Two weeks ago, a robber broke into my car and stole my backpack with my laptop computer in it and two weeks before that my suitcase was stolen from a bus and it had my external drive in it with all my back-up files. While lamenting this loss, an acquaintance I now consider an ex-acquaintance commented insensitively that the universe took away from me that which I do not need and that my vocal science research was an escape from what I am supposed to do, meaning learning to sing.
Despite my extreme frustration at that condescending commentary, I considered the inherent spiritual challenge. Was I running away from facing my vocal issues? It took a few seconds to realize that this singer, a former baritone struggling with his change to tenor, should have known better. On the contrary, my vocal research has been a fundamental part of me confronting the vocal puzzle that now actually makes sense. Not only have I learned a wealth of information in the 15+ years that I have been actively studying vocal science, I have also seen the effectiveness of my teaching grow exponentially with this knowledge. The students who come to me do not seek a lesson in vocal science but rather a thorough understanding of their vocal challenges in a language that they can understand. My studies render me able to explain a concept to different students in different ways, but always rooted in what is known about the voice. As for my own journey, this information has instructed me through the difficult process of changing from bass-baritone to tenor, or rather through the process of returning to my natural voice. I have become a bit of a magnet for singers who are considering a change in vocal category. Although my vocal pedagogy can be described as a journey back to the natural voice, wether remedying technical misunderstandings or fine tuning a balanced voice, I recognize that there is a special psychological and spiritual component to the journey of changelings.
Why go through the heart-wrenching process of changing vocal category, especially when one has had some success in the current Fach? Those that do it (for the most part) have an intuitive knowledge that they have not been singing in a tessitura that is natural to them. The human voice is much more extensive in range than we think. A fully developed voice, male or female is capable of three modal octaves. In vocal pedagogy, we learn that the average male singer has two octaves of modal range. This is unfortunate and leads to confusion for young teachers. A wide range is not a special occurrence. Some singers develop their wide range spontaneously through both speaking and social habits. An outgoing person is more likely to express himself in an extroverted manner that includes greater vocal range, be it through high pitch laughter and yells or low growls. Latins and Africans tend to be so extroverted and often develop instruments with very wide ranges. I have also met singers from those cultures who are very introverted and vocally much more contained. Their range is often comparatively limited.
But to the point, a large range is often a source of confusion for the teacher trying to decide how the singer should be categorized. Why categorize? Many singers feel that categorization is arbitrary and has no real foundation in reality. I disagree. The fact that I can sing a C2 and a C5 can be confusing and led to the more manageable idea of categorizing me as a bass in high school, a bass-baritone in undergraduate school, a lyric baritone in graduate school and everything else later on. The range is material only if we consider the complete range of other singers in comparison. If every singer sang his complete range, it would be easier to catergorize because we would see a corollary between the range and the comfortable tessitura. Not so easy when the extremes of the voice is not well developed and a light lyric tenor often has better low notes than a dramatic tenor who does not develop the lower range. Think Jussi Björling vs. most spinto tenors in the aria Di tu se fedele… from Verdi’s Un ballo in Maschera.
My low C was developed because of those early years as a bass and probably from copying my father’s voice. He spoke very low. By the time I was in graduate school I could warm up to C#5 in full modal voice and continue on to F5 in what some might call a reinforced falsetto. One visiting conductor thought I was a Rossini tenor. That would have been more misguided than lyric baritone. As a lyric baritone my repertoire was close enough to the tenor tessitura that I would not have had a great deal of problem making the switch to tenor once I discovered the error of those early categorizations. However, because of the dramatic color of the voice (a hidden dramatic tenor) I began to get offers for dramatic repertoire (e.g. Wotan’s farewell and Fire Music with orchestra, dozens of performances of Messiah and Bach oratorios, Germont, Scarpia, etc). Despite my vocal science experience, I was a singer like most others: I was happiest when I was singing and had an uncanny ability to change my voice to what was needed. Still, 25 years of singing unnatural vocal categories will take the voice out of balance (in my case very slowly).
There comes a point when we, as professionals, must become conscious of the nature of our voices. It often takes some kind of crisis for us to question our misconceptions about our own voices. When that occurs, we find ourselves at an impasse: Do I continue with the vocal category that I have been known for for a quarter of a century and the repertoire that I have identified with for those many years, or do I go on a risky journey in search of my true voice? As an artist, I always was in search of some kind of truth, whether it be the truth of a character or of vocal pedagogy. Once I was convinced that I was in fact a tenor, all those years of study were called to the service of my search.
From what I knew of vocal function and of helping singers through a vocal change, I was certain that I would go through some very unstable periods. And I did! It was frustrating and at times discouraging. I was already hearing the voices of many friends saying that I am a baritone and should remain so. I was not in the mood to pay thousands of dollars to teachers who were not convinced that I was in fact a tenor. My former teacher George Shirley who had a hunch that I might be a tenor was too far for me to work with him regularly. I was forced to do this on my own, and in fact welcomed it. I knew I would not lie to myself and my vocal research tools, particularly Voce Vista would give me empirical information that I knew how to decipher. I knew the road was long and froth with discouraging days. I am beyond the worse days and my tenor students hear the confirmation of my voice type through the consistent Bbs that I demonstrate for them. I am far from out of the woods yet. I am now happily dealing with balance issues: How much chest resistance (i.e. glottal resistance) is necessary for good breath management without going too far and over-pressurize? How specifically does it feel when I sense the pressurization of the breath on the one hand and the freedom of the light, lean voice floating on top of that pressure? Can I remember the exact feeling of the breath feeding the tone from below that produced my excellent high C recently. The questions are in traditional language, because the singer really has personal sensory feedback to go on. Those questions are all interesting in the moment. Yet, it is concepts that freed my voice from its heavy baritone past, and it is those same concepts that will help me refine in the later stage of the game. The other day I sang through Tosca with my ridiculously gifted girlfriend. I am not ready for prime-time yet, but there was a time that I thought Cavaradossi would never be in my future because that kind of tessitura was just too high for me. But low and behold it is feeling like a reality that needs to be refined.
I teach several tenors who are letting go of their baritone mislead categorizations. I also teach several dramatic coloraturas who were categorized wrongly as lyric mezzos or lyric sopranos and one brave contralto categorized as a soubrette who sang pretty much a reinforced (by that I mean pressed) flute voice. A year sometimes feels like an eternity! But that is what it has taken for that lyric mezzo to sing a beautiful Norina and a concert of crazy coloratura show pieces; that is what is has taken another coloratura to find her high Fs when her voice would simply stop at a Bb5 when she was singing lyric rep; that is also what it has taken one ex-baritone to acquire anew what he calls the voice of his youth and me to feel that I have come home.
A year is a blink of an eye. Yet I have a feeling that I have been working with those particular changelings for 10 years. I become closer to them, because they take such big risks, they leave all of their past glories on the roadside to take that uncertain journey. Their victories give me intense pleasure. It humbles me to think that it has only been a year when I hear how far they have come. They are no longer wondering what they should be singing, but rather how to sing it well. Realizing that all my scientific knowledge in the world would not help if I did not realize that some days they need a hug more than a vocalise. Studying science is to know its limits. Studying science is to know that it is the beginning of knowledge not the end. Studying science gave me an appreciation for spirituality and humanity which must complement it.
Thus to my former, self-righteous acquaintance who made not a wise commentary, but a selfish stab at someone in pain after a loss, who has not a shred of scientific understanding, I say humbly, I would not give up my research even if God himself came down from the skies and offered me a perfectly functioning voice, which I ache for. Life is about the journey, which brings us to wisdom and contemplation. I enjoy growing in a lasting way and I am blessed to accompany these soulful singers on their spiritual journey, giving them the comfort of knowledge and of compassion. When you, former self-righteous friend, have walked my scientific path, then may you from knowledge and not from prejudice challenge the spiritual value of my path.