Vocal Resolution & Continuing Development

February 20, 2012

I believe now, after another year, my voice has finally jelled to where it was intended to be at my current age.  Perhaps it was always a coloratura soprano.  But finally, I am embracing the sound as mine and letting go of the more dramatic repertoire that I used to sing.

Finally, what used to be my natural speaking spacing in the mouth which spontaneously became the singing position slightly more open – that’s the correct spacing now.  So now when I sing spontaneously and naturally I don’t do anything special.  It’s that now I no  longer have the imperious thundering sound I used to have.  My voice  is now a cross between a flute and a clarinet in sound with an easy working range from the F above middle C to the F# above high C, with an easy tessitura most comfortable from the A below high C to the high C.  The top F is reserved for the high Mozart things like Queen of the Night, Madame, Herz, and cadence points for the leggiera Italian wing., i.e. Lucia, Sonambula, Marie in Daughter, Lakme, Mireille, Zerbinetta and Adele etc. and whatever display pieces that sit correctly, or the Gliere concerto, Mozart concert arias and oratorio.  It is not a small voice, but it is pure and soars with little or no effort.

The only problem I have yet to deal with is my moderate COPD.  When there are many allergies about, I have to steam on and off during a session so my airways are open enough and clear of crud to support the sound (and so there is no mucous rattling when I sing).  I am finding that my beginning ballet pointe work has a corolation to the cadencial top notes that have to be so precisely managed to be good.  That plus a clear day with my lungs and I really can sing well.

Eventually the longer I sing I can carefully manage the notes from middle C to the first F and get a reasonable amount of sound.  But those notes were never my most convincing sounds as a dramatic voice, and now they are proportionately in line to the rest of the sound and weak by comparison.

How did I get here?  Clearly I had been taught to make big sound with the tongue depressing the larynx.  Add to that a change in athsma meds that dried everything out, the voice collapsed.  I rebuilt my sound by singing where I had voice – the G or A above middle C.  I sang a lot of soft sounds with a loose E vowel and made sure I was singing just on the edge of my cords in the middle (i.e. falsetto) with a nearly closed mouth.  I drank copious amounts of full milk and ate full cloves of raw garlic (the full milk coated the cords and airways and kept me from having an athsma attack and garlic got any crud out of my airways plus opened my airways generally).  I got off all athsma meds and then in time reintroduced  only Advair 100/50 – in HALF DOSAGE per day.  That, plus steaming, and vocalizing as I crossed the bridge in the morning in time slowly brought the voice back.  Initially I could only phonate less than two octaves.  Now I manage two and a half octaves full out……. but the sound is still a correct pure head coloratura soprano.  It took over 3 years to get my now rather reliable voice back – albeit, a different voice, but one that has been described to me as “glorious”, moreover well-produced and sung with.

How long can I still sing? – no way to tell – but I will vocalize every day until I die most likely because my voice is my main emotional expression – and so I must sing.

I hope the above  gives at least some of you hope who are going through a vocal crises.  It will take work and focus but if you have not completely damaged your voice physicially (i.e. nodes, polyps etc.), you can bring it back.  So don’t give up.




My new emerging voice….

August 30, 2010

My assumption on rebuilding my voice was predicated on not going too far too fast, but still to push the envelope some since I am not sure how many years I have left to sing period.

I was sure at the very least I was a light lyric soprano, but now I have stumbled upon the remnants of a rather high soprano extension, which at my age is nothing short of a miracle.  On initial warmup I still start in mixed voice at an F or G above middle C.  After singing for 10 minutes or so, I begin to have down to a middle C in a quiet focused forward heady mix.

Not being sure of where all of this would go, I put the cover on again (as I would singing Wagner) and the cords would not come together, so I returned to working with a closed mouth singing on the edge of the cords to get the voice realigned.  Then I heard a young high soprano singing belt in the next practice room.  And I thought, that’s really a little voice but look how far forward her belt sound is, so I tinkered with a similar position on my middle C and was able to make the adjustment to the F and match pitches to the G in mix just above, and quite suddenly the middle mixed sound improved and there was greater focus on the attack in mix.  I kept vocalizing and realized that there was a working high F in alt still in the voice.

That’s when I re-read Kathy Pope’s article on technique for coloratura sopranos.  I did some more vocalizing for a week, ran into some problems and then re-read the sections on nose-form and the high head voice in Lilli Lehmann’s How to Sing book.  I have re-read this book many times and have waded through the terrible German to English translation plus all the  medical jargon, and I finally understood her discussion of the pillars of the fauces and her insistance on the ay breath jerk attack in the middle.  If you keep her nose form activated consistently and then make the tongue and  palate adjustments the voice suddenly lines up from the very top to the bottom.  I am using roughly 35% of the breath that I used to and I am getting a great sound that simply works consistently for an hour to an hour and a half at a stretch.  So far I have sung to the F# in alt.  My voice recovers immediately and is there daily to work with.  And there is no sensation in my throat of any kind, just astonishment at the consistency of the vocal production. 

From the beginning my speaking voice had always been depressed and since I always read music easily  I was the alto section leader in choir.  I had consistent throat hoarseness and discomfort, but I was too young to know better, and I was stuck in the choir until I graduated.

Since those days, I have had a series of well-intentioned teachers who each had only part of the answer and since I have asthma, a resolved tied tongue (surgery at age 26) and resolved bone-blocked sinuses (surgically resolved 15 years ago), sorting out the incorrect physical technique (plus the fact that my agents and conductors thought I was a world-class Wagnerian soprano) from the various physical impediments has been a real trick – add that to the normal dryness as you age – all of this had to be resolved to get any voice I had back together. Moreover, the first thing I did was to RAISE the pitch of my speaking voice – and that was a HUGE adjustment for me. I could no longer talk with the projection of a buzz saw. 

I have been granted a miracle at this age.  I have no idea how long my voice will last, and I have outlasted most younger sopranos so far. At this stage I am leery of announcing even a vocal classification.  But it makes sense that most high coloratura sopranos don’t have much bottom to their voices.  Nor do they have a huge mid-range.  Their voice begins to really gain on the high C and above – like mine does. So I am acting on the assumption that if it “walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.”

So, I am now looking at the only repertoire I have NOT studied:  A collection of enormously embellished coloratura soprano songs, and my voice is working really very well.  Besides that, I am preparing song groups by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Faure and Debussy, making sure that I do NOT sing anything I learned BEFORE my vocal crises.  So however long this lasts, I believe I am a coloratura soprano.  But by publishing this I do feel as though I am whistling as I walk past a graveyard.  Time will tell the story. – sh

Class Reunions

April 11, 2010

My best friend going back to college and I had a great telephone call today ranging from how not to incur debt getting buried, to health, and the ongoing saga of my vocal recovery. 

She asked me for ideas for an introductory speech for her high school class reunion since she has been invited to speak.  Never short of ideas, I rattled off several, and she asked that I write them down for her.  Since I am rather lazy, I thought it might be fodder for a blog entry, so here goes.

I would never attend a high school class reunion because my memories of high school are those of having to survive terrible bullying by a handful of classmates.  Since I was relegated to the high IQ classes I had to put up with these fools every year and they made my life hell, so for me high school is something not to remember let alone commemorate.  I had one very dear friend who got me through one really rough time in high school.  Her name was Carol, and at the 25th reunion when asked if I would attend, I replied, “Hell no, why bother.”  She huffed off and it was 5 years before she and I ever talked again. 

Ideally high school should be a time of expansion and planning for what your future world is going to be like. If you are surrounded by nurturing teachers and friends and not ostracized as I was, the future looks rosy and filled with promise and all things yet to be discovered.

So 50 years later looking back if there are classmates left to see at a reunion, I would hope that on meeting former classmates that we would be not particularly interested in how well we are doing compared to them, how much wealth we have accumulated, and possibly secretly gloating at the hard times of someone who was perhaps wretched to us when we were in school.

Ultimately, at that class reunion, we are who we have grown to be, we are who we have chosen or settled to be, or less fortunately we are perhaps neurotically wondering why our life did not pan out the way we wanted.  However, we are still on that journey that we started at the age of 18, just a little further along.  We have been enriched and enlightened by our lives by the friends and acquaintances we have chosen to have in our lives, and I would hope there would be a level of fulfilled satisfaction at having survived for so long and so well.

If this is where we are at in our 70’s, we are blessed because life is always peppered with stuff that makes us who we become and who we choose to be.  So when returning 50 years later, if your high school years were good, I would guess that the attendees at a reunion would embrace the community of our former classmates with good will and gladsom voice in greeting, since each person there would be the sum total of the 50 years they have lived, and the conversational exchange among peers would be enlightening and enriching like an expensive vintage wine in a bottle waiting to be uncorked.

Problems with Vocal Classifications at a Young Age

March 11, 2010

I had not planned on addressing this problem, but it is a huge problem.   Most singers’ first exposure to singing is in a chorus and many solo voices have been messed up singing in choruses.  Why?

Statistically in any vocal studio (per Estelle Liebling) 75% of the females walking through the door are lyric sopranos.  You may have a few very light coloraturas, a c0uple of real mezzos, more than likely no real altos – they come around perhaps once every seven years if then.  And dramatic sopranos come around one in every 10,000 singers.

Among the men the largest number will fall into the lyric baritone to undeveloped tenor (without top notes).  Real basses very rare.  And the high leggiera tenor (who does not cop out singing falsetto)  is also very rare.

So how are these statistics impacted by the choral experience?  Most choral directors with the exception of a handful of top-flight professionals are voice majors who did not have interesting enough voices to sing as soloists – so they teach.  Frequently, they have a minimum of vocal training.

A normal chorus: If you are lucky you will have a 40 voice choir.  Of that 40 voice choir – 25 will be women.  Of the women all of them will be high sopranos. Of the 15 men one will likely have low notes like a bass.  One will have high notes like a tenor and the rest will be between those extremes.

Add to the above the fact that most church sopranos will only be able carry the main tune on first hearing and clearly those sopranos who are stuck singing second soprano or alto will be the best musicians.  The high soprano section (because there are still too many sopranos in it) will be made to sing as softly as they can in a very high tessitura – and they will not know how to support this sound – so they will squeeze and shut the sound off of the breath.

The high sopranos highjacked into the alto section will be stuck in the bottom octave of their voice (if they are lucky) and lower (if they are unlucky) and they will likely sing an unsupported belt voice that will cut through but most likely will demolish their natural first octave.

The tenors:  Those singing high tenor will squeeze their upper sound.  They will either beep into pure falsetto (if they are lucky) or they will clamp their mouths into a bright grin to get the higher tessitura while not supporting the sound.  Eventually whatever top notes they had will disappear.  Their voices will be out of alignment.

What of the bass/baritone:  They won’t support.  If they have any falsetto they will make the top notes of their range (which in choral writing isn’t often) weakly, and they will be able to sing/speak the rest of the lower range with an easy pressure – and they will survive the choral experience pretty much intact.  Mind you there will be no low basses so the pianist will have to double the accompaniment to compensate.

The above is how it is 85% of the time.  If you have a bona fide solo voice and a less-than-finished technique when entering a chorus, your technique in short order will fall apart and you will lose the connection to the breath.

I blew the bottom out of my voice singing alto because I could read music as a kid, and I have been recovering ever since.  I have conducted workshops, and I have found the finest high sopranos in the alto section after vocalizing the chorus.  One such singer came to me after the session and said, “I am always hoarse after singing in choir in the alto section. What to I do?”

My answer:  If in a college chorus, if you do not need the choral credit, drop out of the chorus immediately.  If you need the choral credit, lip synch and don’t sing until you are finished fulfilling the credit.  If you are in an amateur chorus, get out immediately, and find a good voice teacher and become the soloist that you were meant to be.

It is sad to say, but the above has been true since I was a young girl, and it’s still true today.  And some of the finest organists, pianists and instrumentalists have the strangest concept of how to make a good supported singing tone so they are the worst culprits in teaching choruses – and the majority of them are men.  And their attitudes toward the choir members: They’re just amateur singers!

I know I sound like a curmudgeon here, but singing well, and spreading the joy of singing to amateurs so they also sing well is of primary importance to me.  Singing well is the ultimate joy – better than good sex!

Progess and Vocal Breakthrough

March 10, 2010

I would never have thought that an off-hand comment by my ballet instructor would set me on the correct path vocally, BUT it did.  After ballet class a week ago from last Saturday, I introduced myself to Mr. F. and told him that I was a singer/pianist and that his class so far had helped me enormously in recovering my vocal function.  And Mr. F. said: “It’s the same as ballet. In ballet you lead with the chest and insist on feeling a long spine up and down so all that you do in dance hangs from that “pull up”.  Same thing in singing.  I sang on Broadway years ago.  (and he placed his flat palm in line with his upper teeth).  Everything has to be from here up.  If it’s from here down it’s wrong – period.  The highest coloratura and the lowest bass sing the same.  We sing with our head – no matter what the voice teachers say.  They refer to chest, mix etc. Forget that.”

I was just about to resume a cover on my voice until he said that, and then I reasoned that if he survived a Broadway show with 8 shows a week (before the days of body mikes) that his technique vocally had to be consistent and reliable.  SO I went back to my practice room and tinkered. 

He’s right and there is a way to put the cover on the voice (as in the umlaut U in German – like the word Ruekert – sorry my blog does not show umlauts so I revert to the standard German substitution).  Over three rehearsals it started to gel for me.  So now (without making your eyes glaze with technical jargon), this is how it works:

You stand errect as in ballet with solid support on both feet, chest forward, spine long and head erect.  You begin on the lowest notes of your range with a very soft umlaut UE (that’s placed over the tongue).  You leave the lower jaw in a rather closed neutral position, and you begin to spin the breath very gently in a five-tone exercise.   You will find that the correct high-placed cover with the looseness in the jaw – plus “sipping the breath” rather than gasping the breath – and quite suddenly the vertical column for your breath connection from your hips on up is established. There is also a feeling of animation above your nose.  You can work this sound very precisely as high as the voice will go.  This is an over-simplification, but in principal this is it.  Since the back of the throat is loose the sound just goes straight up and since your mouth is more closed than opened you have a loose control of the focus and it goes straight forward.  On high C I can barely put a finger between my teeth.  On high F in alt I can get a finger plus a little in space between my teeth.  If you drop the jaw too much you are likely to jut the lower jaw forward – and then the alignment is GONE and everything will collapse and then you will lean very badly on the throat.

So, in sum, on my first blog entry, I was assuming that I would only be able to do the small light lyric, but now it looks like the voice will be doing the full lyric.  Act 1 Traviata is working. Ernani is working. Fiordiligi is working. Cleopatra (Handel) is working, and Manon Lescaut is working – and I am revisiting Turandot since Puccini had the same soprano in mind for all of his heroines.  And if I can sing Turandot on the “interest of my voice” rather than the “principal of my voice” it’s very easy.  However, there will be no Wagner or Strauss for a very very long time.

After my evening rehearsals I walk the 59th Street Bridge to work in the morning and practice at 8:15 am as I walk over – in all kinds of weather.  Even after fatigue from last night, Traviata Act 1 worked WITHOUT warmup – and judging from reaction from pedestrians below and in the cars going by – even with the N train rattling overhead – the voice must be very big.  And it feels like I am barely putting any pressure on my chords.

Thank you Mr. F. for making just the right comment when I needed it the most.

Back to Ballet

February 21, 2010

At the time that I was singing the likes of Queen of the Night, Ophelia and Philine in concert in NYC, I had serrendipidously moved from four years of Horten at Alvin Ailey (an incredible place to study modern dance) to ballet at Steps with a great Russian dancer and teacher  who I will refer to as Mr. F.  This man is a genius technically. 

And for six months I managed to keep up with the advanced intermediate class with him as teacher.   I had found the beginning ballet class too slow.  During that time I studied in his class I found the sheer attention to posture and how the body works mechanically a revelation in terms of how much better I supported when I sang – not to mention how much more free my vocal production was.

So needless to say as I am reconstructing my new voice, I went back to his class, and Mr. F  is just as wonderful a teacher as before and the class is an inspiration for me on all counts.

So to celebrate my rebirth, I thought it time to ditch my modern dance togs and buy some new ballet togs, so I went to the one hosiery store in Astoria on Steinway Street that sells all sorts of incredible undergarments  AND ballet togs and shoes.  Granted, I didn’t look like much in my heavy winter puff coat – complete with a funky wool hat and mittens.  When the sixty-ish sales woman greated me, she said, “Leotards for your daughter or you?”  The look on her face telegraphed that she thought I just emerged from the ooz of Jurrasic Park.  I said “for me” and was met with a withering glance – and we made our way to the leotards – and then had to work through my sizing issues.  She could not have realized under my coat that I had a very trim body  so I have to forgive her nettlesome tone of  voice. 

Once we got past the togs, we then went to the shoes.  I have three pair of ballet shoes at home (my old pink ones are about ready to fall apart) – all three pair say 8M.  She pulled out a stool and I began to try on ballet shoes.  Clearly the new shoes she had in stock ran very small.  Through a process of laborious trying on, we arrived at a 9-1/2 M – at the rate we were going, I had fully expected to walk out of the shop with a pair of ballet shoes that would fit one of the stars of the Ballet Trocadero de Montecarlo – they looked that big.  The saleswoman said, “But you are wearing heavy socks – the young girls want them tight and they don’t wear socks.”  And I countered, “Well I do wear socks and always have.”

When I got home, I held them against the old shoes – and soles matched the old 8 M, but there was all this extra soft leather over the top of the foot to pull up with the adjustable strings at the toe of the shoe.  I managed to tighten them to my foot.

What I had not anticipated is that the extra shoe leather – not to mention the soft sueded sole – was going to give me grief in class on Saturday.   The barre was fine, but trying to land an easy pirouette was a very literally sticky deal, so I ended up hopping at times rather than wrenching my knees trying to spin on the floor with what felt like a big wad of bubble gum under the balls of my feet.  Of course my ineptitude was noticed.

After class, another younger girl and I were talking to two incredible male dancers who danced like Greek gods and left the rest of us in the dust in our class.  I asked them how to break in a very sticky pair of new ballet slippers.  And the dark haired one said, “Just wear them around the house all the time twist the ball of your foot with the shoes on.  They will get slick and fast in time.”

I have taken his advice, but I am bringing my old shoes to class next Saturday just in case my shoes aren’t slick enough by then.

I had a great rehearsal this morning – and the ballet is certainly helping me and I love Mr. F’s class.  Onward and upward… sh

Two of Mozart’s Most Famous Coloraturas

February 17, 2010

This entry is a reality check for both singers and conductors.  I was fortunate enough to study musicology with the foremost authority on Mozart performance practice for my Masters degree.  It was a very loosely organized class.  And since I was the least educated of my classmates, I dove into the vast library of microfilmed scores dating back to Mozart’s time.  While researching the likes of Gassman, Hasse and Mislivocek I could not resist digging out information on Magic Flute (the role of Queen of the Night in particular – since I have since sung the role – when I do something, I do it thoroughly!) and some of the concert arias. 

In particular, the famous Queen of the Night Vengeance aria:  Der Hoelle Rache.  I made it my business to check out every handwritten early score of this aria both in the Midwest and NYC extant – both on microfilm and monument editions. 

In the Vengeance aria: On the ascents to the repeated high Fs in the major section of the melismas the stacatto markings end on the high Cs.  Above that to the high Fs the lack of staccato markings PLUS the lack of a steady rythmic marking base line in the accompaniment plus the lack of duplication of the vocal line in the accompaniment lead me to believe that Mozart gave the singer the choice to sing these highest phrases as she could on any given night – even slowing down to make them work and singing them legato – far easier than the foolishness we sometimes hear today. 

By contrast the D Minor section repeating the same pattern includes the staccato markings on the high Ds plus a duplication of that line in the orchestra part so clearly Maria Josefa Hofer had stacatto high Ds but not stacatto high Fs.

Maria Josefa Hofer was the first Queen of the Night and she stopped singing the role at the age of 57 (she died at the age of 63 but not before Mozart composed the role of Donna Anna in Don Giovanni for her).  Donna Anna does not go above passing high B flats below high C – so by then her high Fs were most likely a fond memory.

Music critics of the time – if they can be called that  – possibly Edge – was quoted on Maria Josefa Hofer’s singing of the Queen of the Night: “The voice was high (tessitura) and edgy and she had no stage presence.”  High edgy voices are generally bigger voices than the leggieras we hear today in this role, which would support my theory of a bigger voice singing this role in Mozart’s time.  Moreover, this voice was apparently of one sound from the bottom to the top – no switches (see Lange below).

Concert Pitch Today versus Mozart’s time:  Mozart’s high F today would sound at high G in alt – a full step higher than written! Why? Because pitch has changed and the violinists in orchestras like a more brilliant ring to their sound – they tune the strings tighter and tighter and the pitch goes higher and higher.  In Vienna, the pitch is the highest – even higher than in the U.S.A. today.  This plays havoc for singers world-wide.  That’s why we currently have so few REAL basses and contraltos.  We can blame that on the fiddle players in the professional orchestras.

Concert Aria Mia speranza adorata:  Composed for Aloysia Lange.  Mozart loved this voice.  Many of the highest and loveliest concert arias were written for her.  Edge heard her sing Mia speranza adorata at the Burgtheater and his comments: “Her voice was lovely and nearly earsplitting to the B flat below high C and above that to the high F barely audible, but the facility and ornamentation were admirable.”  Translated in vocal terms:  She was a young singer who either had a normal mid-range to top and a weak whistle register above.  We have all heard very young singers with this top sound – and they usually can’t do much with it.  But by today’s vocal standards this dual technique would be decried by every music critic around.  Then you factor in that by today’s standards those high Fs were actually high E flats (with a commensurate lower tessitura for the aria), and there are many singers today who could sing these arias with a better more consistent sound than Mozart ever heard during his short life.

In Sum:  We have to put Mozart in context.  In his hay-day he was the new “contemporary” composer of his day – perhaps as new sounding as Philip Glass today.  It his the historians, music lovers, performers (with their own musical taste and quirks) who have packed all things Mozart into that perfect Tiffany box for preservation so frequently we get a performance steeped in nonsense and lacking humanity – dull pablum.  And if you read the Mozart letters, he was indeed very human, and grateful that his music was being performed at all during his life – like all composers.

A New Start

February 14, 2010

At this time I have decided to switch my vocal repertoire to something in keeping with the changes in my voice.  I was told by many voice teachers, coaches and agents that I was a heroic soprano – they used to say my voice was a cross between Birgit Nilsson and Kirsten Flagstad, but bigger than both going at the same time.

Many times early in my singing career, I would bring a more lyric placement that took greater concentration mentally but far less breath and effort than the dramatic soprano placement to my teachers, accompanists and coaches.  I was told by one and all, “You are a dramatic soprano.  Why would you want to sing what everyone else is singing?”

They set aside that I had great coloratura facility and range up to the high F as in  Queen of the Night.  They also set aside that it took me two days to recover from a heavy Wagner sing to be fresh again – and that when I sang the leggiera rep the voice worked all the time and recovered immediately.

So now I am at an age where I have sung all the dramatic soprano repertoire.  I have had some fine European agents and some of the best coaches, and I am simply tired of singing the heavy rep – and I have sung it all. 

They say there is a time when you don’t care what people think.  You will just state the truth.  I am there, and I want to continue singing as long as I can and as well as I can, so I have made the emotional / mental adjustment to the light lyric repertoire and at this age, that’s where I belong. 

For any singer or musician the switch from Bruenhilde to Pamina is nothing short of cataclysmic, but for the safety of my chords, I am doing it.

I have learned that there is an optimum balance physically – in ballet (with my fused back) I can do everything but with a more restricted range – and in time I will do it well.  So it is with my voice – and I choose a well-balanced vocal production that allows me to sing with less than half of my normal asthma meds – and that’s to the good.

This blog is intended to be a discussion of all things musical and artistic that I hold dear.  It will chronicle my personal artistic development  and the truth-seeking journey I am on.  I can only hope that those who have heard me in opera and recital will understand that I choose health and functionality and musical expression versus flash.  At this age I have earned it.

Hello world!

February 14, 2010

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