Monday, May 30, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Obrigado Brasil!!!

Gostaria de agradecer aos leitores Brasileiros do blog. Depois dos Estados Unidos (que é normal, porque o blog está escrito em Inglês), o Brasil representa o maior número de leitores atuais. É minha esperança de visitar Brasil em breve, e descobrir os avanços na pedagogia vocal lá!

Muito obrigado a todos vocês por apoiar o blog!


Jean-Ronald LaFond

© May 30, 2011

kashu-do (歌手道): Opera is alive and well and living at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

It was only about one week ago I was at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and incensed by the current production of Samson et Dalilah, one of the most horrible productions of any opera I have seen anywhere, which was reviled by the audience who also showered the excellent singers, orchestra and conductor with well-deserved bravos.  I am a resident of Berlin and very active and familiar in the opera scene there.  But do not think for a second that I have been co-opted when I write this post.  I am as passionate as any when it comes to opera and will use this blog as a tool to rebuke anything, anywhere that I feel diminishes our art form by sheer incompetence.  With balance I will also equally laud experiences that elevate our art form to its well-deserved glory.  Such was my experience at the Deutsche Oper, last Saturday--an operatic evening that is up there with my most thrilling operatic experiences ever.

We do not need Franco Corelli to rise from the dead to have a viable Cavaradossi, nor George London to have a great Scarpia (even though Greer Grimsley does a good job of evoking our memory of the timeless London), nor must Leontyne Price come out of retirement to remind us how Floria should be sung.  Indeed, as much as those three singers are among the greatest operatic Gods and Divas in my personal pantheon, I have no desire to see them revived even if it were possible.  I want new operatic titans to fill a new Tartarus!  On Saturday night, something rare happened.  Three great principle singers were in top form, the comprimari were of a remarkably high level, the production was at once traditional and inventive and the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper was in rare form under the secure leadership of Alexander Joel, the General Music Director of the Staatstheater Braunschweig, a young conductor who is quickly gaining my respect as one of the finest conducting talents out there.

I have a special love for Puccini's Tosca.  Other than for children who should probably see Zauberflöte as a first opera, I think every adult should experience Tosca first.  The opera is of a reasonable length, without intermissions, probably about the length of one of the Lord of the Ring movies, filled with every element of a modern blockbuster: love story, political intrigue, a fabulous villain who gets killed at the hands of the woman that he is trying to rape, a lot of fabulous deaths (Dick Clark once defined opera as "music with a lot of killing") and a fabulous plot twist at the end.  Add to that a number of the most memorable operatic tunes ever all packed in this compact score, and all of them completely necessary to the movement of the drama.  There is real reason that Puccini is still the most appreciated operatic composer, dead or alive and why this opera is among the most produced by opera theaters.

But why does this opera so often fall flat even when produced by major theaters these days?  No mystery here!  Great operas like this require the right elements: great singing actors, a conductor who is a lover of voices and a solid motivator of a pit orchestra, and a production that does not hinder the simple but poignantly entertaining libretto.  The same audience that resoundingly booed the Samson production and rewarded the singers last week, had no bittersweet experience this time.  They got all they paid for and some more, and the bravos were already in great supply after the first act.  I was personally willing to lose my voice that night yelling bravo by the time the stentorian Salvatore Licitra delivered his first high B on "la vita mi costaste, ti salverò!"

The Elements:

Memorable operatic evenings have a strange matter-of-fact quality about their beginning.  Sometimes they are big events that are nonetheless routine for great seasoned veterans.  Leontyne Price's Met farewell Aida is one such occasion.  Everyone had done their part before, and Price had chosen colleagues she had worked with very well before.

The Conductor and his Orchestra:  Even the greatest operatic orchestras can sound ragged under the direction of an unprepared conductor.  But when under a secure baton, great orchestras transform into poetically inspired chamber ensembles.  And this was such a time!  From the big opening three chords, Bb, Ab, E, a very flexible light-motif that has within it all the permutations that would develop the finest melodic material in this masterpiece, the audience felt a need to sit up straight.  The togetherness of that first leitmotiv, followed by the crispness of Angelotti's entrance music (which can very quickly fall apart unless the conductor is exact in his mind about the meter changes, without being self-conscious about it), it was immediately clear that this was going to be an evening of quality.

This was not a perfect evening without small flaws.  This ensemble cast had not been working together for many days.  This was a group of guests who in their highest professionalism reduced those rare moments to negligible--stuff that only a trained conductor with intimate knowledge of the score could catch.  And they were moments of communication that could easily go slightly off in the heat of such a passion-filled opera.

What was the most riveting for me was the paradoxical calm intensity that was the hallmark of every beat conducted by Mr. Joel.  I had first experienced this refined conductor in a production of La Bohème in Köln.  Bohème is notoriously difficult, for the which reason, every conducting seminar and training program requires excerpts from it for entrance auditions.  Mr. Joel conducted that score with such flexibility and ease that I was forced to take notice.  I later experience Mr. Joel in his home theater in Braunschweig in a transforming orchestral program.  The fact is I was not aware that Mr. Joel would conduct that night.  I became excited when he walked on the podium.  He was solidly in charge of his band and yet allowed them the flexibility to do what they are so well trained to do.  I could laud Mr. Joel in several paragraphs but I will encapsulate his leadership by a moment in the opera that made me at once humbled and proud to be a musician.  I could not hold back my tears:  In the middle of the great soprano aria, "Vissi d'arte," the principal contrabassist and his younger colleague were singing along with the soprano (Violeta Urmana) and looking at each other to bring in their pizzicati together at the right moments.  They were all smiles!  How many Vissi d'artes has this principal bass player performed at this opera house and others?  In that moment everything was right with the world.  This is what he practiced for, this is the moment of joy he dreamt about, and that would keep him energized beyond the many so-so nights that he would have to endure.  It takes a special conductor to create an atmosphere of relaxed concentration.  Bravo Maestro Joel! I have seen enough to be a bona fide fan! And bravo to the Orchestra of the Deutsche, particularly the contrabassi, for reminding me again how fun it can be to be a performing musician.  I will also mention here the chorus, which was particularly inspired on that evening!

The singers:  Beginnning with two young americans, Ben Wager (Angelotti) and Seth Carico (Sacristan), there was no disappointment.  Mr. Wager added many subtleties to his short encarnation.  His piercing young bass-baritone set the action convincingly.  His jail escapee was desperate and exhausted when he arrived.  After having eaten the food and wine that Cavaradossi gave him, he appeared refreshed with revolutionary Voltarian vigor  (a subtlety often missed in this short role)!  Mr. Carico lightened the mood immediately.  Even though the caged Angelotti was only a few feet behind him in the Attavanti chapel, he was totally forgotten once Mr. Carico's Sacristan began his well-timed, tasteful physical comedy.  His lyric but incisive bass-baritone carried effortlessly in the sizable hall.

When a Cavaradossi makes his first appearance in Tosca, his matter of fact first line tells all about his state of mind.  He only has a couple of minutes before he has to deliver a very difficult, passaggio-defying aria that everyone has in their ears, as effortlessly delivered by the legendary Luciano Pavarotti in the first (and only truly inspiring) three-tenors concert.  I do not think I have ever seen a tenor make that first entrance with as relaxed a sense of fun as Salvatore Licitra did last Saturday!  It was as if he was not even aware that there were some difficult top notes coming up in the aria that would define him to the audience for the rest of what could be a fun or long evening.

Every great tenor has something that makes him immediately loved by the audience, whether Pavarotti's incomparable vocal consistency, Domingo's animal magnetism.  In Mr. Licitras's case, it is a boyish playfulness that permeated every note he sang.  He is a detailed actor with a disarming charm that I can only describe as Italian in the very best sense.   Having spent a few hours with Mr. Licitra a few weeks ago in N.Y., I was not surprised by this charm, but I was not expecting this boyish ease to permeate detailed, well-thought out dramatic choices and to remain unobstructed through the most difficult moments of this score, which are many for all the principles and particularly exposed for the tenor.

I was equally surprised by the richness of Mr. Licitra's voice.  In previous experiences I had been concerned by an overly opened passaggio and high range, even though they could sound impressive.  A friend had told me that she experienced a truly wonderful Tosca at the Met recently with Mr. Licitra and that I should hear him.  I was not able to go in New York and made sure to take the opportunity in Berlin.  I must thank her wholeheartedly for influencing me to hear this.  Mr. Licitra exhibited power, richness, flexibility, dynamic subtleties, beautiful piano singing without ever compromising his substantial, full spinto quality.  More impressively, every vocal choice had a relevance in the dramatic moment.  In our times, we underestimate the singers who get to this level.  It is a good question to ask, why they do not always deliver their best performances.  The elements do not always line up!  In this case they were all there.  From here on, I will give this talented tenor the benefit of the doubt and go see him whenever I can.  There is operatic excellence of a very high order here!

Of Violeta Urmana (Tosca), I have been a fan, ever since I heard her recording of Mahler's Rückert-Lieder with Pierre Boulez.  Humbly, I did not think the role of Odabella in Verdi's Attila at the Met was conducive to the natural warmth of her voice.  I was rewarded with a Tosca for our times.  I had gotten used to not liking the character of Tosca very much.  For a man (probably because I am a tenor), she could appear so overbearing with her annoying jealousy that you would think, why would any man want to be with her?  Well Urmana's Tosca was every bit overbearing in her jealousy but balanced with such a playful charm and a promise of the fun to be had at Cavaradossi's retreat that I personally fell in love with Floria again.  This kind of powerful, feminine charm, so necessary for most of the great dramatic soprano roles is so rarely encountered in the theater, and in this case, matched by a voice of such voluptuous richness, control and power.  Her high C in the second act was of a steely power and velvet beauty, all her other high notes were solid and flexible, never strained even when she is at the height of her most passionate rage against Scarpia.  Her "ma falle gli occhi neri" at the end of her first act duet with Licitra was of such a seductive charm that even the most annoyed man would have to capitulate.  Her "Vissi d'arte"was one for the books, never lacking in substance in the middle range the way many sopranos suffer.  The Bb climactic phrase was effortless and it is luxurious to have this commonly sung aria in the voice of an artist who not only possesses all the necessary latin heat, the sense of vocal generosity necessary for a Puccini orchestra, but also a musical sophistication with respect to harmonic sensitivity, which dictates not only her phrasing but her dramatic timing as well.  I will pay any time to see this refined artist.  I just hope that she is given the kind of environment as Saturday and the roles that make her always as magnetic and at home as this.

One might not think of Licitra and Urmana as the ideal pair.  She is a very tall statuesque woman and he not extremely tall as is the case for most tenors.  In the case of Licitra, height is not an issue.  His presence on stage on this occasion gives no sense that he is not tall and the interplay between these two artists is dramatically so convincing (in the most beautifully tender moments as in their moments of tension) that the question of their height difference never enters the mind.  He is such a powerful masculine presence and she so nobly feminine that together they make a magnificent pair.  Furthermore, they both pour out such amazingly satisfying vocal sounds!

When I was singing as a baritone, George London played on my CD player more than any other voice and Scarpia was my favored role.  I was happy to have gotten to play this magnificent character in one production a few years ago.  I had heard much buzz about the fabulous Greer Grimsley and was very excited that I would finally get to hear him live.  For Tosca to have the kind of unmitigated triumph that it had on Saturday, the third part of the triumvirate had to be just as powerful.  Menacing from his first entrance, sometimes barking his orders impatiently, then singing the most sumptuously sirupy legato to entice Tosca into his venomous web.  He is a tall, slender and muscular man who wears Scarpia's costume as if it was made for his precise frame.  He wields his long whip menacingly and playfully to frighten his underlings as to excite Toscas jealousy when he points to the scaffolding where Attavanti's fan was found.  His Te Deum was one to remember for its gorgeous line, for his effortless high notes and his combination of lascivious intentions as for his respect for the religious environment.  Not easily executable.  Mr. Grimsley soared in the second act, never worrying about a single high note.  He has the ability to open and cover a well supported, perfectly focused E natural, so necessary for the many big moments in the second act.  His voice is ample and cutting.  He matched his two powerful colleagues on stage at every turn.  I look forward to more from this first rate singer.

Fillipo Sanjust (a brilliant director who influenced me in so many ways in my youth) is responsible for this magnificent production.  His set design was not only brilliant in its detail but seeing Sant'Andrea della Valle (I lived right next to it for four months once) from the side, as the Te Deum procession passed, giving Scarpia's voice total dominance over the background chorus is the kind of genius that is not experienced at the theater anymore.  Sanjust was a director of pure genius who understood opera completely.  He also had a love for the human voice that is clear to experience in the way he designs his sets.  When I met him in the mid 80s, he spoke no less than 10 languages with extreme fluency.  The many encounters with him in Spoleto, Italy that summer fed my appetite for linguistic proficiency.  It thrilled me that this brilliant production was his handy-work.  A perfect cap to a perfect set of circumstances.

This article is very long, perhaps even uncommonly long even for me.  I could not spare words to express my extreme admiration for all the people involved in this magnificent evening now etched in my operatic memory.  Legendary operatic evenings are still possible when all the right ingredients are added. One more time, a special thanks to the bass section of the Deutsche Oper for showing that being a musician can be intensely pleasurable even after many years that could take the passion out of even the most committed artist.

© 05/30/2011

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Nurturing Vocal Talent: A Call to the Gate-Keepers of our Business

I take a break from the meditative discussion of fold vibration patterns to address an issue that seems to be calling my attention very persistently this week.  I attended a performance of Samson et Dalila at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, last week, which left me with a deep feeling of anger and frustration.  Anger not at the singers, who were of a very high caliber in fact; not at the conductor or orchestra who delivered a very riveting and stylistically intelligent reading of the score--Indeed the very best I have heard an orchestra execute the very sparse string writing in "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix"; but at this great company that would allow a director to systematically hinder the progress of this wonderful opera.  I felt a particular empathy for the wonderful tenor, José Cura, who despite allergies delivered one of the finest performances I have seen him give in a while.  Here is a tenor made for this role, vocally, temperamentally and physically, yet here is a director who does everything possible to avoid using the innate skills of this talented artist.  Cura's considerable histrionic talents could only be put to good use in a senseless moment when he and a a little boy who represents his youth (I suppose, who can tell anything from this production) paint each other's faces with white make-up à la Pagliaccio. Indeed, the Pagliaccio red nose was introduced later in the derision of Samson that occurs in the scene before the finale.  The tenderness with which Cura interacted with this little boy brought me literally to tears.  This artist has such a powerful radiance and presence that at the direction of a truly inspired director, I believe he could make good on being one of the most naturally gifted operatic tenors on the planet.  I kept wondering: "how many such ill-conceived productions has this artist had to endure?"  Frankly I don't know!  But the question kept ringing in my consciousness.  Did Domingo and Pavarotti have to deal with productions of such extreme incompetence? I doubt it!  How then do we expect to have their successors if the candidates are routinely handled so poorly?

One could call my outrage one-sided and misinformed if not for the Washington Post article that surfaced this week.  The commentary by both Filianoti and Licitra are very telling.  These are not wannabe tenors complaining about wanting opportunity.  These are singers working at the top of the field and having to play a defensive game of protecting their talents because the demands are simply unsupportive of their natural gifts.

The problem is that most administrators are not singers and unlike the great administrators of the past (Rudolf Bing comes to mind) they do not understand vocal talent and consequently they miss the boat on what makes opera riveting.  They are waiting for others to tell them what is good.  Their job descriptions usually have more to do with fund-raising and public relations. Consequently they view the business of opera through such unartistic glasses that the product that ultimately surfaces is of an unartistic nature.

There is such a push to find ways of marketing opera that the obvious falls by the way side.  When we think of opera, we think of names. Names of opera singers: Callas, Nilsson, Price, Norman, Cossotto, Horne, Björling, Pavarotti, Corelli, Merrill, Warren, Cappuccilli, London, Ghiaurov, Ramey, etc!  How does one manage such talents, such that they develop into fully-formed stars?  It is very simple, actually! Let the singers sing music that is conducive to their specific talents.  Do not offer a tenor Cavaradossi who should be singing Nemorino!  Let him sing Nemorino for a long time beautifully and allow his voice to grow into Cavaradossi 13 years later.  Pavarotti spoke thus of himself after his idol, Giuseppe di Stefano recommended he avoid the role.

The standards have dropped so low that it seems to be enough to executives of opera companies if it sounds like opera.  There is a very sad belief that audiences who are raised in a multi-media environment have a short attention span and find opera un-theatrical.  The truth is theatricality on the operatic stage cannot happen without great vocal power.  Imagine seeing Transformers with the sound turned off!  All the visual effects make no sense without the sound effects that accompany them.  In fact it looks busy, annoying and exhausting to watch. Going to the opera when the voices on stage do not come through is exactly the same.  You may have magnificent sets and great physical acting, but without the impact of the voice, it is like going to see Lawrence Olivier with laryngitis!  The physical drama is amplified by the singer's voice.  The drama is in the interplay of harmonic language, the orchestration, the juxtaposition of rhythms and how the human element, the voice interacts with it all.  The set should support this musical drama!  The theatrical values should be conceived to make the dramatic moment that much more poignant!

The allure of opera is no different than that of figure skating or high performance sports!  Opera is an artistic version of a gladiator sport.  It is exciting to hear a glorious voice rise to its highest notes while doing battle with a full orchestra.  The voice should win!  Then the audience is happy!  Would you arrange a boxing match between a welterweight and a heavyweight? Then why should a light weight voice be forced to do battle with a heavy weight score?  It does not matter if the singer is pretty or handsome.  He or she will prettily or handsomely lose the fight!  The audience will most likely not say: "well he flopped handsomely, or she wrecked her voice prettily! So that is worth my ticket!"

Case and point:  Last season, at the Metropolitan Opera I saw Verdi's Attila.  Not a great opera but it is full of excellent tunes.  The Thursday night audience I accompanied through that evening had to wait a solid hour until the stalwart veteran, Samuel Ramey came and thundered three lines into the  half empty house, to which a first time opera-goer who had been expressing his disappointment to his female companion said:  "Now that's what I expect from opera!  Who is this guy?  Why don't they all sound like that? Isn't this supposed to be the best opera house in the world?"  Oh how I wished Mr. Gelb had overheard that conversation!

Were the singer's bad?  No!  In fact I had heard all of them sound wonderful in other operas at the Met!  I am willing to accept a paycheck to tell the casting people there that this particular singer will not sound good in this part, no matter how gorgeous he looks on the poster!  This magnificent soprano should not waste her voice on a role that does not reveal the inherit beauty of her voice!  Other than the thundering Mr. Ramey, everyone got swallowed up by the set that reminded of a sequel to Avatar! Interesting set! But did it add anything to the story-telling?  Not to me, an avid opera fan!  I can find rhyme and reason in the most abstract concept, providing it is a concept!

But I digress (only a little)!  How then do we nurture the talents of Cura and Alvarez and Villazon and Licitra and Filianoti? Like the old days!  Talk to each of these wonderful tenors and their team, early in their career and make a game plan of what parts they should take when, such that their voices grow and not crash under the stress of inappropriate repertoire!

But how do we cast Tosca and Trovatore and Turandot and Walküre? That's what the audiences want to see and they want to see names they recognize!

Think outside the box, man!  If Lyric Tenor X had just sung the Werther of his life, perfectly appropriate for his  voice, don't you think the audience would want to hear him in just about anything?  So instead of  plugging him in for a Manrico that he will survive but not shine in, why not unearth a rarely done opera that would be the perfect vehicle for his lyric voice, like had been done with Fleming (Pirata), Domingo (Stiffelio) and Pavarotti (I Lombardi)?

Meanwhile, in the world of American Idol and Britain's Got Talent, why not pull a Rudolf Bing? Find a solid, experienced unknown with the appropriate voice for Trovatore and publicize his edge-of-your-seat debut?  He triumphs, you make operatic history!  He fails, it's just another night at the opera.  A worthy gamble that produced the unforgettable career of none other than Magda Olivera.  With this kind of strategy, the sure-fire lyric tenor keeps pleasing his audience with roles that foster the growth of his voice and then before you blink too many times, he is ready to sing a good Manrico and the entire opera world is happy!

Opera is not rocket science!  There are people who have not gone the way of YAPs and turn out to be extraordinary singing-actors!  Fine, continue with your YAPS, continue to work with the big name agents to find your next stars, but why not also have a scout who looks in the minor leagues for a  potential star who just happened to have taken the less visible path?

But beyond being creative in finding new talent, one must do everything possible to nurture them when they start to have serious careers.  This does not have to come from the top executives of opera companies, but it must be supported by them.  There must be a universal ideology again that no one contradicts because it is based on proven facts.  A voice, like a boxer, is a talent to be nurtured.  It requires the right new challenge to grow to another level.  Whether that level be physical, or artistic, the nature of the challenge must be calculated with an eye on the singer's long term viability and not on the short term bottom line.  The bottom line of opera companies is kept healthy when there are really great artists available everywhere.

It was not that long ago that Corelli, Bergonzi, Del Monaco, Fillipeschi, Björling, Gedda, Vickers, Windgassen and a host of others were living and singing at the same time.  Granted the world was not united by multimedia the way it is now.  So it is a fallacy to think that there can only be one great tenor in a generation.  The truth is we should not be looking for the next Domingo.  We should be looking for 20 more, because the operatic world is much bigger and we need many great singers to keep it healthy.  Imagine the chatter on opera forums and the blogosphere if there were 20 top-notch, fully-developed tenors to talk about, or 30 first-class sopranos to discuss?  There are more singers now than ever before and you're telling me that we cannot find a few that compare favorably with their predecessors?

Schools are driven by what they are told directly or subliminally by the gate-keepers of our business: the managers and the intendants.  Most singers are on some unhealthy diet, popping PPIs and learning one of only five roles they believe are worth learning, namely Puccini and one famous French opera on a Spanish theme.  How boring have we become!

Some schools are bringing out viable operatic voices, but often without an artistic philosophy.  I meet some wonderful young talent from a particular school in the Eastern United States, who routinely feel that they will get noticed by working on their 6-pack, give off the attitude that they are temperamental divas, even if they are not, and maintain a provocative sexual energy that some directors apparently think will translate dramatically on stage. O I forgot and they must sing loud all the time. I have heard this more times than I care to think!  Let me see! If as a director, I had a choice between an intelligent, creative artist, with a personal investment in the music she sings and a temperamental, empty-headed bimbo who can sing loudly, which one would I chose?  But wait, this is the era of Britney Spears pole-dancing, so there must be some worth to that load of bull!

Pardon my rant!  These young singers are not temperamental empty-headed bimbos by the way!  But some elements of our field think that giving that impression is somehow going to help because it is all about having a personality.  There was a time that having a personality was a euphemism for being unattractive.  A powerful stage-presence in opera is a result of readiness, period.  When a singer is technically secure, musically and dramatically facile and prepared, physically healthy (and I don't meant anorexic) and singing music conducive to his/ her native talent, in a production environment that is professional, helmed by a competent stage director and conductor, the result is magic!  There is no mystery in this.  The only mystery is why on Earth are we cutting corners at every level of the business? From high-school voice teachers to intendants, everyone is in a hurry to package an unfinished singer and then we wonder why they do not sound finished when they get to the great stages of the world.  The most adaptable and resilient ones are the ones we call our current stars.  They are good people, they are hard-working, they had innocence and idealism, they loved opera.  But when they get there, they realized that nothing is the way they expected it and they just struggle to survive.

My friends, we need a systemic overhaul in opera ideology at every level of our business.  If we are honest with ourselves and do the hard work we are all afraid to do, opera can reclaim its position as the noblest of art forms requiring the highest skills from all areas of art and science and business. Or it will keep dragging along, as an unlikely money-making venture for a few (not the singers, by the way), badly riding the coattails of modern pop culture!

© 05/28/2011

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Understanding fold function: Part 2 Facts and Function

I had posed three questions in the last post relative to a fold pattern based on mucosal isolation.  I will address two of them in this post and leave the other one for the next post.

1) Does the singer desire for the entire usable range to be driven by a mucosal (cover) vibration or does the deep part of the folds (body) participate in some parts of the range (e.g. the lower range)

2) Does what scientists observe and publish as norms agree with the vocal function of the very best lyric singers?

The two questions need to be dealt together.  First of all, what do scientists observe and publish as norms?

Here is an excerpt from the website of The National Center for Voice and Speech, arguably the most respected source, providing information on vocal function from the scientist's point of view:

Chest register is perceived when the timbre is richer or heavier; this quality is produced when the singer contracts both the CT and TA muscles at the same time, but the TA is more active, thus tending to shorten the folds and produce a lower pitch range. The Fo and lower overtones are stronger than higher overtones in chest voice, and a large amount of the vocal fold tissue is in vibration. In addition, the vocal folds are usually closed through more than half of each cycle of vibration.
Head register is perceived when the timbre is lighter or thinner. Both the CT and TA muscles are contracted, but the CT muscle predominates, and so the range of pitch for head voice is higher, since the folds are lengthened, thinned and stretched. A smaller portion of the folds is in vibration in head voice; only the outer layers of the cover vibrate. The Fo and all overtones are weaker than in chest voice, and the folds are open for a larger portion (more than half) of each vibrational cycle than in chest voice.

Are the color-coded statements accurate?  Is this article addressing professionally viable lyric singers?

Relative to the statements in blue, Donald G. Miller, of Voce Vista fame, has observed in the male voice that operatic head voice production can yield up to 80% close quotient (the percentage of the vibration cycle that the folds remain closed) particularly among more robust voices.  This is documented in his extremely informative book, Resonance in Singing, as well as in this online presentation.

The discussion of the two tenors singing a crescendo-diminuendo is fascinating when one listens to the two sound clips provided.  We will return to the sound clips!  For now, simply looking at Miller's findings (i.e. close quotients of 75% in both subjects singing in the traditional head voice range), it would seem that there is a disagreement as to the definition of head voice.  Must head voice production yield a high open quotient (i.e. a low close quotient) as suggested on the website of the NCVS?  Are the tenors in the Voce Vista website singing in chest voice, if the CQ levels are as high as 75%?


Let us consider the statements in red in the above quotes from the NCVS!  The statements suggest that head register is weaker than chest register and that the deep layers do not participate in the vibration, in head voice.  At face value, at least the first part of that statement is wrong when we look at Miller's spectrograms.  The examples of the two tenors show very strong energy in all harmonics, particularly when both singers sing ff.  Miller's presentation cannot tell us how the folds are producing the high CQ levels in the two tenors singing in head register.  Why is tenor1 produce a very bright sound and also a falsetto when he reduces volume to pp and tenor2 is able to maintain a high CQ as he reduces the sound (granted that tenor2 does not reduce the sound as much as tenor1)?

I believe the answer lies in the difference between the way the two tenors achieve their high CQ.  Let us look at the picture of the fold layers again:

The question to ask as we observe the animated GIF above is how much of the mucosal edge is available to participate in the vibration.  There is a lot more brown material (mucosa) than is being shown to participate in the vibration.  What if the entire cover down to the bottom had protruded out to produce the vibration?  In fact it can!  The above picture is considered a simulation of falsetto. A lower pitch would thicken the vocalis and change the shape of the vibrating edge.  Hence a simulation of modal voice.

The simulation does show an increase in the mucosal contact area, but it illustrates more obviously that the medial layer (ligament) participates in the vibration.  I do not believe this is necessarily the case when it comes to the upper modal range--what we call full the lyric full voice.

At this point we must understand what creates pitch. A pitch is to put it simply a number of vibrations per second.  A4, right above middle C, is also called A440 because 440 vibrations (i.e. open-close cycles) are necessary for us to hear the pitch 440 Hertz or 440 puffs of air released in one second.  The speed of the vibration cycle is what controls pitch.  It is important to know that there are two components to the speed of the cycle:  How much of the fold edge is participating in the vibration (i.e. how deep is the approximating edge) and how tightly the folds come together during vibration.

The simulation above shows the vibration occurring at the mucosal level--that is the outside layers barely touch.  If the folds are touching more tightly, two parameters must change: 1) the time of the close quotient will increase, which means normally the fundamental frequency (pitch) would lower.  In such a case, for a given frequency if the singer desires to maintain pitch with this pressed mode of vibration, the amount of vibrating edge must lessen 2) the outer layers (mucosa) would be pressed against the other layers, which are less flexible.  Greater sub-glottal pressure would be necessary to maintain the vibration. In such a scenario, the voice will sound more intense but less air would be released per vibration cycle. The sound pressure would be less than a tone that is produced with full closure at the mucosal level.

Compared to pressed phonation, to produce a long enough vibration cycle when the folds are closed completely only at the mucosal edge, the amount of contact area would have to increase.  The mucosal edge would have to be deeper vertically, on the y-axis of the animation, as opposed to the pressed sound which would require deeper contact on the x-axis.

The issue here is flexibility and sound pressure.  Greater contact area along the mucosal edge provides enough time for the vibration cycle such that pressed phonation is not necessary.  Given that the folds meet softly (but completely), less sub-glottal pressure would be necessary to start and maintain the vibration.

Dr. Zhang, Zhaoyang at UCLA, in a 2008 article shows that a stiffer fold body will isolate the vibration of the vocal folds along the mucosal edge. These two images from his article illustrate the different mode of vibration:

This first picture represents a model of loose fold body and loose fold cover.  When there is not enough antagonism between vocalis and crico-thyroid the body (deeper layers) vibrate with the cover.  The vibration will tend to be more difficult in such a case. More sub-glottal pressure will be necessary to start and maintain the vibration.

This simulation, on the other hand, represents a stiff fold body rendered by contractions of both main muscle groups.  This antagonism makes the fold body less mobile and isolates the vibration of the folds along the mucosal edge.  The antagonism between vocalis and crico-thyroid also increase the contact area along the mucosal edge.

The simulations obviously do not illustrate the difference in contact area that I believe should be reflected here.  The necessary contraction between the vocalis muscle and the cryco-thyroid muscle that causes the stiffness in the body of the folds would also change the fold depth, such would make up for the faster opening of the fold from reduced medial pressure (pressed phonation).

I believe this is the difference we hear between the two tenors compared on the Voce Vista page.
Tenor1, to my ears sounds exciting and pressed.  As he reduced sub-glottal pressure to reduce volume, he no longer had enough pressure to sustain the vibration of the pressed folds. He had to give up the medial pressure and did so gradually and rather effectively.  But I believe he had to relax the arytenoids (back of the folds) and let air out to reduce the volume even while the folds stayed together--In essence a falsetto production as reflected in both the acoustic signal and the glottal signal (CQ).

Tenor2 on the other end seemed to exhibit a mellower sound that by the looks of both the acoustic signal and the CQ kept enough glottal resistance without excessive medial pressure.  From what I hear of his sample, he could have continued to diminuendo to a softer sound, but he stopped.

The change in phonation mode that we hear in Tenor1 is very symptomatic of pressed phonation.  When a pressed sound reaches an excessive sub-glottal pressure threshold, it will tend to un-dynamically shift to a new mode.  We often hear this in voices that crack from excessive sub-glottal pressure.

A dynamic exchange in dominance must occur between the vocalis and crico-thyroid muscles as pitch rises. Sometimes a singer may have a balanced phonation on one note and a poor phonation on the next. This mezzo example in Miller's website is a perfect case.  Her lowest note on the A3 to A4 arpeggio is to my ears perfectly balanced, with enough antagonism between the vocalis and crico-thyroid groups to create a stiff fold body that encourages a vibration dominated by the cover (It is possible that the ligament, the medial layer is also active, but to my ears, not the muscular layer). Yet, the excessive thinning of the folds on C4# would have caused pressed voice and a change in quality.  Instead, I believe the singer allowed the arytenoids to loosen, allowing free air to escape at the back end of the folds while maintaining the pressed vibration along the edges. An effective trick, but in the end the voice seems to lack substance all the way up to the A4--A consequence of the imbalance on the second note.

To summarize, it would seem that the scientists make a distinction between chest voice and head voice based on the amount of medial pressure.  In essence, what is often referred to as chest voice is a pressed phonation that necessitates the participation of deeper, less flexible layers in the vibration of the folds. Head voice is defined by a vibration mode that confines the oscillation to the mucosa but perhaps lacking in fold contact.

What I suggest is a middle ground found in the two approaches that is possible when there is enough contact area along the mucosal edge.  In such a case, complete contact is possible between the folds without necessitating pressed phonation, such that would impede the easy oscillation of the mucosal edge. Parenthetically, I believe this is the quality that is suggested by the phrase, voce piena in testa (full voice in head mode), coined by the late Richard Miller.  Indeed, the increased superficial contact area produces a richer spectrum while allowing easier airflow, consistent with mucosa-based vibration of head-voice mode.

To answer the original first question, I think it is of benefit to the lyric singer to develop such a balanced mode throughout the range, consisting of increased contact area along the superficial layers.  The medial layer, the ligament, possibly participates in the vibration of the lowest pitches, but I do not think the muscular layer needs to participate, unless the singer should attempt a raw chest tone.  For a temporary effect it can work, but habitual use of the raw chest voice will only create habitual non-dynamic adjustments over time.

© 05/27/2011

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Understanding fold function: Part 1 Fold Structure

Our goal in phonation is an efficient, flexible and fluid vibration of the fold cover, what some refer to as singing on the thin edge of the folds.  Traditional vocal language is full of jargon based on singers sensations and indeed the physical act of singing has to be a sensory experience.  There is not a lot of time for the brain to control.  The brain's job is to conceive of the desired sound.  The body must more or less automatically produce the sound, which yields specific sensory feedback.  Those sensory experiences become the tools we use to recall the correct (or in some cases incorrect) function.  The sensory experiences may be transmitted from teacher to student via a technical approach that brings the student to those experiences.  Imagery and sensory-based jargon can work, however jargon must be based on actual function, otherwise it can be confusing.  Sensations that are very similar (and to the student sometimes undistinguishable) can be the result of good and bad function.  For that reason, the teacher's ability to distinguish between correct and incorrect function is crucial, particularly with respect to equivocal sensory feedback.  Consequently, I have spent the last month researching this particular post.  Some fundamental claims that I make here often, with regard to fold depth, lip-trills and occlusives need to be clarified.  It is imperative to understand why a tone production that is too thin relative to fold depth would yield a sensation of heaviness, and also why the reverse would also be true--that a too deep production might yield a sensation of being light and disconnected.

Fold function, as most processes related to the singing voice, is paradoxical at best, that is until the complex patterns are understood.  First the basic structure of the folds:

On the left of the picture is a medial sectioning of the larynx showing the left side.  The vocal fold is circled and an enlarged, detailed picture of the same is produced on the right side.  The picture shows the five (5) distinct layers of the the vocal folds.  Depending on the purposes of scientific research, the folds may also be partitioned into three (3) layers, from flexible to less flexible: 1) the mucosa, made up of the epithelium and superficial layer of the lamina propria 2) the vocal ligament, made up of the medial and deep layers of the lamina propria 3) The thyro-vocalis muscle or muscularis.  For purposes of high level function such as classical singing, the layers are usually partitioned into two (3): 1) the mucosa also called the fold cover and the other three layers called the fold body.

As mentioned earlier, the goal of the lyric singer is to limit the vibration of the vocal folds to the fold cover (mucosa).  There are many issues to discuss here:

1) Does the singer desire for the entire usable range to be driven by a mucosal (cover) vibration or does the deep part of the folds (body) participate in some parts of the range (e.g. the lower range)

2) Does what scientists observe and publish as norms agree with the vocal function of the very best lyric singers?

3) How does the singer produce a desirable, sustainable phonation pattern based on mucosal isolation?

See the next post for answers

I have decided that these heavily scientific blogposts need to be experienced in digestible chunks.  Consider these questions and see the next post in a day or two.

© 05/24/2011

Monday, May 9, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Simplifiying the Technique

My dear friend and fellow blogger, Claudia Friedlander recently wrote the following: 
  I think styles of vocal technique fall into two main categories: an outcome-oriented, "hands-on" approach of controlling and manipulating the various components of your instrument to produce a desired sound; and a process-oriented approach where you essentially coordinate everything so that it responds more passively to your expressive and musical intentions. 
Claudia is certainly correct and I think we both fall in the latter category.  Unfortunately, it takes a certain amount of life experiencing (not always directly proportional with age) to understand why a process-oriented approach, based on a set of principles that yield results, is the way to go.  The kind of singing we all hope for is one that feels simple to produce:  That the body responds to the desires of the mind! 

Why does the body not respond to the desires of the mind to begin with?

It does.  This is precisely the way the human person is designed.  This explains those we call "natural singers"!  However, most of us have not kept the body trained in the ways necessary for it to respond to the desires of the mind.  Certainly our vocal habits vary by culture, by environmental experience, etc.  I submit still that the baby's modes of expression, especially the cry, is pretty much the coordination we need as opera singers.  I heard a little boy yesterday practicing a tune from a Broadway show with a pianist-coach.  I imagined they were actually working on a production.  The little boy came out for a moment. He could not have been more than 11 years old and was belting out the tune with a very powerful voice, and they kept repeating the piece for close to an hour.  The boy did not show any sign of fatigue and the voice was clear and easy.  How many young children are allowed to belt out a tune these days before someone say, they will kill their voices? Yes there is the Annie Syndrome, of young girls killing their voices singing a tune they are not able to sing because someone is trying to get them cast in a production.  What is the difference between those and this boy?

I suppose this boy had been belting tunes for fun and probably singing around the house without anyone deciding it was time to package him.  He was probably Belting It Like Björling long before anyone thought he should be singing in a show.  In short, he was unconsciously training his throat muscles at a time when no one thought he should be making a perfect sound.  He was left to sing for fun and developed a strong voice the same way he learned to walk.  He probably cracked trying to sing some pop tune on the radio, and his parents probably chuckled quietly because they thought it was cute.  No one was thinking: "Hey be careful or you will hurt your voice!"  Just like his parents probably chuckled when he wobbled and fell as he learned to walk.  He himself probably laughed (as babies do) when they fall on their paddings while learning to walk.

The girls of the Annie Syndrome are not all in peril. Some of them learned to sing just like that little boy and developed no vocal problems.  Many others are taught to sing that difficult song because someone thought they should try to get them on stage, rather than hearing a well developed voice and say: "She could probably sing Annie"!

In essence, voices are either brought out because they are ready or they are pushed out before their time. But that is another issue already covered here.  The point of the the little boy is that he has been training his vocal musculature unconsciously for a long time before he could sing so musically and so effortlessly.  The process-oriented approach works to develop muscles throughout the body such that the process of singing becomes possible without having to think about it too much.    The result-oriented approach seeks to acquire immediate results by attempting to coordinate the voice for a specific task.  Because muscular readiness is not taken into account, this approach will use any means to acquire the desired sound, and this means compensatory muscular tension and alternative neural pathways, both very difficult to un-train later.

Muscular training is not easy.  Anyone who goes to the gym once knows that.  A student who visited me recently for a consultation told me she opened a Snapple bottle on that day that read: Did you know that 72 sets of muscles are necessary to produce the singing voice (Not an exact quote)?  If so many muscles are necessary to produce the voice, why would anyone think they can produce a sound without having developed those muscles?  Can someone run a marathon just because they can run?  Can someone immediately learn to serve a tennis ball because they can swing a racket?  But people keep thinking despite the obvious that a great vocal sound can be produced without first developing the appropriate musculature.

When one does a full-voiced lip-trill, the entire body is involved and if they do it correctly for the first time, they will realize that they cannot do this exercise throughout their usable range.  Personally, when I began my training as a tenor, I could only do this exercise up to F4#.  It makes sense, does it not?  As a baritone I did not have to sing much higher than an F4#.  This means that notes above that were not yet developed.  Now I can do this exercise up to C5# and my comfortable warm-up range is commensurate with this ability.  A full-voiced lip trill induces the muscular activity to bring the folds into balanced and exciting phonation

What is important to understand is that just like boxing is not about rope jumping, neither is singing about lip-trills.  I mean, a boxer does not jump rope in the ring, but the rope-jumping technique builds flexibility and stamina in the legs, crucial to a boxer's readiness.  Likewise, we do not do lip-trills on stage, but that training builds the immediacy of the muscular part of the process.

Although the full voiced lip-trill feels like developing the chest voice (and it is--at least what we physically sense as chest involvement), it is also about breath flow.  When this is trained, the next step is coordinating the isolated vibration of the fold cover, the sensation we refer to as the clear, released head-tone.  In my approach, to attempt to produce a head-tone before the fold posture has been trained (via lip-trills for instance) is tantamount to starting a car without oil in the engine.  You will experience the scary sounds of viscosity breakdown.  If a proper lip-trill is not possible, the fold posture will be thin, the fold closure will be too tight and the voice will lack in necessary low harmonics.  The loss of lower harmonics also means that the larynx has risen, which means that excessive sub-glottal pressure is driving the instrument to fatigue and even the higher harmonics are not as strong as they should be.  In short the phonation will be tense and unresonant.

Conversely when the fold posture has been trained, coordinating a head-tone throughout the range is very simple, because the voice is set up to produce it.  The breath mechanism has been trained and coordinated with the voice and therefore the question of support has been addressed.  The lip-trills train those muscles as well and they automatically respond in tone production.  Then the core muscles do not have to be actively engaged when it is time to sing.  They should simply respond automatically when they have been developed and toned.  Holding this muscle contraction and that muscle contraction cannot be part of the process.  But indeed most singers, myself included, have spent a lot of time in our lives trying to control this muscle and that muscle, rather than simply desiring a beautiful head-tone and producing one

The process-oriented approach is in fact goal-oriented.   The difference is that the process-oriented teacher understands when the final results are not possible in a healthy way.  The goal is not a product at all cost, but rather a final product devoid of extraneous muscular activity.  If an exciting sound means compensatory muscular tension, I am not interested in it, for all muscular activity that is not naturally a part of the desired function will increasingly become a hindrance to efficient tone production.  The easy, released, clear and intense head voice is only possible when the laryngeal muscles have been trained to do it.

© 05/09/2011

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): My Mommy, My Hero!

Two weeks ago, I spent Easter Sunday with my Mom and my sisters and realized something that should have been obvious.  I was sitting across the table from my mother when she said something that was very normal for her but seemed suddenly revelatory to me:  "Well, I bought a couple of lottery tickets before lent and did not allow myself to look at the results during the Lenten season.  So don't be surprised if you find a nice surprise in your bank accounts next week!" My mother was only half joking!  Somewhere in her extreme optimism, she believed it completely possible that she might win the lottery, and why not?

My Mom is also a very faithful Catholic.  Her relationship to her church is not a passive one.  She is active in her thinking and has very clear reasons for her beliefs.  Her faith has guided her through many changes in her life, including leaving her native country, raising her children (who are a very diverse and challenging brood), loving and caring for my Dad, her husband of 40 years, until his untimely demise to a terrible bout with cancer.

After the previous paragraph, I do not need to talk about my Mom's courage.  My sisters and I have challenged her throughout our lives.  By our very individual ways of approaching our lives, we have caused her to consider her traditional teachings, her views on all kinds of issues that impact our lives and hers.  Rather than just saying that we are of a different generation and decide not to address our points of views, my sisters and I have seen my mother develop into a very sophisticated philosopher, considering the views of the day against her own upbringing and coming to personal choices that are both in keeping with her principles and considerate of others.

My Mom has made an art of her life! She left a third word country and came the United States, educated herself, gave her children greater opportunities than she had, made a career as a nurse and became a proud home owner.  She has unlimited respect and unconditional love from her children--A love she has earned because she has given us that same love and respect always.  Nothing came easily, but she never complained.  She simply worked hard and patiently!

If you, my readers have not figured out by now where this is going, you only need to read the mission statement at the top of the page.  At Easter dinner two weeks ago, it became clear to me that my motto, "Faith, Courage and Patience.  Hard Work Is a Given" did not come to me accidentally.  These are the principles that my Mom has always lived by, and they have infected my life in a most profound way.  These very special gifts are like weapons to fight the war of life. I have never believed at any point that I was losing the game of life.  That profound belief has given me the patience and courage to go on and make real my visions. As I consider my life and its potential, I cannot imagine any of it without the quiet strength and love of the woman I endearingly call: Mouse!

And so I dedicate this, my most important blog post to date to my Mommy, my Hero, Nicole Lafond, who gave me all the resources necessary to live this life, and without whose quiet influence this blog would not exist!

May 8, 2011 (Mother's Day)