Vocal Acoustics in the Theater

Why study vocal acoustics in the theater? Why is it important to practice singing in a larger space? Many singers sound very "big" in the studio; however, on stage the situation can be different. True resonance is often overlooked in the studio because a singer can get away without the "open throat" which creates "ring" in the voice.

It has been my experience that in certain circumstances some "smaller-voiced" singers can sound "larger in the theater" than the "larger-voiced" singers. How could this be and what can be done to correct this vocal defect? When Kirsten Flagstad first sang an audition at the Metropolitan Opera in 1935, it was questionable as to whether or not she would have her services employed. Her voice sounded ugly in a small room. It was not until she was given an "on stage" audition, that the staff could hear the actual beauty of her voice. The story is that all the cleaning staff came into to the Old Metropolitan Opera Stage area when they heard the special warmth and resonance of FlagstadÕs voice. When a singer creates true "resonance" in a smaller room, the voice can sound harsh and unattractive. (This is not to say the voice should ever be "placed" frontally without proper acoustical space in the pharynx.) However, when one sings with this sound in the theater, the space welcomes the high overtones and the greatness of the vocal sound can be realized.

These high overtones are achieved with the Flagstad "ng" accompanied by the "open pharynx". Dr. BrattÕs "ahning" exercise is useful in helping to create this acoustical element. However, most of the time, when a singer comes into my studio, the pharynx is too closed for true "ring" to occur within their vocal production. The singer is producing sound with what I call "mouth vowels" or a "closed throat". True correct vocal production occurs when a singer uses pharyngeal space, mouth space, and nasal resonance or the "ng". This combination creates the beauty and power of the voice without pushing through the cords with too much breath pressure. Alan Lindquest used to say to me, "You are pushing too much wild air through your cords". Of course, one has to achieve an open body to stop "pushing" the voice, and I did not have that important mind-body connection. I was 28 years old and he was 90 years old at the time of my study with him, and he could vocalize somewhat better than I could. When I later found my "body-connection" I could then realize the importance of this factor of singing. (See articles on breath and breath management.)

had a first-hand experience with vocal acoustics in Berlin in l989; three days after the Berlin Wall came down. Eleven of my singers were singing at Philharmonie Hall, and after the concert the conductor of the Hanover Opera came up to me. He asked, "Which were the large voices and which were the small voices?" It was true that all the singers carried equally well in the theater. His next statement was that they must all "come from the same school of training". I understand his statement. It was easy to hear that the singers sang with both "space and ring" simultaneously. There was a consistency in their sound and each singer kept his/her individual vocal quality as well.

In addition to the concepts discussed heretofore, it seems only appropriate to mention the alteration of the vowels. When I studied with Alan Lindquest, he would tell me to "round and darken the vowels" toward the passaggio. I now understand that he was trying to help me to achieve an "open throated ring" accompanied with "color" in my voice. When a singer hears his/her own voice too well, the production is incorrect or "too spread". However, this sound may be familiar to the singerÕs vocal history and may sound beautiful to them. What is beautiful to us in our "inside hearing", is usually not beautiful to the audience. The production is often thin and colorless if the "mouth opening" is too "spread". This is why we must learn to sing by feel and not sound. It is important that any rounding or darkening or the vowels is done only with space and not tongue depression. If the tongue assumes the "ng" position with the tongue tip at the gum-line, "ring" will occur in the voice. The vowels will alter on their own when the throat space is kept the same on the way up an ascending scale and through the passaggio. I find that there are two ways to train the singerÕs open throat, (1) through alteration of the vowels which creates the opening in the back of the throat, and (2) by constantly reminding the singer of the pharyngeal space in the back of the throat. Usually one of these two approaches will help the singer to realize the "open throated" feeling.

Another major factor which effects vocal acoustics in the theatre is the "shape of the mouth opening". The corners of the mouth must form a "rounded opening"; otherwise a "spread tone" will occur. Most excellent classical singers use a "rounded embouchure" which creates more acoustical space in the "pharyngeal chamber". These singers will "open wider" only when above the staff in the highest register. One can observe this especially in the videos of BjoerlingÕs singing. He never spreads his mouth position until in the highest register and the result is a "rounded tonal quality" with much control. A "spread production" creates "shrillness" in a voice. A "rounded tone" will create authentic color and resonance simultaneously. However, this resonance may sound "too sharp" to the singerÕs inner hearing. We simply cannot hear our own sound and we must learn the correct "feel" for singing.

In 1993, I held a master class on "vocal acoustics in the theatre" at Lincoln Center in New York. I had each singer deliberately "spread their embouchure" to make their sound "bright". The result sounded wonderful to the singer, however, it did not carry in the theatre. Then I had each singer "round the embouchure". The result was that they did not get much of their own sound, however, the audience was enjoying a "ringing" sound which carried much larger in the house. This experiment received a major reaction from the participating audience. The voices sounded "twice as big" using the rounded mouth position than the "spread" mouth position. I taught the "rounded position" in conjunction with the "ng" tongue position. This creates "pure resonance" which can sound "harsh" in a small studio. This "ringing sound" is a direct result of the "open pharynx" along with the "ng" tongue position.

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