Thursday, July 31, 2008
Getting beyond jargon is crucial if we are going to make headway in this complex puzzle that is vocal coordination. Unlike some of my colleagues who quite rightly declare that we should dispense with jargon and use more objective language, I take a more moderate view (this time). Since we are not going to convince teachers to give up their traditional language, the better thing to do is to expect them to provide a definition for what they mean, and thereby help their students to better understand the catch phrases and vocal shorthand that they use. Good vocal pedagogy depends on a common language that is shared by student and teacher.
My purpose here is to make sense of the various meanings of the term "open" such that a student might think to ask what is meant by the term at any given moment and what the vocal issue is that the teacher might be addressing. This generation of singers is lucky enough to have access to www.youtube.com, the source of a large bank of video clips of professional singers. I use this resource to point out examples of the various meanings.
First the positive:
No one more than Pavarotti comes to mind in terms of the open sound that is desirable. The tone is always perfectly focused (i.e. perfectly efficient phonation), but the amount of room that Pavarotti uses for his vowels is so complete that it identifies his voice as singular among all other voices. The vowels are not only tall, and wide, but they are also deep. There is brilliance and depth. One gets the sense that there is no more room available for the vowels. This opened sound is due to a combination of perfect phonation and an Italian vowel concept that is more extreme than other languages. The great baritone, Piero Cappuccilli, admired greatly by Pavarotti had a very similar production. This kind of openness is clearest in the production of the extreme vowels [a] and [i] in the lower range. The great Bulgarian Bass, Nicolai Ghiaurov is known for the same kind of clear openness. He has recorded the Verdi canon of Bass roles with his wife, the Italian Soprano, Mirelli Freni and the likes of Pavarotti, Cappuccilli and others. His influence in this repertoire is undeniably Italian. One of the reasons I limit this particular post to men is that there are ways of aurally discerning the difference in men's voices. In all three examples we can here a perfect speaking quality to the singing voice of these great men. This gives truth to the Italian axiom: "Si canta come si parla" (One sings as he speaks).
1. The not-so-negative or the first formant top range (Di Stefano Dilemma or the Macneill Manifestation )
Giuseppe di Stefano was at once Pavarotti's idol and the model he consciously diverged from. Pavarotti said clearly that the difference between himself and Di Stefano is that he learned to "cover the voice." The slightly yelling quality that Di Stefano favored was workable to a certain point. However beyond G4 the larynx climbed enough to give the voice a narrower, reedier sound that loss the dark side of the sound spectrum. Therefore, the only way to get the darkness that was necessary for the more dramatic roles was to thicken the phonation (in essence pushing beyond the natural weight of the voice). Over time, Di Stefano's amazing top notes became less secure as a result of this strategy.
This is less of a problem for a baritone who does not have to sing to often above the F#4 range. Cornell Macneil is a singer who routinely advocated a "speaking" approach throughout the range. He too had a natural strength int he CT that made it possible to stretch to the top range with great ease. Additionally Macneil possessed a very massive fold structure which helped him maintain a very dark quality dispite the loss of color which comes from a high-larynx first formant strategy.
The G4 at the end of Michele's aria from Puccini's Il Tabarro, does reveal the same kind of yelling quality that we heard from Di Stefano. Like Di Stefano however, Mcneil has fantastic phonation capabilities and maintains great stability on the G4. There is a slight tendency in however to be slightly below pitch in the higher part of the passaggio where the muscular balance changes Vocalis dominance to Crico-thyroid dominance. A second formant strategy would facilitate the muscular balance change through more accurate resonance tracking.
2. The more-negative or the loose phonation model (the old ME)
Verdi Di Provenza.mp3
I am not being overly self deprecating in using my clip of Di Provenza. In fact, it is a fitting example. I was able to be quite convincing over 20 years of professional singing as a bass-baritone, singing effectively low works like Haydn's Creation, Handel's Messiah and roles like Leporello and Dulcamara. In smaller houses with smaller orchestras or in concert halls with piano accompaniment, I was often complimented on the naturally dark color of my voice. The voice was often referred to as "big" and "dramatic" and by initial hearing of the clip, one might agree with the descriptions. The voice was not completely inefficient, but there was enough air loss during phonation that the sound lacked presence when competing with a sizable orchestra. I experienced such commentary during a production of Tosca when I sang Scarpia. The orchestra was quite loud during the Te Deum and some Scarpia was left to be desired. Loose phonation is a relative term, unlike first or second formant dominance which are well-defined.
The relativity of loose phonation is what makes it a problem. It is not so much that the vocal approach was wrong, but that the mode of phonation was relatively inefficient. Slightly loose phonation gives the voice a mellower color. That warmth however is due to a loss of high partials that would be present when the folds come together fully. However I was able to get enough vocal presence to justify me as a dramatic voice. This means that I had to increase air pressure considerably. Yet increased breath pressure would be difficult to maintain if the tone is slightly breathy. To compensate for this, musculature above the glottis had to contract to seal off the air leakage that should have been handled at the laryngeal level. This kind of supra-laryngeal tension is actually a mild form of muscle tension dysphonia. It seems that not only is loose phonation a symptom of MTD, but it can also be the root cause. Loose phonation causes hypertension in the supraglottal tensors which causes a counteraction from the posterior crico-arytenoid muscles.
This was a result of seeking an easier mode of phonation. So while easy phonation is a desirable aim, it is important to distinguish between easy and efficient phonation and loose phonation. The dangerous habits are formed when loose phonation is coupled with a need for power. The needed efficiency comes in the form of supra-laryngeal hyper-function when the vocal folds do not come together adequately.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
It is my experience in the studio, particularly in recent years, that the ability to produce a falsetto is dependent upon achieving the "at-rest fold length" that is conducive to the most efficient use of the vocal apparatus. What do I mean by this? The answer will take a historical as well as a theoretical scientific perspective.
There was a time that the development of a classical singer's voice could be compared to the development of the physical skills of an Olympic athlete. The level of proficiency of a singer was not solely based on what range of pitches the voice is able to execute with relative ease, but also the sound quality of each note. We read from the writings of many of the great Italian teachers that vocal training could last 8 to 10 years of daily exercise before the singer was allowed to make a professional debut. Contrary to our time when expedience is the primary concern, singers often develop superficial skills that meet with a quick demise commensurate with the training time. With the knowledge and equipment we have available to us in the 21st century, it is conceivable that the training time could be cut considerably without loss of quality. Unfortunately very few teachers use the knowledge and equipment that science has made available.
The issue at hand is quality. It is crucial to understand that the specialization of voice types has reached such extremes that a classical singer's skills can no longer be compared favorably with the ideals of the Olympic athlete. It must be said that the modern operatic soprano, other than the the dramatic coloratura rarely develops a complete range. If we look at the works of Rossini and Mozart and consider the types of singers that they composed for, we will find that modern categorization makes no sense. Were Malibran and Colbran Sopranos or Contraltos? Was Mozart's Constanze or Queen of the Night a light voice coloratura or an anomaly in the Sutherland mold? Are the voices we consider unusual like Callas, Sutherland and others truly the exception or should they be the rule (in certain respects)? Every soprano I have taught in the past few years is capable of at least a three octave range, accessing regularly the Queen of the Night´s High F. This does not mean that every one should sing coloratura roles. It only means that when the soprano voice is fully developed those extreme high notes are accessible and this phenomenon is a sign of healthy flexibility and adequate strength.
This brings us to a discussion of registers. The terms falsetto and flute voice have been associated with "fake" sounds in modern time. It is important to know that the term falsetto originally referred to an uncoordinated, breathy production that tended to manifest in the male passaggio. This uncoordinated passaggio eventually took on a new name, "voce finta" and equally pejorative term meaning "feigned" or faked voice. Consequently, the term falsetto was used more and more in reference to the light quality sound in the high range that is devoid of vocalis muscle activity, an uncoordinated sound in a sense.
So why then would I consider uncoordinated sounds to be of benefit in vocal pedagogy?
First of all, we must understand that not everyone can produce a falsetto or a flute voice, and that this inability is a sign of muscular imbalance. This is a question that is not asked enough: Why can some singers not produce a falsetto or flute voice?
Second, falsetto is not inherently breathy if we consider the natural tendency for full closure in the higher falsetto or flute range. This full closure phenomenon tells us at least that at high pitch levels the falsetto achieves full closure quite naturally (as fundamental frequency increases, activity in the external thyro-arytenoid increasingly adjusts the folds medially). Furthermore, once full closure is achieved, there is a build-up of sub-glottal pressure, which induces a vocalis response. By definition, the production is no longer falsetto but modal (an antagonistic relationship is established between Crico-Thyroid muscle group and the Vocalis muscle group). Therefore, is it not logical to develop the coordination of the "light head voice" or "full-closure falsetto"? From such a production, as pitch level decreases, vocalis activity increases. If such a coordination is developed dynamically (as opposed to abruptly), the muscular dynamics necessary for an easy high range would be achieved. Why not follow this logic?
As previously said, not every singer can produce a falsetto and this is a sign of malfunction, at very least weakness in Crico-Thyroid and lateral Thyro-arytenoid muscles. These muscles mainly are responsible for the lengthening of the vocal folds. It could also mean that the vocalis is relatively muscle-bound, so rigid as to resist Crico-thyroid activity at a given pitch range. The ideal at any pitch level should be a possibility of variable interaction between the two muscle groups in question; that one is not limited to a single state on any given pitch. If the vocalis is so inflexible as not to allow falsetto, this must be seen as a relative dysfunction. This lack of falsetto ability is observable in many tenors referred to as possessing "robust" voices, and often in baritones who train as basses, and natural sopranos who train as mezzos. There is indeed a relationship between "pushed" down voices and inflexibility of the vocalis.
If we take merely a linear consideration between Vocalis and Crico-thyroid the problem could be more easily understood. At a given pitch level, fundamental frequency can be maintained at variable fold length-thickness-tension. If the shortest fold length is selected (i.e. greatest amount of vocalis tension) for a given pitch, the result is also the loudest, most pressurized possible result. One could conceive of gradually increasing CT activity and gradually decreasing vocalis with the rise in pitch. However, the entire strategy is based on vocalis hyper-function and CT hypo-function. There will indubitably develop excessive vocalis strength and inadequate CT strength over time, resulting in an inability of the CT in a CT-dominant posture to withstand the kind of pressure that can be endured in a vocalis-dominant scenario. At the extreme, second formant dominance which coincides with CT dominance in the male voice becomes impossible. Additionally, the hyper-function of vocalis over time curtails the possibility of complete vocalis passivity which is necessary for falsetto. And even if vocalis passivity were possible, the underdevelopment of the CT muscles also precludes the possibility of the kind of fold lengthening necessary for falsetto.
From this premise, the ideal fold length is the midpoint between maximum vocalis activity and maximum CT activity for a given fundamental frequency (pitch). The true timbre of the instrument would be identified when such a state is achieved and all other muscles are functioning adequately to produce unforced full closure. Strength in both muscle groups in balance can then be increased by gradually increasing volume (breath pressure). What we observe in "induced" or fabricated robust voices by and large is the scenario described above, whereby vocalis activity is increased to bulk up the folds, which in turn induces an increase in sub-glottal pressure. That induced robust quality trains a gradual hyperactivity in the vocalis group, which then throws the ideal balance of the muscles off. Lyric tenors singing dramatic repertoire is the plague of our time. Dramatic baritones singing bass, or dramatic sopranos singing mezzo is just as rampant. I have in fact observed many coloratura sopranos who were trained as mezzos. More personally, I believe that my long career as a baritone is an example of this gradual destabilization of the instrument. Developing and maintaining a healthy falsetto range is one of the necessary characteristics of healthy vocal production. I had a very healthy falsetto in my youth, even singing some counter-tenor. I had all but lost the ability during the last two years of my baritone career. Now not only do I have it back, It is nearly an entire octave higher than before.
Theoretically, there is a finite maximum fold mass and therefore a low pitch limit for any given voice. However, there is an infinite possibility of mass reduction and therefore an infinite possibility of high pitch production, "theoretically". The following singer is not a freak, but simply someone who probably had unconsciously developed a facility in the falsetto range which got him attention. As a result he continued to develop this ability:
The singer sang nearly an octave above his previous record, which proves that coordination improves with training. His final note was C#8, two octaves above the soprano high C. The coordination is referred to as damping, whereby only a portion of the vocal folds is vibrating (this production is also called whistle voice). In essence, the smaller the vibrating portion, the higher the singer can sing. The vibrating portion can be made infinitely smaller and therefore, the pitch level can be theoretically infinitely higher.
Many respected teachers and scientist take the stand that falsetto does not help in vocal training. I disagree for the reasons given above. I believe the problem with the assessment of scientists in this specific case stems from an over-concentration on acoustic factors. Acoustics are crucially important once the phonation is of a high quality, but understanding how to bring the instrument into muscular balance is where science is lagging. It is virtually impossible to get professional singers to submit to laryngeal electro-myography. The idea of inserting needle-electrodes in the laryngeal muscles scare singers to death. Therefore, empirical data cannot be gathered relative to the function of those tiny muscles at work. Additionally, there is a prejudice in the field of vocal pedagogy against the necessity of long-term training to achieve superlative results. Teachers and singers and scientists by association, by and large believe that a singer's abilities can only be improved to a certain point, that someone is specifically vocally gifted or not. This kind of limitation discourages the thought that a voice that appears imbalanced and does not response to superficial remedial exercises could improve to a professional level. If this is accepted, then there is no real reason to study muscular dynamics, for it is assumed that the coordinated singer is gifted and the less coordinated one has to chance of improvement in that regard.
Consequently, the research has focused more on acoustics because we have immediate control of resonance factors which are principally vowel production and vowel modification. Acoustic research is yields very immediate results, the equipment is graphic and flashy and the layman can follow on a superficial level. Such research is much more easily funded and the information gets a lot of mileage.
Although we have less empirical data about the behavior of the intrinsic laryngeal muscles with regards to the professional voice, we can however extrapolate logical expectations from what we know about the basic function of this musculature. For my part, I have based my teaching on these premises and indeed my own retraining as a tenor is based upon expectations of how the mechanism would respond as muscular dynamics change.
Verdi Di Provenza.mp3
How I sang as a baritone and what I do here in the Strauss Cäcilie practice clip are worlds apart. There is even a significant quality difference between the Cäcilie clip and the Deposuit clip that I posted here one month ago. For better listening pleasure, I will end this issue with a clip of Leonora's Tacea la notte placida sung by Mexican Soprano Jessica García Gonzales, a current student who sang as a mezzo-soprano until April of this year.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
The most common concepts I hear among singers singing professionally are those of “connecting to the body” and “releasing the breath”. What is however difficult is getting a simple answer from them as to what these terms mean. To make matters more difficult, I also hear the phrases “connecting to the breath” and “releasing the body”. So where do we begin with this constant “chicken and egg” story? As always from the science!
Connecting to the body or to the breath, like most terminology based on proprioception, is an attempt to explain a resultant sensation when the causal functions are not understood. The confusion comes from not understanding the inherent paradoxical nature of singing. The majority of singers and teachers of singing do not like the term, “tension”. It is easier to refer to the tension that is felt when the voice is properly functioning in euphemistic terminology like “connecting to the body” and “engaging the breath”. Some prefer to avoid all sensations of tension and speak only in terms of “release” and “relaxation”. Whatever one-sided terminology is used will result ultimately in imbalance. Balanced singing is based on contrary forces acting upon each other to create a state of stability, while very energetic work is being performed. No viable aspect of “acoustic singing” (i.e. unamplified operatic singing) is performed without tension. That tension however is balanced tension.
What is it then that gives the sensation of connection to the body or the breath? It is simply the sub-glottal pressure that is created when the vocal folds close fully against the oncoming breath. For that reason, I take a line from the many axioms of a great voice teacher, Lloyd Hanson, who says: “There is no discussion of breath support without first assuring efficient phonation.” (I paraphrase). If that is all that is needed for that feeling of connection, why don’t we do everything possible to simply get the vocal folds to come together fully? Many people do just that! The result is often what we refer to as excessive medial pressure or “pressing”. There are many unbalanced ways to get the vocal folds together when “release” is not part of the equation, which begs the question: “What is release, and how is it compatible with tension?”
The truth is that the right amount of tension is not possible without the correct means of release. I have discussed here extensively regarding the balance of musculature that produces efficient phonation. We must assume first of all that those muscles (primarily, crico-thyroid, thyro-arytenoid [lateral and vocalis], crio-arytenoid and inter-arytenoid) are functioning in balanced antagonism with one another, thereby producing a phonation model that is efficient. In such a model, the vocal folds come completely in contact during every adduction (closure) cycle. Such a balanced muscular state cannot be possible unless the tongue is not interfering with the phonation process. Therefore, it is presupposed that the tongue is functioning as it should. Given that the tongue is the primary element of resonance, it follows that resonance function is also correct enough to support the phonation process as opposed to hindering it.
In the correctly functioning voice, resonance is indeed the agent of release. When the vocal tract is properly tuned with the sung pitch (fundamental and overtones), the air, above the vocal folds, assumes a remarkable acoustic state called, “supra-glottal inertial air.” In this acoustic state, the air above the glottis behaves in concert with the movement of the vocal folds, acting like a vacuum (negative pressure) that one moment accelerates the close phase and then like a leaf blower (positive pressure) increasing the opening phase the next. The vibration of the vocal folds therefore covers a larger distance (amplitude), however the accelerated close phase is fairly quick. This can also be called a comparatively much more efficient vibratory model whereby the close phase is quick and complete and the open phase allows for greater airflow.This “glottal impedance” occurs only when the vocal tract is in consonance with the sung pitch (i.e. one of the formant spaces [above or below the tongue] is in tune with the fundamental or one of the overtones of the sung pitch).
In a sense, it is not helpful to talk about phonation and resonance (tension and release) in terms of the chicken or the egg. The ideal resonance adjustment that produces glottal impedance cannot occur without a full glottal closure that is independent of extraneous tension. Likewise, balanced phonation cannot exist in a situation whereby extraneous muscular tension deforms the ideal dimensions of the vocal tract.
As per the title of this issue, the ideal balance of phonation and resonance depends on muscular strength. Each set of muscles must be developed strongly enough to function in concert with its antagonistic counterparts. Even a weak set of crico-thyroid muscles can stretch the vocal folds of a basso profundo to create a high C. Of course that high C would be in falsetto. The issue therefore is not whether the CT can stretch the vocal folds adequately, but whether they can while enduring the kind of antagonistic action from the vocalis muscles, to produce lengthy vocal folds that are bulky enough to resist the power of the sub-glottal air pressure. If not, then the vocalis will win the tug-o-war and the pitch will lower. Likewise, it is important that during this action that the inter-arytenoid muscles can complete the closing of the glottis. That too is an issue of strength. In the case of singers who do not have easy high notes, the issue is one of strength building over time. High notes come gradually when the singer slowly and deliberately practices higher and higher notes, developing strength in them such that they can withstand the sub-glottal pressure necessary for performance level volume.
Ideal resonance and phonation is a natural state that was trained in us as we developed the vocal capacity to make sound as babies. These sounds communicate primal needs. Watching a baby cry or laugh with joy shows the complete function that we as singers aspire to. The greater paradox in all of this is that most singers attempt to learn something they always knew how to do.© 07/23/2008; corrected 07/25/2008
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
As I prepared to write this issue, I kept wondering how to distinguish Pavarotti’s near perfect phonation in words. Let us say he achieves perfect fold closure with the least amount of effort. His folds simply come together as nature intended and he does not fight it. The result is an intense, clear tone that always has a “floating” element to it. Many fear this float because not many can immediately achieve full closure without pressing a little. However this is the goal. This is what we hear in all the greats: Bjoerling, Gedda, Wunderlich, Kraus, Gigli, and today, Florez, Beczala, and a young tenor I had the pleasure of hearing this past weekend, Leonardo Capalbo. This is a tenor to watch.
To properly understand how special Pavarotti’s phonation is, we must consider the many parts that contribute to this. The manner that the vocal folds come together depend on the following: thickness (mass), length and tautness. The thicker the vocal folds, the less work the inter-arytenoids need to do to bring them completely together. However, for a given pitch the folds should assume a default thickness that is dependent upon how thin they are stretched. The tautness of the vocal folds depends upon how much opposition the vocalis muscle provides against the lengthening action of the crico-thyroids. This tautness, which is variable for each pitch, in the best case scenario, provides additional thickness (a slight bulging effect) without losing any length. This natural but complex coordination gives Pavarotti’s voice an immediacy of presence, a raw sense of the natural, a sense of speech. In effect, Pavarotti achieves the longest relative fold length for a given pitch, which makes the change from one pitch to the next higher pitch a very easy muscular transformation. This phonation is responsible for the ease of Pavarotti’s top. Giuseppe di Stefano’s influence cannot be minimized here. Di Stefano was also blessed with this kind of fold length (leanness), and he too had a great facility in the top, marred only by his inadequate resonance strategy above the passaggio.
The reverse is more easily understood. A singer, who sings with relatively short and thick vocal folds, may be able to ascend to the top range, but there will be a point where the thickness must be suddenly released in order to achieve a given high note. In the most extreme case we hear this as a crack.
How does Pavarotti achieve this maximum fold length (leanness) on each note? There are several factors of course. But a singer who accomplishes this kind of consistency has a sound concept in mind. As previously said, Di Stefano was a strong influence on the young Pavarotti, and Pavarotti talks about his father slapping him for saying that Di Stefano was better than Gigli. In essence, emulating Di Stefano’s wide open approach is one of the foundations of Pavarotti’s technique, which he later refined, by learning how to turn the voice gradually in the passaggio. That open lower voice prepared the mechanism perfectly for what was necessary in the top. The “wideness” of Pavarotti’s vowels I believe contributed to the optimum fold length, which set the conditions for the muscles of the larynx to react accordingly. This is not different from the baby’s cry and when we look at Di Stefano singing we could almost imagine a baby crying. When speaking of chiaro-scuro , we often imagine that such a bright, wide sound would be devoid of any depth. This is untrue up to a certain point in the voice. I met a lyric tenor the other day who sings a beautiful open G with the larynx remaining perfectly relaxed. The operatic world is in love with dark sounds. But the most successful dramatic voices aim for absolute brilliance. When we hear Vickers or James King, Windgassen we hear sheer brilliance and clarity.
So what is the difference between Pavarotti and those who sing a bright sound that sounds thin? Pavarotti understood that the efficiency of phonation depended as much upon the concept of the vowel as anything else. In this case, I am not talking about vowel modification, but rather what is the most natural vowel sound that can come out of an individual throat. This is why we need to remember the baby’s cry. My teacher in Rome, Ada Finelli, used to say in Neopolitan: “Chiagni, chiagni!” In Italian, "piangi, piangi!" This primal crying sound was the foundation of the vowels. I never achieved this fully, thinking I was a baritone and fostering what I thought was a baritone sound. As a tenor, I realize how much it really helps in terms of consistency, even in my transitional stage. The “covering” of the voice, as Pavarotti calls it, has that primal crying sound as a foundation. From this root sound, vowel modification has a discernible effect. Until that sound is achieved, vowel modification is almost useless.
It is worth listening to recordings of some great singers singing the same aria, Donna non vidi mai, to make sense of this premise. Gigli had what we might call a noble sound, so balanced that it is difficult to hear what he does. If we close our eyes, however, we hear the width and brightness of the sound, just a stone’s throw from Pavarotti’s comparatively exaggerated sound. I submit however that Pavarotti’s approach here is the standard from which many find a point of refinement. Corelli is also very successful in this aria. However, we can hear distinctly when he sacrifices the width of the baby’s cry for a more covered approach on F4, a touch too low. Listening to other tenors on www.youtube.com, I find that their level of success or difficulty in this aria depends on vocalic range of motion. How close do their vowels come to the baby’s cry, as Pavarotti’s so wonderfully accomplishes. The broad baby’s cry that never violates the natural position of the larynx is a key element in developing ease in the top. In my case, it is certainly a crucial tool in developing as a tenor from a baritone past. From this baby’s cry adjustment, the voice tells the singer when and how it wants to turn. We are not advocating Di Stefano’s wide upper range, however that width in the lower range up to the top of the passaggio is the perfect spring board from which to accomplish a properly modulated top voice, and it is also the adjustment that provides clarity and presence in the lower and middle range.