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Are you confused about the so called vocal registers?

When I was a child I already loved to sing. But it seemed to me that I had two voices: the normal voice and then a strange high and funny one which I nevertheless could play with easily. But these two voices didn´t seem to match, and I had to decide which one to use. Actually, I never dared to try the funny one in public, on the rare occasions I performed at school or family events.

Nobody could help me because there were no singing teachers in my small home town.

Much later, to my own surprise even, singing became my profession. I had since learned that indeed, there were two or even more ”voices” – or registers to have fun with while singing. But sometimes the bridging of them – especially going from low to high – was challenging. Not to talk about the weird high range I had discovered. Almost by accident I noticed that there was a really high extension to my voice. It felt easy! But again, how to learn to transition smoothly over to that stratosphere?

Fast forward years and years. Now I know a LOT about the registers and other technical stuff. Just like me as a young girl, students continue to struggle with their breaks, passaggios and registers. We can read about them in books to find out that even the experts don´t use the same expressions for register terminology which adds to the confusion.

So, here is my contribution in super short form:

The vocal folds (or cords) can vibrate in different ways and it does not only have to do with the pitch. They can even vibrate differently on the same pitch. That´s what can be confusing if you´ve thought that head register is always for high notes or that chest register is only low.

Vocal fold vibration can be either thick or thin. If the folds are thick the sound is usually fairly low and strong. Both men and women sing this way especially in the low range in forte. When we want to sing higher the cords need to become thinner in order to stretch more and create higher pitches, unless we want to shout. Only the edges of the vocal folds then vibrate. But we can use the thin folds vibration also in the lower range to sing softly. The higher the singer can keep the thickness, the stronger the voice sounds but more breath pressure must also be added. And there is a limit – if you sing too loud and too high with thick folds you can risk damage. A special technique, belting, is needed to do this without vocal injury. Opera singers usually sing with a combination of thin edges of the cords vibration with some thickness and a lot of body strength, depending on the individual physique and how dramatic the role is.

So, in every genre and voice category, singers need to learn to mix the thickness of their vocal folds. The ultimate exercise for this is the messa di voce – starting in pianissimo (=thin folds), then gradually increasing crescendo (=adding vocal fold mass and breath pressure) to a full forte – and then back, controlling the thinning of the cords and balancing the breath pressure and flow. Worth practicing!

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Messa di voce kuvaThe vocal folds are amazing in their capability of reacting to emotions and the finest feelings. There are mechanoreceptors in the tissue of the vocal folds and one would never really guess how much intricate emotional changes can affect the status of our vocal mechanism. Neither do we need to, in fact, I mean, scientifically. Let the scientists measure those. Enough for us to understand that the larynx is really sensitive.

What we do need to understand as singers, is that the vocal folds can behave in various ways and that we should be able to control them consciously to help our voices stay in good shape. I´m talking about the mechanism that determines if the folds are vibrating with thick or thin mass. The way to protect your voice from excessive workload is to be able to vibrate with thin mass. Only the edges of the folds come into contact. The sound is what we also call head voice or head register. This calls for gentle closure of the cords, even airflow and regulated air pressure. If you can do it, great, you are safe! Because if you no longer can sing softly, you may have a problem. The cords may have become too thick and are perhaps swollen; there might even be some tissue damage (the much feared nodules).

So, always cultivate your ability to sing pianissimo! Evenly, gently, smoothly – both low and high range, but especially in the middle range. If you have a nice mixed voice in the middle range, you also have vocal protection.

This doesn´t mean you should always sing softly – naturally you also need your fortissimo at times. The best exercise for this control is always the messa di voce – the old Italian concept of starting pianissimo and swelling it to full forte, and then back again to piano. Practice this and you gain great control for both your vocal folds and your breathing mechanism.

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What is laryngeal tilt? Many singers do it  unconsciously because it is sort of built-in in classical vocal technique. What happens when you tilt? What is actually tilted? Can you lose this ability?

Let´s try to answer some of these questions.

The larynx consists of three main cartilages: the thyroid, the cricoid and the arytenoids. The thyroid cartilage sits on top of the cricoid and they are connected to each other with a paired muscle, the cricothyroid. When the cricothyroid muscles contract they pull the thyroid a little forward and down thereby tilting the thyroid. While the arytenoids also rotate towards each other closing the glottic chink, the vocal cords close while stretching and lengthening at the same time. This means we can sing different pitches; the more the folds stretch, the higher the pitch. IF there is no tilt we can still sing higher pitches but not as easily and the sound retains a speechlike quality. With thyroid tilt we can really SING!

Thyroid tilt is therefore very important. How can it be taught? Usually it happens quite automatically and classical teachers ask for it from the very beginning when they show and have students imitate head and mixed voice. This terminology is confusing again – it is not produced in the head but by the vocal cords – but we FEEL it in the head. That´s why it has been named head voice long ago. It is the result of function, not the cause of it. If we don´t have anyone to demonstrate tilted voice sound, we can also imagine crying or sobbing. They are natural human responses and primal sounds that we can take advantage of when learning to sing. Crying means the tilt happens naturally; adding even more cry with sob also lowers the larynx. This enables us to vary the colours of the voice depending on the emotianal contexts of songs.

If you have never been conscious of thyroid tilt it is possible to lose it. That can happen unfortunately for a number of causes. If too much pressure is used in singing the vocal fold vibration may become too thick and the lengthening / stretching of the cords gets more difficult. The fine edges of the cords that should be innervated and touch each other gently and firmly lose their sensitivity and thicken. That calls for even more pressure which of course exacerbates the situation. We hear this kind of forced singing all the time. The tilt that would enable the cords to stretch may be reduced. There are also cases where trauma to the neck or whiplash may cause deterioration of the laryngeal coordination, thus making singing very effortful.Image

How to tilt? Gently moan and cry, do the siren exercise (sing on –ng). You might  palpate the front of the neck gently and feel the tiny forward rocking motion. Tilting adds sweetness to the sound as well as healthy vibrato. Tilt can be used in all genres, not only classical and it makes singing more comfortable and easier.

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Competition is everywhere. That´s the world – winning and losing in the big game of life. We have just finished watching the Olympics and unavoidably they bring to mind competition in music as well.

This summer I have attended 3 different singing competitions, not as a participant but as eager supporter and observer. Obviously many people always argue you cannot compete in music because it cannot be measured. Quite true. But some singers just do very well in competitions and others often fail. If you don´t reach your best in a competition how can you do well in other performance situations? That´s just the issue – there are many great singers who under-perform in competitions and auditions which resemble each other and are often the worst situations a singer must face. Must you win? Yes, if you want that prize or that part. Must you compete? No, but then your talent may remain unnoticed. Must you audition? Yes, unless you want to sing at home only.

Shall I take part in a competition? What are my chances? How do I control my nerves? What is the best repertoire? Do I convey the image a successfull performer, a winning attitude? Have I found my vocal fach, my best assets?

So a singer must find a solution to these questions.

Winning can also be seen in the context of winning oneself, not only others. A tip: My friend Cristina Andersson has winning solutions in her book The Winning Helix.

What do we look for in a winning singer? Here is my list:

  • great voice with personal timbre
  • solid vocal technique
  • musicality: sense of rhythm, clean intonation, good legato and phrasing
  • total performer package with the look, physique and voice suitable for the part  if you sing opera
  • posture, poise and control of body movements
  • ability to sing with nervousness and in spite of it (that´s a big separate issue!)
  • temperament and intelligence to interpret the text
  • deep understanding of the character and/or poem
  • soulfulness (this is seen in the eyes and face)
  • sense of humor, wit and ability to react
  • ability to tell a story and engage the audience

Those are the requirements – and even more!  And they apply to all performances of course. But if you wonder why you have not been successful so far; check the list honestly and do what you can to be even better!

Picture above: Winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World 2011, soprano Valentina Nafornita from Moldova.

Picture on the right: Tuuli Petäjä, Winner of the 2012 Olympic Silver Medal in Windsurfing, from Finland.

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For a figure so prominent in the field of pop music, not very much has been said about Madonna´s voice. It´s as if it were taken for granted or overlooked. And yet, it´s an integral  part of her performing. That being said, most of the attention in her performances always goes to the show elements, her figure and shocking outfits, her dancing and choreoraphy.

Madonna has a good voice but not an exceptional one. Some writers have described it as mezzo soprano but in CCM singing the vocal fach is not of importance as a classification,  as in operatic singing. A real mezzo soprano has depth and substance. Madonna´s voice is such a basic material that it can go towards many different colours, depending on the meaning of the song. That is also a great skill. It´s like a good photo model whose face would not attract particular attention without makeup but who can look stunning in different pictures with a skillful makeover. Likewise, Madonna likes to change her voice according to the songs.

Her range in most songs is actually quite limited, ranging between F3-C5 which is about 1,5 octaves. Usually this is sufficient for a lot of CCM repertoire. She uses a basically healthy vocal technique, very seldom going for extreme pitches, screaming, sighing or crying. The emotional colour is actually missing; it seems she always wants to be in control. Of course, dancing like crazy in a show, you must keep your core support and rather not lose vocal control if you want to survive. From a vocal pedagogue´s point of view, she uses thin vocal folds and avoids forcing.

Madonna was criticized in the early stages of her career of a childish, naive, little- girl voice. This can be heard in her hit Like a Virgin. She sounds very girlie, a little breathy and nasal. This was the so called ”Minnie the Mouse on Helium”. But what better describe the song´s provocative feeling? So one suspects it was done on purpose.

During the filming of Evita, Madonna had to take vocal lessons, which increased her range. So her voice grew much deeper and fuller. Of this experience she has been quoted saying that she studied with a vocal coach for Evita and realized there was a whole piece of her voice she wasn’t using. Before, she just believed she had a really limited range and was going to make the most of it.  Isn´t that what so many singers notice after taking lessons!  Usually her singing is still very close to speech: every word is carefully articulated, the words are clearly understandable, and the pitches resemble the speech melody of the sentences. It is called speech quality singing. There is not much resonance of the back or higher cavities of the vocal tract but rather the sound is resonated in the mouth. The vocal folds can be thin or thick or something inbetween. It can also be called mixed voice which is basically a healthy production.

For any artist, straining her voice all the time is dangerous to the vocal cords. In Madonna´s later songs there is less nasality, sometimes thicker cords, not very much vibrato but nevertheless control which can unfortunately let her down in live performances doing all the other stuff. That is when we may hear her singing off key.

Career women often start lowering  their voices, reinforcing the stereotype that power and a low voice go together. A similar stereotype can also be found in rock music. Women with low, raw, raucous voices are perceived as strong, sexy, wild and intense. Their voices seem to witness an intense, wild life with lots of sex, drugs and alcohol. This is not always healthy for the voice either! But Madonna again goes against these masculine traits. Perhaps Madonna’s girlie voice can be considered as a statement against this stereotype ?

In her latest hit Gang Bang Madonna again breaks all rules; both in the context of the text and suddenly singing with a much heavier vocal style. The chest register is somewhat strained, like it were too low for her but well conveying the appalling content of that song.

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CCM singers do it all the time. They have the luxury of singing with a professional band during their singing lessons. Classical singers sometimes have to be contented to singing with no accompaniment at all during lessons, or having their singing teacher play with varying fluency and then finally and preferably with a professional skilled pianist, another artist. The latter is of course what we all want and love. Although, sometimes a beginning singer may feel intimidated by the professional musician, not knowing his/her music perfectly, perhaps missing entrances or making mistakes in counting the rhythm. How about having practiced with playback, learning how the accompaniment sounds even in the most difficult pieces that the singing teacher maybe even refuses to play? Here is one possibility that so far has eluded the typical classical singer.

Now there are resources available to all singers, with lieder or arias. You can sing with a conductor with the e-Vocal program available in the Internet. You can order your piano accompaniment for many songs from a website called Your Accompanist. You can even sing arias with a full symphony orchestra listening to special CDs that offer the repertoire for all voice types.

My opinion of using playback with classical singing is mainly positive although there are obvious reasons why it might not be applicable. It can be good for your initial rehearsing, before you meet your professional accompanist for the first time. You will be better prepared, but do not be surprised if the tempo is a surprise. You will perhaps get frustrated because your digital accompanist doesn´t know where you breathe but on the other hand, that can help you keep the tempo at all times. It is unflexible, maybe even unmusical, but what a relief when your in-person real pianist listens to you and lets you make nice tempo changes and rhythmic nuances. Then you really know to appreciate your partner!

So, very good for some rehearsal purposes. Definitely no good for the final artistic development. And absolutely forbidden in performance! This is just to say, don´t even think of saving the pianist´s fee if you asked to sing a classical song in public.

 

 

 

 

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People often have prejudices against opera. This can mean particularly the way singers sound in classical opera as they sing without amplification. Singers spend years in developing their voices to the maximum, building their own instruments and their ”built-in microphone” . This means the voice gets louder and more penetrating because it has to carry over the strong sound of an orchestra. Sometimes this development is taken to an extreme and the beauty of the sound even compromised. There is a lot of carrying power, a strong so called singers formant. At near distance such a voice can literally  hurt in your ears! In many cases these voices are classified as dramatic and may be suitable for certain types of repertoire. The component of brightness is exaggerated in relation to darkness or there is an overly dark pressed phonation– against the old Italian ideal of the balance of chiaroscuro (bright-dark). This can also be a result of too much air pressure. Such overly metallic or unnaturally darkened voices are not always produced with harmful technique but the danger is near.

 

And the unaccustomed ear of an opera layman may feel classical singing is unnatural and ugly. Hmm…  How unfortunate is that. So, as a singing teacher I also want to say, classical singing is not always about a full-blown ”operatic” sound. Singing should be beautiful – that is ” bel canto”. Of course, singing about dramatic and violent emotions cannot be sweet. The emotional context should  colour the singer´s sound. But a reliable, balanced and safe singing technique probably makes the best of every voice. Then it is beautiful, flowing, soft or strong, both bright and dark in its  individual timbre.

 

There are so many  other musical styles besides opera where classical singing technique enables the voices to flower expressively, emotionally and intelligently.

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