I think, therefore I sing
The Praise of Cognitive Belcanto
This book, describing the Sarkissian Method, is intended for lyrical singers of all ages and levels and all those, who want to know
the origin of the lyrical vocal technique, which is the most complete and complex among the sung and spoken vocal techniques.
The Balance Triangle
The first meeting
The daily exercises
The Tone and the Focus
The High position
The cognitive belcanto
The belcantist concept
Cognosce te ipsum
I think, therefore I sing or The Praise of Cognitive Belcanto
Дано мне тело — что мне делать с ним,
Таким единым и таким моим?
Осип Мандельштам (1)
Не выходи из комнаты, не совершай ошибку.
Иосиф Бродский (2)
My appearance into this world took place in Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union at that time, causing a shocking event in the family on my mother's side: Madeleine, my maternal grandmother, born in Paris in 1929 and brought back by her doctor parents in a fit of madness into the Stalinist nightmare of the thirties, officially announced to the family and the close circle that she had finally found a meaning of her life.
When I was just one year old, I showed a particular interest in a certain musical programme on television, which resulted in a few buttock movements, faintly resembling a dance. This imprudent act was noticed and punished on the spot: my grandmother decided to dedicate my life to the music.
Painter Saré, a scenographer at that time, quite impassioned by the theatre, happened to have my father as a husband, a talented director with a great penchant for alcohol, which killed him later on in the prime of his life. Not feeling adventurous enough to wait for this predictable ending by his side, my mother got divorced when I was five, which made my grandmother's presence in my life definitively indispensable and gave me the surname of my beloved grandfather, a diplomat in every sense of the word.
My official initiation began with piano at the age of five. Two years later, having already developed an idiosyncrasy towards practicing on this instrument that I used to love so dearly, which was even more tragic given that my grandparents were close to Sviatoslav Richter (3) and I adored him, I entered a competition in a specialized music school – an educational institution at the disposal of the capitals and large cities of the Soviet Union where children were devoted to music from a very early age.
My negative emotions expressed towards playing the piano did not affect Madeleine's children: my mother had taken refuge too early in the world of drawing and theatre to understand that a child under the age of ten doesn't necessarily have to have a profession, and my uncle, a microbiologist turned musicologist, had already been making headlines as a young Esperantist at my age...
As for my grandmother, student of Maria Maksakova (4) and Alexander Melik-Pashayev (5), who in her youth exchanged live performance for the teaching of a dead language due to post-war tuberculosis, she had already started paving a path towards the fulfilment of her dream: to making a lyrical singer out of me.
She shared her plan with Richter and his wife, chamber singer Nina Dorliak, and another friend of the family – composer Edison Denisov. The latter loved the transverse flute and it was decided to develop my breathing into a future singer’s one by practicing this instrument. The good news was that thanks to this specialization the charge of the piano would decrease, the bad news, turned out to be unexpected mostly for myself – it was that I didn't like playing the flute...
Unlike some of my little classmates at the special school, I couldn't get used to playing these instruments and take other pleasures than to please my beloved grandmother. I certainly loved the music I played, but incomparably more – performed by others... As I later realized, this was due to the fact that my technical thought was not connecting properly to my musical thought and did not follow it naturally (these terms will be explained later on), and it was creating a constant frustration, even though I was practicing several hours a day being "very musical" as my teachers regularly confirmed.
It was only through the practice of singing that I finally realized what musicians who did not have this "dephasing" felt when playing their instrument: contrary to me, they were able to create good technical automatisms and, once the preparatory work had been completed, freely expressed their musical thought which then directed the interaction of their body with their instrument without passing through technical thought again – a sensation of freedom that I had never managed to have when playing the piano and the flute.(6)
(1) A body was given to me—what to do with it, so uni and so much my own ? Ossip Mandelstam
(2) Don't leave the room, don't make the mistake.. Joseph Brodsky
(3) Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997), great Russian pianist
(4) Maria Petrovna Maksakova (1902-1974), Soviet mezzo-soprano, soloist of the Bolshoi Theatre
(5) Alexander Melik-Pachayev (1905-1964), Soviet conductor, artistic director of the Bolshoi Theatre
(6) From my observations, one can have a beautiful and rich musical (or artistic, if it concerns to another art) thought, but if the technical thought is not able, for one reason or another, to create quality automatisms to free the realization of musical thought from constant technical control, the artistic practice will not be completely free and satisfactory. Certainly, one can take other pleasures which do not necessarily concern the quality of the realization of the musical thought, but for me this pleasure is essential in the practice of my vocal instrument and consists of being able to produce the sounds I want to produce.
After attending the delights of the economic and social upheavals of the late eighties in Yerevan and the first half of the nineties in Moscow, having passed through a Parisian college and a French Moscow high school in the meantime, I finally settled in Paris, still a flutist fighting against myself and my beautiful instrument. As for my grandmother, at that time she had already almost dropped the idea of making a singer out of me, because the memory of the bad experience of exchanging the piano for the flute was still vivid in me and, fearing the worst, I preferred to adopt the wisdom of the Armenian proverb "it is better to be eaten by a well-known wolf".
My grandmother's many attempts to get lyrical sounds out of me, supported by my already so well developed breath, were unsuccessful: her dream was that I would be the student of Nina Dorliak, born in 1908, who since my childhood had tried to convince my grandmother that she would have disappeared before I was even old enough to sing... But my grandmother's faith in her friend's longevity was absolute and disarmed Dorliak, who once in a while tried to make me sing a few notes, and as I was not ready to exchange my beloved wolf for another one, prudently declared to my grandmother that it was still too early to understand anything about it…
But the ways of the Lord are what they are. When I was twenty, I fell in love with Cecilia Bartoli's art, which made me really want to sing for the first time. I began by imitating her endless miles of baroque agility with a very fine little voice, and even if I had loved opera since I was a child, as a performer I saw myself rather as a concert and chamber musician, since opera is based on theatre, which I certainly loved despite its dubious impact on my happy childhood, meanwhile chamber music is based on poetry, my great love, not to mention the fact that my grandparents' musical entourage literally rocked me into chamber music – instrumental and vocal – putting it above other genres.
Still a flutist and an apprentice singer, having lost quite a bit of time but not totally the hope of understanding the working of the vocal instrument under the benevolent eye of people who, aside from this benevolence, had no other convincing evidence to justify their title of singing teacher, I was sent back to Moscow by another friend of my grandparents, Mstislav Rostropovich, in order to make up for that bad experience and to approach the mystery of singing guided by the person who, according to him, knew best about vocal music – Zara Dolukhanova, incidentally his first great love, who, as he used to say, had received the highest possible distinction according to Prokofiev’s criteria : He compared her voice to the clarinet...
After I had received minimalist instructions from the great cellist "to become a singer, you just need a good singing teacher and a pianist", I embarked on a two-year long two-way trips from Paris to Moscow, resulting in a first hewn stone in my vocal construction and a home-made diploma-benediction by my beloved Zara Alexandrovna.
In Paris, having finally given up the flute, I continued my exploration of the voice in Anna Maria Bondi's class at the Schola Cantorum, arriving there with the words "I don't want to sing at the opera". "Ma what are you going to do ?" (7) exclaimed the lucid Italian, and I had my first view of the state of the operatic world, which had slightly changed since the years when "the Viardot of the 20th century" Dolukhanova and the other great chamber musicians were shining, revealing to me the current impossibility of making a career in a different field than opera.
After I’d spent three years with her and with many other great teachers, singers and composers who frequented her discourse and, one could have sworn, her class, creating that unforgettable magic that Stanislavsky called "the atmosphere", I moved to the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris in the class of the charismatic Daniel Ottevaere, in whose teaching I found some essential characteristics most similar to Everardi's school. Then, two years later, my accompanied exploration of my voice came to an end.
(7) This famous Italian "ma" was also part of Everardi's vocabulary, who spoke a delicious mix of French, Russian and Italian when he taught in Russia .
Finally I became a singer and even had time to practice on stage… and then I got into a car crash.
Bedridden with multiple fractures and disturbed vision, I fixed myself a precise objective : to sing again like before.
In parallel with the exciting post-traumatic and post-operative rehabilitation, while trying to restart singing, I found myself confronted with a problem that was certainly predictable but which I unfortunately couldn't solve : nothing was working like before.
Since my stay in Anna Maria Bondi's class, whose voice pronouncing the words "there are no bad days! There is a bad technique" still sounds in my head, I was used to practicing a series of daily exercises, but when I tried to work on them again, I couldn't even by far approach the result I had before the accident: no upper register, "holes" in the passaggio, unable to hold a note and to vocalize... I was panicking when realizing that it was not only related to the general state of fatigue resulting in shortness of breath, but that there were some essential elements missing, and I couldn't figure out which ones.
It has to be said that my technique before the accident was a reinforced concrete construction on a straw basement: I was practicing a lot, very regularly and was capable to create technical automatisms and to subject them to my musical thought, thanks to which I was able to function professionally, but, as I understood later, some essential technical ideas were wrong, and as I know now – I was in constant imbalance, which was the reason why my voice was not developing in the right way. There were questions to which I could not find answers, some very concrete problems and shadowy areas that I no longer had the courage to touch, having had bad experiences due to the "solutions" proposed by teachers, after which it was taking me a lot of time and effort to return to the previous state, which was unfortunately better than the one I sometimes found myself in "thanks" to those solutions. So, at some point I stopped searching – I learned to hide holes in the concrete with the wallpaper, staying with my unsolved technical problems and with the famous "wolf" I used to know. (8)
I am actually infinitely grateful to all my teachers. I have only mentioned three of them – the ones I consider to have transmitted to me the more positive elements through their teaching and to have guided me, together with the three great masters of the past mentioned below, to the understanding of the need for Balance in vocal technique, each of them being for me the representation of one of the three essential elements of lyrical singing in the context of my concept: Openness, Tone, Breath. These three teachers will always be part of my singing and my teaching.
In total, I have had nine teachers, without counting the courses and master classes, and my gratitude goes also to those I will not mention because I do not use what they were trying to transmit to me. It is partly thanks to them that I kept looking for technical coherence (as an ex-pianist and ex-flutist, I was sure that there had to be one also for the voice) and I was "digging" on the side of the Italian school, which greatly helped me to rebuild a new base after the accident, because I already had some of my guide-books on hand and also a second chance.
In addition to those that will be mentioned, the curious reader will find some works that inspire me and on which I base these pages and my teaching in the "Bibliography". I will also quote my three teachers who in their turn quoted theirs, as well as other singers and great masters of the belcantist tradition. At present, the ones I most often quote in class and compare their approaches are Giovanni Battista Lamperti (1839-1910), son of the great master Francesco Lamperti (1813-1892), Camille Everardi (1824-1899), student of Francesco Lamperti as well as of another great master I quote – Manuel Garcia (1805-1906), son of the great tenor Manuel Garcia (1775-1832) and brother of the singers Maria Malibran (1808-1836) and Pauline Viardot (1821-1910).
Everardi was one of the great contributors of the so-called "Russian school" in the second half of the 19th century, from whose branch of education my first teacher Zara Dolukhanova descended, as well as Fyodor Shalyapin, Elena Obraztsova and many other great singers, including some of the best representatives of today's lyrical art.
Over time, by exercising and analyzing the new connection between my technical thought, my musical thought and their physical realization, I found control over my voice by reconstructing a new technical basis incomparably more solid than before, despite my physiological problems that had been caused by the accident. My release and my switching from "I sing, therefore I am" to "I think, therefore I sing" was done progressively during this physical and mental restructuring, carefully guided and accompanied by David Gevorgyan, great psychologist and teacher I was fortunate enough to meet with, who also advises me in my pedagogical work.
Having thus proven the effectiveness of my approach on myself, I began to transmit this experience to others.
No longer being able to perform opera on stage, mainly because of fractures that made me fragile and limited in movement, I also began to develop an activity in the field of vocal chamber music – my initial predilection vector that the accident involuntarily had returned to me – by finding unfairly forgotten treasures from the past centuries and promoting new ones through original concert programmes and recordings.
(8) My last role on stage was Zanetto in Pietro Mascagni's homonymous opera. During that production, I had begun to understand some essential things and to develop new technical ideas, which I took up again after the accident, that happened four months later.
1. Manuel Garcia-fils, « Ecole de Garcia. Traité complet de l’art du chant », Paris, Heugel, 1904, onzième édition
Manuel Garcia Jr., « Garcia School. A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing », Paris, Heugel, 1904, eleventh edition
2. Giovanni Battista Lamperti, « The Technics of Bel Canto », G.Schirmer 1905
3. Mario del Monaco, « La mia vita e i miei successi », Rusconi, 1982
Mario del Monaco, « My life and my achievements », Rusconi, 1982
4. Rodolfo Celletti, « Storia del belcanto », Discanto, 1983
Rodolfo Celletti, « A History of Belcanto », Discanto, 1983
5. Л.И.Вайнштейн, «Камилло Эверарди и его взгляды на вокальное искусство. Воспоминания ученика», Киев, 1924
Vainshtein L.I., «Camillo Everardi and his view of the art of singing. Memoirs of a student», Kiev, 1924
6. Яковенко С. Б., « Волшебная Зара Долуханова », М.: Композитор, 1996
Yakovenko S.B., « The Magic Zara Dolukhanova », Moscow, Compositeur, 1996
7. Manuel Garcia-fils, « Traité complet de l'Art du chant », Schott, Mainz, Paris, 1ère parte : 1840, 2de partie : 1847
Manuel Garcia Jr., « A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing », Schott, Mainz, Paris, 1st part : 1840, 2d part : 1847
8. William Earl Brown, « Vocal Wisdom. Maxims of Giovanni Battista Lamperti », New York, Taplinger Publishing Co., 1931
9. J. J. M. Levien, « The Garcia family », London, 1932
10. Herbert Weinstock « Rossini : A Biography », Limelight Editions, 1987
11. Константин Станиславский, « Работа актёра над собой », Москва, Художественная литература, 1938
Constantin Stanislavski, « The actor's work on himself », Moscow, 1938
12. Nicolai Gedda, « Gåvan är inte gratis », Bonnier, 1977
Nicolai Gedda, « A gift is not given for free », Bonnier, 1977
13. Vittorio Tortorelli, « Enrico Caruso », Rimini, 1973
14. Григорий Кристи, «Работа Станиславского в оперном театре», Искусство, 1952
Grigory Kristi, « Stanislavski's Work at the Opera Theatre », Iskusstvo, 1952
15. Александр Лесс, «Тита Руффо. Жизнь и творчество», Москва, Советский композитор, 1983
Alexander Less, « Titta Ruffo », Moscow, 1983
16. Rosa Newmarch, « The Russian opera », London, 1914
17. Fyodor Chaliapin, « Pages from my life », Harper & Brothers, 1927
18. Фёдор Шаляпин, «Маска и душа», Париж, 1932
Fyodor Chaliapin, « The Mask and the Soul », Paris, 1932
19. Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, « Voci parallele », Milano, Garzanti, 1955
20. Francesco Lamperti, « The Art of singing », G. Schirmer, 1890
21. Luciano Pavarotti, « My world », G K Hall & Co, 1996
22. Михаил Глинка, «Записки», Москва, Музыка, 1988
Mikhail Glinka, « Memories », Moscow, Music, 1988
23. Gilbert-Louis Duprez, « L’Art du chant », Paris, 1845
Gilbert-Louis Duprez, « The Art of singing », Paris, 1845
24. Albert Schweitzer, « J. S. Bach », Leipzig, Breitkopf & Härtel, 1930
25. Albert Schweitzer, « J. S. Bach. Le musicien-poète », Maurice et Pierre Foetisch, 1905
Albert Schweitzer, « J. S. Bach. The poet-musician », Maurice et Pierre Foetisch, 1905
26. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, « Echoes of a Lifetime », Macmillan London, 1989
27. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, « La légende du chant », Flammarion, 1998
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, « The Legend of singing », Flammarion, 1998
28. Stephen Karpman, « Fairy tales and script drama analysis », Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 1968
29. Giacomo Rizzolatti, Corrado Sinigaglia, « Mirrors In The Brain : How Our Minds Share Actions and Emotions », New York, Oxford University Press, 2008
30. Noam Chomsky, « Knowledge of language : its nature, origin and use », New York, Prager, 1986
31. Tito Gobbi, « My Life », London, Macdonald & Jane's, 1979
32. Анатолий Эфрос, «Репетиция – любовь моя», Москва, Панас, 1993
Anatoli Efros, « Reharsal is my love », Moscow, Parnas, 1993
33. Francesco Lamperti, « Guido per lo studio del canto », Milano, G. Ricordi, 1864
34. Steven Pinker, « The Language instinct », New-York, William Morrow and C°, 1994
35. Noam Chomsky, « New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind », Cambridge University Press, 2000
36. Lilli Lehman, « Mon art du chant », Paris, Rouart, Lerolle et Cie, 1922
Lilli Lehman, « My art of singing », Paris, Rouart, Lerolle et Cie, 1922