The Cruelest of Ironies

I had a session with a soprano last night working to clarify her registration between head and chest for a production for which she is preparing. Her middle voice had become overly thick, denying access to the upper range, causing upper pitches to squeeze in the throat.

We are on a track of isolating the two registers in their respective pitch ranges to clarify the function of the intrinsic musculature and clarify vocal cord behavior. Some of the work includes:

  1. Straightening out the tone through the middle range (which was wobbling perceptibly from an over-aggressive approach) in an effort to find a better vibrato pulse on the ‘other side’ of the straight tone. (The student was working very much to ‘make’ a certain type of full sound in this range, and several years of overly heavy singing caused the middle to wobble perceptibly).
  2. Establishing a firm, strong chest register LOW in the scale, weeding it out of the middle and upper middle range.
  3. Using a lot of staccato throughout the middle portion of the voice on hooty [u] and [o], to redefine a better sense of vocal cord ‘weight’ in this area.
  4. Alternating staccato against legato and monitoring that the legato doesn’t become much heavier than the staccato. Exercises that alternate the two against each other have proved successful in rebalancing the approach through the middle and into the top.
  5. Quiet and calm arpeggios on [u], which instill a sense of vocal and psychological ease throughout the middle range, and prevent too much fold thickness in this area.
  6. Listening to examples of classical sopranos, including many early 20th century dramatic sopranos that did not thicken the middle or top of the range, and note the sound of the vocal cords thinning upon ascent without added ‘bulk’ or ‘weight.’ (Maria Jeritza’s recording of “Es gibt ein Reich” is a personal favorite. Her high B-flat is unlike anything sung today in the aria.)

Last night we worked on a “firm-dolce” octave. In this exercise the lower tonic is sung, with a firm approach to the lower tone on an open [a], and then the octave is quickly ascended into a gentle, dolce approach on either [u], [o], or [a]. This helps align the registration, maintaining resonance adjustment, and places the two registers within their proper boundaries, preventing thickening in the upper tone.

Then we varied our approach: adding stacccato reiterations to the top note, and then used an appoggiatura of a lowered seventh, quickly reiterating the upper octave.

When she experienced this free, clear, and ringing sound, the laryngeal mechanism had clearly responded – giving us a spinny, free, ringing upper note.

We were both stunned.

In the silence that followed, I asked her, “What did you think of that?”

She said, “It’s hard to believe that it can be so free [when I leave it alone].” She became emotional, her eyes welling up.

I instantly retorted, becoming tearful myself, “Isn’t that the cruelest of ironies? That we have gold within us that is just sitting there waiting to be polished and displayed, and we feel that our truest and freest sound isn’t good enough? That Mother Nature saw to put this magical instrument out of reach, and it innately KNOWS how to function if we get out of the way?” I then asked rather pointedly, “Don’t you find it maddening NOW that any technique of singing that would try to control that, or harness, or manage the freedom you just found are ANTITHETICAL to what you just experienced?”

Cornelius Reid used to say that the voice “is an organic system that people just haven’t caught on to.” From the work I did with this soprano, I believe it. It is one thing to know how a system functions, and another to WORK that system in a way that elicits freedom and not muscular control or what I call doings. Singing is a GESTALT – a concert of instruments all playing at the same time. My job is to balance the forces involved.

There is a nugget of gold in the throat of every human being, waiting to be found and released. “Nothing can be added to the organ of song,” as Frederick Husler and Yvonne Rodd-Marling said. Our job as teachers and singers should be to find the freest, most authentic sound of the voice from WITHIN.

In my studio, we are all about Voice CULTIVATION, not Voice PRODUCTION. This reflects the PSYCHOLOGICAL approach of the Old Italians. The idea of cultivating a voice leads to a completely different pedagogy – distinct from one dedicated to production. Cars are produced. Not human voices.

My job as a teacher is LIBERATION. Not CONTROL.

CONTROL is end-gaining, and singing in this manner is rarely rewarding for the singer or the audience. It leads to muscular and psychological confusion. STRESS. ANXIETY when our controls fail.

This level of vulnerability and willingness to ‘go there’ is scary and costs everything. You must purge a false sense of self in sound. What is me? How to I think about my sound?What is my authentic sound?

The answer is right there inside us, sleeping.


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