Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A conversation with Bruce Ford: A blog post in three acts with prologue and Epilogue

On January 15th, I had the distinct pleasure of having a richly fulfilling conversation with the accomplished and celebrated Bel Canto Tenor, Bruce Ford. I could not help but to take an artistic view of the structure of the conversation. I have divided the clip as if it were an opera. A short introduction or Prologue by me, three "acts" discussing: 1. Mr. Ford's background and training (2 scenes), 2. Vocal technique (3 scenes) 3. The current operatic realities (2 scenes) and an epilogue, dealing with Mr. Ford's current activities. I hope interviews of this kind will become a mainstay on the blog. The realities and future of classical singing depend greatly on the contribution of our great singers. These are audio clips over a Skype conversation and so the quality leaves a bit to be desired. However the quality is certainly clear enough not to cause any strain in listening. Future interviews will use video whenever available.

Prologue: TS speaks informally about the format of the interview


Act I, Scene 1: Bruce Ford speaks about his early vocal education including four important years with his teacher, Dr. Jerry Doan.


Act I, Scene 2: Bruce speaks about his early stage experiences at Houston Opera Studio, and fest contracts at Wuppertal, Mannheim and Düsseldorf. And the fatal meetings with Maestri Claudio Scimone and Alberto Zedda, two Rossini specialists.


Act II, Scene 1: Bruce Ford and TS exchange thoughts about the importance of breathing, and balancing heavy and light mechanism and developing a secure high C by the end of his undergrad years, and the importance of a teacher putting his foot down about the limits of the student, and the difference between a lyric voice that carries well and a bona fide dramatic voice.


Act II, Scene 2: Bruce and TS talk about the dangers of pushing the voice down to a lower tessitura, achieving proper vocal weight, and the importance of a balanced middle voice.


Act II, Scene 3: Bruce and TS discuss the passaggio and the different approaches between Bel Canto tenors and Verismo tenors, the mastery of Gigli and Lauri-Volpi, and the necessity of flexibility.


Act III, scene 1: Bruce and TS discuss the realities of the business and whether singers who have had lasting careers have influence on the development of the business; Microphones in opera, electronic vs. acoustic singing, economic realities, etc.


Epilogue: Bruce speaks candidly about a health scare and discusses his desire to do more teaching and masterclasses.


I enjoyed listening to the interview while formatting the blog post. To learn more about Bruce Ford, visit his website.
We wish Bruce the very best in his future endeavors and hope to speak with him again soon!

© 01/28/2009

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Coming soon: A conversation with Tenor, Bruce Ford

Last week I spent an hour and a quarter talking with the phenomenal tenor, Bruce Ford over Skype. I am working on the audio file in the next day or two and will present our conversation on the blog. Bruce is as interesting and profound as his refined vocal technique.

This will not be our last conversation on this blog. Sometimes providence brings you in contact with someone that you are sure will be a mainstay. I look forward to a live meeting with Bruce. Perhaps our next interview will be a video one!

Also, I am hard at work on the second part of "The Female Middle Voice". This week I will have at least those two posts and possibly a third, by request, dealing with "Singing with obesity!"

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The female middle voice, a complex and misunderstood puzzle, Part 1

The register scheme for the female voice causes lots of grief and a pointless debate much more so than the male register scheme. The traditional operatic male voice rejects extremes such as flute voice(i.e. falsetto) and vocal fry. Female singers on the other hand have made acceptable use of the extremes which is one of the main reasons for the confusion.

One student recently asked me the following: "Could you put an end to the register debate, once and for all? Are there two, three, four or five registers? I have seen all four points of view expressed but with little clarity." My answer to her was (and I have looked for the opportunity for such smart-ass sarcasm my whole teaching life. I am not beyond a little fun at the expense of a student): "Yes!" She enjoyed neither the answer nor my self-satisfied impish grin.

It might seem a tall order at first, but if we review what has been written here on this blog on the subject, we can find all four perspectives very defensible. Our perspectives on the female middle voice become conflicted when considering registration theories.

1. Two-register theory: Based on the female modal voice when both vocalis and CT muscle groups are active, this theory rejects both the pulse (fry) range devoid of CT activity and the Flute/Whistle voice devoid of Vocalis activity. This leaves a modal voice of two and a half to three octaves wide consisting of two modes: a) Heavy mechanism (Vocalis dominant) and light mechanism (CT dominant).

2. Three register theory: Based on the acoustic theory of formant dominance: a)the lower voice up to and including E4 is dominated by the first vowel formant; b) the middle range which includes approximately the octave between F4 and F5 is dominated by the second formant; c) the high voice, above F5 is again dominated by the first formant.

3. Four-register theory: Includes all modes of muscular dynamics including the fry register and the flute/whistle register as one mode (i.e. CT only, no Vocalis activity).

4. Five-register theory: Same as three except that whistle is distinguished from flute voice because whistle register includes dampening (i.e. the folds only vibrate along the forward portion while the arytenoid portion remains closed).

How does one define middle voice in a two register theory? A three-register theory? A four or five register theory?

I prefer to ask: How does the female singer experience registers? How does she cope instinctively in the absence of clear definitions? How do famous sopranos and mezzos influence the experience? Do famous singers (especially the legendary ones) conform to logical norms? And if not, how do we determine what is correct?

The classic problem that most women are concerned with is how to smooth out the so-called first passaggio. Why is there often a registration problem between D4 and G4?

The basic problem in this area is fundamentally one of resonance. We are used to our speaking voices, and what we refer to as the speaking quality is defined scientifically as First Formant resonance. Higher than D4, the [a] vowel which is among the most frequent vowels in singing loses the viability of its first formant frequency. It becomes necessary at this point for the singer to reshape the vocal tract (modify the vowel) to access the second formant resonance (a concept called covering). Second formant resonance is a foreign feeling to the inexperienced singer. The first instinct is to force the first formant sensation as much as possible. With that strategy the vocal tract resonances becomes incompatible with the sung pitch and causes laryngeal tension. Over time such a production causes an imbalance between the vocalis muscle which thickens the folds and the crico-thyroid that lengthens them. The other muscles adjust to compensate for the imbalance. At this point the entire system of laryngeal musculature would be malfunctioning.

At this juncture, simply modifying the vowel to the second formant will not work. The problem must be worked backwards: 1) Lighter singing to re-balance the vocalis-CT interaction. 2) Achieving a comfortably low larynx, a sign that the muscular compensation has been neutralized 3) achieving a balance phonation that produces a clear focused tone supported by adequate breath pressure 4) modifying the vowel as was initially necessary. This takes time, patience, guided practice and eventually conscious strategies on the singer's part. Quick fixes do not resolve such problems but rather exacerbate them.

It should be added that the problem is always less pronounced for the [i] to [E] vowel spectrum because those vowels facilitate the formant switch with mild, almost spontaneous vowel modifications.

Although the resonance changes cause a mild quality change, when phonation is consistently efficient (that is the tone is focused and well supported)and the resonance change is gradual, no perceivable change is heard. This always brings the following question:

Are the low voice and the middle voice the same or different.

We have already addressed the resonance issue. The resonance is different between the two ranges below Eb4 and above Eb4. However the nature of the phonation remains fundamentally the same. However as the singer goes from low to high, the vocalis-CT balance changes (i.e. vocalis gradually less active, CT gradually more).

What must be accomplished therefore in addition to the resonance change is a gradual thinning of the vocal folds as one goes up. The laryngeal muscles will accomplish this automatically if 1) the resonance change is appropriate 2) breath pressure is reduced to allow the lengthening of the folds to occur naturally.

Here we must understand a paradoxical reality: As the singer goes up in fundamental frequency (pitch) she must reduce in volume (breath pressure). However, as the fundamental frequency (F0) rises, the tension and medial pressure of the vocal folds actually increases and cause an increase in breath pressure. The natural increase in pressure and the singer's conscious decrease of volume (also breath pressure) yield a balance of breath pressure that is appropriate to the note being sung and the singer's native muscular strength.

Marilyn Horne demonstrates an excellent exercise for dealing with this passaggio, precisely pointing out the issue of reducing volume as the singer rises. See 4:50!

One of the greatest dysfunctional vocal strategies is the misconception that one must get louder as one goes higher. Such a strategy causes a net increase in pressure that is usually too high for the laryngeal musculature to handle and causes sudden changes in muscular balance (breaks).

An unapolegetic Agnes Baltsa takes a heavier form of the lower voice through much of the middle range and then must make a shift in the upper middle.

The quality we hear at the bottom is that of a traditional cabaret singer who does not need to access the upper end of the voice. Baltsa is also a gifted artist who dramatically sustains the muscular imbalance to great effect. It is important to know that she is singing a full modal voice more loudly than advisable and not a "loose" chest voice (vocal fry). That is why she is able to take it up that high.

Another error is to over-sing in the lower range and suddenly shift to a slightly breathy (i.e. inefficient) production above E4.

Even some very seasoned singers find it difficult to handle as is seen here in the treacherous aria, "Come Scoglio" from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte sung by two great divas who share the lower passaggio issue in common:

Renee Flemming

Leontyne Price

A third unfortunate strategy is to avoid the the natural strength of the lower range to avoid the muscular shift. By singing in general very lightly in the lower range the singer sacrifices the lower range in order to accomplish a smooth transition from low to high. Such is the case here with the great singer/actress Gundula Janowitz:

Such a strategy is only possible for voice type that do not require a strong lower range. Lighter lyrics and coloraturas might get away with this strategy but it leaves the listener wanting in those rare moments when strong low notes are required (e.g. Susanna's "notturna face" in "Deh vieni non tardar."

Balancing low to middle requires the most ideal laryngeal depth, efficient phonation and volume control. A few examples of singers handling the lower passaggio in their own successful ways. Some indulge the low, some too careful about the balance and others get it just right. What is certain is that that part of the voice is tricky:

Elina Garanca:

Jessye Norman:

Elena Obraztsova

Olga Borodina

Shirley Verrett

Few singers handle the lower passaggio as expertly as Marilyn Horne. She proves unequivocally that it is not only possible but satisfying and desirable and dare I say correct to learn to balance the lower and middle voices muscularly and acoustically. Her version:

Marilyn Horne

The female voice that most deeply touches me over the years is that of Janet Baker. She is someone I wish I could meet in this lifetime for much more than her well-balanced passaggio:

Janet Baker

This post is getting long and I have only dealt with the first passaggio. In the next edition we will deal with the middle voice itself. Other than issues of muscular balance, the most important issue in the middle range is the resonance. In the next post we will define the female middle range and why it is often weak.

© 01/08/2009

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Bruce Almighty Ford: A seriously underrated singer of our time

This evening, late after a rather trying day, I came to my computer to read a simple email from a student that I teach when she comes to NY. I recently befriended her regular teachers, two wonderfully knowledgeable teachers who came to NY and graciously invited me to dinner. At one point, when discussing great singers, we came to the name of tenor Bruce Ford, an excellent singer I had only heard once before I truly understood what great voices were. I was very impressed back then with Ford's performance of the Count in Barber of Seville at some venue in NY, but this was at a time when the world of tenors to me was crowned by the legend of Franco Corelli and probably anything spinto. This evening, the note from the student was brief: "David [her regular teacher] wanted you to listen and analyze this clip":

After having analyzed hundreds of sound files with acoustic analyzers I did not need my electronic tools to recognize every technical thing I hold dear in the voice of Mr. Ford.

1) An even range from low to extreme top of a voice with near perfect phonation.

2) Messa di voce on not only easy notes but also the very top notes

3) A top range that seems endless

4) A secure understanding of formant resonance tuning particularly with respect to the acoustic shift in the passaggio.

5) Near perfect weight management that smooths out any hint of a muscular shift anywhere in the voice.

6) Skillful breath managment (exception: at the beginning of the piano section, there was a moment when the breath pressure was not adequate. So sue Mr. Ford for having a moment of humanity in an otherwise perfect execution!

7) A near flawless legato!

Add to that:

A) Secure musical intelligence

B) Concentrated dramatic conviction

C) Firm linguistic command

D) Not to mention a dashing figure even in that costume!

So what does this magnificent artist lack? I have not followed his career closely but will study him. He has been around for a long time, and has sustained an excellent career remaining faithful to the Bel Canto repertoire best suited to his excellent flexible voice.

The only reason I can think that Mr. Ford is not considered one of the greatest tenors of his time would have to be the fact that the repertoire at most houses consists of the operatic pop hits like Carmen, Tosca, Aida, Traviata and Butterfly, operas that do not feature Mr. Ford's incredible gift.

Even in the company of very worthy colleagues with world-class careers of their own, Mr. Ford reigns supreme.

Consider me henceforth a fan!!!!! I hope I will have the pleasure of encountering Mr. Ford someday to thank him for keeping the great art of Bel Canto alive!

P.S. No one asked me to post the clips on my blog. I was sincerely quite blown away by Mr. Ford's great performances on youtube and simply felt a pedagogical obligation to comment on this magnificent example of our art form.

© 01/04/2009

Friday, January 2, 2009

Si parla come si canta: A two-edged sword and an important discovery!

The tradition of Italian vocal pedagogy developed as spontaneously as operatic singing must have been to the Italians. The Italian manner of speaking is perfectly conducive to the vocal coordination necessary to carry the human voice through an orchestra. The bright, sometimes nasal speaking influences complete fold closure and adequate breath pressure, two essential components of lyric vocal production. What Italian speech does not guarantee are appropriate vocal weight, precision of onset of phonation and the lower position of the larynx that is required for optimal resonance. The following scene from Fellini's "8 1/2" shows how Italian actors and actresses speak.

Particularly interesting is the woman singing and the children's voices from around 3:00 onward. One can easily imagine how those voices change from energetic speaking spontaneously to operatic singing. Not such a leap. It is not just the language but rather the Italian life energy that gets translated to vocal expression wether from children playing or two friends talking. What Italians expect from vocal expression predisposes them to operatic vocal production. That is why opera began there.

Yet as said, the correct weight of the voice and the so called "gola aperta" (open throat) is not always a given.

These two gentlemen do not project the purity of production heard in the trained actors. The vocal intensity is clearly Italian, however the quality of the voice of the interviewer is lower than it should be for ideal phonation and there is a breathy quality as well. The interviewee is much better but also has a tendency to let his speaking voice drop to a lower pitch level than ideal.

There is also a stark difference between the production of these two women. The older lady alternates between two vocal weights. One is "chestier" (heavier)and the other clearer and lighter. I believe both qualities are slightly out of balance and that the ideal speaking weight for this woman would lie between those two qualities. Furthermore, the lower chestier quality is very common among Italian women in general. This thicker, chestier voice is often a problem to solve among Italian female singers.

The younger woman who leads the interview speaks close to her optimal speaking pitch however the lack of intensity suggests a vocal weight that is too light. The phonation is somewhat breathy and lacks the strength necessary to graduate to an operatic production.

Nevertheless the common Italian speech quality is closer to the necessities of opera than most other cultures. Yet even among Italians there is a broad range of efficiency levels with respect to phonation in speech. The key issue here is the correlation between vocal weight and efficiency in phonation.

During this year of teaching I have been particularly vigilant when it comes to patterns. Perhaps because of this blog I pay closer attention to what others might find random. I have had several students changing from one Fach to another or even one voice type to another. Because of my own change from baritone to tenor, I have had students particularly interested in my understanding of the process. I have also found that one of the obstacles to success for many of my new students is imprecise vocal categorization. In most cases they have had to change their repertoire before their best qualities can emerge. I currently teach tenors who were baritones, a baritone who sang tenor before, a high coloratura who had been singing lyric soprano, two mezzos who had been singing too lightly in the middle range, etc. In the end the most interesting observation I have made is that easy, spontaneous phonation that produces a brilliant tone rich in overtones depends on the at-rest length of the vocal folds. A production that is either too heavy or too light produces unnecessary compensatory muscular involvement, which results in a poorer quality of tone. When a singer needs to make a special effort to achieve full glottal closure it a sign of imbalance in the vocalis-crico-thyroid relationship. Such an imbalance causes further imbalance in the ancillary musculature (e.g. inter-arytenoids, crico-arytenoids, etc) responsible for the completion of the phonation process. Such imbalances create compensatory contractions (i.e. imbalances) by muscles that should not be active in the phonation process.

I am convinced that the first and foremost component of singing that must be addressed is the vocalis-ct balance throughout the range. A balanced phonation process means a clear, speaky quality that sounds relatively thicker at the bottom of the voice and gradually leaner as the voice goes up in pitch. The speaking pitch of a singer is not problematic as long as the natural weight of the speaking pitch is maintained. However there does exist a pitch level whereby the speaker/singer can be heard with presence and intelligibility without considerable effort. Such is the optimum speaking pitch and is probably conducive to maintaining balance in the voice. Speaking higher or lower is not necessary problematic in theory. However the further the speaker wanders from the optimal speaking frequency the more likely s/he would be to compensate either for lack of presence by increasing air pressure or or lack of intelligibility by pressing the vocal folds to achieve better closure. In either case, the natural snowball effect is that wrong muscular compensation would occur.

My conclusion is that efficient phonation is not possible when production is either too light or too heavy. In many singers the difference is mild and not a career breaker. However a slight reduction in quality is often the determining factor between a world class voice and a very good one. In such mild cases (e.g. a lyric tenor thickening the voice slightly to sing spinto repertoire) the voice loses its unique quality and prevents the singer from reaching the highest levels in the field. Such minor quality reduction are often wrongly judged to be an inferiority in the singer's native talent rather than an error in assessing vocal weight.

As for the Italian axiom, "Si canta come si parla", it should not be read as a positive statement but rather as an equivocal one whereby poor speaking yields poor singing as balance speaking yields balanced singing. It is often assumed that the singer's habitual speaking voice is his/her "natural" voice when in fact the natural voice, which should be the most efficiently balanced voice had not yet been achieved.

© 01/02/2009