I attended Kurt Moll's master class at Zankel Hall last week.
It was a revelation.
At 72, the veteran bass has the most perfectly coordinated, expressive, and economically produced voice I have ever heard at close range. In fact, I've never even heard anyone come close to comparing with his ability to project even the softest of utterances so that they fill the hall and make every listener feel as though he were speaking directly to them.
Listening to him expanded my awareness of what it is possible for the human voice to do, and once you're exposed to something like that you cannot ignore it. I have to raise my game now as both a singer and teacher.
Rather than addressing the audience directly, Moll focused his attention almost exclusively on the singers – it almost felt as though we were eavesdropping on private coachings. When he spoke and demonstrated, it was really for their ears, standing a couple of feet from him. Nevertheless, every nuance was completely audible from the audience.
I spent the two-hour class trying to fathom how this could be. Here are my conclusions.
1. Moll keeps his vocal folds as loose and passive as possible at all times and exerts the absolute minimum effort to set them in motion, whether speaking or singing. He phonates with perfect clarity and a complete absence of unnecessary pressure, whether speaking in his exceptional deep voice or singing at the top of his range. There is an overall relaxation and gentleness in the way he uses his voice regardless of pitch or dynamics.
It's quite the coup de maître, his ability to move seamlessly from simple speech into singing without any discernible increase in pressure – a powerful demonstration that aggressively increasing breath pressure for high notes or fuller dynamics is not only unnecessary but dangerously counterproductive. For many singers, this is one of the hardest lessons to learn. Before developing a high level of vocal technical skill and flexibility, many singers find it impossible to reach certain pitches and decibel levels without a massive amount of breath "support" and a sensation of pressure and tightness in the throat. They come to rely on that sensation of pressure and effort to know they're making a full sound, and it's hard for them to let go of it in favor of the relative effortlessness that leads to truly beautiful, free singing. Moll gets maximum payoff with minimum effort. It was so satisfying to observe.
2. His considerable resonance resources are profoundly relaxed and available to movement. It's like all of the muscle and tissue comprising his pharynx, soft palate etc. is by default in a neutral, expansively flaccid state, able to leap into action and respond reflexively to the requirements of whatever pitch or vowel is called for and then return to neutral or move onto the next thing.
When you're first developing your instrument and building technique, it's impossible to avoid some degree of discussion and effort devoted to "making", "opening", or just "finding" optimal resonating "space". It's something that has to be cultivated. But ideally what you're cultivating is this state of potential for expansion, relaxation and availability to movement. If space ends up being something that you have to deliberately make or shape when it's time for a particular pitch or vowel, then you're using unnecessary muscular effort and mental focus to create something that should already habitually just be there. I also know plenty of singers who have built effortful means of making space into their basic technique by consistently doing things like hoisting the soft palate up and/or using the base of the tongue to push the larynx into a low position. This does force a certain kind of space and resonance but it requires a lot of effort and creates tension and entanglement that limit the voice in countless other ways.
3. He is able to maintain this relaxed responsiveness of his vocal folds & resonance while being incredibly precise and active with his articulators. Moll takes such obvious delight in the nuances of the German language. I observed the specificity and skill with which he demonstrated how to brighten a vowel or choreograph the movement from an ach-Laut to an [l] with the kind of awe normally reserved for a spectacular high-wire acrobatic sequence. He executes precise, coordinated movements of the jaw, tongue, lips, and everything related to shape exquisitely expressive diction with apparent perfect independence from what he does to produce and resonate his sound.
One fundamental tenet of the technique I teach is the importance of mastering independent movement of the articulators and keeping their activity as distinct, and far away, from the vocal folds as possible. Because of habits ingrained through a lifetime of normal speech, many singers find it incredibly challenging to articulate consonants like [n], [l] and [t] by moving just the tongue while allowing the jaw to remain neutral. The kind of practice needed to train the tongue, jaw and lips to move independently from one another is repetitive and tedious, and it may also be highly frustrating if those speech habits are deeply ingrained and up until now you've just built your technique around them. But there's no way around it: if you want beautiful diction you must master precise coordination of your articulators. And if you want to sing freely you must learn to keep them from compromising the movement of your laryngeal cartilages or impinging on your resonating space.
All of the things Kurt Moll does so well are things that I have valued very highly for many years…I just didn't realize that it was even possible to do them nearly so well as he!
Moll is enjoying a well-earned retirement, but when he is able to be persuaded to give a master class do not miss an opportunity to attend. Then again, he seems to embody his practice so completely that you could quite possibly learn as much as I did just by having a chat. So if you run into him, buy the man a drink!
This master class was offered as part of The Song Continues, a series of song recitals and master classes presented this month at Carnegie Hall. I am immensely grateful to The Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall and the Marilyn Horne Foundation for providing such magnificent learning opportunities and programs, and I strongly encourage all of you to participate in or attend their future workshops.