one hour three days a week stretching his muscles.

In Daniel Coyle’s fantastic book, The Talent Code he describes one of the most celebrated training centers for tennis.  Once again, we see on full display the results of focus on TECHNIQUE as the foundational element of the skill.

If students are anxious to jump into songs, it tells me a quite a lot about their lack of understanding of the process. As teachers, however, we should not be coerced into their fantasies and delusions of grandeur without hard work. Students should know the dedication and focus that are required of mastery in singing, and it is our job to communicate it to them.

Now, let’s get back to our five tone scale on ‘ah,’ please.

Some of the most fruitful imitation I saw took place at Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow, a freezing junkpile that has produced a volcano of talent: Anna Kournikova, Marat Safin, Anastasia Myskina, Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina, Mikhail Youzhny, and Dmitry Tursunov. All in all, the club produced more top-twenty-ranked women than the United States did from 2005 to 2007, as well as half of the men’s team that won the 2006 Davis Cup, and it’s done all that with one indoor court. When I visited in December 2006, the club resembled a set for a Mad Max movie: shotgun shacks, diesel-shimmering puddles, and a surrounding forest filled with large, hungry, and disconcertingly speedy dogs. An abandoned eighteen-wheeler was parked out front. Walking up, I could see shapes moving behind clouded plastic windows, but I didn’t hear that distinctive thwacking of tennis racquets and balls. When I walked in, the reason became evident: they were swinging all right. But they weren’t using balls.

At Spartak it’s called imitatsiya—rallying in slow motion with an imaginary ball. All Spartak’s players do it, from the five-year-olds to the pros. Their coach, a twinkly, weathered seventy-seven-year-old woman named Larisa Preobrazhenskaya, roamed the court like a garage mechanic tuning an oversize engine. She grasped arms and piloted small limbs slowly through the stroke. When they finally hit balls—one by one, in a line (there are no private lessons at Spartak), Preobrazhenskaya frequently stopped them in their tracks and had them go through the motion again slowly then once more. And again. And perhaps one more time.

It looked like a ballet class: a choreography of slow, simple, precise motions with an emphasis on tekhnika—technique. Preobrazhenskaya enforced this approach with an iron decree: none of her students was permitted to play in a tournament for the first three years of their study. It’s a notion that I don’t imagine would fly with American parents, but none of the Russian parents questioned it for a second. “Technique is everything,” Preobrazhenskaya told me later, smacking a table with Khrushchev-like emphasis, causing me to jump and speedily reconsider my twinkly-grandma impression of her. “If you begin playing without technique, it is big mistake. Big, big mistake!”

Coyle, Daniel. The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born-It’s Grown. Random House, 2010.

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