Published on December 6, 2019
Pleased to post an interview with American Bass-Baritone Ryan McKinny. He is "one of the finest singers of his generation" (Opera News) and has become known for his "powerful presence" (The Independent) and a "voice that drips with gold" (Opera News). I knew he would be a superstar when we were classmates at CSUN. 😍
#fellowshipofthelarynx #voice #opera #bassbaritone #barihunk #singing
TVF: Please tell us about your vocal training and performance history.
RM: I grew up around a lot of classical music. Both my parents had been classical guitarists in college. My grandmother used to take me to see musicals when I was a kid and then later took me to my first operas. I have always loved music of all kinds and have always been fascinated by acting and theater, so once I found opera it just fit. One of the first things I ever listened to, was a recording of George London singing Wagner. I couldn't believe music like that existed, and that a voice could carry such drama. I was hooked. After that I studied music at Pasadena City College, Cal State Northridge and then the Juilliard School. I went on to be a member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio and have been singing professionally for about ten years now. In that time I've sung at the Metropolitan Opera, LA Opera, Houston Grand Opera, La Scala the Kennedy Center and most recently the Bayreuth Festival.
TVF: Did you have other career interests?
RM: I thought I might be a composer for a short while, but I didn't really have any intention of ever getting a "real job".
TVF: What is your singing philosophy?
RM: I think the point to singing is to express the human experience in sound, thereby connecting the singer to the listeners and the listeners to each other. I love listening to singers who make me feel what they are going through. I am less interested in singers who just sing pretty sounds.
In terms of how to become a great singer - Practice. I think raw vocal talent is way overrated and singers tend not to spend enough time alone with their voices, figuring out what they are capable of. I still take lessons with my teacher every few months, and I try to practice almost every day. I'm still getting better and I hope to continue learning throughout the rest of my career.
TVF: Do you believe that anyone can learn to sing (barring any major medical disabilities)?
RM: Absolutely. Like skill, some people may pick it up quicker than others, but given enough effort and the right teacher anyone can learn to do it at a very high level.
TVF: In your experience, what are some of the most common pitfalls in vocal training?
RM: I often see and hear young singers who get enamored with a certain way of singing that sort of works for them, but they become afraid to make ugly sounds or make mistakes. I think progress comes through constantly shifting and improving, often at the expense of immediate results. Technically, I think a very common problem is a lack of coordination between breath and adduction of the vocal folds. Ideally we want to have the breath "suck the cords together" rather than push them together or hold them apart. This is really tricky to figure out, but it is maybe the single most important thing to do if you want to have a sound that fills an opera house.
TVF: How will understanding the voice production mechanism make someone a better singer? Or a worse singer?
RM: I think each singer needs to get to know themselves and what works for them. Someone like Dolora Zajick for example, can tell you exactly what muscle is doing what during any given phrase she sings. For other singers that can be paralyzing. Personally I don't like to know technically whats happening, but I go through a process of letting that go and relying on feeling so that I can immerse myself in the music and drama while I'm on stage, which I think tends to make for a more interesting performance.
TVF: What does it take to become a good singer in your opinion?
RM: I don't think I can point to any one thing. Maybe persistence. You have to get really good and big long list of skills and be able to do them all at the same time while not looking like it's difficult (unless it's supposed to look difficult in the story!) Any singing career will be filled with lots and lots of "failure" and you have to just keep learning and keep improving and not give up.
TVF: What do you think about current vocal training programs in the academia? What would you like to see changed/improved?
RM: Usually in colleges/conservatories/young artist programs students are given one lesson per week with their voice teacher. This really isn't enough for a young singer. Ideally they would have a 30 minute lesson every day.
TVF: Is there anything you wish that you did differently in your early vocal training?
RM: Not really. I'm pretty happy with where I am now, and everything I went through, good and bad, brought me here.
TVF: What are some of the difficulties that young singers or emerging singers face in the performing world?
RM: The lifestyle can be pretty brutal. It used to be that even the biggest houses like the Met or Vienna had a company of singers and you would mostly just work with one house. Now, the only way to have a career is to travel around the world four to eight weeks at a time. Young singers just aren't prepared for that. I am extremely luck to have a wife and two children who travel with me. We home school our kids which has it's own challenges but over all, it's amazing to share this experience with them. A lot of singers can fatigue quickly from the loneliness and unending travel.
TVF: Do you have your own voice care regimen?
RM: Nothing too involved. I try not to drink alcohol a few days before a performance or big rehearsal. I warm up/practice most every day. I try to take care of my body in general.
TVF: You travel frequently as a performer. How do you take care of your voice on the road?
RM: I think just generally trying to stay healthy is important. I exercise regularly and try to eat reasonably well. If I've been flying I try not to sing on dehydrated cords.
TVF: Do you still take voice lessons on a regular basis?
RM: Yes, and I think I always will. My body is always changing, so therefore my technique needs to continue evolving.
TVF: What advice do you have for child singers and their parents?
RM: It’s important to sing age appropriate things. If the character seems a lot older than the singer, theres a good chance it is better to wait on it. I think until the late teens it's not necessary to spend a lot of time on "technical issues". Singing at that age should be about joy and making music, and not about competition or perfection.
TVF: What is the requisite(s) for a singer of any level?
RM: I think the desire to express oneself is the only real requirement to sing.
TVF: Not everyone can have a career at the Metropolitan Opera or on Broadway. In your opinion, who can? Or who should?
RM: No one can say who will get to have a career as a singer and who can't. In fact anyone who ends up having a career in music, myself included, can expect to have dozens of people tell them they will never make it. There are no guarantees. You keep trying as long as you can stand it and see what happens.
As far as who should have a career in singing, I think it's only worth doing if you really love it, and really have something to say. If not, even if you have the most amazing voice anyone has ever heard, it's not worth it. Do something you love and/or that makes the world a better place. There is no shame in not becoming a “star.” Just be you.
TVF: What career options do singers have if they can’t have a major career?
RM: I know a lot of people who have gone into arts administration or vocal medicine 😉 to stay close to that world. Choral singing is something that can be really wonderful and joyful and is enjoyed by amateurs all around the world. There are community theater and church concerts. Being a singer doesn't have to mean you get paid to do it.
TVF: What is the most difficult thing about singing for you?
RM: The gap between what if want to sound like and be like on stage, and what it actually is. This gap never goes away, it just gets smaller.
TVF: You were always a confident singer as far as I can remember. 🙂 How did you cultivate that confidence?
RM:Hmmm… Maybe I'm just a good actor! Actually I think self doubt is something everyone deals with, but when you get on stage, it's time to ignore that voice and just do what you know how to do.
TVF: What is the most gratifying thing about singing for you?
RM: I know that music and theater can be and is a life changing experience for many people. It has been for me. Being a small part of that makes me feel good.
TVF: What advice do you have for young singers?
RM: Practice. Then go practice some more. Never stop getting better.
TVF: What advice do you have for aging singers?
RM: Practice 🙂
TVF: Do you have a vocal pet peeve and why?
RM: I don't know if it’s a vocal pet peeve exactly, but I get annoyed when singers sounds and not meaning. There's a reason operas and musicals are set to text and not just vocalise.
TVF: Do you have a myth you wish dispel about singing?
RM: Most people think being a great singer is about talent. I strongly disagree. When you hear a baby cry out, it always commands your attention. The baby's voice is extremely present and there is a need to communicate through the sound. You don't listen more attentively to a baby if it has more "talent". When a singer sings with unencumbered, present sound, with their voice which is totally unique in this world, and they have something to say, it holds your attention. "Talent" has nothing to do with it.
TVF: Do you have a project you wish to talk about?
RM: Singers of every level should go check out http://www.singforhope.org/
It's a great place to help make a difference in your community through music. No special degrees or careers required.
TVF: Is there someone you wish to mention as a major influence in your singing career?
RM: There are really so many. I hate to name single people because I will inevitably forget someone important. I will say that I have been incredibly lucky to have the support of so many wonderful people including my family, teachers, conductors, coaches and everyone in between. The career of any artist can never be possible without the help and guidance and hard work of hundreds of these folks.
TVF: Who are your favorite singers/performers?
RM: Probably my two children.
TVF: What sparks “joy” for you as a person?
RM: Connection. Spending time with my family, being on stage singing to an audience, taking a walk through the mountains, cooking a meal for someone who is hungry or helping someone who needs help. All these things give help me understand that I am connected to this world and to the people in it, and that makes me deeply happy.