Finding your umami/Balancing your flavors

This morning I saw a Forbes magazine article about why you should “let” your child major in music (the idea of a parent determining what his/her children choose to do with their lives makes me cringe a bit, but I get it). Before the article opened, this quote popped up and caught my eye.

A condiment is defined on Wikipedia as: “a spice, sauce, or preparation that is added to food to impart a particular flavor, to enhance its flavor, or in some cultures, to complement the dish.”

Sometimes, in cooking, you add something unexpected to make the dish sweeter. For example, adding salt to a sweet dish can bring out the sweetness of it. Increasing the acidity of a wine doesn’t make it more sour, but rather more alive. Adding sugar to a savory dish will balance sourness and saltiness (unfortunately, trendy restaurants often go too far with their additions of sweetness these days).

According to writer Amy Fleming, flavors balance along five different tastes: sweet, salt, bitter, sour and umami (this, by the way, is supposed to be the key to the success of Heinz ketchup). Umami is a relatively recent discovery in culinary science and is described as yummy/savory and is usually associated with cooked/aged protein-laden foods like parmegiano reggiano, rich stocks, and cured meats.

A good chef experiments to find the perfect balance of a dish. It doesn’t always mean following a specific and unchanging recipe, but rather knowing your ingredients, what they do and how they work together. America’s Test Kitchen, which publishes Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, tests different dishes over and over until they find the recipe that works. They publish a bimonthly magazine featuring ten of those recipes, discussing what didn’t work as well as what, ultimately, did.

As singers, we tend to think that there is one recipe for all singers that we have to follow. And if we stumble along the way – don’t get into that YAP, aren’t hired by that opera company, haven’t done a major role by the age of 28 – well, we might as well change careers right there and then.

There isn’t one way. We have to find that blend of ingredients that work for us. Perhaps we just haven’t found that bit of umami that we need to make the whole thing work (remember, it’s usually associated with aging). Maybe we need a little of the bitterness of failure in order to find it. Maybe the recipe you need is not the same as that of the other singers you’ve come up alongside in your life experience.

In both art and singing, we use the term “chiaroscuro” to describe the balance of light/shadow (visual) or brightness/depth (vocal resonance). Too much of one or the other and you have an unbalanced outcome, just like if your culinary dish is too sweet or too bitter.

Maybe your career path (and I’m using the term “your” to include “my” as well) isn’t the traditional one. Perhaps chiaroscuro goes beyond being merely a term about resonance. Maybe it can be applied to the entire vocal art form as well. Maybe you/I need a balance of opera, musical theater, teaching, directing, church singing, and cabaret in order to find that balance of flavors that makes you/me whole.

American mezzo-soprano Joan Morris has had a terrific career that has involved diverse paths. Let’s see what her recipe has been…. and then see if you can find your own.

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