Kashu-do (歌手道): Becoming Tenor and How It Has Affected My Pedagogy

I am now often asked how it felt to change from bass-baritone to tenor.  The idea seems absurd, even writing it.  Becoming a tenor is not a change!  I do not believe a baritone should try to change to tenor.  It is a mistake and it will be unsucessful! A baritone cannot become a tenor, but many tenors begin their careers and training singing as baritone because it is easier. Even though it took some 20 years of serious singing before I realized I was a tenor, in retrospect there were always signs.

In my early years, my voice was very high.  I remember singing in the sixth grade in the soprano range in a choir.  My voice was beginning to show the signs of puberty but I was more comfortable with my child voice than with the coming adult voice.  I remember having the ability to reach very high pitches.  There is an old tale that basses begin as boy sopranos, whereas tenors begin as boy altos.  This is both logical and counterintuitive.  I believe the truth is more complex than it appears.  I believe early speaking habits have more to do with how young boys develop their vocal personalities than any other factor.  For some reason, like some boys, I identified with a very high speaking voice which I maintained until my vocal folds grew too thick and long to maintain speaking at that range, and the voice suddenly dropped to the other extreme.  What this means is important to future singers.  This means that in effect, the two main muscles that determine pitch (i.e. crico-thyroid and vocalis) did not coordinate very much in my vocal production.  In my early years I maintained a relatively high pitch that I suspect would over time become extremely CT dominant.  Unlike my son, whose voice dropped slowly over 16 years, mine jumped one day from high soprano to sudden bass.  When my fold mass had grown substantially enough and the vocalis began to become active, it is logical to conceive that the CT that had gone relatively unopposed for much of my childhood could not handle the sudden vocalis activity and simply gave way.  For a period of time, the voice vacillated from low to high, until eventually I learned to find a middle ground.  As a result, the muscular passaggio (where vocalis dominance in the lower range gives way to CT dominance in the upper) was troublesome, and uncoordinated.  When I began singing, I had an extra-ordinary falsetto ability and a very low voice.  In middle school choir, I was immediately categorized as a low bass, a rarity at that age.  It was special, manly (as virility or the appearance thereof becomes important in puberty), etc.  And so I developed that sound.  Unbeknownst to me I was developing a tone almost devoid of CT participation in the low range and a strong falsetto at the other end.  In the beginning, it was believed I was a bass because D4 was the last note I could sing in modal voice.  The upper end would break into a falsetto and if I tried to keep full-voice it felt extremely rigid.  Indeed this tale of basses beginning as boy sopranos is probably based on experiences like mine.  The so-called bass voice in those circumstances is a false low voice as my falsetto is a false high voice.  False in this case means not coordinated, not modal, one-sided.  My son, whose voice lowered gradually would have probably begun as an alto and given his gradual lowering might have started out in high school singing as a tenor.  The idea that tenors begin as altos is logical only if the young singer begins with a coordinated voice (i.e. modal voice) in the early singing years.

The training of English boy choirs has had a strong influence on what we have come to accept as norms.  The essentially falsetto approach to boy-choir singing in that tradition does not help in the development of a modal voice.  The argument is that children’s voices should not develop a chest-oriented mode of singing because it is dangerous.  My first thought is how can that be dangerous when children in all cultures use a modal approach by nature when playing, speaking, crying, indeed in every form of natural expression.  When voices like Jose Carreras and Jussi Björling and his brothers develop into high level adult operatic voices,  it is difficult to condemn a modal approach.  A modal approach is tantamount to a proper balance between fold length (CT) and fold Mass, along with fold closure (IA), the essential elements of pitch production.  This is different from a voice that is chest driven (Vocalis hyper-function) or falsetto driven (CT hyper-function).  Teaching children with a falsetto approach is preferred because it is easier to do.  Teaching children to sing a balanced tone is not so easy but it is indeed the approach that should be advocated.  If children began their early singing life with breath driven modal approach, we would end up with a much higher quality in adult singers.

During my undergraduate years, I sang baritone and bass-baritone.  Because of my strong low range (developed because of the afore-mentioned imbalances in my pubescent voice), my lower voice was preferred, especially since my baritone colleagues did not have as strong a low range as I appeared to have.  That meant in choir I sang second bass and in opera workshop I would sing Leporello instead of Giovanni, Figaro instead of the Count, etc.  In those situations, and at those levels, operatic carrying power was not first on anyone’s mind.  My unbalanced, slightly unfocused voice (often called “mellow”) in those years lacked the brilliance of my baritone colleagues.  In graduate school, my teacher George Shirley tried to help me find the type of fold closure that lead to a penetrating sound (At the University of Michigan, operas were produced with a sizable orchestra, which meant we had to learn to produce an operatic sound).  We quickly found that I could warm up considerably higher than I ever thought.  On occasion I was able to access a modal C5#.  One visiting conductor observing my voice lesson was convinced I was a tenor when he heard my quasi-falsetto F5.  So why did we not pursue the tenor route back then?

Even as a baritone, my passaggio was weak.  Although I could warm up very high, in context, E4b was difficult.  G4 in context was unreliable for a couple of years.  I remember a two-week period when I tried to work on some tenor pieces but could not sustain the tessitura.  Given that my passaggio was uncoordinated, this makes perfect sense. As a baritone, I got a lot of opportunity to sing roles both in school and at regional companies.  I don’t know if I had the patience back then to make the transition to tenor. The University of Michigan is a very performance-oriented school, which means I would have gotten lost in the cracks attempting to become a tenor while my colleagues were performing lead roles.  Academia is less about long term development than it is about short term confidence building.  I felt better leaving the University having done 16 roles between school and regional companies than I would have had spending the time becoming a tenor.  I do not think my teacher George Shirley made the wrong choice.

The success of my transition in the short time span of 3 years (it will be 3 years on April 24th*) is due to one very important factor I did not have 15 years ago:  information!  After teaching so many singers over the years, and becoming very knowledgeable about issues of muscular biomechanics and acoustics, I knew precisely what the steps would be and what the difficulties would feel like.  This gave me the confidence to go forward when the transition seemed unlikely.  Changing vocal category is about muscular rebalancing and this requires time. Singers are generally not knowledgeable about how their instrument works. So making a change like that feels like going through a long tunnel in the dark.  Lack of information, which causes fear, is the main reason why the change from baritone to tenor is particularly difficult, even unlikely.

Having trained several tenors who began as baritones at the same time I was going through my own transition has confirmed what I had concluded based on the science available.  Until my own comfort as a tenor (and I feel very comfortable now and in fact have my first official coaching next week, outside of my work with my close friend and coach Alessandro Zuppardo), I had to refrain from being completely conclusive about my theories.  I have been also lucky to have worked with some ex-baritone tenors whose voices were poised for faster transition.  My student Ross Crutchlow is a particularly interesting case.  When we started to work a couple of years ago, Ross could only sing reliably to F4 (baritone top F)  Now he warms down to Bass low C (C2) and up to Bb5 (a 7th above high C) without a break.  The top Bb5 is not full voice but it is not falsetto either.  It is a lighter modal coordination that could become fuller with practice.  Ross’ experiences and achievements sheds light on the nature of the dramatic tenor voice.  Yes he is a heldentenor!  He sings lower than many basses and higher than any Rossini tenor I know.  Experiencing Ross’ development from week to week gave me great confidence about the process we implemented and about my own transition and that of the other ex-baritone-tenors in the studio who are only a few steps behind.

1. First Conclusion:  The ability to sing a full-voiced lip-trill on a given note determines that the singer has the strength to perform that note.  Final quality depends on the closure mechanism and there are separate exercises for those.

2. Second Conclusion: Few male singers develop a truly full production in the high range and few female singers develop a full voice in the middle range.

3. Third Conclusion:  Second Formant Resonance adjustments necessary to the male high voice and female middle voice are very difficult to achieve unless there is enough fold mass to prevent the rise of the first formant.

4. Fourth Conclusion:  Second Formant Resonance is difficult to achieve unless First Formant resonance is kept low enough such that there is no competition between the two resonance areas. (3 and 4 are related)

5. Fifth Conclusion:  Acoustic (Resonance) information (i.e. spectrographic display) is inseparable from the nature of the glottal source. (e.g.  Although it is possible to manipulate the main resonance boosters F1 and F2, the nature of the complete spectrum depends completely on the nature of the glottal source).  This means that research should not concentrate only on the values of F1, F2 and Singer’s Formant areas but on the specific relationship between those areas and the amplitude of the other harmonics as well, including the significance of the area above 4KHz.

6.  Sixth Conclusion:  It makes little sense to speak about breath support without discussing efficiency of phonation.

7.  Seventh Conclusion:  Activation of the core muscles via contraction of the pelvic floor is necessary to buttress diaphragmatic stability when sub-glottic pressure is high (particularly in the high range).  This does not necessitate manipulation but rather that the muscles should be developed and ready to respond.

8.  Eighth Conclusion:  Balanced Phonation depends on an exact relationship between fold contact area fold length and fold closure.  Too little or too much of one causes compensation and imbalance in the others.

9.  Ninth Conclusion:  There is one most efficient mode of producing a vocal tone, but modern operatic aesthetics does not differentiate between it and other viable but less efficient modes.

10. Tenth Conclusion:  Once muscular training has been achieved, the greatest challenge for a tenor who began as a baritone is understanding the importance of the dominance of the Second Formant Resonance in the upper range and that of the First Formant in the lower range.  A balance between F1 and F2 is crucial.  Furthermore the development of the Singer’s Formant to balance the dominance lower formant is absolutely necessary and depends upon the ability to achieve appropriate longitudinal tension (stretch) without losing appropriate vertical mass (contact area of vibration).

11.  Eleventh Conclusion: A full operatic sound and a healthy belt (desirable) have the same fold contact area.  The difference is only acoustic.  The larynx must rise for the belter to remain in F1 dominance (speaking mode), where as the operatic sound with F2 dominance requires the larynx to maintain a lower position.  A light or heavy belt or a light or heavy operatic sound are not desirable because they lead to further imbalance over time to the point of vocal disrepair.  But disrepair of the voice comes with sustained dysfunction over time.  The signs are often ignored when the performer can distract with a charismatic stage presence.

12.  Twelfth Conclusion:  The vocal quality necessary for viable operatic performance is not a gift from the divine but a muscular fitness issue.  It can be developed spontaneously by way of speaking habits and certain cultural modes of vocal expression.  It can also be developed by guided training.  But the person doing the training must have a clear understanding of the muscular dynamics involved, either from empirical knowledge of the dynamics of the specific laryngeal musculature or by a refined aural sense that leads to good instincts about training. Both skill sets are obviously desired.  In essence, voice is possibly the one aspect of the operatic talent set that is possible to acquire at any age.  But a coloratura without high notes is not the same as a lyric, and a pushed lyric is not the same as a spinto and a lyric soprano without high notes is not the same as a lyric mezzo and a tenor lacking high notes is not a lyric baritone.   Singing out of Fach because of vocal shortcomings reveals weaknesses in the voice and results in a poorer quality.  However, in our times, for the most common repertoire, personality trumps voice and so the definition of vocal talent is currently confusing at best.

13.  Thirteenth Conclusion:  Coordination of the voice (i.e. final product sounds) are too often attempted before adequate laryngeal strength has been achieved.  Unless the singer is able to sing a full-voiced liptrill throughout the range,  coordination will be simply a bunch of compensatory measures leading to a voice of relatively poor quality and unnecessary tension.

14. Fourteenth Conclusion:  Reflux is a “multiplier”.  It multiplies any other problem in the voice.  The symptoms of reflux can be kept at bay without PPIs (that are in fact dangerous to the digestive system and general health), if the singer is discipline enough relative to A) Adequate sleep B) Healthy Diet (including not eating late) C) adequate hydration and D) a technique not based on compensatory tension as explained in #13.  I suffer from acid reflux, but I have not taken any PPIs in the last year.  I have now begun to sing publicly again.  My first performance was last week– a few songs at an important fundraiser for the Haitian Earthquake of 2010.  I made the error of eating too late and woke up with burning throat.  Because of it, I also did not sleep very well that night.  My voice is now strong by the definitions detailed above.  I was able to stay calm, warmed up throughout the day, ate healthily and had enough water.  I dealt with some phlegm up to an hour before performance time, but continued with my warm ups up to the moment I walked onstage.  I nailed the performance.  This gives me confidence!  At the end of my baritone career, reflux had become a real problem.  What led to my tenor transition was a gradual release of the habits I had developed to create a false baritone sound, which many found impressive at low and middle level venues.  In a high level situation, it is another affair.  My natural tenor voice can be affected by reflux but it does not incapacitate me.  It becomes an annoyance to deal with like  a mild cold or a slightly sprained ankle.  I can function.  It has also lead me to better diet, exercise, meditation and better sleep habits (some times.  I still have to work on that most important of habits.  Sleep is the most important element to good vocal production).

15.  Fifteenth Conclusion:  Confidence is built from the habit of fine results.  Going from the studio to the performance stage is crazy.  We need buffer zones to test our strengths.  Strength and coordination strategies are only the beginning.  The ability to put our skills together in performance without panicking is the fruit of experience.  The voice must have done the right thing many times without much thinking before we can trust it onstage.  Calmness comes from a sense that the voice will behave despite our fears.  Every singer deals with some level of fear before walking onstage.  The fear can be called excitement and energy when it is harnessed to good effect.  It can be called debilitating panic when it overwhelms the singer.  Taking panic away begins with not just general vocal strength, but extreme strength in a balanced vocal production, in such a way as guarantees reliable sound production even when the singer lacks confidence.  Confidence increases as the singer experiences the reliability of the instrument.  Fear also comes when the singer has musical weaknesses and is uncertain of how his/her part fits with the rest o f the musical environmentt or is unsure about memorization of text.  These things must be automatic or they occupy the singer’s mind so much that a concentrated, purposeful performance becomes impossible.  When preparations (technical, musical and dramatic) are excellent,  debilitating fear disappears.

Over the next year, I will be writing the book and will expound on many of these conclusions  here on the blog as well.  As the studio continues to grow and my activities become more time-consuming, I am writing less frequently here.  But have no fear!  The blog is at the heart of what I do and will remain present as long as I am alive and healthy.  I expect this very long post will generate some discussion!

© 04/09/2011