Sunday, November 30, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Demystifying the Wobble!

1.  The Anatomy of a Wobble

A wobble does not mean your career is over!  It is a classic muscular imbalance and it can be eliminated!  I wanted to state this categorically and clearly at the onset of this post.  On the other hand I do not want to trivialize the matter.  I will address this issue as thoroughly as possible.

A wobble is essentially a vibrato extent (frequency range) that exceeds the ears ability to distinguish between the desired fundamental pitch and the extremes (low and high) of the vibrato extent.  It is not necessarily true that the vibrato rate changes during a wobble.  Vibrato rate is more connected to brain signals to the laryngeal nerves than it is to muscular imbalances. That says, an extreme muscular imbalance can interfere with the intermittent brain signal that produces a regulated vibrato.

The components that contribute to a wobble are all-encompassing.  The central issue is hyper-function in one of the frequency altering muscles (Vocalis or Crico-Thyroid) producing hypo-function in its counterpart.  An efficiently produced tone depends greatly on an ideal contact area controlled by the Vocalis and ideal longitudinal tension produced by the CT.  In a wobble situation, the vibrato extent tends to vary between one vibration cycle and the next, signifying that one muscle is overly dominating during one cycle and then the opposing muscle overcompensates in the next.  The sensation to the singer is that one moment the sound feels too heavy and the next it feels to light.  It is in effect a continuous yodel sensation.

The laryngeal imbalances causes, or is caused by,  irregularities in trans-glottal flow, whether originating from poor breath management/support or causing inappropriate sub-glottal pressure.  In other words, incorrect laryngeal dynamics can cause problems in breath function and vice-versa.  Excessive volume or inadequate support can both lead to a domino effect that result in a wobble.

Lastly, inappropriate resonance adjustments (e.g. high larynx, tense jaw and inappropriate vowel choices) contribute to irregular fold oscillations and inappropriate sub-glottal pressure.

In a sense, all aspects of singing must be addressed to correct a wobble or better yet, avoid it in the first place.

2.  How Age  and Time Factor In

Up to the mid 20s, it is very rare to hear a wobble (yet I have heard it in a few 19 to 22 years old college students) because the larynx tends to be more flexible until around age 25.  The natural calcification of the laryngeal components around 25 years of age results to allow for a more stable system as the adult body produces greater sub-glottal pressures with age, heightened expression, etc.  With this new stability, there develops also a lesser ability to bounce back from malfunctions and imbalances.  After 25 years of age, the singer can no longer party all night and wake up to a voice that is fresh the next day.  Longer recovery time is required and the elasticity of a pre-adult larynx is no longer available.

It usually takes a long time for a wobble to manifest to the point of disturbing performance.  However, the signs of an oncoming wobble can be measured (Voce Vista's vibrato tool is particularly convenient) even without machinery.  A teacher with a well-developed ear can hear tones that are not ideally balanced, which left unchecked can develop into a wobble.

Wobble is not only a thing of old age. Today I hear discernible wobbles in top singers in their late 30s and early 40s, either caused by singing inappropriate tessituras for over a decade or singing more loudly than the voice can safely sustain.  A lack of total training makes for imbalances to become more pronounced much earlier than with earlier generations who took more time to train and were more discriminant about repertoire choice.

As for aging singers, a wobble does not have to be part of the equation.  A singer can avoid a wobble by being thoroughly physically fit.  The muscles directly involved in singing are supported by muscles throughout the body, particularly core muscles and costal muscles responsible for a great deal more than singing.  If core and skeletal muscles can be kept strong and the vocal musculature is trained in balance, a wobble is avoidable.  Longevity does not have to be selective if the singer has the patience and is training correctly.

3. Ode To A Special Singer

I dedicate this post to a singer I have had the pleasure of teaching for the past four years.  I mentioned her in passing in a post some three years ago.  This true dramatic mezzo who had the beginnings of a bourgeoning professional career some 30 years ago thought she had lost her voice and after many laryngologists and expensive voice teachers could not find an answer and she had stopped singing altogether for some 12 years, she read this blog and contacted me.  After an hour of exercises I theorized that her problem was probably the cause of an extreme muscular imbalance.  The chest voice was totally devoid of CT participation and the head voice was totally disconnected from the bottom.  So much so that more than an octave from F4 to around G5 could not be coordinated.  No one bothered to see if notes above F4 could work.  I found that B5 came right out.  A kind of flute function that was so loud, no one would have called it a flute voice.  But when you have a voice so substantial it might make the magnificent Stefanie Blythe sound like a lyric mezzo, it is understandable why the flute voice might sound so loud.

I mention this wonderful singer who is now in the final phases of her training, because she started to work with me around the same time as another singer around her age began with me.  The other singer who had a pronounced wobble but whose problem in my estimation was not so unusual progressed little and eventually gave up.  I felt that the other singer was not practicing regularly as much as she needed to to reverse the pressing and weak breath support that had been built over many years.

Our current singer, however, who is the most challenging case of muscular imbalance I had faced in my entire career (including literally thousands of singers) did go through a period of wobbling, which I expected when the two sides were first coordinated again, exhibits no signs of a wobble now.  I do not post any clips of this most extraordinary singer because I would like her sound to be unimpeachable when we finally reveal her secret work.  This was a high level singer who included Domingo and Ramey as her early colleagues.  I have not met a singer with this kind of courage, determination, patience and work ethic ever!  I believe most singers would have given up.  But when you have made strides the way she did, measurable strides due to daily, regular practice, good day or bad day, rain or shine, then it feels wrong to leave the work unfinished.

Thanks you B. for being the inspirational singer you are. As much as I guide you, your peerless example has been my personal daily inspiration.  When I see how far you've come and the mountains you've climbed, I cannot even begin to imagine stopping my own work halfway.  YOU demystify the Wobble and conquered it as one small hill among the Everests you've had to climb.  I look forward soon to the time when we can display your implacable courage and the fruits of your hard work!

© 11/30/2014

Friday, November 28, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): The folly of one-sidedness! 100% of both sides

How long does it take to balance a thoroughly satisfying chest voice with a totally satisfying head voice?

Will it be beautiful the first time?  Will you get a great sound the first time you try to balance two complete sides?

In breathing:  Are you a pushing out type or a pulling in type?

In resonance, do you think about "putting it forward" or "opening up the back space?"

When you do an [i] vowel such as in the word "feel," do you close your mouth?

Low larynx or high soft palate?

Full-bodied or floaty light?

One register or two or three or five?

Either/or is the singers's Hell!  The world is full of proponents of one side or the other, which leads to a dissatisfying polarization that is just as responsible for the decay of the operatic arts as bottom-feeding agents and stage-directors who do not read music.

Balancing a thoroughly satisfying sensation of substance with a flexibly flowing light mechanism is the goal in every part of the register.  But in a world bent on immediate gratification, singers and teachers rarely allow themselves the natural process of "necessary imbalance" in order to accomplish true balance.  Singers are so afraid of making a less than perfect sound that they do not allow themselves the experience of developing true balance.

One process that begins with wobbly legs:  such as babies learning to walk!  Wobbly legs lead to perfect balanced walking, just as a true technique often begins with an unsteady voice and over time develops into true balance whereby no aspect is sacrificed.

Compression and flow are parts of one inter-dependent system.  Paradoxical and total!  The folds close gently but completely once substance and stretch have been balanced and a balance between compression and flow is a reality.  Resonance is a three part system that includes a low larynx, a tongue that is flexible and does not retract and a jaw that releases regardless of vowel.

In singing, things that seem like opposites are rather necessary parts of a more complete system.  But how many singers or teachers for that matter are patient and courageous enough to figure out ten elements that balance with each other without any of them being sacrificed?

Most singers come into singing with one or several of those parts unconsciously trained from speaking habits and early musical experiences.  Those are the parts they must reexamine!  Unfortunately these are the parts they too often take for granted and do not include in their teaching.
We must examine ourselves!  We must make sense of the total package including the parts that we did not have to struggle with.  Otherwise, we remain forever partial teachers never understanding the whole.

A great and total technique takes us through many steps without altering its principles.  The voice changes until it is balanced.  The technical precepts remain the same.  Over time, the singer manages to balance 10 elements without ever sacrificing one or the other.  At that point, true balance is achieved and the multi-faceted nature of the instrument is discovered.

Beware of one-sided singing and embrace the juggling act or the tight-rope act that is balance in singing!

© 11/28/2014

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Winterreise and My Seven Years in the Desert

7 X 7 = 49.  This year I turn 49 and I have heard that we go through a sort of transformation every 7 years, or rather that we experience a certain level of existence for 7 years and graduate to another level.  Whatever it is, it would seem to coincide with my journey to becoming a tenor...or better, a real singer.  What do I mean?  Was I a fake singer before?  Certainly not!  I was always admired for bringing a high level of artistry and interpretative honesty to my performances.  Those things were enough such that many overlooked a certain vocal inferiority...Inferiority because I believed I was something I was not.

Vocal categories are interesting but sometimes limiting.  Even now that I feel 100% tenor (that is I feel at home in the tenor tessitura in a way I never did as a baritone), my timbre has a lot of baritone in it.  It is my vocal nature:  Baritone fold thickness and tenor fold length.  As I have written here often, paradox is a word that has come to define me, my voice, my teaching, etc...

Perhaps it is for that reason that Schubert and Müller's Winterreise has been such an important piece of music in my life.  I have never found the cycle difficult to sing.  In a strange way, it always fit my spirit.  It was fitting therefore that I made what I consider my official comeback to performance (yes I have done other small performances) with this great work.  The final step to readiness is performance.  One can have all the pieces ready, but singing in the studio is not the same as commanding an audience's attention.  Preparing a work like that places a performer square before his fears, aspirations and hopes.  One must defy limitations to truly perform.  For that reason I admire anyone who prepares to the best of his/her abilities and faces the public.  Yet I am also critical!  No less than I would be critical of myself!

This is not my finished voice, but I make no excuses for it here.  The vocal product is pretty well developed...well enough to really perform this cycle in all of its complexities, taking bold chances whenever I felt up to it.  Likewise I made some safe choices when I felt the voice was not always up to the perfect pianissimo or when the lower range fuzzes out a little, or when the heavier side of the voice dominates in the lower passaggio.  But those moments were few and I never felt artistically distracted.

It was time to come out of the desert and it showed me that the process has been correct.  Furthermore, this performance also opened my eyes to how little was left to work out technically and how crucial it is to take this to its logical end!  Indeed there is no end!  But there is a level of skill that is akin to a skilled tightrope-walker!  The skill level must be extraordinarily high, yet the job of keeping once balance presents eternally changeable moving pieces that are inter-connected.  One must be conscious and one must allow balance to occur.

I travel always with a copy of Poulenc's Bleuet, the song that more than any symbolizes superior technical and interpretative achievements, precisely because I love the song and until recently never felt up to its challenges.  This next period will be the Bleuet Period.  It will be a time of refinement at the highest level and a time of intense enjoyment.

April 17 2015 will be the 7th anniversary of the day when I gave up all baritone repertoire to start training as a tenor.  It will be interesting to see where I am by then, and where I will want to go afterward.

For now, I leave you with my performance of Franz Schubert's and Wilhelm Müller's Winterreise. I hope you enjoy viewing it as much as I enjoyed singing it.