Kashudo (歌手道): "Sing on the interest!" But there is no interest without principal!

If we follow the money managing metaphor that is often used in singing, indeed principal is necessary in order to generate interest. That is also true of singing. But let us define what is meant by the use of this metaphor!

When one is said to be using his/her vocal principal or capital, it is meant that the singer is singing in a way that does not promote longevity, that the voice is being used in a way that will ultimately harm it. It is also meant that the voice is not being used efficiently but with bad tension that will ultimately hurt it.
But there are some who equate vocal ease with vocal balance. However not all vocal ease is a sign of good vocal technique. Singing a breathy sound can also feel easy on the throat but it is not what we ultimately look for in vocal technique. Some even advocate avoiding the chest voice altogether, as if chest content were tantamount to wasting one’s vocal capital. This is misguided thinking.
It is crucial to understand vocal sensation in order to make sense of these metaphors. What we need to understand is the nature of phonation. As with any physical action, phonation begins with a desire–in this case a desire to produce a specific pitch with the voice. Indeed pitch is the driving force of vocal technique as a whole. A specific pitch can be created in three essential ways. The vocal folds can set up a pitch in the following ways: 1) too deep and breathy (they go hand and hand), 2) too shallow and pressed or 3) appropriately deep and most efficient closure.
Pitch is driven by a combination of the depth of the vocal folds and how tightly they close, which together determine how long it takes the folds to complete an open-close cycle. A pitch is determined by how many open-close cycles occur during exactly one second of time (e.g. A 440Hz is equivalent to 440 open-close cycles every second).
The depth of the vocal folds is determined by the contraction of the vocalis muscle. How deeply the folds are set up is felt by a proportional sense of connection to the chest. The correct amount of connection yields the ideal amount of medial closure to produce what is called a “focused” tone, somewhere between too thick and breathy and shallow and pressed. The precise amount of depth and closure also yields a balance sensation of being “grounded” and “suspended” that is neither rigid nor precariously loose. In essence, the balanced flow that gives a feeling of “height” or “suspension” depends upon the right amount of chest voice, not the absence of it.
Following are models of balance in each voice type:
Kurt Moll
The last time I saw Kurt Moll live was in a Met Zauberflöte. The performance was lackluster until he walked in and merely spoke and then sang “O Isis und Osiris”. It was like going to church. Everything became still and it was indeed a prayer. The honesty of the voice speaks to this balance. It is grounded but not heavy. It is focused by not pressed. Chiaroscuro throughout.

Piero Cappuccilli
I chose the next video for Cappuccilli as an absolute example of baritonal balance. I had the rare pleasure to spend two weeks with him once. We spent the entire time on breathing. This duet from Verdi’s Don Carlos is one of the finest examples of Italian singing in the last third of the 20th century. Yet what I wish to compare is the excellence of Bergonzi to the near perfection of Cappuccilli. Only next to such absolute efficiency could Bergonzi’s little faults be evident. I often say: “Ground, not round!” If you listen carefully, you will hear Bergonzi’s production to be a touch “thin” (I used the term shallow earlier), and as a result he had to round his vowels to prevent sounding strident. Compared to Cappuccilli, the voice is a little less present.

Jussi Björling

There is reason why Björling is considered to have produced the most efficient, most balanced tenor sound ever. Again, one can hear clearly the chest connection and the absolute clarity of the tone without pressing. It is a joy to hear these singers in their own language.

Bruce Ford
Rossini tenors should take a page from tenor Bruce Ford’s book. Again he exhibits an elasticity of incredible proportions in this aria that challenges in giant leaps the way only the impetuous young Mozart would do. Once again a real model of balance. No note is ever falsetto and no lower note is ever one-sided. The presence of the upper voice is felt even in the lowest notes. I look forward to Mr. Ford’s return to the Metropolitan opera in 2010 in Rossini’s Armida.

Olga Borodina
Few female voices are so well balanced as Borodina’s. Even in the treacherous first passaggio where most women resort to driving the chest voice, Borodina remains attentive to balance.
The result is powerful presence without vulgarity.
Eleanor Steber
I would go as far as calling Eleanor Steber the pride of American vocal technique. The full evenness of her entire range is evidenced also by her well-supported piano. Here she sings the Czardas from Die Fledermaus in English, with sustained high D at the end.
Diana Damrau
A singer who gives the future much hope. She does not resort to flute voice production in the upper end and only uses a loose chest voice for dramatic effect in the opening of this treacherous difficult aria, Marten aller Arten. The difficult downward scale to the depth of her lower range utilizes a more balanced approach.

No singer is perfect and being an opera singer is a complex package. However at the root of this art should be this kind of balance that is exhibited by too few singers in our time. We are at the end (I like to believe) of a decadent period of history that leaves its traces in economic excesses and downfalls, in environmental excesses and disasters. Excess is more expedient. The last generation of singers has also shown a tendency toward excess. Raw chest voice and flute voice are utilized in parts of the range where they do not belong. Yet this has been rewarded. The evenness of a balanced sound is conceived as boringly monochromatic by some who do not understand that this balanced sound is the quality that travels through an orchestra and that the extreme sounds, though interesting in small audition rooms will not be heard once a few orchestral instruments are in the mix. For my part I prefer the boringly rich and efficient chiaroscuro of a balanced tone. But then again, the singers featured hear are everything but boring.
© 09/30/2009

9 thoughts on “Kashudo (歌手道): "Sing on the interest!" But there is no interest without principal!

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  1. Wonderful post! That Bruce Ford clip is pretty amazing. I wonder though, do you consider him to be a true leggiero? To my ears he sounds more like a lyric with an insanely easy top, in a way a bit like Gedda (not the tambre, but the approach). I should add though that I've never heard him live.


  2. A worthy question Erik! I asked myself that question when I first heard him. I believe he is a “high” tenor. The voice lives in a higher place than the average lyric. That is why I think he excelled in this repertoire. It is not a leggiero voice in the Florez sense, but perhaps more akin to Lawrence Brownlee's sound. Gedda had facility in the top but the voice sat in the lyric range. Same can be said of Bjoerling. Bruce belives his voice to be that of a high tenor. Singers who are that technically refined should be trusted about how they feel their own voice. What is remarkable is that he always sings a full sound. Never falsetto-like.






  4. I hang out on a couple of singers' forums, one of which in particular (not the one I know you from, TS) is full of the gloom and doom of the modern vocal art, with some of the Eeyores saying that there is NO good singing anymore. While there is an awful lot of suboptimal singing, it is important to point out these examples of the vocal “balance” that enables the music to be fully expressed. We must seek out the good, and figure out how to encourage it! Wonderful essay, TS.


  5. Great stuff!

    Regarding Bruce Ford, I have played that clip many times, and also discovered that Se di lauri… is a wonderful aria to practice vocal balance on. It centers the voice beautifully and punishes you if you reach for the low or high notes, travelling up and down two full octaves. 🙂 The hardest parts (for me) are the H on the first “e di rossor” (1:26) – where Ford artfully binds with a soft “h”, and the low D on the last “di rossor” (4:46), since you've had a long run up to high C just before it. The sheet music can be downloaded from de.mozarteum.at


  6. I love the examples you have here, especially Björling who is always wonderful to listen to.

    In your post, you mentioned that overly deep folds go hand-in-hand with breathiness, while too-thin folds are often pressed. (I would venture to say that under acoustic and physiological conditions different from those generally used in approaches such as yours, including a lower volume appropriate for amplified singing but not for filling a huge opera hall, an amount of adduction that sounds “pressed” to Bel Canto ears can be quite healthy if a CCM singer desires the sound of thinner-fold singing. This would be heard in the Estill voice quality “cry” or especially “thick cry,” the CVT mode “Curbing,” or the Speech Level Singing “mix.”)

    My question is this: What conditions cause a sound to be simultaneously pressed and breathy? This may sound impossible, but I've definitely heard (and accidentally produced) that sound before. Perhaps it involves underactive IA muscles and overactive LCA muscles, causing excessive release of breath and the higher overtones associated with pressing. Is this associated with an improper fold depth, or would that be more associated with excessive breath pressure that the adductory muscles cannot properly deal with?


  7. Dear Ulf,

    Sorry I did not reply earlier. I've been traveling. I agree with you regarding the aria and thank you for the link. I will try it as an exercise. I think it is a totally worthwhile venture.

    Dear Jaadamgo,

    I so welcome your contribution. What a beautiful, informed comment! I hope you will make it a habit and I am particularly interested on your input from the CCM side. Much discussion to be had without prejudice.

    Indeed I address the voice relative to an ideal balance aspired to in the best traditions of lyric singing. But this is not to say that lyric singers are always on the right side of this nor that CCM singers are on the wrong side of it. Of course the aesthetics of CCM singing give much greater latitude to what we call balanced singing, for better or worse depends on each individual circumstance as it does for lyric singers.

    Relative to the comment about pressed voice, I agree. Not only are CCM aesthetics different, but the thin-fold production you refer to can be very healthily produced especially since CCM singers do not necessarily use this production in the upper extremes of the voice in a modal muscular dynamic (i.e. both CT and Vocalis) as a lyric singer is required to (used to be required to is probably more accurate). Vocal health is not dependent upon function alone, but the conditions under which certain functional modes are used.

    There are two conditions that I know cause pressed voice and breathiness right away. 1) One has to do with the presence of nodules or cysts, edema or other unnatural formations on the folds. Depending on the formation, the folds could be pressed throughout their length except for the area of the formation. 2) The true definition of muscular tension dysphonia as described in this video:


    In this case it would seem excessive adduction (IA) causes a simultaneous abductory hyperfunction (PCA). 2A)Dr. James P. Thomas whose web page this is speaks of this also occuring when a singer had nodules, got them removed but that the folds remember the posture of pressing along the front 2/3 of the folds while maintaining a posterior gap.

    I would think that (2) could occur spontaneously due to a desire to produce a specific sound quality. Either way, I would not consider this part of healthy function in the long term.

    Thank you again for an excellent query.


  8. Thank you bleetenor for those comments. While it may be true that we accept a lot of substandard singing to be called acceptable in the lyric genre, I think it is a waste of time to say that there no great singers if we are not willing to discuss whether that is the case at all, or if it is why that is. I am more proactive. I believe that there are great singers all around us, but the system is impatient as is the case socially world-wide. Singers are not given the time they need to become bona fide lyric singers in the traditional sense. Falsetto-like high notes are accepted as acceptable. Real lyric sounds require a muscular strengthening and balance that is very specific and must be learned. There are no vocal prodigies. The business of lyric singing, like other forms of entertainment favor youth. For lyric singing, which requires time, that is a major problem, since training is not undertaken in the discipline way it was roughly a century ago.


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