Subject of the day: The speaking voice

My readers probably know already that after 20 years singing the baritone repertoire, I am making the change to tenor. The change is a time-consuming, extremely emotional, and fear-inducing experience that is not for the faint of heart. In three months of disciplined practice, I have gone through so many steps that it would be hard to remember if I did not take notes on them. I intend to post here eventually about the process.

The most exciting step happened a couple of days ago when I experienced a step backwards. I was having a rehearsal for Macbeth, which I am directing for Berlin International Opera, the little company that I am involved with in Berlin, and decided to sing Macduff’s aria for our musical director. I had had an excellent practice in the early afternoon and thought that I would share my new voice with our music director. Well it did not go so well, and I felt bad. I spent the evening listening to Alfredo Kraus who had one of the most efficiently phonated voices ever, and confirmed for myself that phonation needed to be easy, etc. But I could not figure out why my voice was suddenly heavy when I attempted to sing Macduff’s aria which was not a challenge for me even as a baritone (undeveloped tenor).

The next morning, I woke up with a speaking voice that was rough. I did not eat late, I was not vocally tired, and I slept well. I instinctively tried to speak a little higher and lighter and suddenly my voice was as clear as a bell. I took it as a sign that I should speak lighter in general and get away from the guttural baritone speaking voice I thought was mine. The short of it is that after two days of speaking like this, the tenor passaggio became much easier to handle and the voice cleared up throughout the range. While teaching a lesson, I demonstrated a scale to a high B not knowing that I was already there. It was very easy.

Ironically, this is a topic I often discuss with my students. I say often that the speaking voice and the singing voice depend on the very same mechanism. Misusing one of them will eventually or rather quickly effect the other. Since the American culture is in love with deep voices, I was always complemented on my speaking voice. Over the years it got deeper also as I sang more dramatic baritone parts and from speaking to classes in which I had to speak authoritatively to be heard. I was gradually building tension without knowing it. And since I am always complemented on my speaking voice, I never thought there was anything wrong with it. Now after two days with a new speaking habit that have yielded remarkable results, I am even more vigilant of speaking habits with my students.

I am currently preparing a post on the importance of easy phonation that was begun several days ago. I am working to create videos that accompany some of these posts, so it is taking a bit of time to put together. But I am happy to have confirmed for myself that efficient phonation does not need to be stressful. I had always been amazed by singers like Dieskau, Wunderlich, Kraus Corelli and Gigli who had amazing messa di voce abilities. Now I understand that many of us could lose this ability simply by using the speaking voice wrong.

For now, I will share a clip reading the first line of this post. The first part of the clip presents the speaking voice I have gotten used to and in fact cultivated over the years. The second presents what I now perceive to be the true speaking voice, which used to come up when I was a young singer. Occasionally I would speak like that, and people would ask whether I was a tenor. One teacher even told me once I was speaking off my voice (He was not my private teacher). As I listen to the two voices over and over, I see why some might find the first voice richer, sexier, even more impressive. What my current ears tell me is that the first voice is forced and the second is healthy and naturally resonant. I anticipate this will generate some discussion.

© 01/22/2008