Metropolitan Opera Baritone, Mark Oswald – one of NY's 5 famed teachers

Technique Talk:

I would like to introduce a few important subjects in this discussion of vocal technique. These subjects will be addressed with more detail in a studio setting. Each vocalist has their own vocabulary, and therefore a teacher must quickly learn to alter their style and words to suit the individual singer.

VERTICALITY

Interestingly, maintaining a 'persistent' vertical mouth position will often actually cause the extreme high pitches for women to be heavy or labored, and therefore lack freedom (simple examples are high B for lyric mezzo and high C for lyric soprano and high D for Coloratura and Lyric Coloratura soprano, and the top two pitches for men). Generally put, some width in the extreme top will facilitate freedom. Why not visually examine ANY female singer you like from the past, and see if this is the case or not at these pitches. Although history isn’t a perfect gauge of consistent appearance/ mouth position, in this case it is a useful barometer.

REGISTERS and the PASSAGGIO

I believe there are registers. Yes, they should be seamless, but there are registers. Those few singers who profess that there are not registers when they sing, usually tend to lack quality and focus in their high passaggio along with a few pitches above this passaggio. It is even aurally apparent when listening to the great singers of the past that there are indeed registers.

For male singers in the top passaggio, we can indeed hear the register shift in Luciano Pavarotti quite easily, and also in Mirella Freni’s/ Leontyne Price’s lower passaggio, when they shift to chest voice. One can 'mix'/ blend this registration, given the technique and gift to do so. One half of all male singers can produce this seemless blend. (Mr. Pavarotti does not blend registers, yet Mr. Domingo does blend/employ a ½ cover/½ passaggio/blend).

Is the evidence of this shift in registration (akin to Luciano’s singing) necessarily a bad thing?

No. If making the very best sound on each pitch is a primary focus, opera buffs will allow for this register change, as long as it produces the ideal tone. In fact, they will usually contend that they do not hear any shifts in Luciano’s singing, and that he sings seemlessly. But I can assure you, there are decisions, sensations, and some subtle shifts that do happen, causing the listener to think that they are singing evenly with a similar timbre and production of tone. As we continue the discussion of the word passaggio, I feel that men have two passaggii (dependent upon the vowel shade) and women have, in general, three.

[ For Women ]

There are four registers usually: 1 the chest voice 2 the mix, 3 the lower head voice 4 the higher head voice. [the lower head voice and the higher head voice – call them what you like – are almost always separated by the (high) passaggio.] In terms of pitch, this higher passaggio for women can lie anywhere between B natural (above middle C) and high G, quite the expanse of possibilities. One must remember, each singer is unique. Because of this uniqueness, not all lyric sopranos have a high F passaggio; of this, I am 100% certain.

To begin finding the higher passaggio, ('ah' is the chief vowel of concern for the high passaggio for women) simply sing 'aw' on the notes within this area of pitches listed above. Usually two of these pitches will work quite well with 'aw' in mind whereas the other pitches that remain will function better with 'ah' rather than 'aw'. The pitches where the quality and vibration are your best with the vowel 'aw' are likely to be your passaggio!

As for women and the discussion of their lower middle voice, some women have up to 4 pitches that are 'mixed' – a head mix, or a chest mix can certainly be employed to positive effect. Often these pitches are E’s and D’s in the bottom of the voice, but of course, this greatly varies per singer. Yet other women have 1 to 0 pitches that they mix (Ms. Price/Ms. Freni nor Ms. Von Stade would be proper examples of this latter case).

Mastering passaggii will also lead to not only establishing a consistent timbre to the voice, but also allows one much easier access to the extreme 'top'. Again, it is important not to sing every pitch in the exactly same way! But this is only the start of a discussion, the very beginning of the process necessary to produce a quality passaggio tone.

[ For Men ]

Men have 3 registers separated by 2 passaggii. Each register’s image and shape can be expressed with the shape of a V. (3 V’s, or a double hour glass are acceptable images). Men have 2 passaggii for open vowels and one passaggio for closed vowels. Historically speaking, in comparison to the female passaggio, each male voice type has a more exacting pitch at their prospective passaggii. There are slight variations of pitch based upon one’s individual voice, obviously.

Often a singer’s larynx will tend to raise at any passaggio, especially upon ascending to a passaggio tone. It is quite important, more so for men than for women, to build in a comfortably low larynx, that is not pressed, but is able to float. This is not a natural phenomenon at first, and it may need to be focused upon in a lesson. The registers for men are often separated by a perfect 5th, which is in slight opposition to what books on the subject of voice suggest. These publications are also grossly under specific about the male passaggii for the 15-20 vowels we have to sing. Each vowel has a slightly different passaggio pitch for men. The open oh and open eh for men, as an example, lie on average ½ step lower than for [a] at their passaggio pitch! Women do not need to focus nearly as much per vowel in terms of locating passaggii, as stated earlier.

BALANCED TONE

Refined singing requires a BALANCED TONE; however, one’s sensation in the larynx is not all that is required at a passaggio. A balanced tone requires:

  1. a gently lifted feeling (soft palate)
  2. a subtle drop in the larynx, (the two making a 'column'); and
  3. even some space that can be directed 'straight back' into the oro-pharyngeal area (pulling back) subtly just beneath the uvula)... This makes a balanced, 3 pronged space. Additionally, one can create this expansion to any degree or angle 'at will' – an effective physical talent that can be developed, pending the pitch OR phrase.

Yet this space may still present an imbalanced darkness, IF two other factors are not considered and implemented as well.

  1. The Mask, which includes the hard palate and the area RIGHT behind the nose; and
  2. the tongue, which as a goal should be loose, not depressed, and touch the back of the front lower teeth.

Both must also be included elements in order to achieve a balanced tone. Therefore, in basic terms, we are left with a pocket and to a certain extent, a point.

  • 'Bow and arrow'.
  • 'Space and Place'.

One CAN have chiaro and scuro at the same time, simply said: front and back in the sound. Since each note will have a slightly different sensation, vowel shade, and even to a certain extent, 'support', it is very important, therefore, that the teacher train the singer to KNOW what they are doing in all areas of the voice, and yet convey it in a way that does not over complicate matters at the same time.

Each singer assimilates information in a different way: The teacher must adjust to the individual. Although I’m considered a 'specific teacher', a few singers that I work with respond to more general words and descriptions. Discussions of specific sensations are addressed in the studio with each individual singer. In speaking just a bit about this subject, pitches found to be at the top of each register generally not only have a more open vowel shade, but also have a slightly higher, lifted feeling within this pocket of back space. This may differ somewhat from passaggio sensations.

I believe in the hourglass (or V’s ) and as I discussed before, women have more V’s/registers than men (usually 4 registers separating 3 passaggii for women vs. 3 registers, separating two passaggii for men.

It is often a good idea to think of the passaggio in general terms as an open throated production, using using semi closed vowel shades. Though there may be a resultant 'narrowness' felt, the CAUSE is more important than this narrow EFFECT. A similar way to think of cause and effect, is to use the words 'the thought' and 'the result'.

It’s THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS.

Just like during the holidays with gift-giving, yes?

The singers with whom I work focus on the 'thought' - i.e. what they need to DO to produce the desired result.

A woman might 'think a chest production' to get a resultant 'mix'...

A man might think 'open' to get a properly ringing 'covered/protected tone.'

Incidentally, the two sentences above are actually infrequent suggestions I would give, but can work. Anything goes! (In terms of what a teacher may suggest...) And this is where the instinct of the teacher is important.

Teaching is 50% instinct, i.e. adjusting to the individuals voice, and 50% the technique that the teacher believes to be (his best idea of) 'correct'.

A teacher must be able to not only aurally analyze how a tone can be perfected, but also must visually (nearly) be able to see how the tone is being produced inside the singer and evaluate quickly not only how the tone is being created, but how the tone can be improved. Teachers must remember at times, however, that if it isn’t broken, then don’t fix it! Singers should be entitled to ask questions (politely) at any time in the lesson. Teachers often are defensive and negative, especially when they do not have the answers and then take it 'out' on the student. This is unacceptable. A teacher can naturally have a pleasant demeanor when they have confidence that their suggestions 'work'. This is a joyful process!

SUPPORT

To produce a viable, projected, quality tone one must have:

  • 50% position/placement;
  • 50% support.

This is a good starting formula, which can also be used as a basis for refining all dynamic levels.

Support is a flexible resistance (down and out- Italian Appoggio) in the front (2/3 of the support) and back (1/3 of support). This flexibly firm compression 'resists' the nearly automatic collapse/tuck of the body upon exhalation. This resistance should not be impregnated in appearance. The body should not collapse/tuck BUT for a millimeter at a time (not an inch at a time). The body therefore should keep its relative size after a balanced low and middle inhalation (2/3 in the front and 1/3 in the back). A tucked support should only be encouraged if the resistance is too forcefully pressured in a 'down and out' fashion. [ There are opposing resistance and tucking muscles at play and an advanced singer can work toward the proper compression of these elements.]

PURE VOWELS vs. 'Modification'

I have found that ONLY one in ten singers, or less, should think of singing pure vowels all of the time. The SPACE has to be expanded in such a way at the top of the range, so that one could potentially think and sing an [i] 'ee' vowel PURELY without completely squeezing it. The advice of singing a pure [i] at an extremely high pitch is therefore rare.

Generally, one has to modify vowels. Even men do this as well, and there will be much discussion of this in our lessons. Some vowels will be modified toward the closed version of the vowel, depending on the pitch and dynamic, and others toward the open version of the vowel of course (the high voice for women, for example).

I often say, What makes a good singer is 1/3 technique, 1/3 vowels, and 1/3 sleep. (Granted, the areas of refined musicality, compelling stage presence, and good diction help as well). For women, however, excellent diction is permitted to be somewhat secondary to 'tone' beginning at about high G, very generally speaking. The pitch of these modifications (per voice type/per vowel) are detailed with more specificity in lessons, of course.

In general terms, referring to the subject of diction, I am always encouraged when I hear of the rare instance when a coach or diction coach takes the time to analyze vowels that singers do historically use in different areas of the voice. This can be an objective discussion. There are patterns which are easy to see, and many practitioners miss the mark by not doing their homework in this regard. History plays a part in these decisions that teachers/singers must make, yet of course, each individual’s voice must take precedence in making decisions 'on vowels', in the long run.

MISCONCEPTIONS

The biggest misconception in terms of the male voice is that the tone should never be 'covered' or 'protected'.

THIS IS NOT TRUE. The word 'cover' should have the same meaning as "ringing, clear head voice, top voice, high voice, turn" etc. EVERY successful male singer in opera 'covers', but they employ it in a refined, balanced, clear toned manner- one hopes. Some teachers avoid work in this type of production (cover), because they may believe that the open or wide open tone actually proves a better, freer choice. This, AT FIRST, may be the case, yet as in the story of the tortoise and the hare, this 'covered, clear' tone (the tortoise), will easily win the race in time. This technique can and must be developed for men.

The term cover is almost never used for women. The biggest misconception for women is that 'one should not employ the chest voice'. EVERY SINGLE WOMAN I have ever worked with at the Met has chested up thru F natural above middle C (not that I would ask you to do this, but the Met women HAVE employed this...) for ex. EACH Mimi in Act IV of Boheme on the word GRANDe at F natural has chested this [a] vowel. Yet chest voice needn’t be produced from the 'chest' per se!

It takes even LESS layrngeal pressure to produce a high note in the chest voice , than it does in the lower head voice. [Not that there is substantial laryngeal pressure in either registration.] The chest voice can be produced from a higher position than the actual chest!

FINAL POLISH

Usually the final polish added to a singers technical arsenal is the 'launching of the tone into the theatre'. It is important to note that the inside sensations do help build the voice, but there are areas of the range where one can take full advantage of 'sending' the tone, and one CAN make specific technical adjustments in air flow and placement to achieve this goal. Singers are encouraged in the studio to 'sing as if they were in the theatre'.

Remember: one should act, move, and use 'subtext' as much as possible, AS LONG AS the vocal production is not disturbed. From experience and much discussion with the leading singers of today, the average singer actually thinks about technique 'once per system of music' in an operatic scene or recital.

THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG

The above information and analysis is being shared in an effort to give singers a general idea of my beliefs and style of teaching outside of their individual lessons. Technique über alles.

Voce, Voce, Voce.

Mark Oswald, voice teacher