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:
- We are singing in a thin mechanism in a very compressed way
- We are singing with a lower larynx
- 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.
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:
- not depress the larynx too much, which is not a good condition to sing the high note in.
- 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)
- 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)
- 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!