One of the easiest determiners of whether a voice is of professional quality is whether it is consistent throughout its entire range. The professional classical singer must have consistency from top to bottom and have no discernible register breaks. That means balancing chest registration, the head-chest mix and head registration. The consistency should encompass all of the elements discussed thus far in this series: ring, openness, ease, color, chiaroscuro, clarity and vibrato. Only because of interpretive choices should the basic color of the individual voice change. The result is a seamless, open sound that seems effortless and natural to the listener. The effortlessness is at once quite true and entirely deceptive. It is quite true in that the correct coordination is in place and nothing is interfering and doing extra work that it shouldn’t. The sound emerges unimpeded. It is entirely deceptive in that the correct coordination includes body resistance, which is definitely work, but work that is hidden from the listeners’ ears.
This unimpeded, open sound can deceive unwary listeners into believing that the act of singing itself is effortless. This is dangerous and can influence incautious singers to use less lower body resistance than necessary and never achieve the required open, consistent sound.
The great singers of the past epitomized this type of consistency. Helen Traubel, dramatic soprano, was dubbed, “The Organ”, for her technique, which seemed to consist of one huge, open pipe that poured out sound. The great Kirsten Flagstad said she felt her voice going from her low body support directly to her ring, bypassing everything else. Her consistency of sound was legendary. The effects of this level of consistency on an audience are first to relax and reassure them, and later to amaze them that the whole range, including challenging high notes, is entirely open and uniform.
Here are a few examples of singers who displayed wonderful consistency in their techniques:
Kirsten Flagstad, who studied the Swedish-Italian Technique, always displayed a seamless, consistent voice when she sang. In this tour de force aria, ‘Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin… Komm, Hoffnung” from Beethoven’sFidelio, Flagstad is in superb shape, even though it was recorded at the end of her career. Though her very top notes were not 100% comfortable for her, due to her vocal fach, they still remain absolutely consistent with the rest of her voice and only lack a little vibrancy.
Fritz Wunderlich, who died too young, still left us with a number of recordings of his touchingly-beautiful tenor voice. In this example, he sings with truly Spanish flair the song, “Granada”, by Agustin Lara. Despite the virtuosity required by this difficult song, his voice remains completely open and consistent throughout.
Here the great Leo Slezak displays dramatic thrust combined with wonderful consistency in “Ora e per sempre addio” from Otello. Note that his lovely color, ring and openness all remain the same through the whole range. There are no glitches and adjustments he has to make, just a stream of tone.
Bass-baritone George London exemplified a rich, velvety sound that flowed forth in a seemingly effortless way. Here he sings, “O du, mein holder Abendstern” fromTannhäuser. All of that dark color remains consistent and unchanged throughout.
Consistency is crucial for the professional classical singer and again, like all of the other attributes discussed in this series, is an indicator of a healthy, viable technique. In my next blog, I will discuss the technical elements that go into providing vocal consistency.
Consistency has its basis in a reliable, comprehensive support system for the voice. Without support, the correct functioning of the voice in all of the other ways we have discussed is impossible, even after having worked individually to ensure the right functioning and coordination. Only a synchronization of the expansion of the lower back, the activation of and controlled inward and widening movement of the abdominal wall, the spinning of the solar plexus forward and the activation of the pectorals through sternum resistance offers the necessary resistance to keep the vocal cords from being overblownand provides the energy necessary for a thin, fast air stream to vibrate the cords healthily. While the symptoms of lack of support can vary, they all have the same cause.
The other element needed for consistency is balance in registration. While it is very important that lower notes have enough vocal weight, the problem for the majority of singers is taking too much vocal weight up too high. When vocal weight is carried above the passaggios/register breaks, the cords over-thicken and the healthy thin-edge function disappears. This then causes a myriad of problems and begins the downward spiral to poor vocal health.
I had my own experience with registration issue. On the advice of a vocal coach, I studied with a new teacher for about six months not long after I moved to New York City. This bass-baritone parlayed a handful of performances decades before at the Metropolitan Opera into what seemed like a 20 year-long career when boasting of them to his students. His take on technique was shaky at best and he resented my friendly questions on his pedagogical approach. As a young dramatic soprano, my middle voice had not filled out and did not match my very large top. His “solution” was for me to take chest voice an additional fifth up, moving my “break” from E-flat above middle C to B-natural above middle C. This, of course, was exactly the wrong thing to do, as any reputable voice teacher would have known. My voice needed breath resistance and support, the thin-edge function, correct registration, and time to allow my middle voice to mature naturally.
After several voice lessons of being told to take chest voice far higher than I knew it should go, I left his studio and did not look back. Soon afterwards, I began studying with a teacher who taught me to sing with the thin-edge function and how to support my voice. After four to five months, I had a very different, naturally fuller, and much healthier voice. Manipulation of any sort can absolutely not take the place of the correct functioning of the voice and students should be extremely wary of anyone who tries to slap a “quick fix” on any vocal issue.
Here are several vocal exercises that help teach support/breath resistance and balance of registration.
The lower back expansion exercise and the Rev, which were introduced in a previous blog post, Vibrato and the Professional Singing Voice, Part II, are extremely helpful in teaching the lower back its function in breath resistance. An exercise that helps activate the abdominals is this panting exercise. After the four staccati at the beginning, two sets of pants (like a dog panting) should be performed – quick inhale, quick exhale – followed by another quick inhale before doing the next staccato. With time, this should help activate the abdominal wall when doing the staccati and the subsequent scale.
1 (pant) 1 (pant) 1 (pant) 1 (pant) 1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1
. . . .
i E a o u – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
This is a great exercise to help activate sternum and pectorals for the appoggio. The use of the rounded, yet focused Swedish vowel helps streamline and energize the breath. The vowel is a combination of an “i” tongue and “u” rounded lips. When doing the exercise, place your hand on the sternum (breastbone) and either think that the sternum is moving directly forward (not up) as you sing or that it is moving directly back into your body as you sing. Both can help to activate the pectorals in different people. Find what works for you.
1 3 2 4 3 5 4 2 1
Hü – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
I – E – a – o – u – o – a – E – i
This arpeggio exercise helps balance registration through the sequence of the vowels. The vowel at the top is “u”, which naturally helps bring on the thin-edge function.
1 3 5 8 10 8 5 3 1
i – E – a – o – u – o – a – E – i
Consistency is of utmost importance for both the vocal health and the beauty of tone of the professional singing voice. In order to obtain true consistency, the activation and coordination of the lower body support and the sternum and pectorals are crucial, as is a healthy balance of registration.
For more articles and information, visit my website, http://www.thebricelandstudio.com