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Archive for the ‘voice’ Category

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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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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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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In my latest blog post I wrote about the masque, stating it´s a good thing. Ok, I still think so, but I´m also aware there are many singers and voice teachers who don´t subscribe to this thinking. Why is that? There are many reasons why not all singers find it helpful and just as many reasons why some singing teachers have found it counterproductive. It´s a good thing but can easily be missunderstood. And in that case it´s better to forget about it at least for a while.

Let me explain. The voice flows out of you as sound waves. You need very little air to get the vocal cords to vibrate. It is not the air in fact that gives you the feeling of the masque but it can be helpful to imagine so.  If you start pushing air forward to feel this masque you are definitely out for trouble. That destroys the delicate balance of the instrument. The old Italian masters said: “inhalare la voce ma cantare davanti” , inhale the voice but sing forward. What does that mean? Feel as if you are sucking in air, or “drinking” the voice while singing because then you don´t push, you stay better connected to the body and keep the space in the pharynx open. On the other hand, the voice has to come out as well as the text. Therefore, at the same time, imagine singing out, letting the tongue come forward and the text to flow easily to the listeners ears. If you can combine these two there is good balance of function as well as balanced sound. Because of fear of losing this balanced function many teachers do not advocate singing in the masque.

I still insist on the masque as an end product but not necessarily as a method for beginning singers. Only gradually you become aware of this feeling. And when you get  it, your voice will have roundness and carrying power. But it requires wise training and kinesthetic awareness no to push while still maintaining the masque feeling.  It gives the passaggio and higher notes a forward placement, roundness and brilliance, the feeling of a high ceiling above and also balances the pressure from below. It is part of you” inner microphone”, your built-in amplifcation.

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