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The Complexity of American Racism–And An Apology To My African-American Brothers and Sisters

A few days before the George Floyd murder, I wrote a blogpost on my experience as a Haitian-American and the difficulties I have had in my relationships with African-Americans (not all obviously) and that it was a source of deep sorrow for me. I took the article down the next day because I realized my African-American brothers and sisters would not understand my experience. Why would they? I took offense and held a deep grudge for the fact that throughout my life in the United States since age 11, many African-Americans treated me as “Other!” Well, in a sense, I am other. I was deeply hurt when an African American colleague in graduate school told me to my face that I was cast in an operatic leading role because I could pass as White (referring to my lighter skin). But whether she was right or not, I was not equipped with enough experience to empathize with her frustration.

I refused to accept the obvious: that I am in fact different!

Being a Haitian-American, who speaks French as a native language, and with lighter skin color, in everyone’s mind, Whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians (except for me), made me different. My dear voice teacher in Undergraduate college, who saw how my Black colleagues at Westminster Choir College treated me (never mean, but different), warned me that I may find myself in the middle of a racial imbroglio as I prepared to begin graduate education at the University of Michigan, which had experienced open racial conflicts in the 1980s.

As always, my teachers never treated me differently. People like George Shirley, Willis Patterson and Earl Coleman, back then, had enough life experience to understand the difficult dynamics I was living. They made a space for me, while my colleagues, for the most part, emphasized the foreignness of me.

I worked really hard! But in my self-centeredness, I never saw the fact that, in an operatic context, I came with extraordinary privileges:

In undergraduate school, I learned Italian so quickly that the Italian teacher took it upon herself to eat lunch with me every day during the academic year and help me develop faster–Because of having French as a mother tongue, Italian might as well have been a French dialect.

When I arrived in school in New Jersey, in the 6th grade, the class was doing long divisions. The teacher had a student up to do such a division and after she had finished, the teacher said: “Good job!” But I raised my hand and said that the operation was incorrect! The teacher asked me how I can possibly know that? I told her I proofed it. She checked with her calculator and saw that the operation was wrong. She asked me how I proofed it, I went on the board and did an X proof (I doubt that many Americans, who have not studied math as a major in college, would know that proof. As a result of this experience, I was sent to the library to study more advanced math, when math was being taught in class.–My Haitian education gave me an advantage. But how can I think anything Haitian is an advantage, when I was routinely teased for coming from a backward, poor, dirty country?

When I started my undergraduate education at Westminster Choir College, my only deficiency (other than voice) was sight-singing. I had not formally learned it. But that took me no time. I was advanced in acting! I had worked professionally. I was hired my senior year to do a two-person play on the subject of Open Admissions in colleges, playing an inner-city, African-American youth, who objected to always getting a B-grade from his teacher, who admitted that under the “Open Admissions” system, she was to give preferential treatment to inner city Black youth who were considered underprivileged. After doing that role in my senior year of high school (sacrificing my prom for the opportunity and gaining my classmate’s ire for it), I thought of myself as more African-American than ever.–Yet, I got that opportunity because I went to a small private school, where I got to experience advanced theatrical skills through plays, workshops and performances.–I chalked up my opportunity to hard work! Yes I worked hard, but I had advantages that I did not recognize as such.

Thus, arriving to Westminster Choir College with linguistic and theatrical skills, what could my less privileged Black colleagues compete with? Their gorgeous voices, which they attributed to their experiences in the Black Church, of which this foreign, French-speaking kid was not privy too. At Westminster Choir College there was so much to aspire to that the difference between me and my African-American colleagues was minimized. But it existed.

I felt it as a continuation from my first years in public school, through my private school experience and beyond. I was always treated differently!

This pattern would continue through my experiences as an academic at the college level:

When I experienced very ill-treatment at Utah State University after doing what everyone called a stellar job my first year, I assumed that I had been threatening to my predecessor, who ran an opera company in town, since he threatened me with lawsuits for maligning his name, although I had never met him. It was definitely political, but I never assumed that it could be racial. As a Haitian, I am proud of the fact that my African, ex-slave ancestors defeated Napoleon and assisted Simon Bolivar in his campaign to free South America from Spain. I never felt like less than anyone and so I presented myself with confidence and fortitude (from my point of view). —Is it possible that in a town where I only saw one other Black family that there might be the thought: “What is this uppity nigger think he’s doing?” My own part Hispanic, part White ex-wife told me through the worst part of that crisis that maybe it was my fault for being to fort-right!

“The fact that I never even considered being viewed as an uppity nigger is the proof of my privilege!”

The fact that I had a Black colleague at the University of Florida who called me a “jack of all trades and master of none” because the orchestral conductor chose me to sub for him when he was away might be further proof (Never mind that I studied orchestral conducting for nearly 6 years under one of the world’s finest conductors). That the local newspaper treated me with great deference whenever I had an event of any kind could have been because of my lighter skin color and my foreign accent.–Again, I felt marginalized by a Black colleague, plus the Good Old Boys’ Club at the University of Florida School of Music (that is what a white colleague told me regarding what she taught was a biased tenure process) without ever consider that it was because I appeared daringly threatening as a Black man with extraordinary attributes.

Thus the Uppity Nigger shows his ugly face again! The fact that this never crossed my mind is the proof of my privileged.

In retrospect, I can see the same issues at play in North Carolina, Delaware and even upon my return to teach at Westminster Choir College for a year.

I thought a fort-right Black man was to be revered! It never crossed my mind it was insulting to those of my White colleagues who were racist and to my Black colleagues who saw my conduct either reflecting badly upon them or disrespectful of what they had to go through every day!

The fact that these issues never crossed my mind is the proof of my privilege.

It took watching the murder of George Floyd to feel the burden that African Americans feel every day. It was just one more experience beyond history, beyond Rodney King, beyond Abner Jean-Baptiste (a very dark-skinned Haitian sodomized with a nightstick by New York cops), beyond Kapernick, etc, for my privilege to become obvious to me.

Yes, the police in the United States does not treat me any differently than they treat other African Americans, but it takes me uttering two sentences to realize I am different.

And as much as I hate being treated as “other” by my fellow African Americans, because it makes me feel that I don’t belong anywhere in the United States, they are right. I am “other” and all my privileges confirm it. And all of my difficulties in Academia may have sadly been a result of me not being aware that in the United States power structure, in the eyes of too many I never suspected to be racist, I behaved like an Uppity Nigger, who needed to be put in his place!

Thus I owe an apology to all my African American brothers and sisters for being too “nose-deaf” to understand what they were going through!

In my defense I will only say the following: I never thought that a kid from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, from that ‘shithole country,’ could ever be an Uppity anything!

© 30 May 2020

Opera: Evolution or Devolution? Ask the Squillo!

The first time I sat in the Metropolitan Opera audience and heard Margareth Price, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes and a host of other singers singing smaller parts,  was the day that any offer from Universities or from the military academies to pursue another career vanished from my thoughts.  It was a singular experience!  For all those voices to get to my ears in that balcony so far away from the stage through that rich orchestral sound was a miracle to me.  That it was accompanied with dramatic and musical excellence was another level of experience and then there is language besides.

I don’t remember that well how those singers looked onstage, whether it was Domingo’s leaner or plumper look, whether Milnes looked taller than him or not or whether Ms. M. Price could have fitted a size 0 dress.  But that they sounded so powerful, as if they were in front of my face in that huge expanse of space, will never leave my sensory memory.

Opera require so many skills that it becomes difficult for some to remember what it is that distinguishes the opera singer from other singers.  A pop singer can make a beautiful sound and even sing through operatic music. A jazz singer can sing in many languages.  A musical theater singer can be a wonderful actor.  A rock singer can be a great musician.

The only attribute that distinguishes the opera singer is the unique resonance that makes it possible to be heard easily in the presence of a symphonic orchestra.

Even Monteverdi’s orchestra was known to be very loud and even noisy, given the difficult of tuning natural instruments like sackbuts, crumhorns and trumpets.

It is not how loudly a singer sings or the size of the voice that determines audibility. It is the ability to generate strong acoustic energy in the region of 2000-3000 Hz, which coincides with the most sensitive acoustic range of human hearing. Most babies, barring deformity accomplish this when they cry or when they laugh.  However, most young people lose this ability as they become socialized.  Speaking loudly in the home or in small gathering spaces (where we spend most of our time in life) is not considered polite in most cultures. The coordination of breath, vocal folds and resonance that was instinctive to us as babies gets transformed with language, social norms and education to something more acceptable in confined spaces.

That special resonance, traditionally called Squillo (or the ring of the voice) and in science terms, The Singer’s Formant, is a possibility for any human being, barring deformity or some illness.  Some people have a pharyngeal structure that makes it easier to accomplish even when they produce their voice in less efficient ways. There is an acoustical theory that the pharynx must be at least 6 times the size of the epilaryngeal tube in order to produce this resonance.  The size of the pharynx is increased when the larynx is in a lower position.  The low larynx has been the traditional way of accomplishing the Squillo.  In more recent times, singers have been experimenting with the possibility of narrowing the size of the epilaryngeal tube to achieve that 6:1 ratio between the two spaces.  However, someone whose pharynx is naturally larger may be able to produce that resonance easily even with a high larynx.

The spaces are not the only factors.  The laryngeal vibration, also called the source tone must be efficient enough to produce a strong sound to begin with.  The science confirms that a so-called rectangular vibration is the most efficient manner to produce a source that that would be rich in harmonics (overtones) and set up in such a way to not necessitate a tight closure of the vocal folds.  That rectangular posture can be called full voice with a relatively fluid closure on the superficial, flexible layers of the folds.  Such a set up also reduces subglottal pressure and facilitates the natural decent of the larynx (as long as the laryngeal depressors are doing their job and are not overbalanced by the laryngeal levitators).  This kind of source tone also facilitates a more flexible breath emission, requiring less effort from the breathing musculature.

Other than a few singers (called gifted for good reason, both for acoustic advantages relative to the pharynx and speaking habits that foster a good source tone),

this coordination is not easy to accomplish.

I remember when I did not have a strong Squillo when I began to analyze my voice with a spectrogram. But now I have an ever present one.  In my case, it did not have to do with a low larynx because mine was always relatively low. But my source tone was out of balance because I was manufacturing a baritone sound (because I believe I was one).  The more my tenor voice became more balanced (between length and depth of the vocal folds) the more the squillo strengthened.  And breath management became much more flexible.

Because of my false baritone past, it’s taken me the last 38 years of active learning (since I started with voice lessons at age 16) to accomplish this coordination.  If I had given up, I would never have accomplished it and might have taught that it was simply not possible with my anatomy.  I my 30 years of teaching and searching, other than some abnormal vocal deformity, I do not see any reason why a singer should not be able to produce that resonance and become a viable opera singer.

It’s taken me a lot of words to say that:

most people can develop a voice capable of singing opera.  

But it takes physical training unless you are gifted, as explained above.  Then of course comes the additional skills to sing slow and fast without loss of air (No machine-gun colaratura please.  The fastest coloratura passages can be done legato)!

I can play tennis pretty well.  But I am not Roger Federer!

Why do we take for granted that athletes have to train but singers just have to be able to sing the notes? When I was in my teens, I once got my tennis serve clocked at 102 miles per hour.  But I could not serve that fast often and it did not go into the service box with any consistency.  The singer has to be able to maintain that squillo throughout the vocal range and while singing very difficult music.  The consistency of that coordination is dependent upon a fine balance of all the muscles in the body, supporting the laryngeal musculature in particular.

A singer can spin a beautiful phrase or very fast coloratura into a microphone and be very impressive.  But if it does not have that specific setup that makes it the most present sound in the presence of an orchestra, it’s not operatic in the true sense of the word.

What about chamber opera?  I wrote a 10 minute chamber opera for young singers who were just developing.  That’s part of studying opera in the beginning.  But what if I scored the piece for a symphonic orchestra instead of the piano? Would the young singers be able to be heard in the theater?  At that time, no!

In a discussion on my Facebook feed, a young singer suggests that opera should evolve to include singers using a microphone.  But then, that special resonance would no longer be necessary and we would not be able to distinguish between the singer who developed the skills to turn the natural un-amplified human voice into a miraculous instrument and those who make a lovely sound but without squillo.

There is the additional factor that the presence of squillo in the voice may invoke primal emotional responses from the listener that may not be as easily achieved without. The way we respond emotional when we hear a baby cry may very well be because of the squillo.  There is a theory that the squillo exists in our voices (matching the most sensitive range of the human ear) because in the wild, parents needed to hear their children in case of danger.  Therefore, the presence of squillo in the voice could have helped the propagation of our species.

Because of this specific acoustic phenomenon, I have heard singers sing very quiet sounds with large orchestras and are heard as if they were whispering directly to my ear.

So it is not about loudness in terms of decibels, but rather about the relationship between the primal human voice and the human ear.

It is an elite singer who works very hard to develop the ability to sing at all speeds, at all dynamics, in different linguistic configurations, in different musical vocabularies and maintain the primal, human resonance through all of it.

Acoustic singing of this nature is a very special skill!  The moment the microphone came into play, the squillo became a problem.  Recordings of opera after the late 1950s already includes editing that reduces the squillo, because it was considered distracting.  So in recordings, it is difficult to distinguish between singers who have squillo and those who do not.  That a singer is musically highly artistic on recordings unfortunately does not guarantee that the singer will be audible in a live operatic performance.

From Monteverdi to Menotti, nearly 500 years of operatic development did not necessitate a microphone.

Perhaps opera will evolve into an electronic art form the way musical theater has, but then we would lose the very essence of what makes it opera! It would have in fact devolved!

Pélé’s scissor kicks:

 

Michael Jordan flying

 

George London’s Squillo (Even in Speech)

 

The Greek word Apotheosis:

1. The highest point in the development of something; a culmination or climax
2. The elevation of someone to divine status.
The word was often used in the early Olympic Games, to describe athletes who developed their skills to such a high level that they would seem godlike.  Likewise in opera, the term Diva was assigned to a female singer who had achieved the highest level of skill.  Unfortunately the term has taken on a pejorative meaning.
Squillo is not the only skill that an opera singer should have, but it is the one that distinguishes the opera singer from any other. Squillo amplifies all the good qualities. Without it in the opera house, it is the equivalent of turning off Martin Luther King’s microphone during the Dream speech.  Lots to say but no one can hear it!

An Apology to Andrea Bocelli

I sit in my kitchen, preparing a late meal, because I have had a full day. A day of teaching, a day of sharing knowledge with my dear and respected colleagues, Rachelle Jonck and Derrick Goff, who kept singers around the world engrossed in a 9-week Vaccai Project on Facebook, giving not only something to do proactively during the pandemic but also inspiring hope for a better continuation after the Covid19 crisis.  Afterwards, I found myself in a nostalgia-filled fest with my sisters, Nadine LaFond, a talented painter and singer, and Karling LaFond (a hero nurse in these times), reminiscing about our musical heritage.  Later, I found myself in the Youtube rabbit hole, face to face with the personality that is Andrea Bocelli, a figure that cannot be ignored, but that has been lampooned and ridiculed by the classical singing community, myself included. To be fair to myself, I never ridiculed Bocelli, but labeled him in previous posts over the years as a “pop singer using opera!”  I promise that all the subjects touched upon in this paragraph are relevant to the current discussion!

What is Andrea Bocelli?  

  1. First and foremost, a pop singer with a more substantial and flexible voice than the average pop singer, including the Josh Grobans of the world.
  2. An Italian who speaks the first language of opera with elegance.
  3. A musician of exceptional directness and musicality (I loved him as a pop singer first)
  4. A blind man who meets his audience through a very warm speaking voice and then enchants them with beautiful melodies, some composed by him and some taken from the finest of classical compositions (e.g. Aranjuez and Rach 2)
  5. A man with an unusual voice that in terms of substance, falls between Corelli (his teacher) and Tino Rossi, a Corsican singer in the 1930s-1950s, who also used opera as a means of expression but also brought operatic music to a pop audience.

When I first heard Bocelli, it was in this performance:

 

Franco Corelli was my vocal god at the time, especially after having the unusual opportunity to have three lessons with him in the late 80s.  When I heard this performance of Pavarotti and Friends back in 1994 or 1995, I heard that voice and thought I was hearing a smaller version of Franco Corelli, I did not know that Bocelli studied with Corelli. But I heard something uncannily familiar.

If you listen carefully, you hear Corelli in that voice!

 

 

It is said that when one loses one of his senses, the others are enhanced.  Possibly…Possibly, Bocelli used his ears to sense Corelli’s timbre!  Of course, Bocelli’s voice is not as substantial as Corelli’s but here are some pluses:

  1. Legato:  whether his Italian nature or his connection with Corelli, Bocelli sings legato.
  2. Purity of language: whether Italian or his connection to language, Bocelli sings beautifully in his native language.
  3. Emotion:  whether Italian or his connection with Corelli, Bocelli is an emotionally immediate performer.
  4. Top notes: Pop singer or not, his top notes are exciting!!!

 

The argument against Bocelli has been that he does not sing a tone supported enough to be a bona fide opera singer!  I was critical early on of his attempt at Werther at Michigan Opera Theater in the 90s.  He wasn’t present in the hall for much of the opera but quite powerful with “Pourquoi me réveiller?”  In truth, the voice has never been that far away from real operatic singing.  This is not Michael Bolton belting Nessun dorma! He is closer to the real thing, the way Tino Rossi was in the time of Gigli.

 

I grew up with that voice as my favorite! (I was a tenor from the beginning. Just didn’t know it).  That Rossi was a French/Corsican/Italian pop singer who approached his top notes in falsettone doesn’t erase his extraordinary legato, musicianship and charm. What Rossi did for the early 20th century, Bocelli provides in the early 21st century.

Tino Rossi was an international star, making waves in Rome and Paris, as he did in New York and L.A.  In my estimation, it is possible that in the developing postwar world of Melocchi, del Monaco and Corelli, the omnipresence of Tino Rossi in the Italian psyche may have given way to the voices to Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and LoForese in a post Gigli/Pertile world.  The lyricism, the legato, the purity of the text, the elegance of the phrasing! All Bel Canto attributes, which may have seen a confrontation 50 years before between the music of Tosti and Donaudy on the Bel Canto side and Respighi, Malipiero  and Casella in the Verismo side.

Bocelli’s place in the late 20th century and early 21st century is sealed.  As he benefited from the visionary Pavarotti’s influence in bridging the gap between popular and classical music, Bocelli himself continue to unite the classical and popular through collaborations with great artist of both camps as exemplified in the following clip:

If one reads the comments below this video, one understands why Bocelli has sold more records than any classical singer of his time, even though he is fundamentally a pop artist.

He did, in short, what his classical colleagues could not accomplish! He grabbed the hearts of his audience with beautiful melodies, direct emotion and a singular charm! His blindness is an incidental exclamation!  One cannot sustain this kind of commitment from his fans if he did not deliver.

The important factor is that this pop singer crosses over to classical and obliterates the bona fide classical singers. Kaufmann included!

To be fair to our top tenor, Kaufmann has to deal with a big orchestra, sans mic! Bocelli does not! But here is the rub! When Opera decides to go the route of Popopera, it will always lose.  And I believe that is the central problem! Bocelli, does not stand a chance, side by side with Kaufmann.  And that is evident with the first clip between Pavarotti and Bocelli. However, in that battle, Bocelli acquits himself positively! He stands toe to toe with one of the greatest tenors of all time and says:

I studied with your predecessor and I got game! As a pop singer, I am to be applauded!”

And he is correct!  If Kaufmann is inaudible in the theater as Siegmund or Parsifal, the reality of the day is not in his favor!  I wrote here, years ago, that Kaufmann is the first tenor in the world for important reasons, but that he should have avoided Wagner!  Because news is immediate, we get to celebrate Kaufmann for his HD simulcasts of Walküre and Parsifal, but remain disappointed in those roles in the theater. Yet, I am the first one to applaud his Cavaradossi, which is appropriate.

It is not Kaufmann’s fault!  Theaters are willing to pay him lots of money for his services. Why?  Because theaters are about now! Not about the future of this art form. Therefore, Kaufmann will be a footnote, just as Netrebko who takes on roles that are far beyond her vocal possibilities. But they will be rich!

But history will speak only of Bocelli and what he contributed to these times.

He might be falsely remembered as a classical singer, but indeed, he may have contributed more in favor of classical singing than his bona fide classical colleagues. Kaufmann as a pop icon does not come close to Bocelli’s power. However, Bocelli as a classical singer is confirmed in the mind of a vast public that could be drawn to opera, if only opera could deliver LIVE!

Tino Rossi brought average people to classical singing, including opera! Mario Lanza brought simple people to opera for similar reasons. And Bocelli will be the hero who calls to the average person and says: “Classical music is beautiful! And not so different from pop music!”  It is not Kaufmann who does that job!  But it was Pavarotti who did!

My friends, Rachelle Jonck and Derrick Goff, spent 9 weeks, convincing singers of our time that operatic success is about the fundamentals of beautiful singing, a fact that the operatic establishment has totally lost cognizance of!

To be audible while singing beautifully is the first and foremost principle of operatic singing!

6-packs are nice and so is a beautiful face. But without audible beauty, it is not opera!  If 6-packs and a beautiful face is your thing (first and foremost), you are better served by Hollywood and Pornhub than you would be by Opera.

In my heart, Pavarotti remains one of the most beautiful men who ever walked this earth when he opened his mouth and sang.

In that big open space of a theater, whether the MET or Scala, whether Covent Garden or Vienna Staatsoper, whenever I heard that man, I could not concentrate on anything else.

For the last time, whoever has influence in Opera must understand that Opera begins with beautiful singing.  Anything else is added bonus and must not supersede THE VOICE! 

And as my sisters, Nadine and Karling, reminisce about our childhood musical influences, I find that whether Antonio Aguilar or Miguel Aceves Mejia or the singers of the great Haitian bands or Tino Rossi, or the great singers of the early Motown era, or the great crooners, what my father, André L. LaFond loved and introduced us to was always beautiful singing! 

Dare I say: Bel Canto?

I would be remiss if I did not include this link to Rachelle Jonck and Derrick Groff‘s next Vaccai Bootcamp, three weeks from now!  I will be there as a participant, because it is important!  I recommend strongly that you join!  It is free!  There is no catch! But contribute if you got something out of it, because these wonderful people give a lot of their time and energy to bring something crucially important to us. The rescuing of the art of Opera, in my estimation, begins with Rachelle Jonck’s Vaccai program.

© 18 May 2020

 

 

Appreciating My Teacher: Judith Nicosia

I have had great teachers throughout my life! Voice teachers, directors, conductors, math teachers, and more.  As I thought of the teacher who was probably the most influential in the course of my life, it is Judith Nicosia.  She was my voice teacher, my last year at Westminster Choir College, but more importantly, I had her for three terms of Vocal Pedagogy and she opened a world for me of vocal science, critical thinking and holistic teaching.  She is a gifted singer and the most supportive voice teacher I have ever had.  She inspires confidence and shows possibilities!  She respects the singer she teaches and remains a source of guidance throughout our lives.

I know many who have felt her guidance and support…and love!  She is a caring human being, too.  

If I am a successful voice teacher, she is the example I look to.  I’m terrible at keeping in touch with her and I should do better.  I wanted her to know that I hear her voice often and that the last lesson a few years ago is still paying dividends.

I am so fortunate to have you as a teacher and when this virus is gone and I can travel to the United States again, I will pay you another visit.  Thank you for a lifetime of guidance!

 

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R.I.P. Donald G. Miller

I sang a recital in Montreal in 2005. After the recital, a dear colleague at McGill University, Winston Purdy, who attended the recital at L’Université de Québec à Montréal, invited me to his house the next day to experience something fascinating. It would change my life. In Winston’s living room I discovered the lanky man with a deep resonant voice next to a laptop and a strange contraption. That contraption was VoceVista, a vocal diagnostic tool including acoustic analysis and electroglottography (EGG) was as its name suggests: The Voice Seen! Donald Miller and his colleagues Harm K.Schutte and the late Prof. Janwillem van den Berg produced this magnificent instrument, which has become an industry standard in the field of Vocology.

Following that meeting (we were like three nerdy teenagers with a new toy), Don invited me to Fredonia University in Upstate New York to be a participant at a VoceVista symposium, where I met several colleagues who would become lifelong friends. Later on, Don visited my studios in New York and Berlin, where we presented “wired masterclasses,” in which we had access to real-time glottal and acoustic information for the singers in performance. Having already had a passion for vocal acoustics, I found a real friend and mentor in Don Miller. He later invited me to his home in Groningen, Holland, where we exchanged voice lessons, listened to an impressive performance of Schubert’s Winterreise, which he had sung during his professional career in Germany, years before. We also took in a Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast of Boris Godunov at the local cinema.

Don Miller was a very generous colleague and passionate about getting the word out about VoceVista. I regularly received his newsletters as well as emails to his VoceVista group, the Fryers (vocal fry is used to isolate formant resonances in vocal acoustics). We met frequently over the years and encountered each other often at voice and vocal science symposia around the world.

Just a few days ago, after a few months of silence between us, I received an email from him, wondering how I was doing with the isolation imposed by the Covid-19 crisis. I was happy to receive his email and responded immediately. I had no idea he was ill (I don’t suspect it was Covid-19-related).

Don was in his 90s and lived a very full life and contributed to our art form first as a wonderful bass and later as a remarkable scientist.

In my mind, Donald G. Miller was a pioneer.

In 2000, when I began teaching at East Carolina University, one of my colleagues who was responsible for vocal pedagogy was very proud to introduce me to his new toy, a special computer system with a particular fast processor that made real-time acoustic analysis possible for singers. The Kay Elemetrics Computerized Speech Labs back then cost the University over $15,000 and was the standard tool for the analysis of speech pathology and disorders.

That year I received a faculty laptop that included a processor of enough speed to make real-time acoustic analysis possible. I found some free software online and began my love affair with acoustic analysis. Obviously, those tools were not optimized for singing analysis and my knowledge was pretty superficial. Less than five years later, there I was in Winston Purdy’s living room with Donald Miller, making a quantum leap in knowledge acquisition with the guidance of a leader in the field. Don was a pioneer!

The cost effective nature of the VoceVista software and Electro Glottograph machine turned my studio into a lab. I was able to observe thousands of singers over some 15 years, learning a great deal about vocal acoustics. I could not have done this without VoceVista and more importantly I would not have been able to do this without Don’s generous instruction. The low cost of VoceVista and the constant tweaking of the equipment (leading to VoceVista Video) has turned it into the industry standard ubiquitous in studios and voice labs all over the world.

Beyond the software itself, Don also produced a wonderful, short book, Resonance In Singing, written specifically for the beginner in vocal acoustics, which I reviewed here on the blog, on August 5 2008:

Because of Don’s instructions, I was able to make my own observations about the acoustics and glottal dynamics of the voice. We were not always in agreement in our conclusions but we were always able to discuss and I certainly learned a great deal from Don’s observations and he encouraged my own conclusions as well. He was a real teacher!

After our latest email exchange, I was looking forward to reconnect with Don and we wrote about seeing each other after the quarantine. I’m very saddened at his passing.

The new generation of Vocologists would not have taken their quantum leap without Donald G. Miller’s contributions. We are grateful to him and we will miss him very much.

I often quote this poem, Fear no more the heat o’ the sun… from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline for those dear to me who have departed:

…Thou, thy earthly task hast done, Home art gone and taken thy wages…

…Quiet consummation have, and renowned be thy grave.

Requiestcat In Pacem!

© 22 April 2020

Breath Support: “Back Asswards!”

Singers spend so much of their times “learning to support!” If your friend is about to walk in front of a bus, you would yell: “Watch out!” Your body would go into automatic compression to emit a sound that would get the attention of the friend in danger!

What makes us think it is different for singing?

It is not only the support system that cannot respond for singing, it is the clarity of our imagination that is underdeveloped. Indeed the body can be too weak to support our desired vocal expression adequately,

but is it not also that we are unclear as to the sound we should be producing?

The true voice, in most cases, is discovered. Most singers do not have a clear idea as to the natural quality of their fully developed voice. Few opera singers have fully developed voices at the onset. Italians, African-Americans with Gospel singing backgrounds, Koreans and Black South Africans have proven very consistent in the winning of career-making competitions. It would be logical to conclude that a certain amount of cultural conditioning prepares some of the singers from those cultures relative to the desired operatic product. Eastern Europeans and Germans have very strong operatic traditions and those mechanisms may produce aural expectations that help developing singers along.

By and large however, young opera singers count on recordings of the singers who inspired them for a vocal aesthetic. Those models are not always evocative of appropriate reaction in the breath support system.

The central problem may be found in the definition of “self-sustained oscillation of the vocal folds.”

A primary prerequisite for self-sustained oscillation of the vocal folds is that the net transfer of energy from the airflow to the tissue be sufficient to overcome friction forces (Ishizaka and Matsudaira, 1972; Stevens, 1977; Broad 1979; Titze 1988).

The word “friction” is key to the definition. There is little discrimination these days relative to a viable operatic sound. As long as the singer is successful, it is assumed s/he is producing a viable operatic sound. This issue of friction speaks directly to the Italian concept of morbidezza (or flexibility).

Is it not possible that the singer’s personal sound aesthetic requires greater glottal resistance (friction) than necessary?

Hence, is it not possible that in many cases, it is not greater breath pressure (breath support) that needs to be developed but rather a tone concept that requires a normal amount of pressure?

In a balanced system relative to breath pressure and glottal resistance, the issue of development would be one of increasing the time that a singer can maintain a sustained oscillation as opposed to the increase of sub-glottal pressure to accommodate excessive friction at the glottal source.

Therefore I will list some causes of excessive glottal friction:

  1. Faulty Fold Morphology: The vocal folds must have a certain specific shape relative to F0 (pitch in layman’s terms) and vowel. This includes appropriate fold thickness (superior to inferior axis), the length of the folds (anterior to posterior axis) and acoustic/vocal-tract adjustment (vowel formation) as related to beneficial supra-glottal inertia that would reduce glottal friction. Faulty set up in this regard would cause compensatory tensions that would yield greater friction and require increased sub-glottal pressure.
  2. Medial pressure: How tightly the folds approximate (right-left axis) is the primary mechanism of glottal resistance. Should the folds approximate so firmly as to trap the oscillating mucosal layer (fold cover) against the TA muscle (fold body), the vibrating tissue would become considerably greater and stiffer, which would require increased levels of sub-glottal pressure.
  3. Fold Viscosity: When the folds are too viscous (less movable) because of disease, ranging from inflammation due to allergies, GERD or dehydration, the resulting stiffness requires A) firmer closure for a clear tone and B) therefore greater sub-glottal pressure to compensate for the combination of stiffer folds and greater closure.

These problems occur to some degree for most singers. Some are aware of the glottal problem and work patiently to find solutions that do not require excessive activity in the breathing mechanism.

Others will simply work to increase sub-glottal pressure (enhanced breathing techniques) to combat the un-natural glottal frictions.

All of these problems could lead the singer to have an unhealthy sound expectation that requires greater breath compression than normal. In the case of Item 2, medial pressure, the pre-phonatory (before onset) posture may be largely influenced, not by disease as in Item 3, but by inadequate (i.e. excessive friction) timbre (sound quality) expectations relative to the nature of the native vocal fold anatomy.

Relative to the final point, singers often begin with a desired sound quality as opposed to discovering their most efficient production relative to their native anatomy.

Since the glottal posture cannot be considered without the breath, a faulty tone concept yields compensation in the breath management. It can be surmised that barring disease, tension in the voice begins with faulty fold posture, leading to inefficient breath management.

© 22 April 2020

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Water, Coffee and Alcohol: A look at vocal fold viscosity

In the 1990s Castrol Oil published a very effective commercial in the United States cautioning the consumer about “viscosity breakdown” of their motor oil. That may have been the first time I learned about the term viscosity and I thought of the term as a positive one.

In short, motor oil needs to be viscous–thick and difficult to break down.

For the mucous cover of the vocal folds, it is the opposite. We want our vocal folds to be flexible, therefore less viscous and

“the oil in our vocal machine” is water.

Proper hydration keeps our skin from getting dry, keeps our muscles working efficiently, facilitating motion in our joints, and keeps the mucous system throughout our body from becoming too viscous. This excellent, short article from SportsCardiologyBC gives a good outline of the issues of performance relative to hydration.

The linked article recommends 4 liters of water intake for the average male athlete and 3 liters for female athletes. That recommendation is obviously relative to many factors, including: body size, level of physical activity (including singing, especially operatic singing, which is very athletic) and the consumption of diuretics (eliminating water from our body) like caffeinated and alcoholic beverages.

For athletic singers, particularly operatic singers who must produce powerful sounds without the usage of microphones, proper hydration is vital. And for many singers, a great danger is lifestyle and the unconscious choices we make in a social environment saturated with incentives to drink caffeinated drinks and alcohol.

“I grew up drinking caffeine and alcohol very early in life and felt relatively immune to the negative effects because of “higher tolerance.” Until I wasn’t.”

My recent years in Sweden exacerbated my use/abuse of alcohol, where the control of alcohol access represents an underlying widespread abuse and I believe encourages a tendency to hoard alcohol since it is only available in state-controlled stores. I experienced this also 25 years ago when I lived in Utah for a year. The Mormon religion forbids alcohol but whenever I visited the only liquor store in my town back then, I was shocked to see people purchasing shopping carts full of alcohol beverages (just like in Sweden) when I bought my couple of bottles of wine, vodka and amaretto once a week. In a town that was nearly 100% Mormon (I knew pretty much all the non-Mormons in town. We were very few) how was it that the store was full of people buying cartloads? I drink considerably less since I decided to spend the majority of my time outside of Sweden. There are many reasons why alcohol is routinely abused in Sweden and I experienced them firsthand. But that is for another article.

After a few unusual alcohol-related incidents which gave me pause, I begin reducing my alcohol intake as a whole, including several times stopping altogether.

I expected to see a considerable improvement in my singing. But surprise! I did not! Why?

I am also a coffee drinker but I don’t drink more than one cup of coffee or tea a day. That should not make that much of a difference. What makes the biggest difference is that for years, I have not been drinking enough water. If 4 liters is the recommended norm for an athlete, I have been drinking less than half of that for a long time.

In other words, I have been in a state of near dehydration constantly and have been used to it as normal.

This is were lifestyle choices matter! Coffee, tea, and alcohol have been uplifted socially to the point that those that do not partake are considered “not normal.” Coffee and alcohol have become synonymous with meetings and social encounters of all kinds. This was different a generation ago when I first began drinking alcohol more regularly. This was when I worked as a chorus member at the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds beginning in the summer of 1986.

A few practices in Italy came with the flow of life. In Italy, the glass of wine with meals was accompanied with carafes of water. The chorus master and managers required that we all have 2-liter bottles of water with us at all times because Spoleto in the summer is hot and we needed to stay hydrated to perform properly. Coffee in Italy came in the form of espressos and cappuccinos, which were less caffeinated than long coffees and were imbibed, as with everything in Italy at the time, in moderation.

In recent times, with coffee shops like ‎Starbucks® and Coffee Fellows, and others, in every corner, and alcohol becoming normalized socially, alcohol and coffee have become substitutes for water in our lives. This happens unconsciously to many singers, who are not aware that many of their vocal technique woes are due to vocal fold viscosity due to unperceived dehydration.

I have not given up coffee and alcohol entirely, but once in a while I will stop both for a week, while being religious about water intake. This is a way of becoming clear about “my healthy baseline!” For myself, I find that one caffeinated drink and one alcoholic drink a day does not impact my singing noticeably, as long as I have my 4 liters of water a day and even an extra liter to be certain I compensate for alcohol and coffee.

More than one caffeinated drink and more than one alcoholic drink will have a noticeably detrimental effect on “my voice”, including longer warmup time, the voice feeling lower than normal, certain vowels becoming dull and unclear (particularly [a]), and short-term difficulty accessing the passaggio and high range easily–All signs of overly viscous vocal fold mucosa.

The change in my vocal flexibility including a feeling of consistency in my highest range has been life-changing in recent months, since my departure from Sweden. I find myself enjoying Bel Canto repertoire including the highest Rossini challenges with a voice I always assumed was more Wagnerian in nature, particularly since I began my career as a baritone. In that regard, I am forced to consider the difference between the Italian Tenore Eroico (heroic tenor) and the German Heldentenor (also heroic tenor). I will address this in my next blogpost.

The operatic business environment was depressing for many aspiring professionals before Covid-19. Just as one needs to live in Sweden to be aware of the widespread levels of clinical depression, one also must be in the operatic world to be aware of the high levels of clinical depression among opera singers. Meanwhile, the world does its absolute best to promote alcohol as socially required. The combination of widespread depression and alcohol naturally leads to self-medication at different levels. I think we need a research project with respect to alcohol abuse in the operatic milieu. Coffee may be less hurtful but caffeine is also a drug and caffeine abuse is also a problem. The two influences relative to the kind of athletic physical conditioning needed for operatic singing are obviously anathema.

Alcohol and caffeine do not affect everyone equally even if appropriate daily hydration was not a factor. But the combination of alcohol, caffeine and inadequate hydration is a perfect storm for vocal fold viscosity and could in many situations be the first issue to address in terms of vocal technique. I should add that both coffee and alcohol consumption contribute to GERD (Gastro-Esophagial Reflux Disease), more commonly called Acid Reflux, and one of the diseases most reported by opera singers.

My recommendation to professional singers relative to proper hydration relative to vocal fold viscosity: avoid or reduce alcohol and caffeinated beverages and increase water intake to at least 4 liters a day. Naturally proper sleep, healthy nutrition and exercise are also necessary, but those things are obvious. The fact that caffeine and alcohol have been elevated to almost necessary food groups (due to great advertisement efforts by those industries), we singers have to be conscious of our use of these beverages and be personally responsible about how they effect us individually.

No blanket statements can be made about how much caffeine and/or alcohol is harmful to our vocal health at the professional level.

There are people who are even genetically predisposed such that they are less effected by alcohol and caffeine relative to vocal health. Nevertheless, the effects of caffeine and alcohol should be of personal responsibility to every singer who aims to produce operatically viable vocalism. I have met singers who do not drink coffee and alcohol at all and suffer from allergies and have different problems with vocal fold viscosity. I have met singers who live like monks and still have stiff vocal production from pressed phonation. I have also known singers who drink a great deal of coffee and alcohol and sing at a very constantly high level. But the question should be asked:

Are you one who suffers vocally from caffeine and/or alcohol consumption? I know I am! Are you?

Operatic vocal production is difficult enough without exacerbating factors. If you are serious about your singing, eliminating every negative influence to vocal health should be part of your conscious efforts.

© 22 April 2020

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A Simple Post For a Beginning Singer Who Wishes To Understand Vocal Structure

A colleague of mine wrote to ask if I knew of any resources for a young student who wishes to understand fundamental vocal structure. The student does not have enough money to afford one of the books available and so I decided to write some basics for the student.

Structure of the Voice as Musical Instrument

  1. All instruments have a vibrator that excites the ambient air producing complex waves of sound that reach the human ear through the same air, like the strings of a violin or human lips combined with the mouthpiece of a trumpet or the material that covers the timpani. For us singers, it is the vocal folds. The short 2 minute video below gives a simple but accurate description of the vocal folds and their surroundings:

2. As the bow of the violin causes the strings to go into vibration, thereby exciting the air around it with a very specific pattern of disturbance (what we hear as the timbre–the specific sound quality of the instrument), so do the hammers of a piano on its strings and so does the compressed air from the lungs to the vocal folds. The actuator is the mechanism that causes the vibrator to go into oscillation to excite the ambient air. Because the lungs are attached to the diaphragm right below them, when the diaphragm descends as part of inhalation, it expands the lungs and causes outside air to fill them to achieve equilibrium between air pressure outside and inside the lungs. In inhalation, other muscles such as the external intercostals and levatori costali (rib levitators) stretch open the ribcage further and by extension the lungs that are attached to it for more air intake (what feels like a deeper breath). During exhalation, several muscles–including the core muscles attached to various parts of the ribcage–work to contract the ribcage and squeeze (compress) the air in the lungs. Together with the rise of the diaphragm, a strong compression occurs which pushes out used air (C02) which brings the mucosal surface of the vocal folds (called cover) into vibration. The specific pitch (called Fundamental Frequency or F0) depends on the shape of the vocal folds as a response to the singer’s desire to produce that specific pitch.

In other words, the process of singing is more or less automatic. So everyone can sing, providing s/he can conceive of a specific pitch on purpose and the vocal apparatus and hearing are unimpaired.

Running is also automatic. The quality of the stride and speed depends on the runner’s physical training and native physical conditioning as well as a clear desire to run with a certain form that is learned (consciously or unconsciously) and a clear desire for a certain speed dependent on the runner’s physical conditioning and training. Likewise, the quality of the sung pitch depends on the singer’s native vocal make-up and physical conditioning. How loud and how beautiful the tone is produced depend on the singer’s ability to conceive of the specific tone quality and the condition of the vocal folds, breathing apparatus and the resonator. Below is a simple explanation of breathing (explore Youtube for hundreds of clips on the breathing process, including some specifically related to singing!).

3. The resonator, which is the vocal tract (see yellow outline in the featured title picture of this blog post), is the space between the vocal folds and the edge of the mouth. It basically shapes and filters the original vibration of the vocal folds into a more refined version depending on the singer’s desire. That refined version of the tone usually occurs in the shape of a vowel. The vocal folds produce the desired Fundamental Frequency and its endless overtones. Every tone produced by any natural sound source (not electronic) will produce a natural series of overtones that relate to its fractions. For example if we cut the lowest string of the cello (the low C string) in half, that portion called the second partial would vibrate one octave higher than the original string. If the string were cut in thirds, that third partial would vibrate an octave and a fifth above the original string. And since those partials exist with the uncut original C-string, the overtones sound as well although much quieter than the fundamental frequency. There is a theory that singers who have difficulty matching pitch (the fundamental frequency) may have ears so sensitive that they hear the overtones more strongly than the fundamental frequency. Below a really fun video showing a simulation of the “raw vibration” of the vocal folds coupled with realistic shapes of the vocal tract relative to vowels:

The shape and size of the vocal tract–influenced by the opening of the mouth, the depth of the larynx, where the vocal folds are housed, the shape of the tongue and lips–determines which partials are strengthened, weakened or canceled out. A vowel is simply a shape of the vocal tract that influences certain specific partials to be accentuated. In an acoustic display of the voice, called spectrogram, the dominant peaks relate to the chosen vowel (vocal tract shape). Therefore, different vowels sung on the same pitch will have distinctly different spectrographic displays. Those displays are called the acoustic envelope.

A good technique is the singer’s ability to influence the actuator (breath), the vibrator (vocal folds) and resonator (vocal tract) at will to produce specifically the desired sound. Difficulties in singing may be related to A) the physical conditioning of the singer’s body, including strength and balance of the muscles of the larynx, the muscles of breathing and the muscles of the vocal tract, state of the vocal folds (whether flexible or stiff–related to disease such as allergies, GERD, a cold or dehydration by many different causes including alcoholic and caffeinated beverages or a lack of water intake B) underdeveloped proprioception (the ability to sense physical occurrences in the body) relative to singing and/or C) the singing of repertoire that is inappropriate (beyond the physical limits of the specific voice at that specific time).

This is a barebones explanation of the human voice in singing. The singer’s knowledge should increase beyond this basic information in order to have more refined control of the vocal instrument.

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© 20 April 2020

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