Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Achieving High C: A Tenor Milestone

It is so easy to say: "No you can't!"  I swore I would never tell a student that something was not possible.  I would explain why something was not attainable at the moment and what would be needed to achieve it.  But I would never say: "It is impossible!"

I have heard from many coaches and teachers that you do a student a favor when you tell them they have no talent.  You spare them the agony that they would face in attempting to reach a goal they never would reach.  Sometimes, I wish I could do that, but I find it unethical.  It is not our place as teachers and advisors to tell anyone what to do.  It is our job to present the realities as they are and let the student decide if they will chose to swim the "sea of troubles" that is the path to a professional career in singing.  The path that is unending an rewarding however is the path to artistry.  

When we tell a student that they should not sing because the world of the music business is impossible, we also tell them to stop the path of the artist.  "Cart before the horse!"  Why not instruct the student in the art of singing and music and then they can figure out whether or not they want to deal with the world of music business.  Armed with the tools of an artist, one has a chance.  Armed with nothing but fear of a nasty world of music business, one has indeed no chance.

When I started my journey to finding my true voice, my tenor voice, I decided a fully supported High C was a part of the package.  It is not that the High C is the end of everything.  It is simply something that many full-voiced tenors have accomplished and just because I began as a baritone does not mean that a high C was not possible.  So many tenors with more substantial voices than mine accomplished this feat.  Why not I?  I look at the singers of the past as models, not as Gods.  In fact the most exciting lesson is that they were mere human beings like all of us.  They practiced until they were able to do something that is indeed difficult to do.

I knew that a High C would be possible as a result of a complete technique, not as a goal unto itself.
My early clips on this blog from a few years ago show rough beginnings.  The following clip shows how far this has come.  The journey is ever-continuing, and while I enjoy my High C, the C3-C4 octave, my middle and lower middle ranges still need work.  Refining is a lifelong job.  

While practicing some songs this morning, I felt that the fluidity I had been working on through coloratura singing was bearing fruit.  My voice felt more released and flexible than it had in previous months.  As I warmed up, the top range felt a little lower, and when I sang the C in a scale, it did not feel stuck or resistant.  It was "released!"  I thought I would try it on my favorite High C phrase, the one from Pollione's cavatina from Norma:





The first try was relaxed, but perhaps a little too relaxed.  The second note of the phrase was a little unsupported and flat.  However, the balance of substance, air pressure/flow and brilliance was right and the C just released.

The second try was to prove to myself it was not a fluke.  My concentration was not as good.  It grabbed from the beginning.  Yet it still came out, though a touch stiff!

The third attempt was to regain concentration and balance.  I had to think about all the elements again and allow the instrument to function. It released again.  So it was not fluke.

The fourth try was to try to better the third attempt.  It was pretty good but not as balanced as either the first or the third.
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This is how practice works!  Mastery is not accidental.  Through repetition, we find out the difference between a stable structure and a faulty one, between excellent coordination of all the elements and "mindless hoping" that our natural inclinations might prevail and give us the desired result.  A professional does things on purpose!

How do I improve on this C?

The acoustic analysis tells me a lot about my tendencies.  If I looked at only the "spectrogram" (the scrolling history view), All four attempts look alike.  The greatest energy is carried on the 3rd and 5th Harmonics (peaks), the Second Formant (F2) and the Singer's Formant (SF).  This is precisely what we want.  However, the spectrum view (which represents a moment in real-time), when I freeze it for the High Cs, shows certain tendencies:

The first attempt was very good, but there was a tendency for the First Formant (which happens to be on the fundamental) to dominate during parts of the sustained C.  We would prefer to have a stability in the dominance of the F2.  

The spectrograph also shows us that the formant values (First [F1] and Second [F2] Formants) determine the vowel to be [ae] as in the word "cat".  This choice of vowel (probably influenced by all the tenors I hear do this piece) presents a struggle between F1 and F2, rendering the note a little unstable.  I theorized that the better choice would be the Second Formant of the vowel [a] as in father, which would focus the energy of the low formants on the second harmonic (second peak).  This lower laryngeal position would have a beneficial effect on the SF as well.

The tightness of the second attempt shows very strong peaks in the lower two formants while diminishing the SF.  This is to be expected when the tone is pressed and inflexible.

The third attempt was acoustically the best.  It showed a tendency toward greater strength in the second harmonic (which is desirable).

The fourth attempt showed again a tendency for F1 to become dominant.

Although the Cs are relatively stable and well-coordinated, there is still some polishing work to be done for the note to sound beautiful.
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Being able to sustain C5 means that I have a certain amount of flexibility (ergo strength) in the coordination of notes below that.  B4b or B4 are notes I can now trust in context and more important than that, the flexibility of my lower range is becoming a reality.

Furthermore, before a High C would be possible, I had to make friends with my "natural" voice.  Every time I would try to sound like a tenor, the voice would become tense and quickly fatigued. Whenever I allowed my voice to have the same "body" it always had in my baritone days, the ability to find the brilliance that made the voice tenor-like also became possible.

Now that I feel I have this High C, I have to upkeep it.  And I have to go beyond it!

This summer, as part of my Opera Academy in Sweden, I will be singing three concerts.  I am feverishly working of operatic arias and ensembles as well as some favorite songs and Rossini's Petite Messe Sollenelle.  It is fun to be able to really make music again!

Achieving this High C is just an example of the simple commitment to the idea: "Yes I can!  But it takes work!"

My journey is just becoming interesting!  I love achieving new abilities!  I love that I can sing tenor now when not so long ago, it was just a pipe-dream!  All reality begins with a dream, an inspiration!
I have bigger tenor dreams still, that have little to do with High Cs.  Dreams of masterful music making using this voice that is now coming into its own.

There is indeed no limit to what we can achieve when we commit all of our energy to a task!

Happy Singing!

© 05/28/2014

8 comments:

Hemichromis said...

I very interesting post but i wonder if this is a typo:
"The third attempt was acoustically the best. It showed a tendency toward greater strength in the second harmonic (which is desirable)."

Should it be third harmonic or second formant. That's what i hear.

Kashu-Do said...

Special case on high C. If I sing the [ae] vowel, F2 falls in H3 as expected. However 1012Hz (H2) is F2 if the [a] vowel. That is an interesting option! Trying to accomplish it and see what the difference will be.

Hemichromis said...

Ah I misunderstood you!
I thought you were taling about a doinant second harmonic but you were simply saying that the 2nd harmonic
should have strength to it.

I am curious though what you think of notes around the F-A region.
Should they have the same strength in the 2nd harmonic?

Typically Tenors seem to completely de-tune it and leave the 3rd dominant but I have seen some who have a very strong 2nd and 3rd harmonic in this passaggio area.

Giacomini as a(tired) example:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIXJZznPwdw

Kashu-Do said...

No you did not misunderstand. The vowel formants have defined bandwidths. ex: [a]: F1 (c. 680-850Hz), F2 (c. 1000-1600Hz) depending on how bright or dark the vowel quality is. However the harmonics change as pitch changes. So C5 harmonics (506, 1012, 1518, etc)

One can either tune a darker [a] as in father to H2, in which case H3 would weaken or tune to H3 in which case H2 would weaken. That is because F2 is being tuned to one of those harmonics. F1 in this case might tune to H1.

In the case of F4-A4 (pitches now) F1 is comfortably on H2 and F2 on H3. Therefore, we should see H2 and H3 almost even on F. On F#4 and beyond we will see F2 on H3 taking more and more of the dominance but F1 on H2 should remain strong. On the High C, ideal set-up should be: 1) a bright [a that gives dominances to F2 on H3 as with every other high note thus far. However F1 would be on H1. 2) The other possibility is a darker [a] that puts F2 on H2 and F1 on H1. Therefore, either H1 and H2 or H1 and H3. I don't think one should aim for H2 and H3 on a high C where a version of the [a] vowel is concerned.

Hemichromis said...

I understand, a F2/H2 lock on the high note. Bergonzi might be a good example though he did not have the best top voice.
Corelli has done this in O paradiso on a B-flat i believe.
certainly possible but I personally prefer the F2/H3 lock on the high notes. I also believe that this requires a brighter vowel which may help with finding more efficient phonation.

I rarely see a powerful 1st harmonic in the tenor high range, could it be that it is simply drowned out by the orchestra or that the intention to sing a bright vowel shifts power to the higher harmonics?

Hemichromis said...

I understand, a F2/H2 lock on the high note. Bergonzi might be a good example though he did not have the best top voice.
Corelli has done this in O paradiso on a B-flat i believe.
certainly possible but I personally prefer the F2/H3 lock on the high notes. I also believe that this requires a brighter vowel which may help with finding more efficient phonation.

I rarely see a powerful 1st harmonic in the tenor high range, could it be that it is simply drowned out by the orchestra or that the intention to sing a bright vowel shifts power to the higher harmonics?

Kashu-Do said...

F2 on H2 is not desirable on most tenor high notes. But when get to high C, things begin to shift. Other possibilities begin to present themselves. The same way that F2 becomes dominant on H3 around F4 on the [a] vowel, H2 becomes dominant if a darker vowel is chosen. A darker vowel does not necessarily reduce efficiency if it is appropriate to the tuning the formant to the harmonic in question. It would in fact enhance the SF. Bright vowels can also cause inefficiency if used inappropriately. On Ab4 for example, [e] is a better choice than [i] and is in that situation more efficient. [i] is a better vowel on C#3 than [e] and so in that circumstance [i] is more efficient. It is not black and white. Bergonzi had less than ideal high notes because he rarely achieved the turn in the passaggio. That is why he is F2 dominant on F G A. Those notes are better F2 on H3 dominant on the vowel [a]. They are are actually F2 on H4 on the [E] and F2 on H5 on the [i] vowel.

Kashu-Do said...

You are right you will not see H1 dominance on a tenor high note. It happens occasionally when there is a little tension relative to the [i] or [e] vowel which could have their first formant on the fundamental (H1). In fact very often the case with Bergonzi, Di Stefano and Domingo.