Kashu-do (歌手道): The Vocal Athlete 1: Fundamentals

This week I graduated to Brown Sash in Kung Fu, which means that perhaps next year I may go through the preparation for the Black Sash test called “Cycle.”  I should be excited!  I am and I am not.  I have decided I will not go through cycle until I have accomplished certain skills.  I must be able to do a “full split” and I must be able to sustain all my stances in ideal form for more than 5 minutes.  If I have to wait years before that, I will.  The Black Sash holds a certain special significance for me.   The strength and flexibility as well as the importance of stances in martial application are absolutely fundamental.  There should be a Sash System for operatic singing!

What are vocal fundamentals?  What are the standards?  Acoustic Analysis of the greatest singers show us certain trends.  Not all the great singers were great because of their vocalism.  Some were great because they were great musicians; others were great actors; and others had charisma, etc.  If we were to use acoustic analysis, we might agree only on how tenor high notes should be sung.  Ever since tenors became the most marketable voice type (since Caruso’s landmark recordings), interest in tenors have moved scientists to study them and the top notes that define them.  We go as far as to “recommend” that tenors “should” aspire to F2 (second formant) dominance at F4# and above.  Yet many successful tenors do not.  Instead of observing the perfect acoustics of Jussi Björling’s voice that epitomizes chiaroscuro (bright/dark) balance with even balance between F1 (first formant) and SF (singer’s formant) in the area below the passaggio the same kind of balance between F2 and SF above the passaggio.  At the passaggio area, Björling displays a difficult-to-sustain balance between F1, F2 and the SF.  Those features are logical and confirm a laryngeal oscillation (source) that is in sync with the adjustments of the vocal tract (filter).  If we insisted on this alone, we might have a wealth of tenors coming up who have the goods to deal with orchestral acoustics in big houses.  Indeed, that ability above all else gets an audience’s attention.  A pretty face and charisma and good stage deportment can keep the audience’s attention, but first it must be captured.

Acoustic norms are also possible for women.  But that information is even harder to come by because the scientists observe and make conclusions from what exists, rather than theorize other possibilities.  The common misunderstanding that allows female singers to sing in a relative falsetto in the middle range stems from a premise that efficiency of phonation must be sacrificed to satisfy the tendency for women to be uncoordinated in the lower passaggio.  Teachers of the past took it for granted that the hardest part of the female voice to develop was indeed the lower passaggio into the middle range, just as the difficulty for men lies in the upper passaggio.  But since men are also allowed to call themselves Rossini tenors by going into “falsettone” on top, so has it become normalized that women should sing in falsetto in the middle range if the lower passaggio is not naturally coordinated.

Is it any wonder that many coloratura sopranos are mistaken for mezzos when they have a well-coordinated strong middle voice?

Some would argue that following a standardized acoustic prescription would make all voice’s sound alike.  It is in fact the opposite.  What distinguishes great tenors is precisely the prescription above.  To accomplish what Björling did, a singer must develop the source tone to such an extinct that overtones throughout the spectrum would be viable for formant influence.  The individual shape of the singer’s vocal tract is revealed when ideal acoustic balance (like Björling’s) is accomplished.  The strength in the lower side of the spectrum confirms a low larynx, as experienced in both the [i] and [u] vowels that rely on low formants.  The release of the jaw has a positive effect on middle partials as evident in the vowel [a].  Front vowels requiring higher formants are defined by a higher position of the tongue blade, preventing tongue retraction that would otherwise muffle the vocal tract by pushing down on the epiglottis.  Maintaining the availability of all partials requires a complex coordination of releasing the jaw near [a] levels, having the larynx low near [u] or [i] levels and having the tongue in a position that prevents retraction.  However, because one singer with a very wide vocal tract is able to achieve appropriate formant tracking without the standards prescribed above, many teachers will circumvent this necessary resonance adjustment using the exception as the rule.  So many singers sing with a constricted vocal tract that has limited choice relative to strong partials resulting from a tight jaw, high larynx and retracted tongue. It should also be reminded that this prescribed acoustic adjustment means very little if the source tone has not been developed.  A teacher may also circumvent this logical approach by pointing to a student with a poor source tone whose sound does not change very much with the prescribed adjustments.  Naturally, convincing classical vocalists of standards has become a lost cause.

As for breathing, the landscape has been too polluted by compensatory measures suggested by successful singers with great source tones and weak respiration.  The diaphragm is the most innervated muscle in the body and responds to desire to produce specific actions (including speaking and singing) and not to direct manipulation.  In fact every muscle in the body responds that way.  Undesirable muscular tensions occur when unnecessary muscles compensate for necessary muscles that have remained under-developed for the task at hand.

Indeed whether for breathing, phonation or resonance, if all muscles related to singing were developed for singing purposes, a singer would simply have to imagine a sound and the many muscles would respond in balance to produce that very sound.

Question: How long would it take a singer to train all the muscles necessary for singing?

Answer: Another question–How long would it take a voice teacher to learn about function in order to know how to target all the muscles concerned?

The voice teacher has little influence in the hierarchy of today’s operatic politics.  A teacher has the best influence on a student who has gone through the current system and failed to advance.  That student has nothing to lose and everything to gain by learning a technique that is superior to that of his/her average competitor.  Being essentially behind, s/he better aspire for something superior.

The nature of the operatic field today is designed (perhaps as every other field) to help further those who have some “natural ability!”  Few of these natural talents last, in fact.  Those that last may have been among the naturally talented but at some point encountered problems that they were able to address and through that experience become truly competent, whether Jonas Kaufmann with Michael Rhodes or Piotr Beczala with Dale Fundling.

Question: What is “naturally talented?”

Answer: Unconscious nurture!

Whether Lanza copying recordings of Caruso or Carreras copying recordings of Lanza, basic muscular structure is often trained by young singers without any real knowledge involved.  However in cases where the natural voice type of the student matches that of the singer s/he is copying, the training may attain high levels depending on the aural sensitivity of the young singer.

Did Lanza do better than Carreras because the expectations of what was considered operatic in the forties and fifties were more rigid than the 70s? 

Lanza’s singing is acoustically more in tune with “operatic norms.”  Carreras’ rarely made the resonance shift where F1 is supposed to cede dominance to F2.  Yet he was a charismatic, musical and passionate performer who looked like a movie star.

If the operatic field is improving in terms of Marketing, I submit it is regressing in terms of quality.

 How could it improve when we cannot agree on any standards?

In many cases, the singer gives priority to the opinions of the répétiteur.  The current culture of opera supports it.  The pianist-coach in opera tends to rise from a sub-conductor hierarchy.  In fact, many of them wish to go into conducting from coaching, not having had the traditional conductor training per se (this does not mean they are not capable.  Quite often coaches are more capable operatic conductors than their conductor colleagues because of the time they spend with singers).  Germaine to the conversation is the status that coaches acquire by being in essence, conductors in training.  The singer, either consciously or subconsciously, perceives the coach as an “in” into performances opportunities.  Furthermore, in a race against time (since so much is age-dependent), the singer is more likely to give priority to someone whose work is relatively finite in the moment (e.g. a coach with specific musical goals for a coaching session) rather than to a voice teacher whose technical work seems endless at times.  Coaches do not do vocal trench-work with singers.  They judge a singer on the ability to execute musical tasks, whether singing a high note or fulfilling a specific expectation relative to dynamics, whether very loud or very soft, for example.  Their judgement of the singer is totally based on the singer’s ability to fulfill an immediate musical gratification. This is in keeping with the current culture and a singer will twist themselves into pretzels to be able to accomplish precisely that, given that the coach-pianist might lead them to the next performance opportunity.

A singer who is truly prepared vocally can accomplish these things without compromising a fundamental technique.  On that we can agree.  But who can really agree on what a fundamental technique really is?

At the heels of the Winter Olympics, I am reminded how clear it is to Figure Skaters what constitutes a Quad-Lutz or a specific spin or what defines athleticism vs. artistry and how the two are required in a complete Figure Skater.  I watched a retired-skater-turned-commentator explain how the lines on the ice define the quality of the landing of a jump and how the shape of those lines help the judges determine scoring.  A skater who is musical and artistically sensitive is one with the music but will not win unless s/he can also execute Quad Jumps with great height and grace.  Only a few years ago, it was Triple Jumps.  Skaters are able to take their sport/art to a higher athletic level without losing artistry.  Singers do not by and large.

The singer as athlete (as Pavarotti used to often comment) is a dinosaur!  Singers today rarely last beyond 40 with their voices intact.

Question: What are the physical/athletic/acoustic/objective requirements for a truly operatic voice?

Answer: They exist, but not having them gives free license to voice teachers to call themselves experts on their own terms.  It makes coaches de facto voice teachers without expertise and whoever wants to have an opinion based on their position in the food chain rather than based on real knowledge of vocal function.  

Despite this chaos lacking objective criteria, several great singers come through with great, resilient voices combined with great artistry.  But we should honestly ask:

Question: What percentage of singers pursuing an operatic career today become truly viable professionals as compared to even forty years ago?

Answer: There were more viable professional opera singers in the world when the number of aspirants was 1/100th of what it is today.  We are saturated and the vast majority are chaff, not wheat!  

Question:  Why is that?

Answer:  Because today, opera as a physical act has no agreed-upon standards!

© 03/03/2014

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