Kashudo (歌手道): Strenghtening a weak range or why a Rossini tenor with a perfect high D finds "Una Furtiva" difficult

I am going through perhaps the most encouraging phase of my change from baritone to tenor. In the last couple of weeks I have been able to produce a mezza voce that extends all the way up to Eb5 without a break (well, most of the time). This is not falsetto but it is not my loudest production either. More interesting has been the sudden ability to sing in a production that feels like my best baritone days, but now I am singing in a tessitura considerably higher. What has happened? Now that I am singing with my old baritone weight again (or so it seems), I think: “why could I not have simply brought this color to the upper range the way I am able now?” Answer: simple. I was not strong enough!

How was I not strong enough? What was lacking? What exactly was weak? Was it a weak crico-thyroid? I doubt it. I have had the ability to sing very high in some kind of falsetto-like mix all my life. Was it a weak vocalis? I doubt it. After all I have sung roles as low as Don Pasquale and have sung Sarastro’s arias in concert. The weakness is in the coordination between them. What I have discovered over this experience is that the facts bear out. Each note should have a specific balance between those two muscles that yield a specific length and depth of the vocal fold tissue. The specific balance for each note requires the recruitment of very specific micro-fibers which we have no way of seeing or measuring. Unless we were able to insert needle electrodes in the crico-thyroids (which are easily accessible) and into the vocalis (which is not) we cannot really know which micro-fibers are recruited when. It is particularly difficult with the vocalis, which has a double structure of fibers (one group of lateral fibers similar to other muscles in the body and a spiral group that is singular to that muscle). Which specific fibers should be recruited is only important insofar as wrong recruitment yields dysfunction.

For us singers, what is important is that we recognize what correct balance of those two muscles feels like, and that we know when on a particular note that balance is not happening. And if balance is not happening, we should not panic but rather rejoice in the fact that we know that one particular note is not functioning as it should. We may rejoice because we can then address the problem. Indeed each note that we are able to correct will benefit a whole range of notes that depend on some of the same muscle fibers.

What I am beginning to experience in my higher range is correct balance on notes that heretofore could not have this coordination. So now I can sing a B4 the same way I sing a D4 a sixth lower, not the same weight but the same relative balance. A properly balanced B4 feels exactly like a balanced D4 even though the D4 has a different muscular balance. The feeling of a seamless range is, in essence, appropriate balance on every note. What is important is that the balance must be found, and strengthened on every note. Being able to sing a perfectly coordinated B4 like I did today does not mean I am ready for the stage yet. I cannot sustain a B4 for very long in this new coordination. It feels freer and totally easy for a couple of seconds. Then if I continue to sustain it, it becomes difficult. One half step lower I can sustain for much longer. Since I was not able to do this before, it only follows that my strengthening has brought me here. I must work more to achieve a totally reliable, fully extended top (dramatic tenor or not).

This brings me to this extremely gifted tenor I teach who specializes in Rossini. He has the ability to sing D5 with total balance and strength, yet he finds the aria, “Una furtiva lagrima” very difficult. The reason is that he has a vocalis weakness. His entire range in the past lacked in substance. The larynx had a tendency of going up and his best notes were the highest ones. Given that vocalis activity must reduce as he goes higher, it made perfect sense that his voice sounded more and more balanced the higher he sang. The lowest end of the range was weak. It is now stronger. The most notable problem was the following: the lower he sang, the more he had a tendency to squeeze (as we discussed here, a pressed voice is a compensatory mechanism for folds that are too thin for the given pitch). The most problematic part of one-sided voices (whether vocalis driven or CT-driven) is the area were one muscle begins to relax and the other begin to dominate. At that juncture (the muscular passaggio), the singer would experience tension (the aforementioned squeeze). It is this squeeze that would make the Rossini tenor get tired through “Una furtive lagrima”. The piece lies in great part in the unbalanced (squeezed) area for this particular tenor. As the voice gets tenser, even notes that are easier for him would become challenging (because notes preceding them are tense).

Now the tenor is much better coordinated and the aria is much easier for him. But it is not 100% reliable under pressure. The muscular coordination happens properly but he is not yet strong enough after three months of work to trust his stamina in this area.

The main point of this post is that vocal weaknesses are not simply a matter of coordination but also one of strength. In Bikram Yoga I learned that flexibility comes from strength. I did not get it before until I picked up my backpack. I am strong enough to pick up my heavy backpack with one arm and move that arm around in different ways. The student I was teaching the other day as I thought about this subject could pick up my backpack but not for more than a second or so and certainly could not move her arm around. Her muscles were completely engaged in the lifting and there was no flexibility to move her arm. The strength of the muscles determines both stamina and flexibility.

© 09/13/2009

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