One More Thing ...
What do the following singers have in common: Rod Stewart, Randy Newman, Janice Joplin, Joe Cocker, Louis Armstrong, Bonnie Tyler, Steven Tyler, and Carol Channing? Assuming you have some familiarity with most of them, I suspect your initial response focuses on their shared husky, raspy vocal timbre that suggests the possibility of voice damage. But what do these singers also have in common with Luciano Pavarotti, Anna Netrebko, Anita Rachvelishvili, Thomas Hampson, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and Kathleen Battle? The answer might not instantly pop into your head, so give it a little thought.
We are looking now at two cohorts of singers, each of whom is--or was--at the top of the profession. Surely, they must have more in common than raking in piles of cash. I'm pretty certain I would be annoyed by Battle singing "Me and Bobby McGee" (or, heaven forbid, "Oh Lord, won't you Buy me a Mercedes Benz"), just as I wouldn't want to hear Joe Cocker's rendition of "Che gelida manina." Of course, I might be surprised by how well these artists cross over to other genres, but I suspect my preconceived expectations (prejudices?) would be confirmed. So, these great singers do not share repertoire and have vocal timbres from opposite sides of the spectrum. But they do have one extraordinarily important common denominator: each sings (or sang) remarkably well in tune. What follows is the nine-word version of this article, which I wish I were brave enough to run with as the entire column:
If you can't sing in tune, pursue another line of work.
Basta. Or not quite. Everyone sings a stinker at one time or another; we are human beings who play our own bodies as our instruments, with all the accompanying day to day variations in health, mood, and intention, any of which has the potential to impact our ability to sing in the middle of the pitch. I'm speaking here of chronic intonation problems that do not resolve quickly with study and technical growth. Most of us have worked with developing singers who temporarily sing out of tune while first learning their craft. But those issues should clear up before the completion of an undergraduate degree and must be conquered prior to seeking professional work in any music genre. The question is, what tools do we have to help conquer this fundamental technical flaw? The answer lies in diagnosing the source of the problem, which I place in four broad categories: 1) breathing, or more specifically, imbalanced subglottic breath pressure; 2) resonance, or more specifically, mistuned formants; 3) lack of awareness or indifference to how the vocal line fits within the fabric of the musical work as a whole; and, 4) carelessness or lack of respect for the musical situation at hand. (If I raise a few hackles with this final item, so be it.)
Breathing and Intonation. Regular readers of my work know that I bristle at the belief, still commonly held by many singing teachers, that almost every vocal problem can be traced to breath. To recap, an excellent breathing technique will not ensure correct laryngeal positioning, optimal degree of glottal adduction, desired minimization of jaw and tongue tension, appropriate elevation of the soft palate, or correct French diction (especially those pesky rules that only apply to /oe/on alternate Tuesdays). But intonation is another matter entirely.
Singing in tune requires finely tuned interaction of pulmonary pressure and glottal resistance to that pressure. Let's try an experiment. In your next studio or pedagogy class, ask for a pair of volunteers to perform a demonstration. Student A is tasked with sustaining a sung tone at any pitch. Next, student B reaches around as if performing the Heimlich Maneuver on someone who is choking (Figure 1). Now, student B gently but firmly pulls inward against the abdominal wall of Student A at unpredictable intervals. You will observe two things happen: 1) with each inward tug, there is a small increase in loudness; 2) with each inward tug, pitch jumps upward. You have just demonstrated the relationship between breath pressure and pitch! The inward tug of the Heimlich Maneuver causes a sudden increase of subglottic pressure, which simultaneously increases volume and elevates pitch. We now can make a strong pedagogic application: Singing under pitch (flatting) might be caused by insufficient subglottic pressure, or [P.sub.sub]. [P.sub.sub] can be raised by increasing breath compression through stronger contraction of expiratory muscles, increasing glottal resistance through stronger adduction, or some combination the two. Conversely, singing above the pitch (sharping) might be caused by excess [P.sub.sub]. This phenomenon is likely to become evident at higher pitches or in passaggio regions. The solution? Moderate breath pressure by reducing the intensity of expiratory muscle contraction, increasing muscular antagonism from the inspiratory muscles, or decreasing glottal resistance by reducing glottal adductory force. Balance is the key, as changes in glottal resistance impact breath pressure and vice versa. But the bottom line is pretty straightforward: If your student sings flat, try increasing [P.sub.sub]; if she sings sharp, try decreasing it.
Resonance Tuning. Vowel formants can have a strong impact on intonation. Try this experiment to demonstrate. Find a tube of 1-3 cm diameter with a length around 17.5cm, and then buzz your lips at one end as if playing the trumpet. You quickly will discover that the tube has a "sweet spot" around the pitch B5 where the tone becomes loud, clear, and remarkably pleasant (at least as pleasant as could be expected from such a primitive instrument). But if you try to buzz a [C.sup.#.sub.5] or [B.sup.[flat].sub.4] into the tube, the results are not as good. And as you try to go even higher or lower, it becomes increasingly difficult to produce an sort of quality tone.
For your next step, sing the pitch [B.sub.4] on a French schwa or /oe/. Just as happened when you buzzed into the tube, the pitch will ring out with clarion strength. But as you ascend or descend from that pitch, resonance significantly weakens. Why does this happen? By forming the French /oe/, you are configuring your vocal tract as a tube of nearly uniform diameter, mimicking the acoustic properties of the 17.5cm tube. [B.sub.4] works great--even in falsetto--but few other pitches match the quality. Continue to experiment employing a variety of pitches while steadfastly maintaining the vowel position. You will notice that [E.sub.3] also demonstrates a resonance sweet spot, which occurs because the first formant of the /oe/vowel coincides with the third harmonic of the pitch you are singing. Another resonance coincidence would be found at [F.sup.[sharp].sub.5], which is the second primary resonant frequency of that 17.5 cm tube.
Clearly, however, we must be able to sing /oe/ on more pitches than [E.sub.3], [B.sub.4], and [F.sup.[sharp].sub.5]. We generally accomplish this by making subtle changes to the shape of the vowel, allowing its resonance structure to coincide more closely with the harmonic structure of the pitch we are singing. What does this mean pedagogically? For one thing, if breathing didn't solve poor intonation, there is a good chance the solution lies in subtle tweaks to vowel sounds. These vowel modifications are based on well established acoustic principles that are not difficult to master. I refer you to my article "Formantology" in the September 2013 issue of the Journal of Singing for a user-friendly explanation of how all of this works.
Situational Awareness. Our students spend an awful lot of time in the practice room (at least, we hope they all do this!), singing in a musical vacuum. As a result, wrong notes and rhythms often are "practiced in" to the music; without a collaborative accompanist, there is no point of reference, allowing errors to seem correct to the student. But this phenomenon is not limited to incorrect pitches. With few exceptions (e.g., Gregorian Chant, unaccompanied folk song, or those rare art songs without accompaniment), singers almost always make music with other people. I've had far too many students over the years who fail to understand this basic concept. Instead, they see the pianist as someone whose job is to collaborate with them, never accepting the fact that they, too, must be a musical collaborator. And collaboration requires listening. It doesn't matter whether we are talking about a pianist or conductor listening for and adjusting to the breath of a singer, or a singer listening for how his major third fits into the overall harmonic structure; we must listen to each other and make conscientious efforts to make music together. It is not the pianist's job to bend to the singer's every whim. Nor is it appropriate for a singer to disregard rhythms, pitches, and the expressive intentions of a composer, expecting the pianist (or conductor) to make all the adjustments. I'm reminded of an old joke that goes something like this. A conductor addresses the orchestra prior to the first rehearsal with a famous singer: "In measure 4, watch for a fermata on beat three that is not in the score; bars 14-21 will be in 7/8 rather than the notated 4/4; from 32-46 we will transpose everything up a whole step, returning to pitch in bar 47; and bars 52-56 are now fortissimo rather than the indicated pianissimo." The singer then asks the conductor: "But maestro, what do you want me to do?" He replies: "Absolutely nothing. Just sing it exactly the way you did for me in our piano rehearsal."
Alas, the stereotype of the singer who is a poor musician often has basis in history, which includes singing in tune.
Carelessness or Indifference. Over the years, I've had a significant number of pianists work in my studio who displayed curious technical split personalities. In one such case, I served as a judge in a competition where a pianist--whose accompanying I knew very well--played the second concerto of Rachmaninov brilliantly. But collaborating with a singer, the same person could not read something as basic as "Caro mio ben," and never was able (or perhaps willing) to make any rhythmic or dynamic adjustments to support the ensemble. I've also had singers who performed splendidly and sensitively in recitals, master classes, and opera roles, but become the proverbial "bull in a china shop" when singing in choir. There was one in particular I truly believed was singing loudly and out of tune purposely, hoping to be ejected from the ensemble. Argh ... !
Making music is a team sport. If you don't want to play on the team, you probably should do something else.
For many years now, we have had access to software and hardware that provide feedback on intonation, including cheap or free smartphone apps. I see these helpers in the same way I view spectrograms: they can provide instantaneous visual feedback of something that normally exists only in the audio and kinesthetic realms, which might serve as a trigger to inspire a new coordination. But ultimately, that feedback must be internalized. We are not going to place video monitors on the stage, enabling singers to watch their vibrato or their singer's formant in real time; nor are we going to install visual tuners. Curiously, singers of the pre-tech generations sang perfectly well in tune with consistent timbre without any visual feedback whatsoever. It can be done.
And then, there is the curse of auto-tuning. To the best of my knowledge, this technology is used only with unamplified classical singing in the recording studio to fix random intonation errors; it has not yet made its way to live performances at the Met. The situation is different in commercial music, where live performances can be auto-tuned in real time. (I remember perusing a music software catalog a while ago and coming across a product that promised to eliminate the problem of "out of tune, squirrely sounding singers.") All of us are now familiar with auto-tuning used as an effect, creating pitch changes that are surgical in cleanliness with distinct rhythmic pulses. This can create performances with stunningly clear riffs, which our students often try to mimic using only their voices without the help of electronics. The pedagogic jury is still out on the long-term consequences of this practice.
At what point does the inability to sing reliably in tune become a stop sign? That all depends on our students' goals. If they want to sing on Broadway, in the opera house, or as a commercial artist the answer is simple: if their physical development matches the expectations for entrance to field and intonation remains unreliable, it likely is a sign that another career is appropriate. Join a choir, sing with the local semiprofessional or amateur theater company, or have fun with karaoke. Great satisfaction still can be found in singing, but on an avocational, rather than professional basis. A baseball player who hits only foul balls can have great fun in a pickup game but will never find a place on the roster of the Red Sox. Likewise, a singer who regularly is out of tune will have great difficulty making a living with his voice.
That said, there also is another truth. To borrow a line from a famous contemporary aria: "Things change, Jo." A number of years ago, I had the good fortune to hear one of the final performances at the Met by a very famous tenor. The gentleman had sung at the Met for well over 20 years and was praised for his elegant vocalism--he was (and still is) one of my vocal heroes. But that evening, things did not go well. Overall, his voice worked okay, especially if you overlooked a general dullness of resonance, a wider, slower vibrato than was his earlier custom, sagging pitch, and the fact that he was unable to sing anything higher than [A.sup.[flat].sub.4]. Alas, he was singing a bel canto role that routinely explored the region from [A.sub.4] to [C.sub.5]. No matter. If the pitch indicated in the score was [B.sup.[flat].sub.4], an [A.sub.4] came out. Of course, this led to some rather painful clashes with the orchestra and the other singers on stage. Nonetheless, at the end of the performance, a steadfast claque remained by the orchestra pit, cheering, stomping, and demanding multiple curtain calls. Had a young artist made his debut singing as poorly, he would have been booed off the stage, never to be rehired. But as a septuagenarian, he was adored not for how he sang that evening, but for how he had sung during the prime years of his career. Poor tuning no longer was an impediment to his adoring fans.
All too often, our students believe they will be the exception to rule. They look at scenarios like the one above and assume they will be adored as the latter, without having earned the reputation of the former. They look at nontraditional casting where famous singers perform roles outside their Fach, which they carry solely on their star power, not on their vocalism, and think: "I can do that too." Not likely. And if the issue is intonation, my response remains constant: If you can't sing in tune, pursue another line of work.
Sail fast, sail fast, Ark of my hopes, Ark of my dreams; Sweep lordly o'er the drowned Past, Fly glittering through the sun's strange beams; Sail fast, sail fast. Breaths of new buds from off some dying lea With news about the Future scent the sea: My brain is beating like the heart of Haste: I'll loose me a bird upon this Present waste; Go, trembling song, And stay not long; oh, stay not long: Thou'rt only a gray and sober dove, But thine eye is faith and thy wing is love. Sidney Lanier, "Song of the Future" Scott McCoy, Associate Editor
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|Title Annotation:||VOICE PEDAGOGY|
|Publication:||Journal of Singing|
|Date:||May 1, 2019|
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