First, forgive my absence here on the blog. I have been dealing with something unusual which I think I may have pinned down. Before arriving in New York this last time, I felt on top of my vocal game and was seriously contemplating sending my materials to a particular house for an important role. I even wrote to my Posse of Tenors Who Previously Sang Baritone, that I had some new vocal developments to share with them. Only a couple of days after my arrival, my voice began to skip like it did when I had experienced a black mold infection some five years ago. I went to a homeopath who among other things felt that I had some weakness in my lungs. I have been feeling easily winded lately and could not understand why since I am in excellent shape because of my Kung Fu practice. I had a little sing-through of Zauberflöte and found my middle range uneven. I had attributed the problem to sudden exposure to indoor heat and dry air, but even though my humidifier mitigated the problem somewhat, it was still very present. My housemate, also a singer has been suffering from some unexplained respiratory infection that made her easily hoarse. I felt the same hoarseness when I speak. Whether because I am too close to the problem or that my new tenor high notes have been reducing my grey matter, I did not consider that some airborne particle might be causing the problem. I am writing this blog with a face-mask after having done a cleansing of the sinuses with an iodized salt solution. I figure if the problem is in the house, I should feel a difference in the next couple of days.
Now to the discussion at hand:
I have been meaning to address the issue of fioratura and trills for a long time, but could not find a direct enough approach until I spontaneously explained the concept to a young student the other day with a simple illustration:
On an acoustic piano (will not work on an electronic piano), hold down the keys: A4, E5, A5 and C6# (by holding down the keys, the dampers will be off for those specific four pitches)! With the keys down but the notes not sounding, play firmly the note A3. If the piano is in tune, the four pitches that are held down will begin to vibrate in sympathy. Now play Bb3 while the same notes are held down. Nothing happens! Why? Because those four notes happen to be the first four overtones of A3. These notes are part of the acoustic structure (natural overtone series) of A3 and they will vibrate in sympathy when A3 is played. Likewise, A3 will sound in sympathy if any of these notes are struck, as long as the damper is off and the note is free to vibrate.
How does this relate to fioratura?
In fact, this relates to phonation at all speeds. A singer who has a good sense of intonation will change the resonance of the vocal tract to accommodate the acoustic needs of the pitch being sung. In this way, the laryngeal vibration will be in tune with the resonance space/vocal tract. Although these adjustments occur spontaneously when a good singer is singing slowly, often it does not occur when the singer is singing rapid passages. Singers who have problems with fioratura do not realize that often the problem has little to do with faults in phonation or breathing, but rather with maladjustments in the vocal tract.
Sing a five-note scale slowly downward on [a] in a comfortable range! Pay attention to discover that for each note there is a change in the shaping of the vocal tract. This is natural and spontaneous when the singer has a good sense of pitch. Also when sung slowly, the singer does not need to increase air pressure or aspirate to change pitch. The change in fundamental frequency and vocal tract happen without disturbing the fluid vibration pattern. This is legato singing. No interruption of the phonation for pitch change!
Fioratura should follow the same pattern. Speed of note change should not interrupt the legato function. The required coordination is simply appropriate acoustic adjustment simultaneously with the note change without interrupting the flow of vibration. The need to aspirate is a remedy for the tension that is created when the vocal tract acoustics are disagreeable to the vibration pattern of the vocal folds. In essence the movement of the air above the vocal folds is interfering with the vibration of the vocal folds because the two are not in sync with each other. The singer feeling this as tension attempts to correc the problem by pushing more air through. When this is done on every note change, we hear a kind of machine-gun effect.
There are many charismatic performers who utilize this machine-gun effect. Great performers are not always great technicians. Often their great stage presence makes up for technical inefficiencies and flaws.
It is now two days since I started writing this post and my voice is beginning to come back, though a little “husky” to my ears. I decided to illustrate this principle with Deposuit from Bach’s Magnificat (a comparison with an earlier version of this clip two and a half years ago may be interesting). Having a larger voice does not prevent what I consider the proper articulation of the coloratura. The legato is maintained and the vocal tract changes appropriatedly for each pitch. Even with the slight “huskiness” of the voice, there is still enough efficiency to sing the long phrases comfortably.
The same principle is true of a trill and it is more difficult to do. A trill is considerably faster than the speed of the fioratura of Deposuit. I did record a sustained trill but I thought the quality of the voice was not adequate to share. A proper trill must be done with a healthy voice. I will add the trill tomorrow or the day after.
Indeed the proble with a trill is not only the rapid change of fundamental frequency but a simultaneous change in the vocal tract. This is not as easy as it seems, which prompted Joan Sutherland in a Metropolitan Opera interview to say that a trill could not be learned, that one is born with it. Marilyn Horne, he close friend and colleague in the same interview countered that she had learned to trill because she could not do it before. If one person can learn it, then it is possible for anyone to do so, as long as s/he has the patience and dedication to do so. I learned to perform a sustained trill because one of my students 15 years ago refused to learn to trill unless I could demonstrate it. I went home and figured out that a vocal tract adjustment was necessary for every pitch change. Hence a trill is as much a rapid change in the vocal tract (not automatic) as it is a rapid change in pitch (which is automatic). When the resonance changes are not made for each of the two notes of the trill, only one will be resonant even though both notes are in fact being produced. If the pharynx is static one of the notes will be maladjusted and unresonant, giving the impression that only one pitch is being sung with an exaggerated vibrato.
For breath-taking fioratura passages, I leave you with the able throat of the incomparable, Beverly Hoch: