Saturday, December 5, 2009

Case studies: Stephanie, Part 2: Feelings of resonance

In my last posting, I began to describe the case of Stephanie, a near-retirement age singer who had been told she had a faulty ear.

After clearing up Stephanie's breathing issues, we moved on to the feeling of "drinking in" the breath as a balancing concept to the "putting it forward" or "placement" method she had been taught. In Stephanie's case, there was no lift of the palate to balance the feelings of resonance in the forward direction. As she ascended into the passagio area, she simply did not have enough space in the throat for the pitch to resonate properly. Her intention was to sing in tune: but as long as the interior space did not match the pitch of the fundamental, with a space exactly appropriate to the pitch intended, she was out of tune.

The feeling of "drinking in the breath" allows the palate to lift appropriately, while the singer maintains the feeling of speech in the area just in front of the mouth. I also taught Stephanie what I call "turning the breath", which means a deeper feeling of drinking in as you ascend the scale. This aids continuing increase in the lift of the palate. The third crucial element for her was to learn that the voice feels "higher" in the "resonance" (the frontal area of the face) as you ascend the scale. This is something so natural, that many people do not have to be taught it; after all, the higher notes are called "head" voice for a reason: it is because the singer feels these pitches more in the area of the head, as she ascends the scale.

My scientific training tells me that this idea of resonance in the frontal area of the face is not a physiological truth. It has been proven that this area in no way contributes to the production of the sound. The singer, however, guides events on the vocal fold level with precisely this feeling of resonance. For that reason, it is crucially important to good singing.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Case studies: Stephanie, Part 1: "Be here now!"

One of my students is a substitute teacher in elementary schools, and close to retirement age. At her lesson today, we were working on the beautiful Mozart aria 'S'altro che lagrime' from La Clemenza di Tito. For a moment, I found the sheer beauty of her sound deeply moving. With her permission, I would like to tell her story, to inspire those of you who face a history of near-insurmountable vocal challenge.

Stephanie (not her real name) came to me unable to sing in tune, and in despair about her technique. Having taken lessons for several years, and having read a number of worthy books on the subject of singing, she was tied in knots. One teacher had tried to get her to place the voice forward, another to drink it in, and the books she had read told her not to place the sound at all. She had no self-confidence, and sang almost an entire tone flat as she moved through the passaggio into the upper register. She had been told that she had a faulty ear and that she was no musician.

The most obvious thing to me about Stephanie was that she did not know how to think about singing. I felt I had to review with her the pedagogical principles which she, an intelligent person, was using to guide her, because the results were disastrous. Proceeding like archaeologists, we had to exhume the past in order to retrieve the useful concepts and discard the ideas which were getting in her way. I often tell my students to take great care over what they believe, because sooner or later it will determine what they do. The more cerebral you are, the more likely to follow your beliefs to the detriment of your voice and your intuition. Eventually, if the ideas themselves are faulty enough, you may feel as though you have no intuition about singing at all.

To start with, Stephanie had a faulty breath technique. Her inhalation was high in the thorax, with no response in the abdominal area. Each breath required a heaving motion in the entire chest. As it turned out, she was preoccupied with taking a big breath, and never felt as though she had enough air. We began to focus on how small a really deep breath feels, when you have the right balance of intercostal, diaphragmatic and abdominal function. In addition, the right breath always has a calm, not a vigorous energy; in this respect the energy of the inhalation must be different from the energy of singing. To achieve it, you must be present with your breath in the moment of breathing. You cannot take breath efficiently if you are already thinking about singing. I sometimes say "When you breathe, breathe, when you sing, sing!" . Another way of putting it is "Be in the present moment (a moment of breathing)", or even "Be here now!".

Saturday, November 21, 2009

How to do without "doing"

One of the problems I most frequently encounter in my teaching is "overdoing". Any concept, no matter how pedagogically correct, will become toxic if applied in an overtly physical way. The key to singing well is to guide yourself imaginatively.

Of course, many of us have been frustrated by the "think pink" school of singing; "my voice is a fountain" (Flagstad), or "imagine there are tiny golden bubbles around your diaphragm" (yes, I heard someone say it), or "to cover the note, imagine a little hat on the pitch in the resonance"(famous last words of a former teacher of mine). That is not at all what I mean by imaginative work.

If you have studied yoga, or coached with a good sports instructor, I am sure you are familiar with an imaginative approach to physical effort. For example: I believe that there is an optimal coordination of the breathing muscles, which allows abdominal response, deep diaphragmatic descent, expansion of the lower lobes of the lungs and an optimal position of the chest, with the ribcage expanded. The best way to achieve it, in my experience, is to imagine the inhalation originating from the small of the back and proceeding to the front along the edge of the ribcage. This must be accompanied by a corresponding use of the oblique abdominal system (it can be felt just over the hips, and going into the lower back). If you "try" to do this, you will surely end up tied in knots. The only effective way to achieve it is to "feel" your way into the response of the breathing muscles, by "seeing" the response from the inside.

We have the imaginative capacity to use our imagisitic intelligence to construct a virtual fibre optic view of any process in the body. It is this inner vision which is the singer's, most infallible guide. Need to lift the palate? "See" it lifted in your mind's eye, and the work is done.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Changing Fach

I recently received the following request for advice through my website, from a singer contemplating a fach change. Because I couldn’t reach them by e mail, I am posting my response here. I hope you find it interesting.

Hello Joel,

After reading your blog posts, and invitation to answer questions, I have some questions to ask which might require more space or effort than you’d like to give, but I’m hoping you’ll have some input for me.

I’m a 30 year old baritone with a B.Mus in voice. I have been singing middle-sized roles professionally, and tend to be given vocal parts that demand a certain amount of metal in the voice. This has been very comfortable for me, and I have no trouble singing these roles. In my lessons and coaching sessions, I have been working on light to middle-weight Verdi (Rodrigo, Conte di Luna, Pere Germont), and have also been comfortable here. I have not tried to tackle anything heavier for fear of ruining my voice.

My teacher has offered me three points of interest:

1) My voice is young, and as such still has a brighter timbre than might usually been identified with these roles. Still, it is far too dark in timbre for lyric roles.

As an aside, I can tell you that of the Mozart roles, only Don G and The Count from Figaro have ever felt right, every other baritone part I’ve sung sits too low and wears me out quickly... :(

2) My top can be extremely bright at times, and gets brighter the further away from the passagio I get (G will be bright than F#, G# brighter than G...), enough so that he believes I might be a tenor.

3) My voice is “huge” (his word, not mine). Despite being reassured of this on a number of occasions by many people (teachers, coaches, directors, conductors), I do feel sometimes like I’m not being heard... It’s very difficult for me to believe sometimes that my piano singing is in-fact communicating.

My questions are these:

With respect to point 1, without wanting to over-cover/over-darken my voice, should I just give my voice time to find it’s own darkness, or should that weight have appeared by now, given that I am 30?

With respect to point 2, I am very nervous to attempt training as a tenor, but am still open to the idea. Will it damage my voice to try training as a tenor with a professional?

My top - on good days - will go strongly to a B natural, and does not feel strained at all, but those days are VERY few and far between (the last time I even though to try B natural was 6 months ago... it felt good, but I didn’t push it). Anything above that has never sounded good to me, and I never attempt it.

I feel most comfortable with my voice singing between D below middle C to F above middle C, with the occasional higher notes thrown in.

I have never felt like a tenor, but my lower voice stops being audible at A natural below C below middle C.

I am frustrated and feel like my voice is too high to be a real baritone, and too low to be a tenor, and too heavy and big to be a lyric baritone... to be honest, on bad days I feel like an unteachable freak because I can’t find anyone who really understands what to do with this voice I’ve got.

Realizing that I’ve just written you an essay, feel free to respond or not respond as you see fit. I wouldn’t hold it against you if you didn’t care to respond.

With much thanks,


Dear Anonymous:

The darkness of the voice is a function of the supported expansion of the pharynx. With the pharynx expanded comfortably, the palate high, and the larynx released, the body must be free to respond to the voice with greater activity in the abdominal system (remember that the abdominals extend all the way up to the nipple line) and in the muscles of the chest wall as you ascend the scale. When all this is achieved, the singer must still feel that the function of singing is as light as speaking, but the emerging sound will have a balanced colour, that is, not be weighted toward the dark or the bright overtones. It should have a full harmonic spectrum that includes the brilliant ring in the voice (the fourth formant) and a lowered frequency spectrum for all the vowels. This must not be achieved by “darkening” the voice, which is something done by ear, not by method.

My answer to your question, then is “If you sing really well, your voice will have a balanced colour, even at age thirty: but you must not, on any account , darken the voice.”

Be very very careful if you attempt to train as a tenor. Make sure that you understand breathing and support, and then figure out how to “turn” the voice in the passagio area. Do not just try to sing higher rep, because you will hurt yourself. Having said that, there are pieces that may assist you in making the transition. For instance: try “o del mio dolce ardor” in the high key. Do not attempt the helden tenor repertoire until you have worked out your issues.

Vocal quality is not conclusive evidence regarding fach. Example: a young fellow came to me last year, sounding like a tenor, although he only sang up to an F#, and was insecure about his top. He was singing with a high larynx, and no support. Actually, he is a baritone. You, on the other hand are already singing professionally, so I assume that your vocal position is pretty good, and that you are not singing with a tight throat. To be sure about that, I would have to hear you. In any case, if you want to try the transition to tenor, you need to learn how a tenor sings in the passagio, and how to support.

Vocal range is also not always a reliable determinant of fach. A voice that stops at an A natural in the second octave below middle C could still be a big baritone. My teacher, Louis Quilico, had a huge Verdi voice, and not much bottom.

The most interesting voices are always the ones who don’t seem to fit. A young dramatic voice, for instance, never fits the lyric mould. This is not so well understood in North America; in Europe, they have more experience with these kinds of voices.



Vocal Fatigue

Saturday, November 7th.
I received the following e mail today from one of my younger students:
"How OK is it for your voice to be tired after practise? Should it hardly ever happen, or is it OK to be so occasionally? I wouldn't say it happens all the time, but I would say often, when I either get too gung-ho and do too much of a good thing, or I get frustrated ((neither of which happen as often as they used to). However, sometimes I get a little vocally tired even after a long and productive session with you where I spent a long time asking my cords to do something they're unaccustomed to."
It is not ok for your voice to be tired after practise. It means you have done something wrong. It is most imporant for all of us who sing to learn to listen to our own warning signs. Vocal fatigue is a sign that we have done too much, or that we are doing it in the wrong way. Learn to recognize the first sign of fatigue, and to stop. Ask yourself, "What could I possibly be doing that is causing the stress I feel in my throat?"
It may be as simple as trying too hard, singing too many high notes in a row, practising for too long at a time, or focusing too much on what is difficult. Most common of all, is feeling the voice too heavily, or, in other words, too physically. Remember that good singing must always feel as light as healthy speech. I like to tell my students what one of my teachers told me: "Singing is always a light adjustment". To me what this means is that singing must always feel light to the singer.

Observing the rules of the game

November 6, 2009
Welcome to my first blog posting. I thought I would use this format to discuss what interests me. Hopefully, it will be of some interest to you too. Because I am a singer and voice teacher, my posts will be mostly about singing and good performance practice. If you have an comments on my postings, please feel free to leave a comment or send me an e mail.
I recently attended the Vocal Showcase of the voice department at a prominent local conservatory. It is instructive to see what works and what doesn't work in performance. Presenting opera in a concert situation requires a balance between the staging we rightfully expect in a full production, and a sense of the conventions of the recital format.
Dressed in a beautiful white strapless gown, one performer sank to the floor to mourn her dead father. In a concert situation with piano, don't end up on the floor. No matter how heartfelt your performance, breaking the rules of the game can make the noblest tragic intention inadvertently funny. With this kind of effect, you may be doing violence to the unwritten rules of context.
Figure out the rules of the game, and observe them; if you choose to push pass the accepted boundaries of the medium, do so deliberately, and with consciousness of your audience's expectation.