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.