Hello. My name is Jean-Ronald LaFond. When someone decides to do a blog on vocal technique, he should give his credentials. I am a singer and voice teacher currently teaching between New York City and Berlin. I taught in academia for 11 years, at various smaller programs including University of Florida, East Carolina University, University of Delaware and Utah State University. I earned my Doctorate and Masters in Vocal Performance under George Shirley at the University of Michigan where I also studied orchestral conducting under Gustav Meier for five years and composition under Leslie Bassett among others. I earned my Bachelor of Music degree also in Vocal Performance at Westminster Choir College under Judith Nicosia, Daniel Pratt and Lois Laverty (voice)and a remarkable musical education from the likes of Joseph Flummerfelt (choir) Frauke Hasemann and Constantina Tsolainou (conducting) and Dalton Baldwin and Glenn Parker (opera and song coaching). During my academic years (both as a student and as a teacher), inspired by my first vocal pedagogy teacher, Judith Nicosia, I developed a ravenous appetite for anything that had to do with vocal science. I attended Voice Foundation conferences, and produced scientific papers with some of my colleagues who specialized in vocal science and disorders. Along the way, I spent a lot of time in Europe, getting the opportunity to work with some Italian masters (Ada Finelli and Mario Sereni) and participating in master classes with the likes of Piero Cappuccilli, Carlo Bergonzi and others.
Like every singer, my story has been adventurous to say the least. There was always confusion about my specific Fach. During my first years at University of Michigan, one faculty member said I was either a bass or a lyric baritone. I wonder why she never considered something in between. My own teacher, George Shirley,when he first heard me thought I was a dramatic baritone of sorts, but then decided to go the lyric baritone route. With him I discovered my top and was able to warm up beyond high C. He thought I might eventually become a tenor, but there were things to work out if I would ever sing that tessitura. During grad school and during my academic tenure I sang a lot, covering over 300 song recitals in the U.S., Europe, the Caribbean and Japan. I sang some 30 operatic roles between Academia, regional theaters in the States and Japan and lots of orchestral concerts and oratorio. By all accounts, although I had not sung with major theaters, I was working constantly and was usually invited back by the companies that hired me. For some 20 years I sang bass roles in oratorios, baritone and bass-baritone roles in opera (even some Sarastros in concert) and hundreds of songs covering nearly three octaves. Naturally, I wondered why I was not breaking into a higher level in the field.
Throughout my development there was always uncertainty about my voice type. I had a range that covered the bass, baritone and tenor range, depending on the repertoire I was singing, some famous person would tell me to consider dramatic tenor repertoire or Bass repertoire. They seemed less interested in me as a lyric baritone. When I asked, I was sometimes told that my voice has a dramatic energy about it, but not the cutting power to sing dramatic baritone roles. On the other hand, I would get comments that were exactly opposite: that the voice was really powerful. One conductor even hired me to sing Wotan’s Abschied in concert. It was really well received.
Finally, I realized I was always attracted to dramatic tenor repertoire. It was a little guilty pleasure I enjoyed in the privacy of my practice room or in the occasional concert encore, in the form of a Neapolitan Song or the like. Recently I committed to exploring this possibility and finally it all makes sense. The lyric baritone tessitura that my teacher George Shirley adopted is very close to the dramatic tenor tessitura. The dramatic quality that was heard in the voice came out with little effort in this new repertoire. Most importantly, the tessitura always felt natural. Consistency in the stratosphere was the missing element. But all real dramatic voices deal with this problem. That kind of consistency requires all the principles that I have committed to over the years, and which have served my students well.
I had dealt with acid reflux for a long time. As a baritone, I was able to sing regardless. Of course, some quality was lost, and I subconsciously pushed to make up for it. My transition to tenor required me to let go of all excess weight in my singing. In the process, I was able to discover to what extent reflux really affected the voice, and how, in order to compensate, I had gradually and unconsciously diverged from the very technical principles that I hold dear.
For the past couple of years, I have shared my experiences online via The New Forum for Classical Singers. Several members of that community found that I had a particular knack for presenting vocal science in an accessible manner, and suggested that I begin a vocal technique blog. I have attempted to write a book on vocal technique several times, but until now, some elements were missing. I did not want to write yet another book that was either rooted in subjective information that could not be verified, nor one that was a litany of scientific verbiage of which the average person could not make heads or tails. I cannot help the fact that I have one foot in the Italian tradition, via my years with those teachers in Italy and another foot in vocal science. Unlike the typical teacher, I do not find the two traditions to be mutually exclusive. In fact, I find the two interdependent.
What I hope to record here, is not a vocal technique, but rather basic principles that should not be violated when seeking efficiency in vocal production. These principles include certain pieces of scientific fact. Science is not so much the answer, but rather a map that gives some specific landmarks that we can always count on. It is my hope that by utilizing these scientific landmarks, it might be possible to erase some destructive myths, and make sense of others that are based in reality. Rather than suggesting a specific method, the purpose for this blog is to help teachers and singers in developing methods that are consistent with information that we know are factual. Science does not have all the answers for developing a vocal method. However, if a vocal method has scientific facts as its cornerstones, it should be much easier to fill in the blanks that are not addressed by science.
Proprioception and kinesthesia, two senses dealing with the human ability to determine the position and movement of muscles and body parts, are interesting abilities to consider in singing. The fact that they are unconscious abilities is even more important. Entire vocal methods have been built on the thought that proprioception can be consciously controlled. Even the terminologies are difficult to define, and scientists do not fully agree on the meaning of these terms.
What we can agree upon however is that through proprioception and kinesthesia we have the ability to distinguish between relative efficiency and inefficiency in muscular function. The many vibrations and tensions that we as singers feel are feedback mechanisms to understanding how efficiently or inefficiently our vocal mechanism is working. Understanding them fully, rather than conveniently and inaccurately labeling them, can lead to balanced, subconscious control of the instrument.
It is also important to remember that vocal fold vibration begins very early in fetal development (tenth week, first trimester), and that a baby’s cry is a very efficient vocal function the acoustic basis of which is meant to be compatible with the human inner ear. In such a way, parents are able to hear a crying child from afar. This compatibility between human vocal production and human hearing is the basis by which a nature-based vocal technique should be developed. Orchestral instruments, loud though they may be, have very little strength in the acoustic band between 2000 and 3000 Hz. This is the ‘sweet spot’ of human hearing (most sensitive at ca. 3000 Hz. See definition for “decibel”)if you will. The human voice is able to create sounds, the harmonics of which are very strong in this frequency range. In a simplistic sense, the goal of the classical singer, who does not utilize artificial amplification (microphone)and must compete with large instrumental forces, is to maintain a high level in the frequency range between 2000 and 3000 Hz. How we best achieve this goal and how we deal with all the issues that factor upon it is the purpose of this blog.© 12/28/2007