Kenneth Kamal Scott

"Porgy's" son's life on the operatic and theatrical stages

My Experiences With Kenneth Kamal Scott, by Diogenes Rodriguez

As a composer of art songs, Kenneth Kamal Scott’s technique and understanding of the vocal mechanism has enabled me to write songs that attempt at caressing the voice instead of straining it.  In the last seven years I have written over one hundred songs, and my music has had relative success as it has been sought after by very accomplished singers, as well as having been awarded government grants to develop and present my music.  Through Kamal’s technique it has been possible for me to understand the voice’s capabilities, strengths, limitations, potential, power, nuances, color, texture, weight, etc., which has been paramount in my approach to song writing.

In 1986/1987 I was in search of a vocal teacher; my friend and song writer, the late McArthur Cralle, insisted that if I were to take some voice lessons, I should do it with Kamal; “he had played The Wiz and was very well respected.”  I had a good hunch about his recommendations and sooner than later I ended up visiting Kamal’s studio which was within walking distance from my house, at 124th street near Morningside Drive.

Kamal owned a brownstone at the time, and he had his upright piano on the first floor. We started vocalizing and he told me I was a baritone. I enjoyed thoroughly the lessons; but most of all I enjoyed Kamal’s nurturing and optimistic spirit. He had a sweet and cuddling Angora mixed cat called Lieu. His mother used to visit the studio from time to time; and I also enjoyed her honesty, caring and protective nature (Kamal is her only son), since I’m also the only child of my mother.

The students increased in number; and we used to listen to each other’s lessons and enjoyed Kamal’s comments. About four months into the individual classes, Kamal made an announcement and invited us to join a “Master Class” at a Church on Madison Avenue and 111th Street. That tradition started on a Sunday afternoon (I believe 2 O’Clock). The first solo I sang was the Italian Classic “Pieta Signori”, and there I met Gerald Brown (Jerry) who has to this day continued to collaborate as the official accompanist of Kamal’s classes. From what I remember some of those pioneer students were Eunice (Easy), John Hayward, Sherrill McCollum, Ulises Fernandez, Laurie Williamson, Lynn (last name) and many others

After about six months into my training I attended my regular class; and to my surprise Kamal told me that he was going to change the way he had been teaching; that he had found a very interesting book about singing that made a lot of sense to him and that we were all going to try the new method. We were all so confident on the intuitive, nurturing and Higher Spirit guidance of Kamal that I don’t believe any one of us hesitated in changing course; so much respect and trust we all had for Kamal.

The male voices were more difficult to align; but the female voices immediately began to blossom. Eunice and Laurie particularly began to show incredible growth. Laurie, in particular, was attracted to commercial music; but Kamal nurtured her into appreciating classical music as well.

The technique, as Kamal explained it to us, made a lot of sense. The chest voice and the falsetto must unite in order to sing as one exchange called the mezza di voce or middle voice. That can only be accomplished by swelling and releasing the tones at the passagio (where the chest voice breaks). Kamal also told us that the falsetto is the flexible part of the voice, for it can run all the way down with every tone. I’ve heard the great singers (Benimiano Gigli, Caruso, Bjorling, Leontyne Price) operate with that exchange. Only when the middle voice is developed may a singer hit a note with power, and then slowly diminish it into pianissimo or vice versa. With the new technique I turned out to be a tenor.

Aside from the vocal technique and the joy of being Kamal’s student; Kamal became a close friend and shared with me intimate joyful and painful personal experiences. I can attest to the fact that Kamal has always been guided by a higher power; for when there were important health decisions that could have become detrimental; there was always some guidance that stirred him away from danger. I particularly remember one instance when he was supposed to go for a certain experimental treatment at a health facility the next day for what was considered a terminal condition. Well, I received a call at about 8 am from Kamal; “Diogenes, I decided not to go; I don’t feel right about it.” I agreed that he should follow his inner voice. It’s a good thing he did not go, because, statistically all or most people who joined the program did not survive.

I have learned a lot from Kamal’s magnanimous character and have always admired his gift of forbearance. Being so talented and free giving Kamal has always attracted wealth in knowledge and in material things. As flies are attracted to honey, Kamal has always attracted people who gravitated towards his disposition of freely sharing his knowledge and his wealth. Most people around Kamal have been true friends and have appreciated genuinely the gifts that Kamal have shared with them. But there have been notorious exemptions. I can remember just about three or four incidents where people got close to Kamal, got under his wings and maneuvered to stir away from Kamal valuable real estate property as well as his knowledge to become his hostile competitor, speaking evil of the breast that nurtured them. In each and every one of those case I never heard Kamal utter a rancorous remark against any of them; and even when I tried to speak about the situation and defend him, Kamal always took the higher ground and focused on his next project.

That mental attitude, I believe, is what cured Kamal of his terminal cancer and what has kept him connected to the higher source that provides artistic and human nourishment.

Diogenes Rodriguez

June 22, 2010

 

 

From Christina Ascher

My life plan to become a classical singer started when I was six years old. Singing in a children’s choir I was incredibly moved by the contralto soloist in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” – and that was it! I began working toward my goal immediately, starting piano lessons at seven and voice lessons at eleven and taking every possible opportunity to get up and sing, my “dramatic debut” being at the age of 12 at the local Lion’s Club where I sang from “La Bohème” both Mimi arias as well as Musette’s “Quando men vo’,” hopefully in decent Italian. In any event, the voice was comfortable and the audience was touched. It was a natural God-given talent nurtured by benevolent teachers and parents.

As long as I was sheltered by the academic world my path always seemed simple and clear, but in the “real world” of the music business one needs to take responsibility for oneself and become creative and truly artistic. The artist who doesn’t discover that phenomenon will not continue to grow and will on many levels “cheat” his public and himself.

Happily I had several experiences right at the beginning after finishing graduate work at Juilliard back in the 60’s that helped form my way of thinking about things.

I remember Leonard Bernstein weeping bitterly in the dress rehearsal of Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony.” The execution of the music was impeccable, but the “soul” of it was missing. He said we had all forgotten why we wanted to make music at all – and left the stage like a broken man. When he returned many excruciating minutes later he challenged us to always “bear witness” with every note of our music. That made a deep and lasting impression on me, the youngest choir member!

There were also many artists who seemed to be showing me huge truths about life – not only through their incredible virtuosity and but even more through their complete dedication to and identification with their art. These seem to be things of the soul.

Then there are practical things! How sad it is when practical things get in the way of things of the soul and art is reduced to a desperate struggle! Although my education with many wonderful private teachers and at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Juilliard Music School was excellent I was not really prepared for all the possibilities which opened up for me as a result of my natural talent and some good vocal technique. I had, for example, never really learned how to truly make pieces “my own” – especially if the work at hand confronted me with a language I didn’t speak or with complicated rhythms or difficult pitch sequences or, for that matter, with any element which at the moment did not seem to come to me easily.

Quite perchance I met contemporary composers who actually explained to me how I could practice their complex modern music rather than just naively “doing my best” whilst being at the mercy of all kinds of adversities.

Quite perchance I met a 94-year-old teacher of Russian who explained to me how to tap into the depths of the subconscious when singing and memorizing a language one does not yet speak.

Quite perchance a met a young dancing singer or singing dancer who helped me with movement. Thank you, Kenny! I’ll never be a dancer, but I have been moving ever since. Through your kind, calm, enthusiastic, creative and very concrete help we sang and played a lovely opera scene from Weber’s “Abu Hassan” – a good 40 years ago at the Mannes College of Music. It started to dawn on me back then that a helpless artist is actually not an artist, that I am responsible for myself, but that there are solutions and assistance all around, but if I myself can be receptive to them can they be of use.

The openness and readiness to accept them touch again on creativity, on “things of the soul” and on the concept of “bearing witness.”