The stage is the track and the podium is the winning bow and applause.
In the heady world of opera there are direct correlations with other passions. Discipline, focus, guts and fearlessness come to mind. I can relate that to another world which seems to be on the other side of the planet from opera but it is actually closer than you might think…the world of Formula 1 racing possesses the same elemental structure. The stage is the track and the podium is the winning bow and applause. I love opera and I love Formula 1 racing. And so does one of my favorite students who is a talented tenor. Let’s hear how it could imaginatively play out in a voice lesson. So enter, stage right (and out of the qualifying round)… the voice teacher and her tenor:
(Maximum Race Time Under Two Hours…something that opera should perhaps adhere to more often!)
Me…“So let’s talk about rethinking your approach to the climactic phrase without putting so much attention to the highest note. The way the composer is approaching this is difficult so let’s concentrate on the importance of the phrase before. If you allow yourself to clutch with the throat before the passaggio the highest climax is already in jeopardy. It’s like the quality of the braking technique used in a turn before the long stretch in F1. You know, down force and limit of adhesion? It is imperative to have the right balance. If the coordination is off slightly then the driver can lose control out of the turn.”
D…“Yeah, exactly! Like Hulkenberg when he drove in the German Grand Prix… on track for his first ever Formula 1 podium. All he had to do was stay in position and bring the car home in the final laps but he overcooked it going into a corner, spun off and lost any chance at the podium. He lost control on the turn, maybe it was a miscalculation or an ego move. I think he just lost focus and he lost grip. I couldn’t believe he made that maneuver when so much was riding on those last few laps.”
Me…“So if you can approach the passaggio phrase with an inner dialogue of ‘open throat, no knee jerk fear reactions and keep your breath moving’ you will perform the phrase beautifully open and ready to set up the next phrase. My gut tells me that Nico Hulkenberg approached that turn with a little self sabotage. He’s a talented driver but never had a podium win. I think he lost focus on technique just long enough to put himself out of that race with only five laps to go and a chance at the podium…his FIRST ever podium! And in his own country…! So, let me ask you this. In the realm of thinking like a winner…if you could relate your singing to a race car driver who would it be?”
He took a long breath inwards and looked down at his feet. I could tell that the memory and sting of the Nico Hulkenberg loss was still in his mind. D spends a lot of his time analyzing races and drivers. I didn’t want him to relate his own experiences to Hulkenberg, I just wanted him to think past the driver’s loss and individuate finding his own strength.
D…“That’s a good question…hmnnnn….” he muttered and took a long pause.
Because he often overthinks his answers I could see that he was starting to get tied up in the thought process in how to answer. This is a singer who is sometimes more concerned in pleasing me with his choice of answer than staying with his gut truth. But I had a feeling that after talking about Hulkenberg’s cornering error he was going to move with gut honesty….
D…“Do you mean what driver would I relate to because of his technique?”
In an effort to get him to work for the point here I stayed quiet, smiled and just looked at him. I said nothing.
D…“I don’t know…it’s like, there are some drivers who are just born to drive and can’t seem to do anything wrong. But there are others who you can see have to think through every move, relying on the pit guys…”
Me…“Let’s look at the drivers who talk to the pit guys through big moves…the pit crew are analyzing, with very sophisticated equipment, the driver’s performance technique. They are trying to help the driver keep his confidence but supplement his approach. And many times they are trying to work around that driver’s temperament to keep him from making a jerk ass move. Sometimes the drivers who have to work the hardest for their art form retain the most wisdom…so with that being said, who is the driver who you admire and relate to the most?”
"Sometimes the drivers who have to work the hardest for their art form retain the most wisdom."
D…He took a moment and then said, “I think it would have to be Lewis Hamilton for his focus. He keeps his focus on …. I don’t know…just his focus mainly. But I guess he IS thinking through technique as he approaches every dangerous maneuver. He’s so smooth…. he makes it all look instinctual.”
Me…(With affirmation I jumped on his winning answer) “So in that same way, YOU are going to keep your focus! You are going to look at this five note phrase and think how you will use your technique to get you through without trying to grand stand or doing anything different. You will use a vertical position in the vowels and try not to allow yourself to buy into the false feeling of control with the back of the tongue. When you stop for the breath before the climax you will NOT change your position! There’s your pit crew talking to you. Are you going to take the maneuver seriously or put the next phrase in jeopardy?”
D…“Okay, now I get it. I’m not going to block my breath either, just stay with the plan.”
He sings the phrase. He takes time for the open throated breath and stays grounded in the set up. He performs with focused thought and consistency. The climax phrase is free and honest. And he performs it beautifully.
D…“I can’t believe it. It feels so easy! And the notes feel a third lower!”
Me… “You caught the slipstream! And you are not working so hard but yet the voice sounds effortless. So, we know that each Formula 1 driver has the advantage or disadvantage of the car they are driving. You know, Renault and Williams are still trying to get their act together with the design of the right car. But Mercedes have got the recipe right. Hamilton has the advantage of wise and gutsy driving with the best car. But guys are still on the podium with a lesser car. They are thinking through the best driving technique with the car. It’s the same in singing…when the chips are down, when you are not feeling at your best you are going to HAVE to think through the most difficult phrases in this aria. So you need to put that energy of yours into strength thinking. And strength here means ‘where’ you are going to put that strength thought into action. And when everything is right you are going to drive into the slip stream and catch the ease of performance.”
D…He looks thoughtful and smiles…“So, tell me right now…I’m way beyond go carting, aren’t I? I mean, tell me I’m at least at Formula 2….!”
Me…“You are definitely beyond carting…I think it’s realistic to say that Formula 2 is your haven right now. It was for Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon for a while until they earned their stripes and caught the notice of team leaders in Formula 1. You’re in a respectable place, D!”
D…“Thank God…I was worried for a moment.”
"..you need to put that energy of yours into strength thinking. And strength here means ‘where’ you are going to put that strength thought into action. And when everything is right you are going to drive into the slip stream and catch the ease of performance."
Me…“But let’s get away from worrying about where you are right now in the pecking order and just look to the practice, focus and joy of your ‘strength thinking.’ The product that is born out of that gives you real confidence…that’s honest confidence born out of COM-PE-TENCE!”
D…“Yeah, that’s where Max Verstappen is brilliant! Not overthinking anything just going with instinct…”
Me…I cut in quickly before he could carry on…“Instinct developed out of the practice of the technique it requires to become a first class driver. The same technical instinct that Jonas Kaufmann developed out of years of work with what he knew was the right sound. But I bet you money that he listened to his pit crew! You used to launch yourself into auditions by going with your gut and ‘hoping’ that everything would be OK on the day. The stakes are higher now…you have to have this technique completely dependable so you can get out of bed in the morning and pop off these difficult phrases like they are nothing.”
D thought for a moment then started to write down thoughts furiously. Something had clicked and he wanted it down in ink.
Me…“You are a completely different singer compared to who you were a year ago. You are not doubting your vocal decisions so much and because of the solidity of the technique you have built over the past year you have the confidence to win. If you keep your focus that’s when you know to catch the slipstream or when to accelerate out of the turn. You have managed to drop the fixed thinking you used to adhere to and now are using strength thinking to work through difficulties. You can take the podium…you deserve it! And getting back to Hulkenberg in the German Grand Prix….he had his moment and for whatever reason could not stay with the win. It was so unfortunate. You are not Hulkenberg. You are moving towards the podium, D!”
(The Final Lap)
D was quiet but he held an intense look that I had never seen from him before.
Me…“What are your thoughts?”
D…“Down force and limit of adhesion…when the marriage is exact it’s a beautiful thing to watch. I’ve got that quality… I’m overthinking all of the time and that has got to be tempered. I’m in the qualifying round and that’s where it counts. Technique will build better instincts.”
Me…“Great! Now let’s talk about your choices of repertoire…”