Is it always good to cover?

Why do tenors open the passaggio at times?  Why do tenors open notes right before a high note? My dad passed on an important secret to me early on in my studies: c’e’ una differenza tra aperto in basso ed aperto alto.

One of the contributors to this blog is Turiddu Tenor.  You all don’t know who he is, but it’s just an honor to have him contribute.  The man, besides having one of the most beautiful tenor instruments, is a true student of technique.  He is extremely busy singing lead roles in the most important opera houses in the world.  This is a first class, A grade tenor – and completely and utterly deserves to be so.  He has promised me an interview for the future as soon as he has a hole in the busy schedule, but in the meantime, I am bringing to the main area a comment he made about  covering and the top voice.  Here is what he had to say posted in its entirety.

The Tenor’s dirty little secret: “Covering too much might weigh down the instrument.”

Over the years, I have gone at singing in the same way as I was brought up to view biblical doctrine: dogmatically. When something is right, it is always right. When wrong, there is no sorta-wrong.

And the approach to the passaggio has been the same. The optimal F#/G being one that is not “yelly and open like Pippo’s.” For a long time I struggled with not being able to re-create onstage the disciplined approach of a burnished and covered passaggio onstage. There are so many variables onstage, that unless I chose to stand stock still for the entire onstage experience, my attempts were always thwarted. Never mind I could hear Pav singing wide open Ab’s in the Karajan recording of Boheme. Never mind, I could hear Tucker or Caruso or Corelli singing wide open G’s in approaches to high notes. No, if something was right, I would righteously and rigorously attempt it.

Then I figured out dogma and singing don’t mix.

Since then, I have reconciled myself to what you say. Choices made while singing must be in relation to each other on a horizontal line. Not a vertical one. What is right can also be wrong. What is wrong can also be more expressive and liberating.

One of today’s most beautiful and technically proficient tenors currently singing Romeo is criticized for being bland. And for what reason? Because he tirelessly chooses a dogmatic vocal approach. And I say more power to him. I admire his singing greatly. He’s all class.

But for myself, I found I couldn’t operate in that world, that I would choose a path that lent (hopefully) greater expression, and that meant allowing the “wrong.” All this to say, I can come to understand in my own singing what I have heard in the great italian tenor I so admire: There is a balance, a ratio of covered to uncovered passaggio singing in any given nite. It’s about 70% covered to 30% uncovered. YMMV. Finally allowing this “wrongness” has freed up the top and lets me fly onstage, rather than worry about ‘maintaining.’ When I accepted what my ears and instincts were telling me, I found this blog and found the tools necessary to “hide” and beautify what I was doing, that the open throated Gnat did not have to sound like bad Di Stefano.

-Uh in relation to ay.
-Open throat does not have to mean yelly.
-The Supported Sound can take many paths.
(Turiddu Tenor – from comments in http://tenortalkblog.com/2010/10/07/how-the-voice-changes-in-the-upper-register/)

Turiddu, you bring up a really important point!!  When we cover the voice in the passaggio the cords switch phonatory mode so that there is a stretching and a thinning out that happens.  It’s not easy to learn this because singing this way on a G or and F# does not lead to a lot of power initially in the studies.  The reason is we don’t quite know how to harness the breath pressure.  We don’t know how to keep the cords closed.  We either carry a lot of chest, and sing a “mixed passaggio,” or we may cover but compress way too much, and feel strangled, get red in our face, etc. 

The cords work naturally in a stretched mode when we get to the top voice.  It’s natural for them to do so in the top, but in the passaggio it’s almost TOO LOW for the cords to be working in this mode. Success is determined by a very careful breath support and by strengthening the ability of the cords to keep closed.  I don’t know the science behind it too well, I am sure my friend JR La Fond from http://tsvocaltech.blogspot.com can give us significant insight into the science behind this, but I can tell you that it almost feels like the passaggio requires more effort to keep the cords closed than it does on the top.  It’s like there is more compression of sound. The old school would say there is more appoggio.  The sound leans more strongly on the larynx (but in a cry, in  thin mode), and the resonance cloud (path of the breath) gets consequently more forward in the sinuses, more toward the maxillary sinuses.  Keeping this right is a very fine balance that is DIFFERENT FROM THE TOP.  There is a different effort. The sound is definitely more compressed (this does not mean muscular, quite the contrary).

Another issue is that in the passaggio to get the right power in the sound we have to strengthen the eco-sonora  (Cotogni) – the echoey sound of the 2nd formant region dominant voice (see http://tenortalkblog.com/2010/10/01/il-passaggio-covering-the-voice/).  So this brings us to a pretty low laryngeal position, I find even lower than the top voice; and this is significant!

REMEMBER WHAT I AM ABOUT TO SAY NOW: The high note is not important. The note that precedes it is important!!  

The passaggio is not always a sustained tone.  Sometimes it is a transition note to get to the top note. When we are going for the top note and the preceding note is in the passaggio, two things happen if we cover the passaggio:

  1. We are singing in a thin mechanism in a very compressed way
  2. We are singing with a lower larynx
  3. We are thinking about the high note and the intention is causing our breath pressure to start increasing

In essence, if we don’t know how to adjust in a split second from this scenario to a top note scenario, we will be too compressed with the sound, too low with the larynx, and over pressurized with the breath.  Result: failed high note (screamy, strained, smaller in volume, etc).

Typically to avoid these problems tenors sing the transitory passaggio note to the top with an open phonation.  Here are some examples.

Transition passaggio to high note

Singing the transition to the high note open is possible if the transition note is short.  Take for example Gedda’s high C from O mio rimorso.  What if he had held the G in Lavero’ as written?  It would have been a sustained note for some length and would have made the top note harder, NOT BECAUSE HE IS RUNNING OUT OF BREATH, but because of the way the note is sung.  To remedy this many tenors having to sing the note because a conductor requires it, will sing the LAAAAAA portion covered, then open the …VE… portion, and go to the top.  Or some may sing the G saying “O” and then break and sing lavero’.  You can hear Pavarotti do this (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5GH6u-7XKg).

This is not about having enough breath.  It’s about the note that precedes the high note jeopardizing the ascent.  Well, for some it may be about breath too.

Now to what my father taught me about open notes in the passaggio.  There is a difference between singing open like Di Stefano, which the older Italian method would call “spaccato” – literally meaning cracked open, which relates more to the mouth being cracked open… a feeling that we have to open the mouth really wide because the sound is totally spread in the mouth.  This is a VERY BAD way to sing the passaggio.  It is naked chest voice and creates significant tensions on the vocal folds and larynx… to be done for expressive reasons, not as a technical approach.

There is also a way to sing the passaggio open where the sound is “aperto alto” meaning opened high.  This is a more balanced approach where the vocal folds feel thinner but we are still 1st formant dominant, or still singing open.  It is called open high because the sound does not feel opened in the mouth, but rather has more of a vertical feeling  and stays in the back of the mouth, and heads toward the soft palate.  The resonance feeling is that the voice, though open (because it is 1st formant dominant) is climbing toward the occipital region, or the back of the head.  This is a far less dangerous way to sing the passaggio compared to spaccato.  This way is what you hear in Corelli singing “All’Armi” in the Di Quella Pira.

Transitioning through the passaggio open allows you to:

  1. not depress the larynx too much, which is not a good condition to sing the high note in.
  2. Allows you to not associate elongated and thinned vocal folds with excessive compression (the alto is more released being less chesty – released meaning less compressed sound)
  3. Allows you to not have too much breath pressure on the vocal folds because the aperto alto sound feels like it does not require as much vocal fold closure as the covered sound, the sound does not lean in the larynx as much  (JR can correct me, but I think the open allows more of a vertical contact edge between the vocal cords, facilitating resonance; where the elongated cords of the passaggio have to have more medial compression between the cords, and more breath pressure to produce the same volume)
  4. the open acts as a trampoline for the top note, creating a connection to the body, while at the same time giving you a chance to feel a net switch between chest and head

Now, there are some that master this transition and can do this.  Pavarotti later in his career learned to sing La Speranza from Che Gelida Manina with a covered passaggio.  This is artistically superior.  It means you treat every note artistically.  But remember, you do what works first.  There is no art in a failed high note!

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5 responses to “Is it always good to cover?

  1. jeanronaldlafond

    Dear Jack,

    Another insightful and so useful post. First, let me be the first to agree about the beauty of the voice of our friend, Turiddu. In a way I have been more critical of him only because I admire him so. I like to see him become the great tenor that he already is in every way–such that no one says: “Well he does not behave like the other greats before him!” I heard him rehearse in NY last month and the guy sounds just amazing. It is a joy and a testimony to his perseverence and commitment to the art we love so much. So Turi, take my criticisms with a grain of salt. I love you, man!

    Let me say I agree 100% about the preparation notes leading to the top. The passaggio is a chore! In some ways I had my best day ever today and I expect to record as soon as I stop traveling and share here on your blog as well.

    On the one hand, I am a slave to the principle that the [a] vowel should turn on F#, but I agree fully with Turi in that the sign of a great tenor is the ability to turn or not turn. I think one should be able to turn on a dime so to speak, but also decide when it is artistically appropriate to open a note that “should” be turned. Coming from the baritone side of the tenor experience, I must say it is easier for me to cover the voice because covering depends on fold mass, which facilitates the flow of air and by extension the descent of the larynx. I work to be able to open the top voice because in my estimation that is where most successful tenors come from. Achieving that aspect of the tenor experience is important to feeling like a tenor.

    And certainly I also make a difference between opening “in alto” and “spreading”. On that issue, I will reply to your query:

    The right kind of open singing requires enough vertical mass to prevent pressing, but not enough to force the “giro”. In fact we have three possibilities. The one you called thinned out, stretched, which requires too much medial compression. The right one, which requires more weight than the pressed one (you are right on that count), and a third option that has too much vertical mass. This is the yell that we hear from Pippo. The “aperto in alto” we hear from singers like Diego Florez and Kraus.

    As for the passaggio, the difficuty there stems from an exact balance between CT and Vocalis (internal TA). The chest voice is comfortably TA dominant and above the passaggio is comfortably CT dominant. The passaggio requires a careful weight balance that requires an ever-changing dynamic between the two muscles. This “lotta vocale” (so to speak) feels like more effort. We are also more sensitive to the subglottal pressure variances at this point because a slight difference in muscular dynamics will have acoustic repercussions as well. This feeling of a tightrope walk keeps tenors awake at night.

    Turiddu is correct in that a tenor must free himself to make choices in the moment. Being able to “aprire in alto” is so important to the tenor top voice. Before we can do the perfect balanced passaggio note to the top, there is no harm in thinning out a little in the passaggio to prepare the lighter voice that is necessary to accomplish a high C or the sopracuti. I can sing some interesting Ds in that approach but they feel not quite my full voice. I am still working to balance those out.

    The tenor voice is special. We live on the edge more so than any other voice type and this is scientifically verifiable. This post does a great job of introducing the ideal and simultaneously gives worth to other viable alternatives. Bravo for another superb post.

    JRL

    • JRL, I’ve never felt criticized by you. We both share a passion for excellence and would probably suffer any indignity to stay on that quest. I’ve always felt amazingly supported by my tenor brethren, so thank you for the part you have played thru the years in building a technique. It is substantial, not to be underestimated.

      The passaggio requires a careful weight balance that requires an ever-changing dynamic between the two muscles. This “lotta vocale” (so to speak) feels like more effort. We are also more sensitive to the subglottal pressure variances at this point because a slight difference in muscular dynamics will have acoustic repercussions as well. This feeling of a tightrope walk keeps tenors awake at night.

      Truer words never read by me. Thank you for the scientific side of what is going on.

      I firmly believe the balance of which you speak is best achieved by vowel choices (along with a good understanding of support). Since I can’t control the muscles in the larry, I have been paying more and more attention to the vocal path that slight modulations in the vowel (e.g. the shape of the tongue. But again, since trying to make the tongue behave is a battle of biblical proportions, I choose to think in vowels rather than tongue shapes.) :-b I’m finding this shaping and re-shaping of the throat (coupled with a total rethinking of intercostal support) helpful in attaining this particular muscular balance.

      A side note on my original comment: At 2nd and 3rd read, I dislike my own backhanded way of praising the aforementioned “dogmatic” tenor. I don’t mean to sound judgmental or to poo-poo his method and demean him. He is a fantastic artist and has a technique that is superlative. My point was that we all need to reconcile our technique to our particular priorities. I, who fight often with directors, to maintain some type of stage decorum so that I may do my best singing don’t want to appear as if I don’t appreciate how hard it is to remain disciplined and to serve our voices. While a baritone like Tezier might purposefully choose to be static onstage and not portray a character as I would, I must also point out he was just awarded France’s highest Medal of Honor in the arts. We don’t serve technique. We serve Art. And in that realm we must take into consideration (to some degree) the artist onstage.

      A rambling way of saying: Ya do what works for you. With wisdom.

  2. Good post. I find myself nodding in agreement the whole way through (rare!).

    I will relay a little bit of my personal story here, insofar as it is somewhat relevant. On the topic of covering, I spent my first couple of years as a training tenor being very deliberate and intentional about my cover. Jack, you were witness to some of this, so you no doubt know what I mean. I suppose I had to be this way as I came from a position of having no prior notion of cover, nor indeed of having sung fully supported tenor pitches at all. So I had to be deliberate and imposing with my cover. I have no regrets about that – it is the journey. But in the past year I have learned that imposition of a cover is in virtually every instance the inferior way to approach the top. The voice must turn most of the time – we know this – and you post (and Turiddu’s) is wonderful in highlighting the choices of when it is perfectly appropriate and even preferable to delay the turn until a little higher. But I have come to appreciate the difference between an imposed cover and the cover that occurs incidentally (accidentally, even) when the voice is simply given the right precursors (setup) and left alone to “control itself”. Perhaps there is intention there – but it has been whittled down to just the slightest of mental impulse – such that it is barely if at all perceptible (this deliberate cover). What the right setup needs to be is a whole other discussion – in fact, it is a holistic thesis on technique, but I trust you know what I mean. When our structure is the way it needs to be, the voice “feeds” on the air and we find it turning into the passaggio without the need for any muscular coercion. This has been my experience this past year, I should add. Of course, as is also a choice, sometimes we do impose a more deliberate (forced) cover for certain musical/vocal effect. Sometimes even below the F# if we want to create a certain kind of cupo sound, for example. But I digress.

    I adore the way you describe “aperto alto” as this puts some words to something I have felt at times, without hitherto being able to describe it. I indeed find myself using this approach at times in order to avoid sacrificing the top. Actually, rather often on an F# in certain roles. I sang the Duca last week and this tool was necessary for a voice like mine to navigate the tessitura of that role. Indeed, the very word “parmi” I sing in this way in order to ensure I do not start this difficult section too thick – lest I pay for it big time later! Now, a perfectly turned F# there is preferable. But the choice is here made: go for this perfect turn, but risk it being imperfect – and then pay for it later – or go for the aperto alto which I can execute most of the time to great effect, with little cost, and it ensures a vibrant and easier navigation of the ensuing tessitura. There are other examples of course – but I really want to add a voice of support in this, that very often we need to choose the less desirable acoustic as a kind of insurance. If we sang like Caruso we could all turn the voice perfectly all of the time (he in fact, in his recorded legacy, does not always turn perfectly, so there!). But we choose carefully those instances where we are going to open a little (in a healthy way) such that we can better manage difficult tessitura or difficult acuti.

    A very intelligent blog entry, and a very useful one. Thanks.

  3. @Ozitenor: What a fantastic and insightful reply! Welcome here and thank you for your input. It warms the cockles to read you dealing with that Gflat in Parmi like that. You don’t know how rare you are to be able to succinctly describe the choices you are making. I’m just sorry you aren’t a “dumb tenor.” Your path is going to be much much harder! 🙂

    I really appreciate what you are talking about in delineating between the intentional and incidental cover for means of expression. Over the years I too often chose the former which adds a “gear change” in to the apparatus. I thought it would always be necessary. Only lately, when I gave up trying to acquire a Melocchi based technique…without the help of….ya know…Melocchi, have I found that using more of a classic bel canto approach attains the incidental more often and more healthfully for me. The fewer times I have to make gear changes, the better. But hell, sometimes in a moment of weakness where I wanna pay an homage to the supple & slurpy fantastically pheromone-ladened phrasing of Franco, I WILL make that gear change very apparent. (How’s THAT for alliteration, boys and girls?) I am learning not to make it a general habit.

    You say:
    What the right setup needs to be is a whole other discussion – in fact, it is a holistic thesis on technique, but I trust you know what I mean. When our structure is the way it needs to be, the voice “feeds” on the air and we find it turning into the passaggio without the need for any muscular coercion. This has been my experience this past year, I should add. Of course, as is also a choice, sometimes we do impose a more deliberate (forced) cover for certain musical/vocal effect. Sometimes even below the F# if we want to create a certain kind of cupo sound, for example. But I digress.

    Ahhhh, the sounds of a tenor….intelligently talking. Like music to my ears.

    For me, the shift to making cover more incidental is mirrored in a shift from “making sounds” to “recreating sensation.” Unlike some in the singing biz, I actually think mimicry to be a valid tool in learning. I just happened to hold onto that particular process a bit too long and fell into too often not relying on the truly concrete touchstones of singing: sensation. I have discovered that rib expansion and viewing singing based more on wisely managed compressed air (rather than simple flow and release). The more acquainted I become with this systematic management, the further I then return to flow in relation to compression. What do I mean? I mean, I sing less and less on the capital and more on the reserve within the framework of moderate yawn space (resonance not over done), antagonism between inhale and exhale musculature (intercostal expansion and diaphragmatic support), more direct.

    Only then do I begin to quiet my mind to then begin the process of expression.

  4. When singing the Chenier “Improvviso”, I find that keeping the F’s before the B-flats open, as opposed to covering them, is the only way I can reach them with the power and ease that I desire

    When I try the same in “Celeste Aida”, even tho’ it is the same two notes, I cannot achieve the same thing

    So, yes, I would wholeheartedly agree that a tenor MUST always keep the flexibility necessary to allow for the conscious CHOICE of covering tones at will, and by choice

    Singing the PEN syllable in PENSIER (yes, Donna e mobile), is the perfect example………on a good day, I can keep it open. But how many good days do we experience? As it is, the role sits half a step too high for my comfort!!! BUT….if I make the conscious choice to cover that f#, my chances of reaching the B-natural directly (without including all the notes in between), increase exponentially!!!

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