I was having a Skype session with one of my wonderful students from the Southern part of the United States and we started to laugh with the imagery I was using. This very gifted dramatic soprano is pure South and she speaks with a wonderfully charming Southern drawl, full of vibrant high overtones. Unfortunately we do not see each other as much as I would like and so we do what we can with Skype sessions. Over the past two or three years we addressed the fact that her Southern heritage made her particularly prone to press the voice forward. the tendency is to disengage from low overtones and as a result force the vocal folds into a posture that fits this reduced resonance adjustment. Her tendency was to press the voice slightly to achieve a one-sided tone. However, after a long period of working on “substance”, and reengaging the full tone, we were able to address her issues from a resonance standpoint. And so I said to her laughing:
Imagine Bing Crosby in the throat and Willy Nelson in the mask!
Her dramatic soprano exploded into a laughter reminiscent of Birgit Nilsson on a silly day. Her tendency was to give up one side each time she thought of the other, to which I prescribed:
Imagine Willy singing in Bing’s house!
Code for: Maintain the lower space while allowing the high overtones to dominate!
In the end, the concepts became clear and we ended the lesson with a lot of laughter and clarity.
But the truth is I could not have talked in this way with my wonderfully disciplined and hardworking student if we had not spent the past years working on a muscular structure that allowed resonance adjustments to be so immediately available. As I listened to her speak throughout the lesson, he Southern “brilliance” froth with high overtones was riding above a tone of great substance. That is not the young dramatic soprano I met a few years ago.
The point to be made is complimentary to the story of teaching my student above. When a teacher refers to the chest, the neck and the skull as resonating cavities, it does not take more than one semester of basic vocal acoustics to refute such pronouncements. Yet the sensory feedback is real!
What I find infuriating are the many master-classes I attend given by famous singers where they will pronounce a student to be untalented because they cannot sense these vibrations in these so-called resonators. The situation is a simple one to understand:
Singer 1 is told to feel high notes on the top of the head and responds wonderfully.
Singer 2 is told the same thing and looks like a deer caught in a headlight and has no idea what is meant.
In an atmosphere led by the famous teacher in question, Singer 2 seems like an idiot.
Yet Singer 2 is not an idiot at all. This is a very easy situation to understand. Singer 2 simply has not trained the mechanism well enough to be able to have the sensory feedback that said famous teacher takes for granted. Singer 1 already has a vocal structure that makes it possible to have the feedback that the teacher speaks of. Calling Singer 2 untalented is tantamount to not understanding the fact that a laryngeal structure as well as certain resonant adjustments are necessary to produce such feedback. Rather than pronounce the young singer as untalented, a teacher whose pedagogy goes beyond personal experiences would consider what Singer 2 would need to begin to experience such feedback and work on that foundation work!
During my time in academia, I watched young students come with magnificent voices trained by a very specific teacher in North Carolina only to be modified and diminished by college level teachers who thought they understood more than a local teacher who had a certifiable genius for training young voices.
The disconnect in the world of Opera is the following: Famous people know better!
In truth, famous people have the ability to get themselves famous! It does not mean they always have skills in teaching commensurate with their fame. Like this not famous teacher in North Carolina whose name escapes me, the most gifted people are more interested in the work at hand and not in making themselves known.
Is it possible to be famous and truly competent. Yes! That unfortunately is a rarity in current vocal pedagogy!