The Adam’s Apple “Ah Ha!”

One of the big “ah ha” moments I had last year had to do with the differences and surprising similarities between male and female voices.

Some background. I first became interested in vocal pedagogy around 2006 when I picked up Vennard’s Singing: The Mechanism and the Technic and Coffin’s Sounds of Singing. Coffin’s ideas especially captivated me: I was hooked on his idea that choosing the proper vowel based on sympathetic frequencies could fix vocal problems. Naturally, I still am.

His “vowel chart” that accompanied the book could be placed over the piano keyboard. By doing this, someone could determine how to track different vowel types throughout their voice, pitch by pitch. One could shift the chart higher or lower by half steps depending on voice type, and then try to modify your vowels to those recommended on the chart.

One puzzling aspect was this: it was the same progression no matter your sex. It didn’t matter if a note was high or low in your voice, the sympathetic frequencies were nearly the same. So F4 – for example – would have similar vowel recommendations no matter your voice type. Not exactly, mind you, but pretty close.

This confused me, but I let it sit for several years.

Then in early 2012 while I was preparing for a lecture on the maturing male voice that I was giving in Albuquerque, I found the answer in Titze’s Principles of voice production, which I’ll summarize1:

  • The male vocal fold grows disproportionately to the rest of the body. We see this as the Adam’s Apple, and the result is on average vocal folds in men that are 1.6 times as long as adult female’s.
  • The vocal tract grows proportionately, and since there’s only a 10% to 15% difference on average between the sizes of men and women, that translates to minimal difference the resulting vocal tract acoustics.
  • The shape of the male vocal fold is different The shape becomes much more wedge-like in puberty, and more of the fold comes into contact during phonation leading to stronger spectrum of overtones. We perceive this as “chest voice”.

Titze points out the paradox by likening voice types to string instruments: there is no way to have a equivalence between adult voice types and string instruments when both resonator space and vibrating string length differences are compared.2

This blew my mind.

One imperfect way to visualize it is this: there is one “human voice” acoustically speaking, and men and women occupy different sections of it. Ok, to make that idea slightly more complicated, that “one human voice” can shift up and down depending on the size of vocal tracts, and women can have similarly sized vocal tracts as men.

There could be several practical consequences of this (and these are my thoughts):

  1. The acoustics between men’s and women’s voices are more similar from an absolute pitch standpoint than is intuitive. This means that a woman’s middle voice is acoustically similar to a man’s high range. Both – when properly done within a classical setting – transition to second formant tuning at similar pitches. Women just continue the tracking to much higher pitches and return to first formant tuning.
  2. The difference between falsetto and modal voice will tend to be much more drastic in male voices due to the wedge shape of the vocal fold. Women’s voices will glide in and out of falsetto-like tones with less apparent break, because the fold is already in a thinner mode than men’s just by design.3
  3. Wherever second formant tuning happens is likely to be the place that requires the most work. In men, that’s the high range. For women, that’s the middle voice. In my experience, these are the hardest areas for beginning classical singers.

To give an example: a tenor and a soprano who are similarly sized and have similarly-sized vocal-tracts will have nearly identical resonances (flips, breaks, whatever), but the tenor’s voice will occupy a lower part of that resonance space than the higher-pitched soprano. At the same pitch while he is in chest voice, his voice will tend to be richer in strong overtones due to the shape of the vocal fold. Due to the stark contrast between modal and falsetto in his voice, he will remain in a chesty production while she can flip into something lighter more easily and gracefully. Both will initially in their training have challenges around F#4 or G4 finding second formant tuning. His high range will have a upper limit similar to a woman who belts (around C5), unless he sings in the style of a counter tenor and thins the vocal fold similar to the soprano.

There are other practical results, and there are always exceptions, but you get the idea.

—————

1 I don’t live near a library anymore that has the book (it’s wicked expensive in Germany too), or else I’d just quote it directly.
2 String instruments adjust both resonators and string lengths proportionately, but we humans can’t do that. He uses the cute illustration of a tall man holding a bass, a woman a cello, a child a viola and a baby with a violin.
3 This is a tendency, by the way: counter-tenors exist as do chest-voice dominant women (belters).

Theory of Villains: 4 Traits

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Last week, I had a fun discussion with some friends on Facebook about what makes a good villain. After reading the feedback I went away with some new and specific ideas.

I now have a Theory of Villains ver. 1.0.

The context: I’m playing Jigger Craigin in Carousel with the Las Cruces Symphony. He is a villain, and I’m hoping he has the traits of being a good villain, but I didn’t have a clear idea of what that meant.

First, it’s important to answer this question: what is a villain?

This seems intuitive, but it took me some time. Here’s the best I can approximate: a villain is a character who is motivated to make an overriding choice to destroy or otherwise harm another major character or characters and acts on that choice.

It’s that simple and that specific. As a list:

  1. Character
  2. Motivation
  3. Choice to do harm for duration of plot (super objective)
  4. Action

Must there be a villain?

No. We can all list beloved fictional works that have no villain but instead have characters making choices that lead to the harm of another character. Life is full of people who hurt others without intentional malice but just out of some weakness or accident. So theater, opera, film and literature are full of those characters.

But we all – probably – know someone who truly does harm other people intentionally. So theater, opera, film and literature are full of those people as well.

The Character

A villain has to be a character. It can’t be an idea (society, disease, existence, etc.). If the goal is social criticism then there must be some personification of that.

For example, in The Fountainhead it’s clear that Ayn Rand has a beef with society at large. But she focuses the worst traits into the character of Ellsworth Toohey. Whether you agree with Rand’s worldview or not, Toohey is effective as a villain because he can show us directly what traits Rand finds so repulsive. 

Another instance is Abigail in The Crucible. While the play is obvious social commentary, Abigail exploits the society’s flaws for her malicious ends.

The Motivation

The villain will feel justified in his/her own mind to act the way he/she does, and sometimes that motivation can be awful enough that the audience sympathizes to a point. There’s plenty of tragedy in the lives of villains.

In the original Facebook discussion, some people answering my question emphasized the need to sympathize with the villain. This can even go so far as to turn the villain himself into a tragic character. While this isn’t always necessary, it does make some heroes their own villain and expands the definition of a villain.

But often, the motivation won’t inspire sympathy in the audience. Sometimes it’s childish envy or overblown self pity. Sometimes the villain is a psychopath, and their motivation is incomprehensible. For example, Heath Ledger’s Joker may have some tragic past, but he uses it to confuse his victims like a cuttlefish doing its pre-strike glow, rather than providing some actual backstory.

Nevertheless, the villain is always justified to himself.

The Choice to Harm

Their reaction to their motivation goes too far. They become obsessed, and they make a choice to hurt someone deliberately.

Agency

A villain has agency, that is, the ability to choose. The primary example might be Iago from Othello. Why? He chooses to hurt Othello and as many of Othello’s closest loved ones as possible.

Another example is Khan from Star Trek II. His overruling purpose is to hurt or kill Kirk and everyone on the Enterprise. Khan is willing to sacrifice his entire – albeit small – society and family in the name of revenge. It’s a choice. His line “And I wish to go on … hurting you” – before Kirk’s infamous “Khaaaaaan!” – is the telltale sign that he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Monsters Aren’t Villains

A villain is different from a monster. For examples, I don’t believe that the Terminator or King Kong are villains.

Monsters don’t make choices, they do what’s in their nature or they act out of incomplete and confused information. The Terminators were instructed by the intelligent Skynet to act, and – being computers – they acted. King Kong is so large that – especially in an unnatural environment – he can’t help but destroy things.

A more challenging case exists for Frankenstein’s monster. The monster could be called a villain since it does gain some measure of self-awareness and chooses to hurt Frankenstein in various ways. These choices are clearly motivated but are obsessive and overblown.

And yet, the monster can be perceived as an overgrown child, and we have a hard time ascribing the same level of responsibility to a child as to an adult. Absent his enormous body, he wouldn’t be able to harm in the same way, and it can be argued that it was created to harm: what else could a hideous 8 foot tall man with the maturity of a child who was rejected at birth do but hurt people intentionally or otherwise?

It’s a more grey area, but I still come down on the side of Frankenstein’s monster not being a villain.

Action

The villain acts and propels the plot by forcing reactions.

The Best Action?

Ask yourself these questions:

Why is Darth Vader so frightening? How does Hagen defeat Siegfried? How does Scarpia convince Tosca? What does the Ring (in LOTR and the Ring Cycle) inspire its owners to do? How does J. R. Ewing get people to do what he wants? How does Iago convince Othello to murder his wife?  Why does Khan put worms into people’s ears? How does Lady Macbeth convince her husband to kill? Which of Voldemort’s powers does Harry fear the most in the final three books?

Mind control. You could also call it manipulation, but I like mind control because it cuts to the core of what the villain is doing. In supernatural villains, this might involve some form of magic that forces a character to act a certain way. Non-superpowered humans are con artists who play on human failings to steer someone down a dangerous path. Sometimes it’s a mixture of both.

The goal is to make other people do the villain’s work for them. At the very least the protagonist must feel like they cannot fully trust themselves or those around them. At the worst, the protagonist makes a choice that advances the villain’s goal.

Back to Iago: he’s a con artist of the highest order. He uses no violence on his own behalf but instead persuades his victims to attack one another. He is not only sincere but is amongst the most trusted of Othello’s inner circle. “Honest Iago” and all that.

Here he is contemplating his con:

The best villains are often extremely charming, which assists the con. J.R. Ewing in Dallas is charming even as he delivers insults or ruins someone’s life. Many villains have lots of sex appeal as a part of their technique. Jarreth the Goblin King (David Bowie) in Labyrinth is this kind of villain. His sex appeal works against and confuses the protagonist even while it fascinates the audience. This heightens the danger because the girl is clearly an inappropriate target for a man his age.

Check him out in this video, which my girlfriend claims has seduced many female viewers:

The prevalent use of mind control by villains fascinates me. It’s very human to fear our own minds. We’re not particularly strong animals, and our minds are our greatest asset. A good villain must make our strengths work against us.

To reiterate: charm, sincerity, sex appeal and all that are techniques the villain uses to control the audience’s and the other character’s perceptions of them. They are trying to fool everyone. As Leslie responded on Facebook:

“I’ve known a few real life con artists and their strongest characteristic is sincerity… Con artists don’t “fake” sincerity. They seem to have a little glitch in their thinking pattern that causes them to actually believe their own fiction.”

If you love a villain, then they have fooled you and controlled your opinion of them. Which is fine for the audience. Who doesn’t love a charming villain?

Good Villains Raise the Stakes

Now that we know what a villain is, how can we identify a good villain? Raise the stakes:

  1. Character ——> More interesting given circumstances, more unusual character
  2. Motivation —–> Greater hurt suffered by villain
  3. Choice to harm —–> Bigger choice in higher risk situations, dirty (betrayal, corruption)
  4. Action —–> More effective, more capable character (mind control/manipulation, intellect, social power, wealth, magic, physical strength), reasonable chance of success (Iago is a better villain than Don John in Much Ado About Nothing partially because he’s much more effective)

Let’s Get Dangerous

This is ver 1.0, so any other thoughts are welcome (even if you just want to let me know your favorite villains). But this has already helped me clarify my choices during this rehearsal process, and I hope it will help someone else when they play a villain.

Passaggio Tips III: Exercises

Straws, metronome, mirror and Messiah

In this post, I’ll give you a few exercises for working out your passaggio. It’s not easy, but it can be done with some patience.

Glides

I love glides.

“Glide” means sliding between two notes. There’s no stopping on individual pitches except for the two poles at either end (which isn’t true in the “siren” genre of glides). There’s no worrying about whether you’re singing in tune. Instead, it’s just an exercise to get in touch with your voice and your range.

Honestly, you can perform a glide between any two pitches, but it’s probably best to have at least a spread of an octave. Beginners often get stymied by glides that are too short.

Falsetto to speaking glide

This comes from Berton Coffin’s The Sounds of Singing. One of the gentlest exercises I do is to start on F#4 in falsetto and then glide down two octaves. I start on the vowel “ooo” ([u]).

For women: One octave is sufficient from this pitch, though two later become doable. If this feels too low, there’s no crime in starting higher. As you transpose higher, you can switch to more open sounds as “oo” will become more difficult.

When I get to the bottom pitch, I open to “Ah” in speaking voice. Along the way, I try to ease the transition from falsetto to modal and from closed vowel to open so that there’s no obvious break in the sound. This should become pretty easy after a few tries.

Then I glide up from the bottom note back to the starting pitch, in this case F#4. Again, you should strive to move from modal to falsetto without an obvious break. Then you can transpose the entire exercise up by half steps.

Goal

First you begin to sense what vowel shapes feel best in a certain part of your voices and what shapes help move you in and out of register changes.

Second, you begin to sense where you like to make the switch from that lower voice into the higher voice. For me, this happens around B3.

Breath warmup with straws

Sing through a straw. Really small straws will just cause stress for some people, so experiment with different sizes to see what you like. I personally prefer a coffee stirring straw. YMMV

Try a glide with the straw, but now you’ll start from the bottom of your voice and glide upwards to some high note. Because it’s safer to sing through a straw than with your mouth hanging open, you can experiment with different levels of breath support.

Remember that the feeling of gentle breath push from your abdomen must be paired with a sense of resistance and openness from the ribcage and inhalation muscles. La lotta vocale and all that.

Goal

Why straws? Ingo Titze, the voice researcher, has published a lot of material about how high impedance vowels and voiced consonants (shapes that block the outflow of air from your vocal tract) help vocal folds to begin phonation with less air pressure. A straw really increases impedance.

This is a gentle warmup for your folds, and you can begin warming up your breath muscles without too much worry about tiring out your voice.

Scales and Arpeggio Strategies

Any of the following strategies can be used for both scales and arpeggios. Play around with both and even combine them.

Small voice

Andrew Zimmerman taught me this.

Small voice is exactly that. You attempt to make the smallest sound possible while maintaining some kind of pitch. The trick is to move it throughout your range without needing to blast your voice.

Begin low in your voice. Raise the back of the tongue to the “ng” position. Begin singing a five note scale in the smallest voice possible. Transpose this up by half steps. Be patient. Your voice will have obvious breaks at first, and some tones won’t want to work. But if you’re gentle, you will find the ability to make your voice work without too much breath pressure.

Whilst doing this, your voice will feel register-less, and it is hard to tell whether you’ve entered falsetto or not. Don’t worry about it. Later you can try and maintain some sense of modal voice as you get higher.

I also like “ng” because we have no strong opinion about how it should sound, so there’s less desire to actively manipulate the sound.

Goal

Small voice communicates how well our folds are working. If they feel totally immovable, then that means much more gentle warm up time in needed or maybe even some vocal rest. If they feel pliant and willing to move throughout the range, then that’s a good sign.

It also reminds us that we don’t need lots of vocal weight while singing through the passaggio. By maintaining the small voice, we find new pathways through our range that don’t involve really heavy singing.

Sing on [u]

Begin on an “oo” fairly low in your voice and sing an upward major scale. Because its formants are tuned lower than [a], it will flip to second formant (F2) tuning earlier than an open vowel like “ah”. That’s good since it will be in a lower part of your voice.

This flip is around the primo passaggio for men. For women, it will happen very low in the voice. You’re essentially moving into “middle voice” lower in your range.

If it doesn’t flip, you will have the distinct feeling that the vowel is becoming more and more distorted. It will also feel heavier and harder to produce.

If the flip happens, it will feel like the bottom has fallen out from underneath the vowel. That’s not to say that it stops sounding deep, but there is a distinct feeling change. As you perfect this, you’ll notice that the vowel actually sounds brighter while still maintaining its [u] character.

And here’s the beautiful thing: you barely have to do anything to let the flip happen. Just maintain an [u] tongue and lip position, and it should just work. Of course, it’s always easier said than done.

Goal

First, that flip is THE flip just in a lower part of the voice. Mastering it is essential. The [a] vowel flips higher in the voice, but it will be a lot easier to find that higher flip if you’ve already found the lower [u] flip.

This corresponds to what Pablo Elvira told Jerome Hines in Great Singers on Great Singing:

“This is only one of the problems that the oo vowel solves … it’s already covered. But if you do ” – he sang an ascending scale on an ah vowel opening more and more as he went up – “then you have to teach him how to break that passaggio. But if you use the oo, it’s already there”

Note on [u]

The [u] vowel must have sufficient depth. We Americans tend to pronounce our “ooo” very shallowly (closer to “eww”). One way to find the deeper sound is to make the vowel first without using the lips. Use your fingers to prevent your lips from forming the rounded shape then make [u].

Hard, no? When you get to something that feels as close as you can, then add the lips. That’s the [u] we’re looking for.

Sing More Coloratura in General

I’ve been singing loads of Messiah recently, and it’s been great for identifying bad habits and sticky places in my range.

Even if you just do scale plus 9th exercises, do it with a metronome so that you don’t change tempo unconsciously. Try fast and slow speeds. Slow doesn’t necessarily mean easier.

Trick Yourself

Sometimes we need to approach it indirectly.

Closed then Open Exercises

Begin on a pitch with a closed shape (closed vowel, nasal consonant, straw, etc.) and then open to a vowel that’s been giving you trouble.

For example, Berton Coffin describes the open mouthed hum where you drop your jaw, place your hand over your mouth, sing a pitch, and then remove the hand.

Goal

Remember that high impedance vowel and consonant shapes help the folds to phonate? By finding that easier onset the folds will continue to open and close in that pattern even if you open your mouth.

From there, you can get the sense of what a well-sung note on a pitch feels like. Learn to prepare that feeling as you approach difficult areas of your voice.

Singing with earplugs

That’s it. Put earplugs in or cover your ears with your hands.

Goal

You’ll sound like a radio DJ to yourself because all the brilliance is blocked, but I promise you that you will get a very strong sense of what works and what doesn’t.

You’ll also hear how your voice transitions from one zone to the next. Find the gentlest path.

Is that all?

No, but I have to stop somewhere because there are so many ways to approach your passaggio.

But these exercises have helped me personally learn more about my voice and how to manage moving through the different zones of it.

One final thought: train your ears. Begin listening to singers and disassembling exactly what you hear. Eventually, you’ll begin to hear techniques and choices instead of loudness or beauty or whatever adjectives transfix you now.

Your precision in perception will help your precision in action.

Digital Sheet Music: My First Steps

When I went to Europe this summer, I brought a fair amount of sheet music. While there, I was always worried that I didn’t bring the right book or that I didn’t bring enough books or – especially on the way back – that I’d brought too many books. In fact, I did bring back too many books since I accidentally snuck away my hosts’ Lohengrin score (sorry!).

As I look at my ever expanding library of sheet music, I realize that I do not want an enormous paper library. I’ve moved too many times, and I know what it is to pack everything up and lug it around. And even if I do own something, if it isn’t there with me when I need it, then it’s mostly useless.

So what to do?

Current Imperfections

Unfortunately, there’s no perfect answer. Currently, sheet music producers have made few inroads to digital sheet music production. Published digital sheet music is often reductions of pop songs, some musical theater and modern church music. There’s a smattering of classical music, but it’s hardly comprehensive. Some Chopin here, some Mozart there. The classical vocal music available is the most popular stuff but no full scores or song collections that I’ve found. 1

More troublesome, there’s no standard file for transmission. One application can open its own files but no other application can. It’s similar to the e-reader market in which each commercial file type is proprietary.

The most compatible file type is PDF, but PDF can’t change the way it flows from page to page. The reader program also can’t interpret the notes as notes since it’s often just a photo.

Another challenge is that sheet music is meant to be written on. Like an actor’s script, the sheet music serves as a palette to write performance cues and tips for the future. It’s often messy, but each performer has their own various needs. For a singer, it’s not uncommon to write large swaths of IPA. Flexible annotation is an absolute must.

My Technique: forScore on iPad

So here’s what I’ve done:

I’ve installed forScore on my iPad. The company behind it does have a small sheet music store, but currently it’s too small for my purposes. Instead what I love about the application are the powerful PDF annotation abilities. It’s basically a tool for PDF annotation, but it has some other bells and whistles that make it ideal for sheet music reading in a way that GoodReader – another awesome PDF annotation tool – isn’t.

PDF files can be created yourself by scanning or by using Sibelius or Finale (please do not distribute them to others unless your have the rights), or they can be downloaded from public domain sites like IMSLP or university public collections.

I acknowledge that PDF is not perfect. The iPad has a large enough screen that I can make it work. However, I currently have excellent vision, and I can imagine a day in the future when I will want more flexible options for display. If you’re considering using an iPad for reading sheet music PDFs, then I suggest that you go to an Apple store and download sheet music from IMSLP onto one to see if it’s adequate for you.

Some Awesome forScore Things

These are a few of my favorite things in forScore.

One important capability is the ability to leap from one page to another without having to swipe pages over and over.

Another is the variety and flexibility of annotation tools with the ability to create your own (the blue highlighter shown is my invention).

And finally, there’s the built in metronome and keyboard.

Most reassuringly, all of it can be backed up over the internet with very little fuss. That includes my annotations. When I once thought I’d lost an aria book, I lamented not the book itself but the annotations. I have no angst over this with ForScore.2

So? How’d it go?

For this gig I’m doing in Tucson, I used digital sheet music 95% of the time. They were emailed to me as PDFs, and I did some organization in the app. At first during rehearsals, I was nervous that it’d be clumsy and waste people’s time, but I got the hang of it. I bought a stylus, and I rarely thought that paper would be better. In fact, every time I highlighted too much in yellow, I was thankful that I wasn’t using paper because I could easily erase the mistake.

iPad Issues

There are a few problems with forScore, but the bigger issues are with the iPad itself. Upfront: the iPad is svelte, and the screen is gorgeous. iOS is fluid and all that. Battery life was never an issue.3

But Apple is determined to dictate how we should use their machines. It’s occasionally maddening. They really want to dissuade users from using handwriting, and handwriting on an iPad – even with a good stylus – looks worse than childish. Ever seen a Chick-fil-A ad where the cows write “eat mor chiken“? That’s what it looks like. But it’s not as nice.

Who wants a stylus? I do.4

For performers, handwriting is essential. Most aren’t going to stand there and type notes to ourselves in the margins. Since the iPad is regularly pitched as a creative tool, this seems like a logical capability to have.

And iPad’s document system is extraordinarily inflexible. Please just give us a central file manager.

A brave new world?

I’m hoping that over time, publishers will find a way to fulfill the need for greater electronic access to sheet music, and technology companies will create devices that offer the flexibility performers need. Organizations like NATS will also have to adapt since they can be strict about sheet music requirements at their auditions.

My wishes:

  • That I can buy a variety high quality digital sheet music including full opera scores (I am not for stealing sheet music).
  • That it can be easily annotated.
  • That it has reflow capabilities based on screen size and user preference. Transposition capabilities for song rep would also be divine.
  • That it’s in a file type that can be opened by different programs.
  • And I hope that the programs are cross platform compatible. I’m using this iPad now, but the inking capabilities in Windows 8 look pretty sweet (not to mention its useable filesystem). Plus I’m more willing to buy into a proprietary environment if I know that I can access the content on whatever I use (similar to Kindle).

That may be too much to wish for, but I’ll still wish it.1

I’d love to hear your wishes or techniques for using digital sheet music if you have them.


NOTES:

  1. The company closest to getting there that I’ve found is musicnotes.com. They have cross platform apps for reading, those apps accept other files formats, and their sheet music viewer for their library supports different versions of annotation. Their library just isn’t quite what I need (again: song collections and full opera scores), and the annotation flexibility isn’t even close to what forScore does. But I’m keeping an eye on their progress, and them being totally digital, I expect that they’ll be aggressive in this space.
  2. Of course, using an iPad in an active theatrical rehearsal environment has its own angst. The thing is expensive, after all, with a glass front. It works best in music rehearsals, but I made it work while staging. Just be careful to not have a big passionate moment and throw the thing on the ground. And if I lost it  I would lament more than the annotations.
  3. I did bring my cord to rehearsals, however. Just in case.
  4. I do realize that what Mr. Jobs was saying was that these machines should be usable even without a stylus. But handwriting still exists, and it will continue to exist, and that will require some extra tool. Handwriting with a finger tip is no fun, and the disdain apparent in that video doesn’t give me faith that they’ll ever reconsider their position on digital handwriting for iOS devices.

Passaggio Tips: Part II

Last week, I discussed what the passaggio is in relation to registers. The main ideas were:

  1. To sound consistent, you have to change.
  2. The passaggio is used to move between acoustic zones or registers in our voice.

In this post I want to give you some mental strategies.

Know Thyself

First thing, you should know where singers of your type generally choose their passaggio points. Ask singers of your type where they perceive theirs. A book like Richard Miller’s The Structure of Singing has charts of voice types and their passaggi. Men generally have two that are important. Women have more.

Ultimately you will find your own points, but it helps to have a reference.

Breath, breath, breath

Your breath technique must be solid. That means an open body where the air itself is helping to keep you tall. It means that your ribcage resists collapse during the phrase. It means a balanced response and gentle pressure from your lower abdominals.

And I really mean “gentle pressure”. If it feels like you’re yelling or like it’s taking an enormous amount of pressure, then you’re probably overdoing it. You should always maintain expansiveness in your body, and singing should never feel like yelling.

This should be the very first place that you look for problems. If you don’t fix this, you can’t fix much of anything else.

Vowel Modification

Singing is not like speaking. You are taking your voice into places where it will sound and feel very different. You will cause yourself problems if you try to make your high range feel like your speaking voice range. Thus you modify your vowels as you move through your voice.

We have acoustic zones where certain resonances work and others don’t. Vowels are entirely based off of those resonances, and you have to be careful that you choose correctly.

Some vowels simply don’t work in parts of your voice. By choosing your vowels correctly, you’ll help your voice function, and your voice will sound louder.

Here’s an example of a vowel pathway (a variation on the Caruso scale):

So as you move through your range, you must consciously adjust your vowel choice to the appropriate part of your range. At passaggio points, you have a few choices:

  1. You can find the ideal pitch to move to a new vowel. This will be the smoothest and safest.
  2. Or you will have to consciously push one vowel higher. This will generally be louder but increasingly strident as you move higher and distort your vocal tract.
  3. Or you can bring one vowel slightly lower. This will be softer.

It all depends on the effect you’re trying to achieve.

Dangers

Even if you accept the idea of “vowel modification” you can run into problems if you try to make the correct vowel feel like it does when you speak it.

Resist that. Think of your voice like a machine: you do the actions, and there’s a result.

In your high range the vowels will not sound or feel like they do in your speaking voice range. The vowels will be closer to vocal tract shapes. Learn the shapes of each vowel, and then simply make those shapes. It’s hard at first, but over time you’ll figure it out.

Takeaways

  1. Know where the passaggio points are in general for singers of your voice type.
  2. Perfect your breath technique.
  3. Choose your vowels carefully.

Next time, I’ll give you some exercises to help you work through your passaggio.

NOTES

  1. What I call “passaggio points” Richard Miller calls “registration events”.
  2. The proper term for resonances in the voice is formants. I just didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole with too much terminology since resonances conveys enough information.
  3. The vowel pathway I presented goes for men and women, but they’ll start at different points due to differences in pitch range. For a reason that I’ll explain some other time, men’s and women’s vocal tracts aren’t all that different. A few half-steps are all that separates the average man and woman’s vocal tracts, so I tend to consider vowel pathways as going through the whole human voice, where men and women occupy different pitch ranges along that path.
  4. For an in-depth look at which vowels work and don’t work throughout the singing range, find a copy of Berton Coffin’s “Sounds of Singing” and its vowel chart. Most university libraries should have a copy.
  5. Dr. Donald Miller in Resonance in Singing discusses vowel choice as well by using less IPA than Coffin and instead uses acoustic feedback from the Voce Vista software. He also has practical methods of determining proper vocal tract tuning (vowel choice) for a given pitch. Again he uses Voce Vista as a feedback tool.