The world's foremost pioneer, coach and researcher into Voice and Singing is an Australian - and loving it! In fact Graham Clarke still lives in his unpretentious suburban home in Melbourne. Over a period of 30 years his work in developing the principles and uses of the human voice has been creating a quiet - if beautiful sounding - revolution in the performing arts. The work of this soft spoken, rather disarming man is challenging today's status quo and shaping the sound of every vocal forum from Opera to Musicals - from Pop Music to Street Performing.
This article draws on two interviews I conducted with Graham Clarke. One was a live radio broadcast on my show The PRODOS Connection (Melbourne 97.4FM) and the other a follow up interview not broadcast
Prodos: What is 'Bel Canto'?
Graham Clarke: The term 'Bel Canto' is Italian. It literally means "Good singing" or 'beautiful singing'. Not necessarily 'beautiful' in the sense of soothing but beautiful in the sense of being absolutely appropriate to the expression. To me singing is about capturing a moment of the human condition and, if you like, recording it, developing it.
Prodos: The "human condition?" Sounds like a job for the United Nations! (All laugh)
Graham Clarke: I was thinking more in terms of our emotional life. Regardless of social structure every human being, for example, feels love in exactly the same way. But how they respond to that emotion is usually the result of social conditioning. Now with today's deconstructionist/relativist view of life it's very popular to say that there is no absolute truth. However the commonality of human experience IS an absolute truth. And to me this is one of the underlying and marvelous things about Bel Canto voice production: you can go to the joy that we all know or the sadness that we all know regardless of language, regardless of genre. Singing is about taking what may be just a moment's expression in the human life and extending that expression over a linear distance of time.
Prodos: Do you mean over a song?
Graham Clarke: Well that is what it becomes. Yes.
Prodos: You say that: "SINGING IS THE EMOTIONS MADE AUDIBLE". To me that statement is like Einstein's famous "E=mc˛" because it holds the key to a whole new understanding of energy - in this case human energy. How did you arrive at this formulation?
Graham Clarke: It began as just a glimmer of light. After a great deal of research and probing I came to see that there was something wrong with the basic premise underlying the current approach to singing.
Now initially we think of voice as being built on the flow of air. And somehow - magically - we are supposed to place the voice ON this air stream as it comes out.
In fact I remember listening to a lecturer say "And my secret is, once the voice goes out to about your arms length, you then suck it back into your mouth and up to your head". Yes, well, hmm, it didn't work! And from that point came the very simple realisation that if you feel a certain emotion you don't consciously set up muscle 27 to 25% and muscle 45 to 50% in order to voice that emotion. It's in fact an automatic part of our human system.
What I observed with most voice training was that it was denying that mind-body-emotion link. Once you'd found some form of a quality of voice - which was devoid of emotion - THEN you were told "think happy thoughts"
Prodos: The term I use for this approach is "Mal Canto" which means "Bad or Ugly Singing"
Graham Clarke: The other term is "Can Belto"
BEL CANTO VERSUS "CAN BELTO"
Prodos: In other words to "belt" it out as it were - to use the body as a great bellows, blowing through this little opening
Graham Clarke: Yes, or to think of the body in terms of a piston. Many people make the mistake of thinking of singing or voice production in terms of playing a wind instrument.
Prodos: So is the art and science of singing the art and science of emotion? Does a singer have to understand emotion in themselves and in others more than the average person?
Graham Clarke: If they're a professional artist, yes.
Prodos: Do all artists have that responsibility?
Graham Clarke: They must, otherwise what they do is merely a technical act and adds nothing to our cultural life at all.
Prodos: Do we know very much about how traditional Bel Canto singers trained and how they lived and have you drawn anything from that knowledge?
Graham Clarke: It's very difficult. Because prior to the work I've been doing - it's all been by secret.
Prodos: By secret? Are you serious?
Graham Clarke: Yes, very much so. What happened was that you worked with somebody. So a singer had a wonderful career then towards the end of their career they invited students to come and live with them- in their home - and they conducted classes every morning. The knowledge was passed on by demonstration and some illustration. The student would try and reproduce that sound.
Prodos: So they didn't make notes about the training?
Graham Clarke: No. All we've got really is anecdotal writings. Trying to piece those together does give you a view that perhaps there was 'something else' going on in the early training.
Prodos: I feel that it had to take an Australian to re-invent Bel Canto singing - someone from a culture free of the baggage of the past.
Graham Clarke: Yes, free of the traditions. I came to realise that by not being part of the current tradition I was able to step back from it and say, for instance, in Opera, just because that note is written above the stave, why is it delivered with full volume and why do you stay on it for that length of time when in fact the score doesn't say that. Because the tradition is that you do this. But what I was able to do by not being part of the tradition is say, excuse me, there's a disparity between the performance and the record or the plan of the performance that the composer has left.
Prodos: How wonderful is Australia, let us count the ways? What makes Australia wonderful as a place for the Arts, for Bel Canto, for performing generally? What do you find most positive about the Australian 'personality' with respect to the Arts?
Graham Clarke: The willingness to have a go. Having no sense of being downtrodden. Being hardworking - often working harder than our European counterparts. And Australia's multiculturalism allows for an appreciation of art.
WHO CAN SING?
Prodos: Can a deaf person sing?
Graham Clarke: Yes.
Prodos: They can? How? They can't hear. Isn't singing about sound - something deaf people are immune to?
Graham Clarke: Only one type. What I'm on about is a shift in thinking. For example, today you go to a singing class and you're told "put more expression INTO it". Whereas what I'm suggesting is "EX-pression" is the result of something coming OUT. As in EX-it. It's EX-pression.
Prodos: I see. You don't put expression INto something
Graham Clarke: (laughter) No!
Prodos: So expression suggests that something is coming OUT from you.
Graham Clarke: Absolutely. And a deaf person certainly has that ability to EX-press themselves. And they have a tremendous kinesthetic appreciation of voice through things like bone-induced vibration.
Prodos: So, if deaf people can sing does that mean that everyone can sing?
Graham Clarke: Yes! But whether they become adept at a professional level is a different thing.
Prodos: But there is still the hope that they can enjoy the experience and hopefully not drive all their friends and family away from them in the process!
Graham Clarke: I think it's interesting to reflect on, let's say two generations earlier
Prodos: Fifty years ago?
Graham Clarke: Yes. You'll find that most of our nanas and grandpas sang. And because the models of singing they had back then were excellent models - following their lead amounted to an effective form of singing practice for them - even if they didn't know what or how they were doing it. Perhaps families sat around the piano or the pianola singing songs from the war period. I believe that resulted in much more effective singing generally than if we were to gather around the CD or the video player.
Prodos: Has it been necessary for singing to decline? Has it been necessary for us to lose this Bel Canto spirit or is it just some bad decisions - a bad path that we embarked upon?
G: I believe it's a bad path we embarked on. To me there are two very distinct problems. One is the type of voice teaching that's occurring now which I believe has never happened before in History. The other is the bombardment of our hearing, our esthetic perception if you like, through just sheer commercialism.
Prodos: I don't like commercialism being knocked. I think commercialism is great.
Graham Clarke: What I'm saying is that commercialism has contributed to the decline. These days it is possible to market a product regardless of the worth of that product. In the past there were very, very simple conditions but without the aid of modern technology you simply did not last if you weren't effect in your own right. But today the substance of the product doesn't matter so much - it can still be sold. We can market something now that, for instance, doesn't exist. I've had singers come to me from record companies - at their producer's insistence. They've played me a couple of demo tracks that sound fine and we've started to work. Then I discover that in fact the singer has no native ability. That what exists on the tape is the result of almost genius on the part of the recording engineers!
Prodos: However if we can put the integrity and substance back into 'the product' and commercialise THAT then can't we have something greater than we had in the past and greater than what we have currently.
Graham Clarke: Yes!
Prodos: So you acknowledge that commercialism can be a positive power as well as a negative one?
Graham Clarke: It is my aim to bring together artistic integrity AND the tremendous powers of marketing - the skills that are used to sell products. And that's everything from psychology right through to . . .
Graham Clarke: Well they're talking about a Coca-Cola sign up in space so yeah why not!
Prodos: If you were given a million dollars to spend for the benefit of Bel Canto how would you spend it? What would be the best way to promote Bel Canto?
Graham Clarke: One of the things I would do straight away is bring together my former students who are scattered all over the earth and start a performing company.
Prodos: In order to demonstrate the art?
Graham Clarke: Yes, so that it's not just another theoretical model.
Prodos: I notice that in the old movies, the way the actors use their voice is so 'sparkling' and 'energised'. So when they start to sing it's no surprise that they sound beautiful. Has our general use of voice - even speaking voice - also declined over the last 50 years?
Graham Clarke: Massively. I had the head of sound from one of our television studios enrolled as a student at one point. He'd worked on a number of 'drama series' and found that there were certain people for whom he could put the microphone out of shot easily and who didn't lose presence. Furthermore, they didn't resort to facial contortion or exaggerated mouth, tongue, lip action in order to maintain that level - they appeared to be quite natural.
He also worked with a number of 'variety' television shows at the time and there were a group of singers who apparently had no 'microphone technique'. They just simply held the microphone a little lower than their chest level. He never used a limiter-compressor, he never adjusted for them. It didn't matter how high they sang or how low they sang - they never lost level and they never ever distorted - no matter how loud or how soft and over the years he came to see that in fact they all had something in common and it was that . . .
Prodos: Graham Clarke factor!
Graham Clarke: . . . It was that that he wanted to learn.
Prodos: If you listen to the WAY someone uses their voice - not just to what they're saying I suppose you could tell quite a bit about them now after so many years of working as a voice coach.
Graham Clarke: Oh yes. I can hear a sound and know, pretty well predict, the physiological state that has lead to the production of that sound.
P: I want to give you four different people and ask you to say a sentence about each of them - what does their voice say about them . . .
Graham Clarke: No P:No? G: No (all laugh)
Graham Clarke: It's like asking a psychologist - now what do you think of, say, John Howard
Prodos: Well he was actually my first choice!
Prodos: What about people like Gary Cooper and Lauren Bacal for example? Can you say anything that would be an accurate guess about them?
Graham Clarke: Well let me put it this way. There was this potential student who was sent to me by a record company and he didn't want voice lessons. That was very clear from his whole attitude. I only had a limited number of weeks to help him before the record launch and so what I did was ask him to play me some of his recorded material and then I described to him how he was standing and what he was doing physically during that recording and what his thoughts were during it. He accused me of being in collusion with somebody but what I explained that I didn't know any of the staff on the day.
He realised that in fact his instrument DID communicate a great deal.
Prodos: It betrayed him!
Graham Clarke: (laughs) It illuminated him!
Prodos: As a busker and singer myself I often get people wanting to sing along with me - especially because I sing all those wonderful old hits from the 20's, 30's and 40's. The two types of people I get are, first, those with a 'trained' voice - not Bel Canto trained - and the other type are those who are a bit or a lot drunk and who are totally untrained. I don't know who is worse - the badly 'trained' voices trying to sing Cole Porter like they were Dame Joan Sutherland or the untrained voice trying to sing Gershwin like Billy Idol. So on the one hand what I see is 'training' destroying people and what I would think would be imitation also destroying people's voices. Your comment?
Graham Clarke: You've just described to me two models that are both, in my view, impositions on the posture of the larynx. Therefore neither is effective.
Prodos: Could you say a little about the larynx and what it should be doing for a singer.
Graham Clarke: In simple terms the larynx is a bucket hanging on a string and it should be hanging down at the bottom of the Well. Now we have all sorts of problems. For example - People have a Well so constricted the bucket can't get down or it is so constricted the bucket can't move or the rope is so knotted the bucket is in an ineffective position or the rope is so tightly bound that the bucket is up against one wall to one side as it were of the well
Prodos: In this metaphor where is the actual sound or voice happening?
Graham Clarke: The bucket
Prodos: The bucket is projecting out the sound
Graham Clarke: If you want to go a step further - there's a speaker in the bucket. And it's that vibration.
Prodos: So here again we come to this contrast with what you refer to as the 'Can Belto' approach. You're saying that in Bel Canto you view the voice as an electrical happening rather than as a wind instrument. Is this correct?
Graham Clarke: Yes. Or put another way, singers trained in the Bel Canto tradition use the body like a cello rather than as a bagpipe. The bagpipe view is that singing is about forcing the air from the lungs to pass through the vocal folds which are side by side, causing them to vibrate. And that it's projected forward, out through the mouth. To me that is the 'world is flat theory'.
Prodos: (Imitating John Hurt from from The Elephant Man) "I am not a wind instrument!"
Prodos: How old is the Bel Canto tradition?
Graham Clarke: My research shows that it's been with us since the 1600's.
Prodos: So we're talking about Civilisation in that case. Are Bel Canto and Civilisation related? Do tribal cultures, primitive cultures use the voice in a 'Bel Canto' sort of way? Or is it something that is unique to civilised cultures?
Graham Clarke: To Western cultures don't you mean?
Prodos: Civilised means Western to me. I must be a cultural chauvinist.
Graham Clarke: The experiences that I've had with cultures that are not Western indicates that yes there are aspects of Bel Canto voice production within those cultures but what is peculiar is the organisation of these particular skills to form an art form - an art practice.
Prodos: Do you mean that in civilised or Western cultures there was a systematic approach to developing the methodology of singing? Is that what we're talking about? (G: Yes) And in tribal cultures it's like 'anything goes'?
Graham Clarke: It's not so much 'anything goes' but it's this is the experience and this is how we do it - and it stays at that level of development.
Prodos: Yes I know what you mean. So once we get to Western culture we get reflection, development, the power of reason unleashed now, approaching it like a Science as it were.
Graham Clarke: Almost.
Prodos: Well from what I know about your approach you're treating singing and voice like a technology and a science. You're treating it not as just messing about and let's 'express ourselves!' It is quite a discipline is it not?
Prodos: What about character voices? Now we're talking more about speaking than singing. Sounding young or sounding old. Sounding like a Wicked Witch or a Handsome Prince. Could you give us a few hints on that one Graham?
Graham Clarke: If we go back to the notion of The Well what is so marvellous about the human body is that it's a living organism and so we can have a Well that's only just started to be dug. Or a Well that has a wealth of experience and is extremely deep
Prodos: So a Well that has just started to be dug is the young person. And the old person is the one that is a deep Well full of experiences
Graham Clarke: We hope!
Prodos: So a Wicked Witch is a crooked well?
Graham Clarke: (laughs) Marvellous! Yes. To me the aim in my work is to help students see what their psychological view of themselves is and how that's expressed audibly and then to illustrate to them the potential of their body as an instrument FREE of that psychological view.
Prodos: Why free? I thought they needed that psychological view.
Graham Clarke: No. They need to have the potential of their body as an instrument at the beck and call of their needs as an artist. So that they're able to create a psychological perspective of the character. Otherwise they may be holding their chest in a particular position because they've been told something about themselves and every character they try to create would have that trait. Now with that imposition removed from their view of themselves they then have the potential to show a Prince or the Humble Servant of the Prince.
Prodos: So rather than just putting a psychological 'costume' on we've got to remove what we currently have and build from first principles. Often we try to ADD the character to our own voice, we should be removing our essentials and then building that character from scratch . . .
Graham Clarke: Joan and Betty Raynor who established children's theatre in this country said that their aim was to show the THINKING of the character. And as they moved into adult entertainment of the troops during the war they didn't have much make-up or costumes and props to effect change and so they relied exclusively on this approach.
(Graham refers me to a book by Mabel Thorpe Clarke)
Graham Clarke: One of the things that is often helpful for people to realise in the construction of character voice - an issue you need to consider VERY MUCH is rhythm.
Prodos: Ah rhythm!
Graham Clarke: And we tend not to do that. Rhythm in the sense of we walk in a particular rhythm, we gesture in a particular rhythm and therefore we speak, we pause in a particular rhythm. And it's often a very fine approach to look at a character simply from the point of view of their rhythms.
Prodos: That's a very useful insight!
Graham Clarke: I'll give you a 'for instance'. There was a company that I was working with and the show was not working. So I spent ten minutes with each of the principal characters and we worked on what would be an appropriate DANCE for their character. Then when they came together they actually did their own dance and spoke in their own rhythm at that dance. Suddenly we had the appropriate interaction of all of those characters. What they were trying to do originally was come together in some 'ensemble-istic' way - to create unity.
Prodos: You mean amongst the various actors? (G: Yes) Rather than emphasise the distinctiveness of the characters. (G: That's it)
Prodos: Why do we all have different sounding voices? Why do I sound so different from you? What is it about us?
Graham Clarke: We carry a view of ourselves with us and so we're constantly responding from that viewpoint. And the other marvelous thing about the Bel Canto tradition is that it allows for the effective 'sounding' of each instrument. For instance, as a pianist, I can tell you the difference between a Yamaha or a Kawai, a Beckstein or a Steinway. In the same way your particular structure is different from mine.
Prodos: My body structure you mean? My actual physical body not just what I believe about myself.
G: Both. But in particular your physical body. And so there is going to be a different highlighting of tonal possibilities from mine.
Prodos: Is this the same as if I get a spoon and tap a big glass or a little glass they'll emanate a different tone or a different pitch? Is it about the basic physical vibration of the material?
Graham Clarke: Yes.
Prodos: So we all have different sounding voices because of our views of ourselves - so that's the consciousness side. And then also because of our actual body matter and structure.
Prodos: It's interesting to me that what Bel Canto does is it integrates the mind and the body. It seems that, as humans, we can easily put a rift between our minds and our bodies - our thinking and the way we use our body.
Graham Clarke: I couldn't agree more. Often what happens in the initial classes is a reconnection - and that's sometimes frightening for people because it's so profound and for some it changes their lives.
Prodos: In a sense singing is 'UNNATURAL' don't you think?
Graham Clarke: Yes, I would agree
Prodos: You do ? I expected an argument! In a sense it is man-made because without a deliberate, conscious effort singing does not automatically, instantly happen. Do you agree with that as well?
Graham Clarke: Yes, I do. To me what is fascinating about singing is that we are using the body consciously as an instrument and that requires a very SPECIFIC use of the body.
Prodos: In your own mild-mannered way Graham, you're systematically revolutionising the use of voice. You use private voice coaching and you talk to media people like myself. I believe you're also writing a book?
Graham Clarke: Yes, it's in the form of a Doctoral thesis and it's now in its the last stages which is quite exciting.
Prodos: Will be available to the general public?
Graham Clarke: Yes it will
Prodos: And we can place orders now? For an autographed copy? (laughter)
Graham Clarke: Line up at the door!
Prodos: I think the 60's have a lot to answer for in the sense that they introduced a certain slackness of the body and a misuse of the microphone and technology. What do you think?
Graham Clarke: I think it's been growing since the mid-forties. As people discovered that they could create performance using the microphone and all the devices of recording technology from that point things have been in decline in my view. And I'm speaking classically as well as in the popular field. People don't want to believe that all the devices of recording technology have been used for the so-called classical artist.
Prodos: You mean it's a scam?
Graham Clarke: Yes. They want to believe that it's genuine. And it's not. For instance, Elizabeth Schwartzkopf has been in print saying that in the early days if something wasn't right they re-recorded the phrase and spliced the tape by hand. Of course today it's digital but I thought that was brave of her in her retirement to acknowledge that fact.
(Prodos: Brave in her retirement?) In fact if we were to hear many of our so-called famous artists on the other side of the microphone - I don't think we'd rush out and buy their CD's.
Prodos: What about artists like Vera Lynn, Al Jolson, George Formby? How do you rank them as Bel Canto singers?
Graham Clarke: Vera was probably the most limited of them all. She had caught an aspect of Bel Canto and made a career out of that. But I'm not commenting on the fact that it was 'only' an aspect. Rather that WITH that aspect she had a career which has lasted decades.
Prodos: So just by using one aspect of Bel Canto she sells and sells and sells - and you can never get tired of listening to her voice?
Graham Clarke: That's it.
Prodos: What about Al Jolson?
Graham Clarke: Very, very intersting case history
Prodos: He was a smoker by the way
Graham Clarke: Steeped in the Jewish Cantorial tradition. Tremendous relationship of human experience and sound through that and it's only, I believe, as the excess of money and the excesses that that could purchase came into his life that he lost what he had as a young man. Although as a young man it was a phenomenal use of Bel Canto.
Prodos: What is the relation between singing and sexuality?
Graham Clarke: In that sexuality is our highest creative urge or principal - the singing is seated in that.
Prodos: So is there foreplay in singing? (all laugh) Is there orgasm in singing?
Graham Clarke: Oh definitely! And there's premature ejaculation! (all laugh)
Prodos: To say that the singing is actually SEATED in our sexuality this suggests that if you sing you are sexy, if you listen to good singing you feel sexy. Is it as close as that?
Graham Clarke: It can be. But what I'm doing in my thinking is separating sexual intimacy from human sexuality.
Prodos: So the actual act of having sex separate from sexuality - the source of sex.
Graham Clarke: It is distinct in the sense that our sexuality is really our basic creative urge and that can be expressed in myriad artistic forms.
Prodos: And does the actual act of sex assist a singer?
Graham Clarke: Definitely
Prodos: Any kind of sex? (all laugh)
Graham Clarke: In the sense that the sexual experience can free you from that view of yourself that you hold because it takes you to such a high plane of human experience - out of that moment can come a sense of inner knowledge that can then be expressed through singing or an art form.
WORTH A MILLION BUCKS?
Prodos: What is a useful to keep in mind in developing as a singer?
Graham Clarke: I think the most important thing to understand is that your body is YOUR instrument. And if your EMOTIONS ARE MADE AUDIBLE you use your body - the entire body to do that - not just your mouth. So be free with the expression of those emotions wave your hands in the air, throw a couple of plates against the wall, but let it be free.
Prodos: In terms of the relationship between the performer and an audience. I have a big question for you; maybe the answer is simple. What do audiences want? Why are they willing to pay regularly and often handsomely for entertainment? What does a performer have to do or achieve in order to make someone delighted to reach for his or her wallet and pay them? That's what I want to know: What must a performer do to be worth a million bucks?
Graham Clarke: I would hope that the performer is capable of transforming the audience's life.
Prodos: Just for a moment or forever?
Graham Clarke: That depends how the audience member deals with it but hopefully for a long time.
Prodos: It's as simple as that is it?
Graham Clarke: Yes