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