Kashu-do (歌手道): Achieving High C: A Tenor Milestone

It is so easy to say: “No you can’t!”  I swore I would never tell a student that something was not possible.  I would explain why something was not attainable at the moment and what would be needed to achieve it.  But I would never say: “It is impossible!”

I have heard from many coaches and teachers that you do a student a favor when you tell them they have no talent.  You spare them the agony that they would face in attempting to reach a goal they never would reach.  Sometimes, I wish I could do that, but I find it unethical.  It is not our place as teachers and advisors to tell anyone what to do.  It is our job to present the realities as they are and let the student decide if they will chose to swim the “sea of troubles” that is the path to a professional career in singing.  The path that is unending an rewarding however is the path to artistry.  
When we tell a student that they should not sing because the world of the music business is impossible, we also tell them to stop the path of the artist.  “Cart before the horse!”  Why not instruct the student in the art of singing and music and then they can figure out whether or not they want to deal with the world of music business.  Armed with the tools of an artist, one has a chance.  Armed with nothing but fear of a nasty world of music business, one has indeed no chance.
When I started my journey to finding my true voice, my tenor voice, I decided a fully supported High C was a part of the package.  It is not that the High C is the end of everything.  It is simply something that many full-voiced tenors have accomplished and just because I began as a baritone does not mean that a high C was not possible.  So many tenors with more substantial voices than mine accomplished this feat.  Why not I?  I look at the singers of the past as models, not as Gods.  In fact the most exciting lesson is that they were mere human beings like all of us.  They practiced until they were able to do something that is indeed difficult to do.
I knew that a High C would be possible as a result of a complete technique, not as a goal unto itself.
My early clips on this blog from a few years ago show rough beginnings.  The following clip shows how far this has come.  The journey is ever-continuing, and while I enjoy my High C, the C3-C4 octave, my middle and lower middle ranges still need work.  Refining is a lifelong job.  
While practicing some songs this morning, I felt that the fluidity I had been working on through coloratura singing was bearing fruit.  My voice felt more released and flexible than it had in previous months.  As I warmed up, the top range felt a little lower, and when I sang the C in a scale, it did not feel stuck or resistant.  It was “released!”  I thought I would try it on my favorite High C phrase, the one from Pollione’s cavatina from Norma:

The first try was relaxed, but perhaps a little too relaxed.  The second note of the phrase was a little unsupported and flat.  However, the balance of substance, air pressure/flow and brilliance was right and the C just released.

The second try was to prove to myself it was not a fluke.  My concentration was not as good.  It grabbed from the beginning.  Yet it still came out, though a touch stiff!

The third attempt was to regain concentration and balance.  I had to think about all the elements again and allow the instrument to function. It released again.  So it was not fluke.

The fourth try was to try to better the third attempt.  It was pretty good but not as balanced as either the first or the third.

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This is how practice works!  Mastery is not accidental.  Through repetition, we find out the difference between a stable structure and a faulty one, between excellent coordination of all the elements and “mindless hoping” that our natural inclinations might prevail and give us the desired result.  A professional does things on purpose!

How do I improve on this C?

The acoustic analysis tells me a lot about my tendencies.  If I looked at only the “spectrogram” (the scrolling history view), All four attempts look alike.  The greatest energy is carried on the 3rd and 5th Harmonics (peaks), the Second Formant (F2) and the Singer’s Formant (SF).  This is precisely what we want.  However, the spectrum view (which represents a moment in real-time), when I freeze it for the High Cs, shows certain tendencies:

The first attempt was very good, but there was a tendency for the First Formant (which happens to be on the fundamental) to dominate during parts of the sustained C.  We would prefer to have a stability in the dominance of the F2.  

The spectrograph also shows us that the formant values (First [F1] and Second [F2] Formants) determine the vowel to be [ae] as in the word “cat”.  This choice of vowel (probably influenced by all the tenors I hear do this piece) presents a struggle between F1 and F2, rendering the note a little unstable.  I theorized that the better choice would be the Second Formant of the vowel [a] as in father, which would focus the energy of the low formants on the second harmonic (second peak).  This lower laryngeal position would have a beneficial effect on the SF as well.

The tightness of the second attempt shows very strong peaks in the lower two formants while diminishing the SF.  This is to be expected when the tone is pressed and inflexible.

The third attempt was acoustically the best.  It showed a tendency toward greater strength in the second harmonic (which is desirable).

The fourth attempt showed again a tendency for F1 to become dominant.

Although the Cs are relatively stable and well-coordinated, there is still some polishing work to be done for the note to sound beautiful.
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Being able to sustain C5 means that I have a certain amount of flexibility (ergo strength) in the coordination of notes below that.  B4b or B4 are notes I can now trust in context and more important than that, the flexibility of my lower range is becoming a reality.

Furthermore, before a High C would be possible, I had to make friends with my “natural” voice.  Every time I would try to sound like a tenor, the voice would become tense and quickly fatigued. Whenever I allowed my voice to have the same “body” it always had in my baritone days, the ability to find the brilliance that made the voice tenor-like also became possible.

Now that I feel I have this High C, I have to upkeep it.  And I have to go beyond it!

This summer, as part of my Opera Academy in Sweden, I will be singing three concerts.  I am feverishly working of operatic arias and ensembles as well as some favorite songs and Rossini’s Petite Messe Sollenelle.  It is fun to be able to really make music again!

Achieving this High C is just an example of the simple commitment to the idea: “Yes I can!  But it takes work!”

My journey is just becoming interesting!  I love achieving new abilities!  I love that I can sing tenor now when not so long ago, it was just a pipe-dream!  All reality begins with a dream, an inspiration!
I have bigger tenor dreams still, that have little to do with High Cs.  Dreams of masterful music making using this voice that is now coming into its own.

There is indeed no limit to what we can achieve when we commit all of our energy to a task!

Happy Singing!

© 05/28/2014

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