Monday, December 29, 2008
It is I who must thank all the readers here for participating in this conversation. Through your participation I have been encouraged to study and learn a lot. I have been challenged to learn much more than I knew before and I have learned a lot about myself and my own singing.
It has been nearly 8 months since I began my change from baritone to tenor (since April 7th 2008) and this evening I sang impromptu at a party at the house of one of my students and even after three days of celebrating my birthday I felt like a genuine tenor. It was my plan to put up a clip here on my birthday, but I thought I'd give myself a couple of days to let the influence of the celebratory drinks dissipate. I will post a clip in the next few days.
I also discussed here my battle with acid reflux, nutrition, Candida, etc. With much advice from many here I have done my part in becoming healthy. Reflux is less of an issue, but it is still an issue. I follow the path of one of the singers I have had the pleasure to teach and will have the minimally invasive endoluminal fundoplication procedure. I hope to complete this in the next few weeks, which I believe will bring me the confidence I need to complete my journey to being a fully functional dramatic tenor.
More importantly, I believe that through this year-long exercise my searching has brought me a great deal of clarity relative to vocal function. It has always been my belief that vocal technique is paradoxically simple when the puzzling nature of vocal science is understood. I believe that the primary vocal functions (breathing, phonation and resonance) are greatly automatic and that we are responsible for a few simple principles when the natural balance of the instrument has been preserved. Vocal function is very uncomplicated. Vocal re-balancing (for most of us come to singing with certain imbalances) is however complex and time-consuming. Achieving the natural balance of the voice requires a clear phylosophical understanding of how the instrument functions and how through strategically chosen exercises the musculature of the larynx may be rebalanced to produce the most efficient workings of the instrument.
I also learned that teaching voice requires engaging the student personally. It has been my way ever since I began teaching. More experienced colleagues recommended that I take a more "objective perspective." What I have learned is that vocal science is fairly objective, but vocal pedagogy is thoroughly subjective. To pretend that we can avoid the emotional bonds that naturally develop between a voice teacher and a singer is ludicrous. Managing such a relationship is complex. But when total honesty and mutual respect are the foundations of the relationship, it develops with ups and downs and the confrontation of real issues that impact the life and art of the singer and teacher. It also means that such a relationship can only occur between people who are compatible.
The singers I have always admired have certain things in common. They are visionary, intelligent, phylosophical, courageous, sensitive to music and to words, curious, inquisitive, extremely hard-working, emotionally open and vocally "accomplished". Natural (spontaneous) development of efficient vocal coordination is a big advantage but by no means the measure of a vocal artist. I cross hundreds of people every month in the streets who have remarkably efficient vocal production and have no desire or impulse to sing. In a sense, achieving vocal balance is the easy part (my experience with many of my students this year confirms this in my mind). The other pre-requisites I list in this paragraph are the product of a life sculptured into a work of art. The artist's spirit is the talent. Developing the voice is a joyful process I cherish when it is with people with that kind of spirit. The unexpected happiness I have lived this year came out of a karmic call to the students I have encountered recently who make-up what I call my studio. In truth, every single one without exception has made voice teaching/learning for me an unmitigated pleasure. One must be selective. I cannot teach every student. I can only teach those students whose talents I completely value and who I feel require what I have to offer.
This year I felt more effective as a teacher than I ever have because I took the chance to project the true me through this blog and thereby attracted the very students I wanted to teach. This is only the first phase of what could be a truly exciting journey. In every good journey every new phase is more difficult but not necessarily negative. To positively meet this next phase, it will take greater faith, greater courage, greater daring and greater love. The goal is that my students and I should be singing our absolute best.
Hence the conversation will continue here. I hope our interaction will stimulate profound discussions resulting in discovery, questioning and achievement. I plan to write in all the languages in which I am proficient and I hope that you will not allow the language barrier to prevent you from participating fully.
I thank all of you profoundly who have taken the time to comment upon, question and even challenge the writing here. I also thank you all for conducting the conversation in such a classy manner. I look forward to another year of great vocal tech talk.
I hope you are all enjoying the holiday season and I wish you the very best for the new year.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Like everything in singing, there are many ways to look at breath function. 1) The periodic propagation of air is what we hear as pitch (I.e. in singing, breath is released by little puffs hundreds of times every second. This rapid machine-gun-like release is pitch). 2) The uninterrupted pressure of air underneath the vocal folds that makes for continuous sound.
The mechanism is simple. The lungs serve as a full bag of air that is squeezed by the rise of the diaphragm and the contraction of the many abdominal muscles that reduce the volume of the ribcage further squeezing air toward the vocal folds (hopefully). If the lungs are not completely filled, when the diaphragm and abs compress the air, instead of providing steady pressure underneath the folds, the pressure first fills the empty part of the lungs. Without adequate pressure to create the desired tone, the folds will automatically squeeze together to increase pressure. This is called pressed voice.
In a healthy voice. The vocal folds close fully over lungs and trachea full of air. This provides the means for pressure on one side. The diaphragm and abs work to pressurize from below. The abs and diaphragm work automatically.
Therefore in terms of breath support, the singer's responsibility consists of 1) taking a full breath to fill the lungs to capacity and maintain the state of expansion 2) produce a balanced onset whereby the folds gently but fully close for every vibratory cycle hundreds of times per second. The diaphragm and abs are activated automatically by the brain to provide the necessary pressure depending on the desired sound. These automatic actions provide sensory feedback in the pelvis via the Rectus Abdominus muscle in around the abdomen through the many abdominal muscles. These sensations are automatic if the singer accomplishes 1 and 2. If the singer feels a need to actively control the abs , it is a sign that 1 and/or 2 has/have not been accomplished. It is crucial that the singer takes charge of what s/he is responsible for and not what should be automatic.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Queridos Amigos de idioma Español:
Hace mucho tiempo que soñé con asistir a una discusión internacional sobre la ciencia vocal y lo que ella podría ofrecer al desarrollo continúo de las varias técnicas vocales. En nuestra época el canto lirico se ha vuelto en un sistema internacional y con él los varios métodos internacionales de canto se han confundido en algo nuevo que según mi manera de pensar parece haber elegido las partes más superficiales de cada tradición. Con aquella nueva síntesis hemos perdido los principios fundamentales y la disciplina particular de cada tradición nacional del canto lirico. Paradoxalmente las búsquedas de la ciencia vocal (por lo menos la parte acústica) en los 60 años pasados fueron en grande parte basadas sobre las grabaciones de los mejores cantantes conservados en discos desde el tiempo de Caruso hasta nuestros días.
La información divulgada en esos últimos 60 años nos abrió una fuente inexhaustible que por mala suerte se ha quedado ignorada por los que más la necesiten: los maestros de canto. Los motivos para eso son varios. Hay buenos maestros que valorizan muchísimo las tradiciones que les formaron y en seguida desconfían la ciencia. Hay maestros mediocres que tienen miedo que sus técnicas peligrosas se quedaron refutadas por la información objetiva. Más de todo, la lengua técnica de la ciencia no hace parte de la formación de los artistas y muchos creen que no podrían beber de esa nueva fuente.
Durante mis 15 años de enseñamiento al nivel universitario, aproveché de los recursos académicos para formarme a fin de poder comprender la discusión de los científicos (foniatras y laringólogos, etc.) que estudiaron el aparato vocal en los laboratorios al rededor de mi sala de canto. Con los años nosotros colaboramos y escribimos artículos científicos después de búsquedas que tomaron en consideración los puntos de vista del maestro de canto, del cantante mismo iguales como lo del científico. Ese tipo de colaboración anduvo repetido en muchas universidades a través del mundo, pero la información se quedo en las manos de los pocos que participaron.
Por eso empecé a escribir mi Blog, “Toreadorssong’s Vocaltech Blog”. Uno de mis objetivos era de divulgar esa información lo más posible en palabras normales. Al final no esta suficiente. Mi primer sueño era de asistir a una polémica espontanea y respetable entre cantantes y maestros y científicos desde todo los rincones del mundo del canto. El internet nos facilita este deseo. El blog ya ha atraído el interés de unos 1500 de personas a través del mundo. Muchos de ellos son de idioma español entre España y los muchos países de idioma Español en las Américas, países que se ven bien representados en los escenarios de la Opera. Por eso me estoy atreviendo de escribir en su bonito idioma (me perdonen por favor mis muchos errores) para animarlos de participar en esta discusión sobre Facebook conectada con la actividad del Blog. La plataforma de Facebook permite discusiones simultáneas en varios idiomas.
Los temas son muchos, incluidos: Métodos nacionales, enfermedades superficiales que amenacen las cuerdas vocales y el sistema respiratorio y así arruinar carreras potenciales, enfermedades invasivas que necesiten soluciones quirúrgicos, funciones musculares y acústicos del aparato vocal, etc. Muchos de ellos son de ya discutidos en el Blog. Me gustaría ver la discusión continuar y alargarse de manera más profunda así ver el interés en la información objetiva crecer con cada tema discutido. Participaré en todas las discusiones en todos los idiomas que pueda entender y con el ayudo de todos intentaré entender la polémica discutido en otros idiomas también.
El canto es mi pasión y mi trabajo. Estamos viviendo en un tiempo particularmente complicado y llena de emoción. Es un tiempo de desarrollo y transformación mundial en la cual el valor y las virtudes de las artes están en el balance. Los invito todos a tomar este viaje virtual conmigo en la cual espero de ver nuestra arte encontrar el equilibrio entre los valores de la tradición y los avanzos futuristas.
No se olviden de pasar esta información a los colegas interesados!
Con toda humildád,
Friday, December 5, 2008
Mes très chers amis francophones,
J'avais depuis des années un rêve d'assister à une discussion internationale sur la technique et science vocales. Pourquoi cela? Bien, il ne faut qu'être francophone pour avoir une idée du préjugé qui existe dans l'ambience de l'art du chant lyrique par rapport à la tradition française du chant classique. Mon but en vérité n'est pas visé simplement sur le sort du chant classique dans les pays de langue française, mais plutôt sur l'objectivisme de la science vocale qui a comme vertu la possibilité de nous instruire à comprendre pas seulement les idiosyncrasies qui se dévelopent naturellement dans n'importe quelle tradition nationale mais aussi les qualités universelles qui réunissent au lieu de séparer les diverses écoles du chant lyrique et classique ainsi que les traditions du chant populaire.
La tradition du chant lyrique inspire, comme le théâtre lui-même, une ambience de mystère qui rend l'objectivisme de la science une chose à méfier plutôt d'acceuillir. En outre, un tel objectivisme inspire la peur même chez les grands maîtres du chant qui craignent de voir leurs méthodes réfutés. Très loin de cela, la science vocale, bienqu'elle corrige les rationalités mal-entendues et refute les légendes sans base, jusqu'à maintenant avère plutôt les meilleurs méthodes et explique les raisons pour lesquelles ces méthodes soient effectifs.
S'il y a un objectif qui m'attire, ce serait de voir la polémique sur ce site agiter la curiosité et inspirer les talentueux professeurs et maitres de chants, ainsi que les chanteurs, à se mettre aux courrant de ce qui est découvert scientifiquement à propos des fonctions de l'appareil vocal. Ceci était le but de mon blog, tsvocaltech.blogspot.com, qui jusqu'ici a attiré plus de 1500 lecteurs de 50 nationalités dont un tier suit à partir de l'Europe. Bienque je sois ravi du succès du blog, mon désir était de voir matérialiser une polémique libre et spontanée. Je continuerai mes activités sur le blog espérant que ma contribution là-dessus inspirera la discussion ici dans ce forum.
Par l'éducation on pourra collectivement éviter et marginaliser ce qui soit médiocre et dangereux et peut-être avancer la technique vocale ainsi que l'art du chant lui-même.
La discussion n'a pas de contrainte sauf qu'il reste plus ou moins sur le sujet de la technique et la science vocales. Ce sera en outre un atout qui me permettra de m'améliorer dans notre jolie langue maternelle que je suis en train de massacrer à force de ne pas l'utiliser régulièrement.
Merci de votre attention,
It has been my desire for a long time to witness an international discussion on vocal science and its merits relative to vocal technique. This is the reason I began the blog on my birthday last year. I have been happily surprised at the interest that the blog has generated (over 1500 readers in close to 50 countries). However, I have found that the discussion depends in great part on my contribution on the blog (which is natural) and I wanted to see a freer discussion develop either with the blog as a catalyst or spontaneously. With Facebook as such a remarkable tool for networking, it seems foolish not to utilize it. My hope is that this group will develop a lively discussion in any and all languages. A thread can be started in any language and be conducted separately from threads in other languages.
Naturally I wish I could follow the discussions in every language that is posted, but of course that is impossible. It would be fun to see how far this goes. I invite anyone who can read these first posts (I am limited to the languages I speak) to begin a discussion on any subject that has to do with vocal technique and vocal science and in any language. Happy discussion!
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Cari amici Italiani:
Era sempre un desio mio di avere una discussione internazionale sopra la tecnica e scienza vocali. Dall’inizio dello sviluppo dell’arte del canto lirico nel seicento già vino esportato il canto Italiano. Così una tecnica mista (detto “internazionale” prese i suoi primi passi). Adesso all’inizio del ventesimo secolo il canto lirico internazionle è una pura realtà, faccia a cui si può appena distinguere fra i diversi scuoli tradizionali di tecnica vocale, e il termine “Bel Canto” è diventato un clichè.
Durante gli ultimi sessant’anni (paradossalmente paralello alla scomparsa graduale della lirica tradizionale) è cresciuto una scienza dedicata ai detagli della lirica tradizionale. Infatti la ricerca acustica è specialmente basata sugli esempi dei più grandi cantanti che sono accesibili sui dischi incisi dal tempo di Caruso in poi. Questo lavoro pur troppo quasi non arriva al livello delle sale di pedagogia vocale, cioè pochi maestri di canto prendono il tempo per studiare questa nuova fonte d’informazione che pur troppo è scritta nella lingua della scienza invece di quella tradizionle dell’arte. Quelli che capiscano la nuova informazione passano il tempo a scrivere libri che divulgano la scienza a cucchiaia d’informazione superficiale che forse la massa potra capire a due occhiate ma che non avra effetti notevoli sui metodi di canto.
All’inizio ho voluto anch’io (fra i cantanti che hanno dedicato anni, in mio caso 15 o più a studiare la scienza vocale) di scrivere un libro per motivo di divulgare l’informatione di manera sostanzioso in un linguagio meno scientifico (anche se il materiale fosse scientifico) a fine che i talentosi maestri di canto ci potrebbero servirsi per avvanzare i suoi propri metodi e in fatti con informazione più oggetiva ritrovare le traccia del sia-detto “Bel Canto”.
Così è commincato il mio Blog "Toreadorssongs Vocal Technique Blog", tsvocaltech.blogspot.com, scritto in Inglese giacchè la mia attività professionale di docente si è sviluppata più negli Stati Uniti che in Europa. Ma la conversazione, secondo me, deve andare al di là dei confini geografici. Per questo ho osato di scrivere nella bella vostra lingua ch’io amo ma di cui non ho ancora la padronanza, sperando di animarvi a dirigere una polemica sulla tecnica vocale e quello che la scienza ci può realmente contribuire.
La mia speranza è che col tempo potremmo riunire tutti quanti per far capire chiaramente quali sono realmente gli effetti diretti che il cantante può avere sull’apparato vocale e come riuscirci. Il canto lirico è sopratutto un talento musicale che si trova spesso ostacolato al livello fisico perchè il cantante in questione non sa perchè non arriva ad esprimersi colla voce e loro che dovrebbero aprire il camino lo trovano più facile di dire che “non ci hai voce” invece di confessare che non sanno come rislovere il problema. Non tutti possono cantare, ma molti lo possono fare ad alto livello se avessero l’aiuto di qualch’uno con l’informazione necesseria. Tante volte l’ostacolo è una malatìa facilemente curata che non affetta il quotidiano ma può rovvinare una carriera vocale. Una volta che il problema è risolto il cantante potrà velocemente ritrovare la bella voce nascosta.
Le domande sono molte e la discussione darà luce alle molte domande ancora non fatte. Spero che queste righe vi animeranno tutti a parteciparci attivamente e a divulgare igualmente attraverso l'Italia l’esistenza del Blog e questo forum.
Meine Deutschsprachige Freunde,
Vielleicht auf Facebook können wir die Diskussion über Gesangstechnik und Wissenschaft verbreiten. Ich habe schon eine Gruppe auf Facebook dafür begründet.
Ich schreibe den Blog auf Englisch weil ich zur Zeit mehr in den USA unterrichte. Über 1500 leute (ein Drittel davon aus Europa) lesen den Blog. Die Unterhaltung bisher ist ganz auf Englisch geführt. Ein Teil von meinen vielseitenden Ziel ist eine Internationale Unterhaltung haben über die Weiterentwicklung eines Internationalen Gesangstechnik. Deswegen wage ich auf Deutsch erstmal zu schreiben (sicherlich mit vielen Fehlern) damit alle euch zu ermutigen aktiv im der Diskussion auf der Muttersprache teilzunehmen. Später schreib ich ebenfalls auf Italienisch, Französisch und Spanisch.
Wir haben so viele neue wissenschaftliche Information über die Funktionen des Gesangsapparat die den Zeitlauf einer technischen Ausbildung verkürzen können. Leider wird diese Information selten zum Unterrichtssaal ankommen. Ich habe immer geglaubt dass ein Logik existeierte in einem guten Verfahren Gesangs und hab endlich durch die Entwicklung meinen eigenen Schullern diese Meinung geprüft. Vielleicht die Kunst Gesangs wird immer misteriös aber das mechanisches Teil ist heutzutage fast total durchsichtlig wenn man es verstehen möchtet. Es dauert Zeit die Information zu lernen, das ist klar! Aber man darf es begreifen und der/die Gesangslehrer(in) soll diese Information lernen um die verschiede Typen von Schullern richtig und persönlich angehen. Sonst wird es wie immer dass nur die naturlich koordinierte Sänger eine Chance haben sich weiterzuentwickeln. Meiner Meinung nach ist dass viele hochtalentierte Sänger können lebenslang leiden ohne entdecken was mit der Stimme richtig los sei dass Sie nicht weiter entwickeln können. Ebenfalls kann ein professionele Sänger die Stimme schnell verlieren wegen irgendeinen oberflechliches Problem weil er nicht bewusst ist das solches Problem existeierte.
In der Vergangenheit hatte man viel mehr Zeit für Gesangsausbildung, d.h. Zeit für tägliches Unterricht das im vergleich mit dem heutigen Fall vielleicht nicht soviel gekostet hat ; Zeit auch für Fehler und echte Lösungen; Zeit richtig vorbereitet zu sein bevor man der Bühne auftreten darf; und Zeit überall sich selbst stimmweise kennenzulernen.
Heutezutage müßen wir auch von vielen neuen Krankheiten bewusst werden und damit leiden. Krankheiten die im Alltag nicht besonders problematisch sind, die aber eine Gesangskarriere ruinieren können. Wieviele hochtalentierte Sänger (zum Beispiel) schon am Anfang der Ausbildung unbewußtlich mit solchen Krankheiten leiden müßten und gehört haben dass sie einfach keine Stimme hatten? Das ist nur eine Frage unter hunderte darüber wir unterhalten können. Ich lade alle deutschsprachige Kollegen ein in diese Diskussion aktiv teilzunehmen und den Blog in Deutschsprachigen Ländern zu verbreiten.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
That said, there are issues of great interest in the C4 to G5 range for the female voice. I will dedicate the next post to those issues.
Friday, November 28, 2008
Making Sense of Formant Tracking Charts part 2: Formant Shifts Before the Formant Threshold or Strategies For Lower Voices
Very interesting stuff! A couple questions:
You make the distinction between the acoustical shift that happens at F# regardless of voice type and the muscular shift that changes. I've always thought of the mas very connected. How does that work for a lower voice type that has to make a muscular shift before its time for F2 dominance? Do they switch registers while still tuning to the first formant? Can you give an example of what that would sound like?
Also, is that acoustical shift different if you have to produce a different vowel? If you had to produce an /i/ on a note slightly lower than F#, would you switch to F2 dominance for the sake of intelligibility and clarity without losing resonance?
Thanks TS. I'm just trying to understand. Thanks so much for taking the time to share all this. I look forward to your response.
These commentaries go right to the point. I will first deal with the second question relative to the [i] vowel (notice I am using phonetic symbols as opposed the phonemic ones, per the point brought up by Baritonobasso). The first formant threshold for [i] is about 280 Hz, roughly C#4. When we get to this point we have the option of modifying the vowel to [I] and then [e] to raise F1 to coincide with the rising pitch. This could continue from vowel to vowel following F1 until such time as the vowel modification is too far from the original vowel and that the nearest viable vowel would require the larynx to rise. In the case of the [i] vowel this occurs just around F4 in my experience.
The last sentence addresses in part the first question. Why is it necessary to track F2 (we are talking about the male passaggio or the lower female passaggio. The second passaggio for female voices changes from F2 to F1 but the following principles apply equally). It is possible to track F1 beyond what is traditionally done. This is what the Italians refer to as "voce aperta". The issues are different for basses, baritones and tenors. The first issue is that the listener accepts a resonance change when the voice reaches a point of muscular stress. A basso who reaches the muscular passaggio around D4 does not need to track F2 on the [a] vowel. However, this level of muscular stress on the crico-thyroid-vocalis balance combined with the size of the vocal folds has the tendency to cause excess medial pressure (pressing), which would cause a high larynx. In such cases, the bass will cover earlier than is really necessary. Again, the listener accepts this "modification" because of the perceived stress at the muscular passagio point. The great basses have the ability to sing open E4b and depending on circumstance they chose. One such moment is the beginning of the aria Le veau d'or from Gounod's Faust. The sustained note is E4b. It is a big orchestral moment and the singer's instinct is to sing louder and more open. See the difference between the following basses:
George London in the following studio recording executes the perfect cover favoring F2 on H3 (second formant on 3rd harmonic with a fundamental for Eb4 of cir. 325 Hz).
Jerome Hines does the same.
Lawrence Tibbett sings F1 on H2 (First formant on second harmonic) in this clip that cannot be embedded:
Boris Kristoff does the same as Tibbett here:
Compare the spectrograms and listen to the third sung note of each clip!
All four singers exhibit resonant voices as indicated by strong energy in the singer's formant area even though their resonance strategies are different. The open or covered sound among basses who have excellent phonation (as do these four) is a choice. I find the covered tone as exhibited by London and Hines more in keeping with the two notes preceding. The balance of chiaro-scuro is kept. With Kristoff and Tibbett, the Ebs have the virtue of sounding more spoken.
The choice is more restrictive for baritones a step higher. Most baritones will track F2 on F4 and higher. This is operatic tradition. But there are exceptions. High baritones who border on the facility of tenors in the high range have the ability to sing open on those notes as well. Compare the four clips of Eri tu from Verdi's Un ballo in Maschera as sung by:
Lawrence Tibbett. The note in question happens at 1:15 (Che compensi in tal guiSA). Tibbett's clip can not be embedded:
Tibbett sings a covered F (i.e. F2 on H3 as seen on the spectrogram below):
Sherrill Milnes choses the same and accomplishes it at 3:20. The passaggio was always an issue for Sherrill Milnes (My first operatic hero). It is only now that I understand why. As much as he always tried to cover on E4 and above. It was usually difficult on the [a] vowel because the slightly pressurized phonation caused a slightly high larynx that worked against the acoustic change. The vocal tract adjustments for the first formant [a] and second formant modifications of[a] around E4 to F4# are very close to one another causing a struggle between the resonators.
Thomas Hampson sings clearly open on the same F4 at 2:50. His lyric voice makes this possible with little stress. The voice becomes brighter, losing some of its depth, but it does not bring attention to itself because the vocal weight is light enough to not cause Hampson any stress.
Ettore Bastianini is interesting. On a studio recording he performs a text-book cover achieving F2 on H3 as expected at 00:45.
However on a life recording he sings the same F open although attempting the cover at 00:55.
There are many issues here. A hard and fast rule cannot be made as far as where to cover for the lower voices. Singers like Lawrence Tibbett and Bryn Terfel (not represented with a video here) have been successful in both baritone and bass roles with great facility in the high range. When they sing a bass role, their approach tends to be more like a baritone relative to acoustic registration issues. Like Tibbett and Kristoff he opens the E4b in Le veau d'or. This begs the question whether Kristoff was in fact a basso. Would it have been better to refer to him as a bass-baritone. His facility in the high range was legendary, judging by his recording of Moussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death.
When dealing with high baritone voices like Hampson, Cappuccilli, Nucci, Hvorostovsky etc, one should not be surprised if occasionally they sing open Fs. They are able to do so without harm to themselves. When the highest they have to sing is a G or Ab, they can manage the acoustic problems if their phonation is in good order. However, there is a tendency by higher baritones to darken the voice to counter the argument that they might be lazy tenors, attempting to turn the voice lower than feels totally comfortable. In this situations we see that they struggle between their true nature and what the label they have taken on.
Theoretically I would say that Baritones like Hampson, Hvorostovsky (began as a tenor), Nucci, Dieskau, etc should have been trained as tenors because their natural passaggi supports this. However, the real world is about what is marketable. Is it worthwhile for Thomas Hampson to have delayed his career to find the high notes that would have made him some kind of tenor or was it a more intelligent idea to fill the void left by Dieskau in the Lieder realm with his great ability to sing softly in the high range? The question answers itself.
When we compare the past and the present, there is no doubt that today lighter voices sing heavier repertoire as a rule in almost all Fachs. Paradoxically, in the past bigger voices were also approached more lyrically. So when we compare Gigli who had a powerful voice with what we refer to as spinto tenors today, we hear a much more lyrical voice in Gigli by comparison and perhaps a sound with much less impact than his from his contemporary spinto counterparts. The argument is confusing. When hearing Gigli one suddenly thinks that lighter voices were cast in his time, but I believe this is erroneous. It is rather that bigger voices sounded more lyrical back then because of the approach.
There was a time in Italy when there were fast rules like a baritone must turn E4 or even E4b if he is to sing Verdi. The aesthetics in terms of what was considered a Verdian baritone or bass has changed. The Rossini baritone over time moves into heavy Verdian repertoire, so we do not allow the true Verdian voices to develop. It is not by accident that few true Verdian males voices are to be found on the world's operatic stages.
I will stop here as the discussion seems to be transforming into another topic that deserves its own post.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
1) A. The first thing to remember about any vowel chart is that it is created with the purposes of the author in mind. Despite a rather broad international experience, my formative musical years took place in the United States. My chart therefore concentrates on the four operatic languages most sung in the U.S. In fact a different chart should be made relative to every national school. Italian and Spanish have 7 vowels-sounds, English 12 German 13, French 14. For Scandanavian Slavic languages and Asian languages, there are vowel qualities that are not represented here. I would welcome charts following our principles here that reflect a more accurate scheme for formant tracking (vowel modification)for those specific languages. Nevertheless the 16 vowels represented on my charts form a full enough spectrum to satisfy most linguistic situations.
B. A vowel chart is a beginning not an end. It should be understood that vowel modification is worthless if the phonation mode is not efficient. Achieving an inertial state in the vocal tract will only have an effect on a lean, muscularly balanced phonation mode. In the best case scenario, a resonant vowel adjustment will yield sensations that the singer will come to recognize and reproduce easily as long as the instrument is healthy. Once the singer has a clear proprioceptive experience of 1st and second formant resonance, then s/he will be able to track formants more spontaneously and instinctively.
2) A. The register shift for the tenor voice is probably the most important issue. Proper execution of this change reflects positively on several aspects of the instrument, including correct muscular balance of the voice, efficient phonation, appropriate laryngeal depth and of course appropriate tuning of the vocal tract (formant tracking). It is important to know that all of these conditions must exist simultaneously in order for a smooth and comfortable register change to occur.
B. The misconception about "pure" vowels. We only need to hear the average soprano sing in her upper range to know that vowels cannot be sung as they are spoken. This is true throughout most of the range. Depending on the circumstance, certain vowel qualities are not possible. In effect, every note has a different resonance necessity and therefore a different formant balance (vocal tract partition/shape). Furthermore there are acoustic regions where more than one vowel intersect. This means that one vowel adjustment will sound like two or even three different vowels depending on context (surrounding consonants, etc). In other words, intelligibility does not mean that someone is singing the spoken form of a vowel.
C. Providing all other conditions are met, the vowel chart can be followed to accomplish the acoustic shift from formant 1 to formant 2 between C4 and C5. The acoustic shift should occur around F4#. Contrary to popular belief, this change does not depend on voice type. Second formant tuning is more appropriate from F4# on, however, a lighter tenor will feel less stress singing a first-formant dominant F4# then a heavier voice. Regardless, the larynx will rise for an F4# sung in first formant dominance. The distinction is that the muscular shift happens earlier for a dramatic tenor than a leggiero, but the acoustic shift happens in the same place. This can get confusing. It suffices to say that the resonance adjustment needs to happen around F4# for any tenor, in fact sometimes on F natural depending on the vowel modification involved. The leggiero who keeps F1 dominance up until A4b like some do will experience a more difficult shift when they finally do go to F2 tuning.
3)Italian Tenor from NFCS has often spoken about the "deep [u]" relative to the tenor high range. According to the chart, Italian Tenor is correct relative to the two notes that define a tenor's existence. There are more Bbs and B naturals then high Cs written for tenors. Those are the notes that occupy most tenors' minds. It just so happens that the best second formant vowel for Bb and B is [U], and as previously stated, the larynx must be low to achieve F2 tuning. Italian Tenor's "deep [U]" is totally consistent with acoustic expectations.
This video of Carlo Bergonzi singing "O Paradiso" from Meyerbeer's L'Africaine is an interesting example of the deep [U] concept. The first Bb at 1:30 is perfectly tuned. Likewise, the final Bb is tuned to some form of [e] or [ø] very consistent with the tuning of B4b according to the chart. It is important to know that the Italian score (like the French original) has the Bb on an [a] vowel. Bergonzi changed the text setting in the cadenza (traditional practice) to accommodate a more resonant vowel. This means that he was very sensitive to F2 tuning.
By the same token, there is a tendency to make too much of a good thing. Lip rounding as with the deep [U] lowers the first formant and encourages F2 tuning. However, flexibility and subtlety is important. Bergonzi uses the same [U] on the first Gb at 0:49 which sounds comparatively slightly tense until he gently modifies to someting closer to [u]. The same Gb sung on an [u] vowel at 2:07 is perfect. The [u] vowel is far enough from the suggested [Λ], however some form of [u] lies precisely at the formant frequency that would coincide with the 5th harmonic (H5) 930Hz. Bergonzi has a tendency to round the lips consistently. This is not a bad strategy because in the [a] to [u] vowel spectrum, this strategy works well in the passaggio and above. However, more precise tuning is important on certain notes. My studying of Bergonzi's beautiful voice reveals some difficulties where the rounding lips actually takes him away from ideal resonance. However, on the whole the approach is logical and practical relative to F2 tuning.
Additionally this should show that the chart is a point of departure and not the final word on formant tracking. In the case of Bergonzi, he found a vowel sound between [U] and [u] that coincided with H5 of F4# (Gb in the score). The lesson here is that a vowel spectrum includes many formant frequency pairings for which there is no standard vowel name. Live singing goes beyond the limits of vowel definitions. However, the concept behind the chart can certainly explain something that may appear to be anomalous.
Happy Thanksgiving to all!
Thursday, November 20, 2008
I have been working on these formant tracking charts for about three years and feel that I have finally gotten enough information to complete them. I am sure that some of you will have commentary and suggestions for improvements. Feel free!
The charts take into account the obvious on the one hand (i.e. plotting harmonic frequencies vs vowel formant frequencies), and the less common (i.e. consideration of vocal tract reactance in chosing the vowel appropriate for a given harmonic). Remember that the formant values represent the formant centers and that there are many vowel qualities between the ones I have chosen to represent on the charts. Following the principles we exposed here in my exchanges with Martin Berggren, formant frequencies are plotted within 50Hz above the relevant harmonic. In the case of an exact match of the formant with the harmonic (or a few Hertz difference), the formant is considered inertial instead of neutral when we consider that the vowel can be subtly modified to bring the formant above the harmonic.
For those who are new to the concept of vowel modification, a couple of things will be obvious: 1) The lower the fundamental frequency the more choice of vowels there are. Therefore male voices have more vowels choices because of the octave differential from female voices. For that reason, all things equal a male singer (particularly a baritone or a bass) will be more intelligible than a female counterpart. 2) In the Excel charts, the cells of F2 (second formant) frequencies are filled with a dotted pattern while those of F1 frequencies are kept clear. The colors correspond to the the colors associated with the vowels on the chart to the right of the grid. 3) The words are from four common operatic languages: English, French, German and Italian and are as follows:
/u/ susurro (Italian)
/U/ Duft (German)
/o/ chose (French)
/O/ tortora (Italian)
/ʌ/ up (English)
/α / father (English
/a/ voila (French)
/i/ midi (French)
/y/ fühl (German)
/Y/ Stück (German)
/I/ fit (English)
/ø/ feu (French)
/e/ été (French)
/oe/ coeur (French)
/E/ met (English)
/ae/ cat (English)
In some cases there is a good bit of distance between one vowel formant and the adjacent one. In the case of /ae/ to /E/ an extra frequency is placed as an intermediary marker. Although they are close in quality the vowels /i/, /y/ and /I/ cover a wide frequency range in the second formant area. Therefore, I take some liberties with the intermediary frequency range in pink.
More will be written about these charts in the coming weeks. However, I could not wait to make them available since I've been promising them for the past several months.
Finally, it should be said that these charts were done to improve upon the seminal work done on formant tracking by Berton Coffin. Coffin's chart did not take F2 frequencies into account for one. Furthermore, vocal tract reactance was not common knowledge during Coffin's time. As always, the posts are meant to generate discussion so that we may arrive at useful information.
Files are found here in PDF format:
Tongue and mixed Vowels
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
I have argued all my singing life for the importance of vocal philosophy. Finding our individual vocal truths must be based on some definable objective facts, which in the face of the many uncertainties must anchor our progress. The goal of this blog has always been to unite through understanding as opposed to blindness by traditional ideology. I used to utilize the term ideology as I do philosophy. I will now make a distinction. Ideologies tend remain static whereas a philosophy is a constantly developing thing. I remain open-minded, which is why my understanding of resonance has grown with the high level contributions from Martin Berggren. Soon we will have a guest post on breathing by another colleague who is a singer and a medical doctor. I look forward to the discussion this will inspire.
Now back to Obama's details. I don't know how many people have noticed that often when Obama spoke about education he mentioned the arts as a necessary component. That kind of detail reveals the depth of this man's thinking, and I for one will watch and participate with enthusiasm in the development of a music component in an Obama education plan. But while we are waiting to see what President Obama accomplishes in leadership, everything points to his governance as one that engages the participation of the governed and indeed of all relevant participants worldwide.
The new question of our time therefore is the following: What can I do to help?
The arts, particularly singing, have profound repercussions on life. It is up to us singers to make the case for our own relevance to the society we live in. This blog is about vocal technique. It is also about vocal health, a vital component of technique. The mucosa layer of the vocal folds has profound relevance as a first alert to general health. If we are able to come up with resolutions and solutions regarding vocal health, I believe we may be able to open the discussion relative to health issues and nutrition issues, which in my thinking have a significant relevance to the state of health in the United States in particular.
I believe that the level of singing worldwide has diminished for many reasons even though our current teachers may be more knowledgeable than their 19th century and early 20th century counterparts.
Health is one major reason. While people exercise more than ever before, what we put in our bodies is decidedly worse. We face deadlier diseases now, including cancers, that are directly related to the toxins to be found in our food sources. It took years of ailments for me to realize this personally and all but sacrificed a promising vocal career by not researching fully what was ailing me. I suspect that some of the most dynamic operatic talents never get developed because of some minor ailment that causes disrepair in the first alert system, which is centered in the respiratory and digestive systems (directly reflecting in the vocal mechanism).
Discipline or the lack thereof is another reason. The lack of discipline in the operatic field that attempts to concentrate on superficial issues rather than substantial one. Lookism has trumped musical/vocal talent in many cases. Kitschy operatic compositions and superficial glitzy Broadway productions that neither challenge our artistic development nor our social discourse. Natural vocal coordination accepted as finished vocal technique and singers consequently go unfinished and suffer short vocal shelf-lives. A low bar relative to musical education, whereby under-performing music programs dare to call themselves institutions of higher education and graduating students every year as vocal performers that would be laughed off any respectable stage in the land.
In short, our culture of expedience and fast foods have turned us into vocal couch potatoes as well.
I love singing! I gave up a more profitable future in engineering for it and I never regretted it. Opera in all its complexity is the calling of my life for better or worse. When I criticize the state of our system, I criticize myself as a member of it. I can do more and this blog is one instrument of that. I figure that Barack Obama's call for participation means that we all must get our hands dirty. But not all in the same way. We must seek to improve the area in which we can be the most effective and of which we are the most passionate. I consider a three-prong approach to my participation in the Obama movement, which is really a world movement:
1) Self improvement: I am on my way to win my battle with reflux/Asthma-like symptoms/dehydration from medication. This sounds complex, but once it is understood it is not so unsurmountable. This I must do because my credibility as a singer has little to do with words alone, but with how my philosophy transforms my own singing and that of my students. I am a singer! And unless I can sing at a high level, I have little to say.
2) Pedagogy: What my students do in the world must reflect the excellence I aspire to. This is also a challenge to my students to work harder, more patiently and with a sense of love for the art form, as opposed to a worry about being employed. We all want to get jobs. But worrying about it does not help. The only way to get a job is by working on ourselves. I don't advertise in magazines and newspapers. My advertisements are my students, my singing and my writing here and on NFCS. My studio grows slowly but significantly.
3) The discourse here must take a far-reaching scope. I invite you my fellow travelers on this musical journey to be full participants here, to challenge the writing here. To make this blog yours. I started this blog and I will remain its chief editor, but the source of information is as much you as it is me. So I challenge you my friends to be more active. I imagine that we can create a corner here in cyberspace that has a profound effect on how our art form develops in this century.
A call to action is President Obama's war cry. We go to war against apathy, against sloth, against ignorance, against prejudice, against self-pity and indeed against war. Cooperation is the key. Our goal is self-realization and self-determination for ourselves, our fellow singers and our art form. In this way I believe we can have a profound effect on the philosophical health of our society worldwide. This blog will remain focused on the product (beautiful singing), but will open its scope to everything that influences beautiful, moving, profound singing. In this way, everyone will have something to say and a way to contribute.
I look forward to your advice and contributions. We may have posts in any language, as we hope to reach the world of singing. As I hope to maintain a level of editorship as to the quality of what we discuss here, any post written outside of the languages I speak (French, English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Haitian Creole) should be accompanied with a translation in one of those languages. As our community expands, we will find a manner to moderate posts in other languages.
Perhaps we would be able to have representatives from different countries with the credentials to decide on the content of posts that are submitted. As always all commentary is welcome and will not be suppressed. I have allowed all commentary to come out.
For those languages cited, I welcome a discourse immediately! I know many readers here from Germany who have lots of ideas to share. I welcome you to submit a relevant article of your choice. Same for everyone else. It would be nice to have a Swedish post from Martin or another Swede, as many Swedes read our blog.
In short, let us begin the experiment and see where it leads!
Friday, October 31, 2008
The C4 to C5 region is of particular interest to baritones, tenors and women. Before we continue with formant tracking with respect to these voice types, it is worthwhile to outline once again certain basics:
1. Definition: Formants are acoustic frequencies bands covering 30-50 Hz of acoustic space, which, depending on their range, define what we hear as vowels.
2. The vocal tract works better when its reactance is inertial. Simply put, this inertial state of the vocal tract helps maintain efficiency at the glottis even when the folds barely touch. This inertial state depends in large part upon formant tracking. The vocal tract reactance is inertial when the formant is above the corresponding harmonic of the standing wave (fundamental pitch and all its harmonics is referred to as the standing wave). We have our good friend, Martin Berggren to thank for this important detail.
3. Four Rules for Modifying Vowels
A. All formant frequencies decrease uniformly as the length of the vocal tract increases
The vocal tract length increases when the larynx lowers.
B. All formant frequencies decrease uniformly with lip rounding and increase with lip spreading.
Lip rounding and lip trumpeting have the same effect (see details on the NCVS page)
C. A mouth constriction lowers the first formant and raises the second formant.
This includes the raising of the tongue principally as in going from the [a] to the [i] vowel whereby the space below the tongue increases (lowering the pitch. Larger spaces have lower pitch) and the space above decreases (raising the pitch. Smaller spaces have higher pitch).
D. A pharyngeal constriction raises the first formant and lowers the second formant.
The reverse of letter C.
In order to follow these rules, we must establish what the default position of the vocal tract should be. I proceed from the following:
The larynx cannot fall to its naturally low position without the jaw being released. The laryngeal position that produces accurately resonance notes in the speaking range (male between 110 and 150 Hz and women between 220 and 260 Hz) should be the default. Therefore:
1. The larynx should maintain that basic low position.
2. The jaw should always return to the [a] position and the tongue and lips should articulate for all changes (consonants and vowels).
If the jaw had to close for vowels and the larynx had to rise, the variables would be too many and since both would narrow and shorten the larynx, the voice would have a thinner quality.
Assuming that phonation is normal, the resonance strategy should happen as follows:
Modify the vowel as close as possible to the given vowel while tracking the appropriate formant that would render the vocal tract inertial.
1. It is important to figure out which formant (first or second) is the easiest to tract (i.e.
without raising the larynx and requiring the least migration from the given vowel. There
are two reasons for maintaining a naturally low larynx: A) a long vocal tract tends to be more
inertial. B) A longer vocal tract reinforces lower partials, necessary for balance of chiaroscuro
by not losing the natural darker colors of the voice (particularly important for voice types
requiring more dramatic colors).
2. The frequency range of the formant must be above the respective harmonic in order
for the vocal tract to be inertial.
Following these basic principles, the rest becomes a matter of logic. It is also important to understand that the other three upper vowel formants can also have a profound influence. By concentrating on the first two formants (because we have definite information on what influences them) we can accomplish the inertial state that we refer to as "resonant." Once the singer becomes familiar with the feeling, it becomes easy to track it. Habits begin to form and the process of vowel modification (resonance tracking or formant tracking) becomes practically an instinctive one. This is the goal! The science only gives us a path to experiencing what true resonance is. The refined product is a personal experience and should seem quite natural in the end.
Looking at the /a/ formant chart for C4-B4, we can make some clear decisions relative to the lower passaggio and middle range of women and the middle to high range of men. What is difficult to understand sometimes is that the acoustic choices can be the same for baritone and tenor or soprano and mezzo in the Eb4 to G4 range. A tenor is perfectly capable of tracking F2 on Eb4 for the /a/ vowel. However, the modification would sound extreme because the voice does not sound very stressed on Eb4. The operatic ear accepts vowel modification where the longitudinal tension (tension along their length) on the folds is high. It is perceived that a modification is made to relieve excessive tension (good formant tracking does). A speech-like (F1) non-resonant Eb4 in the tenor voice may sound more "natural" to the average listener than a covered (F2) resonant version because the F2 version requires too much vowel modification for a note that is easy for that voice type. The same note sung covered by an baritone or bass sounds acceptable to the traditional operatic ear. The same may be unacceptable to a musical theater audience who expects speech-like vowels throughout the range. The most important fact we should know relative to resonance strategy is the following:
This installment Spontaneous Formant Tracking has been long coming, and so I will publish it. The third installment will follow and will address specific strategies for each voice type. I would like YOUR help in the third installment. Please send me requests relative to specific arias or songs that give you trouble, or that you feel could be better addressed. I will analyze the situation and find solutions based on the premises we discuss here. In fact, I would be interested in clips of you singing the phrase in question. I will analyze it acoustically and consider muscular balance as well. I will send you recommendations and see what happens afterwards. I think this would help us all understand the issues we are dealing with.
Happy singing and Happy Holloween!
Friday, October 24, 2008
I forgot to alert all of you that I am performing my first tenor role, Canio with a small company in Mendocino, California (Opera Fresca). Internet access is minimal here, so I have not been able to complete the second part of Spontaneous Formant Tracking.
These analytical posts require time and internet tools and links. I will be done here on Monday and will get back to work on that subject. It keeps nagging at my conscience! Anyway, some of you might be interested to know how Canio is going!
There are goods and bads in every new experience.
1. First the good! The role is not that difficult for me. I expected stamina problems because although this is a short role it is intense all the time. I don't experience any stamina problems. All the notes are there and I am free enough to be able to act the part. Not bad for a first tenor experience.
2. The bad! This is a question of quality. How easy and beautiful does it sound? Thank God I know myself enough not to panic! This is not Metropolitan Opera level yet and some notes don't sound great. All of that is due to illness. My folds are considerable relieved from reflux, but there is a very important byproduct from chronic reflux: Asthma symptoms! (More on this later!) This means that the lung tissue and folds remain thick even when there is no substantial reflux issue. The drug Ipratropium Bromide (the modern version is called Spiriva) gives me enough relief to feel confident about the opening tonight. I will update next week.
The prognosis for the future is looking good. One of the excellent singers I have had the pleasure of teaching occasionally, when his busy schedule allows, has won his bout with reflux and recommended a non-surgical procedure that I am looking into in addition to my dietary improvements (more on this later as well).
Beyond the joy of discussing important singing issues via this blog, I have found great hope through the friendships I've made here. One friend who took a couple of lessons from me before his adventures in Germany got a fest contract after his first audition and wants to continue our work together. Another student just won first place in the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires young artists competition. Another baritone switching to tenor will be singing "De miei bollenti spiriti" tonight, and most touching to my heart, my "self-described avocational singer" student just sent me some practice clips that knocked my socks off. What unites all of these people are two factors: difficulties and the determination to overcome them. They inspire me in their search for balance in singing.
I could probably talk in the same way about all the students I work with currently. Each one face difficulties (technical, illness, age, etc) has made remarkable progress in a short time and each is ridiculously dedicated.
So I dedicate my first tenor experience to my students and fellow journeyers who are not only people that I have come to love and respect, but who show great care for me in my own trials by offering their advice and prayers. Congratulations to all of you for your progress!
Particular congratulations to Ray, Claudia, Leo, Adam and especially Frances!
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
I had to laugh! Now the title of the post, although in the first person, is not meant to represent me alone. I hope I don't appear that conceited. This is however the hope of many excellent science-based teachers I've had the pleasure of knowing. It seems to me that a great many singers behave like some American voters in the current election, who claim to want a president they can have a beer with rather than one who is capable of understanding the complexity of the job and do it well. While I have had an occasional beer with some of my students, when we are in the studio, my aim is to provide them with a solid product worthy of the money these poor people shell out (especially in New York). In a fleeting hour or hour and a half, I have little desire to cram formant theory in my students' heads, and I am certain none of them would have the patience for it either, when they are trying to learn how to deal with their passaggio or nailing that pesky top note. How deeply the student wishes to understand the principles that guide my approach (his/her ultimate technique) depends on the student. Theory is for afterwards, when the lesson is over. The lesson is about decisions that will lead to vocal balance and ability.
However, my own head is certainly accessing every bit of information I've ever learned to find a solution to whatever the problem is. In essence, the successful science-based voice teacher learns as much complex material as possible in order to give a concise, simple but complete approach that the singer's consciousness can handle. That approach is essentially an awareness of what we can effect and what we cannot; what is helpful and what is interfering with the natural process.
What the successful science-based teacher learns after many years of learning the facts and after many hours each month keeping up with new information is the following: the human voice is an automatic instrument that if its health and its delicate balance have not been compromised will function with astounding flexibility and power even if the singer who possesses that voice does not know the first thing about how it functions. That is why natural singers manifest.
The science-based teacher is little different from his/her traditional counterpart. The only difference is that the science-based teacher seeks answers, not based on equivocal mysteries but rather on facts and plausible theories. Such a teacher does not teach the "open throat" simply because that is what Caruso said, or that is what his/her teacher learned from the teacher before but rather asks himself/herself: what is "open throat" really? How does it differ from a depressed larynx? How does s/he know how deep is too deep or how shallow is too shallow? What is a natural laryngeal position and how does s/he go about achieving this? And furthermore, how does s/he communicate such a result to the student? Most importantly, what information is there to back up his/her conclusions? In short, why was Manuel Garcia a great voice teacher? How do we deal with the paradox that he was correct in principle but quite wrong about the details? Such is progress. Our job is not to follow Garcia, but rather to reproduce his results with a better understanding of what he thought he knew.
The science-based teacher respects the great singers of the past and studies them. However, as a teacher s/he cannot worship them. S/he must study them objectively in order to understand why they succeeded, what were their skills and attributes and what were their flaws? And furthermore why did they succeed despite those flaws? And how does s/he steer his/her students away from those flaws and pitfalls?
The science-based teacher is keenly aware that there are unknowns about the voice. However, since the voice is an automatic instrument, we only need to know how to effect change in order to get it back to its balanced state. Once in that state of health and balanced strength, the instrument basically works itself. The more s/he knows, the more s/he is humbled by the discovery of what s/he does not know. In short, a teacher who claims to know it all is not a science-based teacher for real knowledge is accompanied by the inescapable truth that we cannot know everything.
Finally, the science-based teacher's results are based on and depend on a keen musical sensitivity, for a technique, or better said the end-product is achieved with the goal of serving the music that it will create or recreate. A vocal product is not developed in the abstract but rather with musical expression as its raison-d'être.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Those who possess such voices are very lucky and with a good teacher tend to develop very quickly. Whether or not these natural singers become our great stars depend greatly on their aptitudes in the many other facets of our art form (e.g. musicianship, language skills, acting ability, poetic sensitivity, etc).
But how does one get such naturally healthy unmarred voices? Is it a gift from God? It might as well be, because the many things that distinguish the natural singer from the rest of us humans do not seem to follow any kind of logic. Yet much of it can be explained. Most of us begin with healthy instruments as babies and in fact instinctively knew how to produce the most perfect vocal sounds, whether through crying or laughter or baby cooing, etc. As soon as we begin to make conscious sounds, which we learn from our immediate environment (parents, siblings, housekeeper, etc) we begin the process of undoing the natural process of vocal production. The lucky baby who will become a natural singer may have had parents or siblings who spoke very healthily, and who may have voices similar to his (hers). In such a case, the baby will have had excellent vocal models. If the baby is lucky, people in the house sing. It could be professional singers, or people who simply sing along to a radio station that broadcasts good vocal music.
The issue however is for the rest of us who seek to re-acquire our natural vocal coordination. What happens to a young coloratura whose mother speaks like a contralto and she emulates this production? Such a singer might be miscategorized early as a lower voice and spend many years struggling with this "unnatural" voice with frustrating results. When such a singer discovers the true coloratura voice, the change does not happen automatically because years of a false muscular imbalance must be undone, and the new muscular balance takes time to strengthen. The frustration that comes with the transition time is often discouraging, and an otherwise extremely talented singing actress may never achieve her goals, unless of course she has the dedication and patience of Job.
The issues however are rarely so extreme, although I have taught several coloraturas who believed that they were mezzos. What is most common are coloraturas who are taught as lyrics because they have over-developed the middle voice to the detriment of their top, and lyric tenors who begin as baritones
because they lowered their speaking voices to sound more "manly". In the case of dramatic voices, very often dramatic sopranos begin as mezzos and dramatic tenors as baritones because they can sound impressive even when singing a lower tessitura than that which is more appropriate to them.
I have discussed here how health is the first component to a healthy technique. Problems like allergies, acid reflux and post nasal drip can lower the quality of the voice to such an extent that could be career threatening. I suggest that every voice performance program should send every student to a laryngologist who specializes in the singer's voice, at the beginning of each year. Even if the student sounds impressive, there can be problems that are undetectable by the naked ear (e.g. mild peresis). Such programs should also include a nutritionist who could run the necessary examination to see if the digestive tract of the singer is functioning properly, including taking bacterial cultures. Problems like acid reflux and allergies have a strong influence from dietary practices and the basic ability to digest the food that the singer intakes. When these hindrances are removed, the process of vocal pedagogy is profoundly simplified.
The principles I have learned are the following:
1. The voice is an automatic instrument whereby the brain sends signals throughout the body to produce the "desired" sound.
2.The desire to produce sounds in speech develops in an unconscious manner (i.e. through years of unconsciously copying the voice or voices of those around us).
3. Long term vocal habits promote a specific balance between vocalis and CT that determines the weight of the voice (i.e. the relative mass, length and tension of the vocal folds on a given fundamental frequency as well as the breath pressure strategy that comes with it).
4. Most importantly, strategies can be developed through changes in breath pressure/volume that would help to effect changes in the basic muscular balance.
Understanding that falsetto requires vocalis passivity (i.e. no activity in the vocalis muscle) and that pulse range (vocal fry) requires a minimal of CT activity, the extremes give us a manner of determining what the baseline strength is for these muscles. In other words, how high can the singer sing in a light falsetto (i.e. how far can the CT muscle stretch the vocal folds when not opposed by vocalis)? And conversely, how low can the singer sing in pulse range (i.e. how far can the vocalis shorten the folds when unopposed by CT)?
It is further understood that the vocalis is dominant in the range below and including part of the male passaggio, and in the range below and including part of the female second passaggio. Singing in the range where the vocalis is more active (i.e. the lower and middle range) will have an effect of strengthening that muscle group. Likewise, singing the high range above the passaggio where the CT is dominant will have a strengthening effect on the CT muscle group. Even falsetto singing can have a strengthening effect on CT just as pulse range singing can have a strengthening effect on vocalis. The development of lower notes signals vocalis strengthening as the development of upper range signals CT strengthening.
The goal however is a specific interaction between the two muscle groups that promotes a gradual change in muscular balance as the singer goes from low to high range, across the passaggio where there is a delicate balance between the two muscle groups. First it is important to determine when the voice is out of balance. Some signs thereof include:
1. Difficulties in the passaggio is the first sign.
2. The inability to have dynamic control in the passaggio and upper voice
3. The inability to sing high notes comfortably
4. The inability to sing low notes
5. The inability to sing loudly in the extremes of the expected range
To correct the imbalance poses some problems in approach. I have found that many teachers are not interested in the in-between stages of correcting muscular imbalances. The majority of voice lessons that I have observed have revealed the teacher's desire to get a final product in the moment.
However, when there is a muscular imbalance, an immediate solution is not possible unless extraneous muscles participate, which in turn promote the participation of other extraneous muscles to achieve a balance froth with tension.
Assuming that no extraneous muscular tension is involved in the phonation process, there is still the possibility of variation in the phonation mode. Any given note can be sung with a certain amount of variance in the mass of the vibrating edge. Accomplishing the ideal weight (i.e. vibrating fold mass) for a given note has a direct influence on the length of the folds as well as the tautness. In the modal range (where both vocalis and CT are active), the mass, length and tautness of the vibrating edge has a strong effect on the manner that the folds come together.
On the one hand, a "thicker" phonation tends to be also a little more lax and may require additional activity from the inter-arytenoid muscles (IA) to bring them together for full-closure. The benefit is a richer sound. The drawback is that the thicker phonation requires increased vocalis activity, which then causes difficulty in releasing weight across the passaggio where the muscular balance switches from vocalis dominant to CT dominant. Additionally, the increased IA activity can cause pressed voice and raise the subglottic pressure to unsustainable levels that in turn would cause the larynx to climb higher than ideal and with long-term stress even cause a wobble.
While we in the vocal community make much ado of the antagonism between vocalis and CT, it is important to know that the CT is primarily responsible for the length of the vocal folds througout the modal range. The vocalis fine-tunes by determining the thickness of the vibrating edge. When we add sub-glottal pressure (breath pressure from below the larynx), the combined effect of pressure and vocalis activity can overwhelm the CT and shorten the vocal folds bringing the pitch down. (This is a simple model. As previously said, tension along the fold edge has an influence on pitch as well).
The key point to our strategies in pedagogy is the following: How much pressure can the CT handle without buckling (compromising the length of the folds and thereby pitch)? This is why the messa di voce is a crucial exercise, maybe the most important determinant of vocal balance and health. Let us consider the mechanism of the messa di voce!
In messa di voce, the singer begins softly (assume adduction is complete for every vibration cycle--Note that at low volume, a well-phonated tone can feel like falsetto) and then gradually gets louder. As the singer gets louder, vocalis activity increases and cause an increase in the vibrating mass. There is, as previously said, a given amount of possible variance in mass, length and tension for any given pitch. The key is that as we approach the thicker end of the spectrum for any given note that the CT is strong enough to maintain the necessary length and tension of the folds. If the CT buckles, length and tension is lost and the only way to achieve the desired pitch is increased sub-glottal pressure (also called vertical pressure). The pressure from below actually bends the folds upward to achieve increase tension in order to achieve the desired pitch.
When this occurs, it is dysfunctional, because when the folds are at a shorter length than ideal because of hyper-function in the vocalis, the CT will not be able to contract further for higher notes. If this state of vocalis hyper-function becomes chronic, CT hypo-function also becomes chronic thereby limiting access to the upper range as well as soft singing.
From the previous paragraph it follows therefore that the ability to sing softly and to sing high notes easily are linked to the ability to sing a messa di voce. This brings us to the difference between true dramatic voices and lighter voices singing dramatic operatic repertoire. More dramatic reperoire (e.g. Verdi, Wagner Strauss and Puccini), because of an increased orchestra size requires greater volume than more lyrical parts. The question is the following: How much subglottal pressure/supraglottal flow can the vocal folds handle without the CT buckling?
If we consider Pavarotti, we have an example of someone who began his career singing the high bel-canto repertoire and gradually assumed the heavier repertoire. This has been the Italian model for a long time. This is based on the observation that well-produced voices gain the ability to sing louder over time. This makes sense. A balanced note sung by an expert singer five years ago will be sung more loudly now because that specific coordination through exercise (i.e. daily singing) gains in muscular conditioning and will be able to sustain greater breath pressure without loss in basic coordination. Following this theory, Pavarotti maintained the ability to sing a high C throughout his life, even performing a gorgeous Bb at the Turin Olympics while sick with Cancer. The basic quality of Pavarotti's voice was lyrical. His ability to produce great volume without stress showed that he had great strength and in balance.
The exact opposite can be said of Pavarotti's idol, Giuseppe di Stefano who not only took on more dramatic roles earlier in his career but also sang beyond the volume limits of his basically lyrical instrument.
Those who have naturally bigger voices (i.e. greater vocal mass and commensurate muscular strength) would benefit from from working on lyricism as well. Franco Corelli never lost his top and sang many lyrical roles despite his ability to produce great volume. Assuming more dramatic roles was in keeping with his instrument, therefore there was no danger. With time, some faulty resonance issues made his ability to sing softly less reliable, but even through his late days, he was known to demonstrate quite beautifully for his students.
It is one thing if a lyric voice that has great strength undertakes a dramatic part. It is a different issue when a lyric voice that does not have the ability to produce great volume assumes a role that dramatically demands such volume. I such cases the CT will buckle and the singer's naturally balance will be altered.
A very detailed list of intrinsic laryngeal musculature is included here and can be daunting. This is the list of muscular action I had hoped to include on the very first post of this blog which remains incomplete. I welcome questions about the musculature and relevant actions and how they interact with the basic vocalis-CT antagonism.
Saturday, October 4, 2008
As I am working diligently on the next two posts, I hate to leave you without material. I am very pleased to post the following story on acid reflux written by Burleytone, a colleague from NFCS.
As you know, I continue to deal with reflux, and I find this story very inspiring. I hope you do too. After I am done with the other posts, I will share some additional information on this subject. Thank you, Burleytone!
So, I read on Toreadorssongs’ blogspot about some of his struggle with acid reflux. I was interested to see that I have experienced some of what he writes about. I have struggled with its effects for over ten years. This has prompted me to write my story in the event that it could help another reflux sufferer out there. Fortunately, it has a happy ending!!!
I first started having consistent vocal troubles my senior year in college. My singing teacher believed my problems were technical, not physical, because of my ability to accomplish various vocal feats in one instance but not another. After a couple of months of frustrating practice sessions and lessons, we agreed that I should go see a medical professional. The ENT saw redness and swelling at the back of my vocal folds. He indicated that this could be caused by allergies or acid reflux. We treated the two possibilities separately with Allegra and Claritin, and then with Prilosec. There was a possibility that I was getting mild relief from these drugs but not enough for me to be absolutely certain about one or the other.
I moved on to graduate school. Some days were vocally better than others, but I was consistently unhappy because of my lost singing abilities. I gradually seemed to be losing touch with what it felt like to sing well. My new teacher was less knowledgeable as a technician than my previous one, so that seemed to contribute to my vocal decline as well. I went to see a very well-known ENT who prescribed Prevacid. In my follow-up visit, this doctor declared that the texture of my cords was improving. At a later visit, despite my vocal discomfort, the office declared that all was in order with my health. They were no longer capable or willing to do anything for me. They referred me to a gastro-intestinal doctor and a voice therapist. The G.I. couldn’t find anything really wrong and was hesitant to tinker. The therapist believed I was singing just fine but counseled me to back off a bit on my vocal energy—take it easy. This was not what I wanted to hear and I believed there was more to it than that. I could feel something was amiss with my voice and desperately needed someone to accurately pinpoint the problem. I felt that the only choice I had was to continue to take the medication and to be as technically discriminating as possible in my singing.
Upon graduation I managed to get into a year long apprenticeship program. As usual I continued to show good days and bad days of singing. Two years passed since beginning to take antacids, raising my bed, etc. so I decided to pursue the possibility of allergies more aggressively. I’d recently seen Ashley Simpson complain of vocal discomfort on MTV after yelling into a microphone with her band. The ENT told her she had acid reflux (GERD). This, combined with poor response to antacids, brought me to decide that GERD was just an ENT catch-all. Needless to say, I stopped the medication. I began with allergy shots. They seemed to give me mild to significant relief. I had also noticed better health while traveling in different regions—like back home, so I concluded that finding an allergen free region to base myself would be the biggest answer to my problems.
Dealing with the psychological ramifications was probably the greatest difficulty in all of this. I mean, so many times I found a little vocal trick that momentarily fixed my woes and led me to believe that I probably didn’t have a problem after all. Eventually, after many horrible auditions and negative performance experiences, I couldn’t help but believe I was somehow sub-par as a singer. Ironically, I was often among the cynical crowd that was dismissive about other singers’ claims of physical problems hampering their singing. “It’s really their technique,” we coyly respond. I was sure others were thinking the same about me and I was desperate to show they were wrong. This was absurd, of course, but emotions often are.
By now, I found myself in a free-lance lifestyle and miraculously had secured several regional contracts for the year. Mysteriously my voice would come into order just in the nick of time for starting the contract. This only perpetuated the fallacious idea in my mind that my problems stemmed from less efficient vocal behavior. However, there was some hope in this. I had a wonderful year of new roles on which to practice my newly found technique and would thus be ready to advance into the “bigger time” the following year. Unfortunately this pattern would repeat itself down the line as I would find new tricks or rediscover the same trick that had previously stopped working for a time.
I began traveling for auditions and noticed that it would take me one to two days after airplane travel to feel vocally normal. This was an expensive problem. After returning from one grueling concert experience, I had finally had ENOUGH! Something beyond my technique was definitely wrong—no doubts this time. I hadn’t seen an ENT in years so I decided it was time. I found recommendations from singers in the area and quickly got myself an appointment. Of course, you’d never believe what they told me: I had GERD. I relayed my suspicions to them and asked them if the cause could be anything else—like pressed phonation. They were convinced about reflux as the problem. They explained that the swelling at the back of my cords was preventing them from getting full closure front-to-back. A small gap would remain at the front of the cords. This would make high notes particularly difficult, they explained. To boot, they found two beautiful ulcers in the fleshy area just behind my cords. These didn’t seem to pose any immediate and direct threat to my singing, however were further evidence of GERD. “Okay!” I was convinced along with them and had no choice but to follow suit with their protocol. The ENT commented that Prilosec was merely “placebo, plus one” and said that Nexium was the latest drug of choice. I was to take it twice a day.
Wow! Within a week of taking Nexium I was feeling so much better. I started to remember what my voice used to feel like! I started a summer contract and despite some occasional inconsistency, was very pleased to have my voice back after years of its absence. I didn’t think much of the problems that did periodically upset my voice because, on the whole, I was feeling so much better.
Lo, and behold, after less than a year, this vocal high came to a grinding halt. I had a week where I could not get my voice going to save my life. It felt constantly dried out and foggy—in retrospect, I had lots of dryness, fogginess, and frequent headaches, but since my voice seemed so much better, I ignored this. At that point I had to be honest with myself and admit that the occasional vocal discomfort that I had been experiencing throughout my summer contract and since was a problem. I couldn’t just assign it to the “ups and downs” of every day voice use. “Stop kidding yourself man!” I decided to accept a personal maxim, “You truly do have the technical knowledge to be a successful singer. If your singing is not right on the money, effortless (a loaded term, I know), and able to do what you know it is capable of, there is an outside problem that must be addressed. Do not settle for less than the best in your singing!”
Some of my family members happened to have some neighbors that were alternative doctors (naturopathic and nutrition). Despite my family’s lack of credence in such methods they couldn’t help but be impressed with the results this family was getting with their own children (allergies and such). Being a typical westerner, I had reservations about the alternative crowd as well. However, I was backed up against a brick wall and felt desperate enough to give it a try. Of course insurance wouldn’t cover such treatment but fortunately the initial consultation was to be gratis. Upon learning this, I jumped at the gamble and made a visit.
Sure enough these doctors’ method of testing was as whacky as I had suspected.
However, their discussion and explanation seemed logical. I tried my best to keep an open mind. I knew that the proof would be in the pudding anyhow, so I would let the results of the treatment speak for themselves. After testing me, they told me that my problems probably stemmed from the following: a Candida yeast overgrowth, and sensitivities to wheat (gluten) and dairy. They prescribed that I get off sugar (which feeds the yeast), most grains (including corn, excluding rice), and all milk products. They then sent me home with several supplements to fight the yeast and aid my digestion: probiotics and amino acids. They explained that the Candida yeast overgrowth was only exacerbated by the antacids I had been taking. You need the right acidity level for digestion and I was suppressing it by taking Nexium. Constipation and this yeast overgrowth were named as symptoms for my acid imbalance.
The prospect of my life to include this new diet was, to say the least, overwhelming. The nutritionist assured me that things would be better after I had some time to allow my digestive tract to heal. In all likelihood, I would be able to reintroduce certain foods into my diet.
I did learn that there are things to eat that don’t include gluten, dairy, and refined sugar. My diet consisted of mostly fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, nuts, rice, and soymilk (almond and rice as well). I have found gluten free pastas and crackers. I learned to carefully inspect labels of products such as sauces and candy (when I would occasionally break my diet for a sugar fix). I discovered Rice Chex with soymilk and 100% juices for breakfast. The trick to sticking to this diet was getting rid of all the temptation (in the form of food) out of the house.
Well, how did I fare? I was instructed to gradually go off Nexium so I knew the results of my singing would have to potentially wait a couple of weeks. However, the immediate effects on my body were eye-opening. Within just a couple of days I recognized that I had indeed been constipated the bulk of my life. I also came to understand that I was bloated after meals due to wheat and/or dairy. I hadn’t known what it was like NOT to feel bloated after a meal so was thus unaware. I had more energy all around, especially after meals. I didn’t feel so tired and beat down in the late afternoon and at the end of the day. I didn’t require as much sleep as I thought I did. Whether or not this would in the end affect my singing, it was clear that this was a good change in my life.
I had heard that getting off antacids could have a temporary back-lash so I kept waiting for that to happen as I monitored my voice each day. Strangely enough, that backlash never happened. My voice began to feel healthy. In fact, it continued to feel healthy day after day but in an indescribable way and marked difference than when on Nexium. Was this a placebo effect? Time would only tell.
My six month follow-up appointment with my ENT happened three months after I made this diet change and followed the supplemental protocol. By then I had lost at least fifteen pounds by virtue of my diet. I was happy as a clam with my singing and was curious to see the improvement on my vocal folds from the laryngoscope.
The last six month follow-up showed a significant reduction in redness and swelling as well as retreat of the ulcers. This time, shockingly, the scope showed that those symptoms had returned. What?!!! I explained that I felt exceptional and told the ENT and Voice Specialist about my treatment and lifestyle changes. They were as perplexed as I was but were nervous about the ulcers hardening over time. They said that hardening could affect my adduction/abduction abilities. They begged me to take at least one “purple pill” a day. I tried to dialogue with the ENT about what the alternative crowd was telling me but he simply admitted that he had no knowledge of such information. He knew how to “recognize a symptom and then treat it.”
Naturally, I feared for my long-term health and decided to go ahead and take Nexium again. I immediately relapsed into the way I felt months ago with the dryness and fogginess. It was not enjoyable to sing. I felt that I needed to address this with the naturopath so made an appointment.
My naturopathic doctor explained that some persons suffer from acid reflux not because they have too much acid but because they have too LITTLE. He further explained that the esophageal sphincter’s cue to close off related to having enough acidity. He suggested I try a formula (Glutamic Acid HCI, Betaine HCI, Pepsin, Gentian Root) that would stimulate the hydrochloric acid of my stomach. He also had me add Slippery Elm bark powder (of necessity the powder, not the syrup) to the mix. VOILA!!! My voice was back, up and running, within a couple of days. Now the true test would be through the laryngoscope in a few months. That appointment happened just last month.
During an opera contract last month, the board president’s husband happened to be an ENT, so I opted to have him examine me. He could find no evidence of acid reflux or ulcers.
Now, rest assured that I will get scoped again in another few months. But you can also be certain that I have put my bulk bottle of Nexium away for good.
Further testing at the lab has allowed me to reduce my supplement intake as well as eliminate one of them all together. The nutritionist tells me that I have in all likelihood reached a maintenance level so not to anticipate reducing their quantity (at least for a while). I take: Gastro (Transformation brand), Multi-Probiotic (Original Medicine brand), Slippery Elm bark powder, and GastrAcid (Xymogen brand; the acid stimulator discussed above) with each meal.
I decided that the Candida yeast is at bay so I have been eating sugar off and on for quite some time. This has opened up the possibility for home baked goods. I just use rice flour, tapioca flour, potato starch and flour, sorghum flour, and xanthan gum for wheat flour substitutes. With a little research you will find plenty of recipes. Life is a little more expensive this way, but it’s definitely worth being able to sing again (and I haven’t gained the weight back).
Now, I don’t think that I am now a perfect singer. I am still subject to my own vocal foibles and have to constantly work to stay on track. The difference now is that I am in control, not my stomach acid. Fortunate for me, I now feel like I am dealing with the same voice each day--as opposed to several different behavior tendencies because of over compensation due to reflux.
I have listed two source links (pro and con) that discuss the concept of too little stomach acid as the cause for GERD.