Observing the classical singing community, it could seem that there is a consistent competition among vocal groups and soloists in the oratorio and early music world today to sing with THE Baroque style; yes, the authentic one. It can be a fascination to witness the concept of what many consider proper style. Listening to videos and recordings, it might inspire one to wonder if some individuals really use hearing ability to judge whether or not a sound is healthy. Are they looking for a true aesthetic of beautiful sound or are they overly concerned with whether they are authentic enough. What about the priority of making music with healthy vocalism? What about creating beautiful moving sound to the point of bringing an audience to tears of joy or inspiration? Is it appropriate to think for one moment that these composers would want to rob their audience of such an experience in the name of authenticity? The answer to this question is, absolutely NOT! There are many examples of excellent singing coordinated with appropriate Baroque style. One wonderful example of a singing artist who could interpret Baroque music fully, expressing its fullest beauty and musical fervor is the American Soprano, Arlene Auger. After witnessing her present several wonderful master classes, inspiring young singers to become the best technically and musically, it is easy to see her true ability to create a marriage of vocal health and style. Several of her recordings express Baroque arias to their ultimate beauty through excellent technical tools. She was indeed a very special singing artist who could create Baroque style AND beautiful sound to the point of touching and moving her audience. This kind of experience cannot be denied. When witnessed first hand, it is unforgettable. Because of her pre-mature death only a few years ago, Ms. Auger is greatly missed among the singing community today.
First of all, allow me to say that some of the music closest to my heart is that of the Baroque era, a style of music that I personally believe requires an excellent vocal technique in order to express the music clearly and appropriately. One of my University voice teachers was a very high light tenor who often performed in oratorio concerts. He also was a soloist for the Robert Shaw Chorale on many occasions. From a technical standpoint, to say that my early training was inferior would be quite an understatement. This is mainly due to the fact that I was trained as a tenor when in actuality I was and still am a lyric baritone. (See article on "Vocal Fach".) This teacher made the common mistake of hearing high-larynxed singing as light and healthy vocal production. Over time, it damaged my voice. However, this inferior training could not discourage the development of my love of Baroque music. One thing I did learn from this teacher was how to gain an understanding of Baroque ornamentation and style, something that I find rare in many singers today unless they specifically specialize in Baroque music exclusively.
Christmas Day, 2002, I watched two broadcasts on the New York Arts Channel of two Baroque performing groups. Unfortunately, the first Baroque group fell into the Baroque specialty trap, consistently compensating for a lack of technique by going much too far with the musical phrasing. One could begin to feel quite seasick listening to such exaggerated phrasing. The excess was so great that it would almost bring any listener to the brink of laughter or at least a broad smile. This kind of singing saddens me. I suppose many think that exaggeration gains attention when trying to attain the title of Baroque specialist. Beyond over-phrasing, the largest frustration for me as a singer and vocal pedagogue was the consistent vocal abuse that I witnessed throughout the performance. This included wide open passaggios (including spread embouchures and forward jaw positions), high-larynxed singing in order to squeeze the throat tighter and tighter to create a straight tone, and singing in a belted style (voce aperto) through the mouth. This mouth-singing must be fueled with tremendous breath pressure, rather than using any nasal resonance to protect the throat. This concert was like watching the vocal destruction of at least 30 singers. The sad and obvious truth is that they had to perform in an extremely live acoustic in order to create any good quality of tone at all. This quite famous group could have produced much more music by singing on a healthy vocal technique with a balance of registration, breath control, and rounded passaggios. It would not have cost them their Baroque style at all. In fact, it would have enhanced vocal control and the singers would not look so pained during the act of singing. An added benefit would be increased vocal longevity as well: extending the singing career to as much as 15 to 20 years longer. In addition to vocal health, it is quite important not to dismiss the fact that style is a high priority. It is not appropriate to sing Baroque style with the sound of Puccini. But there is a medium balance that is necessary for vocal health to be present in one's production.
In contrast later that Christmas Day, I was fortunate to see and hear another Baroque Choir Concert originating from England. It was obviously a well-trained church choir, using some boys in addition to women for the soprano and alto parts. One of the first things I noticed was how the group was singing with a blended ringing and warm tone, produced with a rounded embouchure and relaxed jaws (slightly down and back). The choral blend was exquisite, yet the Baroque style was not sacrificed in the least. If the singers used occasional straight tone, they did so by using healthy air flow and nasal resonance simultaneously rather than holding a squeeze at the glottis. Bravo to this conductor, who did not fall into choke hold of the Baroque style trap: a false sense of authenticity that can also be a way of justifying bad singing. The truth of the matter is that no one really knows exactly how Baroque singers produced vocal sound. To be sure, these British singers will keep their voices for years to come and the music will be well served because the beauty of tone was not sacrificed for a false concept of Baroque sound. Singing Baroque music with vocal beauty in a contemporary society where most recordings are enhanced makes for a much more enjoyable experience for the audience.
While singing under the teacher I mentioned before, I developed a technique that I also saw employed with the Baroque group #1: a high-larynxed way of singing that shortens a singer's vocal life by at least 15 to 20 years. Personally, I suffered from intonation problems, breath problems, and registration problems as a result of this terrible technique of singing. I was only 22 years of age when my vocal cords simply could not sustain proper pitch any longer. I know of several famous Baroque singers who have dropped out of their career by age 35 to 40 because of high-larynxed singing: a technique which places tremendous pressure directly on the vocal folds. This is NOT healthy or acceptable vocalism. Rather it is vocal abuse to be clear and simple. In addition, it is important to note that high-larynxed singing can only be effective in a live or active acoustic. Otherwise, the audience simply experiences a sound that is quite harsh, unflattering, and often under-pitched. With all of this said, many audiences tolerate this justified sound as authentic. The truth is that any singer who learns an excellent technique can sing any style of music without vocal fatigue or abuse, yet serve the style appropriately.
About 1984, a Baroque soprano in New York developed quite an extensive singing career. In fact she became so popular that it could be challenging to attend an oratorio, early opera, or early music concert without hearing her as a primary soloist or character. This singer's musicianship was tremendous; a tool that many singers lacking a solid vocal technique use to disguise the issue of dancing around vocal difficulties. Sadly, early in her career, she began to sing quite flat and out of tune because of her high-larynxed technique of singing. She looked for any way to disguise the issue of bad technique including lower and lower cut gowns to distract the audience. I remember hearing her sing an entire first half of a concert about 1/4 tone flat. It was indeed shocking to consider how low the musical standards had dropped because of political pressure overriding talent. Of course the destiny of this soprano is typical of most high-larynxed singers. She had to stop singing and abandon her career because she just could not force the voice in tune with breath pressure any longer. When hearing her sing, it was easy to hear the obvious slamming of breath pressure under the larynx to try and force the upper passaggio to tune. She also tried the smile technique which just closes the throat MORE. These techniques did NOT work! Unfortunately, this soprano then went where many ex-singers go when they loose their voice: to teach at a University in order to teach others to loose theirs as well. There is a disease here. It is called "carrying on the generations of vocal abuse instead of breaking the chain". All of this is due to a general lack of awareness in the training of vocal professionals, a problem that has become more and more chronic with younger teachers who have not studied healthy vocal pedagogy deeply and passionately enough.
As stated before, many Baroque singers depend upon their musical training to attempt to get through a performance. True, this training is definitely the core of what makes this music work in the modern world. Last June I was contacted by a professional Baroque soprano who was suffering re-occurring nodules on her vocal cords. She was considering making the decision to quit singing at age 32. This is yet again the same old tragic story: high- larynxed singing until finally the throat muscles just will not sustain pitch any longer. This young lady was and is an incredible musician and was performing a great deal. This, in spite of her need sometimes use cortisone to handle the swelling of the vocal cords. Of course the re-occurring swelling was caused by the high-larynxed singing and wide spread passaggio. Most often, the cords do not approximate properly when the larynx is too high. Therefore, during the act of singing, this causes constant irritation and often leads to nodules or polyps.
This singer traveled to study in my New York studio that same month. What started out as a few lessons turned into 6 weeks of intense lessons and the beginning of her vocal re-alignment process. Within 7 months, she had completely changed her approach to the upper passaggio and her concept of breath and the holding back of breath pressure. Since commuting to New York for lessons, she has now begun to feel the correct sensations of singing properly, instead of listening to her own sound (this causes stress on the throat because the singer usually spreads the tone to create more sound in their inner hearing.). Now this singer is enjoying the act of singing for the first time in her career. She has diminished the breath pressure under the larynx, achieved a lower larynx for singing, learned to resist the outflow of breath pressure in the body, and completely changed her concept of vowel forms from mouth formation to pharyngeal formation. Her reviews are more stunning than ever and she is receiving more and more offers for jobs with large-scale symphonies.
So why is there so little known about the traps and dangers of specializing in the Baroque style of singing? Because many are continuing to teach a high- larynxed technique as the authentic Baroque style. The continuation of vocal abuse and vocal damage is consistent because many never question their own teaching or they simply do not listen. Often, they lack the understanding of the proper passaggio training that creates vocal longevity. As I have said before, no one in reality knows the exact sound of authentic Baroque singing. So my advice to ALL who sing any style of music is to get a good teacher who understands how to teach proper registration, passaggio alignment, and resistance to the breath pressure (support). Longevity is directly connected to vocal health through proper technique.
I go back to the teacher I had during my University training. While he was not a good teacher, he himself sang quite healthily. He did NOT sing with a high larynx. The lightness of sound was naturally present in his voice when his larynx was released. However, his largest fault as an instructor was that he could not hear when a student was 'lightening' the voice by raising the larynx. If this message gets out to the University teachers and conductors NOT to allow their students to sing with a high larynx, then this article was worth the effort and the time to create. High-larynxed singing and vocal health cannot exist in the same singer. (It is important to note that if the tongue assumes the ng position, then the singer cannot develop a depressed larynx, a technique that is unhealthy as well. See article on "Damaging Vocal Techniques".)
(This exercise is designed to begin the alignment of the middle register. The vowels are designed to begin to release the larynx as one goes higher.)
(Again the vowel changes are designed to balance registration and release the larynx in the upper pitches.)
(Perform this exercise dentalizing and flipping the appropriate consonants using the tongue separate from the jaw.)
Perform these three exercises slowly and carefully with the jaw slightly down and back, a sinking of the cheeks at the back molars, and a lift of the cheek muscles under the eyes. (Some call this an inner smile under the eyes.)