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

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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

Sing-O-Meter

I was introduced to this App and I find it very interesting, in particular because it is very sensitive. There are so many intangibles in singing that whatever clarity we can find we should pursue it. I will investigate the Pro version and try to understand the coding parameters behind Sing-O-Meter but at first look, it is impressive. It is not a “singing” app in the advanced sense of the word. However it addresses the most fundamental skill in singing, which I call “ear-to-throat coordination.” Intonation in actual singing is fundamentally a perception issue and perception means context. In operatic singing, the desired chiaroscuro balance plays also into perceptions of intonation. 1) First of all, what are operatic vocal norms? Sadly today we don’t have any. Mass media plays a big part. Whatever we are told is viable is what we accept. Singers who are inaudible live can sound like they possess giant voices when they are amplified. 2) The audience is very forgiving. What we deem to be acceptable intonation has as much to do with what we accept as the singer’s timbre. That however can change with the singer’s personal tone expectations. In a way, consistency within the acceptable pitch margin of error can define the listener’s tolerance to a great extent. For example, is the singer flat or does s/he have a darker voice? As listeners we are also very forgiving relative to our timbre preferences. Furthermore, in a post-truth world, the singing business apparatus sees us as sheep who will accept whatever we have been programmed to accept. The human brain prefers what it is used to. That is why nearly 90% of pop songs in the last 20 years was written by two song writers, one American and one Swedish. It would not be a stretch to understand why Sweden is the most important nation relative to Eurovision, one of the entities that controls what we define as modern pop stars. What is the connection beyond Eurovision? How is this all related to the music we consume on our little personal computers?–This goes deep and dark!

That is why the fundamentals of Sing-O-Meter impress me. The level of sensitivity is very high therefore lowering the margin of error. This app leaves little to timbre preferences. I tried to modify how I sang into the app, but purposefully dark or purposefully bright, the app responded to fundamental frequency not perceivably to variations in the overtones. I could sing darker or brighter and still control my fundamental frequency relative to the app’s very limiting margin of error. An app like this can restore some objectivity to what we define as standards!

The truth is that the business, the schools and even private teachers lower the bar in the name of making more money. In the last 30 years it became more profitable to be mediocre than excellent. There aren’t so many people who have the staying power to become great singers in any discipline if great singing is defined by vocal control within more narrowly defined parameters. Someone can be a great musical artist and be a very poor vocalist. I love the voices of Edith Piaf and the lead singer of the Flamenco-Latin fusion group The Gypsy Kings but I’m clear that neither produces the voice in a way that is healthy and that both produced their voices in ways that are “harmful longterm.”

Longterm harm is a powerful combination of words! In a world obsessed with immediate gratification, almost no-one cares about longterm consequences–Not the music business driven by short-term profits, not the schools driven by student enrollment for their short-term bottom-lines, not the singers who get to scrape a living and perhaps not the teachers who also need to put food on their family’s tables and certainly all the bottom feeders who are sticking to aspiring singers like barnacles to a sinking ship.

In the last generation, we have seen the dumping of pretty much every value that made singing something special. Similar trends can be followed in every facet of life. Being an “artist” has essentially lost all of its luster in the name of money. The Internet was not conceived for what it has made the world. It is only a tool that has magnified the effects of the unbridled greed that can followed through every part of human history. And even at the edge of environmental catastrophe and even human extinction, it would seem that our human greed overpowers even our survival instinct.

There’s nothing I can write on this blog that will provide any effective counter to the momentum of a runaway greed train. However, this app gives me a little ray of hope that standards might be brought back. That in some corner of a post-decency world, Excellence might have worth. Quality might matter. Patience might be a virtue again. More than ever we need Art for Art’s sake.

App Logo

The app is available on Apple and Google Play platforms.

© 14 January 2020