Dramatic Voices

Because of the Flagstad connection to this school of vocal training, it is quite common that this voice studio becomes very inviting to larger-voiced or dramatic singers. This has been the case even though the training is equally beneficial to lyrical singers as well. Recently, it has been requested that I write about dramatic voices and the common vocal challenges that they face in preparing for a professional career. It has been my experience that singers who possess dramatic voices often feel they are 'fighting with their voice' for control. Rather than enjoying free and relaxed musical expression, they often feel that they are faced with the daily challenge of how to 'manage' a larger and thicker instrument.

I have tried to consider the most common of problems facing the dramatic singer in this article. I hope to offer some simple solutions to these difficulties. It is important to remember that in speaking with professional singers most of them have had their share of technical issues. This is especially true if a singer's early training did not serve the challenge of possessing a larger instrument. Often in colleges and universities teachers are very fearful of 'pushing' a young singer. This is quite understandable and a bit of careful regard for lyricism in singing is very healthy. However, often a larger-voiced singer suffers from being 'under-sung'. Young singers with large voices often 'squeeze the throat' when told to 'lighten up on the voice'. This is the direct result of trying to achieve a 'lighter sound' or 'high pianissimo' without the technical knowledge of HOW TO DO IT. Often the singer begins to suffer from 'high-larynxed singing'. The result is always counterproductive and it can take years of hard work to recover from a 'squeezed throat' due to this misunderstanding.

Common breath and breath management problems: I have already written articles on breath and breath management, however, in larger voiced singers there is one common problem which comes up most of the time; over-compression of the breath. Often this results from the singer trying desperately to 'support' a rather large instrument. The problem is that these singers tend to over-engage their body to the point of 'stiffening the body muscles'. This creates a tremendous amount of breath compression and the glottis becomes 'over-squeezed' by the 'gag reflex' at the root of the tongue. They are using the body reflex of 'lifting a very heavy amount of weight'. When we lift heavy objects, the glottis is 'slammed shut' in order to compress the breath in the body. This gives us the extra strength to have real 'lifting power'. Unfortunately this does NOT work for healthy singing. The vocal cords have tremendous pressure on them through the depression of the 'root of the tongue'. The lumbar, pectoral, abdominal, and intercostal muscles are so 'over-locked' (I call this locking the body open), that a free breath line cannot travel through the larynx. The result is a tremendous 'push of breath pressure' in order to force phonation at the vocal cords. This situation not only creates a pushed and unpleasant sound, but it is also dangerous to the vocal cords themselves. Too much pressure at the glottis can result in direct vocal damage. It is true that most dramatic-voiced singers have such strong cords that they can often sing for a long time before the damage actually occurs. I will give you an example of a Danish Heldentenor that I taught for a bout a year. I can only describe his voice as a 'huge wall of sound' which came at you like a tidal wave. Not only was he 'over-supporting' and tight with the support muscles, but he also was so strong that he could literally scream for hours at a time without becoming 'hoarse'. The sound was extremely unmusical because this condition of 'over-support' makes phrasing in the music impossible. These singers can only sing loud or louder. There is no ability to sing soft or crescendo or decrescendo; all basic tools necessary in order to sing musically.

Another chronic problem with singers who 'over-breath' and 'over-support' is what I call 'building up old air in the lungs'. By the end of a dramatic piece of music, the singer has the feeling that they are 'choking on old air in the lungs'. Many cannot make it though a dramatic piece of music because the cords become 'over-locked' to the point that the singer just has to stop singing. The body 'stacks up old air pressure' to the point that phonation becomes impossible.

Solutions: There are a couple of solutions to this very major problem with dramatic voices.

(1) Have the singer take much less air, but take it low in the body. This will keep the body from 'over-extending' outward. It will also discourage the body from becoming 'locked open'. The rib cage can be gently suspended without the intercostals becoming 'locked'.

(2) Use the Caruso 'cough-off' in vocalization. (The rib cage MUST be allowed to collapse quickly along with the lower body muscles: re-expansion is automatic.) After each phrase, have the singer silently 'cough-off' the old air left in the lungs. YES, this is simply a cough reflex in the body. With practice, this reflex action will become quick and automatic. The feeling of 'over-locking' the body will disappear with slow and then fast practice of this function.

The question of achieving lyricism in a dramatic voice: It is obvious that the 'over-support' of the voice causes an inability to phrase musically. The problem of 'over-compression' of the breath must be overcome first before there is any possibility for lyrical singing. Lyricism in any voice is crucial, however, it must be done on balanced body support (muscles which can 'flex elastically' without rigidity). When I studied with Alan Lindquest, he wrapped me in an elastic rib brace around the waist area. This was a great tool to help me feel 'elastic support' without rigidity. I could feel the muscles gently flex outward to support my sound. This 'elastic support' offers the singer many choices of dynamic levels, plus the ability to crescendo and decrescendo. (See articles on breath and breath management.) Another cause of too much breath pressure is a 'depressed tongue' position. The singer cannot get to lyricism if the tongue is flat. The tongue needs to assume the 'ng' position with the tip in the lower part of the gum line. This takes the pressure off the vocal cords and allows for free phonation.

Solutions: I suggest that dramatic singers use several ideas in order to achieve lyricism in the voice. (1) Purchase a rib brace so that the body muscles can find an 'elastic function' rather than become rigid in singing. (2) Use exercises that use the Italian 'a' in the lower register to 'o' in the middle register to 'u' in the upper register. Work on this type of exercise while creating a decrescendo on the ascending scale or arpeggio. Lean 'forward' so the soft sound will connect to the body. (See apoggio.) (3) Use lots of tiny 'u' sounds in the middle register to achieve access to the 'thin edges' of the cords. Staccato exercises using the closed vowels such as 'eh' or 'ee' will help in achieving a connection to the thinner edges of the cords. If the pitch varies too much, keep imagining the 'thinnest point of the vocal cords'. (4) Use 'ng' exercises to train the proper tongue position for singing. Crescendo and decrescendo on the 'ng' while imaging air traveling through the nasal port.

Common jaw/tongue problems in dramatic singers: The jaw/tongue relationship becomes 'overly connected' together when a great amount of breath pressure is present in the body. I call this pronouncing in the 'puppet' function. The singer cannot achieve proper separation of the tongue/jaw. The result is a lack of legato line, inability to properly sing Italian consonants, and a lack of healthy release of the 'tiny stream of air' through the larynx. If the tongue and jaw are 'locked together' in function, the root of the tongue is locking the breath i.e. the 'gag reflex'.

Solutions: There are a few ideas that I use when a singer comes in with this kind of disorder. (1) Have the singer blow out most of his/her air and then sing a short line of music. The lack of breath pressure will allow the 'gag reflex' at the root of the tongue to release. (2) Use exercises that separate the tongue from the jaw; i.e. the Italian word 'dentale' on a 1, 3, 5, 3, 1 arpeggio. (Be sure the jaw is slightly DOWN AND BACK in position.) Have the singer watch in a mirror to be sure that the tongue flips up against the hard palate behind the upper teeth when pronouncing the d, nt, and l. This will begin the process of 'breaking the lock' between the tongue and jaw. (Remember that the jaw is almost still without being 'locked' in proper function of language.) If the singer is not allowed to take much air, then he/she will experience a 'healthy flow or air through the larynx'. (3) Use vowel exercises going from closed vowel to open vowel only allowing the tongue to make the vowel change; i.e. 'ee, oh, ee, oh, ee, oh, etc. I also find 'eh, ah, eh, ah, eh, ah,' to be helpful.

Pushing up too much of the chest register into the middle voice range: It is most common that because a singer possessing a dramatic voice is often strong in body, then he/she can push up too much chest register into the middle voice. This is a VERY common problem and I have found that few can hear it because many 'dramatic voices' can sound beautiful even while pushing the chest register too high. The Italians called this 'voce aperto' or 'spread voice'. The vowels are too spread throughout the middle register for the singer to achieve a release into the proper amount of 'head voice'. (See article on 'middle register'.) This can be a damaging situation to be sure. Many dramatic singers take so much chest so high that they then have to make a sudden adjustment to force the voice to go up. Some call this a 'sudden cover'. I call it desperation when it feels that nothing is going to come out.

Solutions: (1) Vocalize the voice from the upper register downward. (2) Make sure the larynx is down for the middle register without 'pushing it down with the root of the tongue. (3) Work with vowels which 'invite' head voice to come into the voice earlier, i.e. the Italian 'u' or 'o'. (4) Be sure to vocalize the 'ng' as home base for the tongue position. A depressed tongue position will NOT allow head voice to come into the instrument.

The Psychological Component: I have taught dramatic voiced singers for over 25 years. One subject that cannot be overlooked is the psychological component which either makes a singer 'free or tight' in their vocal production. Many singers sing 'powerfully all the time' because they feel 'powerless' emotionally.

I had a friend who sang with Kirsten Flagstad in 1939 at the Cincinnati May Festival. My friend was 23 years of age and singing 'Flying Dutchman', which I believe to be too young. However, at one point in rehearsal, Flagstad turned to her and said, "Remember dear, we 'large-voice' singers tend to sing loud all the time and we are the ones who do NOT have to." I have used this quote many times with dramatic singers. It is important that all of us embrace our 'lighter mechanism' as Vennard calls it. We all need to embrace the thin edges of the vocal cords in order to have longevity. This is part of the secret of Flagstad's training and ensuing long career.

Early Psychological Trap: I remember that when I was about 14 years of age there was a young girl in the alto section of the school choir who had a beautiful sound. Although only about 14 years of age herself, her voice had developed quite early. The choral director often commented to the entire choir on what a 'big voice' she had. This is THE EARLY PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAP. From that point this young girl began to 'push too much breath pressure' through her voice. She began to develop vocal problems because she thought she had to 'prove' that she had a large voice all the time. I believe that larger voices should not be 'undersung', however, everyone needs to learn to sing soft in relation to the size of his/her instrument. A dramatic singer may not have the 'pianissimo' of a lyric soprano, however, a balance is quite necessary for all singers.

Final Thought: Self-analysis is always important for any singer. Here are a few questions that I suggest singers use.

(1) Why do I sing? Is it because I want to sing or because someone told me I had a wonderful voice?

(2) What inspires me to sing?

(3) What is my own vocal image of my own voice?

(4) Am I an aggressive or a passive personality and how does that effect my singing?

(5) What is my own 'inner concept' of singing and how do I reference that to musicianship?

I cannot answer these questions for each individual; however, it is crucial that a singer realize that if they are a dramatic voice, they also need to embrace ALL aspects of musical singing. What happens between the notation is as important as correct notes and rhythms. In a competitive field such as professional singing, each person must find their deepest musicality.

(c) David L. Jones/2000

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