Sunday, August 31, 2008

The State of Classical Singing in the United States of America Part 1: Education

Like most citizens of the United States, I am more involved with the electoral process than I have ever been, since I began living here in the mid 1970s. Lately, inspired by the political discourse, I begin to ask myself whether I can make a difference in this society, and if so, how. Naturally, as a musician, a singer, I determined that I can have the greatest influence in my field. First I had to ask myself whether my discipline was even valued by my society. In classic optimistic form, I concluded that yes, my discipline is keenly important to the health of my society, even if that same society is not even aware how much it needs me and what I do.

Having spent a considerable amount of time in Europe and getting a sense of how the systems in the those countries function, I have no doubt that the United States has one of the most systematic approaches to the education of the aspiring classical singer. However, the United States also has a poor record of support for the development of the classical singer and indeed the arts.

I am judging the country of my citizenship. Why? Because classical singing is my life and I want that the society of which I am part values what it is I have to offer it back. It is crucially important to me that the subject to which I dedicate my life is not an icing on my society's cake, that it could easily do without. If that is the case, then everything I do has little or no importance to the society at large. So why then should I have committed thousands of hours in the past 25 years to this, when it does not really matter? Yet if what I do has such value, then why does the society not recognize it? Therefore, is it possible that what I do inherently has no value? Is it possible that I am involved in an exercise of time wasting? Can I continue with such an exercise at the expense of time better spent?

In the end, the superficial support of the arts comes with a great psychic cost. Most artists, the true ones, ask themselves at some point whether they are insane, since society at large neither respects nor values what it is they do. But how can society respect it when it does not understand it? We artists are troubled by a social contradiction that at once propagates the truth-- that the arts are necessary to the development of the human soul-- and yet unapologetically pronounces that in times of crisis, the foods of the soul are the ones we have to do without.

Has it not been the norm that the arts are only superficially addressed in the schools if at all? Why then should that be different in the public university system when it comes to the training of artists? The most bottom-line oriented medium, the political medium finds that it cannot do without the Arts. The Democratic Convention featured musicians like Stevie Wonder and Sheryl Crow, actors like Tom Hanks and Film maker Steven Spielberg. And the Republicans plan to have their own line-up. Why then do we have the classic American term: "The Starving Artist?"
The art that is valued is art geared specifically for mass consumption--Entertainment that is geared not to challenge our souls but rather to pacify our boredom. Not to be elitist, of course, there are great works of art that result in the commercial realm.

Regarding classical music, is it the government that has to do more? Not necessarily! The government has to expect more from arts organizations at all levels. In terms of Education, at least in music, we need to clean house. We need a revolution. It is too easy for musicians to get a degree. The expectations, for getting into music school as an aspiring performer, are ridiculously low and the great majority of students who get out of music schools are not prepared to work as professional performing musicians.

This post is an indictment of a system that is not based on the quality of education of performers but rather on a means of sustaining the system itself whereby students, often called "customers," are the financial fuel for an enterprise that exists more for teachers and their goals rather than the preparation of students for the field of music performance and creation (composition).

Let me be clear! This is not a judgment of every public music school in the land, but rather an indictment of the 95% that do not have the prerequisite facilities to prepare competitive professional performers. Those schools that comprise this 95% ought to exist in a reduced manner, concentrating on what they were originally designed to do, teach students who have a desire to teach music at the primary or secondary school level. In every State University System, there is obviously one dominant school that is known for its quality. That school has the facilities, teachers of experience, an earned reputation, etc. And then there are the schools that aspiring performers will settle for because they are not accepted by the viable institutions.

If there were no performance programs in those schools, the remaining schools would become fiercely competitive and the expectations for entrance would be exceptional. We would have a fraction of the singers coming out every year to compete in the real world. The quality of such talent would create a level of competitiveness that would have honed the temperament of these young artists before they even begin at the college level.

Opera at its highest quality is Pavarotti and Beczala, Nilsson and Mattila, Cossotto and Zajick, Kraus and Florez, London and Pape, Sutherland and Damrau. It is perfectly possible to train great singers today as it was in the past. Singers who understand their kraft are well-prepared and have skills honed to thrill. Superlative must be the level of expectation.

Who would not sponsor a talent like Leontyne Price or Jessye Norman? The singers exist today as they did in years past. But our educational system from kindergarten to the doctoral level has been averaged to a democratic common denominator. Standardized test have been made politically correct such that the lack of preparation of students can be explained away by cultural and racial bias. Likewise standards are loosely dictated by a so-called National Association of Schools of Music, with a language as malleable as the paper it is written on. I have taught at institutions that seek to honor the wording of such standards, conveniently explaining them away with definitions that defer to the mediocrity of the programs they offer, rather than to the spirit of what the standards require. And why would any school want its standards reduced? It is the only way to admit the high number of ill-prepared prospective students needed to justify the existence of the programs at those schools. The state requires certain numbers in order for performance tracks to be funded.

The mediocre level of preparation of graduating seniors in music in most schools dilute the talent pool and ultimately bring down the level of music in general. If there were fewer, extremely competitive, truly accredited schools for performers, admission would be based not only on raw vocal coordination, but also on musical aptitude, academic discipline, artistic curiosity and fundamental knowledge about the many subjects that are necessary to the training of a performing musical artist, whose discipline is best defined by the Wagnerian term, Gesamtkunstwerk (complete work of art).

© August 31, 2008

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Easy Way to Fold Closure; The Hidden Pitfalls of "Mask Resonance"

There is an American saying: "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions." The Haitian version is more appropriate to this subject: "The road to Hell is paved and easy and the one to Heaven is a dirt road littered with snakes." In other words, easy achievements in singing are generally short-lived, because they are usually simplistic and one-sided, ultimately leading to imbalance. Lasting results are acquired through hard work, frustration and patience. "Mask Resonance", or more correctly, resonance feedback through sensations in the bones of the face, is such a simplistic, one-sided quick fix. However, I do not reject mask resonance. It has very significant perks. Otherwise it would not come down to us as one of the fundamental techniques of classical singing.

It is simply important to understand what is specifically associated with sensations in the mask. In my experience both as singer and teacher, I have come to understand that vibrations associated with the mask can be defined as complete glottal closure during fully compressed vocalism (when there is adequate sub-glottal pressure) . Full closure and adequate breath support are what we want. So what is the problem? The problem is that this excellent "carrot" comes with a hidden "stick." Full closure and adequate breath pressure are equal to one half of singing--phonation. The resonance part is what is lacking, and without a sense of what is necessary here, the successes associated with mask resonance alone are usually short-lived.

As often suggested here, discovering the optimal default resonance adjustment is paramount to sustainable vocal health. The volume of the vocal tract from top of the glottis to edge of the lips must be maintained with the tongue and lips being the primary variables. This default volume of the vocal tract depends on the ability of the singer to release the larynx, soft palate, jaw and tongue to their default optimal positions, from which the most efficient vocalic articulations can be facilitated.

In short, mask resonance can be a fine tool to effectively monitor the state of efficiency in the glottis, provided that extraneous muscular activity can be neutralized. If glottal closure is achieved in an unbalanced manner, extraneous muscular activity will be the result, and ultimately that will throw the apparatus off balance and lead to vocal problems.

I will end with another saying, this time a vocal one: "The nose should be in the voice but not the voice in the nose". This is one I have heard a lot and I am not sure of its origin. This is at the center of this discussion. When mask sensations through bone conduction can be felt while the larynx and soft palate are released and flexible then we have confirmed full glottal closure with a flexible vocal tract (ideal resonance conditions) or "the nose in the sound." If however laryngeal tension causes a reduction in the optimal volume of the vocal tract, then nasality is the result, or "the sound is in the nose."

© 08/13/2008


Dear friends,

I had been preparing several posts at once in the last week. Unfortunately one of them (The definition of "OPEN") required some correction. However, Google's BLOGGER keeps the posts in the sequence of the draft version. I recommend you check the last three editions to make sure you have not missed anything.

Thanks to all of you who take time to comment. The dialog is what makes writing this blog interesting. I learn as much from your commentary as I do researching and writing this blog.

Warmest regards,


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Resonance in Singing: Voice Building through Acoustic Feedback

I am very excited to inform you, my readers, about the release of a wonderful book: Resonance in Singing, by Donald Gray Miller, PhD. Dr. Miller is one of the developers of the pioneering vocal acoustic software, Voce Vista, which I have used here often. Dr. Miller is a former professional singer who sang in theaters in Europe and in the United States. He is also a trained scientist and voice teacher who devoted the last three decades to developing tools to further vocal pedagogy. Voce Vista is already an impressive legacy that assures his place in the firmament of vocal pedagogy. This book is even more significant, for it opens the basics of acoustic analysis to the layman, in a very user-friendly manner. The latest version of the spectrum analysis software Voce Vista Pro is included with the book.

I cannot think of a more important vocal pedagogy manual in the last twenty years and although I lack the eloquence to properly recommend this wonderful book, I hope the sincerity of my endorsement is clear. I encourage you to buy this book, whether you are already well versed in vocal acoustics or are completely new to the discipline. I also encourage you to pass this information to friends in the field.

It is my deepest hope that teachers and singers who have been intimidated by vocal science will avail themselves of this very approachable tool.

It has been my personal privilege to know Donald Miller and to learn from the wellspring of information that comes from his very fertile mind. His generosity of spirit is felt in every page of this book. It is obviously his hope to share the information he has uncovered over these many years of hard work. I am certain that any teacher who makes this book a part of his/her library and uses the information in it will grow immensely in the ability to diagnose vocal faults and in developing remedial strategies.

Jean-Ronald LaFond, DMA
August 5, 2008.

Monday, August 4, 2008

First formant high voice: The virtues and dangers in Alfredo Kraus' Legacy

Few opera singers in the last century have as much of a cult following as Alfredo Kraus, and with good reason. The term tenore di grazia was made manifest in the art of Alfredo Kraus. He was capable of great facility in the high tenor range, great range of dynamics throughout the voice and a sense of the musical line that made for very "graceful" singing as the moniker, tenore di grazia, suggests. Kraus's voice and exceptional musicality made him the ideal vehicle for the great works of the Italian bel canto repertoire as well as the higher French tenor roles.

The paradox in Kraus' legacy is the following: the singer who is the greatest example of longevity in our times has an inherent flaw that makes his example dangerous to tenors who do not understand how he managed his voice. This may seem controversial and disrespectful. But I assure you, I am a devoted fan of the art of the great Alfredo Kraus. This is not an attempt to blemish the reputation of the great tenor, but rather to bring to light a point of fact that accentuate both Kraus' extreme awareness of the possibilities and limitations of his instrument, and the dangers when those who follow his example do not understand the limitations of the approach.

The issue I will bring up in this article has great relevance not only to lighter voiced tenors, but to the way that those who hire in the business misunderstand vocal weight in general.

The controversial characteristic of Kraus' technique is his approach to the passaggio and above, and what the resultant vocal quality is. Kraus, unlike his contemporary, Luciano Pavarotti, and more like his predecessor, Giuseppe di Stefano, sings what we often all an "open" top range. The term "open", which has multiple definitions has been dealt with in a previous article. In this case, I am speaking of resonance strategy. Kraus sings a high voice that can be described as "uncovered" or "non-girato", and in more objective terms, first-formant dominant.

The term first formant dominance refers to the natural resonance of the tenor range below F#4.
In the case of such singers as Di Stefano, Kraus and currently Juan Diego Florez (another very successful tenore di grazia) this resonance strategy is taken higher than F#4 and in fact throughout the full range of those singers. The question therefore is: "Is there in inherent danger in first formant dominance in the high male range?" The answer is a qualified no!

Kraus' longevity is enough of a testimony that one can sing in first formant dominance throughout the range and excell. Diego Florez is another singer in the style of Kraus who examplifies grace and flexibility. The caveat is the following: first formant tuning above the passaggio requires raising the larynx above its natural at-rest level in order to be resonant with the rising pitch. The raising of the larynx reduces the lower pharyngeal area which is necessary for the strength of lower harmonics of the sung pitch. The natural lower laryngeal position (we are not speaking of depressed larynx here) is also absolutely necessary for the resonance of lower notes as well.

In other words, a high larynx high range, takes away the naturally darker colors of the voice in the subtle chiaroscuro (bright/dark) balance. This is crucially relevant to repertoire choice and this is where Kraus' awareness of his own vocal limits made him the icon of longevity but simultaneously restricted in his range of repertoire. The lack of strength in the lower harmonics give the voice a brighter more lyrical color, consequently inappropriate for roles that require richness of color. The closing off of the darker colors of the voice makes it virtually impossible for the first formant tenor to sing a fuller resonance, balanced by both sides of the chiaroscuro spectrum. In the first formant strategy, the only way to achieve darker colors is by singing a heavier sound, which over time would compromise the tenor's ability to sing high notes.

This is the crucial difference between Di Stefano and Kraus. Both Kraus and Di Stefano might have had enough vocal power to address the heavier side of the tenor repertoire if second formant tuning was a part of their resonance strategy. Kraus respected the limitations of first formant tuning in the high range and sang a lighter repertoire. Di Stefano sang heavier repertoire and paid the price. Indeed, over time he could not trust his upper range, although he had a impressive and consistent high C in his younger years. Kraus on the other hand, never violated the basic weight of the instrument and accepted the limits of the brighter first formant strategy. It is really interesting to compare Kraus' voice throughout the many years of his career. His voice had a lot more depth in the early years. Here I compare Kraus' 1977 and 1989 renditions of the aria Salût, demeure chaste et pure from Gounod's Faust.

Kraus 1989 Faust

Alfredo Kraus high C 1977 and 1989

This spectrograph shows the 1977 version on top and the 1989 version at the bottom of the high C5 with the green cursor going through the first formant and the white arrow pointing to the second formant. The vowel modification is [E] as in "met".

The crucial observation here is that Kraus' natural abilities point to a tendency toward second formant tuning in his early years. His technical philosophy, very much based on "forward placement" encouraged a high larynx production resulting in first formant dominance in the high range. We find confirmation for this in other comparative instances from the clips, for example the high G# at "enveloppant son ame":

Alfredo Kraus High G#4

This spectrograph also shows a clear difference between the spontaneous approach of Kraus' early years and the change to first formant strategy in the middle and later years.

This is one of the reasons why discussing technique is often a frustrating quagmire. It is difficult in this case to distinguish between Kraus' nature and his technical nurture. I believe that Kraus' nature reflected the traditions of the time. The quality of his voice was not unlike the young Pavarotti. In fact, upon hearing Kraus' early recording of the Duke in Rigoletto opposite Robert Merrill and Roberta Peters, I mistook him for a young Pavarotti. In later years, I could not possibly mistake one for the other. The change to first formant strategy happened over time as a consequence of his technical philosophy.

As previously stated, the first formant strategy gives a brighter more lyrical sound. Compared to Pavarotti who as similar attributes (e.g. full lyric tenor with easy top notes, efficiency of phonation, dynamic flexibility), Kraus sounded considerably lighter in weight. Did Pavarotti have a naturally heavier voice? No doubt. But I submit: not by much! The two tenors sang similar repertoire in their early career and given Kraus' tendency in the direction of second formant tuning, the voices had much in common. The divergence in repertoire, Kraus' continual leaning out and Pavarotti's deepening can be easily tracked through the difference in their resonance strategies. Did Kraus' repertoire force a first formant strategy or did his technique limit him to a repertoire that required lyricism and grace rather than power? This is not so easy to answer, but given the continuous gain in higher partial and loss in lower throughout his career, I submit that his technique dictated the nature of his repertoire.

Pavarotti by contrast follows what would be considered a logical progression. Second formant tuning in the high range conserves his chiaroscuro balance. His voice never loses depth. Even with his naturally brighter voice, richness in the middle grows with time. With time the vocal musculature gains in strength and is able to endure greater breath pressure. Therefore Pavarotti was able to assume more dramatic roles with negligible loss to his attributes. He was able to expand his repertoire, while Kraus was limited.

These two clips show Kraus and Pavarotti at 31 and 36 years of age respectively singing "La donna è mobile". They are similar in sound quality here. The next two clips show the difference in quality after 30 years of singing.

The later two clips show both tenors remarkably fresh at age 61. However, to my ears, Kraus' voice has thinned out resonance-wise. The top is secure but a touch strained. Pavarotti by contrast remains full-toned throughout and his voice gained in depth and substance with time. One could say that we cannot compare two such individual voices, and on the one hand, that may be valid. On the other hand, it could be a cop-out.

It is important to analyze the imperfections of our heroes in this art form. I find it totally consistent that I enjoy Kraus the artist and gifted vocalist and still be able to make critical observations about his technique. If the discussion was about musicianship, I might have a word or two against Maestro Pavarotti's contributions. In Richard Wagner's words, Opera is a gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art. No opera singer has been perfectly gifted in all areas. We learn best when we can make sense of the strengths, weaknesses and especially the idiosyncrasies of our operatic heroes. The art of opera is traditional and cultist to a fault. I am preempting a possible backlash from Kraus devotees. Paradoxically I am one.

However, the final word I wish to leave in this long edition is that this first formant strategy in the high range has become so chronic among professional tenors that those who are hiring cannot distinguish clearly wether someone is "turning" the voice or not. Consequently, they hear dramatic tenors with a brighter sound than their predecessors, because of a crucial misunderstanding about what produces the ring in the voice, and they believe that this is a correct new trend. And when they hear a lyric tenor who achieves an excellent chiaroscuro balance (which necessitates second formant strategy in the high range), they mistakingly think that such a singer is a dramatic tenor because of the darker color he achieves. We will continue to have a crisis of tenor voices if a clear distinction cannot be made between a voice that is bright or shrill because the larynx is high and one that is brilliant because the voice is balanced in terms of resonance. The nature of vocal tissue has an effect on color. Lighter voiced tenors may have dark voices, and dramatic tenors may have very bright voices even when the voices are well-balanced. We have the tools to make these distinctions and we should begin now, and help this art form develop rather than stagnate.

I will never isolate the voices of working professionals for analysis on this blog except to point out a positive element. It is hard enough to manage a career without having side-liners making commentary. However, there is nothing that keeps me from attempting to make sense of the careers of prominent singers who are either retired or have passed to the choir of angels. We owe it to ourselves to understand the great stars fully, and not be only dazzled by their obvious achievements. The kind of criticism that we too often read about the vocal technique, indeed about all aspects of the performance of opera singers, is too often superficial, subjective, arbitrary and even mean-spirited. When critics have little or nothing to say, they give in to sensationalism which impresses the less knowledgeable reader with shock value. It is my hope that we can begin to have a discussion about great singers that goes beyond idol-worship by fans and singer-bashing by sour critics.

© 08/12/2008