Uncertain Vocal Expectations in Early Music

I write this article as a singer who has been steeped in early music traditions from an early age.  My first voice teacher was an organist and flutist and among other things introduced me to the vocal music of Bach and Handel, which became staple to my work, in my earlier incarnation as a baritone.  Furthermore she introduced me to the music of recorder (Blockflöte) virtuoso, Franz Brüggen, who inspired my love for the instrument and its musical possibilities.  Early in my teaching career I had the opportunity to teach a few exciting countertenors and experimented myself with the repertoire (I’ve always had a well developed falsetto).  In my current work, I have the pleasure of working with several professional singers who specialise in early music, and I consider them to be among the highest caliber musicians I teach.  They aspire to flexibility in vocal production, linguistic refinement and musicianship of the highest order.  The combination of these aspirations constitutes an ideological deference to important principles of the bel canto, whereby vocal composition derived from an adherence to the combination of language, music and effortless and natural vocal production.  In my new incarnation as a dramatic tenor, even though I will probably never be hired to sing Bach or Handel or Monteverdi, I continue to practice this music because of its requirements of high level musicianship, flexibility and linguistic dexterity.

The problems that early music singers confront today stem from expectations of vocal production with respect to modern concepts of Informed Performance Practice.  Because I am a singer/teacher with one foot in the traditional operatic world, one might expect my objections to center primarily on the practice of straight-tone singing.  However, from my standpoint, straight-tone is not the central problem.  Straight-tone applied to an unbalanced voice, particularly a voice lacking adequate vertical contact area (let us call it VCA for short), can be an exacerbating practice.

In order to more completely address the problem of VCA deficiency, it is important to address the question of Ideal Fold Posture (IFP) irrespective of vocal style and genre.  IFP relates almost entirely to fundamental frequency (FF—Let’s call it Pitch, although some find it inaccurate).  A 440  means that for the given note A4, above the middle C of the standard 88 key piano, the vocal folds must oscillate (closing in a wave-like motion bottom to top and then opening) 440 times in one second.  This means that the length of one oscillation for the pitch (FF) A440 must be 1/440 of one second.  That oscillation time depends on three fundamental functions: 1) the vertical depth of the folds, because the folds close bottom to top; 2) the longitudinal tension on the folds (how taut the folds are when stretched for pitch) which has a direct impact on how quickly the folds “snap back to closure” after the open phase of the oscillation and 3) medial pressure (how tightly the folds are pressed against each other during oscillation, which has a direct effect of prolonging the close phase of the folds, adding to the oscillation time.

The IFP constitutes the most efficient mode of oscillation.  Appropriate vertical fold depth and longitudinal tension set up conditions that require gentle closure of the folds, which in turn require lower sub-glottal pressure to reopen the folds.  In this way the folds are open for a longer period during each oscillation, making greater sound pressure levels (greater airflow) with minimal resistance and compensatory tension.  


This is the most frequently asked question!  And the response is actually very simple:  


Although the answer is simple, it is also simplistic.  No two singers have the same sound.  The voice is like a fingerprint.  Each singer’s acoustic signature (the display we see in a spectrogram) is unique and can be used to identify him or her.  Likewise, no two singers have the same ideal sound.  If we all produced our voices ideally, we would sound quite unique.  While the spectrogram can distinguish even the most inefficient voice from another, our musical ears however distinguishes more generally.  

Let us take an extreme example!  Imagine a bass who imagines himself to be a lyric tenor.  His sound expectation becomes relative to the great lyric tenors he might have heard and what is traditionally expected from lyric tenors in general.  Let us assume he manages this feat and is able to sing up to a tenor high A!  What is he doing to produce this pseudo-tenor sound?  Most likely, he reduces the vertical depth of the folds, which reduces the mass that would help produce a richer, darker tone and then increases medial pressure (press the folds together) to make up for the lost time of the natural “bass”oscillation.  The resulting sub-glottal pressure would then cause the larynx to rise (it could also be that the sound expectation makes for a high larynx preset), further reducing the possibility for strong low overtones.  


The average early music singer learns imposed (from without—e.g. recordings, conductors, coaches, etc)  expectations with respect to vocal timbre that violate their natural vocal make-up.  Their longevity in the professional arena depends primarily on the degree to which they have violated their vocal nature to placate the important musical personalities they work with, whether their early music coaches or the powerful conductors who lead the early music movement as we know it today.  Before the larynx calcifies (a natural consequence of vocal maturity) the younger singer (up to mid twenties) can get away with faulty fold postures, because the larynx is more elastic.  In such an anatomical environment, the singer’s vocal apparatus can more easily “snap back”to more natural defaults.  After the instrument has calcified appropriately with age, faulty fold postures are less easy to recover from.  It is at this point that many early music singers begin to experience problems.

Helping professional early music singers to recover from the negative effects of faulty fold posture is not merely an anatomical or vocal training problem.  It is a psychological and economical one as well.  Singers who have “sung against their nature” have come to vocally identify with their imposed vocal timbre.  They have been conditioned to think of the faulty sound as their natural sound and are therefore apprehensive about changing it.  The answer I tend to offer in such a case is:  “If this were your natural sound, it would not be causing you problems now”.  On the economical side, singers who are professionally active and became such because of the faulty vocal posture are naturally afraid they will become less marketable and perhaps rejected by their conductors if they were to change their voices.  As a pedagogue I respect this.  The good news is that appropriate changes do not require the singer to violate stylistic requirements.  In the many cases I have dealt with in the past 15 years or so, the changes give the singer a fuller voice (consistent with the singer’s natural voice) and greater dynamic control.  Taking away the excess medial pressure offers the possibility of “flow phonation” and the possibility for softer dynamics without sacrifice tone quality.  The singers also tend to hear from managers and casting directors that they have possibilities beyond early music.  So far it sounds positive, but it is not that easy!

The leaders of the Early Music Movement and Informed Performance Practice have very specific aesthetic values, some of which present no challenges to healthy vocal production and others that unfortunately do.  Many of the vocal aesthetics imposed upon singers have more to do with instrumental norms of the periods in question and the relative limitations of the instruments involved.  The literature relating to operatic singing from the 16th century through the 19th century do not require the impositions that instrumental conductors have insisted upon with regards to modern early music vocal practices.  The vocal requirements for sacred vocal music meant for overly reverberant cathedrals were never the same for the theater, as can be clearly understood in treatise by the likes of Tosi and the many students of Porpora.  

It is also important to understand  why the leaders of the Early Music Movement reject in large part current classical singing norms.  These norms are related to the excesses of modern orchestras in the production of Romantic Opera, particularly Wagner, Strauss, Puccini and Verdi.  It took the likes of Giulini and later Muti to impose a sense of tonal clarity both orchestrally and vocally, as well as a greater deference to the instructions of the score.  Because those conductors rarely engaged in pre-nineteenth century music besides Mozart and Rossini, they could not have had enough influence on the conversation of Early Music Practices.  The dominance of Alberto Zedda at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro created a cultish environment that had an equally problematic influence on the modern Rossini tenors in particular.  Consequently, the leaders of the Early Music Movement (Baroque and before), most of which were musicologists assigned vocal expectations to harmonise with the important discoveries they made relative to instrumental practices. With the resultant transparency of the newly formed Neo-Baroque orchestras, singers had to be found whose voices went along with that particular sound.  

The mainstream operatic aesthetic of the the 1990s and on was very influenced by the ability of smaller theatres to produce large-scale operas like Turandot and certain Wagner works, compounded by the popularity of the Three Tenors whose repertoire was essentially 19th century.  It did not take long before most opera houses were producing only a handful of 19th century Italian Operas, Wagner (which has had its own cult following) and one French Opera, which reflected The Three Tenors’ repertoire .  With the visual aspect carrying greater and greater weight (this includes both lookism and ageism–including the severe lack of opportunity for singers with naturally substantial voices, whose physicality does not always conform to preferred aesthetics), it can be argued that less attention was given to the finer details of vocal technique.   This confluence of events in the mainstream gave rise to either lighter voices singing the heavy mainstream repertoire with disastrous results or appropriate voices without enough time on the stage to refine their product.  Finding a mainstream production that could boast a total cast of singers, whose musicianship and vocal material could be worthy of the term “bel canto” was challenging.  Light voices shouting to sing heavier repertoire, developing wobbles became more normal than not.  The argument was that the lighter voices (with slender bodies deemed more visually appropriate by stage directors with little operatic know-how) who were given the opportunities through Young Artists Programs (YAPs) and competitions had the name recognition to sell out theatres and were therefore preferred regardless of repertoire.  False comparisons were (are) made with earlier legendary lighter-voiced singers to justify light, often underdeveloped voices assuming heavier repertoire.  Such singers would not fit the Neo-Baroque aesthetic, neither for sound nor for musicianship.  There were always exceptions.

In short, the Early Music Movement became specialised, not unlike the Rossini cult, the Wagner cult and the Mozart cult.  The mainstream appropriated Mozart but only certain types of singers would be hired for either recordings or important productions.  It became a natural consequence that the leaders of the Early Music Movement would avoid mainstream singers, supposedly for their “excessive vibratos” and less than refined attention to stylistic details. The preferred aesthetic became diametrically opposed to these vices.  Musically sophisticated singers with lighter, vibrato-less voices became the desired breed.  Unfortunately, little distinction was made between naturally lighter voices and singers who reduced their natural voices to accomplish the desired aesthetic.  This is a problem that naturally effects sopranos and tenors in particular, who would suffer greater vocal dysfunction with respect to pressed voice (excessive medial pressure), because of the higher fundamental frequencies of their voices relative to their lower voice colleagues (i.e. altos and basses).  Additionally, altos and basses are expected to have darker sounds.  In fact a great number of successful Early Music altos and basses are appropriately developed sopranos and baritones.


The solution requires change from all corners.  Current leaders of the Early Music Movement may need to die off before real change can occur.  People who made lucrative careers on a particular aesthetic and who are used to having their way over many years are naturally less likely to revisit their model and make the changes required.  The changes are in fact not drastic!  Allowing a singer to assume their true vocal timbre will certainly make their voices more present.  However, these singers will also have a flexibility and ease of production because they will not be behaving contrarily to their vocal nature.  In fact, the singers I have helped to rehabilitate have been praised by the same people who hired them in the first place.  A voice functioning with IFP can produce a straight-tone effect with greater ease.  In fact under spectrography, a voice that sounds straight-toned exhibits a regular vibrato.  The illusion of a vibrato-less voice is produced by a touch of excessive medial pressure.  A voice that is appropriately balanced can get away with a relatively small amount of excessive medial pressure to create the illusion of straight-tone without wandering too far from home.  In terms of straight-tone singing, a voice functioning with IFP is functionally preferable to a voice that is reduced and therefore already pressed.

Vocal pedagogues must also understand the aesthetics of the Early Music world and help their early music singers produce a tone that is stylistically viable in Early Music and functionally balanced at the same time.  All singers need to understand their true vocal nature before they undertake the process of vocal specialisation.  If there is a single problem that unifies all vocal genres, whether popular music or early music or Wagner, it is this tendency to “put the cart before the horse,” namely that singers are taught to twist their voices into pretzels to fit a style before they have any idea what their native instrument actually sounds like.

p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-indent: 27.0px; font: 12.0px Baskerville; color: #000000; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-indent: 27.0px; font: 12.0px Baskerville; color: #000000; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000; min-height: 14.0px} p.p3 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: center; text-indent: 27.0px; font: 12.0px Baskerville; color: #000000; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000} p.p4 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: center; text-indent: 27.0px; font: 12.0px Baskerville; color: #000000; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000; min-height: 14.0px} span.s1 {font-kerning: none}

The final responsibility (because casting agents and managers tend to behave like sycophants to the conductors and stage directors they serve) lies with the singers themselves.  They must learn that they are not slaves to the conductors and directors they work with and that their fundamental truth is what gets them hired.  That truth includes their true vocal nature.  They should do everything possible to understand their natures before they embark on careers.  Otherwise the careers will run them instead of them running their careers.

© 4/15/2017

3 thoughts on “Uncertain Vocal Expectations in Early Music

Add yours

  1. Good to see after all these years you have had this blog that you are still pumping out such factual posts.

    Where abouts in Australia do you teach? I need a teacher who understands the pharyngeal voice, in Sydney preferably!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: