Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Subject of the day: The speaking voice

My readers probably know already that after 20 years singing the baritone repertoire, I am making the change to tenor. The change is a time-consuming, extremely emotional, and fear-inducing experience that is not for the faint of heart. In three months of disciplined practice, I have gone through so many steps that it would be hard to remember if I did not take notes on them. I intend to post here eventually about the process.

The most exciting step happened a couple of days ago when I experienced a step backwards. I was having a rehearsal for Macbeth, which I am directing for Berlin International Opera, the little company that I am involved with in Berlin, and decided to sing Macduff's aria for our musical director. I had had an excellent practice in the early afternoon and thought that I would share my new voice with our music director. Well it did not go so well, and I felt bad. I spent the evening listening to Alfredo Kraus who had one of the most efficiently phonated voices ever, and confirmed for myself that phonation needed to be easy, etc. But I could not figure out why my voice was suddenly heavy when I attempted to sing Macduff's aria which was not a challenge for me even as a baritone (undeveloped tenor).

The next morning, I woke up with a speaking voice that was rough. I did not eat late, I was not vocally tired, and I slept well. I instinctively tried to speak a little higher and lighter and suddenly my voice was as clear as a bell. I took it as a sign that I should speak lighter in general and get away from the guttural baritone speaking voice I thought was mine. The short of it is that after two days of speaking like this, the tenor passaggio became much easier to handle and the voice cleared up throughout the range. While teaching a lesson, I demonstrated a scale to a high B not knowing that I was already there. It was very easy.

Ironically, this is a topic I often discuss with my students. I say often that the speaking voice and the singing voice depend on the very same mechanism. Misusing one of them will eventually or rather quickly effect the other. Since the American culture is in love with deep voices, I was always complemented on my speaking voice. Over the years it got deeper also as I sang more dramatic baritone parts and from speaking to classes in which I had to speak authoritatively to be heard. I was gradually building tension without knowing it. And since I am always complemented on my speaking voice, I never thought there was anything wrong with it. Now after two days with a new speaking habit that have yielded remarkable results, I am even more vigilant of speaking habits with my students.

I am currently preparing a post on the importance of easy phonation that was begun several days ago. I am working to create videos that accompany some of these posts, so it is taking a bit of time to put together. But I am happy to have confirmed for myself that efficient phonation does not need to be stressful. I had always been amazed by singers like Dieskau, Wunderlich, Kraus Corelli and Gigli who had amazing messa di voce abilities. Now I understand that many of us could lose this ability simply by using the speaking voice wrong.

For now, I will share a clip reading the first line of this post. The first part of the clip presents the speaking voice I have gotten used to and in fact cultivated over the years. The second presents what I now perceive to be the true speaking voice, which used to come up when I was a young singer. Occasionally I would speak like that, and people would ask whether I was a tenor. One teacher even told me once I was speaking off my voice (He was not my private teacher). As I listen to the two voices over and over, I see why some might find the first voice richer, sexier, even more impressive. What my current ears tell me is that the first voice is forced and the second is healthy and naturally resonant. I anticipate this will generate some discussion.

© 01/22/2008


bostonotsob said...

I don't have much to contribute on this, but found it very interesting. I'm a late-starting hobby singer, and the work my teacher has done with me on my speaking habits seems to have done much more to improve my singing than all of the actual singing work together.

I had many years of speaking both off the breath and with a lower pitch than natural; I had been blaming both habits on the influence of my mother, but hadn't thought about how the pitch, at least, might be culturally reinforced until seeing your comment about the American culture being in love with deep voices. I'm female, so my voice was never *that* deep, but, especially as someone who finished school young and was trying to project an image of greater experience and competence in the workplace, I can see how I might have unconsciously lowered my pitch to seem older and more authoritative.

Baritonobasso said...

I used to get a sore throat from teaching classes, and spent some time in consultation with a speech therapist to solve the problem. She told me that what was causing my soreness was a tendency to drop into vocal fry at the ends of phrases, owing to a failure to maintain a sufficiently energetic flow of breath. The pitch in itself, she said, was not a factor, though speaking habitually at a low pitch can lead to one's dropping into vocal fry. I wonder whether the effects on your singing voice that you report are really due to how you pitch your speaking voice, or whether they may not rather be due to whether or not you are dropping into vocal fry.

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Bostonotsob makes an interesting point. Our habits our usually unconsciously developed. I would submit that both the parental influence (I spoke like my father did. I believe I have his voice. He ended up with a raspy speaking voice at the end which I use to blame on his smoking. But I wonder if he suffered from tensions like mine), and social influences have a part.

As to Baritonobasso's comment about the vocal fry. I knew I was not speaking in vocal fry because I use the fry as an introduction to phonation efficiency. However, if one is not naturally a lower voice, but has good low notes, it is possible to develop power in the low range by introducing the false folds into the phonation process. If they come close enough to each other to oppose the air stream, one gets a growl-like lower range. We are able to coordinate so many different sounds without knowing what the mechanism is precisely for them. I hear the effort in the low speaking and believing this to be the basic voice, I tried to produce the rest of my range in keeping with that quality.