Another very important element of the professional voice is clarity of tone. Types of voices and the qualities inherent in them vary widely, but the most proficient technicians all have a certain simplicity and directness that is uncluttered and open-sounding to the listener. This deceptively-simple quality is actually the height of accomplishment and one of the most difficult qualities to describe in words. It is a firmness of tone and a small, strong core to the voice, uncluttered by airiness and unnecessary tension that clouds and falsely colors the voice. Around this small, strong core, the voice is amplified through back resonance, giving a sense of great space around the consistent, small core.
While the quality of clarity is more often associated with the higher, lighter voice types, in reality it exists in all voice types, even the heaviest of voices. Actually, the more complex the voice, the more important it is that it develops this clarity. Not only does this quality display a healthy technique, but it creates the very human sound that touches the heart of the listener. It is important to understand that this type of clarity is completely different from the absence of vibrato. Vibrato is a natural phenomenon in the voice that is a requirement for the professional classical singer. The clarity of which I am referring to in this blog exists hand-in-hand with a healthy vibrato. Only early music specialists try to remove the natural vibrato from their voices to find clarity and many develop vocal issues as a consequence.
Here are some examples of singers with clarity:
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa was the first singer who came to mind when thinking about clarity of tone. As a full lyric soprano, she has a very clear voice that still remains warm. Here she sings “Porgi amor” from The Marriage of Figaro.
One of my favorite singers is Birgit Nilsson. An extremely consistent singer with a formidable voice and technical understanding, she exemplifies clarity in the dramatic voice. In this recording, she sings “In questa reggia” from Turandot with brilliance and ease.
The wonderful, French baritone, Gerard Souzay, shows a great deal of clarity in his technique through his many recordings of lovely French chanson. Here is a fine recording of him singing “Chanson triste” by Duparc.
Last, but certainly not least, is Tenorissimo, Lauritz Melchior. As a heldentenor and Wagner specialist, his magnificent instrument and superb technique allowed him to maintain a natural clarity, despite the rigors of his stage career. Here he sings “Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein” from Die Meistersinger.
These two amazing examples of Birgit Nilsson and Lauritz Melchior should inspire the belief in all of us that dramatic voices can be as technically sound and possess the same clarity of their lighter-voiced colleagues.
One of the main technical proficiencies necessary for clarity of tone is correct vocal cord closure. This is an important concept taught in the Swedish-Italian technique for many decades and famous singers like Kirsten Flagstad and Jussi Björling benefited greatly from the efficient, healthy use of the cords it offers. Many teachers do not work on this important concept with students, because they have no idea how to address it and do not fully understand its importance. Though an old Italian school concept dating from the 17th century, cord closure was brought to prominence by Manuel Garcia II in the 19th century. He dubbed it the “coup de glotte” or glottal shock. This unfortunate choice of words belied his true meaning, which was for the singer to start the tone from the position of a very gently closed glottis (or vocal cords), allowing the cords to start vibrating from this closed position on onset of the tone, which encourages a healthy approximation while singing. By proper, gentle adduction (bringing together) of the cords right before the onset of the tone and by using lower body resistance to hold back and manage the breath flow, the vocal cords can approximate more closely together during phonation and a clear, pure, healthy tone is the result.
Another reason that many teachers do not teach cord closure is that they are afraid of it. It is very true that it can be taken to extremes, just like all vocal concepts, and singers need qualified guidance when working on cord closure. The job of the vocal cords is absolutely not to hold back the breath. That is the job of the muscles in the lower back, the abdominals, the sides of the torso and some of the intercostals – again, the lower body. And the cords need to be adducted gently, never with anything akin to a glottal stroke and certainly without any strain with the onset of tone. But proper cord adduction is very necessary for the stamina required by professional classical singers and the only way to achieve clarity of tone and true ring. When the vocal cords are not properly and gently adducted prior to onset, the tone becomes airy and the singer either loses tone quality, ring and resonance as a result or the singer closes the throat, raises the larynx in an effort to bring the cords together, and pushes unnecessary air, all of which bring on other miscoordination. Thinking of the vowels forming directly at the cords without pushing is one step toward proper cord closure.
Recently, I sat in on the second half of a lesson of a young soprano with a well-respected teacher at one of the top music schools in the US. The student was a high lyric soprano with a lovely voice. She was working on keeping, in her words, the shimmer (or ring) in her voice consistently in two arias. After a few minutes, I wondered what the teacher was doing. The vocal cords of the singer were sometimes approximating healthily, giving her voice a lovely sheen and sometimes pulling apart, giving her voice an airy, fuzzy sound. This switch back and forth happened consistently, usually several times in the same phrase and sometimes even on alternating notes, through both arias. The teacher, who must have heard the difference in the sound, never addressed it, even by discussing her support system. Whether the teacher thought that was an acceptable sound or didn’t know how to remedy the issue, I don’t know. But I do know that a promising young talent was not being given the proper technical tools she will need to be able to compete in the real world of opera.
Here are several exercises that address cord closure.
This exercise uses the strength of the spoken vowel to help bring the cords gently together. I tell my students to think they are jumping on a moving escalator when beginning to help achieve the right onset. The first two vowels, uh-oh, are each spoken with a sliding rise in inflection afterwards and a pause. After that, any easy 5-note scale can be sung.
x (slide up) (pause) x (slide up) (pause) 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1
uh ———- oh ———- eh – ah – eh – ah – eh
Ah – ah
This exercise helps bring the cords together with the use of staccati. Each ‘1″ with a dot underneath it is a staccato. The repeated staccati + intervals gradually help the cords adduct and remain together during the final arpeggio.
1 3 – 1 1 3 – 1 1 5 – 1 1 5 – 1
. . . .
ah ah — ah ah — ah oh – ah ah oh – ah
1 8 – 1 1 8 – 1 1 8 (hold) 5 – 3 – 1
. . .
ah oo – ah ah oo -ah ah oo ————-
In order to achieve true clarity in tone, as well as ring, correct cord closure and corresponding low body support are necessities. Again, proper supervision with a knowledgeable teacher is needed when working on cord closure. Working with an open oro-pharynx and correct nasal resonance keeps any tendency to overdo in check.
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