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


Arachne said...

Thank you for a fascinating post. Your comments on the third video (of the two women) interest me particularly. The older woman's speaking range, which you imply is lower/chestier than ideal, bears all the hallmarks of the speech range of a woman of over fifty. At that age the voices of most women drop in pitch and it becomes much more difficult to maintain the lighter, clearer, more "feminine" voice production that seemed so easy in previous decades. I speak from my own experience, and I hear in this lady's voice many of the "symptoms" -- for want of a better word -- that I have experienced in my own speaking voice during the past six or seven years. Between the late forties and early fifties the hormonal balance changes dramatically, which affects the speaking as well as the singing voice of women. It can be very disconcerting to hear one's own voice emanate from one's throat at a lower pitch than formerly. Transitioning into, and maintaining, head register, for both speaking and singing, becomes more effortful as muscles become weaker and less responsive at this age (not just laryngeal muscles, but muscles throughout the body), and so the tendency is to remain in chest voice for speech. It really does become more difficult to "raise one's voice"! I have been trying to research this topic, yet it is not easy to find women in their fifties who are still singing regularly in the soprano range and are prepared to share their experiences!

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

A very important comment indeed. Thank you so much. The hormonal changes definitely have a qualitative effect on the Reinke Space, the layer of the vocal folds involved with cellular regeneration. am not up on all the hormone therapies but the menapausal factors can be countered enough to lengthen the singer's viability by even a decade. Also the efficacy of the technique, particularly breath support can reduce the hormonal effects. Christa Ludwig and Mirella Freni are excellent examples. I Spoke with both in their older age and was particularly impressed by the stregth and balance of their speaking voices.

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

This is a comment from Baritonobasso that I accidently rejected in my moderation page:

The first time I read this post, I didn't even notice that your title was not the old saying "Si canta come si parla" but the reverse of it. But that's just a different way of talking about the same idea, isn't it? The main point that I take from the first part of the post is that the Italians were the originators of classical singing technique because of the efficient way that they (by and large) habitually use their voices in speaking. But then comes the necessary qualification, that being Italian is no guarantor of optimal use of one's voice in speaking any more than in singing.

I say "Hear, hear" to your comment that the old phrase "Si canta come si parla" is equivocal -- perhaps in more ways than one. It could be either a description of how people in fact sing -- "How people use their voices in singing derives from how they use them in speaking" -- or a directive on how to sing. And even as a directive it can be interpreted in more than one way. One would be: "The way to sing (well) is to sing the way you speak." Given the evidence of the Italian video clips that you cite, this would not be a generally reliable guiding principle. Another interpretation would be: "The way to sing (well) is the way to speak (well)." This, I think, would be sound, but it doesn't really tell us much, does it?

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Dear BB:

Your comment has such depth that I owe it a much longer response than I have time. I believe I will dedicate an entire post to the paradox of the Italian School, Tradition, etc...

Thank you for another thought-provoking comment.

KG said...

To speak to the older women's voices dropping farther into the chest comment above:
I have some experience teaching older women who feel they have "lost their voices" and in 100% of the cases so far, the solution has been two-fold. First, build up the head register mechanism by singing "oo" down from the upper middle range, through the F-F# range without change of vowel. This generally results in a very weak tone at first, but strengthens with time.
On the flip side, in many cases it is also important to sing more open "oh" or "ah" scales up and down (being careful not to be overly chest-dominated) in as open a way as possible through this range. Focus on the palate, a stable larynx and tongue, and generally a quite open mouth.
With patience, regular practice, and good breath technique, I have had success in rehabilitating the older female voice. I'm convinced it's just a lack of use and accelerated atrophy of the head register mechanism.
Please forgive the plug--openID isn't working: is my blog if you're looking for regular short posts on singing technique.

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Excellent advice KG. I find your approach to the problem very logical and very sound. I will keep an eye on your blog for stimulating cross-pollination. Thank you for commenting!