Vocal Technique and Interpretation Intensive in Valencia

My dear colleagues, Anna Maria Niedbala, soprano and Kanako Kanagawa, pianist, and I are thrilled to offer a new Vocal Technique and Interpretation Intensive in Valencia, Spain, 24-30 October 2021. It’s a joy to share our experiences, in part trough the great vocal writing of Franz Schubert. Few composers understood the human voice as expertly as Schubert, who was a singer and often accompanied himself on the guitar. The three of us, like so many singers, have fallen in love with at least a few of Schubert’s more than 600 songs. There is something for every voice type, every musical personality, every emotional state of being. Schubert deeply admired Rossini, who was in Vienna at the same time as he. Schubert wrote songs in Italian including to the poetry of the great Italian wordsmith and librettist, Pietro Metastasio. This is a composer steeped in the Bel Canto to such an extent that it is difficult not to find his influence in Bellini and Verdi and beyond.

Listen to the beginning of the song Kriegers Ahnung from Schubert’s last songs and compare to the beginning of Lucia’s Mad Scene:


I am equally excited to share the city of Valencia, which has become my home. During the week of the course, Singer’s will have the option to visit the beautiful opera house to see Handel’s Partenope presented by Le Jardin des voix, led by William Christie, the baroque ensemble based in the Palace of Versailles. Incidentally several of my students graduated from the ensemble. Also, mezzosoprano Joyce Didonato will be in town to present a recital at the opera house as well, on the last day of the course.


There will be time to experience the world’s best paella, at Casa Carmela, in the city that invented the paella. Casa Carmela has been delivering Valencia’s foremost paella for more than 90 years. It’s an institution. But order in advance if you are coming. They are very popular!

Furthermore, at the end of October, the sea is still warm and it would be a shame not to take a dip in the Mediterranean before leaving.

Kanako, Anna and I often speak about the masterclasses that provided us room for unforgettable experiences. We want to provide such a space for our students to find those moments for themselves.

Come discover with us!

Click on the following link for more information! Bienvenid@s a Valencia!

TUNDI OPERA: An Oasis in the Desert

On the banks of the Connecticut River near the New Hampshire border is found a beautiful little city called Brattleboro. I was invited by the artistic team of TUNDI Opera, based in that city, to participate in a little Wagner concert. Incidentally, I have a connection to Brattleboro. More than 30 years ago, Glenn Parker, the teacher (pianist/conductor) who influenced me more profoundly than any other, ran an opera program in Brattleboro until his untimely passing in 1995. I remember spending a day there so long ago. Glenn Parker imbued singers with a sense of possibility and optimism. He had an implacable conviction to musicianship and beautiful singing. Going into the world with this deep optimism and commitment to musicianship and beautiful singing, I found myself too often disappointed by people who make great pronouncements about great singing and music making (mutually compatible and beneficial) only to prove that the words have no connection to actions.

The artistic team of TUNDI, conductor Hugh Keelan and dramatic soprano Jenna Rae were introduced to me by a student who worked with them and thought we should know each other. We spent more than half a year of the pandemic sharing technical and musical ideas online over zoom and I felt an unusual connection to them. After so much disappointment in the field, it is unusual for me to feel “disarmed” so easily by people I only worked with online. So when they invited me to come to Brattleboro, I accepted immediately. I figured at very least it would be good to meet face-to-face these people who have had a beautiful impact on me during the darkness of the pandemic. My expectations were beyond satisfied…

What I had hoped to find:

  1. at least two people who are as open and honest as they were online. Expectations met!
  2. two people who were fun to share with musically and personally. Expectations met!
  3. hopefully the people they surround themselves with are equally honest and personable. More than met!

What I did not expect:

  1. An open working environment in which participants are invited to be vulnerable. What do I mean by vulnerable? Honest, no posturing, doing your best and hoping to grow in the process.

That environment was one the most inspiring I’ve experienced in my 40 years of vocal study. Hugh and Jenna believe that we can have revolutionary experiences technically and musically by being open within a supportive community of colleagues. That belief proved very fruitful! I had a number of “Aha” moments!

I was never forced to do anything! I was simply invited into an environment in which I may chose to shed my security blankets when I sing to see if I could discover more freeing solutions. I decided to play fully and benefited greatly from it. I felt the walls open and my own thoughts and ideas amplified not diminished.

Jenna Rae is an impressive dramatic soprano and teacher who lives the philosophy mentioned above. We could share ideas and suggestions with each other without expectations of what the results would be. Ultimately the results came precisely because it wasn’t about any finite results but rather about opening ourselves beyond our own self-imposed limits.

Hugh Keelan is a first class conductor/pianist, constantly making an orchestra of his piano in our Wagner adventures. Here is a conductor with a powerful tenor voice, who could have made “technical” suggestions but rather made qualitative observations and left it to me to figure out what I would do technically to implement his suggestions. The most effortless coachings I have experienced in quite some time. This is not an easy achievement. Hugh trusts his singers! Asks their opinion about interpretative choices. Everyone can contribute!

No judgment: Jenna and Hugh trusted me enough to share their students and their own voices with me. Very humbling. Just the same, I felt free and comfortable and safe to open and share my own voice and artistry with them.

At the end, I am a better teacher and singer because of that experience!

No competitive Ego: When It came up that I studied orchestral conducting and composition for 6 years (I tend to avoid this because coaches and conductors, almost invariably, feel a threat to their authority in those situations) Hugh responded by sharing his orchestral reduction of Wagner’s Ring with me.

If your goal is to just add another experience to your résumé, you’ll get that too, but you would have missed the point. What I believe that these two artists and their community do better than anyone I’ve seen out there is that they provide an environment where life-changing experiences are possible if you dare to play for real! This has been the goal of my pedagogy forever. But this cannot be done alone! It requires a community that is open to the idea of GROWTH!

As I prepare my next masterclass, my teammates and I are discussing how to prepare our participants for an environment of growth and community support. I’m still growing! Always growing!

Thank you, Hugh and Jenna!

I recommend these two colleagues without any reservation. It is my great wish to continue working with them. Both Hugh and Jenna can be reached here for online coaching or live (if you find yourself near Brattleboro).

Vowels in the Female Classical Voice

Problems of registration in the female voice are sometimes tough to resolve because of preconceptions about one’s sound, ideas like “pure vowels” propagated without clarification, etc. Any classical female singer knows that attempting to sing a pure [i] vowel in the high range is at best uncomfortable. Vowels are based on specific resonances in the vocal tract and have acoustic limits. Same is true for male voices. However, because traditional male voices (basses, baritones and tenors) sing considerable lower frequencies, they only experience the need to modify vowels in the upper range (and minor alterations on some specific middle range notes where formants are going from one harmonic to another). The female voice, on the other hand, requires vowel alterations already as low as D4 (lower range).

Why so low?

It is important to address this question! It is counterintuitive for a female singer to consider not singing vowels as they are spoken around the lower passaggio. Yet, it is precisely in this range that the vowels begin to reach the limits of their first formant resonance. To continue tracking the first formant would require raising the larynx gradually, which in turn would weaken the strength of the Singer’s Formant (the resonance that makes the singer audible without a microphone). Tracking the first formant and keeping the normal speech level quality of the vowel can be used very healthily in genres that use electronic amplification. Once there is a microphone in play, the Singer’s Formant is no longer necessary for audibility.

In classical singing (without microphone), the Singer’s Formant (the so-called ‘ring’ of the voice) is necessary if the singer’s voice is to be easily heard and with intensity. The Singer’s Formant works when the larynx is at its optimum relaxed level, which can be achieved more easily in the lower range (Below D4) where vowel resonance is not so complicated. From a resonant lower voice, the singer needs to experience very subtle resonance changes with the rise of every half tone into the first passaggio. A good exercise is a chromatic third (ex: A, A#, B, C, C#) on different vowels in order to experience the need for subtle resonance changes. When the singer realizes that minor changes on every half tone results in a smooth transition, the concept of vowel modification no longer feels so radical. The issue is less obvious, if the singer takes a “static” vowel quality to its limits and then attempt to modify the vowel at that point. This tends to be less successful and feels very unnatural.

Another problem that makes the first passaggio difficult is pressed voice in the lower range (I purposefully avoid the term chest voice here because this is understood by different singers in different ways). If the lower voice is not flexible and resonant, the singer begins already with a deficiency that will be further destabilize the voice when the resonance changes become necessary. I will reiterate that a resonant, flexible lower voice is necessary in order to achieve an easy transition in the lower passaggio.

Yet another problem is the term “covering”! The term suggests a darkness that often guides the singer in the wrong direction. The idea that the voice needs to be “covered” often leads to darkness from excessive lip rounding and tongue depression. It is crucial to distinguish between the natural darkness of the voice, which should be maintained as the vowel migrates from 1st formant resonance to 2nd formant resonance in the lower passaggio of the female voice, and the artificial darkness that occurs with tongue depression and/or excessive rounding.

What is the solution then?

As explained above, the singer needs to develop a flexible, resonant low range. My female clients (even the high coloraturas) develop eventually a low range to C3, yes an octave below middle C. It is developed with flexibility not forcing. Then the singer needs to become sensitive to when a low note is resonant both in terms of the pharynx resonance (vowel resonance) and the Singer’s Formant resonance.

We singers must develop these resonance sensations. Without them, it’s like walking in the dark! You’re lucky if you find the door opening to the bathroom at night, if you’re walking in the dark. Singing should not be like walking in the dark.

From this flexible, resonant low range (consider the chromatic third exercise above) the subtle resonance/vowel modifications must occur relative to maintaining resonance of the vowel (felt in the chest) and the Singer’s Formant felt like a narrow tube through the mask not on the mask. The singer should monitor these resonances throughout the voice but especially through the passaggi where they are even more significant.

Sensations in singing are tricky but they make sense once they are understood. Sensations of fold approximation and resonance radiate through the body by bone conduction. We do not sense the closure of the vocal folds directly in their location in the throat unless the voice is pressed and then we feel the tension associated with it. That is why some teachers recommend not feeling anything in the throat. When a singer becomes really sensitive, the two resonances begin to feel like a smaller tube leading toward and through the mask, inside a larger tube in the chest. That is actually the relationship between the larger pharyngeal space and the aryepiglottic fold (sometimes called the collar of the larynx). The sensations we have are much larger in size than the actual organs.

Our sensations are based on anatomy and I believe they are common to all singers. The problem is not so much that we feel things differently but that we ascribe arbitrary meanings to the sensations that do not reflect the anatomical functions associated with them.

Already in the female middle range, the vowels are a little less precise when compared to the specificity of vowel qualities below D4. From [a] to [o] or [i] to [e] feels much less extreme. By C5 the vowels feel even less distinguishable and by F5 in the second passaggio even distinguishing sensations between [a] from [i] can be difficult. Beyond the second passaggio, vowel distinction is extremely subtle. However, a skilled singer can be very clear with respect to consonants such that a word can be understood by the sequence of consonants around the vowels. The listener ends up understanding the words very well and not realizing that the singer is singing relatively neutral vowels. A female singer can develop extreme discomfort in the second passaggio by attempting to sing vowels in their spoken form as in the lower range.

The inexperienced singer can sometimes misconstrue text intelligibility with vocalic purity.

In summary, vowels become gradually less distinguishable from one another with a rise in pitch. The human ear makes up for these acoustic modifications. A singer should not be trying to sing pure vowels throughout the range but rather a concept of the text intelligibility and discovering how closely she can get to the spoken vowel while allowing the modifications that keep consistent resonance. I leave you with a beautiful example of this understanding:

©25 August 2021

Levine: The Manifest Destiny of Talent

After reflecting on this for days, reading both positive and negative comments about the Levine issue that has tainted a half century, I’ve concluded this: talent is evaluated often in terms of Manifest Destiny. Once upon a time, the idea that monarchs were chosen by God was accepted. The irony of that was always clear to those that were being ruled. The rise of monarchies was always related to the accumulation of wealth and influence. Nothing wrong with accumulating wealth until the need for more requires the subjugation of others: feudalism, slavery, classism, big business, Banks too big to fail, Auto Manufacturers too big to fail, Big Pharma, Big Tech…

What they all have in common is the importance of one person over another. The Manifest Destiny of talent is just a continuation of a dangerous idea that we’ve seen fail in politics and business over centuries.When we conclude that someone’s abilities make them Divine we consequently enable Levine! The divinization of any human being can and often lead to narcissistic and even predatory behavior. What could have stopped Henry VIII from decapitating his wife and start his own religion? A society of powerful English nobles enabled the Henry VIII murders because it suited their political/religious aims and their sense of self-importance. How is that different from predatory executives, athletes and artists that are shielded (and others who are innocent served up as sacrificial lambs) in the name of God and HIS chosen?

When I know that a soprano singing a high C vibrates her vocal folds more than 10 times faster than the wings of a hummingbird and that the operatic voice does not sound louder than an orchestra but rather developed specifically to excite the most sensitive frequency range of human hearing, I am inspired to believe that there is an intelligent design at work. It also suggests that such an intelligent being would be too advanced to put one human being above another.

The Greeks use of the term Apotheosis suggests that humans can develop skills that raise them to the status of Gods! How many human beings could achieve such heights if we didn’t consider it God-like but rather extraordinarily human? How many Barack Obamas and Kamala Harris if Whites were not considered Superior? How many Asian, Latino, LGBTQ, Jewish, Muslim, Women would we have as President of the United States?

Talent can be influenced by genetic and environmental variables, both nature and nurture! Reducing it to nature has only one goal: to elevate one person above another and thereby disenfranchising the other. It is fair to celebrate the achievements of a human being but the moment we make that person divine and indispensable we raise them above other human beings and make it ok to subjugate the weak, whether it is Big Tech buying off potential competition, or athletes and artists raping helpless young people with impunity!

Therefore, the question: how many great talents would rise if no one was considered Superior but rather more accomplished? A bunch of African American opera singers won Grammys last weekend. There’d be none if they had been considered “so much less than” by the establishment as during slavery and Jim Crow. How many great conductors might have come up if Levine was not considered Divine? If a Black lead tenor was not an anomaly? If a female conductor was not a Unicorn? If a minority person had access to a top lawyer?

What a dream worth dreaming!

©19 March 2021

The Larynx: High, Low, Depressed…What’s Right?

I have a very close colleague who often says a low larynx helps in the achievement of a rectangular fold posture. In my experience, this is true. Achieving a low larynx seems to induce activity in the TA (Thyro-Arytenoid) muscle pair responsible for deeper fold closure, resulting in what is called rectangular fold posture (if the ability for deep fold closure is already trained). First let us define rectangular fold posture!

For a given pitch, the folds may take on three possible shapes:

  1. Convergent: /\ (each side of the /\ represent the vertical edge of each vocal fold meeting at the upper edge).
  2. Rectangular: | | (in this simple model, the two vertical lines represent separated fold edges, which would look like one vertical line when they come together).
  3. Divergent: \/ (each side of the \/ represent the vertical edge of each vocal fold meeting at the lower edge).

The different modes of phonation relate to different states of balance of the vocal struggle (lotta vocale, in traditional Italian technique) between the two main muscle groups (the Crico-Thyroid or CT and Thyroid-Arytenoid or TA). Convergent suggests that the CT group overpowers the TA such that the folds do not meet at the deeper vertical aspect. Rectangular suggests that the muscles achieve some level of balance (note that the deep closure of the folds does not guarantee ideal posture of the CT because the third leg of the phonation triangle is fold closure. More on this later). Divergent suggests that the TA group has overtaken the CT group to the point that the folds do not meet on the upper edge (nevertheless the folds are being stretched but the deepening is exaggerated).

For a given pitch (Fundamental Frequency), the folds are expected to vibrate a specific number of times per second, releasing a specific number of compressed puffs of air every second that strike ambient air molecules, which by a domino effect end up striking our eardrums at exactly that frequency. If the rate of vibration is 440 pulses per second we hear the pitch A4 (middle voice for female singer, high voice for male singer). That note may be sung in many different ways. From a fundamental acoustic point of view, that pitch depends on how much mass participates in the vibration and how much tension there is on that mass. Imagine a violin’s E-string! It is called an E-string because that is its optimum vibratory state when it is tensed appropriately on the violin. But if it is loosened, it will be lower in pitch and if it is tensed too much it will rise in pitch. But its mass is constant. The fundamental difference of the vocal folds as a pitch making instrument is that the vocal mechanism can set itself up in many different configurations that vary the amount of vibrating mass and the tension on that mass.

There is an ideal tension and mass for a given pitch!

If we take the simple model of a triangle, there are three parameters on fold posture that determine a given pitch: CT stretching the folds, TA resisting the tension of the stretch and the amount of pressure (Inter-Arytenoid muscles or IA for medial pressure) that the folds apply to each other depending how hard they are made to close (loose, balanced or pressed). In balanced fold closure, the breath compression applied below the folds is released in the production of sound and does not effect the balance of the phonation triangle (in an ideal world. Vocal balance is always in flux). Pressed or loose phonation have a direct impact on how much mass (amplitude) will participate in the vibration since it would impact directly on the amount of time it takes the folds to open and close, which would affect the number of times the folds vibrate each second (the very determinant of pitch).

Simply put, stretch, mass (resistance to the the stretch), fold closure, and breath pressure determine pitch.

I will not deal with the change of mass relative to chest and head voice in this post. I will address this at a later time. However I needed to explain phonation in such a way that we understand that the height of the larynx is not necessarily a function that is independent of fold posture. In an ideal, balanced fold posture, breath pressure/flow would be balanced and the natural weight of the larynx would cause it to achieve its natural, at-rest depth. A pressed phonation mode would cause the larynx to rise out of its at-rest depth and require an additional force to keep it low. The result at the extreme, is an “unsubtle cracking.” We usually accomplish this with the tongue root. A loose phonation would not obstruct the desired depth of the larynx but unfortunately the tone would be dull, lacking in the necessary resistance to the airstream to create a strong sound and would require compensation from outside forces to keep the folds from totally falling away from each other resulting in a “gentle cracking!”

A divergent or convergent fold posture has less available vibrating mass. The tendency in those phonation modes is pressed voice (deeper medial pressure of the folds against each other) to make up for the lost mass. Pressed voice does not always sound as labored as we are used to hearing it. A singer who is aware of the discomfort associated with the pressure of the breath below the excessively adducted folds can release the air pressure by loosening the closure at the back of the folds creating a gap, while simultaneously keeping the excessive adduction along the rest of the folds. The larynx will remain raised from its natural depth but the emission might not sound so extremely forced. It takes experience to hear the difference. The amount of volume/power (sound pressure level) the singer uses will have an effect on the sound since greater volume requires an increase in mass (think of the violin’s bow addressing the string more deeply! The bow becomes a part of the vibrating mass).

Furthermore, the singer’s speaking habits come into play. If the singer speaks with a raised or depressed larynx and/or a loose or pressed closure mode, maintaining ideal posture in singing (even if the singer can identify such balance) will be difficult. Many singers find it difficult to retrain their speaking voice (if it is unbalanced) to match their more balanced singing voices.

My personal experience is that it is better to teach the singer a balanced (i.e. rectangular) phonation posture first before addressing refinements of the open throat. This requires closure along the entire upper edge of the folds and along the entire vertical aspect of the same, which gives both brilliance and richness to the tone (chiaro e scuro–brightness and darkness not either or). Once this is achieved, one can deal with the subtle laryngeal adjustments necessary relative to vowel acoustics. Naturally, the larynx has to be addressed in the case that it is extremely raised.

This discussion should make a singer think:

Wow! This is complicated!

Indeed, it is not easy! I do not need to say how much illnesses that cause inflammation of the vocal folds (e.g. allergies, reflux, gluten for gluten-intolerant singers, etc) would affect fold mass and flexibility.

Blessed are those who come into singing with a relatively balanced set-up. But it is also supremely important to listen to our vocal heroes with a bit of objectivity.

They were/are not Gods!

Even the best of them did not fully understand their instruments. They were always searching for the ideal! This Pavarotti?

Or this one?

To my ears, the difference is not subtle. There are strong opinions about the young Pavarotti and the difference that began to emerge in the mid 70s. You judge. It does not make him a less great singer but how was the sound experienced by listeners who heard both versions? I only heard the later Pavarotti in the 80s. So I cannot really judge, except for the videos. I prefer the earlier version.

One of my favorite bass-baritones ever!

But does the taking on of lower bass parts over the years force an unconscious search for darker colors?

Possibly? Still one of the most exciting male voices I ever heard at the MET throughout his career. But I must say, I prefer the earlier sound. I was a Ramey groupie in my earliest singing days and heard both versions. One may argue that age darkens the voice. But how do we tell a deepening of the voice from the strength to handle greater volume (i.e. mass) and a slightly depressed larynx?

Arguably one of the most beautiful soprano voices in our art form’s recorded history:

1959 studio recording

It seems Tebaldi was always looking for a balance between “velvet and steel.”

1960s

I would say the first version is more velvety and the second steelier. Perhaps the effect of live performance vs studio recording! However, the difference is notable and the vacillation between the two is heard throughout her career. Some say she was inconsistent. Well she, like these previous great singers, was HUMAN. Not a goddess! The steely version sounds to me as if she was struggling with “relaxing the throat.” Laryngeal position seems slightly higher. As explained above, balance is global! A steelier production (medial pressure) can have an adverse effect on laryngeal flexibility if exaggerated.

One of the most celebrated mezzos ever began her career as a soprano:

1962

Did her change to mezzo have an effect on how she thought about timbre (and therefore the depth of the larynx)?

1983

Beautiful either way! But was her larynx high in the Bohème clip? I think not! But others might have a different opinion. Or we may ask another question! Does her search for laryngeal depth required a bit of help from her tongue root, as discussed above? (Note, I am not saying that Horne was a soprano by nature. Many singers have played around with different voice categories. Indeed some singers can be viable in different repertoire that might seem extreme today.)

One more tenor, because this example is very interesting. This is my favorite clip of this great tenor:

1983

The low larynx (la gola aperta–open throat) became the fundamental aspect of Giacomini’s technique as expressed from interviews regarding his technique. The necessity of a low larynx (appropriate to the given singer) is a scientific fact relative to operatic singing. The question is one of measure. Did Giacomini go too far?

2006

This does not take away from the proven fact that this man was one of the great tenors of recorded opera. But it is worth listening to the progression of his career from the 1969 live recording of him singing Cavalleria to his latest concerts at an advanced age in the first decade of the 21st century. More than 40 years singing! Is it necessary to work on opening a throat that is already open? Yes! If not for anything, to help the singer understand the correct measure, so they don’t go too far. Between Pavarotti and Giacomini, we see two interpretations of the open throat. Pavarotti began in the early 1960s with what seemed a very balanced voice but he migrated towards a slightly higher larynx. Giacomini’s fully formed recording of the 1980s as a starting point finds the tenor seeking greater depth. I could theorize on a number of reasons why (That could be a point of discussion in the comments section) but I will stop here. I’d be interested to know your preferences and why!

©27 February 2021

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