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Tom Krause, extraordinary teacher and performer, remembered

posted on 3:20 PM, January 5, 2015

By: Matthias Veit

Tom Krause, the well-known Finnish baritone, could look back on a major career which united him with almost every famous singer colleague under the baton of the most important conductors on international stages. He was just as at home with Lied as he was with Concert and Oratorio works. Composers such as Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber wrote works for him and trusted him with international premieres. On December 6, 2013, the day of Finnish Independence and one day after Nelson Mandela’s death, not only did a singer legend leave this world, but a great teacher as well, who, in the last decades of his life (he was supposed to celebrate his 80th birthday this year) communicated the “secrets of singing” to an ever wider growing international circle of students. “Secret” does not simply express something which only a few chosen ones receive, but is an expression of a growing admiration for the deep connection between the voice and the personality, a connection which, in his teaching, went far beyond what the limits of a vocal pedagogical discipline alone could offer, and seemed to want to lead to uncovering the whole question of being, step by step.

The “temptation” of control

Tested – even in spite of all his international success – by self experience, not always painless, sometimes by crises which were particularly difficult to overcome, partly even by teachers who pushed themselves onto him rather than him seeking them out, even after his international success, and to whom he often enough trusted too much, even against his own judgment which his almost wunderkind like vocal talent gave him, he finally said goodbye to all of the attempts to want to completely control and dominate the voice, even through a rather well-thought out and intelligent technique. Yes, all of this functional acumen, a never ending Sysiphus work to him, became obsolete: This miracle of muscle fibers, nerves and cells, this organic-magical creation of the vox humana can only be admired, also understood theoretically, but to want to control all of the gears and workings would be an illusion and a narcissistic fantasy of omnipotence as well: doing a better job than God…

And despite that, the long education of a singer suggests that we have to take a vocal apparatus which has been available from birth on, rebuild it and master it with great difficulty, just in order to forget this when we finally arrive on the job – or to permanently hold this so carefully worked vocal organ in check. Out of all the overlapping layers of muscles in the pharynx and larynx, only the top ones allow themselves to be influenced by the force of will, and that only with the very best intentions. Something which he considered himself while contemplating becoming a doctor at one time. The other layers can only be indirectly, emotionally, but not arbitrarily influenced. Every attempt at “forming,” all of the intellectual and deliberate interventions inevitably lead to tension, even a small amount. With that in mind, wouldn’t it come closer to the point to put the spotlight on the constantly inhibiting wishes of the human ego (not only the singer’s)?

Vocal Surrender

Finding the freedom of the voice, getting rid of every “manipulation,” - this moved Tom Krause’s life as a singer more and more. He asked the fundamental question: How does the resonating sung vowel connect with the breath of the singer, and in such a way that the “human doer” doesn’t constantly stand in the way of its harmonious interplay?

His own vocal crises and those of many others taught him: if I want to avoid all unnecessary tensions which only stifle the vocal tone, what is left over? Krause’s warm-up procedure began with thinking about emptiness, even in the first breathing exercises: the opened, awakened consciousness fascinated him. It offered him an ideal point of departure, from which every tension, nervousness and worry could be left at the door right from the start. Instead: “How does life breathe? How does love breathe?” The beginning lies in abandonment, in “total surrender.” [1]

Are these the large questions of life which are making their unusual appearance here in the singing room? Or do they not give the singer a hint of what’s really going on here? Droll helpers are called to assist: There’s the little girl who is standing in front of shining lights and opens her mouth in a delicate “ohhh!” Then there’s the sad dog who is waiting for his master in vain: a soft-sad “auwaoh” (also as a run in the softest of legatos); then there’s the village idiot who always shows up (the best singer, assures Tom Krause – because he doesn’t know any tension!). He always imitated this figure for everyone: with empty, wide-opened eyes (the eyes through which the singer will also later sing, by the way!), but friendly towards the world: a lightly panting “heheheheh,” and a loose, light shaking of the throat. Then a slightly homophile man, who can feel the acupuncture needle in his chest bone “aheeahee!” in intensive mezza-voce tone. Or we greet a friend we haven’t seen for a long time with full resonance “well hellooooo!,” or the long-absent Spanish boyfriend with joyful, bell-like “hola mio amor.” A wide-mouthed frog sticks its tongue out (symbolized by his outstretched arm) – the fly (on the ball of the hand, the end of its “tongue”) is snapped up with a loose, metallic “hehe!”

Should we really take this seriously? Still a little unsure, but already a little curious, the new students in the course laugh. The large man with the friendly and inviting manner, the expressive face and the sonorous – charismatic voice, which goes up and down in the melody of a Swedish accent… is he making a fool of himself?

That cannot be the case if one has heard and experienced his demonic “Iago” or his gripping “Don Giovanni.” There has to be more behind it when someone dedicates himself to opening the voice with such love and commitment on a daily basis, constantly and notoriously forgetting the time. Those who are already familiar with such a way of playing with vocal elemental beings know why they participate in such strangeness –already sensitized to the finest impulses of tone, which express themselves in the most original of life’s sounds, they make their step to the aria in relaxed play.

The Free Vowel

“From here down, we dematerialize,” he shows, with an amused, expectant look and a guided hand movement starting at the chin and moving downwards. He demonstrates how the throat almost dissolves – how it widens out on all sides, big enough so that the strange melon thrower (another crazy guy) can easily throw one of his large pieces of fruit through. Or how the throat can become as wide as the entire room in which I am practicing at this moment: Now the walls of the room are my throat! The activity which takes place in the throat and pharynx should be in the care of the one who also created the voice. He once suggested to a particularly “throaty” soprano to “imagine that an arch angel paralyzed your throat – and in reality, those throat muscles which tried to help but simply obstructed, calmed down (without any kind of stiffness, by the way. Only such a creature seems capable of that).

The vowel which resonates is received, not “made,” formed, or produced by us. And how? At least we can still control the direction: Not from the throat –from above initially, always through the head resonances. No false tension can result by pressing out body tones, and the resonance is guaranteed through its high vibration frequency, even in the lower notes – “always from above:” He never tired of quoting Joan Sutherland’s advice. From above, quasi direct from dear God, like an atomic particle, it flies towards us from out of the cosmos. And what is it, actually? The question, certainly not directed toward the vocal physicists, physiologists, or the “Homo faber” of the vocal world, but more toward the universal spirit, answers: it is actually infinitely small, a point of energy or light, which we should never let fall into the throat (because it will probably want to immediately start working again and “grab” – “Don’t touch it with the sticky fingers of ego and intellect”). Even if the vocal physicists want to explain the closing vocal folds through the hard won economy of the windpipe, it is better if we let it be created “in front of us,” this vocal tone, right in front of our mouths. The Italians already knew: la voce qui - mettere, la voce alla distanza (The voice here (in front of my mouth), the voice sitting at a distance) – In that place where the physiologists follow the core of what is happening, inside the Pharynx, he clearly admonishes the singer: “haram” – terra prohibita!” (forbidden territory!) We will send all of the throat muscles on vacation and thank them for their previous work (or interference).

Now comes this “zero-point” in our singer sphere, we might feel it coming through the eyes, on the teeth, cheeks, over a pointed hat – going down from the front of the head: in any case, something which is infinitely small and independent of its sound character, its o, a, e, i… as an elemental as well as magical experience. It doesn’t form itself at all at first: The vowel manifests itself, a result of that universe which, according to physicist’s the point of view, can only be called consciousness. There it is, I took this miniscule thing from above my head out of vocal heaven with a fast movement (with the help of “body memory” to reinforce it), very lightly, or was it thrown to me? I hold it, a little point between both of the tips of my fingers, resembling a bird’s pecking beak, “like the sting of a mosquito,” in front of my joyfully opened mouth and face. – “Aaah” he says spontaneously, without the least bit of pressure) in this mouth and all that which lies directly behind as well as above and below it. Because “pressing” doesn’t count: “non toccare alla diva” “Don’t grab” says this Diva, because she sings the vowel, she IS the vowel, she gives us its vibrations. We ourselves only provide an optimal environment for this small heavenly body. We provide the optimal “Diva Service:” for space, breath, feeling, the empty but awakened consciousness… We invite you: “come on into the penthouse (e.g. for high notes), water and roses are waiting for you, darling...” And she likes to come. She also goes willingly to the upper floor, for example, in the case of a melody going upwards (and please don’t push from behind)…. And even though the tendency of an ascending vocal run is an upward movement, every tone is entered from above, like how our foot moves to the next step on the stairs. Subtle rules, e.g. that the note before the top one (which is often a little “ticklish”) should be taken particularly lightly, lead from the most important wish maxim of avoiding every bit that’s too much. He mentioned the fantastic Kundry interpretation of his colleague, Violetta Urmana again and again. “Do you know,” she said to him backstage, “I simply didn’t do that extra little-bit-too-much...”

The Breath

And now we turn to the environment: the space around the vowel, the “electron cover around the atomic core” (Tome Krause loved this comparison because it made clear that there is a long distance of nothing between both levels, and therefore nothing with which we can constrict.) The space is left free. And now comes: the complement of the yin and the yang, where breath, (already well prepared, of course) comes into play. “Support” or “Breath support” “breathing resonance columns” or “fiato,” as many like to call it: it is the opening of the singer him or herself – an opening of the entire person. A simple downward run of thirds (“Hal-lo-mein-Freund”) is not only meant to wake up the voice. Krause aims for an exercise which playfully makes the entire being receptive.

“Fiato, fiato e poi fiato,” he cited Magda Oliviero (breath, breath, and again and again breath) – he always incorporated the advice of treasured colleagues into his teaching – this breath issue is by far and wide more than only literally inhaling and exhaling. Of course this is decidedly important and needs to be schooled along with all other co-operating fellows (diaphragm, rib cage, flanks, posture in general). But in the end, aren’t they rather like players “in a jazz band, who permanently and skillfully improvise with one another?” They all follow the real breathing in any case, the E-Motio, which also carries the musical curve, totally free of manipulation. It is actually the active side of letting go – on which the “Ocean of Life,” the “Bubble of Bliss,” happily anticipates being wrapped around me and penetrating through me. “Ami la vita – do you love life? And trillions of other body cells say Si – yes!” Tom Krause demonstrated this excitement, the joyful, life breathing expectation, countless times. His arms opened dynamically from chest level over the middle of the body and back down the sides: a feeling of dynamic expansion, like sound waves spread out on all sides.

Of course, the well-established advice to add on “mega –hips” to this dynamic support came with it, which he also gave the thinnest of singers (he also liked to name one or two famous role models, which one could easily imagine vividly).

After an open throat, the next on the list is therefore the “expanded hips.” They are also not really material, but they are able to be felt like an expansive energy body, quasi my “astral body.” Here also is the model of the universe, which is expanded like the emotional cosmos. We feel this expanded body as also being phenomenological in its opening. [2]

Its energy flows through and surrounds me – the great expectation fulfills itself in the end with its almost unnoticeable, light, but intensive entrance of the vowel in the breath. It “meets” here and sounds absolutely spontaneous. Forte, piano, powerful or soft – its activity fulfills our wishes of how we imagine the sounds. We don’t force it, however. It simply does it.

Heavenly Marriage

Smirking a little, Tom Krause also called this “heavenly marriage” of vowel and breath, the immaculate conception of the vowel. In this “untainted conception” we don’t even touch the point of sound, but feel it all around us, because it bestows its effortless being voluntarily. And it can sound even more touching.

The vowel as a “subatomic particle” then becomes the trigger, which is a catalyst for the sound in connection with the breath energy – or conversely, the breathing body catches it, like the apron of Gold Marie, spread out to catch her coins. Looking at it from one way of the other, its tone is the result for which I am, so to say, not even responsible. But on the other hand, I participate even more consciously: “la voce qui,” the voice here, not where I place the voice, not in the resonance where I sing into, causing me to take the throat with me yet again. There where I simply do not disturb the job of the “vocal diva” (God’s job). One of the many amusing assisting images which he frequently described: maybe only the opposite wall says it for me: a small mouth opens there only shortly and says “ah”; I’m not even the one; I don’t form anything with the mouth – I’m only identical with my feeling that the breath is, and surrender myself to it.

The melody, line or phrase is now created in front of me like a flowing ribbon: not up and down, or in separated syllables, which all run the risk of being interrupted. A feeling also doesn’t let itself be broken down: “love doesn’t stop for syllables.” We will practice now with “well-oiled spaghetti, which I pull out of my mouth as if it were an every-day occurrence,” with different colors (of the vowel) and on small strips where the consonants can be read. Or a whole row of soap bubbles stream out on which, at some distance from the lips, light suddenly falls and then they resonate by themselves.

If the voice manages to reach this condition, then dynamics, articulation changes in register, and the entire tessitura all the way up and down are produced almost automatically. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that the singer remains without sense and understanding for the interpretation – here, Tom Krause was always “going after it” as an interpreter and actor of so many roles, concert pieces and Art Songs. But the lightness of its realization also resulted in a very close contact to the sounding board of music. It now flowed out of an “awakened master,” whom he trusted and seemed to become one with – “let the vowel sing you.” Then even the loudest tones and biggest emotions sound just as natural as the most intimate tenderness.

“Wait until you see what the vowel has in store for you…!”

Even with all of our vitality, we are the ones who are carried. Is this also not similar with Eros? “Take me – Sing me!” Krause’s good-natured and humorous monition – he was always giving friendly directions, and well aware of his earlier impatience as a young singer who wanted to conquer the world, was “Don’t think you are the doer!”

“It’s very simple” he once said almost apologetically. In the simplest of beginnings, regressing to original experiences in the field, where we are still incomplete forms of children of the world, he was given unspectacular vocal material, which he invited to vibrate with his experienced human spirit. And to those amusing helpers named above, constantly came new, always amusing, bribing “helping windows.” At some point a singer experiences that which Tom Krause himself always had sought out in his concerts: that it sings and not that I do it. The ego has done its duty, because the “true master” has awakened. The audience and the singer then experience a singing which is gripping and flows powerfully, and we have no idea anymore where it actually comes from. But in no moment is it pure coincidence. Krause’s faith followed the advice of the wise: “only in totally letting go do you find real control.” He was a singer who modestly sought out his inspiration through daily meditation and who could enthusiastically lose himself in his subject, and in doing so showing a thorough interest in eastern philosophy. Deep spirituality – his life-mentor was also actually a well known Sufi Master, - up to quantum physics: These analogies from science, faith and life itself fascinated him in professionally tracing the secret of free singing. It was then modestly but convincingly given as a blessing into the hands of the singers. Up until the very last course, he involved himself so deeply, as if it were a self-evident championship which didn’t bother to trouble itself with vocal theories and even less with vocal games. His professional demands came across without unnecessary additions. He didn’t want to carry his operatic past around like a sack, he admitted. But not only a long line of successful students can prove how his goal was such an effective as well as fair one: to stand on the stage with joy in a challenging profession and all the while to let life and love masterfully sing itself.

Matthias-photo.pngMatthias Veit is a Lied and Instrumental partner for Angela Denoke, Giora Feidman, Franz Grundheber, Michaela Kaune, Andreas Schmidt, Hanna Schwarz, and many more. He has performed as an accompanist and artistic colleague at many renowned Institutes (Bayreuth, Salzburg, Savonlinna, Villecroz, etc.) and has appeared regularly in international master classes together with numerous world famous singers like Elly Ameling, Helen Donath, and Cheryl Studer. He has taught and teaches at many music conservatories in Germany and has also stood on the podium as a singer many times. His newest CD recently appeared with Lieder from Peter Cornelius (with various singers) on the Naxos/BR label.

A long-term friendship and intense collaboration in numerous master classes connected Matthias Veit closely with Tom Krause until his recent death.

Translated by Darlene Ann Dobisch

Darlene Ann Dobisch has degrees in English Literature and music performance with additional studies in pedagogy. She lives and works in northern Germany as a singer, voice teacher and translator.


[1] Tom Krause spoke and taught in 7 languages, but much of what he said in English left the deepest impressions as well as covering the more mundane matters, which is why the quotes come from the original English.

[2] Tom Krauses interest in the thoughts and research of the new phenomenology grew steadily. Unfortunately, it did not come to a further, surely fruitful exchange about this highly interesting philosophy.


Re: Tom Krause, extraordinary teacher and performer, remembered
by Helene Joseph-Weil, Prof. Emerita in Voice/Opera; Fresno State University
posted on 4:38 PM, January 6, 2015
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