Singing Dramatically without Pushing the Voice

I have often observed in concert and opera that two extremes exist in the world of singing performance. (1) Those singers who are exciting and passionate about the music and (2) those singers who sing with great technical accomplishment. It is a rare and wonderful moment when both passion and technique blend within the vocal experience. When it does happen, the audience knows it immediately; even if only on a sub-conscious level.

Why are there such extremes in singing? This is not because there is a shortage of talented singers. We are constantly reminded that the singing world is very competitive. It seems that more and more people want to sing and many of them pursue a singing career. Few, however, learn to achieve a performing level, which is emotionally touching, and technically exciting. My personal belief is that with a performance that marries both emotion (communication skills) and technique (good physical execution of the act of singing) comes a truly memorable musical experience.

The missing link: Often as a vocal professional I have been asked the question, "what makes an exciting performance?" We know that a singer must have an emotional connection to the text and must be able to mirror the meaning behind the text to the audience. Many singers today take acting classes in order to polish their ability to mirror text in a realistic and believable manner. I certainly leave that training to the acting teacher. After seeing such positive results in some of my singers, I often recommend acting study as a part of their professional development.

The Technical Factor: Allow me to speak about my expertise in helping singers to "allow their communication skills to come through". The major question is how does a singer express dramatically in the text without "blowing out the cords", which so often happens. It took several years for me to coordinate the support system of this technique and to truly understand the details involved. I remember teaching a Baritone several years ago who was a wonderful actor on stage; handsome, engaging, and professional. However he suffered vocal fatigue after performing in opera or concert. In the studio, he could sing beautifully without any sign of vocal strain or fatigue. Something happened to him when he performed for an audience; he "pushed his voice".

What is "pushing the voice"? We hear the term over and over and seldom do we hear an explanation. "Pushing the voice" is when a singer pushes too much breath pressure through the larynx. The result is vocal fatigue through "over-blowing the cords". As Caruso said, "we need very little air to sing" and he was right. (See articles on breath and breathe management.) Men are especially strong in their upper body and often they use too much of this strength which "over-compresses" the breath. The result is a "blowing out of the vocal cords". The soft palate usually drops and you have a situation which some call "barking".

Solution: After observing this particular Baritone for a period, I discovered that he sang dramatically by "pushing too much breath at the consonants". This meant that he was constantly "blowing out the cords" to be dramatic in the text. This was especially present in recitative. Kirsten Flagstad said that she sang from her back muscles to the ring in her voice. She felt as though she had no throat. Notice in this rehearsal photo with Edwin McArthur, Flagstad is leaning forward (Italian appaggio) with the back rib cage open.) When singing dramatically, the back muscles must "bounce outward" at the consonants as in a laugh reflex. This is especially true in recitative or accented notes. The back muscles "hold back the breath pressure" in order for the singer to express dramatically without "pushing" or "over-blowing the cords". I learned this concept after much analysis of different singers. I found that often the most dramatically talented singers "pushed" their voices more often. Part of this is a result of oneีs "performing energy" or "personality". Their "dramatic reflex" is not connected to the back muscles. If one "feels the lumbars" as a singer is performing dramatically in a correct way, the muscles will "bounce" at the consonants or accented notes of the phrase. We must remember that in "pure legato singing" that the back muscles "resist the breath pressure" in a smooth and consistent way without this "bouncing action". The vocal cords can only take so much pressure before vocal fatigue comes into play. Vocal longevity is dependent upon healthy, intelligent singing. Correct "body connection" is a must in order for this craft to develop in the singer. A singer must learn the natural "body response" in "dramatic passages" as well as "pure legato passages". Drama does not have to sabotage technique. The two can work together to form a professional musical performance.

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