Oui, vous pouvez lire ceci, mais est-ce que vous parlez? 

The struggle of learning a foreign language is not necessarily the grammar, the verbs, the vocabulary, or the writing.

The real test is the ability to SPEAK it. Live. In front of a native speaker awaiting our message. 

How many say, “I understand exactly what I’m reading or hearing but I’m not able to speak it!”

Speaking is the central difficulty for many. 

So it is with singing.

As one can learn intimately particular nuances of tense, active and passive voice, and the subjunctive – and still not speak well, so can those who understand the voice from the anatomical, acoustic, and physiological perspectives – and still not sing well.

Why this disconnect? 

Comprehension of a subject is wonderful for tests, but we must not lose sight of the fact that to be a singer is to SING.

We can have a vast knowledge of the voice on paper, but does it translate into actual words when you’re standing in the boulangerie and want to order your favorite pain au chocolat

We learn to sing by singing

We learn to speak a foreign language by speaking, warts and all. We WILL make mistakes. (Fear of perfection holds people back from speaking a foreign language more readily. People are afraid of looking and sounding foolish.) 

Communication is messy. So is singing. 
Speaking to another is a kind of verbal performance, n’est-ce pas? 

Our audience wants to know what we have to say musically, not necessarily how much we know about every usage of the passé composé. 

As language is about connection and communication from one human being to another, so, too, is singing.

We must never forget that.

Getting “Glitter and Be Gay” to Glitter and Be Gay

I had a ball working with a student on “Glitter and Be Gay” from Bernstein’s Candide this week. We took the song completely apart and got some fun ideas for practice when approaching an song of this technical magnitude.

Here are some of the ideas that we worked on:

  1. Take it apart. We took the whole song apart and worked section by section. I am personally NEVER a fan of singing a song/aria straight through until many of the technical obstacles have been solved. Working separate sections and then knitting them together has proven the best way to master a piece of music. This is what instrumentalists do, and singers should do the same with difficult music.
  2. Learn it SLOW. When learning a new piece, learn the notes VERRY slowly by playing them on the piano WITHOUT the voice. Go very slowly phrase by phrase, and understand the relationship between each note. Have a clear idea of every single pitch. In general, rhythms are faster to grasp than pitches. If you can recognize the song when playing it – then you are playing it too fast.
  3. Speed it up. The beginning of the song has a rather sustained quality while maintaining a tessitura in the realm of E5. This is not always a friendly location in a woman’s voice, and is prone to heaviness and weight if not managed well. We took the aria 2 to 3 times faster than what would ever occur in performance. This allowed muscles not to stiffen or tighten in sustained singing. Sustained singing is very physically demanding! It requires a lot of strength in the torso, the suspensory system of the larynx, and the vocal folds. It is anti-vocal to groove a sustained piece into the voice by brute repetition. A much friendlier approach is to speed the aria up so that the voice continues to MOVE. Even if the notes are not quite clear, the singer will have established a sense of ease.
  4. Staccato/Legato. The aria requires technical facility in legato and staccato singing. This is where vocal exercise serves the aria. You cannot learn to sing staccato from the song alone. Every song will have different vocal demands and the voice must be exercised in a way that makes the aria or song more achievable. To that end, the singer should incorporate a diet of legato and staccato exercise into the daily practice routine. The ability to execute rapid fire staccato passages is good for the voice, and helps maintain a balance between vocal elements of coloratura and sostenuto. Unlimited scales can be executed, but here are several of mine:
    1. A simple staccato arpeggio on ‘ah.’ in a laughing manner. This song has the soprano vocalizing almost exclusively on ‘ah,’ so exercises built on quick staccato scales work best to engender fluidity to these rapid sections. The singer should take the scales as high as comfortable.
    2. Staccato/Legato alternating scales. Scales that ascend staccato and descend legato and vice versa are wonderful for balancing these two separate qualities and behaviors. Octaves, octaves and a third, octaves and a fifth – all are possibilities for exercise. I often like an octave and a fifth with a rapidly executed repeat of the top fifth to the upper tonic. This is liberating and helps the singer let go – it’s very bird-like. I often use Snow White as my go to example of this work – or I refer the soprano to artists like Lily Pons, Galli-Curci, Tetrazzini, Beverly Sills, or Beverly Hoch.
    3. Staccato arpeggios with a repeated top note. I love this scale because it keeps the top note from becoming too heavy registrationally, and keeps negative weight out of the top note. It’s very important that these arpeggiated scales have a rhythmic swing to them, and don’t get lugubrious.
    4. Staccato arpeggios with a repeated top note followed by a sustained fermata tone, then descending the octave (either in arpeggio or step-wise scale). This helps a good top note come out of a well executed staccato. The legato should not feel in any way distinct or separate from the staccato. If the tone is too heavy after staccato, the singer is applying too much vocal cord depth for the pitch being sung. The resultant tone from this should have a shimmery, floaty quality.
    5. Same as #4, but this time the top note is sung with a messa di voce. This is a masterful exercise that will help bring in the PROPER amount of weight into the top note, showing the soprano the proper feeling of the upper notes without negative aspects of too much vocal cord too high in the scale. It can be an illuminating exercise that builds the power of the voice out of flexibility, and not just sheer volume or ‘push.’ The descent from the upper note can be done by diatonic scale-wise motion or arpeggios.

These were just some of the tools we used to groove the song into the voice in a pleasant and healthy way.

I’d be anxious to learn other fun ways of learning vocal repertoire. What are your go-to examples?

Random Musings on Paint/Registers

  • There are two registers of the voice: falsetto and chest. (Throws gauntlet) Why do I think so? Anatomy of the vocal mechanism. Mechanism was the historic term used by Manuel Garcia, and suggests a particular system of parts working to create a particular kind of sound. The larynx has two such systems – the cricothyroid (stretchers) and the arytenoids (tensors). BOTH have different innervations. If you find another muscular system with another nerve system, then we’ll have another ‘register’ as defined by Garcia. This third mechanism has not been found by physiology and anatomy (sciences). Therefore, two registers. Mechanism is the key word.
  • Anatomy should put the nail in this proverbial coffin. It hasn’t. We’re still arguing over it. I don’t think it will be settled. Not even modern science can convince teachers to stop misusing scientific theories that were debunked years ago (I’m looking at YOU, Bernoulli effect).
  • Two registers of the voice provide a beautiful bifurcation of the singing voice into two separate categories – a sort of Yin Yang: Masculine/Feminine, Aggressive/Vulnerable, Loud/Soft, Cavatina/Cabaletta, da capo format, Muscle/Breath, Holding on/Letting go.
  • When these registers interact, their combinations provide countless varieties and textures of sound that people have interpreted as separate “registers” causing endless confusion. 
  • How many shades of green can be acquired through the blending of yellow and blue? Perhaps a hundred? I don’t know – but it’s not ONE. More blue in the mix equals darker green; more yellow a lighter green. The underlying COLORS (registers) have not changed. Merely their proportions as evidenced through the product of their blending.
  • Falsetto (as a hooty, breathy, and DARK texture) is distinct from the chest register (a clear, ringing, and BRIGHT texture). This clarifies the Italian concept of chiaroscuro to my mind beautifully.
  • Caccini hated the falsetto and wanted everything sung in CHEST. It would have been interesting to hear “Amarilli mia bella” sung in chest by a castrato. We should get some sopranos to sing it for us in chest (just for fun).
  • The reason to exercise falsetto is not always for the benefit of falsetto. It can purify the action of the chest register when intelligently juxtaposed.
  • People are convinced that two registers simply cannot explain the variety of tonal timbre provided by the larynx. This is because they are always hearing some combination of these two registers and not their inherent qualities when isolated. They are looking at a shade of green and miss the fact that green is a mixture of two separate elements. The registration HAS BEEN OBSCURED. To pull out falsetto to them would be as shocking as pulling out yellow in a blend of green. “THAT was in there? I had NO idea!”
  • “I’m seeing green – now how can you TELL ME that I am also seeing blue and yellow!??”  Answer: You’re NOT seeing blue and yellow anymore (exclusively), but you are seeing the product of their COMBINATION. 
  • Chest register can be ‘turned off.’ Falsetto cannot. See Hirano.
  • Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli confessed to using falsetto (he called it falsetto accomodato) but didn’t want anyone to know about until after he died. (My first book will be entitled Falsetto: The Ultimate Operatic Deathbed Confession: “I sang in all those operas – and NO ONE EVER KNEW MY SECRET!!”. It’ll make a killing.) See Tomatis.
  • Frederick Husler and Yvonne Rodd-Marling said that a singer without a falsetto WAS NOT A SINGER. Stringent! For them, the falsetto helped in the suspension of the larynx.
  • The ability to shade/blend these elements is largely contingent upon a singer’s level of skill/function as well as AN OFTEN NEGLECTED ELEMENT: their aural acuity (ear) and mental concept of tone (mind). Sometimes, it’s not JUST the voice in need of training.
  • To insist upon ONE particular shade or blend or ratio of registration to the exclusion of all others is inartistic, unmusical, and contrary to spontaneous human expression. The painter/singer should have all shades of green at their disposal. No singer should be locked into a lifetime of singing in only ONE textural shade. Boring. Heck, ONE aria or SONG doesn’t have the same ratios of registration in it. If it did – blergh. 
  • Messa di voce is the proving ground for any (all) of the above. Can’t do it? The registers aren’t balanced. When they are, the messa di voce becomes a possibility. Take heart: many of the greats today can’t sing a good messa di voce. Doesn’t mitigate its pedagogical usefulness, however.
  • If you lose A LOT of air when singing mezzo forte to fortissimo, but not when singing pianissimo, your registration is off.
  • What’s happening in the passaggio is a pretty fair litmus test of registration in general.
  • Generally speaking, when the head voice (a kind of blend of the two basic registers) shows up and is free of constriction, less attention can be paid to falsetto.
  • None of this should be micro-managed, our goal is still TO SING. Big picture.
  • Most importantly (and forgotten when discussing ALL OF THE ABOVE): only a MINIMAL separation/isolation of the registers is necessary in a course of training, unless the voice is in need of a MAJOR overhaul.

Spinning All the Plates

A concept that came up in my teaching this week was the idea of spinning plates as a metaphor for teaching and learning to sing.

In training (hopefully) we’re aiming at learning how to invigorate many different aspects and functions of the larynx and the body – and then maintaining them over time.

Spinning plates is an apt descriptor of working around the voice to invigorate its various functions, and not getting too attached to any one plate. If a plate is about to fall off, you’ve got to pay some attention, lest it break. If a plate is spun to the exclusion of its companions, you get a fast moving well-functioning plate, but lose another aspect somewhere else as the others fall off their rods. Beginning students might only have 4 plates; an advanced singer several dozen.

We might have a plate for chest register, head/falsetto, laryngeal height/throat constriction, vowel shapes and definitions, intensities, articulation, legato, staccato, emotional flexibility while singing, Italian diction, French diction, and on and on.

Teachers are too one-sided if they think that ONE particular plate, or aspect of technique is taken to the exclusion of all the others. For example – if I think training is all about the breath, or the falsetto, or the placement, or the resonance, or the laryngeal height, or the yada yada yada…I may get so enamored of the minutiae I might not step back and look at the bigger picture.

At that point, I’m ‘specializing’ a function that may well nigh impede its development and ability to ‘spin’ in other directions. This is why ‘methods’ and ‘techniques’ can be SO dangerous. If you don’t have the bigger picture in mind, it’s easy to go into the weeds. I’m reminded again that the greatest singers said their teachers had no method.

This plate analogy explains why students who transfer to a new teacher will make rapid improvements in the first few lessons: the teacher is spinning new plates for the singer that might not have been started, or were neglected entirely. The newness of a particular ‘plate’ will lead the student to believe that the new teacher a god. In reality the teacher just spun a new plate or two. The voice has been invigorated in a new direction. 

Douglas Stanley had this much to say in his lecture to the Franklin Institute in 1931:

Vocal technic has heretofore been taught almost exclusively by singers, ex-singers, coaches, accompanists, music composers and, in a few instances, throat specialists. Now, all that is really true about the subject of voice must be based not upon the several and separate sciences of physics (acoustics), anatomy, physiology, psychology, and upon the laws of music, interpretation and dramatic utterance, but upon the sum total of all of these sciences. It will be quite evident, then, that, when this question of voice is considered from only one or even two special angles, the resultant deductions will inevitably be subject to error because of a lack of inclusion of the remaining angles.

Peter T. Harrison explained the same training concept in his book The Human Nature of the Singing Voice. 

The image of a spiral indicates development and refinement, achieved by constantly ‘doing the rounds’ of all facets of the instrument from the deep postural superstructure to the finest margins of the glottis. At each slight turn we see where we are, rather than where we ‘should be’ in relation to the whole, working from reality, not false assumptions. This also helps to ensure that we lay firm foundations for each stage of progress. The reluctance to move in the sensitive and crucial area of the emotions may call for spirals of careful affirming work. Spiralling work can enable us to check out progress from different angles. Constantly changing the perspective can help us to work thoroughly and incrementally without cutting corners, and without getting stale. The work should always be fresh. Indeed, however well we may think we know a voice, we should always begin work as though we are meeting it for the first time. In this way there’s no room for boring routine or mindless repetition. Because it can be difficult for the singer to assess progress, it’s important to constantly point out what is being achieved incrementally – a little more strength here, greater ease there – as we proceed. Returning constantly to every facet of the instrument and weighing it up against the whole helps the singer to become self-aware and gain confidence, while assisting the teacher in measuring balance, strength and details.

The ‘wholism’ (as W. Stephen Smith says) of the voice must never be lost in our aims of building the voice. Specialization is a kind of limitation that teachers might be ‘grooving in,’ if other functions and areas of the singing art are not given their due.

 

“Oh, it’s you again!”

Pedro de Alcantara released a video today (in his creative way) all about the closure of the glottis.

It’s worth the watch.

(There has not been ONE student in my studio that hasn’t gained greater clarity in their voice just by getting their vocal folds together.)

Perhaps Manuel Garcia had some good ideas after all. 🙂

Quote of the Day, 19th and 21st Centuries

I will keep telling people the same thing until I am red in the face: there is no secret placement, no secret turning of the voice, no secret path of the breath that you need to spin the breath into, no magical soft palate position, no perfect laryngeal depth, no secret diaphragmatic support system that will give you a voice – if your vocal folds aren’t closed.

Jack LiVigni

 

Loose, pushed out breath is useless even injurious, though you have lungs full, for it causes local effects, irregular vibration and disrupted energies. Compressed breath comes through co-ordination. It has only to be guided, and restrained. Its inherent power feeds all the effects made by the vocal cords. It does not upset the pose of the voice. It permits the throat to act naturally, ‘open’ as in talking. It does away with both breathy and pinched tones. It does not demand one quality of resonance only but commands all colors, from the darkest to the lightest and all pitches, from highest to lowest. Compressed breath permits all effects made in declamation, provided same effects do not become a ‘method.’ In fact, stereotyped singing is impossible, when breath is compressed. There is no ‘attack,’ no ‘mouth position,’ no ‘tongue control,’ no ‘voice placing,’ no ‘fixed chest,’ no relaxing this or that muscle no stiffening of any part of the body, in fact, nothing that would not spring from instinctive utterance. 

W.E. Brown (quoting Lamperti Jr)