Kashu-do (歌手道): Becoming Tenor 2: The Nature of Talent and the Responsibilities Thereunto

Several things inspired this post.  First, in checking the traffic on this blog, I noticed a large number of people find the blog by searching “baritone to tenor switch” or similar search titles.  Second, I feel the word “talent” as it is often used can be a preparation to disaster.  Third, and a commentary of my second reason, very little difference is made between what are genetic attributes and the skills developed relative to such attributes.

I have often said on this blog that I did not “change” from baritone to tenor.  I don’t believe a natural baritone can make a change to become a reliable tenor.  To support this statement, I must define what is a natural tenor as distinguishable from a baritone.

Parameters that are used to distinguish voice types:

Timbre:  When my voice changed at age 11 or 12, I dropped from a high soprano to a low bass.  My choir teacher in middle school wrote special bass parts for me and by the time I got to high school I was the lowest bass in the section, and proud of my special “talent”.  I thought then, this was the “nature” of my adult voice and my very caring teacher never said otherwise.

Arriving at Westminster Choir College (Princeton, NJ, USA), I quickly discovered there were voices that were both lower and more substantial than mine.  Nevertheless, I felt more comfortable as a bass and through my senior year, I sang bass roles even though by that point I had developed higher notes, felt comfortable performing G4 in both my junior and senior recitals and would occasionally sing the tenor Bb in the touring choir’s encore number, an arrangement of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

In graduate school, at the University of Michigan, back then always in the top four music schools in the United States, I encountered very well-developed voices in my vocal category and quickly thought I was a lyric baritone, albeit with a very rich tone color.

For a total of 25 years I sang oratorios and orchestral concerts and some 40 operatic roles with middle level organizations and occasionally replacing someone for a high profile performance.  When I felt ready to take the next steps into higher level performance, it seems people became increasingly disenchanted with what was always referred to as a superior package.

At very least, we can agree that my timbre did not change drastically.

Why did I not simply develop over time as a bass?  I had both the dark vocal color and the low notes.  I can still sing C2 regularly.  Not very loudly, but respectably. Many basses I know have not developed those notes.

Let us talk about what is primarily responsible for natural vocal timbre (i.e. what nature gives us)!  I have concluded that natural color of the voice is determined by the thickness of the mucosal layers of the vocal folds (also called fold-cover), which in an ideal situation make up the vibratory tissue during phonation.

We will return to how vocal color is not a primary determinant of voice type but rather a secondary definer of sub-categories.

Range:  A singer who can sing a low C like I could would be considered a bass at first thought.  By the time I got to graduate school, my teacher, George Shirley, routinely warmed me up beyond C5. Is a male singer with a high C necessarily a tenor?  I teach dramatic baritones who can sing an easier high C than I can.  They are not lazy tenors.  I should be able to tell, given my experience!  I have dramatic coloraturas who sing higher than some lyric coloraturas and lower than some baritones.  What does that say?  It says those baritones have not explored their low range and the lighter coloraturas sometimes are happy enough to be able to touch F6.  There are notes beyond the required performance ranges.

Tessitura (Let us call it Area of Unforced Power):  In listening to my old recordings, what makes me not a baritone is that when I sang an F4 (supposedly a money note for a baritone), it does not sound very intense.  Therefore, being a sensitive dramatic singer, I knew what color was necessary for those Fs and so I unknowingly manufactured a tonal color to fit my given vocal type (my label).  No matter how convincing I could be in some auditions in a small room, those notes did not sound as exciting in a large room with orchestra.  When I would sing a third higher, my voice became effortlessly powerful.  I imagined I simply had to develop that kind of power in the baritone tessitura, but powerful F4s were not in my vocal make-up.  In student productions, yes! In top professional situations, not as good!  When you find yourself playing Leporello opposite the rich voice of John Cheek’s Don Giovanni, you better be a great actor.  My acting ability made up for what was lacking in natural vocal power.  I had enough color to make Leporello work, but not the vocal intensity in that tessitura.

What then is responsible for determining tessitura?  

Fold Mass!  Longer (Horizontal) and deeper (vertical) folds have a great influence on how low one can sing and most importantly that the folds reach a strong tautness at lower frequency levels and thereby create a much more intense tonal quality at those lower frequency levels.  Long and deep folds have naturally lower notes (although many singers do not explore their low range completely. Many professional basses sing below the confines of the traditional piano keyboard).

Let us say that a natural bass with long and deep folds does not sound as rich as his dramatic baritone counterpart!  Why is that, if the bass has longer and deeper fold mass than the average baritone?  Because the baritone has thicker mucosal layers.  The vibratory body of the folds should be the mucosal layers.  However, some singers will press the folds together to induce a thicker vibration mode than is native to them.  This requires greater compression of the breath and a great deal more pressure on the larynx as a whole.  The tone often sounds hard and on the verge of instability.  Some physically robust singers can endure this kind of phonation for a long time.  But they are more the exception than the rule.  Parenthetically, our bass with the leaner mucosal layers (fold cover) would be called a lyric bass.

To conclude my story, I discovered late in my career that I had folds short like a tenor, with a very thick fold cover akin to a baritone, even bass-baritone.  The color of the voice reminds of a baritone, but its natural tessitura is higher.  The thicker fold cover provides greater resistance to the air stream and so my ability to generate adequate breath pressure must be better developed to maintain a free vibration along the fold cover.  The moment that this breath support fails, the larynx makes up for it via the inter-arytenoids that presses the folds together, reducing the breath flow to a trickle. A more intense but less resonant sound. Fold vibration frequency is constant for a given fundamental pitch.  If the breath pressure is reduced too much, maintenance of that fundamental frequency require the breath usage to lessen.  To maintain a more flowing vibration modality (flow-phonation) a certain amount of breath is necessary to keep the fold cover vibrating freely (not trapped by a medial squeeze).

Considering my past, in the attempt to sound like a baritone, I must have pressed my folds together to achieve more intensity and a thicker vibration modality.  Nevertheless, it would never sound as free and resonant as a natural baritone not pressing.

In retraining as a tenor, I had to:

1) take away the false pressure (retrain the inter-arytenoids not to press the folds together and trapping my fold cover)

2) Develop a breath support system that was equal to the nature of my fold cover

3) Develop a dynamic between fold length and depth (Crico-Thyroid vs. Vocalis [Internal Thyro-Arytenoid) that created the most efficient fold vibration (because I also sang a Vocalis-dominant sound in an attempt to sound more at home in the baritone range)

4) Develop a balanced resonance strategy relative to lower and higher formants, such that the voice sounded natural relative to its native make-up.

This was a tall order.

And now that I am a confident tenor after seven years of hard work, was it worthwhile?

To me yes!  But not everyone has that kind of patience, and not everyone can decide to let go entirely of what was working at a decent level.  I got hired by 5 Universities based partly on my ability to present a convincing performance at the audition, as well as be able to teach well–Never mind that I do not think very much of academia for the development of a singing artist. There are few schools willing to and equipped to address the dilemmas intrinsic in becoming a classical singer–

I had something that could earn me a decent living.  I was a functioning baritone, good enough for some decent name University programs and some regional orchestras and opera companies that were willing to give me an opportunity to display my talent and grow in the process. For me that was not enough.  The same thing that drove me out of Academia is the same thing that drove me to becoming the tenor that I am.  I became a singer to achieve the highest level of artistry possible.  For me…for me (not necessarily for others), I could not go on knowing that there was something better that was not being investigated.  Same is true of the academic institutions I experienced as a teacher.

Freelance teaching is not the most financially secure situation, but I managed to make a living at it at least equal and some years better than I was doing in academia.  It takes a lot more responsibility on my part and also a great deal more traveling than I would like.  But I am honestly facing my ability as a teacher and by extension I am forced to evaluate my worth as a singer.  I must be better if I am so bold as to instruct professionals and aspiring professionals and my favorites, the committed amateur who is determined to be the best s/he can be.

Did I sacrifice my professional career development?

I don’t believe I did.  I don’t think I could have made a real impact at the top of the field using my tenor voice as a baritone.  Some disappointing auditions, at which I was told I had a flawless vocal technique but not enough vocal power, made me begin to question.  Questions that ultimately lead me to understand (through a series of events) that I was in fact a tenor.

As I prepare for my first Winterreise as a tenor (I sang the cycle often as a baritone), I feel more empowered artistically than ever before.  My voice feels the most honest ever and I am enjoying the relearning of this cycle with a fresh feel.

With a fully developed voice (technical mastery is a lifelong pursuit of course) I have the great benefit of no longer being a victim to reflux or minor food intolerances.  If I wake up with a case of reflux, I am able to warm up, and feel functional.  The better my technical work the day before, the easier my voice works the day after, regardless of reflux, slight cold or allergy.

In short the benefits of this seven-year journey are undeniable to me.  But that is my journey.

Granted, not every tenor who starts as a baritone deals with the issues I had.  I teach a young tenor who is physically robust and always used his voice relative to its nature.  He always used his voice like the tenor he is.  But because the voice is robust, in his undergraduate years he sang baritone and bass-baritone like I did.  Yet he used his voice correctly.  When we started to work together, he did not have many bad habits to fix.  It was a matter of developing ease in the top range.  He could already handle the tessitura pretty well.


The Nature of Talent

Relative to what I discuss above about my own journey, the nature of classical singing talent is a complicated thing.  One must look at talent not as vocal ability, but rather as the attributes necessary to get those in power to pay attention:
1) You are a young singer, 20 years old, with an even three and a half octave range that you can produce every day with apparent ease…
That is enough to get most people to call you very talented (I know at least 20 such singers).  
What takes you from interesting to earning your living in the art of classical singing?

A.  How fast can you learn music accurately without the aid of a recording? Better said, what is your musicianship level?
B. How well can you deliver foreign language text while singing and convince your listener you understand every word and its dramatic purpose?  In other words, how musical and how dramatically compelling are you?
C. How charming are you as a person?  In other words, will the person hiring feel comfortably sharing a meal with you, and will you be a hit at a party thrown by patrons of the organization?
D.  How physically attractive are you? In other words, can you fill the extremely revealing undergarment that substitutes for “costume” in the current production of the opera you are applying for?
If you can do three out the four items above well, you may be ready to have a professional career at the tender age of 20.  It has happened. 
In most cases however, it will takes 5 to 10 years of working hard to achieve the three things above.  And as you get older the expectations are higher.  

In other words, the assessment of “talent” changes depending on age!

2) If you are a true dramatic tenor, nearing 50 and you have a flawless high C and you are dramatically compelling and master all the major operatic languages and have the stamina to sing Tannhäuser, Parsifal, Otello, Samson, Radames and Cavaradossi without a sweat…

That is enough to get people to call you very talented (I don’t know so many people like that)

What takes you from interesting to earning your living in the art of classical singing?

A.  How fast can you learn music accurately without the aid of a recording? Better said, what is your musicianship level?  Can we call you at 3 am and ask if 24 hours is enough time for you to learn Bacchus of book?

B. How well can you deliver foreign language text while singing and convince your listener you understand every word and its dramatic purpose?  In other words, how musical and how dramatically compelling are you? Can you move on stage in such a way that everyone believes you are 25 years old while delivering crazy difficult music with Jonas Kaufmann style ease?

C. How charming are you as a person?  In other words, will the person hiring feel comfortably sharing a meal with you, and will you be a hit at a party thrown by patrons of the organization?

D.  How physically attractive are you? In other words, how much space do you take on stage that is consistent with being a lead tenor (Meaning, you cannot be perceived as fat).  Therefore, how muscular can you be?  How much will the rich female patrons pay to see you again when you appear shirtless in your Otello love scene or in your final Samson scene? Enough to want to give a couple of million toward the next production?

When I look at that list, I imagine I have as much a chance as anyone and I’ve got most of this down.  But I also know that that list list of A-D is meaningless until I get the fundamental talent in place.  So that is how I spend my time.  I know I have the musicianship, musicality, language skills and stagecraft.  I know I am charming enough to be a hit at a party, particularly when I am already the center of attention at a production.  Been there done that.  Bodybuilder-type muscles have never been a priority with me, but I am a brown-sash in Kung Fu and whenever I train for three months straight I get close to the Barihunks aesthetic.

None of this is impossible!  The question is how do you want to play this game?  I chose to play it peacefully.  My blog is as much a therapeutic way of airing out my thoughts as it is an attempt at informing and instructing.  I am an artist first.  A career in the questionable world of opera does not define me.  However, like any honest singer, I want to have the opportunity to sing my favorite repertoire in a venue and atmosphere that does the art credit.  Therefore I have to be willing to play the game by meeting the challenges that the business puts before me.

I believe presenting yourself before you are 100% confident in your abilities, especially at a more advanced age, is a recipe for failure.  I never imagined becoming the dramatic tenor that I am was ever going to be easy.  The fact that there are few dramatic tenors in the world singing these roles with consistency and ease (it has been so since I saw my first Tannhäuser at age 16) made it clear to me that I had my work cut out for me.  I also knew from the start that it would be certain failure to rush into auditions half-baked.  I watched too many colleagues fail thinking that their charm and 1 out of 10 B-flats in auditions is enough to get them having a career because there are so few viable dramatic tenors.  Since there are few truly great dramatic tenors around, no one is interested in having more mediocre ones.  Like it or not, Domingo was the last undeniably successful Otello.  If you audition with that role, people will have certain Domingo expectations until someone else comes along and redefine the role.  Either you meet the Domingo expectation or you give an alternative that is just as powerful or more so!

I’m the first to to argue the dysfunctional nature of the operatic field!  The above expectations are in part laughable, but notice that many of the expectations I write here have to do with bona fide operatic skills.  As operatic aspirants, we have to play the game that is being played, but we do not have to sacrifice our values to do it.  If we can respect ourselves and live by our standards, we can pump iron and give the meat-marketers the six-packs and guns they want, because we will not be defined ultimately by the superficialities but by the artistry that we value.

© 09/13/2014

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