Kashu-do (歌手道): "You have no voice!": My Biggest Pet-Peeve

I interrupted a very interesting post on “Open Throat” (will appear shortly) to deal with the pronouncement that has irritated me my entire vocal career. It is the cowardly and dismissive statement that comes out of the mouths of coaches and voice teachers and directors and conductors when they do not have the expertise or vision to help the singer move forward in their process:  “You have no voice!”  What is even more irritating is that they justify such a lie (and it is a lie) by saying that they are helping an obviously untalented singer avoid the bleak reality down the line. I also get equal enjoyment from hearing the same people who dismissed a singer a couple of years before say: “Wow! I never thought you had it in you!”

What I have realized however is that no matter how I wish that these people, too often in very influential positions, would acquire the knowledge that would give them true vision, it is not going to happen. People who are in positions of power have no need to further develop their knowledge and usually don’t.  They become captive to the limited product that gave them their success and will not alter a single thing for fear of losing what they have acquired.  Such people I call working musicians, not artists.  That is a personal definition of course.

For me artists are curious people who seek to understand more, who wish to go beyond the horizons of their experiences everyday in order to understand the world the live in a bit better. More harm is done to aspiring artists by established people in the field who squarely define such aspirants. But I digress.

“You have no voice!” That is a self-protecting euphemism for: “I don’t know what your limitations are. And since I am successful, if I don’t understand it, then probably no one can help you! So give it up!”

Now for the science that reduces that statement to the non-sense that it is!

1) What is an operatically viable sound?

A vocal sound that is operatically viable is one that is easily perceivable by the human ear without difficulty in the presence of a standard opera orchestra.

2) Can any human voice produce that sound?

Yes. We all (barring damage of the vocal apparatus) produce that very sound as babies. As we grow up we lose the natural coordination that we were born with because we copy vocal sounds in our surroundings (family, teachers, early musical influences, bad training) that are against the nature of our voices. With good training we can get the muscular strength and coordination back.

3) What is necessary to accomplish this sound?

Three muscles groups in particular are under our contro (aside from breathing strategies)l. The Crico-Thyroids (CT), the Thyro-Arytenoids (TA, the interior portion called Vocalis), and the Inter-Arytenoids (IA) must coordinate for every single note in a specific way to bring about the specific vocal posture that creates the primal sound that is more easily perceivable to the human ear than any other.

4) Why is it so hard to accomplish?

In point of fact, it is not so hard. It requires somethings that the average young singer is not willing to do: A) make sounds that are not balanced in the pursuit of balance.  Singers are justifiably afraid of making cracking sounds, unstable sounds, wobbly sounds that are completely natural while the muscles are being strengthened and balanced. Justifiably because they do not understand why they have to allow these sounds to come out of them. Like a baby who is learning to walk, one must crawl, wobble and fall before one can walk upright. Babies laugh when they wobble and fall. Singers get scared when they wobble and crack. B) The singing culture tells a singularly disarming lie: that one is either born with a coordinated voice or not. Singers believe the myths of the operatic culture more than the facts. C) Singers are afraid they will not have enough time because the business of singing is willing to accept interesting personalities without a viable operatic sound instead of waiting for viable singers to be trained. So they rush to produce whatever is mildly acceptable.

5) How long should it take to train an operatic voice to viability?

I will go on record here: With a teacher who understands the instrument thoroughly and a student who is committed and has a great work ethic, it should take about two  years regardless of voice type to coordinate and strengthen the muscles properly for an operatic sound.  But then, refinement for specific voice types requires more time.  Flexibility necessary for coloratura voices requires advanced musicianship and guided practice. My advice to every coloratura, learn to play an instrument from childhood that requires fioratura playing (e.g. flute, violin, piano at a high level). Louder singing for dramatic voices requires time. Volume is essentially breath pressure against the vocal folds. To increase breath pressure without blowing the folds apart (disturbing the structure that creates the primal sound) requires time for the muscles to strengthen in that specific set-up. This can only be accomplished by singing. That is why the Italians have a tradition of singing more lyric parts first and then graduate to more dramatic parts as the voice grows (caveat: each voice has a limit as to how far it can be developed in pursuit of more dramatic parts. E.g. Florez will never sing Manrico).

6) Why then does it take so long and why did the Italian teachers of the past recommend as much as ten years before going on stage:

The skills of the Italian teachers is as much based on myth as in reality.  The Italian teachers of the past did not have the knowledge we have now, so they could not do targeted training like we now can providing the teacher in question makes use of the available information.  Furthermore, the old school teachers were also responsible for the musical training of their students, which require additional time. I am addressing only the muscular training of the vocal apparatus to create an operatically viable sound. For muscular training it should take about two years.

7) What makes a Pavarotti or Damrau vocally as opposed to the average good tenor or soprano?

Forget about the musical skills and charisma for a second! Let us talk purely vocal. Pavarotti and Damrau not only trained their muscles to produce each note in their voices correctly (this specific muscular set-up I speak about) but they sing repertoire that is made for their voices. That is to say,  repertoire use the areas of greatest  natural intensity in their voices.  Pavarotti sang Verdi’s Otello in his later life and it was loved by audiences in Chicago despite the fact that he had the flu. I personally loved it. Why? Because in the absence of a true dramatic tenor who has the dark colors to make Otello dramatically interesting and the high notes and control to accomplish all the colors necessary for this part, Pavarotti sounded truly impressive with the caveat that his voice sounded too happy and sweet in the moments of tragedy and anger. If Damrau sang Ariadne, we would have to laugh. She would not sound good. In fact she would not sound extraordinary singing Contessa Almaviva.  But we would enjoy it because the voice is pleasant and she is already famous. But to the point, what prevents a singer to have the vocal quality of a Pavarotti or a Damrau is simply the time to develop the instrument to strong coordination that makes it possible to sing fully-supported high Cs in the case of the tenor and high Fs in the case of the coloratura, and the discipline to sing repertoire that features the natural strengths of the voice in question.

8) But can every singer learn to sing a pianissimo in the high range like Leontyne Price?

Yes, but paradoxically, a true pianissimo that is as well-supported as Price’s cannot be developed before a strong forte is developed.  To sing pianissimo requires stability in the set-up for the specific note in question. When the set up can handle great sub-glottal pressure as in a strong forte, then it will have the stability to handle the pressure that comes from soft singing. In soft singing there is less air-flow which necessitates firmer glottal closure and therefore increased sub-glottal pressure in a situation where the breath could get cut off by the increased medial squeeze.  It takes not only strength but practice to maintain the coordination at will.

9) If it is that simple to learn, why are there so many singers who only reach a certain middle level?

A) Not enough competent teachers to teach technique. Even fewer that do not take it upon themselves to abuse the psyche of the student.

B) The singers in question do not have the daring to go beyond what came easily to them. To make strong sounds, it is necessary to go through weak sounds. To make beautiful sounds it is necessary to go through ugly sounds. To sing balanced sounds it is necessary to go through imbalance. Not many singers are willing to experience the dark side of technical growth.  What Rocky and ask yourself why he goes through a rigorous training period before the main event.  Many singers do not have the mental fortitude, the heart, the faith to go through fire!

In short it is simple, but I never said it was easy.

10) Why don’t students who have the heart and faith and mental fortitude not seek out competent teachers and how many sessions a week should a student have?

Some do. Others cannot because of financial constraints. To bring out great quality voices we have to realize it is not a fair world.  As a teacher I practice an ideology of “Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low!”  I mean I will teach a committed students who cannot afford it for a reduced price or even  free if necessary and I hope that a student of mine who is wealthy would volunteer to pay more although I do not charge more than my standard fee which is reasonable (OK I could be more forthright about the “…every mountain and hill made low” part. In fact one student I have taught several times insisted that I take more because according to him I undercharge.

As for how many lessons in a week, for a beginner I would like at least three  sessions a week because they must also learn what it means to make singing a daily part of their lives and they need frequent guidance in the early stages as not to make mistakes in their practice. With advanced students, there are some I only see twice a month or even once in two months for a check up. In general after the initial phase of learning a practice regimen and understanding the issues at hand, a single session a week is plenty. I currently have two ex-baritone tenors who have sung for many years but the nature of the change is such that they wanted to have multiple sessions a week as I am away every other month. So they do multiple sessions. We arrange a price structure that is affordable to them and fair to me.  Truthfully, if I were a millionaire, I would not charge and I would chose who I want to work with.

These are ten common questions I get and how I normally answer them.  The question of nature vs. nurture is not going to go away because the mythical culture of opera enjoys the drama that goes with the “nature” side of things. It is more dramatic to have Divas on one end of the spectrum and the merest of mortals on the other hand.  I will be called an incorrigible dreamer for my beliefs as if that were an insult. Dreamers have to take responsibility for their dreams. Nay-sayers only have to make pompous pronouncements that they can just throw about particularly when they are in positions of authority.

Accomplished opera singers in the highest sense are mere mortals who alchemize themselves into great singers. The nature of their transformations is unique to each and often even unconscious.  All of them have experienced doubts and feared and gone beyond them.  I will go to my grave with the thought that an operatic career is made from uncommon tenacity and hard-work, which stem from the one talent:  the belief that one is born to be an opera singer and the passion to follow through on that belief.  Everything else can be learned. To refer to Malcolm Gladwell, once again: You just need 10,000 hours.

© 02/08/2010