Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Ever since I can remember, I have heard teachers say: "You can't have it both ways!" or "You are straddling the fence!" or "Chose one or the other!" In an attempt to reduce the art of singing to digestible bits, it seems to be a disease of both sides of the teaching spectrum, whether science-based or traditional proprioceptive techniques, to deny the existence or viability of the other.
If I have learned anything about singing in the past 25 years, it is the paradoxical nature of this pursuit. Science and tradition, chiaro "e" scuro (as my teacher Ada Finelli used to say), head voice and chest voice, low resonance and high resonance, music and words, technique and expression, et.
At the end, it is a fusion of "apparent" opposites that makes the whole of the singing experience.
It is indeed incumbent upon the the modern science-based teacher to find relevance in traditional methods, indeed defend them through objective means. Teachers who follow the traditional methods have history on their side and are for reasons of habit and precedence unwilling to embrace new information that require them to look at singing from a different point of view. But those of us who have embraced the objective information that is being revealed can only claim it, when we are able to explain why traditional methods can work as well as when they are truly ill-advised.
The major disconnect between the vocal science community and singers is that vocal scientists miss the boat completely in not understanding that the way singers feel the voice is quite different from the way scientists think they feel the voice. For example, when an advance singer speaks of "chest voice" they speak of a feeling of vocal substance that can coexist with the concept of "head voice' which has more to do with a sense of fluidity (breath movement) than it has to do with a feeling associated with crico-thyroid dominance.
One top dramatic soprano once put it to me in this way: "I feel there is some chest voice in every note!" And a performing lyric tenor friend of mine said" "I feel the head voice active throughout the voice!" They are both correct. One speaks of the feeling of substance that comes from a note that is properly balanced between CT and vocalis. Whether the note is CT dominant (light mechanism according to science) or vocalis dominant (heavy mechanism according to the same), it does not matter. The dramatic soprano is aware of the proper subglottic pressure that results because of adequate opposition to the breath stream, whether at the bottom or the top of the voice. This is a question of longitudinal tension and vertical mass which determines pitch and by definition, breath movement. The tenor is aware of adequate breath flow, an issue of medial pressure. He is aware of a balanced sensation whereby, regardless of range, the breath is able to move fluidely, even with adequate impedance (whether from glottal obstruction or supraglottal inertia or both). This he identifies as headvoice.
In this sense, the science types get it wrong. Every science article I read about phonation, speaks in "accepted terms" of chest voice being vocalis dominant with greater fold mass, etc and head voice being associated with greather fold length and thinness, etc. They are not wrong in substance, but wrong by not understanding the proprioceptive reality for the performing singer.
When I ask a singer for adequate chest voice, I am not asking them for greater vocalis activity necessarily, but rather for a sense of vocal substance that does not violate the necessity for fluidity. In other words, I recognize the necessary coexistence of what the singer experiences as chest voice and head voice. In truth, they are two different functions, the former being based on adequate interaction between vocalis and CT, the latter having to do with muscles of adduction principly inter-arytenoid (when crico-arytenoids are functioning properly).
Of course balance in adduction depends in great part upon the balanced relationship between CT and vocalis. Only when adequate fold length/depth are achieved can medial approximation be balanced. I have already discussed here that folds that are too shallow for a given pitch will induce pressed phonation to make up for the faster vibration cycle, and vice versa for thicker folds.
The same principle applies for the interaction between F1 and F2 dominance, particularly in the female voice. F1 dominance is often associated with sensations of vibration in the chest while F2 is associated with vibrations in the head and mask areas. Those sensations are only true in men's voices that are slightly or very unbalanced. This is where tradition has instructed science. Scientists have tried to equate F1 dominance with lower voice and F2 dominance with upper voice. Any physicist (Martin Berggren has often corrected me on this blog in that regard) will tell you that formants do not work so predictably. Indeed the singers experience validates this.
Even though acoustic science logically shows that the female low voice below F4 and high voice above F5 are F1 dominant and that the octave in between is F2 dominant. This proves true in acoustic , but the experience of the singer is different. Most women tell me that they sense the upper voice high in the head, even though it is F1 dominant. Some others will tell me that they sense the middle voice low, some others high. Neither is wrong! (More on this in a moment)
Men by contrast in general are pretty clear about the low voice being felt in the chest and the high voice in the head. Men have the additional experience of having the Formant dominance change in the high voice where they also often sense a muscular balance shift. High and low is more clear for men on both a muscular and an acoustic count.
For woment it is more complicated. Because of the octave differential, women experience an acoustic shift where there is little muscular change around F4. Then they have an acoustic shift around F5 near the place where the muscular shift occurs. A woman has three acoustic areas to deal with, which are experienced in a variety of ways depending upon how the muscular balance is dealt with.
What is more crucial is that a man or woman who sing a true balanced tone, whether high or low speak about a unifying sensation that included both low and high vibratory sensations. I believe this is much closer to what is happening scientifically. It is in fact inappropriate to think of any note as being a function of a single formant influence. Whether a note is F1 dominant or F2 dominant, the so-called "passive formant" (an idea brought up by myself in a recent acoustic symposium, but coined by Donald Miller, inventor of Voce Vista) is of undeniable importance. By this understanding of interdependent formant influences, achieving the "cover" in the male voice, for instance(i.e. the acoustic shift), depends not on accessing F2 dominance alone but rather F2 dominance with a specific F1 passive activity. I have proposed that the frequency of the passive formant is just as crucial as that of the dominant one. This would also explain why a singer would be aware of low sensations on a note that is F2 dominant or high sensations on a note that is F1 dominant. I would venture to think that a singer becomes particularly aware of the formant, whether passive or dominant, that is not precisely adjusted.
Pavarotti often referred to the operatic voice as a controlled "scream"! There is no doubt about the presence of the singer's formant in the crying of babies. The relation is obvious. The primal "cry" or "scream" is fundamental to the polished operatic sound. The baby's cry is perfectly coordinated and contains the very elements we opera singers seek, yet we voice teachers will be the first to caution someone not to scream. Why? For my part, I feel that not every one is ready to produce a primal scream healthily. Social conditioning teaches us as civilized people to avoid all things that are extreme or primal, whether shouting in public or flatulence, for that matter. Can we find a high level of operatic success among cultures that preserve a higher level of primal vocal expression, whether the spirited expression found in the black or Southern Baptist or Pentacostal churches in the United States or the extroverted vocal expression among Italians, Spaniards and Koreans, considered more emotional when compared with their Japanese or Chinese counterparts? In fact it is my contention that teaching a singer to create a viable operatic sound is tantamount to helping them return to a more primal mode of vocal expression. This often means returning the CT-vocalis balance to a mode akin to the baby's cry. The cry cannot be produced until the muscular balanced has been found a new.
In short, vocal science gives us clear understanding of vocal function to such a level as would help the voice teacher target dysfunction quite quickly. It is however crucial that when the teacher does an exercise to increase vocalis activity, for instance, that it has a basis in the singer's personal experience. That experience could be consistent among singers, yet depending on personal experience, one singer may concentrate on one particular proprioceptive sensation while another on a totally different one. This does not take away from the objectivity of the singer's experience IF we consider the experience of both singers as essential parts of a synthesis that is experienced only partially by each. By considering both experiences as valid, we can begin to build a sense of the total experience of balanced singing and of dysfunctions.
In any case, I had often thought of writing a book called "The AND of Singing". But I am not the only one who has had the instinct about the necessity of AND. The singer know as NaC on NFCS, a friend and colleague of mine, has made the concept of AND central to her own process. Hence I could not claim this as a personal discovery. Indeed a great singing teacher could develop totally spontaneously without empirical scientific knowledge. We all know that. However conditions that made this possible (availability of time for trial and error mainly) do not exist anymore. Vocal Science gives us the means to fill the gap created by a faster moving world. The science-based voice teacher must not forget what it "feels like" to sing.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Faching for those who do not know the term is simply a system of categorizing operatic voices. There are general categories like soprano, alto, tenor, bass. In Handel's time, even in Mozart's there were only those categories. In Mozart's time there were also categories of roles that were usually given to actors who could sing. Granted what was considered singing in Mozart's time even at a low level is far superior to what we accept from the average actor today as is evident in movies and pop culture. Soubrette, for instance, is a female comic actress, with limited vocal range when compared to the lyric singers (bona fide opera singers) of Mozart's time. Of course, there were Soubrettes with extraordinary voices when one looks at the role of Blondchen in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. But when compared to the part of Konstanze in the same opera, it is obvious that Mozart's expectations of a bona fide lyric voice are far superior. This can also be seen in the writing of Fiordiligi and Dorabella vs. Despina, of Donna Elvira and Donna Anna vs. Zerlina as well as Pamina and Queen of the Night vs. Papagena.
Today, Soubrette is considered a voice type. There are enough operatic parts written for a wiry young soprano with a dramatic flair that one could consider taken on such roles as a specialization. This would not be too different from the case of a Spieltenor (character tenor in English) whose work requires greater comic facility than vocal virtuosity. The problem lies in the following: many singers are categorized by their voice teachers as Soubrette or Spieltenor when they are not able to overcome the technical difficulties that would make the singer viable in a bona fide lyric Fach (category). This is no slight of the great Soubrettes and Spieltenors of past generations who were great singers and who would pass as lead singers today without problem.
There is a great difference in a great singer who excells as a Soubrette or Spieltenor compared to a singer who sings poorly who defaults to these dramatic types because they lack the vocal means to do what they might have preferred to do or what their voices might have been better suited for.
Certainly I could not tell a successful Soubrette with a light high voice that she should develop her upper range to broaden her repertoire to include certain coloratura roles that are not easily found! Or would I? Yes I would, on principle! I am a voice teacher and I am concerned with taking away technical limits. Whether a Spieltenor or a Soubrette, the problems are the same when it comes to vocal technique.
I had the luxury in my youth to work with two singers who defined for me the separation of vocal technique as an ideal and the work that is given to us as practical. They are Beverly Hoch, one of the finest Coloratura Sopranos that I have ever heard and Anthony Laciura, the most celebrated American Spieltenor. Beverly and Tony are both small of stature. They both have what would be considered very light voices and furthermore they are musicians of the highest order and have a comic timing at the level of the greatest vaudevillians we could think of.
I first met them in Rameau's Platée, in the first modern production of the Opera at the Spoleto Festival.
When experiencing Beverly in the role of La Follie in Platée, which required both virtuosity and comic skill, it was obvious that this woman could be the greatest Despina or Gilda. Beverly had sung her share of Despinas and Zerlinas, for sure because coloratura roles are lead roles and a young singer does not get to sing them until they have proven themselves in the secondary parts. Beverly indeed became a first class coloratura with several recordings and worldclass debuts to her name. If not for a bout with cancer she would no doubt have climbed to household name status. She lacked nothing. She IS a first class singer, actress, colleague, mentor, friend, you name it.
Tony Laciura's career is legendary among opera singers for his countless characterizations of unforgettable so-called small parts at the Metropolitan Opera. But beware if he should ever be thought of as limited. The repeat production of that Platée in the Charleston edition of the Spoleto Festival featured none other than Mr. Laciura in the title role of the ugly nimph, written for tenor in drag. Beyond the obvious over the top comedy (and Tony looks awesome in a dress), the role of Platée must have been written for a haute contre, a particularly high tenor whose comfortable range lies between tenor and alto. The countless top notes in the work were executed with flawless technique. All the while Mr. Laciura's legendary comic timing was never compromised. If I languish about the unrefined level of many of Opera's top earners, it is in reverence of great singers like Beverly Hoch and Anthony Laciura.
Another important point about Faching is appropriateness. Some wonderful colleagues of mine feel that one should not categorize a singer early or even at all. I disagree on both counts. The reasoning behind my respected colleagues opinions is that 1) the voice does not reveal its nature until later. 2) Categorizing a singer is superficial and limits the singer psychologically and therefore vocally relative to the inherent flexibility of the instrument.
I agree with my colleagues partly. If Faching is approached with a sense of limitation a a primary mindset, then it is harmful. If it is approach with a sense of defining the singers vocal center, then it is helpful. There are major psychological implications to identifying oneself with a vocal catergory. It gives one certain parameters to operate in. In a sense these are limitations. They are however limitations that allow the singer to become conscious of the nature of his/her voice. Where is the voice powerful without strain? That would be the vocal sweet-spot or what I call the vocal center. The rest of the voice can be strengthened to the level of the center, by which the instrument becomes viable for many more roles than would have been possible a the onset.
It is however dangerous to assume that a voice is strong enough to do every kind of role without harm over time. In our time, we do not make much difference between a note that is sung securely with strength and stability to one that is simply phonated in pitch. The difference between longevity and a short operatic shelf-life is knowing which notes in the voice are truly strong and which are unreliable when confronted with a slight cold or a night of poor sleep. A strong voice must be able to handle more than that.
In my personal experience, it is crucial to identify the basic vocal category (soprano, alto, tenor or bass) and that can be figured out very early if one knows what to listen for. A bass singing a full-closure falsetto can give the illusion of being a tenor. Apparently the celebrated bass-baritone René Pape began as a tenor. If his early teachers had recognized that function for what it was, they would have worked to balance his modal range and reveal the true nature of his voice. I often think that my development as a baritone might have been a conscious decision by some of my teachers because they thought it might be too difficult to train me as a tenor. Perhaps they assumed I might either give up when my baritone excursion (25 years) reached its limits, that I might remain safely in academia, where unfortunately little artistic work was being done, or that I might be very successful as a baritone because the rest of my package was so strong. Either way, I am here now confronting the true dramatic tenor voice that I have. And I wish I had been an unskilled tenor first instead of a safe baritone. Knowing myself at least, I know that I would not have remained an unskilled tenor for long. I am currently training several ex-baritones who are now convinced of their tenor natures. If they are like me, they will have many days when they will wonder whether it would not be much easier to stay a baritone. Nothing is more difficult for a singer than to give up the sound that they have expected from themselves for most of their formative life. It is somewhat hardwired. But it is perfectly possible to make friends with the true vocal self and rewire the brain to accept it.
Refining an unskilled tenor, or helping a soprano to find her top notes and become a coloratura instead of settling for soubrette because of technical limitations, is much easier than convincing a baritone that he is a tenor or a mezzo that she is actually a coloratura (believe it or not, the latter was much easier)
Oddly enough, determinging a coloratura's voice does not depend on how high she can sing at the on set but rather how high her lower vocal quality goes before she feels a desire to let go. The muscular passaggio is the key to figuring out voice type, but in a balance voice we do not hear when the voice goes from so-called heavy mechanism to light mechanism (not to be confused with acoustic changes that we call areas of passaggio). The earlier we can figure out where the muscular change is the faster we can chose repertoire that is in keeping with the singer's vocal center. It is not necessary to call the singer coloratura or lyric or dramatic. In fact those categorizations are less important and even detrimental at the onset. It is enough that the singer sings in a tessitura that is suited to his or her voice. Final catergorizations can be used later. Although I could categorize a young dramatic soprano pretty early, it does not help her to know this information because the young voice does not have enough strength in the laryngeal musculature to handle the kind of sheer volume required for dramatic repertoire. If she knows she is a dramatic by nature, she may try to produce sounds that she is not ready to produce at a young age. In the end, the correct length and depth of the vocal folds on a given note is what should be maintained over a lifetime. The voice gains in richness over time because it becomes able to handle greater subglottic pressure without losing its structure. The road of danger is changing the muscular balance of the voice to create a richer sound instead of waiting for the voice to grow in strength. Pavarotti's voice lost little flexibility over a lifetime. He always referred to his voice as elastic. Domingo lost more, but not so much that he could not continue to sing for a long time. Others lose great flexibility and quality over a short period of time and end up having very short careers.
In short, Fach generally as early as enough information can be gathered to make that determination. Leave final categorization for a time when the singer has amassed a body of work that points to one subcategory or another.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Kashudo (歌手道): Success and the Singer's spirit: A question of faith for ourselves and for the art of opera
Whenever I speak of faith, I always have a need to modify it with "I am not religious"! I was raised Catholic but I had no patience for religion. Long before I thought about it seriously, in my youth I had an epiphany whereby I realized that religion was a conscious limitation of something that was so much greater. What is not universal did not interest me. A religion that did not value every human being, indeed every thing in the universe with reverance had no appeal to me. I have since met religious people and one Catholic in particular who within the limitations of their religions managed at least to respect every other. But "other" is the illusion that persists. Religion is not the central subject of this post but rather an awareness of the universe that does not acknowledge adversity as a separate force but as one created by ourselves; that indeed our states of dissatisfaction and "being stuck" is of our own making, and that we can with just a change of our way of thinking find the path to freedom.
It did not surprise me, but I found it uncanny that listening to the reknown spiritual leader, Dr. Wayne Dyer recently that every precept that he covered was already being practiced by me. I never thought of it as a belief system necessarily but a gradual education about the ways of the universe based on my own adversity and my ways of dealing with it.
This became further important when during a rather heated exchange on NFCS about the ills of the operatic system, I wrote the following:
I met her recently in Berlin and two days later heard a broadcast on French radio of her. She has substantial talent and "could" become a major singer if she does grow, if the business will let her grow.
I disagree with Pinonoir that it is not so dire! It is indeed extremely dire. The problem is that those of us who can survive in this business in some way shape or form protect it so much, even if we have to convince ourselves that "it is not so dire!"
It has been dire for years and years. We are just at the point that it is so dire that we are all willing to admit that there are problems.
Singers, pianists, conductors, etc need time to grow and become experts. Read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell! It takes some 10,000 hours of experience to become an expert at anything. Singers, coaches, conductors, directors--many (not all) working at the top of the field are incompetent. They do not know their fields well enough to propel it forward. We are stagnating; too many working people in our field are copying not creating. Tenors try to be the next Domingo and young divas fashion themselves after super models or the picture of some bona fide Diva on their college dormroom walls. Litte that is truly fresh remains fresh for long.
Excellent directors get upset because young singers get their "nature" coached out of them instead of being taught principles of good music making.
There is no lack of talent. But talent gets packaged before it is refined and we end up with promising singers who do not have the substance to last more than three years on the big stage when they get there.
I'm not saying anything new, but we need to stop propagating the lie that everything is fine. It is not fine. Too many unprepared singers get hired and so young singers coming up think it is ok to learn their music by wrote, to mimic their brilliant or just famous predecessors. No new infusion of creativity is being allowed to flourish. So we have a multitude of half-baked singers competing for the few spots that should belong to fully prepared singers who often get aged out of contention.
Opera has become a market place and it is about who gets to market first and whether the shoddy superficial product can be sold. Car industry, anyone?
Yet if we demand quality of others we must be responsible for finding that quality in ourselves, and not many are ready to do that. "Why practice if I can't make them believe I'm good enough?"
What is happening in the operatic world is no more than another symptom of the laisser-faire attitude that has ruined our economic system and the environment. Companies have been excessive and downright decadent about how money is spent.
The paradigm is not working. Opera is not popular music and cannot be sold as such. The Bocellis of the world would have been laughed off the stage 30 years ago, but now for the sake of quick money he puts a product out there that makes young unsuspecting tenors with little development think they can make millions just by sounding opera-like.
When someone is brave enough at a major operatic institution to change the paradigm, we will have real opera.
We need singers whose talents have been developed long enough to solidly sing their repertoire, who care enough about their careers to shoot for longevity as opposed to quick millions, regardless of what forgettable product they leave behind.
And before someone thinks I am some bitter singer wishing he were one of the money-making superficial singers he criticises, there is nothing further from the truth. In fact I would kill myself before I became that kind of superficial.
What I am is a singer/teacher like so many out there who was not taught completely and who has taken it upon himself to become the singer he knows he can be. Whether the world wants finished singers or not is not up to me alone. But the only way to make my argument convincing is to build the kind of talent I am talking about. Then I can confidently put my talent and that of my students opposite those I am criticizing here.
And if it takes me a lifetime to accomplish that, is that not what artists should be doing?
It is dire, and people are often ridiculed when they say it is dire. The people in this forum I find most inspiring are those who have lived through the lie and are actively doing something to bring truth, whether teaching in a way that challenges their students to be substancial or themselves singing and coaching and conducting and directing beyond what is "acceptable" and "passable".
I don't believe in geniuses. I believe in 10,000 hours of experience. If more people in our field had put in the hours, so that we could have an intelligent, profound discussion about the dire state of affairs, we would all be better off.
Opera is a miraculous art form that needs to be dealt with seriously by serious people, not as a punchline by those who don't get it. More in more that punchline is coming from within the field itself.
I was rather emotional when I wrote this, but oddly enough I found the stream of consciousness rather accurate relative to my thinkings. I quoted myself here so I would not waste time repeating what seemed like a personal outcry in a more polite manner. I was never one interested in the compromises that politics necessitate, nor indeed a wreckless rebel. There is a fierce need to wail when we are faced with "perceived helplessness." And that was the freeing cry that made so clear that the success of each one of us as singers at any level and indeed the salvation of the operatic artform that so many of us love with such a passion are to be achieved not by blaming anyone, but our collective selves. These are some of the untruths that we all have bought into:
1. Opera is not as exciting as popular music!
False (I wonder who the frightened coward was that came up with that one!) Say that to Peter Hoffmann who made a career in both opera and rock music or to Freddy Mercury the lead singer of Queen who revered opera so much! Or indeed to the Three Tenors who proved that nonesense false when they performed their first concert (not the second or the third).
2. The vocal talent today is not as exciting as in the time of Caruso or Corelli or Price or Nilsson or Simonato or Kristoff (name your favorite)!
False! The talent is even more abundant. It is simply not respected and not developed! Not valued by the singers themselves because they have been taught to value lookism about substance. Not nurtured by the teachers who feel that their techniques may not be enough to prepare their singers in a world bent on commercialism of sex above art. Not developed by companies headed by unimaginative general directors (not all of course) who do not value the art form that they are hired to promote.
3. Opera is so expensive to produce that we cannot take chances with unveted talent no matter how exciting it is.
False! First opera is only expensive to produce when there is money to waste. Opera companies tighten their belts when money is scarce and unfailingly create better productions when imagination becomes a necessary commodity! And publicizing that an unknown new talent is about to take the stage and replace a star has always been the surest way to fill theaters. There are movies made about such stories. The difference is that the audience was sure that a new talent tossed in the spotlight like that was worth the risk! Thus people were willing to be curious and see what was happening. But when the replacement singers are all known regionally for being half-baked and half-prepared, it is no news!
4. Opera is a museum art and has nothing new to offer.
False! Only a lie conveniently chosen to give unremarkable directors and uncertain conductors an excuse for not finding the truth as they see it in the work! Music is a remarkably fluid language that makes sense in so many ways. Every new director/conductor team could bring a new vision to every opera if they trusted that they had something valuable to say (which they do, by the way) and were willing to do it uncompromisingly in their terms as opposed to create productions that they think people will accept. Regie Theater is a curse! Not because there is nothing good in it, but because everyone thinks they must come up with a substitute story line for the opera that modern audiences will appreciate more. It is a cop-out! All those stories are relevant! They need good story-tellers, period!
5. There are no new operas worth staging!
Partly false! There are great operas that have not been staged for a long time that need to be brought out. I am tired of yet another production of Barber of Seville even if it is thrilling! I want to see something else in between. There is plenty to chose from. As for new operas, this is by and large true because composers have been brainwashed to think that writing the music that moves them personally is incongruous with "new music". There is no new music or old music. Only the music that the composer believes in! Furthermore, opera composers need to understand the medium. Mozart was a revolutionary, so were Verdi and Wagner (the triumverate considered the greatest opera composers of all time). The difference between them and today's innovators is that they saw the value in what came before them. They learned from it and ultimately improved on it.
6. The failure of the operatic business is entirely the fault of General Music Directors and Agents!
Totally False! I bought into that too for a while. It is the fault of each of us who care about this art form. We simply sit back and take every thing that is offered up, even when most of us find it appalling. The director that offered up the little black dress that caused Deborah Voight all that nightmare should have been fired and she retained. The other singers in the production should have had the balls to stand by their able colleague and demand the dismissal of that director. The audience members at Covent Garden who found the whole business unacceptable should have asked for their money back. The conductor himself should have quit! Those would have been heroic acts that together would have shared the responsibility and fought sizism as a primary consideration against talent. I bet Ms. Voight would have been humbled by the support and work on her weight peacefully rather than feeling compelled to undergo a somewhat dangerous operation with no real record of lasting success.
I could list more examples, but I welcome you to do so. The important question however is whether we will remain all of us victims to our own fears and not speak out against what we find unacceptable. Some have told me that addressing issues such as this on my blog is just going to alienate the people that I want to work with someday! So far I have experienced the exact opposite. Yeah I am not singing at the Met or Scala yet. But logic would suggest that the friends I have made through speaking out has expanded my network of important business contacts rather than diminished it.
Constructive criticism based on a well thought-out argument in pursuit of betterment of our condition is never perceived as self-serving. Of course some, out of fear for themselves, would resist being partly responsible for the condition of our beloved art form and chose to caution me or reprimand me or chastise me for writing such things. And as I hold myself partly responsible for our collective plight, I am not asking anyone to do what I am not prepared to do myself. I have chosen to live my life in pursuit of betterment of this artform that I chose to be a part of.
Yet constructive criticism is not enough. Action is what counts. Little actions every day.
For my part, every lesson I teach makes the singer responsible for his/her own success, makes the singer face his/her shortcomings and better yet acknowledge the beauty and sacred nature of their limitless talent.
For my part, I try to find a way every day to end my own practice session in a way that propells my own progress forward. Yesterday I was tired, so I could not sing through full-length arias after two big teaching days and talking and practicing. So on that day, rather than end defeated, I sang three high Cs. The first time in my life I have ever sung three one after the other. They were in tune on a German piano tuned at A4= 444. Yes I am proud of it. And that was the point. High C has been a barrier. Now it is just another note like Bb or Bnatural that I had to learn to sustain, that I had to build the strength and coordination for. It is one more testimony of seeing beyond the limitations for I, a human being like any other, have to fight the doubting statements of well-meaning friends and jealous ones to continue on my path. I need encouragement, both subjective and objective. After not seeing one of my tenor students for a month, after our first lesson he said to me: "Wow, your high notes are sounding really good!" That had been said by another student of mine who had not heard me in a few weeks! Same from a baritone student who gave me a curious look when I sang a falsetto-like high C for another tenor in a lesson. I did not think much of that high C, but his reaction told me that even my flute-voice high C was developing in substance.
Why all this? Because I am just as frail as the next singer, just as attacked by fear. But I refuse to be a victim to that fear. It is more empowering to find the little light that makes the day a success rather than a failure, the little light that shows the path to success rather than to the wall of opposition! For us singers, and for us conductors and for us directors, and for us agents and for us GMDs, is it not better to require our superiors to make a real choice, even if that choice is against us? I can be proud of this if not anything else: When I present myself at an audition I want the casting director to say to me unequivocally, "I chose the other singer because he is better than you" or "I chose you because you compell me to!" I will not show up unprepared and make his/her choice easy. S/he must chose! And if s/he choses against me for reasons that are unfair, then s/he will have to walk around with the weight of that choice as well.
Just the same I honor the tenors I know who show up and with their wonderful voices make it clear that I have a lot of work to do. They inspire me to go further, simply because giving up is not an option that I can accept! Hubris? Foolhardiness? Courage?
You decide! But really decide!
Saturday, August 15, 2009
There are times when an apparent vocal imbalance isn't a vocal imbalance at all. Such was the experience with one of my students recently. The top voice was always secure but the middle, as is the case with many female voices was inconsistent. I worked with her on balancing the two muscular registers and the problem was minimized. She could sing through her range with relative ease, but I was not satisfied. There was a quality about the sound in the middle that seemed inappropriate to her particular voice. I knew that she sang musical theater in her youth, so I asked her to take out one of the pieces she sang early in her development before she had any real training. Low and behold, a perfectly balanced middle range was achieved within minutes. The moment she let go of her "operatic voice" the true voice emerged.
It also explained much about this relatively young spinto who had been developed as a dramatic soprano before she was thirty years old. Singers who develop spontaneously, that is without much training, must be instructed carefully. This particular singer had been in search of her "real" voice for so long, but seduced by the idea of being a dramatic soprano she took a wrong turn. She could not let go of the false middle voice that was manifactured to support the dramatic soprano identity until she gave up that identity. She is in fact more likely to be able to sing dramatic repertoire (when the voice has fully matured) now that the voice is being produced efficiently. The new presence in the middle and low makes much of her spinto repertoire viable even now.
This does not mean that everyone can find their true voice by singing music that they sang in their youth. But that is certainly a helpful strategy in discovering at least part of the singer's "nature". Some voices, from inappropriate habits (e.g. speaking, poor training) begin their early training with imbalances. Therefore returning to that time will not fix the imbalance, but it could expose how far historically the imbalance goes. The nature of such voices is discovered through training. Such is certainly my case. I feel natural as a tenor, whereas I had to create my baritone voice over time (of course it did not feel as if I was manufacturing a sound back then, but rather looking for my real voice).
The more difficult problem for that particular singer and perhaps for many is that they perceive the operatic sound as something foreign and different from their "speaking voices". If the speaking voice is balanced, it is very likely that the singing voice would develop spontaneously from it. However when the young singer begins training for opera, s/he often thinks s/he has to do something differently to be viably operatic.
There are real reasons why singers feel that the operatic sound is a fabricated sound. I have observed over the last 20+ years of teaching that the acoustic changes in the voice often detract the singer from his/her balanced phonation. In other words, the singer will spontaneously change his/her mode of phonation when s/he feels a change in resonance. Because of this the most common registration problems occur in the female middle voice (through and right above the first acoustic change), and in the male upper voice (through and above the only acoustic change--excluding countertenors). For that reason, a skilled "belter", who essentially does not change formant strategy through the acoustic area around Eb4-G4 tends to have a more consistent phonation pattern than the average opera singer in training. This is because the belter is not distracted by the acoustic passaggio areas.
In truth, the second formant, which defines the operatic voice, feels foreign to the singer at first because it is different from the resonance of the speaking range, which the singer identifies as his/her natural voice. As discussed here before, spontaneous accessing of the second formant (high resonance) depends as much on acurate adjustment of the second formant as it does on maintaining viability in the first formant (low resonance). That is:
If we consider the two formants as two equally strong magnets with the sung notes between them, if the two magnets maintain their respective positions, as the notes get higher they will be pulled by the magnetism of the upper formant. Likewise, the lower formant will influence them as they go lower. If however the lower resonator follows the sung pitch (the larynx rises--we know that a high larynx raises the frequency of the firs formant), at the passaggio point the first formant will continue to dominate where the second should take over. The higher notes in such a case lose warmth and so the singer feels a need to make up for that loss of quality by altering his/her natural phonation or resonance mode.
In the case of my student, it is the resonance of the middle range that had been altered to fit her concept of a more dramatic voice type. That in turn had forced a thicker phonation mode in that part of the voice. I had begun to deal with the weight issue and had done exercises that would promote a more natural resonance strategy. Both issues (because they were related) were corrected as soon as she went back to her musical theater mode of singing. This approach restored her natural resonance mode and corrected the muscular (phonation) imbalance for the most part. Slight weight issues were quickly corrected because she could feel them clearly, since they were no longer masked by her "learned" resonance adjustment to fabricate a dramatic sound.
To summarize, this experience addresses many issues: 1) The speaking voice (formant 1) identified by the singer as the natural voice quality; 2) The foreign sensations associated with second formant resonance, which is necessary in the middle of the female operatic voice and the upper middle and top of the male operatic types; 3) Spontaneous register balancing as a result of going back to the singer's "native" mode of singing. These are fundamental issues we need to continue discussing. A balance is always to be struck between the objective nature of scientific information and the subjective nature of the singer's personal experience.
I therefore conclude this post with yet another axiom from my former teacher, the late Glenn Parker: "Teach the singer, not just the voice!"
Sunday, August 2, 2009
A4=440 Hertz, 440 vocal fold oscillations per second. The ear drum receives 440 little pressures every second. That is in fact a simplification of the process. In fact every fundamental pitch includes an unlimited number of harmonics that (not considering the vocal tract as a filter) would be progressively weaker than the fundamental. However when the vocal tract shaping (vowels) is added to the mix, the strength of the fundamental in relationship to its harmonics can change dramatically. There are pitch-vowel combinations that suppress the strength of the fundamental completely. But because every fundamental pitch has a unique set of harmonics, the brain reconstructs the fundamental through the many harmonics that can only come from that specific fundamental. Instead of hearing a bunch of harmonics, the brain recognizes them as the fundamental that produces them. That is why producing strong harmonics is a requirement for a well produced voice. High harmonics are also responsible for being heard with (not over or through) an orchestra. The human ear is sensitive to the frequency band between 2000 and 3500 Hertz. Sounds in that frequency range make everything else around sound further away by comparison. The orchestra can produce sounds in that frequency range but not very strongly. The human vocal tract has the ability to reinforce the acoustic envelope on every pitch while the conglomorate of orchestral instruments can only do that below the 500 Herzt level. Simply put, the orchestra is not very strong above 500 Hertz, and the human ear is more sensitive above 2000 Hertz. If a singer is able to produce strong harmonics above the 500 Hertz level, the human ear will hear it more strongly than the accompanying instruments and very powerfully when there are strong harmonics between 2000 and 3500 Hertz.
Some people have such keen hearing that sometimes they hear certain overtones more than others and do not hear the synthesis that gives the illusion of the fundamental. Such people often have a hard time matching pitch, particularly when the pitch is given from a mechanical source like a piano. Some people who are called tone-deaf are rather too sensitive to pitch. But I disgress...
Let us now consider the pitch A440! How do we get strong harmonics on that pitch. A strong source tone (which means strong harmonics with it) depends on the strength and volume of compressed air released during every open phase of the vibration cycle. At 440 Hertz the glottis releases 440 pulses of air every second. Each pulse disturbs the air molecules all around us and reaches the ear drum. Consider that when a violin's A string (A 440) vibrates, its halves and thirds and quarters and fifths, etc also vibrate releasing harmonics at the level of the multiples (i.e. the halves vibrate twice as fast, thirds three times as fast, etc). All vibrating bodies behave in the same manner. So sound waves a the multiples are also sent through the vocal tract. Certain waves are suppressed by the shape of the vocal tract and others are encouraged. Proper shaping of the vocal tract yields strong high harmonics that makes the voice heard better.
Here is the difficult part. Compression of the air raises the air pressure below the glottis higher than that above the glottis. When the glottis then opens, the air is released with force. This is the law of equilibrium (Newton's first law of motion). We hear this when a cars tire is punctured and compressed air is violently released, or we see it when we release a water valve or see a water dam break. The force with which the pulses of air are released through the glottis determine in part the sound pressure that is felt by the ear drum. If we consider also the principle of momentum, mass x velocity= momentum (second law of motion), the force with which the air molecules strike the ear drum depend not only on the velocity that the compressed air is released but also the mass of the air pulse. How much air is released is as important and in my opinion more important than the velocity. Consider the weight of a 2009 Pontiac Vibe (curb weight 3284 lbs) and that of the 2006 Hummer H1 (curb weight 7847 lbs). Consider both cars going at 50 miles per hour!
Not going into the subtlety of Force vs. Momentum (consider the rate of acceleration to be 1 not changing the rate of velocity), let us for this level of argument equate Force with Momentum, and for the sake of simplicity we will use pound-miles per hour squared as the unit force. The Vibe would deliver a force of 16420 units against the Hummer's 39235 units. For that reason in a head-on collision between the two vehicles the Vibe would be destroyed. By that same principle the amount of air released during every cycle (mass) is as important as its velocity when it disturbs the air molecules around us. The pressure that causes velocity is based not so much on how much folds press against each other (although that is one mode accomplishing pressure) but basically on the length of time that it takes for the pulse to be released (i.e. how long does the subglottal air have to be pressurized before the pressure is released).
As said earlier, how deep the vocal folds are determines how long it takes the air to travel through them. This determines the length of every cycle and therefore the number of vibrations that would result during one second (the unit of time used to determine pitch, vibrations per second). It is assumed that complete closure of the vocal folds is necessary to build adequate pressure. Let us illustrate this in a concrete way:
Let us take the pitch G2=200 Hz (200 vibrations per second). And let us give an arbitrary value to the ideal fold depth, 2 cm, whereby the folds would remain open for exactly 50 percent of the cycle. In this way the maximum amount of air would be released during the open phase and the folds would be closed completely for the close phase. Let us take this hypothesis as given!
One cycle of G2 would occur during 1/200 of a second. The air would be compressed during one half of that time 1/400 of a second, the time it took to travel through the gradually opening 2cm of fold tissue. The velocity of the air during G2 would be 2cm/400s or 800cm/second. If the velocity of air remained the same but the distance traveled were less (fold depth shallower), say 1.5cm the cycles would be faster. If a car running at 20mph has to travel 15miles how much time does it take?
20/60min=15/z, the solution for this problem is 20z=60 x 15 or 20z=900 or z=900/20 or 45 minutes. 3 quarters of the distance traveled at the same velocity occurs in 3 quarters of the time.
Likewise, 2cm/400s=1.5cm/z or 2cmz=1.5 x 400 cms or 2cmz=600cms or z=300s. Therefore the speed of a half cycle when the folds are 1.5cm deep is 300s, or 3/4 the amount of time necessary to sustain G2. For a singer to sing the same pitch with thinner folds than appropriate, they have to press the folds together to slow down the time of vibration. In this case the amount of air released per cycle would be the same but an extraneous element would have to keep the folds closed for longer. That would have to be the interarytenoids, which would get tired very fast if they had to work that much harder during every cycle of vibration. This strategy has no additional benefit other than giving the singer a more squeezed quality (this is a very popular sound quality among opera singers). Since the time would be constant, the amount of pressure would be the same. Fatigue would be only difference.
If the depth were kept the same but greater pressure applied (the squeezed quality that has become so popular), the cycle would be slowed down unless the open phase were shortened. In that scenario, the interarytenoids would have to become even more active to accelerate the closing of the open folds (shortening the open phase). The shortening of the open phase would yield less air release. While the velocity of the air would be the same as a normal cycle, the amount of air released (mass) would be less and the force (momentum) would be less than a 50% close quotient. In essence, the sound pressure (volume) as we perceive it would be less, but the quality of the tone would be darker.
This is the strategy of lyric tenors who wish to sing more dramatic repertoire. The increased subglottic pressure unfortunately causes a continued cycle of tension in the larynx which causes hyperactivity throughout the system. This leads gradually to dysfunction, particularly a chronic thickening of the folds that leads to difficulty in the top voice. This is precisely what we have seen happen to many lyric tenors who gradually thicken their voices to take on more dramatic repertoire. They lose quality gradually, first by difficulty producing top notes and eventually by vibrational imbalances in the passaggio and ultimately irregularities in the middle range.
In some ways, I did this very thing to the extreme by singing as a baritone with a voice that is naturally a tenor voice. Becoming a tenor has been a healing of sorts. I have regained the lean quality I used to have in my earlier years and the voice is gaining in flexibility and brilliance. It has been fascinating experiencing first big changes and then subtler ones. Experiencing the reverse process gives me some clues as to how gently and subtly structural deconstruction could occur. My change to tenor was timely. I believe I had begun to experience some structural irregularities. In my case, fold depth had reached far beyond the level that would be natural for 50% close quotient. Instead, my fold depth was so deep that breathy phonation what the only way to keep pitch. If the folds had come together completely, pitch would go down. The opposition of fold depth that was too thick was balanced by very little resistance (breathy phonation). This would explain why under electroglottograh I had close quotients near 80 percent in the top voice and my voice did not sound pressed.
I should add that if we take vocal tract inertia into account, skewed pulse (the sluggishness of the supraglottal air) would increase close quotient requiring the folds to remain open long to maintain cycle length. CQ would actually be slightly lower than 50% I am not sure whether the electro glottograph would register the actual fold closure or fold closure including skewed pulse time.
A thickened lyric voice is not the same as a naturally heavier voice. Lyric tenors thicken their voices because of the economics of opera not because of the nature of the instrument. It is true that the laryngeal muscles over time become stronger with correct use and will be able to handle greater air pressure without losing structural balance (i.e. the muscular balance between vocalis and CT that determines fold depth and length for a given pitch). In this manner, a lyric voice may be able to do spinto repertoire over time. The amount of time it takes before a voice is ready to make louder sounds without losing structure depends on the individual voice, how it has been trained, and how it develops over time.
I often listen to the roundtable interview with Domingo and Pavarotti in September 1993 on the night of their 25th anniversary Met performances. Pavarotti described his voice as "a full lyric voice...not even spinto." Domingo described his own voice as "...not a naturally dramatic voice".
This was in response to a question about what roles they would consider off limts for their voices.
Pavarotti canceled a Cavaradossi early in his career and waited 14 years to do it because Di Stefano told him that Tosca is an opera that could break his voice. He was careful about which roles he took on and when. His voice grew in strength over the years and he was able to make stronger sounds in his middle voice, which made it possible to sing spinto repertoire. The basic quality of his instrument did not change. Domingo was more adventurous but knew the risks he was taking. He was aware that his voice could have suffered and considered himself lucky that he sang as long as he had.
The difference with young lyric tenors today is that they have no sense of danger. They think they can do anything and general managers and agents are very willing to counsel them to take on heavier roles. Why? The standard repertoire has been reduced to a very small number of works that tenors must be willing to do if they are to sustain a profitable career. The Rossini tenors have been saved because they have a niche repertoire that features their ability to sing faster and higher. Lyric tenors need much more than Faust and Rodolfo, Romeo, Nemorino, Edgardo and Duca. They need repertoire that features their special skills. Don Jose and Cavaradossi, Pinkerton, Calaf and most of the Verdian repertoire belong to spintos. However the training of spinto voices has always been more time-consuming and no one wants to wait for a true spinto to develop. With the shrinking repertoire and Hollywood physical aesthetics, age is also on the side of the young lyrics who are presentable earlier.
Since conservatories are churning out young tenors every year, who are able to sing two or three arias at auditions convincingly, without knowing how well they handle entire roles, agents and general managers are willing to sign any young person with charisma, only to find that their tender muscular structure cannot handle a professional schedule. We routinely hear of cancellations and young tenors jumping in last minute to take over for colleagues who are suddenly indisposed. Because many of these young singers have been signed for roles several years in advance, it is in the monetary interest of those in charge of such decisions to keep them in the system. A young tenor's fame is an advertising tool. If he has made a name for himself, he becomes very important to the system whether he is able to deliver convincingly or not.
The problem is that singers who routinely have to cancel cause the system a great deal of money. The cancellations of Rolando Villazon at the Metropolitan alone caused a game of tenor-musical-chairs unlike anything seen on the world stage. It was unclear who would take on his roles and when. The negotiations could not have been a money-saver for the Metropolitan. So why does this practice of engaging young tenors who are not ready continue? Young tenors cost less at the onset and there are plenty of them when readiness is not a factor.
The biggest problem however is that those who are hiring cannot tell whether a young tenor who sounds very good is truly ready to hold his own on the world stage. And it is not profitable to consider that a famous lyric tenor should not sing Cavaradossi. If he is famous, he will fill seats. I am getting the feeling that young tenors have little choice. They either take on the heavy roles or someone else will and they will be out of favor.
General managers are truly afraid that they cannot sustain opera if they have to compete with movies, television, broadway and pop culture altogether. The chosen solution has been driven by money and whatever superficial characteristics will capture the imagination of the paying public. Part of the strategy after the success of the Three Tenors has been to democratize opera. The business-makers of opera realized that it was possible to capture a larger crowd. By the second ThreeTenors concert it was obvious that they got it wrong. In Los Angeles in July of 1994, a show more based on superficial Hollywood glitz took the humanity of the original concert out and replaced it with a Miss America-like empty pageantry that was supposed to thrill the world. Even empty pageantry was sellable because the Three Tenors could sing at a level higher than most others out there, even if the quality of their once-thrilling talents had been diminished somewhat.
Many thought they could replace the aging Three Tenors. It is not impossible! But one must consider how long it took the three tenors to establish their careers. Pavarotti and Domingo had to make their names while Corelli and Tucker and other world class tenors were still singing. Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti have been around so long that it became a goal to replace them with whoever could give a fair impression of their quality rather than finding some bona fide new tenors who are unique and who are able to sing as well. Since the time factor has been ridiculously shortened, and youth is everything now, it is not possible to find young tenors who are truly ready, whose voices are not as fragile as thin glass.
Same is true of other voice types, but tenors are more difficult to train and so there are fewer viable ones even given the low expectations of the current system.
Singing is as physically demanding on the larynx as an olympic sport on the rest of the body. Getting someone off the street to run a marathon is poor strategy for an olympic team. Thinking that some young singer who has not sung more than 6 years total is ready to take on the world stage is ludicrous. Furthermore no olympic organization is going to pit a welterweight boxer against a heavyweight. The welterweight would be in danger of dying in the ring. The strategy of having lyric tenors speedily grow to sing Puccini's most dramatic roles and even Wagner's is unconscionable. People then have the nerve to wonder why quality and longevity are rare in the world of opera!
We cannot have it both ways. Either we have slow growth or quick burnout. There are plenty of singers for all repertoire. The system as it has developed in the last thirty years promotes neither the healthy growth of singers nor longevity of career. Just like the excesses of the banking system, without some control opera as a viable art form will meet a dismal end.