On my last European teaching tour, I had the opportunity to go to Berlin where, among other young singers, I taught a young dramatic soprano at a critical point in her career. Her voice was beginning to grow and mature yet she did not have the technical tools to vocalize or exercise the voice properly. This young singer was at the peak of her artistic development and she was singing professionally in an A house in Germany. Because her voice was beginning to grow at age 37, she was being encouraged to sing heavier repertoire and was also being pressured to include Wagnerian roles in her upcoming performances. I can only say that this is absolutely THE critical time for a career singer.
When sudden vocal changes occur, these singers often do not have the vocal tools to align the voice on a daily basis. If technical inconsistency develops in the voice, the singer's confidence level lowers considerably and they are faced with the possibility of loosing their career. What vocal issues typically arise for the young dramatic soprano? Why is so little written about the healthy training of such a vocal fach? What are the vocal principals that help these singers find vocal health and establish a productive daily vocal routine? All these questions are extremely important. Answering these questions can make the difference in a career that blooms and grows, or a career that begins to deteriorate or fail completely. In this article, vocal concepts will be shared that can be used as vital information for the maturing dramatic soprano.
When Kirsten Flagstad first went to study with Dr. Gillis Bratt in 1916 in Stockholm, she was suffering from under-singing her voice. Using a breathy tonal production and inadequate space in her throat, she had not yet become aware that she was in vocal trouble. The main reason that she was not aware of such problems was because she had already experienced a great deal of success in singing lighter repertoire. Dr. Bratt placed her on some specific and important exercises that helped to create the basis of her vocal health and longevity. Similarly when I met Alan Lindquest in 1979, it was quickly discovered that I was suffering from the same chronic problems as Flagstad, yet I had experienced some career success. During my study with him, he offered the basis of these concepts to me in order to re-establish my vocal health and to teach the concepts of the Swedish/Italian School. Since that time these exercises have helped every singer who has come to my studios experiencing similar vocal difficulties. What was Flagstad's main problem? Dr. Bratt stated that it was "chronic leaking of breath through the vocal cords that led to throaty and non-resonant singing". Some people call this type of production "singing off the body support". Flagstad began to study with Dr. Bratt twice per week. However, it is important to note that the "leaking of the vocal cords" did not address all the vocal issues that plagued Kirsten Flagstad.
Typical Vocal Problems
What are the typical vocal difficulties that arise for the maturing dramatic soprano and how can they be addressed? Most of the time, I receive letters from singers describing in detail their vocal issues. In my almost 30 years of experience, I find that young dramatic sopranos often suffer from confusion regarding breath and support which can lead to a shaking jaw and tongue, vibrato problems (i.e. vocal wobble or tremolo), intonation problems, stamina issues, and imbalance in registration. Very often the jaw extends forward closing the pharyngeal space and making it more challenging to find the smaller core of the instrument without a squeeze of the throat. Another most critical problem is the loss of control of dynamics. Often the negative result of these vocal problems leads to unmusical singing; a painful experience for any singer who is a fine musician yet cannot express musicality. The loss of dynamics is directly related to an over-compression of breath pressure. When the jaw thrusts forward the tongue-root begins to form the gag reflex creating pressure directly on the vocal folds and making it impossible to create a healthy flow of air through the larynx. Usually this is accompanied by a tense thrusting forward of the lower abdominal muscles. If the chest is open, along with the back rib cage, these muscles will move slowly in and up with exhalation during a musical phrase of a song or aria. It might be noted that this is a natural result of what Flagstad called "the tall spine".
Case Study: Beginning the Realignment Process:
In this case study, the young dramatic soprano had lost her sensation of the narrow ring in both upper and lower passaggios. The primary cause of this vocal dysfunction was the thrusting forward of the jaw which led to a loss of the smaller core of ring in her voice. This is a fear provoking experience because loss of control is almost immediate. The voice begins to feel wide open (voce aperto) which leads to a breathiness of tone, loss of support, and therefore loss of dynamic change. Her mouth opening was much too wide (East-West) and the singer was experiencing a sense that the voice was large and out of control, even though it was smaller due to the loss of ring in the voice. She also experienced little breath control over longer phrases, making public singing a stage fright experience. The emotional stress of singing in a larger opera house on a daily basis with little knowledge of how to vocalize the voice into alignment creates a terrible insecurity. Alan Lindquest once said that "security in singing results from the daily training of the throat muscles in a healthy function so that the reflexive aspect of singing becomes automatic. Then and only then can a singer feel confident on stage". Several years ago, I heard Birgit Nilsson present a master class at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. She was working with a now famous young dramatic soprano. I remember that she said, "remember you get your relaxed big sound from your relaxed small sound or the small shine of the voice". This is the exact basis of the Flagstad ng training. If accompanied by an open throat, this function will keep the dramatic soprano voice healthy. The biggest key for long term vocal health is to learn to find the small core of the voice without a closed throat space: two opposites that work together to create a healthy coordination of the voice.
Vocal Exercise: So the next question might be, "How did the realignment process occur in just a few hours of training?" The answer to this question is that the singer was very intelligent (as most professional singers) and really ready for the information. Also, she could hear exactly what I offered and assimilate it almost immediately. This young singer happens to be extremely intelligent and every concept was welcomed and integrated quickly. Her husband had found my web site and encouraged her to travel to Berlin to study. First, we worked to align the head posture so that the ears were more directly over the shoulder area. This helps to open the back of the pharynx. The singer was suffering from a wide open, yet breathy tone caused by the dropping of the rib cage and little or no resistance under the sternum. After hearing just a couple of exercises I realized that this singer was listening for sound rather than depending upon sensations: a typical mistake among most singers. Later in the session, when she sang with proper sensations, she could not hear her own sound. (See article on Vocal Acoustics in the Theatre.) Singers in this symposium in Berlin observed each other's lessons. At one point she asked, "Is anything coming out?" The room was filled with laughter. As in Flagstad's account, the voice became literally twice its former size.
Step #1: Integration of the NG: The first part of the training was to begin the control of the tongue, therefore beginning the acoustical phenomena of establishing the narrow ring. This process was achieved with the use of the Flagstad ng exercise. I used a different form of it on an arpeggio so that the singer could experience the perfect registration balance or what some call dropping the weight in the voice while ascending WITHOUT disconnecting from the body. Immediately the singer felt the narrow ring that is the actual training of the passaggios. She began to experience breath control immediately because a singer cannot over-blow the vocal cords while using the ng. It is one of the most useful tools in achieving the perfect adduction of the vocal cords without over-blowing or over-squeezing the cords. (The root of the tongue must be wide and not bunched for this sound and the sides of the tongue should touch the inside upper teeth.) Also, the singer began to experience the narrow ring throughout the different registers. I used this exercise throughout the entire vocal range. True, she was also on the lighter side of dramatic soprano so she could use the ng higher with more comfort than one possessing a thicker dramatic soprano voice. This was a great vocal benefit and it also began to train the softer dynamic without loss of body connection.
Step #2: Realignment of the lower passaggio: The next step was to work the lower passaggio with a narrower embouchure and a more closed mouth position in order to keep the upper overtones in the middle register. This began the process of keeping the expanded Italian u in the pharynx. The singer's largest original complaint was the lack of vocal cord approximation in the a vowel in the middle voice (low head voice). Working slowly with the corners of the mouth rounding slightly inward and a sinking of the cheeks at the back molars, the singer began to feel the ng ring integrate into the a vowel, a challenge for most singers. This was achieved by working the small u and the ng on a descending 5-tone scale. As the ring began to integrate into the foundation of the vowel, the singer began to feel a healthy ng resistance in the middle register. Part of this resistance was achieved using the slight tension at the sides of the nostrils or a pre-sneeze feeling. The ng resistance creates a sense of singing through the cheek-bones as opposed to just singing straight out the mouth space (a primary cause of over-blowing). Every singer needs some of this ng resistance throughout the registers. Otherwise throaty and pushed singing will result because of a lack of the healthy adduction of the vocal cords.
Step #3: The Body Hook-up: Flagstad once said that when her body was "hooked up" under her voice, she felt that her voice was inside her body. Singing was no longer an external feeling of pushing her voice out of her body. She called this her "hook-up" or sense that the body and the voice became one identity. There are several ways to teach this concept which engages the lower lubar muscles, the intercostal muscles, and the pectoral muscles in order to hold back the breath pressure. With this young singer, we first tried to work toward achieving a connection to the back muscles using the wall. It began an awakening of the lumbars, but it did not create the fullest result. We all identify slightly differently with our body focal points, therefore teachers need at least 4 or 5 ways to teach each concept. We then went on to the tall rib cage. The result was good, but not complete. Finally, we worked on a slight resistance under the sternum and the entire body began to support the voice beautifully. This was the critical point of resistance in the body that this singer needed to fully feel her body under her voice. The support was complete and the sound was extremely exciting, yet not pushed. We worked on feeling a resistance straight forward under the sternum. (Never teach this concept with the sternum moving too far upward. This collapses the back rig cage.)
Step #4: Application of Technique to Repertoire: Since the singer had a performance the next evening, her question was how to apply these quick results into the music. The answer was quite simple for her. We simply applied the concept of the ng to each line of text. In this singer's case, the alignment of registration, vowels, and acoustics happened all at one time. This made the process very exciting for the singer. At one point, there was a question regarding the high notes, which was answered using the Italian Tiger or lifting of the upper lip and uncovering the upper teeth for the highest notes. We worked on this without spreading the mouth too much. This created a lift of the soft palate away from the back of the tongue. Use of the French nasal concept opened the higher overtones and unlocked the back of the tongue as well, making it easier to achieve the high notes without the old breath-pressure habit. Finally, after establishing the 'ng' securely, we were able to integrate the pharyngeal 'u' vowel as a basis of healthy acoustical space, establishing a solid foundation of consistent throat space for the singer.
Final Thought: Flagstad called the ng the "silver thread that was the soul of her voice". Dr. Bratt guided her on this exercise so that an open throat accompanied this sound. Remember that this sound can easily be used on a closed throat and can therefore create vocal problems. While using the ng, every singer needs to accomplish an open acoustical space so that the singer is working ring and space simultaneously. Remember NEVER to use the 'ng' with a closed throat.
Concepts described in this article can be found on the instructional CD, "An Introductory Lesson with David Jones," available for purchase on the home page.
(c) David L. Jones/2003
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