Kashudo (歌手道): Why “Covering” Works Better For baritones and Basses

Before I get into today’s post, a sincere word of thanks for all of you readers who wrote to me privately concerned about my last concert and how I felt about it. I love writing this blog and I am so happy to connect with such wonderful people all over this planet. I shared the story not hoping to elicit pity but rather to show that at any level, we singers are a very feeling bunch and we are vulnerable because what we do matters so much. I wrote the blog more as a reminder to myself, because I have a tendency (maybe the teacher in me) to nurture others at my own expense. It may seem noble, but it is not. Balance is important in everything. The short of it is that after I rested properly for two days my high C came back and more importantly the clarity of my middle voice returned immediately.

Now to the main issue. I have cited here often that acoustic law makes it such that when all elements are balanced, the [a] vowel will shift from first formant resonance to second formant resonance at F#4 regardless of voice type. This has proven to be true with all voices I teach, rather a coloratura soprano in her lower passaggio or a Rossini tenor in his (only) passaggio. This also means that a baritone is able to sing and “open” (first formant dominant) [a] vowel on F4 without experiencing what we call acoustically a “register violation”. I layman’s terms, after F4, unless the second formant dominates, the larynx goes up from a pressed phonation.
In essence there is no difference acoustically for a bass, baritone or tenor (or any voice really. But this issue is of more immediate concern to men relative to their top voices). The difference has to do with fold size and the amount of intensity on a given note depending on voice type. On F4, a tenor sound very normal singing the high note open. Accessing the second formant requires a slight rounding of the lips (this is not necessary on the [a] vowel above F4). Tenors will often round the lips (cover if you will) to induce a softer color. Sing a second formant F4 on the [a] yields a more tender sound for the tenor. But for the baritone or bass, the F4 can sound quite powerful, even violent regardless of the resonance choice. If fact the second formant resonance sound more appropriate for the baritone or bass on F4 because it helps keep a matching color relative to the lower voice. Furthermore, no intensity is lost because the baritone or bass is already in a muscular balance that yields great intensity, whereas for the tenor, this is a middle voice note. The lower the note (e.g. E4 or Eb4) the more lip rounding is necessary to access second formant resonance. For the baritone even Eb4 may be “covered” without great loss of intensity. For a tenor, covering Eb4 constitutes a major color change and is reserved for tender colors. For a bass, many Ebs are sung covered, also without a loss of intensity. A bass might cover a B3 (just below middle C) for a tender effect. That is one of the reasons why the “zona di passaggio” (the region of passage) is often said to be between B3 and F4.
It is also significant that “covering” (lip rounding that makes the sound seem like it is being retained inside the vocal tract) is a phenomenon of the [a] vowel and its gradual modification in the direction of [o] and [u] depending how low the covering is done. Vowel modification for the purpose of formant change is different in the [i] to [E] spectrum. Although lip rounding may be effectively help in accomplishing more exact formant tuning in the tongue vowel spectrum (i.e. [i] to [E]), it also has a negative effect on the other formant (the non-dominant or passive formant). Changing formant for the tongue vowel spectrum is much more effective when the tongue alone does the modification.
© 12/14/2009

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