Archive for September, 2009

It´s been exciting to read the news and reviews about the Met´s new Tosca production since the Leading Lady, Tosca herself, Karita Mattila went to the Sibelius Academy together with me. Yet another success for her! (let´s not mention the director). Karita and I started the same year as voice majors – and look where she is now! Of course, her voice was exceptional even then and if I recall, she was only 19. And her energy – it would just burst out with her eyes shining in that marvelous face with wide cheekbones. I remember she was taught to sing in(to) the masque  by her teacher Professor Liisa Linko-Malmio. ( I´m not to guess what Ms. Mattila thinks about voice production today.) But what masque, someone may ask?

So, that brings us to this question: Can a Voice be Placed? Of course not,  voice scientists argue, you cannot PUT the voice anywhere. It will resonate in all the cavities anyway, given that there is a good balance of airflow and vocal fold closure. Yet, why do some teachers still talk about placement in the masque, advocate it, even demand it from their students? Why do many singers feel the sympathetic resonance in the front of the face, around the eyes and nose? YES, I say, the feeling of the masque is real and it can be a very good tool for fine tuning the optimal sound. Because that´s what it is: trying to mold the vocal tract so as to gain maximum resonance and carrying power (over the orchestra without amplification). The sound will then be chiaroscuro (that great Italian word for both bright and dark), combining high resonance brilliance with slightly lowered larynx and deep body connection.

All this applies to classical singing. It is an ART – and as such perhaps not the most natural thing in the world (excuse my sarcasm, tongue-in-cheek!). I usually don´t  teach this concept to a beginning singer. But when coaching all those wannabe opera singers it is of paramount importance that their utmost potential, their own optimum and maximum resonance quality be found. It will enable them to get more volume and roundness and, done correctly, also ease. No need to push or strain – just let the voice bloom with a vertical forward feeling, almost as if it were outside of yourself (remember, it´s just a feeling). So many things in singing are really not physically or anatomically equal to the sensation they cause. That´s really strange but true. And also the reason why we may get mixed up by cause and effect. To deal with that is the art and craft of a singing teacher.

Remains the answer to the question: HOW is it done?

Just a few ideas:

Experiment with gravity: lean your head over and LET your  sound flow in the cavities around the nose. (I´m well aware that the sinuses don´t actually resonate, thanks to late William Vennard).

Get the feeling of air circling in the nose, imagine smelling something. Take a “devious sneer” (thanks to Paul Farrington for that!).

Lift your upper lip with your finger while singing /U/ (funny, but it works; thanks to David Jones!).

Don´t be too stingy with your airflow – “let the airflow do the work!” (Oren Brown). Of course, the vocal folds must accomodate this airflow, vibrate it to sound wihout breathiness.



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The A Vowel (Aah!)

Semester has begun and here we are busy teaching and studying again.  Things have changed sometimes after the summer holidays. Students have worked on their own and perhaps taken summer courses with different teachers. Oh, the excitement: this is what I´ve done, I learned this new technique, what do you think about it? Aah, the teacher wonders, what are you  up to now? Have you forgotten all we worked on last year? WHAT are you doing?

But sometimes progress happens over time as things get digested without even knowing it.

Then we begin vocalizing. I hear my student complaining how some vowels are so difficult while others resonate so nicely. This is very common with all developing singers. And even professionals do have to take special care of some vowels, especially in the tricky passaggio area.

Female singers often like the U (oo) because it helps with head voice resonance. Male singers might prefer the E (Eh) since it is sort of in the middle and gives a forward placement feeling. The I (ee) is very bright and forward, easy for many, but difficult for some because it might cause a tension at the root of the tongue and raise the larynx too much. But almost all singers complain about the A! Aah, why is it so backward, almost as if you´d try to swallow the poor vowel. The tongue seems to be pulled back into the throat, perhaps even pushing on the larynx. The A often sounds off pitch, mostly flat, lacks in overtones and generally feels unstable. On the other hand, the A has more space, it requires a more open mouth and you can easily open the jaw.

The reason for A difficulties is in fact the position of the tongue and it has a lot to do with one´s native language. Don´t we all envy the Italians for their forward articulation? Singing in Italian has always been considered a great way to school the voice – and for good reason. So, we must get rid of the ear´s dictatorial command that A sound exactly as we have learned to speak. Theysay: “Canta come si parla” (Sing as you speak) but what good does that do if you speak while swallowing your tongue and using minimal lazy articulatory movements. It also seems that the vocal cords don´t close quite as well on the A, whereas on the I you tend to get a really good closure (sometimes even too tight adduction). That means, the feeling of support is not always as obvious on A, which makes this situation worse still.

My advice: practice alternating forward and back vowels, like I – A or E – A patterns, learn to accept a new feeling for the vowel. Remember that you cannot hear your voice as others do. Your ear often wants to hear a slightly muffled sound because through bone conduction it might sound nice and round in you OWN ears. The ng-sound (like in sing) is a good tool for you to learn a more forward position of the tongue. Remember, it´s actually the back part of the tongue that needs to come forward, not the whole mass of it. Sing NG – Aa on a downward slide and while releasing the tongue down from the soft palate, feel the space behind the tongue stay open.

More about the NG sound later!

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The Secret of High Notes?

Is there really a secret for singing in the high range?

Physiologically, to sing high is just to stretch your vocal cords and keep them connected at the same time, all the while applying the right amount of pressure from the support system. This means your laryngeal mechanism has to obey the orders of your brain: sing higher. What happens? The thyroid cartilage tilts so that the vocal folds can become longer and thinner, vibrating only by their edges,  thus stretching and creating a higher  pitch. It is really quite simple – the actual physical micro mechanism needn´t be explained any further for us to comprehend what is going on. Subjectively, this means we must give the larynx every possible opportunity to “do its thing” – to let it function naturally. But what does that mean in practice? Why do we often hinder this natural mechanism from taking place?

The larynx naturally wants to rise when singing higher pitches. This, while being natural, on the other hand, makes the sound often shrill and strained, not so desirable qualities. For the vocal folds to stretch according to pitch (which happens quite automatically) there really only needs to be freedom and relaxation, but what usually happens is tightening and closing of the vocal tract, that is the throat. To make things worse, we usually try to compensate by adding more pressure (usually thinking we are supporting better).  For classical singing, there is an ideal of keeping the larynx relatively low while attempting to sing high which really is quite unnatural physiologically! But there is a way: to sing high and keep the larynx lower, you must find a special balance, thus creating this characteristic sound required of a classical singer. It is really a phenomenon of the past 200 years, since the development of bel canto towards the more dramatic vocal expression of the Romantic and Wagnerian singing ideal. Even today, we want to hear a voice to sound chiaroscuro, the Italian equivalent of dark and bright at the same time. This can be technically realized by keeping the larynx relatively low (not as low as possible!) while at the same time activating the higher and brighter harmonics and overtones of the masque, the resonating cavities high in the head. It is not easy! This is vocal art, a highly developed skill.

Singing teachers have a large variety of ways to achieve this ideal. To keep the larynx low while singing high, they often stress the importance of the breathing mechanism, the low support. If the diaphragm is retarded in its ascent after inhalation, this naturally keeps the larynx lower (the so called diaphragmatic support and the  tracheal pull, research by Sundberg).   Modifying the vowels is another way, applied together with the previous system. It involves the use of the pharynx which is the main resonator of all our cavities. To achieve the maximum use of the pharynx we must also find the best open position of the jaw. Many singers have great problems opening the jaw, tensions, either pulling it back or pushing it forward, or generally just not opening enough for good quality of high notes. You really have to find your best way, individually, because the jaw opening is not the same for everyone but it is nevertheless of great importance.  Our physical structures differ considerably in size . A large jaw is usually an asset for a singer (look at Joan Sutherland!). Those with more fragile facial structures will have to work out the opening just suitable for them.

Thus, singing high notes really is an art, answering the needs and wishes of the international audience who wants to hear nice, round, clear and velvety high notes that still carry well. Not an easy task!

But quite a different ideal arises for the singer in musical theatre singing with a microphone.  The high notes are no longer dependent on the singer´s ability to project acoustically, but instead it is required that the  high range  express emotion as naturally as possible, without shouting. You need a special technique, either belting or the so called legit. This way of singing really is quite different from classical technique, in that it does not require a lowered larynx. Still you must be able to stretch the cords without straining, the larynx must be in a higher position while maintaining the open throat. The twang or the use of the epiglottic funnel can be used for carrying power and to help the stretch.  When correctly applied, it does no harm to the vocal mechanism but it has to be learned just as thoroughly as any vocal technique.

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