In 1991 I was singing Conte Almaviva in Nozze di Figaro in a small production in Rome, Italy. The last minute Cherubino who showed up after we lost the original one was warming up in the same room as I was and totally blew my mind. After the premiere, she introduced me to her teacher, an imposing woman in her early sixties who told me with a voice that was as tender and caring as it was direct and uncompromising: “Lei ha un talento enorme, ma purtroppo solo un terzo della sua voce esce fuori!” (You have an enormous talent but too bad only a third of your voice is coming out!).
She then invited me to take part in her masterclass in Città di Castello, where I was put through the rigors of understanding the importance of the paradox “chiaro e scuro, non chiaro o scuro!” (Bright and dark, not bright or dark!). Halfway through this masterclass my voice began to do amazing things. The great baritone, Mario Sereni visited and inspired me to no end. His magnificent baritone speaking voice should have made it clear that I was not made to sing Macbeth. But he said I sang the aria, Pietà, rispetto, amor…” better than most baritones he had heard (I am sure he was just being kind to a young singer. Nevertheless I was making some impressive sound during those weeks).
One of the greatest pleasures of that class was the opportunity to sing duets from Lucia and Traviata with a supremely talented soprano…Let us call her Lulu. Lulu was statuesque and a vision of Classical Roman beauty. She was possessed of a voice reminiscent of the best of Anna Moffo, rich like a lyric with an unending top voice and the smoothest transition from the low into the middle voice. When she sang for José Carreras that year, the tenor told her he had nothing to say except go out and sing! According to him she had the most beautiful and technically refined voice he had heard in a long time.
Signora Finelli said more than once: “Se l’avesse sentita tre anni fa quando aveva appena un fil di voce! Abbiamo costruito sta voce da niente! Sono molto orgogliosa di lei ma è difficile convincerla che non sia più la cantante che era all’inizio ma invece un talento completamente sviluppato e pronto per il teatro!” (If only you had heard her three years ago! She barely had a thread of voice! We have built this voice practically from nothing. I am very proud of her but it is difficult to convince her that she is no longer the singer she was at the beginning but instead a fully developed talent and ready to take her place in the theater).
It is important that Signora Finelli said we. She was clear about the result being a product of the relationship between teacher and student.
Signora Finelli believed that Lulu was the norm rather than the exception–That every singer came to her with specific degrees of imbalance and that it was her job to teach the student the skill sets necessary to progress in the art of singing and therefore in the business of singing. I also became aware that all of the female singers in the studio had this uncanny ability to go from the lowest chest tones to ridiculous top notes without any audible break in the voice. I asked Signora Finelli whether the girls were singing with chest voice all the way up. She said confidently: “Ma certo! Chiaro E scuro, non chiaro o scuro!” Their voices also always sounded heady even though they all swear to a significant chest component in the voice. Lulu once said: “Non si lascia mai la voce di petto. È il fondamento!” (One never leaves the chest voice. It is the foundation!”
It took me years to understand what she meant although I knew that what Signora Finelli’s female students were doing was correct. Signora Finelli once told me she could trace the line of her teachers back to the 16th century. I wish I had been bold enough to ask her to write this lineage down for me. But taking her pronouncements and that of her students, I find a profound similarity to the pronouncements of the founders of the Italian School of Singing. First from Lodovico Zacconi (1555-1627), a charter member of the Florentine Camerata, the poets, musicians, singers and philosophers responsible for much of the Italian Renaissance including a methodology for singing we currently refer to as Bel Canto:
Among all voices one must always choose… the chest voices, and particularly those which have the above-mentioned delightful biting quality which pierces a little but does not offend; and one must leave aside the dull voices and those which are simply head voices, because the dull ones cannot be heard among the others, and the head ones are overbearing.
The preceding quote is a translation of Zacconi by the pedagogue, James Stark, quoted in the dissertation, The Road to Bel Canto, by the Swedish soprano, Katarina Pilotti. It is hard to find a better example that substantiates the balancing of chest voice (fold mass) and biting brilliance (fold closure).
From Pier Francesco Tosi (1654-1732) we get the following, quoted and translated (by David Mitchell) from the Bel Canto section, by Antonella Nigro, of the book, The Singer’s Handbook (1942) by Lazar S. Samoiloff:
Un diligente Istruttore sapendo, che un soprano senza falsetto bisogna che canti fra l’angustia di poche corde non solamente procura di acquistarglilo, ma non lascia modo intentato acciò lo unisca alla voce di petto in forma che non si distingua l’uno dall’altra, che se l’unione non è perfetta, la voce sarà di più registri e conseguentemente perderà la sua bellezza […] Se tutti quegli che insegnano i princìpi sapessero prevalersi di questa regola, e far unire il falsetto alla voce di petto de’ loro Allievi, non vi sarebbe in oggi tanta scarsezza di soprani. […] quanto più le note son’ alte, tanto più bisogna toccarle con dolcezza, per evitare gli strilli […] Nelle femmine che cantano il soprano sentesi qualche volta una voce tutta di petto, ne’ maschi sarebbe però una rarità, se la conservassero, passata che abbiano l’età puerile.
(A diligent instructor, being aware that a soprano without a falsetto voice has to sing within the narrow range of a few notes, not only seeks to provide him (soprano is masculin in Italian. Can be translated as her–JRL/Kashu-do) with one but tries by every means possible to unite it with the chest voice in such a way that there is no contrast between the one and the other, since if the union is not perfect the voice will have more than one register and will consequently lose its beauty21 […] If every teacher of the basic elements took up this precept, and united the pupil‘s falsetto with the chest voice, there would not be such a scarcity of sopranos today. […] the higher the notes are, the greater the need to sound them gently, so as to avoid shrieking22 […] … Among females who sing soprano one sometimes hears a chest voice over the entire range, but among males it would be unusual if they were to keep it once the boyhood years were past23).
The Zacconi quote is obvioius at face value. The singing voice is based on what we call the chest voice. Hence, “Si canta come si parla” (One sings as he speaks). The Tosi quote explains further that the influence of the head voice is crucial in establishing a balance. More importantly, Tosi refers to the ability to sing in chest voice throughout the entire range as a gift, not an abomination. Does that mean that Tosi advocates singing with a pure chest voice throughout the range? I think not. Tosi also acknowledges that it is more likely that a female singer will maintain a chest component throughout the range and a male singer will tend to lose this ability after puberty. What does this mean to us?
What I gather from these articles and many others I have read lately about the bel canto period support Signore Finelli’s principle that the chest voice is the foundation that must be used in balance as the range is ascended. The sensation of substance associated with the chest/speaking voice is the sensation that should be built upon. The participation of the head/falsetto register should not take a way that substance. The sensation of a “lean” voice is derived from adequate chest voice component combined with the brilliant, biting closure mechanism that prevents one from going too far into the chest. These are balancing components of each other that yield both a sensation of dark substance and of bright leanness simultaneously. It goes without saying that in such an efficient system, the movement of the breath, continually compressed is the “oil for the machine”. Yet, proper breathing technique is impossible to sense without applying it to the functioning glottis. Support and phonation go hand in hand.
Many make the error of letting go of the chest voice to access an unopposed cricothyroid activity. Although this leads to easy high notes, these notes lack the substance necessary for a viable operatic sound. It is true that the cricothyroid dominates from the middle of the voice around C4 for men and C5 for women, but it does not suddenly become unopposed. It is a proper balance of these muscles that lead to a complimentary closure mechanism that yields balance.
A one-sided approach to the voice is much easier to accomplish. Sing in chest voice at the bottom and head on top is different than singing in a chest-dominant sound in the bottom and a head-dominant sound in the top. Adding the word dominant signifies that the dominant voice is opposed by another part. In a world in which vocal terminology is tossed about often without understanding, it is crucial that we attempt to use language that at least reflects the actual anatomical process.
It would seem that as early as the late 17th century, Tosi was complaining that the Italian school had lost its roots and that foreign influences had weakened Italian fundamentals and the then current batch of professional singers were proof of the decline over the previous century. What would Tosi have to say about today? I think he would feel hopeless.
We must accept the fact that vocal pedagogy evolves. The need for instant gratification is not a weakness of the 21st century. It has always existed. Expediency has always been the great human fault and unfortunately it is what drives our cultures to one degree or another. The teacher who can bring a student to market faster will make a lot of money and will be in keeping with the accellerating trends of our times. The fast lane on the highway may get one home more quickly, but it is also fraught with deadly accidents. And so is the current fast lane of singing–In fact more accidents than fast and successful journeys.
Like singers of every age, the current crop are earnest about their craft and try the best they can in an environment that does not allow them the time to do better than they are. The average professional singer is a fragile being mentally, because he or she is usually a fragile being physically/vocally. To build the adequate chest voice content in the high range and lean out the lower range adequately (there are exceptions to this fast rule. A rare student may come with the reverse problem), is a process of muscular training equal to any professional sport. Not only must the muscles of the body be conditioned, but so must the muscles of the throat. Many teachers do not understand the musculature of the throat well enough to be able to approach training in a vigorous but safe manner. Treating the voice with kid’s gloves is just as ineffective as treating it with violence. Knowing how to train the muscles vigorously and safely is what brings strength, confidence and lasting results.
This is the lesson I learned from Ada Finelli. Take the singer where he or she is and help them complete the process. Lulu, Signora Finelli’s prize student of those years was not only vocally accomplished, but she was drop-dead beautiful. Furthermore, she was musically sensitive. Singing duets with her made me sing better. In her company it was difficult to sing badly (subject for another post). But I remember that Lulu was very nervous before performances. We sang a duet version of Rossini’s Tarantella for a concert. I remember being a little nervous myself about learning the text, which came lightning fast. But I knew I would memorize it in two days (just the confidence of a boy raised in Haiti at a time when it was required to memorize more than 40 pages of lessons every night for school), but Lulu was terrified and ended up writing the text in her hand. She was also very nervous for her own arias for the concert, pieces that she had sung many times. I asked Signora Finelli why Lulu was so nervous when she sings so securely. The answer was cryptic:
“È molto difficile convincere un cantante non-dottato con presta facilità che sia arrivato al livello più alto. Si crede sempre in cammino, mai arrivato!” (It is difficult to convince a singer who is not gifted with early facility that he has arrived at the highest level. He believes always that he is on the way, but never arrived!”
This psychology is used by teachers, agents, casting directors and all the gate-keepers of our discipline to convince singers that they are cursed by their weaknesses, which can never be overcome, thereby robbing them of the vision of becoming fully developed artists. It is a battle to erase a singer’s fundamental belief that they are not good enough. Such problems are often deep-seeded and have nothing to do with singing itself but with early brain-washing that eats at the person’s spirit. It would be easy to dismiss such a person as unsalvageable. But fortunately or unfortunately for me, I have seen too many such people transform into confident, achieving human beings, particularly in sports and martial arts. I have not choice but to see the possibilities.
When we approach singing first as a physical discipline and later as an art form, the singer becomes conscious that s/he is able to do things that were not possible before, rather than focus on what is currently undoable. Confidence is developed in this way even before the singer ever sees the stage. Still, the Lulus of the world exist, and unfortunately I do not know whether she exorcised her ghosts and became the great singer she could have become. In the end it depends on the singer’s character and dedication to excellence. We all have self-esteem issues. The question is whether such issues dominate us or we them, and athough I believe profoundly in each person’s capacity to overcome obstacles, I would lying if I said I knew that everyone will overcome them.
Then again, as a voice teacher, I am not a psychologist even though we teachers often serve that function. The more important fact is the following and relevant to the entire discussion: Voice or the lack thereof is no obstacle to a singer’s pursuits. Some are lucky enough to have had the right environmental stimuli to develop their voices unconsciously. Those who have weak voices can develop them to the highest operatic standards if they have the courage, the patience and the faith that they can. Of course they have to be willing to work ten times as hard as their spontaneously developed colleagues to achieve that level. But when they do, they are usually in better form than their so-called talented colleagues. Indeed the question of operatic talent is always a tricky one and Signora Finelli said something to me early on that never left me. After being overwhelmed by the many great voices in her studio, I asked her why, with all her magnificent students, is she interested in my voice. She replied, as always, straight into my eyes:
“Se voce fosse l’unica cosa che ci vuole, tutta Italia canterebbe alla Scala di Milano. Voce ne abbiamo tutti. Bisogna solo svilupparla e per questo ci vuole pazienza. Tutto il resto ce l’hai già!” (If voice was the only thing necessary, all of Italy would sing at La Scala. We all have voice. It is only necessary to develop it and for that one needs patience. The rest you already have!”
Voice is only an issue when the teacher does not see a path to development and/or the student is not willing to do what is necessary to achieve excellence. A natural coloratura who sings as a lyric because she does not have spontaneous top notes or does not have spontaneous agility, or prefers Puccini to Donizetti will sound inferior even if her technical approach is good. Her voice will not sound intense enough in the lyric tessitura. Some may say that she has a limited talent because they do not recognize that she is singing the wrong repertoire with good technique. Some may believe that unless the high notes come naturally one is not a coloratura. Either way she is stuck and may not reach her artistic potential because she did not find a teacher who said: “You are a coloratura and must develop those top notes.” Too many teachers work to refine what is already functioning and ignore the weaknesses, claiming that they constitute the student’s natural limitations. Sad!
Developing adequate chest content in the voice is difficult and does not feel nor sound very good in the beginning. In fact, when developing the top range, a couple of note in the top may be lost temporarilly. With increased (adequate) resistence from the vocalis muscle, the crico-thyroid must become stronger as well if length and longitudinal tension is to be maintained for pitch. A pedagogical culture based on fear of the chest voice and anything to do with weight looks down at a teacher who advocates the use of the chest. How interesting is it that the original developers of operatic technique advocated the opposite?
Ada Finelli, one of Italy’s great mezzos, a regular at La Scala and other major European theaters, left us in late April of last year. She taught until the end after she settled in her home town of Bologna. I had sent a student to her who was not able to meet her because she was hospitalized. I cannot call myself a bona fide student of the great mezzo because I did not work with her very long, but the influence that my time with her has had on my teaching is indelible. Without Ada Finelli, my pedagogy might have remained somewhat limited. She told me my voice was an unusual one and that it might take me some time to figure it out. Then she said that since I will be singing into my nineties, I had plenty of time to figure it out (she read palms and taught me how to do it). One minute she sang a G2 (bass low G) to show me how to prevent that note from being breathy and loose. The next she was showing a coloratura how to support and Eb6. Crazy! When she sang, we were speechless and we cried.
I wanted to be a teacher like her, with a great voice that can do what she teaches. I am getting close, I can feel it. And since I “will be singing into my nineties” I have some time to make good on that goal. I always weigh my new scientific finds against what I learned from her. Science and tradition complement each other. I am eternally grateful for the time, albeit short, that I spent with her. So much wisdom in so little time. If I understand her well, I bet she has set up shop in some corner of Heaven teaching the Angelic Choirs a thing or two. So I will not say only Requiescat In Pacem but rather what she always said when she wanted more intensity and focus in the sound: “Chiagne, chiagne!” (Cry, cry!)