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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

The Worth of Artists Questioned During Covid-19 Crisis?

A good friend of mine, a high level Artist Manager, made a call on his social media feed that artists should stop giving their performances for free online (as many at all levels of our art form are doing) because it devalues our craft. Several artists, his clients among them, naturally were quick to concur and write in support. I am not in disagreement with my good friend and colleague that artists need to be valued more and indeed the public has learned over many decades to take our work for granted or as a luxury that they can easily do without. Yet this crisis shows us how important our work is to society at large.

Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV and the rest are not enough. As a binge watcher myself, I have access to several streaming services and I get bored. Music, theater, dance offer something different. Live performances even those that are recorded have a different feel to them. Even the homemade videos of less than top professionals online get quite a bit of attention, sometimes more than free streaming of opera performances delivered by top opera companies. There is a lot to learn from this phenomenon. This worldwide crisis teaches us a lot about people. They are eager to promote those they know as well as unrefined videos and less interested in pre-canned, airbrushed videos with sound equalization that do not give a faithful representation of the opera singers in them.

I believe my friend, the artist manager, misses the point when he suggests singers should stop offering their art for free at this moment. The Artist’s instinct is to be present when the clouds gather. The Actor speaks when others are too grieved to speak. The Singer sings when the others are in tears. The Poet turns a verse when the sufferer cannot find the adequate words. The Dancer makes the movement that releases the sorrow when the one who hurts can only keen.

This is our time as Artists as it always has been! We bring solace in the dark times!

To withdraw right now when we are needed the most, in the name of money, would sear in the public’s mind that artists are not necessary, for they will find some means of coping should we go silent.

In the end it would only firm up the misguided opinion that culture is a luxury! And we artists would lose an argument we need to forcefully make when this crisis has passed.

I am making my friend and colleague’s point here! He is not incorrect but in his zeal to take good care of his artists who are suffering right now, I think he allowed the fear of this moment to guide his otherwise clear-mindedness.

My friend is correct but this is not the time to be stingy!

The artist’s instinct rules the moment! We open our hearts and our souls and we give. Despite the fear that we will not be able to pay the rent.

But in balance, I must say the following: the artists are taken for granted until we are needed. People will often ask us to sing at a party just because they wish to be entertained but put no value to our gifts.

If we are expected to rise to the occasion and lift up our society, our society must lift us up and makes sure that we have the means to pay the rent and take care of our families and be able to retire without fear when the time comes.

A civilized society values its culture and those who create that culture. At the end of the day, what is left of our societies, our social legacy is the combined work of artists–Musicians, painters, dancers, architects, writers and poets, film-makers, actors, fashion and costume designers, make-up artists, and the scientists who give us the needed research to dig deeper into the arts.

While our doctors and nurses (several in my family) and food workers and trash collectors, and engineers etc are unsung heroes who we recognize during this crisis. The artists are also ESSENTIAL!

It is easier to see the people who take care of our physical needs. But we also have a psyche and that is the purview of the Artists!

The society that forgets its soul has already died. It just doesn’t know it yet!

© 16 April 2020

Meditation on Passover, Easter and the Pandemic and of course Singing

During passover, I watched The Ten Commandments. It’s a movie my father introduced me to, not only for it’s religious message but because he was a huge fan of Yul Brynner, which I became by extension. Watching the film again, I realized how artistically aware my father was. He introduced me to music and painting and the importance of dancing. He also was impacted by Brynner who was by far the most authoritative actor in that nearly four hours long epic film. The Ten Commandments not only introduced me to that great actor but also the idea of slavery and the time of sequestration necessary to deal with a plague. That word can describe many states of being: the sleep we need at night to be renewed the next day; the rest we need from work during the weekends so we may start again in the new week, etc. We performers do not have those exact schedules but we need rest between performances and even between seasons to recuperate from the demands of our jobs.

Indeed, the planet is an organism that needs rest from the devastation that we humans put her through and whether we acknowledge or not that we behave as a pestilence to Planet Earth, perhaps she feels it and releases antibodies to bring herself back to health. Likewise, maybe our viruses, like Covid-19 are unaware that they are a plague to us humans. Skeptics and deniers of Global Warming (I prefer that word than the political euphemism Climate Change) argue online against the merits of smogless blue skies in India or the privacy that Pandas need for sexual activity (for when the zoo was closed, pandas that refused to procreate suddenly became sexually active). A few kilometers away from my apartment in Valencia, the planet’s healing is also visible. Valencia’s Albufera (lagoon) was reported in significant decline only a week before the pandemic caused sequestration. I read an article in a local newspaper that spoke of the dying of algae and that birds that normally populated the Albufera were no longer coming. A dear friend of mine here in Valencia posted this on Facebook a couple of days ago:

caption: A marvel of pictures circulating on WhatsApp.

My friend’s post made real for me so close to home that the planet indeed responds to our effects on it. Likewise I meditate upon our effects on the art of singing. Not every human being commits equal crimes against the health of the planet. Likewise not every artist commit equal infractions again the health of our Art of Singing, which to me is sacred. I am unmolested if I never sing another operatic production ever again in my life, but I can hardly go one day without singing. I know many who feel this way. It’s not that I hate opera. Quite the contrary, it is the art form that drew me to the stage.

But I ask forgiveness of my many friends and students who sing opera currently for my purist approach. The operatic field too has had a cancer upon it since its inception. George Sand, in her three-tome novel Consuelo and its sequel La comtesse de Rudolstadt, describes the composer and church musician, Porpora, considered one of the greatest voice teachers in the history of classical singing– including being the teacher of the castrati Cafariello and Farinelli, arguable the two most celebrated singers in the late 18th century– as a purist who saw opera as a danger to the sacred art of singing, the purpose of which was to transmit the purity of music in a manner that effaces the transmitter (singer) and elevated the transmission ( sacred nature of music in harmony with respect to the universal laws of physics)– a sentiment that has its foundations in the arguments of the Enlightenment. In George Sand’s novels, Porpora and by extension his newest student, Consuelo, is introduced as the standard bearer of the purity of the art of singing against his friend and former student who became the impresario for the Venetian Opera. Porpora refuses to allow his star pupil to sing anywhere but in the Church, where the music is written for the glory of God and not for the aggrandizement of the singer. This argument between musical laws of harmony (as manifested in the natural overtone series, for example) and the virtuosity of the artist, for the artist’s sake saw a correction from Baroque virtuosity to the musical austerity of the Classical period and it continues to our day between the singer who abuses the music to exhibit his/her vocal prowess and a conductor like Riccardo Muti who argues for the virtues of the musical score as a sacred document.

I am not so much of a purist as one might think, but I think we are at a time in our history, very much akin to the abuses of the Aristocracy of the 18th century that lead to the French Revolution, whereby wealth was owned by a small elite while the vastness of the populace was living in virtual starvation. Marie-Antoinette’s callous response,

“let them eat cake…”

… has its many equivalents in our own time and remains symbolic of that other axiom,

“Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

And so, in politics as in art, we are living in a time where the concentration of influence has been transformed in rapid fashion from relatively democratic to fundamentally oligarchic. The Weinsteins and Domingos of the world are the result of unchecked influence. That politicians worldwide in heretofore democratic governments, most notably Trump in the United States, have contrived to concentrate power in the body of the individual as opposed to it being shared by several branches of government is a principle that can be traced just as clearly in the field of opera, where extraordinary influence has been concentrated in the body of casting directors and powerful artist managers/agents, who by nature work for their own interests in exact opposition to the needs of the art form. It is not that agents should not be about self-interest, it is that they have been given powers that relative to the health of the art form does not belong to them. Nor does that power belong exclusively to Stage Directors (we have seen the corruption in the excesses of Regietheater), nor to Conductors (we have seen such megalomaniacs as Karajan abuse that trust, regardless of his great talent) nor to the singers themselves (as they are too often inadequate musicians relative to the complexity of the score and too often make decisions relative to the exhibition of their vocal abilities in direct contrast to the intricate laws of harmony and rhythm). The health of our governments and our arts depends on shared influence from several bodies that can check each other for the maintenance of balance.

In operatic music, the singer should be expert enough to argue with the conductor, stage director and even composer for the health of the vocal instrument and its possibilities relative to virtuosity of any kind (range, speed, volume, etc) versus musical and dramatic expression. A singer who is part of that conversation must understand the limits as well as the possibilities of the human voice in the context of dramatic expression. We are capable of a lot more that the demands of even the most demanding Bel Canto operas. That is, if we had time to develop our instruments beyond the current market demands, which is pretty poor–Not a criticism of singers but of the demands imposed by the business in its current form. To argue with a conductor or stage director or composer, the singer should be schooled enough to understand on some level the demands of the operatic score (the orchestral score) in matters both musical and dramatic.

That singer needs enough life experience to be able to stand up for the voice.

Likewise, composers need to understand the medium of music theater historically to be able to take it to the next level. The failure of most modern opera is fundamentally based on the ignorance of most operatic composers relative to the importance of the human voice in opera and how the score is used not only for dramatic atmosphere but for dramatic impetus and progress relative to rhythmic and thematic use of the music. As one who has taken 5 years of composition seminars at the highest level, I would argue that those things are not taught. And if they are, not to the degree they need to be.

When the dramatic progression of a scene is not written through the music itself, the composer has failed and the stage director will take it upon himself/herself to impose his/her own ideas upon the music. In our times, unmusical stage directors will defy the score of proven great music dramas to impose their less informed ideas upon them. It is difficult for me to imagine an operatic stage director who is not a musician of the highest level. Yet, I had a great theatrical stage director who did not read music and made a remarkable operatic debut. He was not afraid to ask questions about the music and often deferred to the conductor and singers in matters musical. Although he did not read music, Travis Preston could sing the entire score from listening to it hundreds of times.

Muti makes the argument not only for the education of conductors, but for the singers as well and in some manner for the stage directors and composers too.

I recommend this short four minute clip to anyone who has anything to do with music that requires a dramatic context…

…and like Muti says it includes symphonic music, chamber music and music theater in all its forms.

Muti argues for music

Thus in our imposed sequestration relative to Covid-19, and as I experienced watching The Ten Commandments again, we are waiting for the passing of a plague. One of our own choosing, as it was for Pharaoh who according to scripture uttered the plague that would come to pass, but that he intended by killing all the first born of Israel. By our actions as human beings, we created a sickness in the world that perhaps incited a response from the Earth if we were to think of the planet as a living organism. That is up for philosophical if not scientific debate. If balance is the nature of the universe, then balance is manifest in all parts of it including the balance of ecosystems and the planet as both macrocosm relative to itself and microcosm relative to the universe. When the plague has past, will we have a rebirth? A rebirth of consciousness, of better planetary health? Likewise, will that health include consciousness at the level of our artistic community and its health instead of a concentration of influence in the hands of a few? And by extension, will our societies give worth to the presence of ART in the larger sense as a necessary and vital element of our lives as human beings, as opposed to a luxury that the economic elite only should be able to afford? There was a time the argument for the former was self-evident and our societies prospered as a result. But greed for power and influence and fame became the new hallmark and with them corruption, self-aggrandizement and decay of all things artistic.

And so my personal hope is that as we go through this passover, and we sequester ourselves for the passing of Death and we go not coincidentally through this Lenten times in the hope of an Easter rebirth, a resurrection if you will, we will come out better as a world society. Will we consider a global vision of the world and of our art? Or will we squander the opportunity and go back to our selfish, egocentric processes, seeking only what is necessary for our personal comforts rather than the health of our society, our universal ecosystem, our planet, our fellow man, our family, our art?

12 April 2020

Opera in the Time of Covid-19: Now and Beyond

Hello dear friends, I’ve been itching to write since I became quarantined in Spain more than two weeks ago but I didn’t want to respond just emotionally.  It’s been a mind-bending experience watching the world change before our eyes, first relative to Asia then Europe and then America and the rest of the world.  No one would have thought only three weeks ago that the music world, indeed the whole world, would become so radically changed.  Every classical singer is effectively out of work.  All the freelancers have lost all their work for the coming months and with that we have come to understand how precarious the life of a freelance classical musician is, especially singers.  Even top singers are concerned about finances.  It is important to realize how insecure our financial lives are!

For private voice teachers like me, it is no different.  Those of us who work mostly with professional singers take a major hit as well.  As these singers lose their incomes, naturally they want to hold on to their resources to be able to ride out the pandemic.  So this is not a happy time for anyone who is a freelancer of any kind. We can go through this driven by our fears or we can be proactive despite our fears.  I chose the latter.  I am a lifelong singer!  I am seeing my best singing happening in this period.  By even current developments I will come out of this pandemic a transformed singer with abilities that I did not imagined when I began my transition to tenor around the time I considered my journey to tenor.  Nevertheless, if I can advise anyone going into classical singing or who is already pursuing classical singing as a career, I will say:

“Singing is not enough!”  

Our careers, like our financial portfolios (if we have any) need to be diversified.  And it’s never too late.  I’ve always taught over the Internet through Skype, Zoom, Messenger, FaceTime, etc. But I have not actively spent time until now to make this a more important component of my teaching.  I had gotten to the level of teaching professionals and imagined that this would be enough.  I’ve also taught serious amateurs!  Interestingly enough, they have regular jobs and can continue to have lessons, even if only VOI (Voice Over Internet).

My focus on professionals and passionate amateurs comes from my disappointment in Academia.  I find that the majority of young singers at the academic level are not aware of the discipline and dedication it takes to become an elite singer and tend to turn away when faced with the rigors of true development.  Instead, they want to hear that they are “gifted” “special.”  The truth is that people will label you special and gifted when you produce results according to their expectations.  That can change from day to day and from the same person.  When I was still singing as a baritone, I auditioned for a very important Young Artist Program and thought I had done an excellent audition.  When I got a rejection letter, I wrote the director and he agreed to have a phone conversation with me.  He said I did an excellent audition but that I do not have a world class voice and that his program caters to world class voices.  Two years later, when I was too old to apply for that program, I made it to the semifinals of a competition and this director was on the jury.  After I sang my round, he found me in the halls and told me I had a world class voice and wondered why I never auditioned for his program.  I told him I did audition for him and he told me I did not have a world class voice.  His response:

“I’m glad you didn’t listen to me!”

In short, we cannot listen to any one person’s opinion about how to run our lives.  My professional students have what they call their Board of Directors.  We all need a few people in our lives with diverse points of views who will tell us the truth, even when we are not of the mind to listen.

“We cannot do it alone!”

So I’ve added a business advisor to my team to help me develop the next stage of my business as a classical singer/voice teacher, or better said, a professional vocal artist.  What was obvious to me just before I met her was that my vision was too narrow.  As singers and voice teachers, we have so many skills that we unfortunately believe only apply to our chosen vocation.  We also have the unfortunate belief that we must focus 100% of our energy on our primary career.  I certainly did!  If we learn anything as a community in this crisis is that we must strike a balance between artistic commitment and our lives, including our economic viability.  I had the awful belief that I would teach voice and sing until the day I die and with that I would always be able to pay the bills.  That is sad!  The fact is I probably will sing and teach until I die because I love what I do.  But the bad part is that I thought that would be enough.

“It might be enough to survive but it is not enough to live!”

Life has many components and economic viability is a part of being a great artist.  In a world that has been converting more and more to a virtual dimension, it is important for us to become aware how we can participate on that front as well.  As an advocate for real opera, I’ve been a little myopic relative to the importance of the virtual world.  After I left academia the first time and did a considerable amount of non-music theater, I was advised to look into voice-over work.  It is something that excited me back then. But just about that time, my private teaching in New York took root and grew quickly. Now, I actually have time to commit to it and I have.  After applying for four voice over jobs, I received positive responses from three of the four companies, based on a two minute reading of a poem I recorded on my iPhone.  I believe there is a future there.  It is also work I can do at home.  I have experience in sound and video software from my work in singing.  One of the companies said they look forward to work with me in the future and that I had a great voice.  They also asked if by any chance I speak Spanish.  Well, I do and six additional languages fluently! So here is one example where my vocal work, my theatrical work, my language work, and my comfort with technology have value on a different platform and I can actually do this kind of work on my own schedule and at home.

“Is it guaranteed? No! But is it worth exploring? Definitely!”

One of my best professional students will take leave from his current singing job to relocate and work as a translator.  He will continue to sing, of course!  Another one writes code for website construction.  I’m sure I don’t know what other interesting jobs my singers do.

My purist tendencies made me focus on students who are as driven as I am, whether professional or serious amateur.  What frustrates me are people who are not interested on disciplined work.  I don’t like to teach students who are just going through the motions.  I don’t need to compromise that part of me.  However, there are ways I can provide instruction to literally millions of people who are avocational singers and even dilettantes.

I have cringed at the many Youtube channels of people claiming to “change your life in one voice lesson online!” But cringing is not enough. Do I have an alternative?

I never even considered I might have something more honest and of better quality to offer to that world.  Well, I am working on a series of online modules that singers can use to educate themselves about the nature of the voice and how to wade through the often confusing information.  Instead of being critical of what others are offering (they serve a purpose to many who are looking for easily digested information) why not provide information for those who are looking for something of a higher quality?

There is a place for everyone in a world of nearly 5 billion online consumers.  That is something worth considering by freelancers everywhere.

All of this, I was able to visualize after a one-hour meeting with the new member of my team.  My business advisor!

More than talk about it, I am also actively doing the work!

One of the things I realized through my first talk with my new business advisor is that I can do better engaging you, my faithful readers.  The world of opera has been changing drastically over the past three decades and it will only accelerate.

“We can come to solutions through our conversations on this blog.  Let’s make this an interactive experience! I am interested in what you have to contribute.”

Since the blog moved from Blogspot to WordPress, many of your subscriptions did not follow.  I am glad that the automatic forward brought you to our new home.  Let us reconnect properly:

Subscribe  to the blog above on the right sidebar with your email address!

© 1 April 2020

 

Why Opera Must Be an Elite (not elitist) Art Form–Part 1–Singers and Their Teachers

We are living in a time of expediency, which is too often mistook for efficiency. Opera can be produced more efficiently, with less waste of money certainly. However, to make the distinction between expediency and efficiency we require competency!

I have spent most of my life, more than two thirds of it as a voice teacher. I had hoped that with the availability of greater empirical information that voice teachers would be able to sit down and discuss the facts we know and how we deal with the information we don’t yet know. Instead, on the one hand, many try to posture authority by talking about vowel formants as if that constitutes the Holy Grail of finite vocal science and thereby hold themselves above those who have been too lethargic to spend the little time necessary to understand the limited nature of the science that’s available to us. On the other hand, with Lamperti’s Vocal Wisdom in hand, others shun vocal science like fundamental Christians citing Bible verses against the evidence of Natural Science and Evolution, not realizing they are stunting their own growth. Why?

In a world accelerated beyond the capacity of the average human being to keep up, the average person prefers digestible bits of information. Sound bytes!

“Instead of bringing me to understanding of how fold closure at three points of contact feels and how continuous, automatic compression occurs based on that complex closure and that the desire for the true vowels combined with a well phonated tone (breath and fold dynamics) results in spontaneous vowel modification…

…Just tell me to put it forward! Or lift my soft palate! Or close the folds a little tighter! Or pulse my stomach muscles inward for support! Or simulate defecation! Or…Or…Or…”

Instead of bringing me to the experience of how Appoggio relates to impostazione, relates to gola aperta, relates to morbidezza, relates to chiaroscuro, relates to voce di petto AND voce di testa…

…Just tell me to put it forward! Or lift my soft palate! Or close the folds a little tighter! Or pulse my stomach muscles inward for support! Or simulate defecation! Or…Or…Or…”

Do you tell a football player that modern understanding of muscular biomechanics does not matter in their training protocols? Do you tell a modern figure skater to just create more speed before doing a Quadruple Axel or do you tell them also that tucking their arms tightly in contributes to centrifugal force that accelerates the rotations and help accomplish the quad? Other physical disciplines, like Dance and Sports and event instrumental music grow their traditions in harmony with scientific research. Singing has given way to a great divergence between science and tradition, a division that has served only to create acrimony between colleagues and hold the development of our discipline hostage to ego, and absolutism on both the science side and the tradition side. Garcia was a traditional teacher but he was curious about how the voice worked and helped usher the human voice into the 19th century with the kind of information that helped make the human voice acoustically dominant in its competition with the orchestra. Not by sheer loudness but by perceived loudness relative to the human ear. In one word, resonance! Vennard in the previous century brought us more of the science as he understood than any other teacher before him. But he was a student of the operatic arts and his knowledge of science did not prevent him from using traditional methods. He understood that the science was incomplete and simultaneous that understanding it gave him a deeper understanding of traditional methods.

Pavarotti said often that operatic singing is a sport! I never take Pavarotti literally when he speaks English but rather try to understand how he is translating from Italian. The tenor was a superb technician and though never taught in conservatories apparently taught a lot of students privately. We who have had to develop muscle strength and stamina (who did not have it at the onset of vocal training) understand the amount of strength, flexibility and stamina it takes to sing well operatically. The majority of singers who developed strength and coordination before they were conscious of it are the ones who usually become elite singers and have no clue how to help others develop what they never knew they themselves developed (though unconsciously). That is why most successful singers make very incompetent vocal technicians. They usually know exactly what they want, but have no idea how to get it from a singer who does not already have the same muscular predispositions they themselves have.

Whether Alfredo Kraus not able to help a young tenor accomplish a good Bb in Celeste Aida, or Freni yelling at Russian singers for singing in the throat, the examples are inexhaustible.

On the other hand, Pavarotti would say it could take 10 years or more for a tenor to learn how to “cover” properly! He used the English word for “covering” instead of explaining the distinction between girare (turning) and coperto (covered). If it was just about vowel modification, why would it take 10 years? Some would explain this by saying Pavarotti often uses hyperbole to make his point. Or could he actually be making a statement of fact. He worked on his own voice for at least a decade and was close to giving up when he won the competition and debuted in Emilia-Romagna as Rodolfo. Instead of developing the voice in terms of muscular balance, breath coordination and a fact-base understanding of resonance, it is easier for the science-based teacher to reduce it to vowel modification, just as it is for the traditional teacher to talk about opening spaces. Pavarotti understood the organic nature of the instrument–that tone, support and resonance depend upon each other and that it took patience and dedication to accomplish and I am only speaking about vocal production.

Let us imagine a young singer coming into the field with a well-developed instrument! That singer will have a beautiful vocal quality and would be easily audible with strong impact in the presence of an orchestra!

Now let us detour and consider the great orator and civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, who’s birthday we recently commemorated! Imagine Dr. King speaking to a crowd! He had a lovely vocal quality and his microphone was working. That young singer above is equivalent to Dr. King saying: “Good Evening!” But what comes next? Does the singer come out with utterances that stop us in our tracts or just make a bunch of beautiful audible sounds? Why Dr. King as a comparison?

Martin Luther King spoke in poetic form, transmitting a message that was as current as it was eternal. His voice rose in melody and his utterances were purposefully rhythmic in ways that enhanced the message. His words were in harmony with the gravity of the situation he was addressing and in resonance with a world in turmoil of injustice. The Dream speech could easily be an operatic aria!

A young singer who has a well developed voice attracts the audience’s attention with beauty of tone and the capacity to be heard and be vocally impactful. Every operatic singer must be able to at least do that! Audibility is not enough. Impact and beauty of tone (not one or the other) are indispensable! But even with that, a singer would only have the audience’s attention for a few seconds (at the Good Evening level) unless that singer has poetry and rhythm and harmony and emotional resonance, all organically combined to keep the audience engrossed through a song, let alone an entire evening.

A singer with a viable voice is like an orator who has a functioning microphone. It says nothing about message or the singer’s ability to capture an audience’s imagination. For that we need poetry (often in foreign languages), melody, harmony and rhythm, all organically combined as the composer did to magical effect! Young singers today, through the fault of schools and institutions that prioritize superficial concerns, are generally not up to the task. We are grateful for those who aspire for that kind of elite competency despite the failure of the entire system.

There are more operatic aspirants today than ever before! The world of opera is beyond saturation with singers. Why do we get so few who can last? Simple, the requirements to become professional do not match the requirements necessary for opera at its most effective! Why not?

Because those who are in charge of the business of opera are confused about what it takes to make opera “marketable!” A beautiful body (as if there was some objective idea of what that is) may get you in the door and maybe even onstage, but it does not make you Leontyne Price or Maria Callas. Being charming and having self-confidence only go so far if your message is superficial. Stage presence in a small room with a piano becomes stage absence the moment the voice does not reach the audience.

The Cake and the Icing: The substance of an opera singer is made up of vocal impact and beauty, musicianship, poetic sensitivity, emotional expression and dramatic empathy. Those ingredients combined make up the opera singer’s cake! But when we go to the bakery store to buy a birthday cake, we are looking at the icing that it is covered within and the design of the words on top: the colors, the decorations, etc…

I don’t think it is unfair to to say that today’s operatic business concentrates it’s efforts on the icing. But too often (not always) when we bite into that operatic cake, it is insipid, flavorless and leaves no desire to take another bite. Why then should we expect audiences to return? The icing may get our attention, but it is the cake itself that inspire a second bite.

In the words of my favorite comedian, Bill Burr: “we need to thin the heard.”

Classical singing requires the discipline and passion of an Olympic athlete, not a beauty pageant contestant. The former is an investment into the limitless potential of the human spirit and the other is about caring for superficial qualities that do not last beyond youth. We cannot blame young singers for not investing in their spiritual development when we say you will be hired if you can fit a size 0 or if you develop a bodybuilder’s figure. Nothing wrong with a super physique in opera if you can back it up with operatic talent of a complete kind.

Can someone really invest in a supermodel figure and have time for operatic competence at the most elite level? You answer that!

If operatic viability looks like it is only diminishing with time, there is a good reason. The leaders of the business of opera have opted to prioritize the icing instead of the cake. Opera is not only a powerful art form, it is also a visceral form of entertainment–But only if it is allowed to be that. Football players playing patty-cake will not fill stadiums no matter how athletic they look. Don’t expect opera houses to be filled when you too often give them crooners in operatic costumes instead of powerful musical orators with superhuman voices!

© 3 March 2020

The Lonely Path of an Opera Professional: Part 1–A desire to belong!

…Yo creo que el canto es mucho (para mi, no se si para los demás) pero mucho trabajo en solitario. Mucho trabajo…tu, la habitación, el piano y buscar soluciones…(14:45-15:05)–Juan Diego Florez–16/12/2015

I believe that singing is a lot…(for me, I don’t know if for everyone else)…I mean a lot of work in solitude…A lot of work…you, the practice room, the piano, looking for solutions…(14:45-15:05)–Juan Diego Florez–16 December 2015, Liceu Barcelona.

This was Florez’s response to the question of whether his amazing talent is a gift or the product of a lot of work. It was refreshing for me to hear this four years ago and I’ve used this clip for students during my time teaching in Härnösand, Sweden. I know a few understood it but most did not!

But if you think this blog is going to go in the direction I often take, hammering once more the importance of work ethic in opera, you would be mistaken.

This is one of the most difficult blogs I will ever write because it is extremely personal. But I think it is important to write it!

As with anything that is important, I did not plan to write this at 5:19 in the morning. I was tired tonight before midnight and thought I was finally going to get a good night of sleep after a few days of not doing so. But the forces of the universe converged and conspired to inspire this blog.

I am very engrossed in the American presidential race because I am an American citizen living abroad. This is significant. I have lived in at least two places at a time over the last 15 years, whether New York and Berlin or New York, Berlin and Sweden or Berlin and Sweden. I am not expressing this in terms of glamor but rather the opposite. Before I explain the significance of the presidential campaign, I will take a moment to go back in time for some historical context.

I was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as many of you know. When I was 4 years of age, my father joined my mother in the United States. Saying goodbye to him at the airport is the most vivid and painful experience of my childhood. My mother had left a year before and I don’t remember that day. For reasons both personal and political, my parents had to leave. I have had a loving relationship with my parents and my sisters since the family reunited 5 years after my father’s departure. I hold no ill feelings against them whatsoever.

But as I listened to Pete Buttigieg, late in the night while he spoke at the University of Southern California, I realized why I understand him and why I gravitate towards him. His favorite all-time television character is Captain Picard (who is one of mine) and mine is Mr. Spock.–Both Stark Trek characters–In some ways the two characters are very similar. Intensely emotional but mentally disciplined. I used to pride myself on the ability to keep my feelings in check. But they often came exploding out when I least expected them. I never gave much thought to the tragedy of essentially losing my parents at age 4. I also remember horrific night terrors in my childhood when I lived with my extended family. I had a huge extended family that took great care of me: My grandmother, loving aunts and crazy uncles and my cousin, Gary.

They helped me survive, to the point that I forgot that I ever experienced tragedy. Then my parents returned and the family reunited.

I moved to the United States at age 10 and a half, which means I had already developed a Haitian identity. In all of the 6 foreign languages I speak (besides my native French and Haitian Creole), people who have refined ears will often ask me if I am French, because they hear a slight French lilt to my speech.

When I started the 6th grade a year later in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the first day of school was like walking into a war zone, compared to the orderly school experience I had in Haiti. I spoke English somewhat but with a bit of difficulty. When I was asked by the teacher to introduce myself, I stood up (as was customary in schools in my native country). The entire class burst into laughter! I panicked and since that day, I began to stutter horribly. I was now living in a foreign country. My parents were loving but home life was often turbulent between them.

Having lived in Haiti and remembering the extreme poverty that some people experienced without complaining, I never thought to consider my own life as anything but a luxury. Who was I to complain? But suffering is suffering!

Just as I acclimated to the absence of my parents, I acclimated to this foreign country and what seemed to me a chaotic lifestyle. Through it all, I had a chance to develop the seeds of talents that were planted in Haiti: sports (first soccer then tennis and baseball), music and the expectation to excel academically. I was eventually accepted on scholarship to a very small private school, where I became soccer team captain and leading scorer, playing leads in plays –I learned through singing to overcome stuttering as much as was possible. That is the root of my interest in singing. I could sing fluidly because that is controlled by a different part of the brain from the part that controls speach– sang in choir, edited my senior yearbook and graduated valedictorian. The Vail-Deane School shaped me! But it also hurt me. My graduating class was comprised of 9 students and word was out that most of them hoped I would stutter through my entire valedictory speech. By excelling, I alienated my classmates.

This pattern would continue! At Westminster Choir College, where I did my undergraduate work, I had the greatest teachers! But I was a minority. Being heterosexual there, in some respects, meant I was an outsider even though I was very supportive of my gay colleagues in the middle of the AIDS epidemic. I was not an enemy. But I was not a friend either. At the University of Michigan, there were race issues. I was not perceived as Black because I am a light-skinned Haitian.

One Black colleague said to me, after I got the lead role of Count Almaviva through fierce competition, that I was chosen because I could pass as white.

Another told me I was not allowed to sing Negro Spirituals because I could not identify with Black American suffering. But through it all, there were supportive teachers and inspiring people (and a few assholes too). I excelled not only developing my voice, but studying orchestral conducting and composition. I thought they would help me in my interaction with conductors and in my understanding of the composer’s process. They did! But my colleagues saw that as pretentious.

My life in Academia was no different. The values of excellence that I learned through all my schooling was not appreciated in the institutions that hired me. I had to rebuild a program in Utah. Apparently I did too well! My predecessor who ran an opera company in town threatened to sue me for defamation although I had never met him (but I did fire a teacher that he had hired because several of her students had developed diagnosed nodules, with the support of my colleagues). I was not Mormon in a town that was 99% Mormon.

In Florida, my Dean told me I was doing a great job but I should not teach my students so well that they become better than the scholarship recipients, because there was no more scholarship money if it was not awarded at the beginning of the student’s admission. Then a colleague who wanted his wife in my position started to write negative tenure reviews to the point that another colleague told me that it would probably be a difficult tenure process and that I probably should find another job.

It continued thus from job to job! I was hired for my excellence but no one told me that I should underperform so that colleagues would not see me as a threat to their territory.

If you think I’m feeling sorry for myself, that is not where I am going with this!

The commonality in all of this is the following and something I learned in an article recently about Pete Buttigieg. When you feel unaccepted, out of your element, mistrusted, rebuked just because you are different, foreign, you will try anything to belong! You try to create an impenetrable shield of excellence and achievement, not realizing you are alienating others:

Senator Amy Clobuchar in a recent debate said to Mayor Pete Buttigieg: “Not everyone is as perfect as you, Pete…”

At that moment, I heard the snickers of my classmates in high school and at University and academic institutions. She seemed so petty! But how can she possibly understand Pete’s desire to belong? He hid his homosexuality! When I was young in New Jersey, I hid the fact that I was born in Haiti. French was more accepted! Is it a wonder that Buttigieg’s campaign is about belonging?

Whether it was marrying a girlfriend I was about to break up with because she became pregnant or taking a job in the cold north of Sweden, it was about two things: 1) In the case of my ex-wife, I wanted to do the socially correct thing. I wanted to be there for my child even though all signs pointed to a very unhappy relationship. I did not want to be looked upon as an absent father. In the end, I became exactly that! 2) Taking that job in Sweden was about making a difference. I had forsaken academia for 10 years after my last job and was happy as a freelance teacher. But after doing masterclasses there, I was convinced to take the job with the promise that I could have an effect on young students by promoting excellence. It was an empty promise. In Sweden, novelty is a valuable commodity. An American teacher with a doctorate and 30 years of teaching experience, with professionally active students and an international profile is already a boon. But one who looked like me? And who incorporates Tai Chi in his teaching? What better to attract more students to a program that is at least geographically challenged?

These two situations exemplify 1) my deep desire to please and 2) my even more profound desire to belong. My naiveté was such that I would allow myself to see only the good and looked away from the obvious clues to the many deceptions that would follow! And they always followed!

How much do opera professionals need to belong? What will we do for a job, a role, a contract? What will we do to be accepted? Will we lose weight? Will we buff up to get a six pack? Will we offer ourselves sexually to someone? Will we marry someone? Will we take terrible pay? How much do we devalue ourselves just to be accepted? How much sorrow and deep trauma do we carry with us from all the disappointments?

So much!

Through it all, Providence gave me a piece of self-preservation! Through my multitude of poor decisions just to belong and be respected, I did make a few good decisions. Not for anyone but for me:

1) I chose to become a musician when I had the grades and offers for a much more practical career path. I thank my parents and family for having been my greatest fans through it all.

2) I quit academia after 11 years of investment. Then I took it again in Sweden and quit it for good this time. That is for my soul!

3) I took the challenge at age 42 to accept myself as a tenor and released myself from the false baritone trappings of a singing career at all costs. I am becoming the artist I always dreamed to become. That was always my soul’s desire.

4) For once, I moved to a place, not because of work, but just somewhere I am happy to wake up to. That too is for my soul. Thank you, Valencia!

5) I practice almost every day…My work in solitude…me, the practice room, the pianolooking for solutions.

I am in the process of healing from a lifetime of offering myself for the good of others and at my expense: financially, emotionally, physically, psychically. I am in another foreign country, but this one is kind to me. I chose it because it welcomed me with sea and sand and sun. It is MAS (more in Spanish). Mar, Arena, Sol (sea sand and sun). It has these essential elements of my country of birth. It reminds of my adopted country. I am a New Yorker at heart and I love being able to talk to people in the street because it is human and natural to do so. Natural for me! I enjoy teaching my students because they are passionate about singing. It is a work that give me great energy. And I am singing happily (except when I get little sleep). I haven’t fully built my environment of belonging yet, but this city is the place and I am slowly building my local network of friends. But while I am building, I have an extended family that includes amazing people all over the world, even in Sweden.

For the first time, I believe (not just think) truly that everything that happens to us is meant to shape us into the best version of ourselves–if we learn from our experience!–Because of my few special friends in Sweden, I can begin to release the memory of the suffering that occurred there. I can begin to release the deep anger that I harbored for former relationships because I invited them into my life (Doesn’t mean I wish to relive any of it, hehe). Being able to share these feelings openly is proof that I am healing.

Even while I was going through my own deep suffering, I found great joy in my work. Singing and teaching opera singers is what I was put here to do. In working with them, I get to experience the very vulnerable people they are when they sing and also the challenges the operatic world in its intense dysfunction puts them through. Domingo is only one symptom among so many.

I believe this article is the first in a series. That is why I label it Part 1. I feel depleted after nearly three hours of this stream of consciousness and yet remarkably refreshed. I will now sleep a little before going to my very enjoyable Tango lesson. I found a wonderful teacher here (See, I’m building my environment)!

Before I sign off, I must close with Pete Buttigieg. This is not a political commercial! I kept wondering why I felt such a deep connection to this man I don’t know. Judging by my blog, one would think I would be more aligned with Bernie Sanders. And in a way, I am. But I feel a kinship with this man, Pete Buttigieg, that is unlike most experiences I’ve had from afar. He is far from perfect but he is a profound human being who knowingly carries his passions with discipline. He is a Star Trek fan like me. So that earns him points. He is an overachiever and I appreciate him for that. He’s audacious! And that reminds me how audacious I can be and that I need to take advantage of this new day of clarity and have vision again. Vision with a new maturity. He lost his father to cancer and so did I. He’s definitely much more balanced than me. But he is a complex, paradoxical human being in the best sense of the world. He struggles! He’s difficult to define! He is rejected by what seems like a plurality of LGBTQ voters and young millennials, who on paper would logically be his natural constituents. Despite that he is committed to an idea of inclusion of belonging! And he is so right:

There’s nothing more fulling than to feel part of something!

But be sure you chose what it is you want to be part of.

© February 27, 2020

Conflation of Terminology: fR2 dominance is not head voice!

One of the easy but ill-advised choices that some science-based voice teachers make is to attempt to replace older terminology with scientific jargon. Too often modernists like to present tradition in the way that some in Western medicine like to define traditional medicines as “snake oil!” In this way, modernists also conflate information with methodology. After 33 years of active teaching I cannot say that the process of teaching voice has changed fundamentally although we have a wealth of new information.

Teaching and indeed singing is informed by the mind but occurs in the body.

That is why a very talented and experienced colleague said to me: “I don’t really know what head voice is.” Likewise, some 15 years ago when I was still singing as a baritone, I was preparing Germont Père from Traviata. I went to have a lesson from one of my former teachers and after I sang Di Provenza il mar…, she said: “You never used head voice in the entire aria!” My very science-minded answer was: “The voice turned. I know I achieved dominance of the 2nd Formant (now called fR2- 2nd Formant Resonance).” She replied: “It’s impressive that you can do all of that in chest voice!”

This is where an either/or jargon in my on mind prevented me from understanding what she meant. What I have learned over the years is that Head Voice and Chest Voice are components of the voice and both are active at all times in a well-coordinated voice. The way I was able to make sense of that memory is that the head voice function was not active enough when I sang Fs and Gbs. For a baritone, certainly not! A baritone would have given in to the lighter side of the voice a bit more when singing Fs and Gs. What my teacher did not know then is that I am in fact a tenor. This means that my Gb will exhibit more chest content than a baritone’s Gb. In someways, that Gb may have been appropriate for my tenor voice or maybe it could have had a little more head content. Either way, the fact that I made the turn to rF2 dominance did not necessarily mean that I made the muscular shift appropriately. Maybe I did, but I was not aware back then that rF2 was not the same as giving into the lighter mechanism.

As I explained in a recent post, vocal fold closure is a three-part system: 1) LCA closes the folds superficially along the folds’ length. 2) IA closes the folds posteriorly. 3) TA muscularis closes the folds inferiorly along the folds’ vertical depth. My theory is that closure 1 and 2 constitute the head voice and is a clear light experience, while closure 3, closure along the substantial depth of the folds constitute chest voice. The sensation is that the chest voice is full and is the dominant sensation in the lower two thirds of the voice (but the head function is always present) and the head voice is the dominant structure in the upper third. For me as a dramatic tenor, B3-F4, what I refer to as The Bermuda Tritone is an area of shared dominance. Subtle changes occur in this area. F4# and above require more and more head voice sensation but the integrity of the chest voice is not compromised. A good chest voice requires a strong compression of the breath and a deep fold posture to result in a flexible full tone instead of pressed voice. Maintaining the integrity of the shape of that full tone while allowing the head sensation to dominate our experience is the vocal battle (La lotta vocale) that we need to manage all our lives in order to become more and more skilled and not less so.

But explaining is never enough. Passing this along to students is not a one size fits all experience. Each student comes with specific issues and histories, which require the teacher to take a very specific approach to each student although the fundamentals are the same for everyone.

The last thing I wish to express relative to head and chest voices is that they relate to each other. A fully developed chest voice is necessary to liberate the head function because tension or dysfunction in one part of the system reflects in all parts. Accessing the ease of the head voice depends on developing and maintaining the fullness (support inducing aspect) of the chest voice. This balance more than anything else explains the great singers.

rF2 dominance is important! It was always a part of the operatic tradition. Girare, “turning the voice,” (which is what rF2 is) is crucial in the organic production of the voice, but it is meaningless unless a proper muscular balance has been achieved.

There are many examples of legendary singers who never valued the turning of the voice as important, or perhaps confused achieving head voice with turning the voice. Most famous among the men are Giuseppe di Stefano, Alfredo Kraus and Juan Diego Florez. These voices tend to be somewhat head-voice driven, but there is always enough fullness of tone to balance out the head voice. It is possible for a traditional male to achieve rF2 (turning) in a chest dominant adjustment or a head dominant adjustment. It is also possible to remain in a non-turned acoustic adjustment (rF1) in head voice as well as chest voice.

The problem relative to female voices is the concept of the middle voice. rF2 dominance from a traditional acoustic transition should occur in the female voice around E4b. The singers I teach talk about this lower passaggio around Eb to F#. All of that is very low in the voice. Feeling that transition of the voice can be confusing for female singers. The problem to understand is that changing to rF2 does not mean that the the singer is suddenly in head voice. The female singer has not reached a muscular necessity to access head voice dominance until the upper middle of the voice (For mezzos around B4b and for sopranos around D5. The interval of a 5th between G4 and D5 is often the weakest part of the modern female voice. The voice building challenge is to develop chest dominance in rF2 acoustic adjustments. Few women achieve this these days. It was easier when women assumed that the only passaggio was the upper passaggio. They assumed what is now called middle voice was still in chest voice dominance. Early Tebaldi, Margarethe Klose and Violeta Urmana are some examples. I’ve also observed that lyric coloraturas tend to do well here. If a soprano of a lighter voice must sing Violetta in Traviata or the second and third act of Gilda in Rigoletto, they need a strong middle voice. Mezzos and dramatic sopranos require a full middle voice but it takes time to develop the breath support for it. Often such singers, chose a different strategy–go into head voice dominance earlier in the range. I believe that is what has driven the tendency to lighter voices in opera altogether–It is difficult to develop a full voice. It takes a lot more time than the business of opera is willing to allow in our times. Not only are more dramatic voices more difficult to develop but even the middle voice of an average lyric soprano or the top of an average lyric tenor are also.

Fully developed voices produce consistent and replicable patterns that can be observed acoustically. However differences can be seen in voices that are fully developed because the singer has a different sound aesthetic. Di Stefano was called “a law unto himself” by his contemporaries but he was an exciting performer and artist. Today, we still use di Stefano as an example of someone who’s vocalism was against the grain. His contemporaries understood that his obsession with “pure text pronunciation” made acoustical vocal balance impossible. Yet his muscular balance made it possible for him to do great things, especially when coupled with his extraordinary musicality, stagecraft and linguistic gifts. Nevertheless, his colleagues judged his vocalism to be flawed. Today, many singers sing very much a flawed sound and are applauded for it. Whereas even 30 years ago there were agreements about the fundamentals of operatic singing, today people seek to lock themselves in a bubble of people who applaud what they do even if it is objectively problematic. We need to go out of this so-called post truth world. There is no post truth! The malady we are experiencing must be made an anomaly. We must return to a fact based world.

Lastly, there are many singers in the world who sing truly well by any measure and remind us how a great traditionally trained voice sounds like. But the environment caters to a more superficial sound aesthetic and therefore the great voices are actually valued less. The idiosyncratic voices are considered more unique. But are they really? Or just disorganized? Are they audible? Well, see you at the opera house!

© February 20, 2020

Inter-Arytenoids: perhaps not just efficiency

At the heels of the blogpost based on Ingo Titze’s 2014 paper on a “Bi-Stable” glottal closure system, I reconsidered the role of the IA. This is more based on personal practice, but I find it particularly helpful on a number of fronts. The closure of the posterior gap cleared up (pun fully intended) a few doubts over the past couple of weeks. Titze’s article concentrated so much on the interaction between LCA (lateral crico-arytenoid) and TA (thyro-arytenoid) that the role of the IA seemed almost secondary. Titze further emphasizes the instability of the two-part system, which made me wonder if there was a stabilizing factor that was overlooked. Might the IA (inter-arytenoid) be that stabilizing factor? I believe that to be true.

Unregulated air loss, when a posterior gap exists, would have a destabilizing effect on phonation when the other two muscle groups are playing at Tug-o-war. Is it possible that the IAs provide just the needed interference between the main fighters such that neither exaggerates? Worth considering!

The idea of lifting the soft palate might be related to posterior closure and therefore the IA. Raising the palate has always seemed sketchy to me since I’ve never felt a direct relationship to the tone. However when achieving what I believe to be posterior closure, I experience a resonance sensation in the area of what I perceive to be the soft palate. This action produces a very satisfying brilliance in the so-called “back vowels” (i.e. /a/, /o/ and /u/ and related mixed vowels).

The question is, of course: “how do you achieve this posterior closure?”

The idea of lifting the soft palate is not bad. However, the action must relate to a desire to say very clear vowels, particularly with respect to back vowels. Closure along the length of the folds (front to back), without closing the posterior gap seems adequate with respect to front vowels (i.e. /e/ and /i/ and related mixed vowels). However with closure of the posterior gap, the front vowels take on greater richness (to be expected with greater efficiency).

Finally this makes me think about a trend in recent decades of the “lighter” approach to singing. Lyric baritones who sound like tenors, lyric mezzos sounding like sopranos and lyric tenors sounding more like lower range countertenors, when compared to their counterparts some three to four decades ago and further back. Is it possible that this prevailing trend results from reduced involvement of the TA combined with some slight posterior gap? I have tried it! And the argument seems to hold water.

This is true particularly of Rossini tenors by and large! But that strategy is understandable (although not ideal) because their repertoire depends on unusually high tessitura and high notes (as high as F5). That other voice types follow this trend might have been caused by the dominance of electronically amplified media as the prevalent mode of experiencing music, even classical singing, which was meant to be experienced without electronic enhancement. Producers of recordings do not like the strong Singer’s Formant resonance, particularly at the dawn of digital recording when noise reduction was brought to zero. Before digitization a certain amount of ambient and mechanical noise was acceptable and in such an environment the “buzz” of the all-important Singer’s Formant (if one is too be heard with emotional intensity) was not intrusive. Is it possible that “the tail is wagging the dog?” That the acoustically reductive environment of recorded voices is dictating an aesthetic that is ultimately unviable in the context of an acoustic performance? I say yes!

I will leave it to the researchers to create a protocol for testing my contention. Meanwhile I’ll continue testing it in my practice.

Copyright 22 January 2020

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