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Singing Bach
Discussions - Part 1

Singing

Chris Rowson wrote (March 30, 2007):
Shawn Charton wrote:
< Just so everyone knows (in a fairly simplified format)... as far as vocal technique is concerned vibrato is a by product of healthy vocal cord closure. It is caused by the Bernoulli effects of the air passing between the vocal folds. >
Are you saying that "ordinary singing" - by which I mean when somebody just opens their mouth and sings a note or two - is unhealthy?

I am thinking of my years singing in a church choir - we just sang the notes. It was not a fancy church and not a fancy choir, mostly just hymns, and that peculiar Anglican psalm singing that I can´t remember the proper desription of, plus anthems for special occasions.

And of my times singing rock, blues, etc., also largely vibrato-free. And of people who just open their mouths and sing, which surely every human can do?

Shawn Charton wrote (March 30, 2007):
[To Chris Rowson] I'm saying that if you project then vibrato is a natural by-product of the energy used to do so. Just singing "This ole man" to a 6 year old will not hurt you. However, singing Rock music at the top of your volume can. That said... of course the body is a complicated machine and it comes up with MANY various ways to compensate for the abuse that we insist on subjecting it to. And, some people's voices are more resiliant than others. For example, I can eat or drink milk before I sing and I'm fine... give me ANY alchohol and my voice HATES me. My friend Greg, who is a tenor, can drink vodka till 5:00 am, get up at 9:00 and sing like an angel.

I have found that the key to good vocal hygiene for ME (and my students) is water and sleep!!

How does this all apply to straight tone singing?? IF a singer projects in a purely straight tone, their vocal energy is not being used as efficiently as it could be if they were singing with a free vocal mechanism. (this doesn't really apply to children's voices.) Simply put, projecting that way requires more energy in less efficient places. Granted, MOST choral singers who sing with that kind of technique can't feel the difference. It is a VERY subtle sensation. But, having sung in BOTH ways, I can tell you first hand that if projection is the goal operatic technique is the healthiest.

But then, that brings up a different point... the goal of choral singing is COMPLETELY different from opera. The main goal in a choir is blend and purity of vowel. The main goal in opera is efficiency of breath and vocal energy. Certain types of voices are more suited to one or the other though I think that most people could achieve a reasonable facsimile of either if they work long enough. Rather than thinking of it as people who CAN sing or people who CAN'T sing- think of it as people who's voices are used to singing versus people who's voices aren't. The vocal folds are, after all, muscles and must be trained. Some people have naturally good genetics for body building and some have to work harder to attain good muscle tone. It is, in my opinion, a VERY small portion who simply cannot get better muscle tone no matter what they do.

Anyway, later,

Chris Rowson wrote (March 30, 2007):
Shawn Charton wrote:
< I'm saying that if you project then vibrato is a natural by-product of the energy used to do so. Just singing "This ole man" to a 6 year old will not hurt you. However, singing Rock music at the top of your volume can. That said... of course the body is a complicated machine and it comes up with MANY various ways to compensate for the abuse that we insist on subjecting it to. And, some people's voices are more resiliant than others. For example, I can eat or drink milk before I sing and I'm fine... give me ANY alchohol and my voice HATES me. My friend Greg, who is a tenor, can drink vodka till 5:00 am, get up at 9:00 and sing like an angel.
I have found that the key to good vocal hygiene for ME (and my students) is water and sleep!!
How does this all apply to straight tone singing?? IF a singer projects in a purely straight tone, their vocal energy is not being used as efficiently as it could be if they were singing with a free vocal mechanism. (this doesn't really apply to children's voices.) Simply put, projecting that way requires more energy in less efficient places. Granted, MOST choral singers who sing with that kind of technique can't feel the difference. It is a VERY subtle sensation. But, having sung in BOTH ways, I can tell you first hand that if projection is the goal operatic technique is the healthiest.
But then, that brings up a different point... the goal of choral singing is COMPLETELY different from opera. >

Sorry, I hadn´t únderstood that your comments relate essentially to opera singing (and by that I assume we mean classical opera singing).

Shawn Charton wrote (March 30, 2007):
[To Chris Rowson] They don't... they relate to efficient use of energy in singing... it just so happens that operatic technique is the healthiest... given that we're not just talking about singing around the house. That's not to say that choral singing is bad... it just costs more.

Alain Bruguieres wrote (March 30, 2007):
[To Shawn Charton] I'm interested in the physics underlying Shawn's observations.

I understand that Bernoulli law tells us that when a fluid flows (under certain conditions which are met in the case of the air flowing through the vocal tract) the velocity of the fluid is in inverse ratio to the fluid pressure. In the case of the air flowing around an airplane's wings this effect results in the lift as, due to the shape of the wing, air flows faster (relative to the wing) on the top of the wing than on the bottom, and consequently air pressure is superior under the wing, so that the plane is pushed upwards.

Can anybody provide an explanation of vibrato or a link to an explanation, based on the Bernoulli effect? I've seen many webpages where vibrato is ascribed to the Bernoulli effect, with some hand-waving, but no actual explanation. The intriguing fact is that the frequency of vibrato is much smaller than the frequency of the vocal chords vibrations, so something not straightforward is going on... I gather that vibrato results from a low frequency variation of sub-glottal air pressure, but what is the cause of this variation?

Chris Rowson wrote (March 30, 2007):
[To Shawn Charton] &shy;&shy;&shy;&shy;&shy;&shy;&shy;&shy;&shy;&shy; &shy;&shy;&shy;&shy;&shy;&shy;&shy;&shy;&shy;&shy;&shy;&shy;-------------------------------

I understand that if you want to project (read "PRO-JECT!") in the 19th/20th C operatic style you need to use energy efficiently. But I think some people are trying other singing styles for Bach cantatas (which may in some cases not seek high volume levels.

Shawn Charton wrote (March 30, 2007):
[To Chris Rowson] I don't disagree... I'm just saying that IF they do it without vibrato, they do it by placing tension in inefficient places in order to compensate for the decreased breath flow through the tenser cords. Healthy singing that has less vibrato REQUIRES that a single singer cannot produce much sound AND that singer also loses access to their extreme upper range. Notice that ANY female opera singer in her prime has SOME kind of access to a high C, usually more like an E above it. Choral music that includes anything above a G is frowned upon these days. And a choir with a decent A and above usually cuts it back to one or two singers... more often than not... younger singers.

I'll explain the reasons why later. Right now I have to hit the showers and get some things done.

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 30, 2007):
< They don't... they relate to efficient use of energy in singing... it just so happens that operatic technique is the healthiest... given that we're not just talking about singing around the house. That's not to say that choral singing is bad... it just costs more. >
But...Pier Francesco Tosi's 1723 treatise (also available in 18th century translations to English and German) is a thorough manual for training teenaged boy singers in technique, taste, and musicianship; and it doesn't train them to use vibrato. Tosi wrote thinear the end of his full career of performing and teaching: http://www.haendel.it/interpreti/old/tosi_opinioniI.htm

It doesn't use any words that have "vib" in them.

Explanation?

=====

And as for trembling tone of other sorts, here's what it has:

"Il sesto è il Trillo lento, che porta anch’esso le sue qualità nel nome. Chi non lo studiasse crederei, che non dovesse perdere il concetto di buon Cantore, poichè s’egli è solo è un Tremolo affettato, se poi si unisce a poco a poco col primo, o col secondo Trillo, parmi che non possa piacere al più al più, che la prima volta."

[Tremolo is an ornament...]

(...)
"Assuefaccia lo Scolaro a cantar sovente in presenza di persone riguardevoli, e per nascita, e per intelligenza di Professione, affinché perdendo a poco a poco ogni timore diventi ardito, ma non arrogante. L'ardire è il primogenito della fortuna, e in un Cantante diventa merito. All'incontro chi teme è l'infelicissimo; Oppressa dalla difficoltà del respiro gli trema sempre la voce; E' necessitato ad ogni nota di perder il tempo per inghiottire; Pena per non condor seco la sua abilità di Casa; Disgusta chi lo sente: E rovina talmente le composizioni, che non si conoscono più per quelle che sono; Un Vocalista timido è sventurato come un Prodigo, che sia miserabilmente povero."

[Sing confidently, rather than with a timid-sounding and quivery voice...]

(...)
"Gli dispiacerà l’imprudenza di chi fa tradurre in latino le parole dell’Aria più lubriche del Teatro per cantare l’istessa Musica con applauso in Chiesa, come se tra l’uno e l’altro stile non vi fosse differenza alcuna, e convenissero a Dio gli avanzi delle Scene: Cosa non dirà egli di chi ha trovato l’artificio prodigioso di cantar come i grilli? Chi si sarebbe mai sognato prima della Moda, che dieci o dodici crome in fila si potessero tritolare a una a una con un certo tremor di voce, che passa da poco tempo in qua sotto nome di Mordente fresco? Più forte impulso però lo sforzerà a detestar l’invenzione di rider cantando, o di cantar come le galline quando han fatto l’uovo. Vi saranno altri animalucci degni d’esser imitati per metter sempre più in ridicolo la Professione?"

[It's not good to sound like hens do when they lay eggs....]

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (March 30, 2007):
Singing Examples

Chris Rowson wrote:
< Are you saying that "ordinary singing" ­ by which I mean when somebody just opens their mouth and sings a note or two ­ is unhealthy?
I am thinking of my years singing in a church choir ­ we just sang the notes. It was not a fancy church and not a fancy choir, mostly just hymns, and that peculiar Anglican psalm singing that I can´t remember the proper desription of, plus anthems for special occasions.
And of my times singing rock, blues, etc., also largely vibrato-free. And of people who just open their mouths and sing, which surely every human can do? >
Some many years ago I asked a very knowledgeable collector of Mahler recordings whether I would be interested in the Barbirolli recording of Mahler3. Inter alia he responded that the female soloist had a well-controlled vibrato. This is something that is common to state and of course told me really nothing about the many other qualities which the soloist would or would not bring to her expression of the textual parts of this massive work.

OTOH recently, when considering Aafye Heynis's recording of Bach arias, I re-listened to her in Haitink's commercial Mahler2 and her vibrato was palpable.

If you really want to hear vibrato used as a stylistic matter without stop, listen to the recordings of Conchita Subervia. For a modern ear not used to that kind of usage, it is unbelievable until you accept it.

Douglas Cowling wrote (March 30, 2007):
Shawn Charton wrote:
< Healthy singing that has less vibrato REQUIRES that a single singer cannot produce much sound AND that singer also loses access to their extreme upper range. >
What the singer loses in power, he/or she gains in clarity and accuracy which in fact gives the appearance of power. For example if you listen to a soprano like Teresa Stich-Randall sing "Jauchzet Gott", you will hear that she is working very hard in all the movements to move a large voice through the coloratura - and she was hailed along with Agnes Giebel and Elly Amelling as having a special "Bach Soprano" sound. A smaller-bore soprano such as Emma Kirkby or Nancy Argenta uses a much more controlled voice and tosses off the passagework with a clarity and thus power that Stich-Randall can't muster. And I say this as someone who loves Stich-Randall and has never been a fan of Kirkby.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (March 30, 2007):
[To Douglas Cowling] (1) I thank Doug for offering some clarity with examples in place of some of the heat with theory and some acrimony in the discussion up til now. (2) I would suggest that no great singer lets or allows you to hear that she is working hard to achieve her effects. She works hard to let you hear the final result which is as with TSR a very beautiful and effective Bach. (3) Emma Kirkby is English and expresses to me an English boy choir. It can appeal to many. Or it can express only English Choir voice imposed on Bach and thus deprive some of the expressive appeal of the music. I have never abhorred Kirkby but I certain always respond deeply to TSR in her various Bach recordings which we are fortunate enough to have.

I only wish that Cochita had also left some Bach arias just for history. I do, having a very concrete mind, appreciate specific examples such as Doug supplied and I should hope that Shawn might supply some examples as well. If the examples are opera singers, that's fine with me too as it allows more understanding than mere theory of guttural hygiene.

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (March 30, 2007):
Shawn Charton wrote:
< I don't disagree... I'm just saying that IF they do it without vibrato, they do it by placing tension in inefficient places in order to compensate for the decreased breath flow through the tenser cords. Healthy singing that has less vibrato REQUIRES that a single singer cannot produce much sound AND that singer also loses access to their extreme upper range. >
I'm in principle one of those 'minimal vibrato' types (at least when I sing Baroque music - let's say I treat vibrato as an ornament to long or accented notes), I do not lose access to my high notes (or my low notes for that matter - on a good day I have three octaves, from d to d'''), and if I'm in decent physical shape, I project very nicely thank you. And if anything I err on the side of too much affect in all of this.

The secret to doing 'minimal vibrato' efficiently is VERY precise placement. There is indeed no room for error. On the other hand, a lot of people, including many opera singers, err on the side of imprecision in placement and cover it up with a vibrato which, in extreme cases, sounds like a death rattle. In a mild case, it still sounds nice and for the most part the audience probably won't know the difference, although some present will get a headache and a stiff neck from listening to it (or rather, being assaulted by it - at least in a live performance), because the singers are attacking the hall rather than 'playing' it - this unfortunately applies to nearly all opera singers, especially the 'good' ones.

< Notice that ANY female opera singer in her prime has SOME kind of access to a high C, usually more like an E above it. Choral music that includes anything above a G is frowned upon these days. >
For VERY amateur choirs.

< And a choir with a decent A and above usually cuts it back to one or two singers... more often than not... younger singers. >
I agree that a small amateur choir with no trained voices might have to do that. But not necessarily, because it is not impossible to find even an untrained voice with that kind of range, and hey, if you have, say, a small choir that is good enough to sight read Bach cantatas at tempo without missing a note (or a mere third of the membership if it's a large choir), and even two fully-trained (probably professional) voices who are there 'for fun' (and presumably to have the opportunity to sing solo parts), and/or the odd soprano who isn't a pro but still has the high notes, hey, that choir will be able to handle even a C...

< I'll explain the reasons why later. Right now I have to hit the showers and get some things done. >
I probably should do the same - just got home from the gym.

Shawn Charton wrote (March 31, 2007):
[To Bradley Lehman] You're looking at a scientific phenomenon through 18th century aesthetic glasses. And more than that... you're applying it to youths which is a different critter than the adult human voice. Vibrato is not something that is trained... it just happens. One has to actively stop vibrato from happening.

I would also point out that vibrato and tremolo are two completely different things... Tremolo is extremely fast, shallow and caused by a lack of coordination between the breath and the support musclature. Vibrato happens AT the cords and also involves resonance waves. They sound similar but they are NOT the same.

Shawn Charton wrote (March 31, 2007):
[To Douglas Cowling] I would agree with this on the whole, Doug. This is why I keep saying different singers have different voices... some voices are certainly more suited to Bach than others. I once sang the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610... ONCE. But that is an example of someone with questionable technique choosing inappropriate repertoire... or being hired by some strange circumstances.

I'm talking about pure scientific vocal technique. NOT vocal catagorization or repertoire limits.

Shawn Charton wrote (March 31, 2007):
Singing - LONG

[To Yoël L. Arbeitman] Providing examples dismisses the individualism of voices and I refuse to do that. The fact is... these are scientific mechanisms. Whether or not Renee Fleming sings the perfect Exultate jubilate is a matter of taste. If you ask a person who is educated in opera what they think of Maria Callas, you'll get a VERY mixed bag of answers.

It is a VERY important point that the degree of easy with which a singer sings is indicative of his or her appropriateness for a piece (OR perhaps it's just an indicator of good technique). The unnecessary tensions that I have mentioned several times are WHY singers who have technical problems look like they're working. What is really frustrating for a singer is that it doesn't take much to cause a REAL problem.

I had a VERY functional voice when I went to Oberlin. By the time I graduated I had some REAL technical problems and 99% of them were caused by ONE guy telling me that you cannot open your mouth too wide when you sing. I was dumb enough to believe him and it took me years to get it working again. Teachers tell students all sorts of BS to make them move tension away from the larynx. Raise your eyebrows, tuck your butt cheeks, feel your beltbuckle, lift the piano, raise your cheeks, smell a rose... they are all non-scientific descriptors intended to put tension where it should be and remove it from where it should not be. Do they work... I find that it depends on the student and/or the teacher. Some students work well with a particular teacher when another might get vocal damage.

Whatever methods a teacher chooses do not change the mechanics of the voice. The chest is raised, the diaphragm drops to expand the lower lungs. This causes a negative pressure and they fill with air. The internal and external intercostal muscles create a balanced pressure on that air causing it to move between the folds. As that happens, the closing mechanism of the larynx engages and the folds come together. The Bernoulli effect causes the folds to flutter because the gas through a smaller space moves faster. This creates the fundamental of the sound. The resonance, both below the larynx and above create the sound. The lips and tongue manipulate the shape of the oral resonator and thus affect the vowels and consonants (NOTICE I left out the jaw here... the jaw should stay stationary but not held.)

IF everything is in line and working as described above, the voice WILL work freely and easily. ANY other tensions or pressures, whether in posture or breath or whatever, WILL cause the machine to stop working as easily or as efficiently. This will cause results that many misdiagnose as the actual problem.

For example, pressure from the pectoral muscles will press down on the upper part of the chest and pressurize the air just below the larynx. This is called excess subglottal pressure. This condition causes the cords to bend upward and lengthen the cords making the singer flat. It's not that they are singing flat... it's the pressure from below the larynx. But if you tell them not to sing flat, they will most likely just press harder. AND, more often than not, that kind of problem is "fixed" by the singer by lowering the chin. In reality, they are balancing the excess upward pressure with downward pressure. Another option in this arena is excess tension in the base of the tongue. The larynx hangs directly from the root of the tongue, therefore tension in the root of the tongue will cause it to sit directly on the larynx... THAT'S not a good thing.

The answer to all this is... free and easy phonation is the most energy efficient answer. There are, of course, a myriad of other examples but I think everyone here is smart enough to imagine what they might be.

Again, I'll say that childrens voices are completely different. As the body ages, the cartelige in the larynx ossifies. As it does, it loses flexibility. Therefore it is harder for a 50 year old to sing exultate jubilate than it is for a 20 year old. This is why opera singers hit a certain age and then retire gracefully. We reach the point where our voices are no longer flexible enough to be relied on to sing the high notes or the flexible notes.

rules to live by...

the bigger the voice, the later it develops, the longer it lasts, the less flexible it is...

the lighter the voice, the earlier it develops, the shorter it lasts, the more flexible it is.

That is not to say that larger voice can't move... it's just harder to do. All that said, I will say that there are ALWAYS freaks who have HUGE and flexible voices. Maria Callas - whatever your opinion is of her technique or tone, she could MOVE and it was the loudest high D you've ever heard. She WAS a freak of nature. Fischer-Dieskau smoked like a smoke stack and yet he sang until he was OLD and is the standard by which ALL Schubert lieder are judged. Anna Moffo was AMAZING in her youth but her voice fell apart fairly early on and she has NEVER gotten it back together.

Examples be damned... THIS is how the voice works.

Shawn Charton wrote (March 31, 2007):
[To Cara Emily Thornton] What is your training?

Douglas Cowling wrote (March 31, 2007):
Shawn Charton wrote:
< I would agree with this on the whole, Doug. This is why I keep saying different singers have different voices... some voices are certainly more suited to Bach than others. I once sang the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610... ONCE. But that is an example of someone with questionable technique choosing inappropriate repertoire... or being hired by some strange circumstances. >
One of the reasons that I remain largely silent on Gardiner's performances is that I have a visceral revulsion to his recording of the Monteverdi Vespers in which big bel canto voices bluster and obfuscate their way across Monteverdi's sublime music. "Duo Seraphim" with its extraordinarily delicate and difficult passagework for three tenors is left a bleeding lump at the end. It is a performance which actually makes me angry for its willful disregard for the music and imposition of a Romantic vocal technique on 17th century music.

Here endeth the rant.

Shawn Charton wrote (March 31, 2007):
[To Douglas Cowling] In my particular instance, it was WAY too low for me. I barely have an audible A-flat on bottom and I was the bass soloist. I have phenominal coloratura as did many of the other soloists. But I was UTTERLY miscast in it.

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 31, 2007):
Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote:
< I do, having a very concrete mind >
I can see why some people get aggravated whenI grab a line out of context, and strive for a bit of humor. Me and Harry are just hanging out here, at the back of the room, he never gets aggravated about anything. Our minds are still flexible after all these years.

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 31, 2007):
Shawn Charton wrote:
< That is not to say that larger voice can't move... it's just harder to do. All that said, I will say that there are ALWAYS freaks who have HUGE and flexible voices. Maria Callas - whatever your opinion is of her technique or tone, she could MOVE and it was the loudest high D you've ever heard. She WAS a freak of nature. Fischer-Dieskau smoked like a smoke stack and yet he sang until he was OLD and is the standard by which ALL Schubert lieder are judged. Anna Moffo was AMAZING in her youth but her voice fell apart fairly early on and she has NEVER gotten it back together.
Examples be damned... THIS is how the voice works. >
It pains me (but only a little) to point out that 'THIS' follows a paragraph of examples. I am enjoying this thread very much, especially the science, so I hope you all will continue. Science, with examples, is especially effective, I find.

Shawn Charton wrote (March 31, 2007):
[To Ed Myskowski] The whole point of "exampled be damned" is that the examples don't make a hill of beans worth of difference... You can either have em or not... the science stands on it's own. But I'm glad you find them helpful, Ed.

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (March 31, 2007):
Shawn Charton wrote:
< Cara, What is your training? >
I assume you mean vocal training. The short answer is a combination of private study and learning by doing. A proper answer is a more complicated affair. So, I began singing Baroque arias (from Messiah, etc.) at church somewhere in my teenage years. That was before I started voice lessons. Beyond that, the choir I mention below is a real choir that I actually sang in for a couple of years at the University of Pennsylvania (in case you haven't guessed, the 'odd soprano' who wasn't a pro but had the C anyway was yours truly). It is by no means, however, the only choir I have sung in - indeed, there was a time when I was in four different choirs simultaneously.

I have, all told, perhaps three years of private voice study under my belt, 2 x 6-7 months during university, and ca. two years some time later. The second person I studied with during university (who shall remain nameless) made the mistake of training me as a 'high soprano' - no doubt because I am a soprano and can sing high. The result was nodes.

I didn't really 'do anything' with my voice for about five years after that, and then I figured I'd better find a good voice teacher. I'd heard of Philip Cho before, because a couple of people in my old choir studied with him, plus my laryngologist recommended him. Anyway, for those who on the list who do not know who Philip Cho is, he studied with Jan Peerce, graduated from Juilliard and was the first Korean to sing at the Met. He is (to this day if I am not mistaken) the Chairman of the Voice and Opera Department at Temple University in Philadelphia. I figured he'd at least be able to recommend someone suitable for where I was at the time.

So, I called and made an appointment, and went to sing for him. Twenty minutes later, he asked me how old I was. 'Twenty-three,' I replied (this was 19 years ago - Leap Year Day, 1988 ;;) ). He was surprised I was quite that young.... Next thing I knew, he was on the phone calling his next student to tell her to come later. In other words, I had walked into the man's office basically off the street, and he rearranged his schedule to take me on the spot. I studied with him for a bit less than two years (until I lost my job and ran out of money).

After what I'd been through with those nodes before, I was afraid to work independently, without supervision, so I went back to the violin, and only in the past, say, 7 or 8 years have I started to work independently. I began to bring under conscious control things that my voice had been doing automatically ever since I was a child - in particular, singing both soprano and alto arias, and choosing the appropriate tone quality for each one. I began working on my range - at one point I even managed g'''. I did not perform in public for the time being, however.

Then in 2003, I began attending a new church. Some enterprising choir member enticed me to join, dangling before me such carrots as the opportunity to meet new people. I thought 'Gee, I wonder how they're going to react to a trained voice?' (Once upon a time, I'd been asked to leave a church choir because some of the other members were so unused to a 'classical' voice that the minute I opened my mouth, they'd start laughing hysterically). So I showed up, it turned out the conductor didn't object to having such a person in his choir, although like most people who have only heard my speaking voice, he thought I was an alto...

Yes, my presence did create a bit of a sensation, so, upon finding out that the choir does not in fact sing at every service, I thought, 'Hey, why don't I do something on the "off weeks"?' And so began my ensemble, which has been going for over 3 years now and has been great experience. During the season, we perform about once a month. I am fortunate to have a gamba player who has a conservatory degree in early music and is very intellectually curious (ergo very knowledgeable). So, between little hints from Marek and his wife Iza (a fine harpsichordist) here and there, and working on my own, I have been polishing my singing of Baroque music.

We also have a fan who is a recording engineer, so that nearly all of our performances have been recorded. Apart from the obvious educational value this provides, recently I've been satisfied enough with them that I'd consider uploading them to the web site (once I get him to load the most recent performance or two onto a CD). Then you can judge for yourself what the effects of my work have been. Here endeth my epistle ;;)

Shawn Charton wrote (March 31, 2007):
[To Cara Emily Thornton] Well, having never heard you I will point out a couple of observations.

As I understand it, you are referencing choral experiences from when you were rather young. It doesn't matter what voice type you have, puberty is not done till late 20's at the earliest. Therefore the youthful singer bit would still apply to you, particularly in the flexibility of your larynx and your upper range. Also, it sounds to me like you are just one of those people whos voice is predisposed to singing. PLEASE don't be offended by this but if you were singing Messiah in your teens, your voice has stamina to put up with abuse. Händel is a BEAR!

The fact that you qualify your range with the phrase "on a good day" is telling... what is your range consistently and with what kind of stamina? "On a good day" denotes natural talent which you CLEARLY have... but, having a good high D on a BAD day is good technique. When I'm in vocal shape and healthy, I KNOW that no matter WHAT that I will have a good high A-flat and I'm a Verdi Baritone.

Do you still have a C at 40-something? Where is your break and how smooth is it? What happens to your voice around G and how do you feel that shift? What do you have on the bottom? How do you articulate fioratura? Where do you sense the expansion when you inhale? How do you sense "support" (Boy, THERE'S a can of worms...)

MY last female voice teacher in Atlanta was 83 and still had a high E-flat for DAYS and she was a full lyric. That is PURE technique. If Irene had spent her career "controlling" her vibrato, I (and she) will guarantee you that she would have had to quit singing in her 60's.
To draw an analagy, focusing on the vibrato of a voice and then trying to control it is like focusing on the bubos that come along with bubonic plague... you MIGHT find a way to stop the bubos from coming up but if you don't cure the disease you will still die before you otherwise would have... even if you think you are prettier...

anyway, that's my $.89... take it for what it's worth.
and again, I am really NOT trying to criticize you personally or downplay your s. I'm sure you're very talented.

Joel Figen wrote (March 31, 2007):
Shawn Charton wrote:
< I would also point out that vibrato and tremolo are two completely different things... Tremolo is extremely fast, shallow and caused by a lack of coordination between the breath and the support musclature. Vibrato happens AT the cords and also involves resonance waves. They sound similar but they are NOT the same. >
I've been reluctant to jump in... I'm a singer too, and I agree with about half of what you're saying. The rest seems just, well, shall we say, proprietary. You're about the 200th singer or voice teacher I've run into who claims to have the "real scientific explanation." So pardon me if I'm a little blase by now. But I'll agree where I can and find ways to approach agreement wherever possible.

The distinction between vibrato and tremolo is something that changes depending on who you ask. The most I'm willing to stipulate is that saying a singer has a tremolo in 2007 is universally an insult. (Even if you say he/she has a "good tremolo" :)

I think the most germane thing that has been said in this debate, however, is where Brad quoted an old italian, saying "tremolo is an ornament". Ignoring the modern distinction between tremolo and vibrato for the moment, we don't really know exactly what he meant. But I'm going to make some assumptions based on my own experience singing and listening.

1. The modern operatic vibrato is usually applied to the entire tone, like an electric organ, not to single notes. it makes singing elaborate melismatic lines awkward and often unmusical. It works fairly well for some 19th century arias, but in my opinion, it's completely wrong for Bach or almost any contrapuntal music. (And it's deadly to recitative, imho.)

2. Operatically trained modern singers often try to compensate for their vibrato addiction by using an explosive (often to the point of sounding angry) aspiration of individual notes (in melisma). The lower the voice, the more it sounds like a locomotive. (The big engine that really shouldn't...) This particular form of articulation seems to come from the diaphragm. But A little aspiration can be good, even in choral singing. Too much isn't.

3. I've heard early acoustic recordings of famous voices from the past, such as Enrico Caruso. He didn't use the modern operatic vibrato. Instead, he applied what we would call a vibrato to individual notes. (He also tended to breathe wherever he needed air, rather than at musical phrases, but that's another issue...) (It's also possible to apply a single vibrato to several notes in sequence. I can do that but I don't. It's unmusical to my taste.)

4. Vibrato applied to a single note is much like a kind of trill, and I suspect this is what Brad's Italian source had in mind when he said "tremolo is an ornament." The boundary between a trill and a vibrato is somewhat arbitrary. In a pinch, a vibrato can do the work of a trill, if you're just not quite up to it. But notewise vibrato has many other uses, and I regard it as virtually essential to good singing: not on every note but on selected notes, especially long notes. The singer has complete control over the rate and deviation, so there's no particular stylistic restriction, unless the soulless musicologist is in command :). If someone uses too much vibrato, that doesn't mean vibrato is bad, it just means that particular performance is bad.

5. I agree with you that a good vibrato is healthy and relaxing. I think good singers tend to use more vibrato in loud passages. This supports your claim that vibrato is "efficient." However, I don't really think efficiency is much of an issue. Music is the issue. I don't really care if the singer has to eat an extra pancake or two. But The point at which good singers start to use more vibrato seems to be the same as the point at which poorer singers start to get overbright and jerry-lewisy. I agree with you that a good singer would sing more softly if asked to forego vibrato.

Anyway, thanks for bringing up some singerly issues. We may never agree on them, but it's refreshing to have the focus turn away from keyboard tunings, musicology, and christianity for a while.

Douglas Cowling wrote (March 31, 2007):
Joel Figen wrote:
< Anyway, thanks for bringing up some singerly issues. We may never agree on them, but it's refreshing to have the focus turn away from keyboard tunings, musicology, and christianity for a while. >
To bring the discussion at bit back towards Bach, it's pretty clear that the modern distinction between the "solo" voice and the "choral" voice did not exist in Bach's sacred music. The same singers sang the choruses as sang the solo parts. At modern performances (unless they are OVPP), the soloists sit in isolation at the edge of the stage and do not sing the choruses. Bach would have thought it absurd to have the soprano "soloist" in the SJP sing only twice. Modern audiences assume that soloists will have well-developed voices that are not used by the chorus even if they are capable of such "soloist" quality. One of the reasons I like OVPP performances is that they break down this false distinction which would have been foreign to Bach. Even Händel expected his soloists to sing in oratorio choruses: his soprano line would have been 10 choirboys and a female opera star! That's something we never hear in modern concerts. Except of course in the "Hallelujah Chorus" where even HIP performances require the soloists to rise and sing with the choir.

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 31, 2007):
Alain Bruguières wrote:
< I'm interested in the physics underlying Shawn's observations. >
I am as well.

< [...] Can anybody provide an explanation of vibrato or a link to an explanation, based on the Bernoulli effect? I've seen many webpages where vibrato is ascribed to the Bernoulli effect, with some hand-waving, but no actual explanation. >
Perhaps we need a geologist? Arm waving is the standard scientific method for us, in times of difficulty, much more dramatic than hand waving.

< The intriguing fact is that the frequency of vibrato is much smaller than the frequency of the vocal chords vibrations, so something not straightforward is going on... I gather that vibrato results from a low frequency variation of sub-glottal air pressure, but what is the cause of this variation? >
So far, I have inferred (from the examples, rather than the theory) that the cause is related to cigarette smoking. Or maybe it isn't.

See you on the stoop some day, mon ami!

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (March 31, 2007):
Shawn Charton wrote:
< As I understand it, you are referencing choral experiences from when you were rather young. It doesn't matter what voice type you have, puberty is not done till late 20's at the earliest. >
I was well into my thirties before I would say my voice was 'mature'.

< Therefore the youthful singer bit would still apply to you, particularly in the flexibility of your larynx and your upper range. >
Not really. I've had the basically same range and flexibility since I was a child. The difference is that my voice has just plain a much wider dynamic range, and also more able to put in light and dark elements (even simultaneously), all through my range, when it's called for.

< Also, it sounds to me like you are just one of those people whos voice is predisposed to singing. PLEASE don't be offended by this but if you were singing Messiah in your teens, your voice has stamina to put up with abuse. Händel is a BEAR! >
No, I just have a voice that is suited to that kind of music. My voice has generally NOT liked singing long sustained notes. I mean, nowadays it can do slow arias from Bach and Händel, it can make those slower dynamic waves, but this is relatively recent. I guess that can also be attributed to maturity.

< The fact that you qualify your range with the phrase "on a good day" is telling... what is your range consistently and with what kind of stamina? "On a good day" denotes natural talent which you CLEARLY have... but, having a good high D on a BAD day is good technique. When I'm in vocal shape and healthy, I KNOW that no matter WHAT that I will have a gohigh A-flat and I'm a Verdi Baritone. >
When I'm in vocal shape and healthy, I'll have from e to c''' reliably. On a bad day, or at 3 AM woken from a sound sleep and asked to sing some random note out of nowhere, I'll have f to b-flat''.

< Do you still have a C at 40-something? >
Oh yeah. And it's probably better than when I was 20-something.

< Where is your break and how smooth is it? >
Up top? Between e'' and f''. It's smooth if I've been practicing regularly. Downstairs, I have a sort of treacherous zone that goes from, say, e-flat' down to c'. Lately, my voice has particularly disliked the notes e-flat' and d', especially if held out at length. The funny part is that when I warm up, starting at c' and working up, back down and then passing go and collecting $200 on the way down to the bottom, the problem doesn't really show up. But then I try to hold out that long e-flat' right before the final cadence of 'He was despised', and... let's say I always have to have a Plan B to get it to sound reasonably even.

< What happens to your voice around G and how do you feel that shift? >
Like I said, the shift happens lower for me - unless I'm singing alto, then it's between f'' and f-sharp'' (I wasn't joking when I talked about my voice shifting placement depending what I'm singing).

< What do you have on the bottom? >
I have an E below middle C well enough that I've sung it in public a couple of times - e.g. Benedictus from the B minor Mass. We did it without transposing so I wouldn't collide with the flute all the time. Regrettably, the recording from that performance wasn't miked properly, and all you can hear is the gamba... He's started miking us differently, and I think it's made a positive difference.

< How do you articulate fioratura? >
I do it on placement, for the most part. I can feel something like fingers on a fingerboard inside my head, dropping or lifting off. When I'm going at a really fast tempo and singing forte on top of all that, the abdominal musculature comes into play a bit, just enough to give the articulation a bit of an edge, nothing more. But I'm too caught up in the music by that time to give you any further details - I feel like I'm about to take off and start flying around the hall ;;)

< Where do you sense the expansion when you inhale? How do you sense "support" (Boy, THERE'S a can of worms...) >
Everywhere from the abs up to the collarbone. I guess I just feel like my lungs are full, and it's like they continue to be full even as I continue to sing. I am actually fairly slender, but since I am a bit over 6 feet tall, that still makes for a pretty good-sized lung capacity - it's been estimated at 6 liters when I'm in shape. Since the chamber is long and thin, it is a little difficult for me to take a full breath very fast. But once it's in there, it goes out very slowly. I rarely run out of breath before the end of a phrase. To give you an example, look at the final section of Come scoglio from Cosi fan tutte. From the pickup to m. 16 to the middle of m. 23, you have a huge melisma on the words 'e una barbara speran--------------------------------za'. When I'm in tiptop shape, I can do it all in one breath.

< MY last female voice teacher in Atlanta was 83 and still had a high E-flat for DAYS and she was a full lyric. That is PURE technique. >
Oh yeah. To be still singing that high at her age, there's really no room for error with technique. She must really be doing something right.

< If Irene had spent her career "controlling" her vibrato, I (and she) will guarantee you that she would have had to quit singing in her 60's. To draw an analagy, focusing on the vibrato of a voice and then trying to control it is like focusing on the bubos that come along with bubonic plague... you MIGHT find a way to stop the bubos from coming up but if you don't cure the disease you will still die before you otherwise would have... even if you think you are prettier... >
So what is the underlying 'illness' behind vibrato then?

< anyway, that's my $.89... take it for what it's worth. and again, I am really NOT trying to criticize you personally or downplay your skills. I'm sure you're very talented. >
I didn't think you were. I figure we are just 'talking shop'. Maybe you can tell me something about your vocal production, how you feel the placement of your voice, etc. I mean, I can make a guess given the kinds of things I've been singing, but I am still kind of fuzzy on how adult male voices work... It might help me to do my job better, not to mention when some male person from choir comes to me and wants pointers on how to sing better, I'm not entirely sure what to tell him, what he should be 'feeling' for in terms of placement. All I can really tell him about is proper posture and breathing.

I mean, in what measure do guys use the sinus cavities, as opposed to the chest, for resonance purposes? Or for that matter, Philip Cho (a tenor himself) told me that the tenor voice is unnatural, because the way it is normally produced involves placing very high notes in the chest - which is normally not the natural place to produce them (which, he explained, is why it takes so long to train a tenor and bring the voice to maturity). Is it really impossible for men to have a middle register or even a head register, in the way women do? Or is it just 'not done'?

I remember an old acquaintance of mine, a tenor, who had almost exactly the same range I do. Have to admit I got a wee bit of a complex seeing a tenor who could sing MY high C better than I could at the time! But it was with a very different tone quality. I never did get to ask him what he was doing vocally to get those kinds of results. What do you think he might have been doing?

Good grief, I've pulled an all-nighter over this discussion! I'd better mosey off to bed!

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 31, 2007):
Joel Figen wrote:
< I've been reluctant to jump in... I'm a singer too, and I agree with about half of what you're saying. The rest seems just, well, shall we say, proprietary. You're about the 200th singer or voice teacher I've run into who claims to have the "real scientific explanation." >
What is all this crap about singers? I thought this was a music list.

Shawn Charton wrote (March 31, 2007):
[To Cara Emily Thornton] Teaching guys is indeed different than girls. From what I uderstand, girls sense connected phonation as "nothing..." In order for a guy to get even registers he MUST stay connected to the foundation. aka... Dr. Cho's concept of singing in the chest while in the head. Yes, men can sing in pure head like a woman does. However, men cannot sing in it (IMHO) while staying connected and even. And, the bigger the voice, the bigger the crack... of course.

The real question to ask a male student is how they feel the register shift. My most recent teacher says that Tenors must open up when they get over the break whereas Baritones must narrow in and focus. I suspect that's true. I also suspect that has something to do with vowel modification. (yet another issue that we deal with more than women...) I would tell you that the tenor voice is unnatural because of the tessiture that they generally sing. They sit in the rafters more than anybody else.

I would say that fiorature should be articulated with the epigastrium rather than the diaphragm. I would say that my concept of breath is into the lower back as that is the only place there really is to expand IN the lungs assuming your chest is already up. My HUGE pet peeve is the "belly breath"... does it not occur to peole that they're just pushing out their guts because the lungs don't extend into your belly??? I prefer to avoid talking about placement. To me, it feels like a stretch in the inner nasal passages/soft palate. In retrospect, I can feel all of the various imageray that I've heard through my life but they were generally VERY confusing for me. I prefer to trick students into doing it with exercizes and then teach them how to recreate it. I'm 6'8" so I'm WAY into posture... Alexander Technique is my mantra.

The underlying illness for conspicuous vibrato is pressure, or tension, or posture, or any nuof other things that can be fixed by technique. I'm a BIG fan of finding the problems instead of the symptoms. A symptom like a vibrato issue can be caused by so many things that I find it a poor place to start. I usually aim at posture first and then see what happens. Next up would be breath management. And, of course, that's always subject to change depending on the student.

Strangely, I started learning viola recently, and I find that my singing has improved. Anyway... bedtime for Shawnzo...

Shawn Charton wrote (March 31, 2007):
[To Joel Figen] That's funny, Joel... I wonder if we agree on the same half...

For me, many things you say are basically right. Of all the examples of technique you could choose, I'd HARDLY choose Caruso... he had REALLY funky ideaology. He used to sing (and teach) with a marble egg in his mouth. Talk about shoving the tongue down...

I would say, yes... modern operatic technique is geared toward legato even in the vibrato. As for articulating fioratura, there seem to be many different approaches. I also agree with you that MANY opera singers pound the first of a group of 4 sixteenths and then wobble their way through it... as with the Joan Sutherlin trill of death... Those are NOT what I mean when I say good singing.

All that about tremolo being an ornament and vibrato on a per note basis I wholly disagree with. I do agree that ornamental tremolo is probably what was meant... What is ornamental tremolo?? I dunno...

Generally speaking, I would say that our differences seem to be rooted in the difference between an 18th century aesthetic approach to singing as opposed to a 21st century scientific view of it.

One of the problems with singers as technicians is that we all have different backgrounds, different physical sensations and different experiences. My technique is certainly MY technique. However I will also say that I have many excellent technicians on my résumé on both sides of this equation and have come out on the side of mechanism. I experienced legato as you describe it from Penny Jenson and Max van Egmond and, while it was interesting, it generally doesn't work for anything but Baroque. And they never had ANY issue with my vibrato.

Suffice it to say, I agree that the 19th operatic wobbler/lazy singer is NOT my ideal either. But I don't try to hide myself in aesthetics either. My voice was somewhat difficult to fix and, without science, I doubt it would have ever happened.

Douglas Cowling wrote (March 31, 2007):
Shawn Charton wrote:
< Teaching guys is indeed different than girls. From what I uderstand, girls sense connected phonation as "nothing..." >
I think I dated girls who sensed that about me ...

Uri Golomb wrote (March 31, 2007):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< One of the reasons that I remain largely silent on Gardiner's performances is that I have a visceral revulsion to his recording of the Monteverdi Vespers in which big bel canto voices bluster and obfuscate their way across Monteverdi's sublime music. >
Which of Gardiner's recordings are you referring to here? The 1970s Decca recording or the live recording at the Basilica di San Marco (1989)?

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (March 31, 2007):
Shawn Charton wrote:
< I would say, yes... modern operatic technique is geared toward legato even in the vibrato. As for articulating fioratura, there seem to be many different approaches. I also agree with you that MANY opera singers pound the first of a group of 4 sixteenths and then wobble their way through it... as with the Joan Sutherlin trill of death... Those are NOT what I mean when I say good singing. >
I object to corrections onlist; however this is at least the 2nd time I see you referring to fioritura as fioratura. Now everyone knoweth that I cannot spell or type to save my life (and I certainly cannot sing). However I became frightening aware of this problem some years ago when proofing a friend's article. He was very grateful. I think (this is for Ed to enjoy) that micturition is another one I myself have always misused and made into micturation.

Joel Figen wrote (March 31, 2007):
Shawn Charton wrote:
< For me, many things you say are basically right. Of all the examples of technique you could choose, I'd HARDLY choose Caruso... he had REALLY funky ideaology. He used to sing (and teach) with a marble egg in his mouth. Talk about shoving the tongue down... >
Caruso just happens to be one that I've heard in old recordings who didn't adhere to the 20th century vibrato in opera. This suggests to me that the 20th century vibrato is something of a modern anomaly. I"m not endorsing his technique.

< All that about tremolo being an ornament and vibrato on a per note basis I wholly disagree with. I do agree that ornamental tremolo is probably what was meant... What is ornamental tremolo?? I dunno... >
Disagree as you may, it's based on musicological sources, capably and appropriately introduced by one of our resident musicologists. Disagreeing with it because of 20th-century preconceptions about the meaning of terms shouldn't even be on the table.

The key syntax isn't "ornamental tremolo", but rather "tremolo as an ornament" like a trill or a mordent. (If I used the adjective ornamental, I apologize, since it was sure to confuse.)

The question is no whether it was so used, but how that use differs from a modern vibrato. My point is partly that the distinction you made between tremolo and vibrato (which I don't fully buy but I'll not belabor that for now) doesn't apply to this particular source, since that distinction was apparently some 200 years in the future when he wrote.

As for knowing what he did mean, I'm provisionally rather certain it's something close to what we now call "vibrato" but applied on a per-note basis "as an ornament" - not "ornamentally"

< Generally speaking, I would say that our differences seem to be rooted in the difference between an 18th century aesthetic approach to singing as opposed to a 21st century scientific view of it. >
As I mentioned, I"ve been exposed to about 200 different and incompatible 21st-century "scientific" views of singing. A maze of twisty little passages, all different. Most people, I've learned over the years, who bang the
drum for Science are actually practicing not science but scientism.

So, I would quibble about the term "scientific."

But I think you're right. An 18th-century aesthetic approach seems to be authentic for Bach, the subject of this forum. The problem being which aesthetic approach is actually most appropriate, and how much we can deviate from it reasonably for modern tastes.

On a deeper and more philosophical level, music is what we perceive, (aisthenomen) not the vibrations that transmit it through the air. We lose something irreplaceable when we try to substitute science for aesthetics. All the more so when we claim a scientific imprimatur for what in the end is largely just a statement of belief, without personal use of scientific method to back it up.

I'm all in favor of scientific method, especially when modern medical imaging tools are used to find out what a singer is really doing.

There's another mailing list on yahoo, the vocalists mailing list, that I subscribe to. It's there that I've run into so many touting the word "science." (And all different :)

When I use the word "science," I'm referring to the method of the physical and social sciences, as worked out by a long string of philosophers in the 20th century, including the Vienna Circle, Popper, Kuhn, and others. When I hear the terminology of science used in other ways, something in me objects. But If it works for you, it's really only your results that count, not how you think about it. (and evcen less, how I think about how you think about it!) I'm reminded of a friend of mine who is a christian science practitioner. She claims an impressive list of cures. I don't agree with her about the mechanism of those cures, but my opinion on that isn't important to her, and if she tried to understand it, it might damage her ability to heal.

Oddly, Bach's very compositional techniques were called "scientific" in his day. Clearly there was little or nothinof the modern scientific method in them. I suspect that "scientific" schools of vocal instruction are using the word in their own way and I should listen rather than try to teach. Nevertheless, be aware that the word "science" has many claimants, and some of them are physicists :)

< One of the problems with singers as technicians is that we all have different backgrounds, different physical sensations and different experiences. My technique is certainly MY technique. However I will also say that I have many excellent technicians on my résumé on both sides of this equation and have come out on the side of mechanism. I experienced legato as you describe it from Penny Jenson and Max van Egmond and, while it was interesting, it generally doesn't work for anything but Baroque. And they never had ANY issue with my vibrato.
Suffice it to say, I agree that the 19th operatic wobbler/lazy singer is NOT my ideal either. But I don't try to hide myself in aesthetics either. My voice was somewhat difficult to fix and, without science, I doubt it would have ever happened. >
I think you said something fascinating and wonderful in those two paragraphs, but I can't really understand it! Our backgrounds are different enough that most of the key terms you used have different meanings for me. For instance I don't remember talking about legato, but rather about melisma (coloratura, fioratura). As I see it, the Baroque approach is NOT always legato in the later sense of the word. Bach and Händel both sometimes put rests in the middle of a syllable.

Anyway, Baroque is what this venue is about :)

You've had some very impressive teachers (Name dropper! :)) Mine are less famous, and, in the end, I'm largely self taught. But I"ve had enough master and near-master teachers (mostly for short workshops) to get a confident feel for what I'm talking about.

I look forward to hearing more from you about the things you touched upon in those two paragraphs - I think there's a lot there to reveal and explore.

ps - you mentioned in one of your posts about being cast as a bass soloist even though you barely have a low A flat. That's a tenor where I come from :) How could the casting director have been so lame?

 

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Last update: ýNovember 6, 2007 ý08:14:31