There are times when an apparent vocal imbalance isn’t a vocal imbalance at all. Such was the experience with one of my students recently. The top voice was always secure but the middle, as is the case with many female voices was inconsistent. I worked with her on balancing the two muscular registers and the problem was minimized. She could sing through her range with relative ease, but I was not satisfied. There was a quality about the sound in the middle that seemed inappropriate to her particular voice. I knew that she sang musical theater in her youth, so I asked her to take out one of the pieces she sang early in her development before she had any real training. Low and behold, a perfectly balanced middle range was achieved within minutes. The moment she let go of her “operatic voice” the true voice emerged.
It also explained much about this relatively young spinto who had been developed as a dramatic soprano before she was thirty years old. Singers who develop spontaneously, that is without much training, must be instructed carefully. This particular singer had been in search of her “real” voice for so long, but seduced by the idea of being a dramatic soprano she took a wrong turn. She could not let go of the false middle voice that was manifactured to support the dramatic soprano identity until she gave up that identity. She is in fact more likely to be able to sing dramatic repertoire (when the voice has fully matured) now that the voice is being produced efficiently. The new presence in the middle and low makes much of her spinto repertoire viable even now.
This does not mean that everyone can find their true voice by singing music that they sang in their youth. But that is certainly a helpful strategy in discovering at least part of the singer’s “nature”. Some voices, from inappropriate habits (e.g. speaking, poor training) begin their early training with imbalances. Therefore returning to that time will not fix the imbalance, but it could expose how far historically the imbalance goes. The nature of such voices is discovered through training. Such is certainly my case. I feel natural as a tenor, whereas I had to create my baritone voice over time (of course it did not feel as if I was manufacturing a sound back then, but rather looking for my real voice).
The more difficult problem for that particular singer and perhaps for many is that they perceive the operatic sound as something foreign and different from their “speaking voices”. If the speaking voice is balanced, it is very likely that the singing voice would develop spontaneously from it. However when the young singer begins training for opera, s/he often thinks s/he has to do something differently to be viably operatic.
There are real reasons why singers feel that the operatic sound is a fabricated sound. I have observed over the last 20+ years of teaching that the acoustic changes in the voice often detract the singer from his/her balanced phonation. In other words, the singer will spontaneously change his/her mode of phonation when s/he feels a change in resonance. Because of this the most common registration problems occur in the female middle voice (through and right above the first acoustic change), and in the male upper voice (through and above the only acoustic change–excluding countertenors). For that reason, a skilled “belter”, who essentially does not change formant strategy through the acoustic area around Eb4-G4 tends to have a more consistent phonation pattern than the average opera singer in training. This is because the belter is not distracted by the acoustic passaggio areas.
In truth, the second formant, which defines the operatic voice, feels foreign to the singer at first because it is different from the resonance of the speaking range, which the singer identifies as his/her natural voice. As discussed here before, spontaneous accessing of the second formant (high resonance) depends as much on acurate adjustment of the second formant as it does on maintaining viability in the first formant (low resonance). That is:
If we consider the two formants as two equally strong magnets with the sung notes between them, if the two magnets maintain their respective positions, as the notes get higher they will be pulled by the magnetism of the upper formant. Likewise, the lower formant will influence them as they go lower. If however the lower resonator follows the sung pitch (the larynx rises–we know that a high larynx raises the frequency of the firs formant), at the passaggio point the first formant will continue to dominate where the second should take over. The higher notes in such a case lose warmth and so the singer feels a need to make up for that loss of quality by altering his/her natural phonation or resonance mode.
In the case of my student, it is the resonance of the middle range that had been altered to fit her concept of a more dramatic voice type. That in turn had forced a thicker phonation mode in that part of the voice. I had begun to deal with the weight issue and had done exercises that would promote a more natural resonance strategy. Both issues (because they were related) were corrected as soon as she went back to her musical theater mode of singing. This approach restored her natural resonance mode and corrected the muscular (phonation) imbalance for the most part. Slight weight issues were quickly corrected because she could feel them clearly, since they were no longer masked by her “learned” resonance adjustment to fabricate a dramatic sound.
To summarize, this experience addresses many issues: 1) The speaking voice (formant 1) identified by the singer as the natural voice quality; 2) The foreign sensations associated with second formant resonance, which is necessary in the middle of the female operatic voice and the upper middle and top of the male operatic types; 3) Spontaneous register balancing as a result of going back to the singer’s “native” mode of singing. These are fundamental issues we need to continue discussing. A balance is always to be struck between the objective nature of scientific information and the subjective nature of the singer’s personal experience.
I therefore conclude this post with yet another axiom from my former teacher, the late Glenn Parker: “Teach the singer, not just the voice!”