Thursday, October 28, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Appoggio and Mask Resonance

I was very tempted to comment on Jack Livigni's recent post, on appoggio and giro del fiato (turn of the breath), which generated a great deal of discussion. One of my most repeated statements here on Kashu-do (歌手道) is the following: Science is only the beginning! I make this statement because modern vocal research does not provide all the answers.  The science-based voice teacher's job is to take all the proven elements into account and then fill in what is missing.  For this, we take advantage of the principles of the classical schools of singing.  Science is there to clarify the principles of the traditional schools and help make corrections particularly when traditional language is equivocal or wrong.

Singing is paradoxical.  I always speak of pressure and flow.  The two are in fact interdependent.and related to the subject of this post.

First, can one support by leaning the breath behind the mask?
Scientifically, no!  In proper singing, the breath does not arrive in the nasal cavity except when singing nasal vowels.  However, the sensations of intense vibration felt in the sinuses are directly related to what the singer experiences as support.

The efficient propagation of sound waves in a resonant vocal tract is felt in the sinuses through bone conduction. A resonant vocal tract depends not only on adequate adjustment of the vocal tract but on the correct timing of the vocal fold opening.  According to Donald Miller, the vocal folds must remain closed through the last maximum of the harmonic that dominates the spectrum of the sung tone.  This means that a singer producing an Ab4 on the vowel [a] (F1=c. 800 Hz, F2= c. 1200 Hz). The common setting of F2 (second formant) on H3 (third harmonic) requires that the folds remain close in excess of 75% of the cycle.

Tenor G4.bmp

The left side of the picture shows the third harmonic to be the carrier of most of the acoustic energy. The audio signal on the upper right lines up with the glottal signal below to show that acoustic energy is generated while the glottis is closed (the glottal signal peaks during glottal closure).  The audio signal shows that the glottis remains closed for nearly three complete peaks.  The glottal signal weakens during the drop-portion of the third peak.  The graph shows a CQ (contact quotient or closure quotient) of 73% as measured by the EGG device.

Tenor G4 spectrum.bmp

The spectrum view shows the green cursor on the third harmonic at 1202 Hz (the second formant value of the vowel [a]).  The strong peak between the orange lines is the singer's formant.  This is an ideal spectrum for G4

 This long close cycle (completely appropriate) builds up appropriate subgottal pressure that the singer experiences as being connected with the body. In essence, the same pressure that gives a sense of support provides the conditions that produces the sensation of mask resonance.

If however the glottal closure quotient is too high, there will not be enough breath flow and therefore not enough sound pressure (i.e. resonance) to induce the intense bone conduction that is felt as mask resonance.  In effect, a balance in glottal flow/pressure must accompany vocal tract adjustments as well as the part of breath compression controlled by volume of air in the lungs and the global activity of core muscles, intercostal resistance and diaphragmatic activity.

In actuality, there is no column of air that goes from the lungs through the glottis and up and around to the mask. Still, the path of the breath does take a 90° turn from the laryngeal pharynx to the buccal pharynx. Many singers do not generate enough subglottal pressure in their lower range to sense such strong resonance in that region. Often, the sudden intensity that is felt in the mask in the male passaggio and upper range, or in the female upper middle range may be experienced as a sudden turn into the area where the vibrations are felt, or a giro del fiato (turn of the breath).

In the end, the singer's experience of the voice is based on sensory feedback and indeed sensory memory.  The singer's proprioceptive sense combines aural as well as vibratory feedback to complete the experience. Visualization and metaphors are important tools in the teacher's kit.  But they must not be the only ones.  Teachers are sometimes frustrated when they are not able to pass on their sensations to the student.  Most often, the student has not yet achieved the muscular dynamics that would make such sensations possible. This is just as frustrating to the student.  When we have a scientific understanding of the conditions necessary to produce such sensory feedback, we can help the student develop these conditions over time. When the physical components are ready to produce the sensations, proprioception and metaphors become even more important. For that reason: Science is only the beginning! But I should add:

Without a beginning there is no end product!

© 10/28/2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Leaning On the Breath: An Attempt at a Scientific Explanation

I believe Jack Livigni's new blog is going to force me to deal directly with the equivocal terminology used by the great Italian Masters.  I believe there is great wisdom to be found in this code but there is danger when these words are taken literally.  There is always a balancing element that often goes unmentioned in this code. Probably because those who use this language with understanding take certain elements for granted.  Jack's newest interview with the celebrated tenor, Salvatore Fisichella is filled with gems that must be cultivated.  I decided to take on "Leaning on the breath," a term often used by voice teachers because I think it is very misunderstood.

The sensation of leaning the larynx against the breath has important muscular and acoustic ramifications.  First, why does one want to lean on the breath (i.e. push the laryngeal structure against the breath stream)? I would imagine to have a direct connection with the compressed air (by the way, the laryngeal occlusion also causes that compression) such that breath flow is uninterrupted.  Still there are great singers who are diametrically opposed to pushing down on the breath. They insist that the breath should be pulled from above, in the head.
What happens when both sets of singers who have such different approaches sing extremely well? Who is right and who is wrong?

The truth is both sets of singers are right. But it depends greatly on where the singers are in the development of their laryngeal musculature.  This requires clarification although the seeds of this discussion have been planted in many blogposts before this.

I have stated often here that fold depth (what the scientist call contact area) and fold closure (medial pressure quotient) determine pitch.  I take for granted that the resultant fold depth is derived from the antagonism of the CT/Vocalis, giving a certain longitudinal tension. In simple terms, the fold depth is related to the tension along the length of the folds. Both result from the tug-o-war between the two main muscle groups.

In an ideal situation, the fold depth/tension and the medial pressure are perfectly calibrated for the pitch to be sung, whereby medial pressure is exact enough to allow for build up of subglottal pressure and allowing enough time during the opening phase for proper release of the compressed air during each cycle. Too much medial pressure builds great intensity but reduces flow. In such a case, the sound is intense but less present (could sound thin).  This is pressed voice.  If the medial pressure is not enough, then the sound lacks intensity even though a lot of air may be released.  This is breathy phonation.  The important thing to remember is that any change in medial pressure will result in a compensatory change in fold depth/tension in order for the desired pitch to be constant.

If our ideal is the perfect fold posture in terms of contact area and medial pressure, how does leaning on the breath come into play?

In Jack's interview with Fisichella, it would seems the Maestro speaks of leaning on the breath and lowering the larynx as one event. Jack cautions that these are two separate functions and should not be confused.  I must disagree because I think they are related.  It is true that one can lower the larynx during inhalation while the glottis is open.  There is no pressure involved in this action as air is passing unopposed down the glottal opening.  However, in the case of leaning on the breath, the lowering of the larynx is happening during phonation.  This is the distinction that should be taken into account.

Why lower the larynx while phonating then?

Laryngeal depth is crucial to the acoustics of the vocal tract and has a direct effect in terms of formant dynamics.  In the passaggio, a high larynx makes the transition from first Formant (F1) to second  Formant (F2) dominance in the tenor voice nearly impossible.  The lowered larynx lowers the frequency of F1 to allow F2 to take over as pitch rises around  F4 (not formant 4 but the pitch one fourth above middle C).  For the tenor in particular (although females deal with this in the lower passaggio and lower voice males slightly lower than that), the transition around F4 to second formant dominance requires a very specific balance.  It is important to understand the following:

Laryngeal depth is directly related to fold depth, which is related to medial pressure, which is related to subglottal pressure, which when to high causes the larynx to climb.  The proper default laryngeal position should be the result of balance between the laryngeal depressors and levitators, given that pressure flow balance is maintained in the vocal fold posture.  The vocal fold posture depends primarily on the CT/Vocalis antagonism.  If the folds' contact area is too small, there will be excess medial pressure to compensate for pitch (since less contact area would raise the pitch and increased medial pressure lower it).

Therefore, in the case of slightly pressed phonation, a sensitive singer would lean on the breath (push the larynx downward against the breath) to both lower the larynx and induce greater flow.  This would have a direct effect on changing the dynamic relationship between CT and Vocalis.  In essence, this is a compensatory measure for a fold posture that is slightly thin and pressed.  I have not yet heard a singer who had ideal fold posture on every single note in the voice.  But lighter voices get close, because they require less air pressure to accomplish balanced phonation.

It is to say that this leaning on the larynx which is necessary for many singers is not necessary when the default fold posture is ideal, because the default posture would instill flow phonation which would result in the larynx achieving ideal depth without help from the back of the tongue.  Not so easy for dramatic voices, but achievable over time.

It is my belief that the sensation of substance and anchoring we associate with the chest voice is directly related to fold depth (contact area) and therefore with Vocalis activity.  When this sensation of chest voice is maintained, the folds achieve appropriate depth for balanced flow phonation and the larynx descends to appropriate depth.  Doing exercises on the [i] vowel with a sensation of chest engagement prevents the back of the tongue from helping in the process. Maintaining the brilliance of [i] in other vowels (particularly the [a]) helps instill an approach to a lower larynx based on intrinsic muscle dynamics without compensatory help by the tongue.

That still does not answer the question why the singers who advocate leaning on the larynx and those who do not are both correct.

In my experience, when muscles are being trained to change their function (in this case changing the balance of activity between CT and Vocalis), effort is required to get them to achieve the desired balance.  As the muscles are trained, less and less effort is required.  When fold posture has been achieved and the new muscular dynamic is stable, the singer can trust the sensation to occur by itself.  In the beginning of training tenors who once sang as baritones or sopranos who were trained as mezzos or developing fullness in the higher coloratura range, greater vocalis activity is necessary to undo the tendency to press because of too small a contact area (fold depth).  In the beginning, the singers try to engage the chest connection and it feels effortful to do so (a muscular effort resulting in glottal balance and freedom).  Not only must the Vocalis increase its activity, but the CT must become stronger to maintain appropriate longitudinal tension and length of the folds.  When this new balance becomes trained, the singer does not have to do so much work. Eventually, there is no work involved. Balanced flow phonation is the result without any more muscular work. The singers who have achieved this (and some do so because of great speaking habits from childhood on), do not feel the need to help the larynx in any way.  They experience only the flow of voice resulting from excellent breathing technique and a larynx prepared to transform subglottal pressure into transglottal flow and supraglottal energy.  They might even caution against leaning on the larynx. More dramatic voices that must sing repertoire that require greater sound pressure (volume), such as the bigger Verdi, Puccini and Wagner must develop even stronger laryngeal stability and throughout their career they may need to lean on the breath a bit to assure proper laryngeal depth.

We are not machines. Therefore even the greatest singers will occasionally compensate a little to achieve balance in the moment.  Yet we must be aware of the ideal, which is to be able to achieve flow (that sensation of head voice) without having to manage the larynx at the same time.  In my own development over the past three years, I have become able to perform a diminuendo on relatively high notes.  It is much more difficult to begin a note softly in the right laryngeal balance, such that would allow the ability to crescendo and diminuendo.  Some days I can achieve this, some days not.  Being able to document the different stages of strength is what I had hoped to do with my own voice had my computer and back-up data not been stolen in New York a year ago.  I hope I will be able to do this with a student someday as I am too far into my own training.

To summarize, when the voice has been balanced throughout, the need to lean on the breath becomes unnecessary but we are not machines and particularly with respect to dramatic voices, there may always be a need to compensate a little on certain notes to achieve the correct sensation of flow phonation.

© 10/22/2010

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Developing To the Highest Level: Practical Idealism

My first visit to Valencia confirmed something that has been clear to me for a long time.  The world is full of fantastic voices and people who would love to sing on the operatic stage.  Many are left disappointed when their dreams of singing on stage are not realized.  Along those lines I often use the metaphor of "The Sun and the Lens."  Many children have used a lens against the light of the sun to create a makeshift laser, some to burn paper and some to burn ants.  I was of the less cruel bunch, burning paper.

The angle that the lens is held must be relatively precise in order to create the laser effect.  Thus it is with a career:

How precise must the voice be coordinated in order to create the "squillo" that makes a voice operatically viable? In this case the relationship is between the source tone (the sun) and the resonator (the lens).

How clear must the message be to capture the audience's attention? In this case, the relationship is between the message (the sun) and the vehicle of transmition (the lens).

The instrument of transmission is much more than the voce squillante, it is also the singer's looks, personal charm, acting ability, linguistic skills, worldliness, sense of humor, confidence, etc.

The message itself, in order to be viable, must be informed by history, poetic sensitivity, humanity, life experience, etc.

As opera singers, it is true that the voice is the most important determinent of the viability of the message in question. But a well-produced voice devoid of a message is only a sound, which becomes boring very soon if not infused with a message.

A clear message delivered through a well-produced voice may still be refused if the singer is badly dressed or looks otherwise unseemly, simply because such things could distract the listener.

The voices I heard here in Valencia were remarkably beautiful but not finished.  A coloratura, with nice fluty high Fs singing the Queen, but lacking in the kind of support that gives the voice substance and authority.  It took this very intelligent singer little time to work it out.  Another coloratura afraid of her high notes, learned to use her breath to produce a solid and beautiful high G6. A baritone stopped darkening his voice slightly to produce the brilliant fold closer that was the last piece missing to produce his squillo.  A fabulous, first rate dramatic baritone with a magnificent high A has been singing bass because he has good low notes. A tenor with a substantial spinto voice was encouraged to sing baritone.  These easier choices can be the usolved dysfunctions that holds the singer back.

It took very little effort to get these very coordinated singers to create their best sounds. Will they take the principles to heart and work to accomplish consistency and a higher quality of singing?  I believe they can.  I also know that some will and some will not.

From my vantage point, the average working professional has not achieved a very high level of singing with respect to what they could accomplish.  The expectation is the bare minimum.  Competition in such an atmosphere can seem stiffling because there are so many singers of a mediocre level applying for the same jobs.  In such a populous environment, looks, race, height and all other biases will play a role in the decision of an agent, casting director or conductor.

The strategy I recommend is like that of a marathoner. Raise the pace of the race to fast enough for the slower runners to fall back, out of contention.  If we continue with the metaphor of marathoners, we should realize that the lives of average marathoners is a frustrating one.  When a professional marathoner enters a race and is not among the top marathoners in the world, winning a race is a rare thing--Like a middle level singer who gets one job every year and cannot really live on his professional activities but must have a back-up job.

The difference however is that marathoners are competing with the fastest runners in the history of mankind.  A middle level marathoner can find consolation in the fact that s/he is running with the very best in the world and that not winning a race makes sense.  Honestly I cannot say we are better than our forerunners.  Not because singers today do not have the potential to be such, but the rigors of training in the conservatories of the world have been relaxed substantially in the last 40 years, and the expectation of casting agents have also changed away from the performer's  substantive artistic abilities to their ability to make an interesting commercial poster or record cover.

Did Pavarotti wonder if he was good enough to be at the level of his hero, Di Stefano?  I doubt it seriously! I think he was too busy figuring out how to become his best instead of wondering whether he could or could not top the current top singer.  The inner intensity required to actively work on becoming one's best is  the same kind of will-power necessary for going to the gym every day to work out.  That kind of instensity transfers into one's daily life energy.  Such a singer looks differently when s/he walks into an audition room.  The confidence that comes from amazing preparation is priceless.

Every professional golf player is looking to beat Tiger Woods.  Every professional Tennis player looks to beat Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal.  Who do we have to better in our field?  Most people cannot even agree on who is the best in their vocal category.  I for one I am not worried about the competition because there is so much room at the top.  The only obstacle is to have the will power to develop to that level.

This kind of idealism is not unrealistic.  It is the only practical thing in my point of view.  Why would I want to compete with thousands of mid-level singers for a small job?  That seems painful.  Accepting that is a far more disturbing proposition than to work hard to avoid that level.

Edit: I edit this post to clarify that this is not meant to belittle singers who do their very best to achieve top form every day.  Many work really hard and lose hope of ever finding the key to opening their own doors to quality and freedom.  Still singers of the past generations achieved greater vocal abilities. At least the singers who are allowed to walk the stage today compare negatively with their predecessors for the most part.  There are exceptions.  That the paradigm has changed to accomodate the visual at the expense of the aural is the error.  It could very well be we are not hearing the finest singers because they do not fit the new paradigm in terms of the visual component. Great big voices rarely come in a size 2.  If the singers with the great big voices are hiding in choruses, it is incumbent upon them to make themselves viable in the new paradigm. On the other side of the argument, casting directors should realize that opera is an aural art form first.  I have said this before, I welcome a supermodel figure on stage. Providing he or she can also satisfy my ear as well a s/he can my eyes.

© 10/21/2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

An inspiring blogpost by Jack Livigni

Dear Kashu-do friends,

Occasionally someone writes something that so completely addresses the fundamental and challenging issues that a singer must deal with in becoming an artist.  I am touched and humbled and inspired by the completeness of this wonderful post. I highly recommend that you take the time and read this magnificent post. Jack Livigni is one of those rare singer/teachers who is more dedicated to the art of singing than he is to a mere career. The fight to reclaim the meaningful aspects of this art form we love, to separate the true principles from the business-driven propaganda, has such a powerful ally in Jack.

http://tenortalkblog.com/2010/10/18/the-memory-of-sound-sensation-and-emotion-in-singing/#comment-40

Bravo, bravo, arcibravo, Jack.  You will forgive the baritone quote.  It is the first that came to mind!

JRL

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Building A Structure and Attempting To Use IT At The Same Time

I have gotten to a point with several of my students whereby my teaching sounds like the average voice lesson:

1. Let us approach it from the head voice!
2. Start with a small voice and grow!
3. The tone begins with the deepest muscles
4. Fill your lungs with air and begin with just one molecule!

Etc...

In the case of many students, as much as I would like to, I could not begin with these tried and "sometimes" true directives. Why not?

In order for the breath to flow easily, such that there is this bouyant sensation of headvoice, this almost floaty, domy feeling, the fold posture must be able to achieve balance as a default.  In most voices, there are parts of the range that work perfectly like that, but the student does not come to me to compliment his/her easy range but to correct the troublesome range. Before I can use such directives, the entire voice must be ready for it.

Why does one part of the voice work perfectly and other parts not? The parts that work have been trained, often by means of speaking habits, childhood play habits, cultural habits, etc. The "unused register" to quote Vennard must be used and trained. It can either become the element that limits the singer to false classification (i.e. you are a baritone because you have no high notes; or you are a soprano because your middle range is weak), or the one that defines the singer's strength.

When I listen to a Nilsson or a Björling or a Gigli or the late great American song singer, William Parker, I hear instruments that have a fully developed range. When the structure is so fully "built", one can walk on it without fear of falling through.  So it is with ideal fold posture.

The most common problems are the female middle range and the male upper range.  In both cases, the modern approach is to recommend that the student "not carry the chest voice too high!" When we listen to the great singers, what we hear is a solid body of sound from bottom to top without a change in quality. Such is the case with

Gigli,



Where in this song does Gigli leave the chest register?

Pavarotti,



At what point does Pavarotti abandon the chest voice?

Nilsson



Is Nilsson's middle voice or even top devoid of chest voice? Not even the lean top is totally without a chest content.

Dimitrova




Is Dimitrova devoid of chest content anywhere in this piece? Obviously not? Why are her top notes not as radiant as Nilsson's? Nilsson developed them early. According to Dimitrova's biography, she began her career with Abigaile, a rather powerful, middle-voice driven role. Nilsson began with Mozart and light Wagner. Was Dimitrova's voice heavier? Doubtful. Slightly more heavily produced? More than likely.

Damrau




Can we separate Damrau's belty speaking voice in this monologue from the power of her relatively light voice in this powerful rendition of the Königin?

I say not? Her ability to reduce volume before the second set of high Fs, to "lighten up" so to speak does not mean she has changed vocal weight as is commonly understood. She simply reduced pressure and flow, but the the basic fold structure remains more or less the same. The effect of lighter makes one thing she is using a different registration. Not so different from the first time, only less volume.

These accomplished singers have something fundamental in common, namely a developed chest voice. This is in agreement with the early Italian teachers of the 17th century, such as Caccini and others who stated a clear preference for the chest voice, not liking the unsupported tones they referred to as "finta" or fake. These teachers were not talking about raw chest tones, but a supported chest tone that made breath flow easier. What we perceive of as a belt quality is often too little chest content, causing a squeeze and preventing the kind of flow we associate with head voice--that is to say, flow that occurs during proper fold oscillation where the folds adduct over their entire length for the close cycle and open fully for the open cycle, as opposed to folds closed along most of the edge but open at the arytenoids (posterior end). This is the false voice or "falsetto".

The chest voice can be developed in many ways. Among "natural" or "spontaneously developing" singers, the strength throughout the range is developed through years of vocal use, often influenced by culture (i.e. African American singers using strong chest content in Gospel singing before developing into opera singers; Nilsson: young girl in a farm who sang since childhood and encouraged to do so; Björling: little boy who approached his voice like an adult tenor since age four with adequate chest content:)



Is this little boy singing a classic boy soprano sound with a falsetto approach or is he using his speaking voice? Do we not hear his future adult voice as a result of this production as a child?



The flow of breath that we then identify as a head quality is not possible without the foundation of a fully developed chest content, what we should refer to as a balanced modal quality.

In order to develop a full operatic quality that flows with the quality of what some call full head voice, the chest content must be accomplished. This process requires time. Either time during youth, developed unconsciously or in the case of we mere mortals, developed by carefully guided development of the muscles of the throat and body to produce such a sound. This kind of singing is not about coordination alone, but coordination made easy by appropriate muscular development.

What I hear in many singers today is the impossible task of holding the structure together because it has not been developed while trying to use it all at once. Imagine walking on a bridge while it was being built! You would fall through! So happens a lot today! Singers often do not understand why the simple directive: "Sing on the breath" does not work for them.  That simple directive does not work until the muscles have been developed to keep the the folds in the right posture. Until such work is done, simple axioms like "Sing on the breath" are next to impossible!

© 10/13/2010

Monday, October 11, 2010

Welcoming Gioacchino Livigni to the Vocal Blogosphere

It is an honor to officially welcome my colleague, Gioacchino Livigni to the Blogosphere.  Jack is an accomplished tenor with a profound interest and knowledge about the history of the Italian School of Singing.  His new blog, Tenor Talk Blog, which I linked in the last post, is a must for tenors in particular.  I am happy to welcome Jack here on Kashu-do, and will soon have the honor of his contribution in the form of a guest post. Vocal Pedagogy needs the interaction of experienced pedagogues.  It is my hope that we will build a community of passionate singer-teachers who can discuss, debate, argue in a constructive manner leading to a deeper understanding for us all.

Welcome Jack!  I am already enjoying the posts.  Now don't me spend anymore sleepless nights reading another fascinating blog!

JRL

Friday, October 8, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Soft Is Not Light and Full Is Not Loud: A Fundamental Misunderstanding

Scenario one: A singer in training begins a note beautifully soft and attempts to crescendo. S/he gets to about mezzo-forte and the voice cannot go any further? Comment from the singer: "I could not get it to full voice!" Is that a correct assessment?

I think not! To understand why, we must first define what full voice is.  My definition: Full voice is the ideal vocal fold thickness (requiring  perfect closure: not too tight and not loose) for a given tone.  This fold posture requires a pre-requisite muscular balance in all the intrinsic and extrinsic muscles of the larynx and a dynamic muscular engagement that may involve every muscle in the body as support.  How much breath pressure (subglottal pressure) this set up is able to sustain without fundamentally being altered determines how loud a singer should be able to sing.  This explains why natural spinto sopranos of yesteryear considered Violetta and Lucia di Lamermoor necessary in their early careers. This explains why Pavarotti canceled Cavaradossi after Di Stefano mused that the role is a voice breaker if done too soon. Maestro Pavarotti in an interview in 1994 recounted the story and decided to put down the role of Cavaradossi for 14 years.  When the muscles cannot handle increased pressure, the complex coordination that yields a balance between pressure and flow will be altered. Either the muscles will cause medial pressure to hold back the pressure (pressed voice resulting in thinning) or they will loosen to releave the pressure (loose phonation and heavy production). One or the other is experienced by young voices being asked to sing louder roles before they are ready.  Increased volume requires increased breath pressure.  I a balanced system, the pressure is translated to flow and sound pressure on the outside and remains stable. Nevertheless, the subglottal pressure must be increased to achieve greater flow when the system is balanced.

Not all singers are alike.  Some singers are able to sing a slightly loose sound very loudly and then reduce fold mass and increase medial pressure as they reduce pressure and volume.  This is a fine trick but it is not the kind of crescendo-diminuendo from pp to ff to pp that the early masters considered the confirmation of a proper technique.  During this exercise, the full resonance of the tone must be experienced from the quietest volume through the loudest volume and back.  This kind of skill is the pinnacle of vocal technique.

So to answer the question above, indeed the singer made a wrong assessment of the inability to crescendo to maximum possible volume. The voice could not grow further because the folds started to squeeze preventing further flow. The singer would have to cause a slight break by loosening the folds to be able to go further, but the presence of the voice would be lost from the resulting inefficiency of the tone.  In short the singer was singing with a full fold posture that could only handle so much breath pressure before collapsing into a thinner or thicker set up.  What is the solution?

The solution is patience and exercises that increase the strength of the correct set-up.  Occlusion exercises are the best.  But sometimes, it is worthwhile going to a slightly heavier sound to encourage the fullness of the setup if the tendency is to press.  If the tendency is to thicken and loosen, then the opposite would work better.  The more the singer uses the correct posture, the stronger it becomes and so with time it would be able to sustain higher pressure without being altered.

Not being able to sing a well-supported piano is a sign of a voice that needs to be further coordinated and balanced. That proper piano is the foundation for a great forte.

Hence, soft can be and in fact should be full. Therefore full is not necessarily loud. When a crescendo-diminuendo is done correctly, the folds remain in the same posture and it feels as if they are not involved and that the change in dynamic is a result of changes in the muscles of the body, responsible for breath-management.  Hence, the throat in its balance activity feels passive.  Ignoring imbalances in the throat and thinking that breathing alone will solve the problems is at best ill-advised and at worst simply uninformed.

Many singers do not have an adequate pianissimo and still manage great careers.  Careers depend on many things other than ideal vocal balance. That however is for another discussion already addressed in the previous post.


© 10/08/2010

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Valencia: 18-22 Octubre

Solo un saludo a los amigos Españoles para avisar que yo estaré en Valencia entre el 18 y 22 Octubre dando clases particolares. Les agradezco por los muchos amables emails de apreciación de respecto al Blog. Espero poder encontrar muchos de Ustedes durante mi corta visita.

Un fuerte abrazo a todos!

Jean-Ronald LaFond

Pretty Yende: Hope For A New Generation of Opera Singers


Quando m'en vo
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I am not often impressed with young singers no matter how much hype is made about them. As a voice teacher, I am usually more aware of their weaknesses than the strengths that agents try to sell.  With every great singer that has come down the pike in the last 20 years, ( René Pape, Diana Damrau, Piotr Bezcala and Elina Garanca among my favorites) there have been too many wines sold before their time, to quote the old Paul Masson advertisement. Many young singers in their mid twenties have developed the musicianship, stage sense, linguistic tools and charisma to prepare for operatic professionalism, but not many have developed true vocal strength of the type required for the demands of an operatic schedule. Fewer still have combined the complete package that promises operatic stardom.  I had a chance to work with another rare voice from South Africa and colleague of Pretty Yende, and I am of a mind to go to Johannesburg and try to find out the secret of these young singers. Whether it is a cultural vocal conditioning (as I think it must be) or something else, it is unusual that I would come across two such amazing singers from the same community in a short time.  To be clear, I have never met Ms. Yende and it is my fervent hope to hear her live as soon as possible. Still, videos do not lie and every video I have seen of this remarkable young woman speaks not only to her unusual vocal strength throughout her extensive range, but a refined musicality devoid affectation, a courageous emotional honesty and a versatile linguistic sensitivity (Admittedly she will need to improve her French and a well-supported pianissimo would crown her already solid technique).


Pretty Yende -Gounod - O Dieu...que des bijours... ah je ris
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What is often not talked about today is vocal strength. Not only strength in the breathing mechanism like many teachers like to talk about but strength in the throat muscles and the kind of balance that yields ideal vocal fold posture. I can say with certainty that this young woman is bound to become one of operas great talents. She is already handling the adulation showered on her with grace and seems to maintain a simplicity that I hope is not altered in the current scheme of packaging modern divas.

Life is full of uncertain curves and sharp turns. For my part, I wish Ms. Yende smooth sailing and I hope that the business will not look at her as an anomaly but will instead learn to understand how such a singer comes to be so poised, refined and vocally ready at such a young age and try to replicate this at the institutions responsible for the development of young singers.


Pretty Yende sings Lehar - Meine lippen sie kussen so heis
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Kashu-do (歌手道): The Security of Insecurity: Letting go of control

I am a short time away from achieving my technical goals. I have been waiting for a long time for the "small" voice, which had become a medium voice, to become the only voice. I am done building strength, I think and now I can work the different elements with and against each other.  Like every tenor, I am a little obsessed about my high C. I have gone a long way from just wanting to have one, but rather to master it and go beyond it. When I recorded the "small" voice and sang the Bohème high C, it was a beginning of an interesting coordination that permitted a quality slightly fuller than the average Rossini tenor but not quite full enough to be my full voice. But then, the baby cry began to invade my passaggio in a very wonderful way. I began to be able to produce a pure sound, that was weighted enough to allow a natural resonance transition in the appropriate places depending on vowel.  The moment G4 became fully pure, a high C became just another note that requires a balanced approach.  I was first able to go from the full voice to the small voice. Then the full voice became the baby cry, what my friend Gioacchino (Jack) Livigni would call voce magra (lean voice). He has some interesting proprioceptive thoughts on the subject on his new blog, Tenor Talk Blog.  Jack explains that the voce magra (he also calls it the cry; I call it the baby cry) is necessary not only in the top voice but also in the middle, lower and speaking voice.  I could not agree more.

The lean voice is much more than proper closure, or focus as some might call it.  It is truly a complete balance between closure, flow, purity of vocalic concept (given that vowel modificaton occurs as a result of balanced phonation not as a cause), adequate breath pressure/flow, etc. What comes with this exact balance is what Pavarotti also calls "elastic voice", referring to the quality of his own instrument.  This elasticity feels totally naked, without artifice, a raw voice, a sensation of walking a tight rope, etc.  But a skilled tight rope walker maintains unusual balance in a situation that is very precarious.  Great singers achieve this precarious feeling often in their speaking. Like a baby who learns to walk, these lucky singers learn to talk in a way that builds a perfect balance having gone through imbalance at a point in their development when noone was judging their vocal quality.  I hear this unusual balance in certain young people, pre-teen and early teen and young children. Much more rarely in adolescents and adults.

Most classical singers however have to learn balance over time when they are both conscious of their lack of balance and self-conscious about exposing the same.  In the past, a singer cracking on the way to vocal balance was par for the course. Today, fearful voice teachers do not want to hear their students make any sounds that is remotely questionable. So training is carried out with the goal of some kind of immediate security, producing a sound that does not offend, one that is pretty and risk free.  We forget the animal nature of the proper operatic sound. A scream becomes a powerful balanced tone as Pavarotti often implied!  A tone that wandered from flat to sharp becomes a stable, clarion operatic voice. Every note begins with a clear, small voice that becomes a full lion's roar. Such is the immediate interplay between gentle, efficient closure and the fullness of a vocalis-induced full voice that results in balanced pressure/flow.  The leap to any high note is a release into a small voice that becomes full again.  There is no note that feels like a rigid place of security, but more like the mastered balance of being able to stand flexibly still on one leg. There is movement, there is elasticity. So is the high C produced and notes beyond it as well. The crico-thyroid dominates the sound but the vocalis grounds it. The dynamic interplay between the closure and depth of the vocal folds is felt like a grounded wild voice, like an untamed mustang who allows himself to be directed by a trusted rider.

Here we go beyond mere concept, beyond mere knowledge, but the refinement of sensing the body at work. I have gotten to the point whereby my knowledge can take me no further.  The rest of the road will be by feel.  Yes my knowledge has instructed me about how to sense the function of the muscles, but now it is about feeling elastic balance, not about finding a secure place.

To find this new level of experience, I made a 180° journey from a baritone voice that was driven by vocalis but with decent CT participation to a tenor voice driven by the CT but balanced by adequate vocalis activity. That balance changes with every note, and I am learning to allow it to happen without my help.  The reason that the change from baritone is particularly hard is that it involves a diametric shift in the way the voice is felt.  As a singer said to me today, training as a singer is difficult because most singers are not willing to give up what works functionably well in order to find their best, true voice. That fearful protection of a less than ideal product is the surest reason for the diminished number of individual, viable voices.

In the 1980s in the United States, something called brick-facing, became very popular.  The concept entails putting a thin layer of bricks or rocks over wooden houses to give the impression that they were made of stone or brick.  The design was superficially pleasing, but it did not strengthen a house with a wooden center that was being ravaged by termites.  The house might appear strong as stone on the outside, but was in fact relatively frail on the inside. Such I believe are the majority of voices in our times. Voices like that come and go because they do not withstand the test of a travel schedule or a two week grueling rehearsal period when one has to sing sometimes for hours. Marking with a frail voice makes it more tired, whereas a strong voice marking actually strengthens because it is structural sound in its function.

This journey has been grueling, instructive, scary, challenging, doubtful, courage-inducing, faith-strengthening and many other adjectives both discouraging and affirming.  In the end, this is not a journey into a career, athough I am certain this will and has already improved my career.  It is a journey into the fragile but powerful center of every singer's soul. When you know the fire you have gone through, you are not so afraid of the heat that this business dishes out.

In my musical training, I always went beyond what was considered adequate. For musicianship, I spent six years studying conducting with arguably the most sought-after conducting teacher in the world. For acting I found opportunities to do lead roles in Shakepeare and Dickens with great actors, for language proficiency I learned to speak so far 8 languages at different levels of relative fluency. I have gotten excellent reviews for my work as stage director.  I always wanted to know my field inside and out. I overcame stuttering to became unafraid to approach top directors, conductors and singers and agents, simply because I wanted to know what made them tick, not to ask them for favors.  They were always open and obliging.

As a singer I was a good student. I listened to my teachers and became a bass, then a baritone then a bass-baritone. I did what I was told and became pretty good. Good enough to earn my living as a singer more or less since around age 22, whether by full-scholarships or by teaching positions or concert and operatic engagements at various levels. I did better than many.  But in the end, the process was not complete.  The voice was not bass or baritone or bass-baritone, it was unquestionably tenor (now I know that).  16 years of studying vocal anatomy and acoustics in my spare time and applying that knowledge to get to the point where I can do it again like natural singers do. By feel!

Who or what could I possibly be afraid of now? I believe one becomes a true singer the moment the career does not control his/her destiny. The Security of Insecurity is not just a vocal concept, it is a life concept for me.  I am not wreckless!  I know I have one voice and I have learned to find its limits and found that it is able of  far more than even I ever expected if it is trained.

Likewise, I know the limits of the voices of my students, but for them to access all the possibilities, it is incumbent upon them to want to find their true voice and not settle for whatever they can get.  Some students I have only accompanied part of the way and then they reach the limits of their imaginations. Believe me, it is a very heart-breaking thing when you can hear what is possible but the singer does not want to go there.  I have learned to let those singers go and find the rest of their own path, which may or may not have anything to do with ideal vocal training. But I am blessed also to have seen some singers through their final stages, like this fantastic Donn'Anna I worked with today and this amazing student who sent me a clip of her Tacea la Notte from Verdi's Trovatore.  More than that I must have 30 students who have freed themselves from the fear of the system to be able to develop their best product.  This is most humbling.  I believe we are accomplishing something remarkable together and the fruits of our labors is showing more clearly every day.

It is not that we do not get afraid. It is simply that we are not afraid to be afraid! Fear comes and goes, but we persist on our personal journeys regardless. That is what artists do! None of the greats had it easy. None!

© 10/07/2010