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.

 

Freeze! (Actually, Don’t)

I recently attended a performance of young singers who sang from the stage frozen in one position. Feet cemented to the floor. Lots of furtive gesturing (what I affectionately refer to as ‘serving muffins,’ and ‘herding geese,’) and vague attempts at facial expression to convey the meaning of the text.

It got me thinking about two people: Richard Miller and Uta Hagen.

I’ll start with Hagen.

Hagen’s method of teaching was very centered in the body. Her first Object Exercise (Destination) was all about the body in space, and understanding what moves us from one place to the next on stage. Every time a student makes an unmotivated cross I die a little inside. Hagen saw this as foundational to building an ‘inner’ life onstage. We have to observe ourselves through her Destination exercise to make the distinction of where we go and why.

(By the way, I realize I owe everyone an outstanding blog on Hagen that hasn’t been completed. I hope to come back to her this summer!)

An understanding of WHERE we are and WHAT surrounds us, as well as our relationship to those things goes a LONG way to developing a sense of relaxation onstage as we let our creative life take over. Students who lack this sense of circumstance, destination, and place will FIGHT to relieve the tension that they feel. They have not been shown how to develop an inner life from their body first. Observation is key here, and I think the singer should spend a month doing the first Hagen Object Exercise.

The other question you must ask is: under what circumstance do people literally FREEZE in position – not moving at all? I can’t think of very many, unless they’re hiding from a serial killer and don’t want to be noticed. But FREEZING is ALWAYS ASSOCIATED WITH FEAR. This is the connection that isn’t made very often as to why rigid postures are so unhelpful to young singers. Nothing makes them feel even MORE afraid than the direction to HOLD STILL during the singing act.

The body is predicated upon MOVEMENT not stillness. All the shaking knees and legs can be ameliorated by MOVING around – taking a step. I have found it interesting to see how bodies and psyches relax when given the direction to move around when singing a bit. For a beginner, some planning into ‘where to step’ in the music may be necessarily.

There’s an idea that to be ‘grounded’ the singer must plant both feet SOLIDLY on the floor at ALL times. Well, the problem with this is that we are rarely always standing in that posture in real life – it is artificial. It can be a good ‘home base,’ but the minute you feel constrained to one location, the body rebels: the knees will lock, the posture will be thrown off, and psychological fear ensues. I have known coaches who have promulgated this ‘frozen’ position as vital to good singing.

This is where I come to Richard Miller.

In his book, Solutions for Singers, he was asked that very question. I think his response is solid. We want to portray human beings onstage: not statues. I’ve underlined some key points from Miller’s assertion below.

In short, the body must be free to move. Locking in place is NOT GROUNDING. Let me repeat that: LOCKING YOURSELF in one place is not GROUNDING. It is an attempt to ground oneself by END-GAINING a rigid tenseness into the body that does little to relieve muscles of inflexibility, or the performer a sense of freedom, and lack of fear in singing. None of the aforementioned qualities are necessarily or desired for a free expression of music and text.

Inexperienced singers, trying to keep erect posture, tend to cement themselves to the floor of the stage. They stand with feet firmly planted and move only from the waist as they attempt to communicate the text; the torso typically sways slowly back and forth in response to rhythm or to phrase length, but the feet never move. This rigid fixation of legs and of feet bears no relationship to the body language of spoken communication. How often does a speaker sway from side to side? Never, except to portray distress or madness. In speaking privately or publicly, we do not weave rhythmically back and forth from the waist, but we do make slight alterations in our stance. We do not separate the body into two parts—the lower half consisting of the hips and the legs, the upper half of the torso and the head. We remain axial, but from time to time we shift our weight.

During singing, the weight of the torso should be seldom equally distributed on both legs for long periods of time, unless we are being as statuesque as the Commendatore, or pretending to be invisible. Body language is altered now and again by shifting from the right leg to the left leg; then the reverse process. Arms are relaxed, occasionally making small emotive movements, as in narrative speech, while avoiding meaningless gesticulation. As a new thought or emotion arises in the text or music, while remaining axially poised, we occasionally shift the body—a nearly imperceptible half-step forward or half-step back—while still retaining noble posture. At a later moment, we return to the original position. During the singing of a lied, a mélodie, or an art song, such occasional shifting of stance is in response to the drama or mounting emotion. On the opera and music theater stage, the performer finds independence from rhythmic servitude. Accommodating the varied pace of the drama, one learns to walk out of rhythm, to make predetermined movements that appear free of the musical structure. The technique of altering body language through weight-shifting is an integral part of producing a believable stage persona.

Intermittent shifting of stance produces performance freedom and dramatic authenticity. It places an audience at ease as well. Stance alteration removes the artificiality of singing an hour’s recital, appearing like a statue attached to the crook of the pianoforte or being rigidly positioned center stage for the aria. Occasional weight-shifting also avoids the wiggling, jiggling, and meaningless gesticulations that seem, like a communicable disease, to beset some solo and group performers. But don’t overdo it.

Richard Miller, Solutions for Singers

 

 

Summer Vacation and Quote of the Day

I have been very lax in blogging these past months, and it’s due to the fact that I have been teaching a lot, as well as working on developing my skills in French.

I’ve gained some insights into the process of language acquisition that are simmering for future posts, but I haven’t quite codified my ideas yet, so they’re merely just hunches and observations of the similarities. Will hope to share these in future posts.

Now that summer’s on its way I hope to muse with you more on pedagogical insight.

As I spend time thinking about Voice Science, a recent reading of Erwin Schrödinger (the cat guy) really spoke to me:

‘…there is a tendency to forget that all science is bound up with human culture in general, and that scientific findings, even those which at the moment appear the most advanced and esoteric and difficult to grasp, are meaningless outside their cultural context’.

Looking forward to writing more for you in the future!

Stay tuned!

-Justin

 

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.