Archive for March, 2010

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!

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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.