Joyce DiDonato and The Naked Voice

One of my favorite pedagogy books from the past ten years is W. Stephen Smith’s book, “The Naked Voice: A Wholistic Approach to Singing“.

A concept that is near and dear to my heart is the idea of “uncluttered” sound in classical singing. What I mean by this is a vocal sound that is free from interfering tensions.  These tensions are usually created in the mind of the singer as they attempt to ‘make’ their voice sound a certain way. Much classical singing suffers from a ‘postured’ or ‘over-cultured’ approach.

An uncluttered voice is natural, beautiful, free, easy, and flexible. When singers TRY to MAKE a sound in a way that stresses an end product, muscular interference will be the inevitable result.

In Smith’s book, he lays out a system of working on the voice that enables freedom and individuality. Pre-conceptualization of the tone has no place here, hence the term “Naked Voice”.  Smith utilizes what appears to be a two-register view of the voice, although he doesn’t discuss it in any depth.  Working on the chest voice and falsetto, he guides the voice to greater freedom and functional ease. The book was also the first I ever read which went against the oft-repeated saw that breath and support are the sine qua non of singing.  In fact, he states that the word ‘support’ is the S-word in his studio!

I can’t think of a better exponent of Smith’s ideas than the celebrated mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. I’ve blogged on her before as a major influence and inspiration for my own work and singing. She was asked in an interview how she fell into vocal distress while in the Houston Grand Opera Studio, and her response went through me like a bolt of lightning, “I was trying to sound like an opera singer…People were convinced by the sound I was making. You can create a lot of good sound by going “aaahhh!” – really forcing it out. Plus, I was musical, and I acted okay. So they saw the final product without actually analyzing what was happening. I got by with it for a while.”

I repeat that quote a lot in my studio. Here we have one of the world’s greatest singers in classical music today, asserting that in trying to sound like something else, she trained muscular tension into her voice.  Working with Smith in a way that helped her release her pre-concept of her voice allowed a freer and more beautiful sound to emerge. This was Joyce’s ‘naked voice’.  From Smith’s book:

It was my first week in the Houston Opera Studio, and I was feeling quite on top of the world, having been accepted into such a prestigious program. Steve (Smith) looked at me within ten minutes of beginning our first session, and said, “Joyce, you’re talented and obviously very musical, but there is simply no future in the way you’re singing. You’re singing exclusively on youth and muscle.” I was old enough (twenty-six years old) to trust that he just might be right. He then dug his thumb under my chin straight into the core of my tongue tension, which at the time was my favorite type of “support” and fought upward against the intense pressure I was applying downward, and he said, “now sing [a]” I looked up to him, with the enormity of the situation slowly sinking in (what if the people at the Houston Grand Opera found out that I didn’t know the first thing about singing?), and I told him that I honestly could not phonate. I didn’t know how to sing without the tongue muscle forcing the tone out. I could not manage the most simple of [a] vowels without this crutch. I remember recoiling in horror at the situation, but deciding in that very moment to put my voice into his hands. We then spent my entire first year in the program tearing down all the devices I had firmly put into place to aid me in sounding like an opera singer. The second year was then spent building up the natural, naked voice. Every single lesson was a breakthrough moment.

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Think Miss Kansas can sing? Try out these Kansas natives!

Miss Kansas recently sang at the Miss America Talent Competition. While I don’t impugn her efforts of singing a much hackneyed version of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” (does anyone NOT sing this??), I want to bring to the fore some of my favorite Kansas singers:

Joyce DiDonato

I make no secret of the fact that I am a HUGE Joyce DiDonato fan.  I was lucky enough to work with her in Laurent Pelly’s production of “Cendrillon” at Santa Fe.  For someone who grew up in the Midwest, Joyce was like a myth – disarmingly charming, funny, hard-working, and everything that I aspired to as a singer. She sets a pretty high bar for me to the present day, and I enjoy following her career with much joy.   Joyce was a student at Wichita State University, and is now a celebrated international star!  She often closes her concerts with that Kansas gem “Over the Rainbow”.

Joyce Castle

Another “Joyce” that had a huge effect on me was the mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle from Baldwin, Kansas.  Joyce was everything I loved about opera: fierce, dramatic, committed, and totally endearing.  I rushed from my Italian class at KU to hear her sing for the committee hiring her.  It was a thrill to meet her outside Swarthout Hall, and tell her how much I admired her work.  Once she joined the faculty of KU, she became one of my personal idols, and I always found it a special thing to share a brief conversation with her in the hall. I was star-struck by this wonderful lady.

Samuel Ramey

Born in Colby, Kansas, Sam Ramey dominated the bass repertoire during the last half of the Twentieth Century. Also a graduate of Wichita State University, Sam Ramey has sung diverse repertoire, being one of the great basses to also sing with aplomb the repertoire of Handel (making his début in Rinaldo with Marilyn Horne at the Met).