Kashudo (歌手道): One Must Die To Rise Again: Rebuilding the voice from imbalance to balance

I have not forgotten about the promises I made here, and today is a day to deliver. First, Happy Easter and a belated Happy Passover! These last couple of weeks have been full of activities upon seeing my New York students, and it has been truly a blessing to see with what dedication they have taken on the work of developing their own voices while I was away. Everyone has made marked improvements and that is heart-warming. My hope is that a language could be developed that tells the student facts that they can understand and apply to their own singing, gradually becoming independent of the teacher. And I am seeing that happening. I intend to deliver on two promises. First, in this post I will include a clip that gives a glimpse into my own process and where I am in my journey from bass-baritone to tenor. Second in the next post, which I may write today, I will give a series of warm-up exercises that can be done as a daily warm-up, explaining what they do. Clips for each exercise will be added later.

As I observed each student, I saw a pattern that applies to my own process as well. In all cases, we have dealt with two principal issues: 1) Reestablishing muscular balance (weight) and 2) accomplishing pressure/flow balance. It is true that technical problems with the greater share of singers stem from too much vocalis activity, what we in layman’s terms refer to as too much weight. Yet in a great many cases, the problem is the opposite, too little vocalis activity. In the case of several coloratura sopranos that I have taught over the past couple of years, that has been the issue. In those cases, achieving consistency in the Queen of the Night’s high F passages depended on not less weight but more. Contrary to popular belief, an approach that is too light (by this, I mean too little vibratory mass, fold depth) does not help the process of phonation but in fact creates a need for unnecessary muscular activity, namely pressed voice (very likely hyperactive adductory muscles making up for a lack of mass).

There is also a common misunderstanding that tension is associated with too much weight. A student of mine who is also making the switch to tenor from baritone kept saying: “that was too heavy, wasn’t?” The question he should have asked is whether it was too tense. In fact, true freedom is not possible until appropriate weight has been established. In the case of lower voices becoming higher voices, there is naturally a weakness in the upper end. That weakness manifests usually in tension, often wrongly described as weight. In the case of the tenors changing from baritone, what I have observed is that they do indeed sing heavily in the lower part of the voice and just beyond the muscular passaggio (where crico-thyroid becomes dominant over vocalis, around C#4). They had to do so in order to sound viable as baritones. The big job is achieving appropriate weight in the lower and middle part of the range in order to allow proper muscular balance. Once the appropriate weight has been accomplished, then flow phonation (and by association, vocal tract adjustment) can be addressed.

The problem is that many changing bari-tenors do not like to give up the dark quality of their lower range. There is a psychological attachment with the vocal color that had been used for so long. In that sense, one must die before s/he can rise again. In order for the excessive weight in the lower range to be normalized, the singer must accept a different sound quality. For that bari-tenor, it is important to die a baritone death before rising again as a tenor. This is an emotional death, a letting go of something that has served well, often for a long time. The average person wants to hold on to what feels familiar. That is the principle difficulty in making a voice type change, particular from low to high.

Consider another scenario:

A soprano who sings too lightly consequently develops pressed phonation, which limits the top range. How do we remedy this? Based on the discussion above, it is important to bring the weight to balance. This means increasing the weight in the top voice where it is too light and pressed. However, this would cause more tension. I find it logical and practicable to fix the problem in reverse. First remove the pressed phonation that is essentially lack of air flow, and then adjust the weight while being conscious of the need for air flow. The end product is appropriate fold depth (thickness) and flow phonation based on the edges barely touching. A simulated complete glottal closure by means of supra-glottal inertia will be achieved through a long vocal tract resulting from low larynx and high/wide soft palate and vowel choices that keep the relevant formant frequency below the respective harmonic. I must stress that appropriate weight (fold mass, fold depth) is central to the phonation equation. A given pitch can be distinguished by the fold mass required to produce it. When that is altered, there must be extraneous mechanisms in order to achieve that particular pitch. Those extraneous mechanisms (pressed phonation, often followed by mild muscle tension dysphonia) are what we recognize as tension. Accomplishing appropriate weight makes those mechanisms unnecessary.

This has been a part of my personal struggle in making the change from bass-baritone to tenor. In my early days at the University of Michigan, George Shirley did warm me up to C#5 more than once. So I knew that I had the notes. Among many of his wisdoms, was the idea that one should feel an anchoring in the chest. I have come to identify this anchoring as associated with vocalis activity or better said, fold depth. This explains why there is such a correlation between chest sensations and heavy mechanism. This is an effective way of approximating the appropriate fold depth. However, it is important to consider flow simultaneously. The released sensation associated with falsetto and flute voice should be combined with this sensation of connection via the chest. Balancing these two sensations will ultimately result in appropriate fold depth and flow-phonation mode. I will give exercises in the next post that encourage the balance between fold depth and flow phonation (one exercise to be found below). In the mean time, I share the following clip recorded yesterday between voice lessons. There are moments where the muscular balance is still tenuous, particularly around C#4 where I believe the muscular passagio (as opposed to the acoustic passaggio that occurs higher around F#4) occurs for more robust tenors (this causes a slight instability in the pitch). The first Bb has some tension to be resolved. The second is better. Now that the basics have been accomplished, the work of the next few months is strongly breath-related. Teaching the fold edges to return to a natural mode of vibration. The ability to sing the consonant [v] throughout the modal range is a sign of balanced phonation. This is also an exercise that promotes such balance. During the exercise, there must be enough air pressure in the mouth to create a strong [v] sound. This requires enough air flow through the glottis and guarantees flow phonation at that level. In other words, enough air pressure must be created to vibrate both the glottal obstruction and the obstruction at the lower-lip-upper-teeth juncture. However the pressure must convert to flow at the glottal level in order for enough pressure to become available above the larynx for the lip vibration. Achieving a clear vibrant [v] is therefore a confirmation of flow phonation. Singing a scale on [a] right afterward always yields exciting results in my experience. This is a safer exercise than the lip trill, which requires greater air pressure in general. I consider lip trills a stronger version of the [v] exercises and should be done once evenness has been accomplished with the [v].

© 04/12/2009