November 14, 2013 in Uncategorized
In my years of study in Italy, in studying with my father, and then periodically with Pola, and Bergonzi, I knew that breathing was a fundamental part of getting the voice to work correctly. After those first encounters, I never found another teacher who ever spoke to me about how the voice and the breath connect, especially not in the United States. It is a paradox because one hears so much about support… support… support, and yet if you ask what this actually means what you get is “take a breath like this.”
While at Mediterranean Opera Studio this past Summer my group of talented singers had masterclasses with great tenors Marcello Giordani, Salvatore Fisichella, and Pietro Ballo. Different ways of expressing ideas on support sometimes caused confusion. Even though I had spoken to my singers about the importance of suspension in the expanded lower ribs, the activation of the lower abs, etc., and the importance of not over exerting the diaphragm, I realized I needed to find a way to verbalize the concept of support more effectively in order to place my singers on a road toward mastery of the breath. So I have pondered much and tried to break things down, as I do, to make things as intuitive as possible. And as usual, now I will share it with you all in this crazy, free, open medium which is my blog. So here we go…
YOU ARE A BREATHING MACHINE!
Singing is communication. Ideally, we should be able to pour our soul into the music, imbue it with great emotion and human truth, convey the intention and power of the text as it reflects the depth of human experience as we understand it, and as it is revealed to us in the moment we communicate it. This is a very creative work that we should learn to experience along with the listener, stepping back and witnessing this moment of “revelation” almost as a spectator, which in turn, I believe, enriches further our ability to be an effective oracle of this truth.
Breathing on the other hand is absolutely NOT CREATIVE. If your breathing becomes random and chaotic, unexpected and uncontrolled, you will more than likely not sing well. As much as our expression is creative, our breathing is machine-like. It is paramount you develop a very clear blueprint, not just intellectually, but in your muscle memory, in your intentional blueprint of singing, of how to breathe and support the voice. This becomes even more crucial if, like myself, you are an emotional type of person with the tendency to let the emotions impact your breathing. Out of control emotion in the breathing mechanism can lead to rigidity, pushing, and vocal instability.
So first and foremost think of yourself as a breathing machine!
If you vocalize for 30 minutes per day, you should get into the habit of doing prolonged breathing exercises for the same amount of time. I have said this to my students, and they can choose at their peril to ignore this advice. If you discount the importance of focusing the mind and practicing breathing, you do so at your own peril. I told you!
Your diaphragm is a dome with a base right around the lower rib area. When it flattens, you inhale, and it assumes a flat position right around your solar plexus area. So your diaphragm does not go down to your navel. It doesn’t push on the pelvic area. It is connected to your lower ribs, and the action of traditional respirazione costo-diaframmatica involves exactly those areas.
When you breathe the lower abs should be a floor for the incoming breath. You should not push out below the navel; quite the contrary, you should contract in order to open the rib cage. The movement down of the diaphragm as you inhale should correspond contemporaneously to a movement out of the entire circumference of the torso around the lower ribs and upper abdomen.
Place your hands flat on your chest right below the breasts, directly pointing at each other, with your elbows in a straight line with the hands, with the tip of the middle fingers touching. When you inhale, expand the rib cage so as to separate the middle fingers. Ideally when you are singing the fingers will stay apart like this. Keeping this flexible rib expansion is truly one of the few things you can actually control. You will notice that in order to expand your ribs this way, your lower abs must be in. If the lower abs go out you will notice how your ribs collapse and your fingers come back together. The tradition calls for a high rib cage, not a collapsed one; a noble posture on stage, leading from the breastbone, not from the navel.
So, when you breathe in you should feel a real, significant, and for some dramatic expansion of the upper abdomen/lower ribs. The sternum will feel like a fulcrum of energy, almost as if the breath energy is now controlled by the sternum. As you breathe in, there is a sense of the muscles attached to the bottom ribs, and below them, and between them, all coming to a real feeling of elastic stretch. The torso feels like it is elongating upward, and the abs are propping it up. You can think of your torso like a cone. The lower you go, and the narrower it gets (at least that is the feeling, alas the heavier ones among us have other work to do to make the feeling correspond to the look as well). You will notice when breathing this way a certain elasticity is produced in the transverse muscles connecting the sides of your lower ribs to the navel area, this feeling of cone.
Here are 3 exercises to practice with:
1) Through a very small opening in the lips, or through a narrow straw (it is important that the breath have a difficulty in entering into the mouth), inhale slowly for 30-60 seconds. As you do this, you will begin to feel a sense of “tug” or elasticity in the ribs and in the muscles attached to them directly below.
2) Through an identical small opening in the lips, or through a narrow straw, exhale for 30-60 seconds. While you do this, keep your ribs expanded. If your ribs stay expanded your lower abs will necessarily be in, and you will begin to feel how the abs attached to ribs and the flanks begin to contract to propel the breath out. If your diaphragm delays its ascent as it should, you will notice how the stomach stays out as well at the same level of the sternum (not bulging forward).
3) Inhale deeply, and then suspend your breath with an open glottis for 60 seconds. Because the glottis is open, the breath in theory could move in and out, but it doesn’t because you are staying flexibly open. Walk around and think of an aria. Sing it in your head as you keep this breath suspension. If you can go 2 minutes that is great. The idea is to condition yourself to not have to expel the breath rapidly while singing. Your support is more about suspension and not so much about expulsion of air.
Many of you have heard this stuff, and possibly read it here before as well. So, let me get to the crux of the issue. How does one support the sound while singing.
There is nothing more frustrating for a tenor, or any classical singer, than to sing a high note beautifully, and then right at the end of the high note it bobbles or cracks. Why the heck is that happening? And here is the catch… some teachers and coaches will tell you that you didn’t support the sound correctly, and they are right, but that doesn’t help. So let’s reason this out.
Sing your most comfortable note for three seconds. Easy right? Now sing the same note for 20 seconds. Not so easy. What happened? In order to sing, you must have an increased air pressure in your lungs compared to the atmosphere outside you. This increased pressure causes the closed vocal folds to open and release a puff of air, after which they shut again. The frequency of this determines your pitch. What happened during this experiment? Well the short note is easy because you are relying pretty much on the natural recoil of the body. Take a deep breath and then just let it go. Your body goes back to a state of rest. There is plenty of air still in you, but only a part left your body. When you inhale, to simplify things, let’s just say that you expand like an elastic balloon. The natural elasticity of your body will contract back to a resting point. It takes energy to keep expanded beyond that rest point. If you just let go of the expansion, the body will automatically propel that air out from the sheer force of the elasticity of the body – a natural recoil. That is the easiest part of singing normally, at least from a physical point of view. But what happens if you have to hold the note longer or if you need more pressure than the natural recoil can provide?
Singing a high note requires a certain amount of pressure in your lungs – more than a middle voice or low note. How do you get pressure? Physics 101: when air is contained within a receptacle, as the air escapes (like it does when we phonate) the pressure inside the container will decrease if the size of the container stays the same. In order to maintain the pressure equal when air is escaping, the actual size of the container must decrease in volume. And that is where the tire hits the pavement…
This is what the singer’s mind calculates: I am singing high note… wow this is working… vibrato is steady… volume is great… resonance is fantastic… I just sang for two seconds… (Now as the air leaves the body, the pressure in the lung cavity which causes the high note – begins to diminish. The brain registers this as “running out of breath.”)… After 4 seconds… oh crap, something is not the same… am I running out of breath?… I will support more… diaphragm engages more to stop the breath from escaping too fast… Crack… Damn it!
This is so common, I can’t even tell you… I don’t know how many tenors I have heard mess up the end of their high notes. I can’t tell you how many sopranos I have heard sing the high note of Regnava nel Silenzio and then go straight tone at the end of the high D. I have seen so many times as Mezzos sing the high B in Non Piu’ Mesta and screech out a straight tone. It is all the same… panic and over-support.
Let’s break it down further. If you are singing a note and the air naturally moves out as you sing, the air pressure in your lungs, necessary to keep the pitch and the phonation, starts to diminish (as explained above… air in a container). The brain calculates that as a running out of breath (whether you know that or not). Instinctively a trained singer reacts to a lack of breath by engaging the diaphragm, which can only flatten. So, the decrease in breath pressure, interpreted by the brain as a running out of breath causes you to instinctively engage the diaphragm more. The downward engagement of the diaphragm is an increase in lung capacity. We instinctively do that to try to stem the loss of breath. THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU SHOULD NOT DO!
In order to keep the pressure in the lungs constant you must actually decrease the size of the container, or compress the lungs. So the longer you hold a note and the more you will need to push the diaphragm back up. It is almost as though you intend to waste air, but without opening the chords and becoming airy. If you react by over-supporting, or over-engaging the downward push of the diaphragm, you will be singing just as if you are running out of breath. The diaphragm should be the losing party in the lotta vocale, not the winning party… just a slow loser, or losing fast enough to maintain the right pressure for the pitch you are singing.
If your diaphragm goes down, it is, as said, like singing while running out of breath because you have an increasing reduction in pressure. How will the body react? By squeezing the body harder, becoming rigid, and squeezing the glottis in the attempt to stop the air flow so you can make it to the end of the note. We can see this instinct in play when we speak while running out of breath. Go ahead and exhale and then try speaking, and as you run out of breath you will see how your throat shuts down. The same happens in singing. We over exert the diaphragm when the brain calculates a reduction in air pressure and the body gets rigid (straight tones) or the throat closes (cracks).
What is the solution? Obviously, one must learn how to diminish the size of the lung cavity so as to provide the right pressure. So we need to figure a few things. Let’s give for granted for a second that you actually know how to register the voice, and do so great in scales, etc. But sometimes in holding a note things go haywire, even though your registration seems good. So we are talking about support in the body and not registration issues.
What is support? Here is my definition: Support is the maintaining of the required pressure below the chords that allows you to phonate with the same sense of ease that you would have at the beginning of your easiest note. If your easiest note is a middle D, right at the beginning of holding that middle D, you feel in paradise… wow! So easy. The pressure is perfect. The natural recoil in the body and your gentle support is plenty sufficient to allow your glottis to work that air beautifully. You feel like the voice is just spinning effortlessly. Support means having sufficient pressure below the chords to allow that to continue to happen relative to length and pitch of phrase.
1) Long phrases require a gradual upward push of the abs. Just like the descending diaphragm displaces the abdominal cavity outward, so the abdominal cavity can push back (lotta vocale). When we are singing long phrases the loss of pressure must correspond to a contraction of the abdomen to push upward.
What you must be aware of is the CRUCIAL POINT, the moment where the natural recoil of the body is no longer sufficient to yield the necessary pressure to keep the sense of glottal ease. Il Canto Sul Fiato is a type of singing where the breath pressure below the chords is correct for the pitch you are singing, of course given the registration is correct. This yields a sense of ease, spin, flow, focus, ring, resonance, etc. You must know your crucial moment because that is where things start getting difficult. The natural recoil of the body is no longer sufficient. The most important thing for you to know at that point is WHAT NOTE AM I SINGING AND WHAT NOTES ARE COMING UP BEFORE I CAN BREATHE. Ignore this and you will never know how to support!
Take for example the phrase “E muoio disperato” from E Lucevan Le Stelle. You sing sustained Gs, descend with emphasis, and then have to come back to a long-held F#. A lot of times that held F# passes the CRUCIAL POINT in the support, meaning you are still singing when the natural recoil of the body runs out. If you don’t know how to diminish the lung cavity size your throat will squeeze because the brain calculates you are running out of breath and will engage the diaphragm further down, exactly the wrong thing to do. If you calculated right, as you sang you know you are passing your crucial point and so you contract your lower abs more and lift upwards. You will feel the muscles right below the sides of the ribs contracting. This is one of those rare phrases where you might actually have to start collapsing the ribs too because there is only so much you can push upward while keeping the ribs open.
Bottom line is YOU MUST KEEP THE RIGHT PRESSURE UNDER THE CHORDS. What is the right pressure? The pressure needed for you to continue to sing with the sense of ease, resonance, spin, etc. Pushing the diaphragm down is a decrease in pressure if it is not met with a superior push upwards.
Also, insisting on an exaggerated downward push of the diaphragm makes the body stiff. Your guide has to be a SENSE OF BUOYANCY BEHIND THE STERNUM, A grunt shuts down the buoyancy. It feels like the lungs are tightening behind the sternum. An aggressive movement of the diaphragm down constantly – causes a grunt, like when we lift weights. That is wrong. Correct support is elastic and buoyant. This promotes morbidezza vocale, or suppleness in the laryngeal area. You can only get loud when you are phonating correctly with morbidezza, and this always feels like buoyancy and suspension and not forced expulsion.
2) The passaggio notes and the high notes will require more pressure than the middle and low.
When you turn the voice or go up to a high note, you will need a greater pressure under the chords. The lotta vocale increases, meaning the diaphragm resists an increasing upward push. Without the upward push the diaphragm has nothing to resist and the breath is insufficient. The sound will remain small and squeezed. The voice gets smaller in the house as you go higher because the amplitude of vibration is small. You don’t have enough air pressure to avoid a squeezed sound.
THIS IS THE PARADOX! Most of the time when tenors feel they have pressure in the chords as they go into the passaggio or high notes it is not because they actually have too much pressure but rather it is because they are squeezing the chords and not allowing the insufficient pressure to escape. There is insufficient amplitude in sound. The vowel is too narrow. In other words, the brain calculates “running out of breath” and squeezes the chords more. The sense of squeeze is the feeling of pressure. The paradox is in the fact that if you increase the actual pressure by lifting those lower abs upward and diminishing the size of the lung cavity by sending the diaphragm up a little, the brain will not calculate “running out of breath” and will likely not squeeze the chords. So an actual increase in pressure causes you to feel like the pressure is equal and good.
There is no way really for you to direct the diaphragm consciously. The only way you can get this right is to have the correct POTENTIAL PRESSURE. When your lower abs squeeze up there is no guarantee of actual pressure. In fact, try this, squeeze your lower abs up while keeping the ribs open, open the glottis BUT don’t let any air out. You are now suspended. There is no air in or out. Why? Because the pressure inside the lungs is equal to the atmospheric pressure outside. But you have increased potential pressure that you feel as exertion in the torso. As soon as the mind calls on the diaphragm to give way to that upward push the diaphragm will move in microspurts upward causing gradual increases in pressure that steady out the pressure as you sing. We don’t control those microspurts of diaphragmatic release. Our nervous system does. All we do is aim for the feeling of ease of our easiest note. But if you don’t pull those lower abs for the passaggio, or high notes, or for the end of long phrases that are anywhere in the tessitura, then you will not have sufficient POTENTIAL BREATH PRESSURE and the process cannot happen.
This is a process of discovery; a careful mapping out of intentions in memory so as to know how to calculate the distribution of pressure to keep the legato consistent at all dynamic levels, pitch, and length of tones.
September 30, 2013 in Uncategorized
As is often the case, I will post something that proved helpful to one of my singers, in this case regarding the image of the column of breath.
The image is fairly simple. Envision that when you sing you don’t actually move air at all. Think that from head to pelvic area you have one solid open column of breath that exists vertically following the spine, from the lower pelvic area, up the back of the throat, and straight up the back of the head directly above the jaw joint.
When you sing, you should envision this column of air as not moving. You must not squeeze it or, in the case of my student, grunt in order to contain the breath. Why? Because you need to envision this column as an open free standing column of air that doesn’t move, it only vibrates. Since it doesn’t move, you don’t need to stop it! Voila’! Also envision that the pressure of the breath above in the head and below the cords as equal. This is not objectively the case, but it is useful in order to find the balance in phonating. We often feel “swirling motions” of breath as the harmonics develop, but I find that it is not useful to think of this as breath movement but rather as vibrations of the free and open standing air. Why? Because singers almost always try to put extra air into the face, almost as if this is actually putting their voice in the mask. Not the case! Think of the breath column as being vertical, not moving away from that one solid column, even when the voice swirls and strikes forward. The pressure, the elastic tension of that column, stays intact.
That’s it! It is a simple image, but I can tell you that this image is often an immediate fixer of problems. What do the vocal folds do in this case? Aren’t they supposed to stop the breath? Yes, and absolutely not! If you feel a stoppage, you have gone into pressed phonation. Often (almost always) this is unavoidable when learning how to sing efficiently, but nonetheless, the correct phonation does not feel like we are squeezing muscles, or grunting. We are not lifting weights. Instead we feel like the sound is narrow and the breath is unlocked and the abdomen is flexibly tense. One way to think of it is that the vocal cords vibrate this open free column of breath that does not become rigid because of blockages in the ribs and abs. Even though the vocal folds are narrow and the voice is slim, think that this is not crushing the column of breath, but rather the latter is staying open and the thin vocal folds are vibrating this column of air causing the voice to strike up in the mask.
September 30, 2013 in Uncategorized
I am really excited about working with Nicola Martinucci in December in New York. Any tenor out there, working or studying, should jump on this. Clearly there is much to be learned during this week-long intensive!
Mediterranean Opera Studio New York City Edition, December 16-21:
- daily voice lessons with Nicola Martinucci or Jack Li Vigni (depending on studio chosen)
- daily master classes/performances open to public
- 3 coachings per day with Giovanni Reggioli, Steve Crawford, and Brian Holman
- open classes: sit in on any coaching or lesson to learn more
- perform in New York
Mediterranean Opera Studio is dedicated to bringing the best artistic experience to its participants.
More details and enrollment at link below.
July 19, 2013 in Uncategorized
One of my students, an immense talent, is currently attending an intensive course for singers. In following up with me about what teachers were telling him, he reported that one tenor told him that he wanted him to move a lot of air with his voice. Hence, I am writing… This will also be my last post before leaving for Sicily to run Mediterranean Opera Studio. I am very excited to work with this wonderful group of singers!!
OK, so remember the following rule and you will remember everything about this post: DON’T PUT AIR WHERE YOU THINK YOUR VOICE SHOULD BE.
Many singers are told to move air abundantly through the cords as a way to relax the larynx. This is wrong. The people teaching this are wrong. Do not trust them. The most fundamental of principles in Italian technique is singing with an efficient cord closure which gives heightened phonation, allows the diaphragm to function correctly, and relaxes the instrument. The diaphragm’s purpose is to regulate pressure beneath closed cords. If your cords are loose, the valve is open. There is no way the diaphragm will know what to do if the valve is open. It is in the closed cord position that the brain learns to regulate the movement of the diaphragm because we don’t want to feel increased pressure beneath the cords and we don’t want to push air past the resonance.
A very focused sound feels like there is no air, it’s just sound. When the balance of cord closure is correct, there is no sensation of stopping air at the throat, but this is the end result. You never get there by moving air purposefully. Ideas of flow are dangerous for this reason. Many think flow phonation is moving air. It’s not! Its freeing the phonation. There is a difference. The balance of optimal cord closure does not feel like moving air, but rather like free voice moving while the air “just is.” There definitely is a pressure under the vocal folds to achieve correct operatic phonation. However, we don’t feel that pressure at the cords. Its like putting a battery in a radio: you know the radio won’t work without the battery, so it is with the pressure. This doesn’t mean that we feel it. We feel excellent function. Wow, the voice works easily!! This is totally counter-intuitive and hard to believe, but when you intend to sing powerfully, and accumulate the necessary pressure of breath under closed cords, the voice feels so much easier than when you are under singing. Most beginners think that singing weakly protects their voice.
Now, the pressure of the appoggio below the cords doesn’t mean we push air. In fact, you have to pay attention to not push air past the resonance. If you do, the resonance will disappear. You will feel air going into your face along with the voice, but the listener hears a dull old sound. There is a constant “grunt” in the sound instead of a beautiful silvery shimmering voice. The solution is not just stopping the breath, but also of having the right intention in terms of cord closure. It is a combination of causes that yields the right effect.
Many times singers put air in their face because they want to feel the mask vibrate. They are trying to force the result without understanding the cause. By not pushing air through the cords you actually sing on a more gathered sound that actually does sound forward. Also, many of the singers that SOUND forward actually feel the voice outside them, directly in front of them. Sure you can feel a certain strike of the voice in the mask but this is not even close to the rumbling feeling one gets when you are pushing air into the sinuses. The feeling of forward is much more nuanced when correct. If you push air into the face and mistake this sensation for sound you will almost certainly be leaking air through the cords, and almost always will have a far too low soft palate. You can check to see if the skin of your nose vibrates by holding your nose. If it does, you are doing it wrong.
Lauri Volpi wrote that in the passaggio the feeling is that the soft palate slightly lowers in order to give the correct eco sonora, or turn of the voice. I know this feeling. I have written about it. An acute observer once asked me if I felt vibration in my nose skin. I feel absolutely none. He remarked that the soft palate cannot be down then. So, the conclusion is that the feeling of “morbidezza” or suppleness in the back of the open throat may feel like the palate is relaxing down. In reality it is still quite high, as in the beginning of a yawn. Proof of that is that the suono morbido, or sound produced with this muscular suppleness in the back of the throat, is not nasal.
Do not confuse cause and effect. Never put air where you think the voice should go. You will cause your voice to be dull. The larynx will be fatigued, and you will never find true appoggio.
Correct singing requires a complete closure of the vocal folds, and an even greater closure up top. If you consciously choose to blow air past the cords, you may feel a relaxation, but it is the wrong relaxation and never leads to a correct sound. The correct sound is so closed that the singer feels it small and slender like a beam. The rush of breath of the “air movers” does nothing but diffuse the voice.
May 12, 2013 in Uncategorized
Have you felt that when you ascend in a scale that something strange is happening around B natural or Middle C? The open voice is getting a little weird. I will convey here what I explained to a student today in New York: the head voice and chest voice feed off of each other in this medium range C-Ab. The weakness of one corresponds to the weakness of the other.
The voice is always an interplay of the opposing forces of head and chest mechanism. You always have to have some head voice in the low voice and some chest in the high voice in order to properly phonate as a tenor. However, no where is this more poignant and evident than in the Medium range of C-Ab. As you ascend a scale F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F, if you sing a pure bright AH the voice will begin to crush around D. The closer you get to the F and the more the voice gets reedy and devoid of space. The reason for this is that the tilt of the larynx is being stifled by excessive Chest voice mechanism (vocalis action). You can easily monitor this by putting your finger on the Adam’s Apple and seeing how it does not move forward, in a protruding motion in the neck. Conversely if you sing a hooty falsetto (think of imitating an owl for example) you will notice how the thyroid cartilage protrudes as the Crico-Thyroid muscles rock the larynx forward, stretching the vocal folds.
It is in this action that both chest voice and head voice are strengthened in the medium range, the pre-passaggio and passaggio. In allowing for this tilt the sound expands its lower harmonic strength, the volume increases with no loss in efficiency or significant feeling of increase in pressure. This is the “sbadiglio” or yawn position. Without this action, arriving at the passaggio means that as soon as the voice turns toward F# or G there will be a feeling of flip, as though the voice went too far toward falsetto. Why? Because the head voice is not active and is weak. It is in the opposition of the tilt that the head voice becomes strong in the passaggio as more chest is brought into the voice. Without this ying and yang in the voice the sound will become increasingly crushed while bright at the F and then will flip into a light, disembodied falsetto-ish sound in the turn.
If instead you progressively introduce this tilt of the larynx, the sbadiglio, in the prepassaggio, once the voice turns it will have a powerful and rich quality. The feeling of divergence between strongly tilted Chest voice at the F and strongly tilted Head voice on the G is far less than most tenor students imagine. By strongly tilted I intend a phonation in which the lengthening of the cords (CT) and the shortening of the cords (Vocalis) are significantly opposing each other.
Initially as you attempt this you are likely to feel like the voice is more hollow right before the passaggio. This is normal. Eventually, you will have to come back to the idea that besides the longitudinal tensions of lengthening and shortening, you also need to have the medial compression active. The cords must stay sealed. Some argue that lengthening the cords is sufficient to trigger good approximation. This is most certainly NOT the case.
Appoggio technique, or Garcia’s Coup de Glotte, is incredibly important in this range in order to keep the breath pressure in check and not blow right past the potential resonance. The Gran Vocale AH (the AH vowel is considered the Great Vowel in the Italian tradition) is a huge asset here. While the AH itself is modified by the tilt, one can still INTEND to sing a bright vowel. You simply have to be careful to not let the idea of brightening cause you to come away from the tilt. You have to learn to seal the cords not through chest increase but by the same mechanism that yields the voce finta - Garcia’s pinch, or Lauri Volpi’s saldatura di registro, the feeling that the sound and breath meet right in the larynx at the base of the neck in the soft spot between clavicle bones.
Backing off the voice in the C-F range in order to achieve the passaggio is the absolute wrong way to learn. Never back off the sound here, but rather don’t rush the air out. Think of a strong sound while the air remains inside you and the throat moves into the sbadiglio as the larynx tilts forward. It is almost impossible to understand what I just wrote intellectually. You have to hear this done the wrong way and the right way, back to back, so as to get a clear image of the sound.
Here is a clip of mine, thrown together in the studio with no accompaniment, just demonstrating these transitions. Quando Le Sere al Placido.
February 8, 2013 in Uncategorized
I have read over the years about how Manuel Garcia Jr. pioneered the observation of singers’ glottal action. I have always thought this was incredibly important because it gave us an empirical observation of what the traditional method was doing at the laryngeal level. Even absent the recordings, the observations can give us an important glimpse into the sound.
In the spirit of Garcia’s curiosity, I decided I was going to finally figure out a way to observe what my vocal folds were doing. I have written about how I have for many years now observed my vocal folds to check up on them when I don’t feel that great, or if I have had bad reflux, etc. I can diagnose my vocal health fairly accurately, and when I go to an ENT I often tell them what to go look for. However, I had never been able to actually see my cords in action except on a light falsetto. I have can’t sing with a mirror and a pen light in my throat. But I was determined I was going to be able to get it done.
My main objective was to observe whether my high notes had the “shortened glottis” observed by Garcia. In essence, Garcia observed that when the cords were lengthened to the max through the laryngeal tilt and the arytenoid cartilages (back of the cords) were very energetically sealed, the back portion of the cords didn’t even open, or participate in the vibration anymore. The high voice in particular was characterized by an opening that was further forward in the cords. Instead of using the entire length of the cord for phonation, only the anterior 2/3rds were used, and even less in the high voice.
So, with this task in mind, I set forward, disinfected my instruments, heated my mirror with hot water and tried for a while to get the job done, singing while looking in a mirror and catching the reflection of the mirror in my throat. It was tough. I just couldn’t get myself into a calm enough place to actually sing naturally. Eventually I finally got it.
This is what I saw:
This does not work at all unless I think a few things:
1) I have to tilt the larynx all the way on the passaggio note preceding the high note.
2) I have to think of the lightness of a falsetto inside the larynx on top. This doesn’t mean I let go of the tilt, I just don’t feel it. If I lengthen the cords to the max at the passaggio, when I go into the top, I just think a little more approximation (Garcia’s glottal pinch) and also a feeling of morbidezza or softness inside the larynx itself, just like I were going into a falsetto in terms of weight.
3) I have to abandon entirely the idea of air moving through the cords the way it does in the passaggio, there is a real sense of narrowing and a redistribution of flow in almost a suspended way that moves through a small place in the front. This WILL NOT happen unless I eliminate entirely the sound of UHMPH, that downward dark chest component of the passaggio. I have to think bright at the center of the tone.
I have heard some advocating using the entire length of the cords up top. This is a far more loose position that cannot bring the voice toward the “falsetto” lightness which triggers the really powerful isolated singer’s formant one hears in all the great tenors.
January 12, 2013 in Uncategorized
When I was a late teenager, my father would have me listen to young Di Stefano because his tenore di grazia voice was similar in fach to my own. Many compared me to him. Clearly they were delusional, as my voice was never close to being as beautiful as his, but it was flattering for a young mind still inept in discerning all the intricacies of vocal technique, timbre, and artistry. I learned to love Di Stefano, and the type of graceful singing typical of tenori di grazia, a specific way to approach the vocal line: radiant, gentle, extreme legato, and characterized by a continuous messa di voce. Examples are Di Stefano, Caruso, Gigli, Schipa, Tagliavini, Bjoerling, and others. Many consider the tenore di grazia to be the lightest in the tenor fach. Traditionally it was not so. The tenore di grazia was more a way of singing. Caruso, arguably a baritenor, was considered in his time to be among the greatest tenori di grazia along with De Lucia.Many years ago, I encountered a young tenor here in Philadelphia where I live. His name was Andrew Owens. He had a beautiful radiant voice. I thought this young man might have a bright future in the opera world, as the number one predictor of success is beauty of voice. Fast forward some time, I have had the privilege of working with this young man as a vocal mentor and observing his vocal steps over time. You can find Andrew’s profile here. Whenever I hear a true tenore di grazia my interest is always piqued, and my tenor antennas go up. Why? Because finding someone with the combination of beauty of voice, elegance of legato line, and grace in expression is a rare occasion. Usually you find someone with the potential, but not the skill.
It might appear that I am biased in lauding a tenor that works with me. I have lauded in the past Joseph Calleja, Michael Fabiano, and others because of their incredibly beautiful voices. It is the same with Andrew. I am particular about wanting to push beautiful voices. In my estimation, Andrew Owens is a true tenore di grazia of the highest calibre, and God willing, will have a glorious and long career.
Andrew is currently fest in Vienna, and just sent me a clip of his working at home. Check these clips out.
January 4, 2013 in Uncategorized
While training one of my singers today, we talked about the necessity of finding the vocal beam as a means to secure correct phonation as we weave through the registers. So very often we listen to recordings of famous singers and we hear things that may cloud understanding of the correct principles they were applying. For example, we may hear Corelli’s scoop meant to secure a low laryngeal position and assume he is widening the cords. We might hear Bjoerling put an H (aspirate sob) in front of a high note and assume this is technically necessary. We may hear a tenor attack a high note right below and then quickly scoop into it and assume this is the path you must follow.
All these singers found individual ways to make things work for them but they did this in the context of the correct principles already ingrained in their minds and vocal blueprints. Often singers imitate their model and think they understand what is going on. Imitation requires first and foremost an understanding of the principles and goals the singers had in mind when they did what they did. That is the purpose of studies. It is something developed over a long period of time – let’s say 10,000 hours, many of which must be focused on the correct principles. Not all we be focused on the correct principles because the student must first understand what is being said before actually being able to train. Which brings me to my point. You should count your blessings when your teacher can actually imitate what you do wrong, and then show you how to do it right, and explain the process leading from A to B.
1) The singer needs to think that there are no notes. This is to be thought of as one sound and one pressure.
2) The unity of the scale is achieved through great control of the breathing action. The lower abdominals engage at the moment of inhalation to prop up everything that is above them, effectively suspending the open ribcage and upper abdomen. When singing the lower abs will automatically engage more, but rather than resulting in a faster, vertical stream of breath moving through the larynx, this will be suspended within the thorax, a feeling of suspension at the center of the body at the height of the sternum, a completely buoyant and non rigid expansion. This is not felt as pressure, but rather as the suspension of it. It is not the lower abs pressing upward (though objectively it is) but rather the feeling that a flexible expansion occurred within our core. Oddly enough this requires more muscular awareness and control than the crass push. Pushing is random and chaotic. Anyone can just eject breath.
3) Based on the note being sung, the larynx must have its correct tilt. Of course the larynx is always in a low range, that is a given, but it is not enough. You can sing with a low larynx and not tilt the larynx at all. In which case you have a low larynx chest dominant singer that pushes.
4) Every segment of the grand scale (known as registers), and there are 3 major ones (though the top one is divided into two parts proprioceptively) must be characterized by the correct lengthening of the vocal folds.
5) Pitch can be achieved in one of two ways: either push more air at the cord, or lengthen the cord and do not push. Achieving pitch without tilt and its consequent lengthening requires pressure. Those singers who do not tilt but rather go up chesty either push more air vertically or get progressively smaller in sound as they ascend in the attempt to minimize the fatigue of pushing. Pitch MUST BE achieved with the idea of unity of pressure and unity of sound. This can only be achieved when pitch is achieved through lengthening of the folds. Specific PHYSICAL actions must occur.
6) Vowels are largely created by adjustments in the shape of the tongue, but some aspects of vowel definition can only be created by modifying that which occurs in the larynx, below the tongue. The actions of registration (singing in the various areas of the voice), or the ability to sing throughout the scale with the feeling of unity of pressure and sound, occur below the tongue, while also being linked to the tongue. But, no shift in tongue position can trigger the laryngeal events. This is why vowel modification is largely ineffective. The student must be shown the quality of the phonation rather than the shape of the vowel. One must focus on function rather than vowel. The function of tilting the larynx modifies the vowel unavoidably because of the altering of the harmonics being produced, but no mere shift in tongue position can result in the correct results at the source of the sound. Bottom line, if your laryngeal cartilage does not move forward in the throat as you ascend, you are doing something wrong and have not developed the unity of the scale.
Finally, the guide for the mind in achieving the correct unity of pressure and sound is the vocal beam. When the vocal folds are correctly adducted, have the correct length and tension for the required pitch, when there is correct action of the breathing musculature, and when the tongue, jaw, and soft palate are correctly shaped and relaxed based on the register, the vocal beam can maintain its integrity. The cardinal principle of the one and only great Italian tradition (and European one as well) is that the vocal folds work exactly in order to produce a thin, laser-like sound which emerges from the larynx and strikes in specific parts of the mask based on pitch and vowel. The feeling is that of a track, a thread, a beam of sound. The singer that can do this knows that loosening the cords kills the beam; pressing breath kills the beam; not assuming the correct jaw, tongue and laryngeal posture kills the beam.
When the singer unifies the scale, the beam maintains its integrity and the scale is not many notes, but rather one sound and one pressure. The exactness of the pressure and sound yield the beam. It is only in this context that one TRULY discovers what it means to support. Anything falling outside the margins of acceptable physical function kills the beam. Hence, the diaphragm and the muscular action that would push it up suddenly have a clear goal: maintain the beam. Suddenly the high note is just a note. You don’t need aspirates, scoops, etc, you need unity. However, unity is not characterized by staying in the same physical place, top to bottom of the scale. There are specific physical modifications in laryngeal tilt, tongue and jaw, that MUST occur in order to maintain the integrity of the beam. These are flexible modifications that carry the effort of speaking at most. There is no “Battle of the Titans” going on in the throat in order to maintain the beam. The battle is in the mind to not push once the correct physical shifts occur.
In fact, I would invite you to think of registration as subtle and flexible shifts, just like moving your feet in dancing becomes a subtle art. This is a waltz rather than Brooklyn style popping and breakdance. Nothing disjunct, but rather flexible and flowing elegantly from one position to another in order to never imply to the mind that some extra pressure would be required. The greatness of Maria Callas is in this perfection. She was greater than almost any singer I can think of because of this skill.
Following is a clip recorded today of me in my studio demonstrating the execution of a scale meant to train the mind to execute a high C with unity of pressure and sound, just following the vocal beam. There are shifts in tongue, jaw, and laryngeal tilt, all done elegantly and flexibly in order for the mind to know that the suspension of pressure inside the thorax must survive.
My objective is to think of this as one sound. I simply press a button and another pitch emerges without upsetting the balance yielding the vocal beam. Notice how in descending from the C to the G there is an immediate shift to second cavita’ as I engage more chest in the tilt. I did this immediately without scoops to demonstrate the rapid and flexible nature of the shift and how the two notes are thought of and felt as profoundly unified in pressure and intention. If I was lifting a ton of bricks up top, the immediacy of the legato line would be impossible. My only objective in this scale is the survival of the vocal beam, so every adjustment is flexibly done seemingly instantly in order to form a clear picture in the mind that no spurt in pressure is required.
I cannot stress how much the feeling of equality of pressure is essential. This can only be achieved when pressure is not required to achieve pitch. That can only occur when the registration is correct.
December 10, 2012 in Uncategorized
Marcello Giordani, Salvatore Fisichella, and Pietro Ballo, will be our guest masterclass instructors this year.
I am excited to meet many young singers from America, Europe, and Asia. I look forward to working in collaboration with my friends Marcello Giordani, Salvatore Fisichella, and Pietro Ballo, as well as with my distinguished staff at MOS. This will be a wonderful experience – learning, performing, and enjoying the inspiration that only Sicily can bring!