Sunday, November 20, 2011

Life-long learning III: The Young@Heart Chorus

Yesterday I watched the film "Young @Heart". I found it almost unbearably moving. These choristers, with an average age of 80, live to sing, quite literally: singing may actually be keeping them alive. Recent research tells us that the onset of Alzheimer's can be delayed through mental activity, especially by learning new skills.

There is something deeply touching about seeing this chorus convey the lyrics to rock-and-roll songs with such joy, such sincerity, such lack of artifice. Watching them perform to a jail-house audience who were enthralled and at times, deeply moved, was really something.

I wept a lot watching this film. I was so often reminded of my father, who had a deep and abiding love for music. He was listening to violin music on the walkman I bought him until the day before he died. For him, his research and his lab (he was a scientist) kept him fighting against lung cancer. He was absolutely determined to beat it so that he could go on with his work. Sadly, he didn't. He died at the age of 86.

I once gave a concert at a long term care facility here in Toronto. I heard later from my mother, who was in the audience, that when I started to sing, there was a visible stir in the crowd. She said that some of those people, who were terribly sick, seemed to come back from the dead when they heard the sound of my voice.

I don't think that my singing was so special; I do think the human voice has an extraordinary power to stimulate, move, entertain. I believe it can even bring, for a moment, life to those who are ready to leave it.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Life-long learning II: A Master's at 59

This summer, when I turned 59, I began a Master’s Degree.

I had first thought of it more than 15 years ago: in 1994, when I got back to Toronto from the Phantom of the Opera tour, I looked at a Master’s in Performance under Lois Marshall, an artist whom I adored. Something held me back. Perhaps it was a fear of studying under my own professional colleagues, perhaps it was a fear of the state of my transcripts; at any rate, I never filled out the forms.

By 2001, I was again thinking of post graduate study. I had in the intervening years turned from performing to teaching, having had some success coaching advanced singers in Europe. This time, I thought of a Master’s in Education. I got as far as downloading the application and writing away for my transcripts. When my transcripts arrived, I tried to convert the letter grades into the standard 4 point system. I was overcome with shame. Confronting that trail of successes, failures and incompletes was too much for me. I never even finished computing my grade point average.

As a more or less ‘gifted’ child, I had graduated from college at the age of 19, and left behind me an academic record rife with inconsistency. For every “A” in literature or music, there was a “C” in quantum mechanics, or a B- in biology. I took far more courses than I needed, in every conceivable field, but I often didn’t finish them.

In 2010, after the opera workshop I taught at a prominent Toronto music school was canceled, I thought once again of going back to school. Somehow, I knew that I could not face approaching 60 without beginning something. Because I didn’t want to leave home to study, I looked for a plausible distance master’s. I found a program that looked really interesting; the Master’s in Psychology for Performers at the University of Sheffield in England. Working with singers does bring you to the heart of psychological issues, and I thought this two year program might be just right for me.

Once again I began the hell of applying. To my amazement, when I finally confronted the shame of my messy transcript, I had just over a 3.0 average for my BA and a 3.4 for the first year of a graduate diploma I did in 1981. I filled out a ream of forms, and sent them in. I was accepted to the program.

I began the degree with a residency in Sheffield in August, and I loved it. At first I was overcome with anxiety. I thought I had been out of school for too long to succeed academically, that the subject would be horribly dry and I would die of boredom, that poor eyesight would not allow me read the assigned reading. I was all wrong. The teachers have been wonderful, the assignments interesting, the readings fascinating. Whether this degree leads to me getting a good university teaching post or not hardly seems to matter. I feel welcomed into an entirely new community of scholars, and I feel like I belong there.

To any of you out there who also feel like it’s too late to start, I say “Go ahead. Start your Master’s at age 59. Maybe you’ll even have a PhD by the time you retire!”

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Life-long learning

As a voice teacher, primarily of adults, I meet a lot of people who have been told at some point (usually early on) that they cannot sing, have no talent, etc. This type of person has made a decision to confront early life experience of a negative kind to find out what is actually possible. We know from many studies that how you understand failure in music is a powerful predictor of whether you stay with it or give it up. Research has shown that those students who attribute failure to lack of ability tend to give up; those that attribute it to lack of effort stay with it. It would be interesting to know how many of those students who gave up music come back to it as adult learners.

It is a conviction of mine that development in later life has a lot to do with revisiting situations from early life that left us incomplete or unsatisfied. For example, working out at the gym leaves me with a particular sense of accomplishment; the gym was the scene of much trauma and humiliation as a child. As an adult, I can reclaim that experience and cast it in a new mold.

Financial and time constraints will always play a part in ongoing adult learning. For an adult to invest time and money in studying music means prioritization. Music must be given a higher priority for time and resources than the other things in one’s life. For myself, ongoing development has been an important part of my identity. I was one of those musicians who couldn’t get it all from teachers. By the age of 26, I had decided that whatever further progress I would make as a singer was going to come from my own efforts. That began a life-long struggle to acquire vocal competence.

If you want to keep singing past the age of 45, you have to learn to accommodate the changes that life brings you. Essentially, I believe that all singers who continue into later life have to be engaged in a practice of on-going learning. I read recently an excellent article on Tony Bennet, still singing in his 80’s. He has a set of warm-up exercises from his teacher, and a carefully worked-out regime that allows him to keep performing. He too, is engaged in on-going life-long learning.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

High note problems: fixing the “quick fix”

Once in a while, I will see a tenor in mid-career, who comes to me with a high note crisis. This kind of singer has enjoyed considerable success with a dangerous technique; he has learned to sing the high notes with a stentorian sound and tremendous compression. His method is to depress the larynx as he approaches the top, and to support like crazy.

Most of us, I think, are in agreement that to sing well, the larynx has to be comfortably low. “Releasing” or “loosening” the throat is a cornerstone of technique for many teachers. Pressing on the larynx can be an addictive approach for several reasons.

1. It really feels like “doing” something. Unlike more imaginative approaches, it gives you something that you can physically do as you approach the upper register.
2. It may work really well for a while. The memory of this success will keep you at it long after the approach ceases to function effectively.
3. It has an appealing simplicity. "Push down, sing high".

Eventually, the cords no longer want to approximate with the voice box under all that pressure. The medial compression which serves to keep the cords together no longer seems to function. At this point the singer is cracking virtually everything over an A flat in performance.

The solution is to substitute an imaginative approach for a physical one. That means the singer has to have great trust in the teacher. Doing it right always feels like much less than forcing did; and it is hard to believe that an imaginative picture of the loose throat and the progressively higher palate will help at all.

There is a famous story from one of the meditative traditions (I forget which one) of the monk who had a profound experience of illumination, and then spent the rest of his life trying to recapture the experience, to no avail.

Experiences cannot be recaptured. When an approach fails you, even if it worked in the past, let go of of it. Have the courage to approach things in a different way.

In singing, we keep going back to basic principles; good breathing, good support, a feeling of forward clarity and lightness in the voice, a loose throat, a healthy onset and an imaginative picture of the vocal space, that allows room for development as you go higher. Rounding or vowel modification can be a helpful way to make the transition to the upper register, provided you don’t get stuck.

In my experience, interfering with the larynx always leads to trouble. The quick fix will get you there sooner; but it will lead to collapse over the long haul.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

When students leave

I don’t know about you, but every time a student leaves me to go to another teacher, I feel both anger and loss. If I really look at myself, I think there is also a fear in me that I haven’t given enough, and a sense of personal inadequacy.

I heard a lovely expression once, derived, I think, from zen buddhism. “Teaching” it says “is impersonally guiding those with affinity”. I don’t think this precludes compassion; a compassionate response is the reason the Buddha taught in the first place.

If we guide others impersonally, but compassionately, we give them our best, but are able to let go when they decide to move on. The saying also demonstrates that teaching is not possible without affinity. I think I am a good voice teacher; but I know that my process of seeking out answers through explicit understanding is not for everyone.

There are singers who are better off, in my opinion, just singing, rather than thinking about singing. It is my personal feeling that those singers may also need, at some point in the future, to understand how they go about singing, if they want to preserve the voice, and progress in their art.

This type of singer is probably better off working with someone who will just let them sing. Sooner or later, if they start with me, they will leave. My job is to guide them impersonally, but compassionately, to the best of my ability, and in my own fashion; then, when necessary, let them go without rancor. “Senza rancor” said the lady in the opera, and I agree with her.

The way I teach is conditioned by my own particular history, how I got into trouble as a singer, and how I got myself out of it, wht my natural talents were, and what I had to learn. Whatever your teaching style, there will be students out there who have a real affinity for it.

To a certain extent, I will adjust the content of my teaching to suit the particular needs of the student; but I know that on the most basic level, my personal approach to teaching comes from a belief in the cultivation of awareness. When I hear from a student “I sing better when I don’t think about it”, then I know that the clock is ticking.

Let the conscious mind understand, guide, and then get out of the way. That, to me, is the path to freedom.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What to do when your breathing feels stuck

When I was a young singer, my teacher, whom I adored, was a stickler for correct breathing. He called it “breathing from the back” and I could never get the hang of it.

Eventually, he said to me “You’re smart, you know what to do… go do it!” That was the end of my formal training. I spent the next few years struggling with my breathing, while working professionally. Somehow, I managed to get through performances.

I remember a particularily horrible radio broadcast of Vivaldi’s Gloria with a noted Canadian chamber choir. My breathing felt like lead. I gasped with every breath. I struggled to force it into the back: All to no avail.

Much later, I realized that to get the breath subtle, balanced, and in the right place, neither too high nor too low, you had to work imaginatively. It was also very helpful to realize that a balanced breath has an abdonimal component, and that this involves using the transverse and oblique abdominal muscles.

The breath will feel different to the singer, depending on body posture. If you breathe sitting in a chair, hunched over with your elbows on your knees, you will feel the abdominal component clearly. If you breathe in a standing posture, with a healthy feeling of classical presentation (not slouched), you may imagine the breath starting in the back, around the level of the floating ribs, and moving to the front along the edge of the rib cage.

The key to getting the correct physical response in breathing is to work imaginatively. You can give the appearance of correct breathing by forcing muscles to behave, but this kind of breathing is never comfortable.

Once the inhalation is balanced, you still have to master the release of the breath at the end of the phrase, or you will feel stuck as the music continues. This is especially true in bel canto repertoire, where the composers seem not to give you time to recover between phrases.

The same muscles that we use to take the air are the ones we use to support the voice; this is the “lotta vocale” or “vocal contest” between the inspiratory and expiratory muscles that is basic to the support/appoggio mechanism. You have to release the inspiratory muscles sat the end of the phrase so they can do their job in the inhalation.

Instead of taking air at the end of the phrase, release the residual air. This should allow the diaphragm to rebound and initiate an inhalation quite naturally. Practice this by deliberately taking more time to release the breath after every phrase, even it means adding beats to the music. Once you get the hang of it, you can eliminate the rhythmic distortions.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Singing on the gesture of inhalation

I love the Italians, So often, those little nuggets of advice which we have heard from our teachers (“sing on the breath”, sing “on the gesture of inhalation”, “appoggio”, “with the words forward, on the lips”) are derived from the Italian vocal tradition. To me, these aphorisms bridge the gap between the science of singing and how it feels to actually do it correctly.

I first encountered “singing on the gesture of inhalation” in the wonderful little book, “Hints on Singing”, a description of lessons with Francesco Lamperti. Let’s unpack the term:

1. Beginning the tone with a feeling of inhaling, or “drinking in” allows us a smooth transition between inhalation and exhalation/phonation.
2. It is an efficient way to set up the action of the inspiratory muscles against the expiratory muscles which is the hallmark of appoggio.
3. It releases the larynx, lifts the palate and expands the pharynx, in a dynamic fashion.
4. It reverses the contraction of the windpipe which generally accompanies phonation.
5. It “places” the voice. Singing “on” (not “in” or “under”) the feel of inhalation means that we feel the voice “over” the resonance cavities of the throat.
6. It teaches us the feeling of the correct onset. All we have to do, then, to have a perfectly balanced onset, is to take care that there is no breathiness in the sound.

Ultimately, it is the imagination that makes the sound; muscles are directed by brain at the speed of thought.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Singing Italian music: come si parla

I recently received a recording of a piece I am interested in doing at my school, Garica’s I Cinesi. It is one of a series of one act operas written by Manuel Garica to be performed in salons, and is for voices and piano. The works are all gratefully written for the voice, and are a bit like early Rossini in style. The modulations are individual and surprisingly original. The vocal writing demands an assured coloratura technique.

The recording I have is of a college opera department, and they sing, for the most part, pretty well. The Italian is curious, to say the least. All of the vowels are correctly pronounced, and the double consonants are all there; but to my ears it still sounds like terrible Italian. The actual cadence or phrasing of the Italian language is simply not there.

Most young singers have no idea that they are expected to impose the shape of the language on the notes. This may be why so much collegiate Italian is so bad. In Italian music, for example, whenever a composer sets a word with an unstressed ending, a decrescendo, or “phrasing off” (often an appogiatura) is expected., even if what is on the page are two equal notes on the same pitch.

On the more global level, every phrase of the music corresponds to the natural pronunciation of the text; this requires carrying the stress patterns of the language over to the written out notes themselves. In classical repertoire, very little of the performance dynamics are actually written into the music. To a young singer, it may requires a certain courage to add so much to the written score. It is an expected part of the performer’s job.

In Mozart, for instance, once you begin to sing the music with the cadence of the language, you begin to perform in the Mozart style. Mozart usually writes his high notes on unstressed syllables, except at the climax of the piece. This means that most Mozart high notes are should be sung piano; it is the same phrasing you can hear when any good violinist plays a Mozart Concerto.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Those Caballe pianissimi

Not long ago I was at a party and was introduced to a famous Canadian diva.

“How nice to meet you”, I said. “I still have the sound of your pianissimi in my ear. You marked an entire rehearsal of Don Carlo with orchestra when I was singing in COC chorus, and it was the most ravishing thing I had ever heard.”
“You know, I got the secret of those pianissimi from Caballe.”
“No, really?”
“Yes, it was after dinner, and we were in the kitchen doing the dishes. She showed me her pianissimo”.
“Let me guess,” I said, feeling knowledgeable. “Did it have something to do with placement and with abdominal support?”
“No, quite on the contrary. If you support the pianissimo you won’t get it at all. The placement is important, of course, but over-supporting will never get you there”.

To sing pianissimo, you have to float the tone without undue pressure. In my experience, pianissimo takes less support than forte, but you won’t get there without a spacious, relaxed throat and a tremendous lightness.

Pianissimo study is a great way to learn the feeling of the relaxed throat. Visualization of the round relaxed resonance cavity of the throat will give you the space you need (include the area around the root of the tongue); just suspend the breathing comfortably in the onset. Feel the voice very high… and don’t over-support!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Solving problems in mid-range

From time to time, a female singer will come to me with suffering from a kind of mid-voice anorexia: the lower notes are strong, but there is no sound in the mid-range. Usually this type of singer has been trained to separate the registers, and to vocalize in a heavy chest voice as a means of “strengthening” the “vocal muscles”. Frequently, they proceed from there to an empty middle range, and an overly light, breathy high voice.

For the mid voice to be healthy, the low cannot be forced. If you produce the low notes with a heavy chest adjustment, and do not allow the vocal cords to make a smooth series of lighter adjustments as you ascend the scale, you are in for a bumpy flight!

This heaviness in the low range may feel strong to the singer; but it takes its toll on the middle register. Encouraging the singer to find a lighter chest adjustment in the low can aid the transition on the way up. The insight that a feeling of light chest adjustment is possible is often the beginning of achieving a balanced middle voice.

I often tell a student who has trouble bridging the gap between an overly heavy bottom and an overly light top to aim for a feeling of light chest as she ascends the scale, but to accept what ever the vocal cords want to do, that is, not to impose registration on the voice. Usually, these singers are surprised to find that they are actually singing in head voice in the middle register: they aimed for a light chest, and got head register instead!

How it feels to sing, and what is actually happening on the physiological level may be quite different. Part of our job as teachers is to help the student find the ‘feel’ of good singing. Depending on the pitch and the dynamic level, we may aim for chest and get head, or vice versa.

Sometimes the best registration is achieved through not trying to registrate.

More on solving problems in mid-range next time.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Si canta come si parla: Si o No?

I am sure that most of us are familiar with the adage of the Italian school, “sing like you speak”. We also know from experience that while in some respects this is completely true, in others it is not. It would be equally correct to say, ‘to sing well, you must have a flexible vocal position, that will allow for modification of the vowels when acoustically necessary.”

There is no single correct vocal position that will accommodate every note in the singer’s range. While the first two formants of the singer’s voice determine what vowel is produced (and in this way are intimately related to correct speech), formants 3,4 (the singer’s formant, which does not appear in speech, and allows the voice to be heard over the orchestra) and 5 determine vocal quality and individual timbre.

Without the correct balancing between the fundamental pitch and the shape of the resonance cavities, beautiful singing is impossible. Both vowel modification and an imaginative sensitivity to the changing shape of the cavities of the throat will aid the singer to achieve that beautiful, balanced, colorful tone that we are all seeking.

The “loose throat” encourages both the lowered formant frequencies of the operatic sound (the so called “covered tone”) and the presence of the signers formant, the ring in the voice around 2800-3400 herz. The loose throat and jaw, and a feeling of singing “over” the palate, may encourage a more expanded pharynx, a lower larynx , and a higher palate. These are all best achieved, in my opinion, through an imaginative picturing of the vocal tract, rather than physically.

Just speaking well will not help you with any of this: although I do believe that the feeling of healthy speech, while singing, encourages a lighter balance in the vocal registration. The sense of forward clarity and lack of pressure in healthy speech also encourages intelligibility in the vowels (the first two formants), and a healthy use of the vocal cords. The ideal is clarity without tightness or breathiness.

Many singers come to us without good speech habits. With those, you have encourage good habits through correct speaking, before you can move on to singing. There is no point in “singing like you speak’ before you can speak in a healthy way.

Our job as singers is a constant balance between the changing modifications of the vocal resonators necessary for good singing, and the acoustical clarity (and lightness) of healthy speech.

For more information on resonance balancing through vowel modification, check out Shirlee Emmon’s article at

Sunday, July 31, 2011

When the solution becomes the problem

I saw my first voice teacher, a brilliant man and an excellent pedagogue, when I was 15. I had a strong voice, and no idea how to sing. I didn’t practice. I used to breathe by heaving up my shoulders and chest. Quite rightly, I was told at my first lesson, “don’t breathe so high”!

Fateful words. At a yoga class some thirty years later, we were directed to take a full “yogic” breath, all the way up to the top of the chest. My first response was annoyance; then, trying to be a good sport, I gave it a try, To my amazement, a kink I had been carrying around my diaphragm my entire adult life, began to let go. I realized that since hearing those words from my first teacher, I had fixed my chest in a high position, and simply not breathed into the upper chest. The effect was to make my formidable tension problems even worse.

As voice teachers, we have a huge responsibility. It is not enough to say the right thing; you have to see exactly how your student is carrying out your directions. A motivated student will take the easiest and most direct route available to give you what you ask for. The usual result is forcing. The new solution has become the problem.

Recently, a young student of mine went to a coach to prepare for an audition. When she came to her lesson a few days later, I could hear there was pressure on the root of her tongue. The sound was breathy and lacking in focus. I asked what she had been working on in her coaching. “Legato”, she said. I understood that she had taken the most direct route available to her to give the legato she was asked for; she was pressing on the tongue in her effort to produce a seamless legato.

Legato is the result of correct formant frequency tuning which in turn may be related to a released jaw, long vowels, quick, clear consonants, and a constant motion in the breath. The mouth is mostly open. The solution for my student was to come back to the feeling of healthy speech, “canta come si parla”, while moving the breath and thinking through the phrase. It is the feeling of healthy speech which helps to tune the formant frequency of the vowels.

Be careful what you say; your student may actually do it.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Releasing a tight jaw

"O.K., I have a tight jaw. What can I do about it?"

Some years ago, when I was singing in Germany, I went to Armand MacLean-Lanier in Frankfurt for a lesson. Armand was a great character and a fine teacher. He saw that my jaws were extremely tight and gave me an exercise which I still use with my students.

Those of you who deal with the same issue may find it helpful. The exercise is a string of syllables on one pitch. It is done on a comfortable middle register note. and can be continued up and done the scale ad lib.

The syllables are "Geh-gi-geh-gi-kich" (ɡɛ-ɡi-ɡɛ-ɡi-kiç), where the ch is the German "ch" from "ich". Do it with about a thumbs-width of space between the back teeth, and without moving the jaws. Keep a steady flow of air, and good focus (clarity) in the tone. You can also do it with a hand on the jaw to aid the release.

I will never forget seeing a Bulgarian friend of mine (a great mezzo soprano) start her morning warm-up with her hand on her jaw, and a series of slow moving scales.

You can also do this exercise on three note scale patters (12321). Try it, and let me know how it works for you.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Falsetto: True or False?

In many studios, vocalizing the falsetto range (whistle tone for women) is taken as an article of faith. The rest of us might well ask, "What exactly does it do?"

The falsetto is a partial use of the vocal cords: the cords are dampened, and only the edges are allowed to vibrate. It is a kind of "super light" adjustment. If performed with a loose throat, and without breathiness, it can be a useful way to feel the pitch stretch of the high without the high sub-glottal pressure of the true upper register.

I had a teacher in New York, once, who had his students produce a breathy straight tone falsetto as loudly as possible, before breaking into full voice a fourth lower. The effect for all his students, was an airy vocal production lacking in focus. The voices were robust, but not poised: no one had a good piano, and the forte was dry, but loud. The same exercise, if produced with a loose throat, and no breathiness, can give the student an intimation of how it feels to sing a balanced high note: it all depends on how you do it.

Falsetto, for men, can also give an intimation of the necessary lightness for singing softly: a crescendo from falsetto to piano can nelp you find the mezza-voce, that heady register so necessary in lieder and for certain operatic effects. The challenge is to do it without breathiness, and with a loose throat. Whistle tone, for women, (like falsetto, a partial use of the cords) can also give the feeling of the squeaky lightness required for the highest tones. If done without a feeling for support, and a loose throat, however, it can lead to "cracking" high notes whenever a crescendo is attempted. Without good support, an upper register trained this way will never be really full.

I remember singing Trovatore with quite a famous diva, who had had a vocal collapse, and then been resuscitated by a vocal registrator in California. The voice was beautiful, but whenever she attempted to sing high and loud, her voice cracked. Those squeaks were just not serving her.

Registration by all means: but do it the right way.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Passaggio issues

I had a student once tell me proudly "I don't understand all this passaggio stuff.... I have no passaggio. what are they all on about?" I said "You have no passaggio because you haven't really found your upper register. What you think are high notes are probably transition or passaggio notes, if you handle them the right way."

Even if you support well, breathe well, have a loose throat etc. you still may have a few notes in your voice that require an extra rounding of the vocal chamber. Some teachers teach this through vowel modification. For myself, vowel modification just got me more stuck. The breakthrough for me was realizing that I didn't just have to round the vowel; I had to round myself. By this I mean that I had to learn to shape the throat with a deliberate roundness on certain upper middle notes in my voice.

Sometimes, if the context is right,this may just happen by itself; but if you try to sing a sustained step-wise passage finishing on an "ah" in the upper middle register, you will probably have to round the throat to experience any comfort.

The reason bel canto repertoire is so hard to master, is largely because of the composer's love of using passaggio notes, over and over again. If you don't work these notes out perfectly, you will never be happy singing Bellini or Donizetti. Of course, like my student the baritone (who was really a tenor), if you hide out in the wrong rep, you may never have any passaggio issues at all!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

That damn tongue! (untying the knots)

OK, I admit it. My whole career as a singer, I have had teeth that didn't meet evenly, a jaw pulled to one side, stress on one side of my neck and an uneven vibrato. I can't remember a time when I didn't know there was a problem. I have spent the last 30 years trying to correct the issues, ever since David Smukler showed me just how tense my jaw was, at Banff in 1981. When your voice is off the rails, all you can really think about is how to get it together.

I have been taping and listening to myself a lot lately. The other day, I thought "I hate me 'n's'. They sound adenoidal and are too far back. What gives?" It turns out that after balancing my jaw and support so that they are centered in the middle of my body (not off to one side), releasing the neck, and making space for the upper register, I still have an issue with my tongue! I tend to retract my tongue on the left side, which makes all my singing too far back, and makes the "n" particularly off-balance. Now that the other issues have been more or less resolved, my lop-sided tongue has come to the fore.

I suppose the whole crazy cabal of tension began with thumb-sucking as a kid, and teeth that grew in off centre. If teeth are off, jaw will be off, and if jaw is off, then the tongue will also be off; but correcting the tongue without balancing the jaw was just not an option. I believe that these tension issues have to be resolved in a certain order, and that order depends on your particular development. It is like untying a knot. The last tension issues to resolve may be those closest to the larynx, and the tongue is particularly close, attaching to the hyoid bone, which in turn suspends the larynx.

If you can't release the tongue, you can't release the larynx. Bringing the left side of my tongue forward gives a whole new balance to the voice, and not just to the "n". I will let you know how it works out. In any case, just shoving the tongue into the "correct" position never worked for me. I had to untie the knots.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Getting out of the way... with a loose throat

One of the most difficult things to learn in singing is how to get out of the way.

There are, of course, a few things that need to be "done" in order to sing well. You have to know how to stand up (you can't sing your best while you slouch), you have to know how to open your mouth (if your jaw is tight, this is difficult), you have to know how to breathe (not too high, not too low), you have to know how to support (largely a matter of body response while singing), you have to remember to use your energy (a lot more than many realize), and how to move the breath (especially important in piano, where people often forget to keep the breath moving). Oh, and as I posted earlier, you have to know how to open for the upper register. Most important of all, you have to sing like you speak (assuming you speak well, without undue pressure on the vocal cords) and you have to have a spacious, relaxed throat.

A lot of our work as singers centers around loosening the throat. The key to it is that it is imaginative work, not physical work. If you "see" the palate high, you will lift the palate. If you leave out the imaginative step, and try to physically lift the palate you will most likely end up terribly stuck. Of course, the palate should be lifted in good singing, and the higher you sing, the more the it lifts: but if you try to achieve it in an overtly physical way, you are in for trouble.

Most of the really stuck singers that come to me are trying to do too much. If you look at a great singer in the act of singing, you will probably see a grooved, flat tongue, a low larynx and a lift to the cheeks. That does not mean you should flatten your tongue, lower your larynx, or lift your cheeks in order to sing! These things are an effect of relaxing, or loosening the throat. If you imagine the space of the throat, with a high palate, a low larynx, a flat tongue and a loose jaw, it is immediately there. Go ahead, try it! It is the one time in your life when just "thinking" it will make it happen.

Simply put, in singing, much of the work is "thought" not "done". Learn how to get out of your own way.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Trust your instincts

I am sure that any of you who have had cause to work with the New Mozart Edition of the Marriage of Figaro have noticed a curious anomaly in the part of the Countess. At certain moments in the "new" edition, she exchanges parts with Susanna. In the famous trio with Almaviva, she is given the high lines that go up to high "C", while Susanna has the lower part!

This has never made sense to me, and whenever I directed this excerpt, we always went with the Schirmer edition distribution of parts, which seemed to respect the Countess' vocal comfort in a consistent way all through the opera. No Countess that I know has ever appreciated the schizophrenic nature of the vocal writing in the new edition, where the arias have one tessitura for the Countess (lower), and the ensembles another (higher).

It turns out there is a good reason to trust Mr. Schirmer. Alan Tyson, the English musicologist, in his first volume of Mozart Studies, has a very illuminating article on this subject. The New Mozart Edition was drawn on the original manuscript, or "handschrift" whenever possible. In the Mozart manuscripts, however, there are major discrepancies between the "handschriften" and the "abschriften" which were contemporary copies made directly from the manuscript. It seems that in one at least of the "abschriften" Mozart himself altered the Countess' part to the lower line.

Apparently, Mozart himself made some of these changes to the autograph ("handschrift") for the first part of the first act, and then stopped. The end of the opera, in the autograph, is consistent with the Countess having the lower tessitura, and was probably written out after the decision had been made in rehearsal to give the lower lines to the Countess. It certainly looks like Mozart just didn't get around to changing all the parts for the Countess in the original manuscript.

The first edition, which follows the distribution of parts taken up by the later Schirmer edition, has the same consistency in the way the Countess is written. If you think about it, it makes total sense that Mozart may have adjusted the parts in rehearsal, and then written them himself into the abschrift (which functioned as the conductor's score), while the original manuscript stayed at home, uncorrected. Both Entführung and Finta follow the convention of giving the highest parts in the ensembles to the prima donna. The Countess, however, may have been a different type of voice than Constanze or Sandrina, and the high tessitura of the ensembles in Figaro as originally planned, may not have been suitable for her voice.

Sometimes, if it doesn't make sense, it is just plain wrong. In musical editions,"urtext" isn't always better.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Support: the missing link

It has been my experience that most young singers don't have a clue what support is. Why should they? For them, it functions unconsciously, or not all. As you get older, if you want to keep singing, it becomes crucially important to figure out what this support thing is all about.

Most of us, as students, have received critiques from teachers that say "not enough support for the upper register". This is all well and good; but what, exactly, are we supposed to do? Clench our derrière, as one beloved Canadian coach famously advised? Try harder? Push down and out like giving birth (ouch)?

I can tell you from experience, that without support, your high notes still won't work, even if you know how to open in the upper register. My favorite equivalent term for support is "body response". I like this because it implies that support is more something that has to happen, rather than something you muscularly inflict on yourself. Fine, but what exactly is it?

The upper register requires more compression from the abdominal system than the rest of the voice. This compression aids vocal fold closure. Remember that high notes require a high degree of tension in the vocal folds and high sub-glottal pressure. By using the abdominal system to generate sub-glottal pressure, we don't have to use pressure at the vocal fold level. The easiest way to feel this resistance in the body is to blow up a balloon (thanks to Ingo Titze) or sustain an "f" sound (fricative) with plenty of energy, This leaves your hands free to explore. They will show you exactly how the compressive function of the abdominals is expressed in the body.

Once you have a clear feeling for what is supposed to happen in the muscles below the nipple line, check in with the abdominal area while you sing the high note. If you are doing the rest correctly (lightness, placement, opening, vowel modification if necessary), it will give that last bit of "oomph" you need to sustain the tone. Oh, and don't forget, keep the ribs out in the onset. It will get the tone started the right way.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Why are we moved?

I had a moment on the subway the other day. I was listening to the Beethoven String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29 - II. Adagio molto espressivo played by the Budapest Quartet, recorded in the 1940's. I guess there was something about the painful sweetness and intimacy of the performance that got to me. They begin in parallel motion, with such a gorgeous sonority. To me, it was like four voices all expressing independently and simultaneously the pain and beauty of life.

It also moves me that I imagine I can hear where Schubert was coming from. Certain works of Beethoven were a great influence on Schubert, and some of the painful sweetness of the Schubert quartets (or the great C major quintet) is here in the Beethoven. It is surely no accident that Schubert's own string quintet was written in the same key of C major.

The Budapest Quartet had a profoundly vocal style in their playing. Each instrument had a quality of tone and vibrato reminiscent of the great singers. We seem to hear one magnificent instrument, richly sonorous, that intimates the possibility of a social harmony, where our inmost feelings are shared and even developed with others.

Once in great while in my life, I have felt that possibility of an intimate union of mind with others. It may only be an illusion, that we can see other than "through a glass darkly" on this earth, and truly know one another face to face; but it is magnificent to hope for it, and works like this give us the intimation of possibility.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Scwarzkopf and that "lip thing"

I was watching a terrific video of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf last night, on the Medici Arts label. The recordings were taken from BBC broadcasts of 1961 and 1970, along with some footage of an ORTF concert from Paris in 1967. Schwarzkopf's artistry was stunning, of course; but I was much struck by a change in her vocal approach between 1961 and 1967.

The '61 recordings are vocally impeccable. There was a beautiful balance and clarity to the sound. Her face looked natural when she sang, all the vowels were clear and balanced, and the breath technique was good, not obtrusive in anyway, just grounded in the middle of the body. By 1967, however, this great artist was noticeably pulling down her upper lip on all the vowels, and her breath was shallow, with obvious forcing from the supporting muscles of the neck, especially on the left side.

I had long ago noticed some strange vowels in some of my favourite Schwarzkopf recordings (the Mozart and Strauss with Szell, for instance). Here was the explanation: her "ah" vowel, for instance, became excessively dark after she began to sing by pulling down the upper lip.

Don't get me wrong: that "lip thing" has been used by many great singers, including Sutherland and the great German lyric, Gundula Janowitz. I saw Janowitz sing Arabella from the side of the stage in Berlin in 1982, and I could see the lip thing at work. By that time, all of her high notes were flat, and she retired from the stage shortly after. When used with great discretion, covering the upper teeth with the lip can settle the vocal position by lowering the larynx; but if you overdo it, it leads to vocal trouble.

Best of all, is the goal of singing with no gimmicks; just good breathing, good support, a released jaw and larynx, and a healthy frontal feeling of placement. Beware the quick fix!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Opening for the upper register

They say that if you don't use it, you lose it. For singers, if you never sing roles with high notes, you will never really have high notes, no matter how high you vocalize. Generally speaking, if you don't challenge yourself to do what is possible, but difficult, you may never fully solve your vocal problems. It is always easier for a soprano with problems to hide out as a mezzo: in my case, it is easier for me to hide out as a low bass, than to really fix my upper register.

Recently, I accepted an Opera by Request gig, to sing the part of Phanuel in Hérodiade, which is quite high for a bass. This part is written with a lot of exposed, dramatic D's E's and F's. I just can't sing it unless I do it right. Keys for concert work can be adjusted, but for opera you really have to step up to the plate.

What I realized today, is that you have to open for the notes over the primo passagio (for me an A) in a very high, frontal place. When it feels right, it is almost like opening up and behind the nose. This is the lift of the palate so crucial for the upper register. In my case, until I started to use a neti pot, I was chronically unable to breathe through my right nostril. The feeling of 'deadness' in that area meant that I was not able to open fully for the upper register.

You can hurt yourself singing high notes too 'open'; that is, with an uncovered approach to the vowel and the larynx high. Just modifying the vowel, however will still not give you the secret to singing those notes. You have to have the courage to open in the right way. "Covering" the vowels with a tight throat just gets you the unpleasant pharyngeal sound and an uncomfortable feeling of pressure in the throat. The support, or body response to the pitch also must play its part (more on that another time).

Open up and be safe! (When I get a chance, I will post an MP3 of me singing some of Phanuel, and hopefully, it will be the "right" way.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Recording and listening

I have long been a believer in students recording lessons so that they can monitor their progress. For some, it is tangible confirmation that they are getting better, and that a more authentic voice is emerging. The new co-ordination often feels like doing so much less! If your habit is forcing, then singing correctly feels "almost" like nothing.

It has been surprisingly difficult for me to take my own advice; I myself have never consistently recorded and analyzed a group of coachings while working on a recording project. I suppose I thought that recording myself was just too much of a nuisance, what with setting up the recorder, checking the levels, transferring the material to my computer, and listening to the results. Then there is the experience of listening to yourself: it is so hard to be objective without being unduly optimistic or unduly critical.

My usual habit with recording sessions has been to wait until the big day, and then have a monster all-or-nothing three hour session. The result: a shelf of recordings at home that I have never used. I never felt they represented me at my best.

This time, I approached the recording project differently. I began in May with my Edirol recorder, making digital recordings of each coaching, and evaluating them carefully, so that I could come back to the next coaching with corrections in vocal approach, languages, and interpretation. To my amazement, I found that I could produce my own web-quality recordings from the coaching sessions.

You can hear the results here.