Kashu-do (歌手道): Final Steps to Mastery: Facing Our Fears and Accepting Our Nature

Recently, a marvelous young operatic director, in whose talent I have a great deal of hope and faith decided to have lessons with me. Her initial reasoning was that she wanted to understand the singer’s personal experience. The two lessons we had together were real. She is extremely musical, passionate about opera, and was among the most concentrated singers I have ever taught. She is indeed a singer, in the sense that something in her has a great desire to sing. It will be interesting to see where she goes with this.  Her natural instrument is one in a million–that kind of dramatic mezzo voice that has a huge low and high extension. From her slightly brighter speaking voice, at the first lesson I thought she might be some kind of undeveloped dramatic soprano. She was able to sing Eb6 in our first session. She did tell me before her lesson that she did not think she was a soprano, and when it comes to someone who is that intelligent and conscious, a teacher should listen. Before the second lesson it became clear to me that she was right.

Her voice made me think a lot of my own. The low voice was extraordinary and the top relatively nicely coordinated. It was the muscular passaggio, around G4 to D5 that was unbalanced. During the second lesson we were able to achieve some excellent sounds in that troubled area. If one listened to her low only, one might decide she was a contralto who needed to develop that middle area and some might consider it the beginning of her top. Others might listen to the slightly lighter top and think her a soprano as I did at the first lesson. It was however the uncoordinated middle that revealed the true sound. Such is the case with me at present.

I had an instinct many years ago that my voice would not be complete until I had total control of what I thought was my baritone top, D4-G4. Indeed that is my passaggio, a combination of the muscular change around D4 and the acoustic change around F4 to G4. At present I have developed a light voice that I refer to as my Rossini voice that I can now use from the lowest notes around F2, to the highest modal coordinations on F5. Then there is my fuller Verdi-Wagner voice that I can sing up to C5 but not consistently. The truth is in a combination of the two. The lean, efficient phonation of the Rossini voice and the support that gives me my dramatic sound. The problem is that the fuller voice is not quite as efficient as it should be. What I have not accomplished all these years until now is “bringing the top down”.  Having been trained as a baritone, the little voice was always considered a “reinforced falsetto”. Yet it has ring and it does not cease to impress my tenor students when I do it. What I have suspected and have written about here is that the little voice is indeed a modal (full voice) production that is not very loud, because in the early stages it cannot sustain great pressure. Over the months, it has grown and has extended below the passaggio. That strength has also leaned out my Verdi-Wagner voice. What I have come to understand is that I cannot avoid the little voice at all. It must grow to meet the fuller voice. In a sense it is the real voice and I will not be totally consistent until I grow it to its full potential.

Light high Cs.mp3

There was a time I could not grow it so far. Therefore I believe I can build it to grow to the fullest sound. What is remarkable is that the crescendo to say mezzo-forte with the little voice remains as easy as falsetto even though it gains substantial fullness. It is therefore conceivable that the fullest sound can maintain a flexibility of the type we hear in tenors like Lauri-Volpi, Fleta, Gedda, Björling, Gigli and others. At this point, that is my goal.


The acoustic analysis is promising. On the one hand, it is clear from the spectrogram that this is modal voice and not falsetto. The harmonics are very strong throughout. The second formant dominates the spectrum as would be expected for a high C.  This means that the fold posture is deep enough to induce second formant dominance on a high C. However there is also strength around 4000-5000 Hz.  This is a sign of pressed voice. In short, the voice is not so pressed because it shows a modal pattern. But on the other hand it is also not perfectly full because of the peaks at 4-5KHz. This is an in-between stage. Even on a high C, the second formant should not be so overwhelmingly dominant in my opinion. The first must balance it out or the voice sounds shrill, which in a sense it does (that is relative to my natural vocal color). Another important observation is the fact that the Eb at the end of the phrase thins out. The fuller weight could not come in smoothly. There was a time that anything below C5 in this production would be weak. But now there is substance even as low as that Eb. THIS IS ONLY A WORK IN PROGRESS.

Still this is a major move in the right direction. This is the beginning of a final product. Even though the high C is not of final quality, it points to a coordination of a high CT-dominant modal voice. There must be necessary modifications, but the basic coordination has now been set.

Now I work with enough wonderful singers not to think that what I share here is of any great quality, but that is precisely the point of this post. It is not my aim to impress here, otherwise I would record a high B in my fuller voice. The point is that we often bypass the true key to our progress because we are too much in a hurry to accomplish a final product.  In the short time I have consciously focused on the little voice again (I had lost it at the end of my baritone years. Another symptom of the falseness of that path), it seems to grow stronger by the day. I will probably post another such clip in a few days. I am convinced that my viability as a tenor is entirely based on developing this unimpressive little voice. It’s coordination has greater glottal efficiency, albeit on the slightly pressed side. My fuller voice by contrast is a touch heavy and makes the approach to the top notes more difficult than it should be.  It is just unfortunate that I had overdeveloped the lower side of my voice.

Caveat: this is not an approach that every tenor should take. I caution against this because I know many tenors who have ruined their voices putting pressure on the little voice. At its extreme the little voice can be totally devoid of vocalis activity and become totally one-sided. Such a production will be extremely tension-filled if great volume is applied to it.  What I show here with the spectrogram are two things: 1) that this is a modal production and one that is full enough to induce a second formant dominance on the high C. 2) that the production is too light and therefore induces medial pressure and a slightly raised larynx. In my analysis the F-G-Ab where all dominated by the first formant. The G and Ab should have turned to F2 dominance. This is proof that the production is pressed, causing a high larynx which raises the first formant.  Indeed an appropriate balance must be found between CT and TA (vocalis). I have met many light tenors and sopranos who revel in their thin extremely high notes. This eventually cause problems. I usually work with them to fill out the top so it it is not so shrill. Indeed yesterday I cautioned a wonderful young Verdian baritone not too revel too much on his high Bs. He has a high C but somewhat along the lines of what I do here (except fuller naturally). As a tenor who has sung as a baritone, this production is indispensable to my further progress. BUT IT IS NOT A FINAL PRODUCT.

Mastery, as early apprenticeship, requires letting go of what has been stable for something that will become much more so. But it requires the courage to move forward, the patience to develop a seed into a full grown tree and the faith to trust the path. The surest way to disappointment is to hold on to something safe but incomplete.  True mastery is released into, not held onto. In my quest for true mastery, I have become an apprentice yet again. Going to a new humbling place every day until no place is so humbling. Yet even when crooked things have been made straight and rough places made plain, every day will still entail a quest to find balance. The voice, as life, is in a continuous state of flux. Ultimate mastery of both depends on how much conscious knowledge we have of ourselves.

© 06/02/2010