Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Accidental Artist

"--- you don't reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings ... serendipitously."

-- John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor

Elmo Makil's career in music apparently happened by accident. "I did not decide to get into music. It was decided for me!" he reflects. He recalls attending a summer music seminar in Baguio City. After two days, he walked into the church where the seminar was held, and found it empty. And so he sang to his heart's content, trying to put into practice the things that "this man" had been talking about the whole time. It so happened that "this man" was William R. Pfeiffer who was once the vocal coach of the famous Westminster College Choir, and who at that very same moment was behind the organ, making some adjustments. Imagine Elmo's shock when this big caucasian suddenly emerged and in a deep, booming voice commanded him, "Come here!" The flustered Elmo Makil apologized profusely, but to his surprise, Pfeiffer handed him some money so he could telegram his parents to have them come over for the seminar's culminating activity. And when his folks arrived, Pfeiffer told them, "Send this boy to Siliman University, and I will take care of him."

And so began the long, laborious process of forging that musical gem that is Elmo Makil. Wrote the critic Jaime Daroy in the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 1989, "Elmo Makil, baritone, is full-bodied with a fine flood of refulgent sound. Makil, to my ears, is not only our best baritone, but also one of the most sensitive musicians around."

But such recognition did not come easy for Elmo. When he got to Dumaguete City to attend college at Siliman University, he got his first taste of "katarayan" from no less than the wife of William Pfeiffer herself. "Let me hear you sing," she demanded. "Sing what?" asked Elmo. She took out some sheet music and asked him to sight-read the piece. Elmo explained that he could not read music yet. Mrs. Pfeiffer, rather condescendingly, asked him, "Are you sure you want to be a voice major?" This pressed Elmo's buttons, and with some irritation, he said, "Give me one semester. If in that semester I cannot catch up with everyone here, I'll go home."

It's remarkable how some things, unpleasant as they may be, fit into the bigger picture. This was a defining moment for Elmo, and he committed himself to excelling at music, if only to get back at Mrs. Pfeiffer. Elmo practically lived in the school of music, throwing himself at his lessons. By the end of the semester, he was at the top of the class, and that decided everything for him. Before coming to Dumaguete, Elmo was considering a career in agriculture or medicine. We lost a farmer or a doctor to these turn of events, but we gained an outstanding singer.

William Pfeiffer turned out to be an excellent teacher for Elmo Makil. Not only did he instill discipline and technical proficiency in the impressionable young artist from the Mountain Province, but he was also the main source of inputs for Elmo's core philosophy. During his first few lessons with Elmo, Pfeiffer taught him nothing else but to listen to himself. "Kick your ass!" was the rather unorthodox advice Pfieffer offered Elmo. "Nobody will do that for you. No matter how strong willed your teacher is, he cannot do that for you. Listen to yourself, and if you don't like what you hear, do something about it. Your teacher can only guide you."

Elmo Makil's philosophy of toughness has been misinterpreted and misunderstood by many of his peers and his critics, who often label him a "contrarian." But he insists, "How can you face an audience if you can't even be tough on yourself?"

The other legacy left by William Pfeiffer to Elmo Makil is the disposition to always ask "why?", to always try to discover and learn how things work and why certain situations happen the way they happen. Elmo recalls that during his sessions with Pfeiffer, the teacher would always stop in the middle of an activity, and ask the student, "Why did you do what you just did?" This developed in Elmo a tendency to introspect, and the instrospection allowed him to discover things about his technique and his capabilities.

One day, Elmo asked his mentor, "Why am I never satisfied with my singing?" "That's good," Pfeiffer remarked, his face lighting up, "Now you are listening to yourself. Keep doing that!" And Elmo has kept at it, listening to himself and being his own harshest critic. That is not to say that he isn't critical of others. "I pity those with so-called 'natural voices,' because they do things without knowing why or how. So when they get into trouble with their voices, they don't know what to do."

Elmo attended the University of Hawaii for his post-graduate studies. While there he was assigned to teach undergraduate students, and it was during this time that he developed the technique he calls "vocal massage." This concept involves "setting right" the vocal muscles so that they vibrate correctly. Elmo's artistic side was also making progress, and it was here that Elmo Makil became the first Filipino ever to play the lead role in a Japanese Noh drama.

The story of how Elmo got to be the lead in a traditional Japanese theater production is quite remarkable, and it begins with another unintended encounter. While walking along the campus one day, Elmo saw a long line of people. He asked what the people were lining up for, and they told him there was an audition going on. He automatically assumed that the auditions were for roles in an opera, and so he joined the line. He was quite surprised to discover a totally alien drama form, where the people were making strange sounds. Unconsciously, he started imitating the sounds, and the audition master took notice and called him to the front, immediately irritating the other students who had been in line before him.

After the audition, the audition master pointed to Elmo and proclaimed, "You are the shite." Elmo's immediate reaction was, "What's a shite?" He wasn't aware that he was making history, nor did he realize he was at the center of a cultural controversy, until the following day, when the Japanese students held a protest against his selection as the shite, or the lead role for the Noh drama, which is coveted by all Japanese theater enthusiasts. He remembers the director facing the protesters and challenging them, "Anyone who can sing better than him (Elmo), you can be the shite." The crowd slowly dispersed, and Elmo Makil became the first Filipino to play the lead role in a Noh drama. The reviews of his performance were quite flattering, with one critic saying that Elmo's performance was worthy of emulation by Japanese actors.

Elmo Makil is probably the only artist who has distinguished himself by not intending to. In the early 70s he again served notice of his talents and abilities by winning the San Francisco Opera and Metropolitan Opera (Pan Pacific) auditions in Honolulu. By his own account, he joined the auditions simply for the sake of participating, with no illusions of even making it past the elimination round. But by the time he had made it to the final round, he realized that he was into something serious. And when he had finally clinched the competitions, he turned to his wife to tell her that they could probably now afford to buy the television set they were aspiring for.

After the competitions, Kurt Adler, then the director of the San Francisco Opera, made him a great offer. But after considering the opportunity, Elmo had to turn it down. "They wanted to turn me into a Helden tenor," he explains. "When I consulted my teacher, he said that was fine, but that I should prepare to stop singing after five years. This is the voice lifespan of a Helden tenor. And that's not what I wanted."

Then it was back to the Philippines for Elmo, where he returned right at the height of martial law. He got a position as a music teacher in Siliman University, but then the authorities closed down the school. The arts were stifled, and Elmo and his colleagues were not allowed to do anything but play mahjong. It was not a good situation for an emerging artist to find himself in. But these bleak years provided Elmo with the wonderful opportunity to return to the basics of his art.

He then turned the idleness to his advantage, and took the opportunity to review his musical life since 1952. It was then that he formulated another cornerstone of his personal philosophy. He discovered the importance of reviewing past actions. And while the arts cried for the opportunity to express itself, Elmo Makil threw himself upon the opportunity to mold his own voice and define his own style. This was also the point when Elmo emerged from the shadow of his former mentor William Pfeiffer.

In 1974 Elmo decided to come to Manila because he began to envy the success of his former colleagues at Siliman, Gamy Viray and Manny Gregorio, who were now active in the concert scene and were begining to establish themselves as vocalists of note. It was quite convenient that the late great Professor Aurelio Estanislao was looking for another faculty member to complete the roster of the Voice Department at the UP Conservatory of Music. Elmo easily fit the bill, and so he began his stint at the UP.

It was under Prof. Estanislao's guidance that Elmo found the expressiveness to complement his vocal technique. Elmo is very grateful to the late national artist for teaching him nothing else but how to express through music. Elmo recalls that Estanislao had an excellent course in languages, where he used songs as the medium of instruction. But even the late great professor was not spared from the tough technical assessment of his student. Elmo recounts scolding Estanislao once, because the professor would often skip vocalization exercises. "I warned him that one day, he will get into trouble." And so the student ended up teaching the professor how to vocalize.

This type of constructive heavy-handedness has tended to estrange Elmo Makil from his peers at the UP, and his modern techniques have earned him his share of detractors and critics. He explains that many of his contemporaries come from the old Italian school of "signs and gestures," where the student is told what to do but not how to do it. Elmo has translated these signs and gestures into a more precise set of procedures and sensations intended to be easier for the voice students to carry out and duplicate.

And while the old school may frown on Makil's eclectic techniques, he has slowly built a reputation as a "voice clinician." His practice involves restoring the voices of many classical and popular singers, which they damaged while employing wrong or downright harmful techniques. The list of his case studies is impressive, including many well-known and legendary pop singers, and now more and more people are beginning to appreciate the benefits of his work. Elmo's techniques, in fact, found themselves in the cornerstone of the "vocal aerobics" exercises developed by Jai Sabas-Aracama, which she used to train the leads for the hit musical "Miss Saigon".

The years at the state university were also the performance years for Elmo. When he made it known that he wanted to sing, another colleague, tenor Francisco Aseniero opened a small window for him by inviting him to perform with his group in a broadway revue at the Manila Hilton. From then on, he began making a name for himself as an exceptional singer.

Elmo Makil has just recently retired from the University of the Philippines, and he is heading back to the institution that started it all for him, Siliman University. By his reckoning, he still has about ten good years of singing left in him, and he intends to use these years judiciously, selecting the less stressful performance opportunities. He will also continue to teach, an activity that has become very fulfilling for him, since he tends to learn as much, or even more, from the students as they learn from him. He also hopes to document his vocal techniques for future voice students to benefit from.

Though the years in music have been fruitful and rewarding, he does carry with him some heartaches. He is quite disappointed by the lack of cooperation among our local music artists and music educators, which he believes is the primary factor that prevents our singers and musicians from truly gaining global recognition for their skills and talents. And he is particularly outraged by the government's lack of support for our country's artists and the institutions that serve as the venue for artistic expression and cultural preservation.

But these issues can wait. For now, scuba diving is on the top of his "to-do" list. Who knows, maybe Elmo Makil, the greatest singer and music educator ever produced by accident, will derive some new insight from this experience, to further enrich his life, and ours.