Friday, November 17, 2006
Technique, Part 1
A teenager went to his parents seeking permission to get a tattoo. After pleading his case, the parents promised to discuss the matter before rendering a final decision."Why do you suppose Johnny wants a tattoo?" the mother asks."Gosh, I don't know" dad says, "Maybe he just feels the need to express himself.""Yes" answers mom,"He is probably at that stage of development where he feels the urge to show his budding individuality.""Why don't we put the question to him?" says dad, "Let's ask him why he wants to show his individuality in this irreversible manner."And so the Parents summoned Johnny. In answer to their question, Johnny rolled his eyes and groaned, "Aw jeez, everybody's getting a tattoo, It's no big deal."And therein lies the dichotomy of today's entry. How can a person in the arts, a person whose wherewithal depends on popular success, express his individuality while conforming to the fiscal requirements of the "flavor of the day" distribution machine that makes that "individuality" a marketable commodity?Entertainment company executives are ever vigilant for the next new thing. But the next new thing had better be instantly popular. The search is peppered with comments such as "we need something fresh" and "something totally new" and "something nobody has ever heard before" and then the creativity crusher, "Yeah, something just exactly like..." well, you can fill in the blank with any star of the moment.I wrestle with this question on a much smaller scale. My concern as a teacher of music is, how does one acquire the proper technical skills to maintain a long career, while still allowing freedom of individual expression? I firmly believe that only an intimate knowledge of the rules gives one the right to break them. I also believe that it is infinitely more valuable to learn to feed one's self than merely to be fed. A friend of mine who is a drummer had the opportunity to spend some time with the great Shelly Manne. He asked him if it would be possible to take a few lessons, to which Shelly answered, "Well kid, I can show you how to hold your knife and fork, but you'll have to learn how to eat on your own."If a bass or guitar student comes to me and asks that I teach them a solo or a particularly difficult passage, my answer is a simple one...No. What I will teach are the knowledge and skills which will allow that person to fend for himself and never have the need to ask to be spoon fed. If a musician spends time, and a great deal of it, with his ears and mind open and his hands on his instrument, copying a solo passage will be no large accomplishment.The study of singing is a different matter altogether. A guitarist could conceivably play his guitar with a baseball bat or a claw hammer for dramatic effect, and then simply sweep up the pieces and get a new guitar. But a singer's instrument is his body and damage done through poor technique can be irreversible. But, and this is a big but,(heh heh, I said big but) what if this singer is someone with a measure of success, and what if that success is predicated on a style of singing that compromises technique to the point that some measure of damage to the instrument occurs? What if the popularity of this singer's work would be diminished if he were to adopt a style of singing in line with strict proper technique?My services were once endorsed to a singer of some renown. This person had a great deal of success in terms of record sales and awards. While he was preparing to go on tour he was suffering from vocal fatigue during rehearsals and had fears of losing his voice. He was swallowing all sorts of curatives, using atomizers, and had been frantically seeking advice from Doctors, colleagues and Tarot readers. I was virtually a last resort. I told him to forget anything that he had been taught or told, and to allow me an absolutely clean pallet. I asked him not to think, not to try to figure out what we were doing and not to read anything into the exercises I prescribed, but just to do them religiously twice daily. And then we did the simplest of exercises, never straining and never approaching the range limit of his voice. I just had him phonate using vowels, voiced consonants and proper singing technique without explanations. We recorded a twenty minute workout and he promised to sing to the tape twice daily for a week. I must add that he thought I was a bit nuts in taking such an elementary approach so I didn't charge him for my time but promised, with all confidence in my approach, that if he followed my instructions he would get positive results. I also instructed him never to think about the exercises or my approach or even that we had met, while he was rehearsing. It was of extreme importance that my influence on his technique not affect his style in any way. The exercises had to do their work subliminally and behind the scenes.I never expected to hear from him again because I didn't think that he bought into my approach. I thought that he was looking for something much more complicated and mysterious. Four days later he shouted through the telephone that I was a genius and had saved the day. It seems that he was ready for simplicity. He followed my instructions to the letter and found that he was still singing in his well known style, but with more power and less strain. The exercises were "massaging" his vocal mechanism much as a trainer would do for a football player's strained muscles And so, we achieved somewhat of a balance. We applied elements of proper technique to a successful style that absolutely could not be tampered with, and had positive results. Self-expression and popularity can coexist with a bit of creative thought. Don't be afraid to look under the same old rocks, and don't be afraid to let simplicity be your guide.