Note: This article is part two in an ongoing series about mastery.

If you ever need a study break, I recommend checking out Thomas Hampson’s performance in the Willy Decker 2005 production of La Traviata.

Hampson’s rendition of “Di Provenza il mar, il suol” has authority and a beautiful vocal line. His acting is also solid. At one point in the aria, he lumbers towards his distraught son, arms outstretched with love, but looking like Frankenstein’s Monster. With his voice and physicality, Hampson brings to life the conflict in the character: Germont is the bad guy, but unintentionally so. 

Hampson is a teacher as well as a singer, and if you search his name on YouTube, most of the videos you’ll find these days are of his master classes. He’s hosted many of these, and they are a joy to watch.

Hampson is an incredibly erudite singer and teacher, always engrossed in small details of history, pronunciation, and textual analysis. I love this aspect of his approach, since I can get very geeky and erudite myself.

Hampson also happens to be my favorite go-to example of what “principled” instruction looks like.

First things first

I’m humble enough to admit that one of the many pleasures I get watching opera master classes online is schadenfreude.

Often in these videos, the student will be singing a difficult aria, pouring out his or her heart and filling the room with sound… but the teacher will interrupt them mid-way through the song. Or the phrase. Or the initial note. The teacher is just being efficient of course, but still I cringe whenever this happens. I imagine what it would be like to be that student, and today at least, I’m thankful that it’s not me.

Thomas Hampson takes things just a bit further: instead of cutting off students during their first phrase or their first note, he cuts them off during their inhalation… before they’ve produced a single sound.

As Hampson says in the video below (and he says some variation of this in almost every class):

“The breath you take on stage is the breath you need to make that thought in that language audible. Right? Air is not gasoline. It’s not tanking up for something we have to propel.”

This is actually excellent instruction. If the singer has the wrong amount of air and isn’t prepared and intentional about the sound they’re about to produce, then the ensuing phrase will not be good. At best, it will be fixed-on-the-fly… far below the standards demanded by opera. If the inhalation is distracted, the singing will be too.

A simple idea.

But isn’t it interesting how many singers get this wrong? In video after video, Hampson makes this comment, and most of his students struggle in real time to act on it. Also, after so many videos, any new student who performs in Hampson’s classes has to know in advance that this critique will come up. And yet they still fail to inhale properly.

There’s a fine line between principles and pedantry, but Hampson clearly knows what he is doing. He coaxes excellent performances every time. He remains insistent on this one issue and at the same time helps his students bring out the richness of their vocal production, their acting, and their joy in the music.

The transformation in the video below, for example, is breathtaking. A former mezzo attempts her first public version of “Dove sono”; with Hampson’s guidance and before our eyes, she becomes the character and achieves a gorgeous sound. 

Principles in practice

The funny thing about principles—like Hampson’s guidance about inhalation—is that they tend to be incredibly clear and intuitively correct, yet very hard to remember in the moment.

They stop the conversation and stop the flow. They can be annoying.

They are also inarguable. They do not need data to back them up. Hence the idea of arguing “from first principles.”

I use principles in my professional work all the time. Two examples:

  1. A strategic plan is half about the strategy, half about the plan.
  2. For marketing to be effective, we have to know who we’re talking to.

Basic, important, difficult, and powerful.

Organizations thrive, and leaders thrive, when they internalize clear principles and build systems based on those principles. Doing the right thing consistently then gets a whole lot easier.

It can become as instinctive and effortless as breathing.

Next article: Methodology

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