Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): Strength Before Flexibility, An Obvious Lesson For Phonation

It took Bikram Yoga to remind me of an obvious lesson I had learn unconsciously years ago. I had remarkable grace as a soccer player in high school, but never thought of it as anything special. My coach of my senior year (he came that year and unfortunately I forgot his name), when he found out I had accepted a scholarship to music school (I was supposed to study computer engineering or something math and science related), was disappointed. He was hoping I would attend a school that had a soccer program so that I would continue developing my skills. But I was born in Haiti, where young children, who played with makeshift balls, without shoes in the stony dirt, had greater flair than me. But if we deny our skills because of our reverence of those we think are greater than we, we destroy our means of contribution.

Later, my beloved teacher, George Shirley, who I still consider my teacher, once said: "You have to be able to just smack the heck out of the golf ball before you can really hit a chip shot!" That was a metaphor for singing. I did not have enough experience back then to fully appreciate the wisdom of that statement relative to singing. But as an athlete, it made sense to me.

Recently in Bikram Yoga, I was reminded how my arm strength is a major asset in my striving for flexibility. I thought that the leg muscles were simply tight and it would take forever for them to loosen up. But Bikram teachers said I had an advantage because of my arm strength. Low and behold that because of my arm strength, I was able to touch my head to my knees and with my fingers under my feet as anchor to maintain the posture, I gradually straightened out my legs. I was astounded.

Changing from baritone to tenor has been the test of a lifetime. I have watched my strength improve, and my ability to warm up higher become more consistent. Still, certain age-old weaknesses remained. Why was the passaggio still an issue? George Shirley once told me that he hoped I would keep focus in the voice when I made the register change. The truth of my voice was often lost when I made the register shift. Yet many others congratulated me on my skill because I was able to achieve a smooth change from the low voice to the high. It was however a neat trick! A trick that today confronted me. I warmed up to my high C in a very natural way and then tried to sing a few arias. Some really good things, and then gradually more phlegmatic, and difficult! Then I took a break and it was better. Despite just opening my mouth and singing like a healthy yell (thank you Pavarotti), the voice always turned (acoustic shift) in the right place. My vocal tract is a thing of grace (it takes great strength to make this affirmation) but I have been avoiding the centered truth of my larynx. It was weak, unstructured, uncoordinated. I was a wonderful trickster all these years despite the correctness of my pedagogy. Now I am strong enough to be aware of how weak I am in phonation. Strong enough to have wonderful vocalises, but too weak for that coordination to behave in context.

On a totally technical point, until the muscular coordination is strong enough, it will not be possible to take advantage of the fluidity and efficiency that comes from a fully breath-driven production. Supra-glottal inertial air is the golden fleece of vocal pedagogy in my opinion. It relies on the ability of the folds to approximate close enough to complete closure without unnecessary muscular tension. Once this coordination is achieved with security and strength, then flow-phonation becomes the attainable prize. I have had moments when a completely breath-driven system has been my reality. Yet it is not sustainable where I am muscularly weak. Two months ago, I was able to warm up comfortably to a Bb. A month ago, the B-natural became consistent in warm-ups. Now the C is there every day. Yet there are many uncoordinated Gs and Fs and low notes that in context cause problems. Meanwhile, I observe how stronger voices behave. One of my students has a powerful soprano voice. Despite some weakness in the extreme top (most dramatic singers do not develop the extreme top. We will!), she has great control in her necessary upper range. I would be happy with that much as a tenor (to have a reliable and flexible high C#). Yet the path is clear. Strength comes with doing! Knowledge about the voice is one thing! It helps me train others. Training myself is another matter altogether. I must have the strength to separate the singer me from the teacher me. I do! Otherwise I would have gone to the teachers who would want to experiment with my voice and take the easy way out in the end. Truth of it is I could continue to sing as a baritone, but I would be that "lazy" tenor who took the easy way out.

The majority of famous singers who become teachers know what they want to hear, but have very little idea how to get one to that point who is not already nine tenths of the way there. All objective information makes me a tenor. But practical ability makes me still a tenor wannabe. Well here's to strength! Building up muscles has no shortcuts! Real strength-building takes time and patience. My tenor students who made the change from baritone to tenor in a short time were already very strong in the ways they needed to be. I just gave them the structure in which to safely make the switch. I on the other hand have had the structure but needed to just work hard every day.

There is a legend that strength is not necessary to sing opera. That legend is the myth of those who already have strength. When you are very strong, you can bench-press your own body-weight and it does not feel like much. But when you are weak, it is a different experience. When you are a strong ballet dancer, you can carry your partner over your head and still look graceful while doing it. Such are the needs of a singer: to make the difficult not only sound achievable, but look and sound easy!

© 03/24/2009


Adam said...

If I didn't believe in coincidences, it would certainly be hard to explain this.

Just today in my voice lesson, my instructor had me vocalize in what you described as a healthy yell (thank you Pavarotti indeed!) several notes above what I believed I could "yell" healthily. If I'm singing in a soft (not breathy; just low volume) voice and taking extra care to execute a smooth transition from TA- to CT-dominance, I'll switch to a lighter mechanism across a range of A3-A#-B-C4-C#-D. (Needless to say, that's on a good day when I've been practicing passagio vocalises for 30 minutes.) Normally, the limit to what I can belt is E4. I can rather easily maintain TA-dominance through the above range and only begin feeling strained at the D4, where I only have one more whole step to go.

Today, he had me do 5-tone descending /ma/ (which I assure you, I hate, because that smooth transition I mentioned earlier NEVER happens on descending /ma/).
I took extra care to allow a lighter vocal quality today because this time, I wasn't going to belt up to the D# and break into falsetto on the E. When he heard me starting to make that transition, he told me to use my abdominal muscles to increase breath pressure and make sure my mouth was open. He had me start back on the same pitch where I had already been halfway through the transition, except now it was fully F1-dominant. I can't see the piano keys from where I stand during the lessons, and he had me vocalise like that until I sung what I imagined to be a very uncharacteristically relaxed and easy E4. It turns out it was a very uncharacteristically relaxed and easy F#4. I had to do a double take when he said that because I figured he had misspoken and tried to say D# or something lower.

Of course, once I realized it was F#, I couldn't sing it like that anymore. (Haven't we all had those moments?)

Still, I find it fascinating that his explanation for how I did that was that I needed to just make the loud yell-like sound for now to build strength. He suggested that I focus on "making it sound pretty" later. I don't think I'm going to stop working on the passagio from the bottom-up approach I've been taking, but I do think I'll also start working on it this new way too. After all, if the two of you say virtually the same thing on the same day, perhaps I need to get the message!

(If this is posted twice then just delete this repeat post. I still can't always tell whether Blogger has actually accepted my post or not.)

thetruth said...

I enjoyed this post because I have always been told you must have strong abdominal muscles to be able to sustain notes and things....fortunately for me, it never hurts to sing, although i was told by FRANCOTENELLI, a vocal coach on youtube, to sing as if i have a golf ball in my throat. He really gave me a recent ear to nasally sounds when singing. I can hear it on certain vowels like E and the mouth getting lazy and not opening enough to let the air come out.

I suffer from Achalasia a rare disease where the esophagus has little to no peristalsis, so your food stays in your throat for about a day, most of the time you wake up and everything you ate last night is still in your throat and you hack a bit of it up. Your stomach is very hungry because nothing went down yet, so your breath n stuff is yucky. ANYWHO, I DIGRESS but it affects my singing voice because in my mind, I can feel the support there but I cant sustain them very long time length wise because my throat glitches, you could say.

It may stop in the middle of the note because of my Achalasia and from having my throat already stretched (dialated) twice. Ill suffer from this the rest of my life so its hard when singing and hearing those things and trying to overcome the imperfections in the voice.

I love to sing while exercising because afterward, i notice the diaphragm feels like a GINORMOUS weight has been lifted and its invincible. Its like I can go up and up an up and it feels so free, but certain vowels like E and U get stuck in that soft palette and begin to sound very nasally. lol. But I can feel that after working out, I feel much more versatile and free, although I do not know all the musical dialect you speak in, term wise. lol

You may have heard it in the recordings i sent you on facebook Jean. Im certain I can find a way to work with while not killing myself. I ave breathing issues a lot of times with the upper airway constriction because Achalasia after having your throat stretched can make normal breathing a task. Sometimes when im just sitting around watching tv or something I stop breathing for a few seconds. SCARY!! trust me! BUT I LOVE SINGING! ITS MY CALLING! I MUST DO IT! I DO DO IT! BUT I WANT TO SHARE IT WITH THE WORLD ON A LARGER SCALE LIKE THOSE GREATS BEFORE ME.


Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Adam, thank you for your comments. Are you a Bass?

Adam said...

I know a basso profundo and I definitely don't sound like that, but I also definitely don't sound like a lyric baritone. I haven't heard good examples of the voices in between to know which sounds most like me. Plus, voice types are like registration: it's impossible as of yet to get everyone to agree which is which, where the dividing lines are, how specific to be when describing them, and how set in stone they are or aren't.

Skip this paragaph if you dislike random philosophy intruding on normal conversation: To wax philosophically Buddhist, it's probably because categories are simply tools that people use to conveniently communicate, but they're really empty of meaning. There's no such actual thing as "bass" except in people's minds, but it describes plenty of singers very well for all intents and purposes.

Back to normal discussion, I can say that on a good day when I'm properly warmed up, I can sing down to about an E2 before it becomes breathy enough to be noticeable, but I can go down to B1 if I let it get very breathy. (I'm not counting vocal fry for now, or singing with a depressed larynx.) With that abdominal push I described, I can make it up to the F4 in a definite chesty belt. The F#4 sounds shouty in retrospect and the G is terribly strained and really it's an unhealthy yell. I already told you about transitioning around B3 when I blend smoothly instead of belting, and once I'm in that lighter mechanism, I can belt it up to about the Db5 in a healthy yell. If I blend it with whistle register instead of belting up higher, then that starts happening around the G4 in low volume or the A4 with normal volume. Anything about what happens above that point is almost certainly useless information to you, considering how long this post already is.

Rebecca Fromherz said...

Dear JR you are anything but 'the lazy tenor' you talk about who continues to sing a pretty baritone. It is a joy and an honor to hear and see your transformation into a tenor. From your journey and your writing I learn much about the essence of what it means to be a singer...our responsibilities to life and art and truth are awe-inspiring when we answer the call to be our true selves.

Kashudo is something special indeed. I look forward to the next installment.


Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

From such a uniquely beautiful singer, I remain humbled and inspired by the comment. The difficulties of the journey are slowly giving way to ease. It is important to be able to share the difficult days as well as the triumphs with someone who understands the path so clearly. I am thankful for your company on this great journey.


Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...


It would be fun hearing you! Sounds like a healthy voice with a lot of possibilities. We have a lot of range available to us, but what determines a Fach is the expanse of the modal range. The modal voice, the true voice (dependent upon careful coordination between both muscle groups, CT and TA (vocalis)) range determines where the comfort zone is (e.g. what tessitura is the most conducive to the nature of the instrument. Where the light mechanism begins is also interesting. That your muscular passaggio begins around B3 suggests something between fuller baritone and bass-baritone. On the other hand, I do agree that Fach is also a very personal issue.

One thing is certain, range is not a determinant of Fach.