Saturday, November 29, 2008

female voices will be the issue of the next post

I address this mini-post to the many ladies who read this blog. I apologize if many of the posts on acoustics are very biased toward the male side. I assure you that this is not because I don't have a great interest in the female voice. In some ways, the tenor voice in particular presents challenges that no other voice has to endure: a combination of muscular stress in the high range relative to the fold mass involved and acoustic subtlety relative to resonance adjustment.

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

Chessoperaspirit made the following commentary to the earlier post:

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).

Le veau D'OR George London

Jerome Hines does the same.

Le veau D'OR Jerome Hines

Lawrence Tibbett sings F1 on H2 (First formant on second harmonic) in this clip that cannot be embedded:

Le veau D'OR Lawrence Tibbett

Boris Kristoff does the same as Tibbett here:

Le veau D'OR Boris Kristoff

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):

GuiSA Tibbett

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.

GuiSA Milnes

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.

GuiSA Hampson

Ettore Bastianini is interesting. On a studio recording he performs a text-book cover achieving F2 on H3 as expected at 00:45.

GuiSA Bastianini2

However on a life recording he sings the same F open although attempting the cover at 00:55.

GuiSA Bastianini1

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.

© 11/28/2008

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Making Sense of Formant Tracking Charts part 1: The Tenor issue and a shoutout to Italian Tenor

Following the commentary from George and Baritonobasso I will work on changing the color scheme and deal with the phonetic/phonemic issue. With this post I wanted to kill three birds with one rock (stone. I used to say rock for years). 1) I wanted to start discussing the formant tracking issues now that we have the charts available 2) I wanted to address the C4 to C5 octave relative to some private talks I've had with Martin Berggren 3) I wanted to bring support to a concept that Italian Tenor (a frequent contributor to NFCS) has brought up often, "the deep" [u].

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!

© 11/26/2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Formant Tracking Charts

As my teaching schedule becomes more active and the level of my studies become more advanced the posts take more time to produce. It is for that reason that I open the blog to any of you who have an issue relevant to the advancement of our art form to bring it up here in any language that I can review. So don't be shy.

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

Lip Vowels

© 11/20/2008

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

President Barack Obama for the Arts

Those of us who immigrated to the United States, particularly those of us who have experienced dictatorship and totalitarianism, never take American democracy for granted. As a Haitian-American, born in the first Black republic on the face of the earth, the historical fact of a first Black U. S. president is particularly significant. But what makes Barack Obama significant is the philosophical vision that guides his rhetoric and choices. His philosophy is one of inclusion and unity that takes not only broad concepts into account but also details.

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!

© 11/05/2008