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Madonna´s Voice

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.

Singers are often puzzled with two seemingly opposing concepts: letting the air out while at the same time conserving it. Equally puzzling can be this: you must keep the cords together; they must close for tone to be created. On the other hand air must come through for the cords to vibrate. There are differing pedagogical views of the application of these concepts. Others consider it paramount that there is good closure, even a tiny pinch of the glottis. Others think the air must flow and the cords will be closed through the Bernouilli effect.

All I can say is, both are right. Good closure will ensure clear tone, bad closure creates breathy tone. But even with good firm closure the air will come through in tiny puffs through the cords. So which should you think about; the closure or the air. This involves the whole body and the breathing apparatus obviously. And the final emphasis pedagogically speaking is always individual depending on the student. If the student has a breathy voice it will not be wise to stress airflow too much. If he/she has a tight, tense voice, the opposite is true. That´s why the same exercises will not do for everybody.

Airflow and air pressure are two different things. The old bel canto masters talked about lotta vocale, vocal competition – not meaning singing competition! – the pull between to opposing forces.

Excessive air pressure can hinder vocal fold vibration. The female middle range especially can be severely affected , the folds vibrating with too thick mass. Thick folds in the middle range require ever more pressure with unfavourable results: pitch problems and compensatory tensions. Male singers can usually cope with less problems because their vocal fold mass is always greater but they should learn to thin their folds, too, if they want to be able to sing high notes. That´s called technique!

 

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.

 

 

 

 


 

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.

When singers speak about breathing they often refer to their abdominal area or somewhere around their waist. Very common is also to speak about support and breathing as if they were the same thing.  Aren´t they interrelated? Yes, correct, but that is not the whole picture.

Is it possible that breathing is overrated? We do sing with the whole body, definitely, but is breathing for singing really that difficult? You renew your energy on the inhale and sing on the exhale. You manage the exhalation so as not to let all air out at once. What else does breathing do for you? It opens the throat if done correctly, it prepares the body for singing. That´s inhalation. When you sing you already exhale and that´s usually where trouble starts.

In order to ”support” your singing you may get really tense and instead of using the air comfortably you hoard it or force it. Instead of keeping the pressure off your vocal cords you might mistakenly push with the air, all the while thinking you are ”supporting”. Suddenly singing gets difficult. Then, desperately seeking for more ease, you might try to sing more lightly and there goes your body connection!

The Estill teachings I have learned have also led me to think about body work simply as anchoring. The breathing part is natural and shouldn´t be such a big deal. Of course, to beginners we have to teach the basic good manner of breathing. But to more advanced students it might be useful to think of your breathing and body work separately!

Breath ”naturally” (keep your  chest and posture aligned, shoulders down, relax your tummy while inhaling etc.). But then, anchor! What does that mean?

Anchor your body by using  your strong back muscles, around your waist and under the arms and shoulder blades. Anchor you head and neck, too, by feeling your neck is expanding and head firmly placed between the shoulders, not forward. Look at great Wagnerian singers with their strong necks. Even lyrical voices benefit from this firmness. It helps stabilize the larynx in the throat and gives real support to the delicate structures inside. You can keep your anchoring and renew your breath. That way you stay connected all the time. It feels you are really working the body but it´s a nice, stable feeling you can learn to trust.

Tongue and jaw

Tensions in the tongue and jaw are all too common for singers. What a nuisance they can be! I once read that even Dame Kiri Te Kanawa had problems with her tongue in the beginning. It always seemed to get in the way! That´s really comforting, though, isn´t it for the rest of us!

Why would one be too tense in these important parts of our instrument? We need them all the time, for eating and drinking mostly, for speaking and singing always too. The jaw muscles are very strong indeed and have gained strength through daily practice. Our nervous system is connected to all muscles and we may keep the jaw muscles tight even while sleeping. Sometimes we even clench our teeth, whether awake, nervous or angry, or during the night , our subconscious stress manifesting itself in the tightness of the masseter and pterygoid muscles (biting muscles).

Try to sing with your teeth together. The space in the pharynx obviously diminishes but the muscles connected to the hyoid bone and all the way to the larynx are also affected. That is why we should relax the jaw when singing. The opening of the mouth aperture is actually not the most important thing, but the loose feeling between the jaws, some space between the molars, is actually very important. In our speech we are sometimes accustomed to pronouncing some vowels with a spread mouth opening, for ex. Italian i (ee) or e (eh). In singing this opening may be too tight and it may also be difficult to open the jaw for higher pitches.

How to open the mouth correctly?  Funny, but this can really be an issue especially for beginning singers. Find the spot where the jaw can be unhinged, situated in front of the ears. Let the jaw move slightly forward, then down and back, not directly backwards and down. You don´t need a constantly hanging jaw like an idiot, but you must be able to open to maximum at will on certain higher pitches. If the opening is not correct it may hinder the ease of high notes and cause tensions elsewhere. This movement should be automatic and coordinated according to the range of a sung phrase; singing should never be “led” by the jaw.

The other culprit, the tongue, is really an artist! It helps in molding the cavities into different vowel formants and moves like a quick little snake to all possible syllable forms. Really a surprisingly multitasking organ, it also likes to “help” when there is a balance problem. The root of the tongue can unfortunately do much harm to the beauty of the sound, make a wide range difficult and create problems for the pronouncing of words. (See my previous article). Sometimes we hear a sound that has been dubbed “Knödel”, a German word meaning there´s a hot potato in your throat. That sound is instinctively produced by children mockingly imitating opera singers! But no so! It´s too bad a singer cannot really hear it himself. In the singer´s ears the sound may just be darker and more “professional”, whereas in reality it sounds muffled and hollow. So we should get rid of that tension as soon as possible. But how?

It can be very difficult to correct, I must say. And yet, with lots of practicing and a good pair of other ears it is possible. First and foremost, don´t try to listen to yourself too much (it´s inevitable of course) but go for the good feeling in the throat and  tongue root. Check your body connection and support for too much pressure. Remember support is about elasticity, not rigid force. Check your head position and the back of your neck (also important for the jaw). For exercise, try rolling your tongue out as far it can go, feeling a good stretch way back in the throat. For singing, find a tongue position very forward in the mouth and keep this as your “home base” to which the tongue always returns after its adventures inside the mouth for different consonants. Relax the tongue with every inhalation, returning to this position. Avoid pressing to tongue against the front teeth but do keep it slightly in touch with your lower front teeth. It is possible to pronounce all vowels in this position but if you are used to something else it may be strange at first.

I´m quite aware there are lots of great singers whom we see singing with their tongues tipped up against the palate or in any other positions.  We are all individuals and they possibly have such big cavities that tiny adjustments just don´t count. But most singers less endowed might find these tips helpful I hope.

Words, words, worst

Speaking the words and singing at the same time. Hm…

Singers are the only musicians that have words. What a blessing for our art: not only music, but poems as well. Texts conveying feelings and deep insights, images in our minds. To be told to our listeners, wanting to be understood. And how do we serve the composer and the poet? That is the question I have in mind today.

Listening to a master class by Barbara Bonney this summer again made me think of this strange phenomenon: singers love singing but rarely seem to love the text of a song or an aria. And yet, those artists who really connect to the audience and almost compell them to listen, they are the ones who really convey the whole meaning of a song, who really tell a story. This requires both intellectual and emotional understanding. And because they SO want to communicate they also take great care of clearly articulating and enunciating the words. It becomes a necessity, a need for these singers.

Yet, while teaching singers, I have unfortunately found that some of them are not all that interested in the diction part of the singing process. Everybody (singing teachers, coaches, repetiteurs, directors) always tell them: speak the words more clearly. As long as they can remember, they overdo the articulatory movements, then get frustrated at the seemingly useless effort that distroys their beautiful musical line and makes the jaw tense. And back we are with the “normal”, unmeaning utterance of notes tied together. At least the composer seems to be served. But I doubt he is.

So, we have several categories of singers: those who love their voices and couldn´t care less about poetry; thus mainly concentrating on the sound they are making. Then those who do think about the words and have an emotional connection to the text but who cannot combine singing and diction and thus mostly resort to lazy articulation. Those who love poems, the texts of their roles and love acting to the degree of forgetting to sing out their long notes, let alone the short ones. And finally those who love every aspect of vocal art and have honed their skills to the finest detail, being able to sing the music with great line and beautiful sound while enunciating the words clearly and crisply, using every nuance of the text to underline the emotional context, yet without stressing unnecessary syllables. That is the perfect singer. For every time you open your mouth to sing, it is words.  In all possible languages, pronounced with phonetical authenticity, understanding every meaning.

In the Finnish language the words vocal and vowel have the same meaning. So we are talking of vocal “vowel” art –  but consonant art as well. That is the technical part of this challenge and you can literally “taste” it in your mouth! We´ll return to this subject. Meanwhile, THINK what you are singing!