In my interview with tenor Stephen O’Mara, I mentioned how I had benefitted from certain exercises he had me do during the few lessons I had with him. I labelled these exercises O’Mara Vocal Yoga because they focused very much on breathing and letting go. I received many emails requesting further clarifications, and Maestro O’Mara was kind enough to respond.
Let me say first that Vashek Pazdera got me going in the right direction in April of 1980. He saw how tight and tense I was, and had me do Prana breathing for relaxation for the first several lessons, as I had no access to head voice at all. I learned to do it in through nose and mouth( my way of breathing which is not Prana) first for a count of four in and four out, then working up to 12 seconds in and 12 seconds out ( the mantra for me was “Be still and know that I am God”). Due to my difficult childhood, I was grabbing at the larynx, as if strangling, fighting to breathe. Over time the tightness eased and head voice appeared through the agency of lip and tongue trills.
Later “whoo” exercises, called sirens by some, were very helpful.
I also did yawn-sighs (not on pitches) to help let go and get flow.
Exercises I could not do earlier started to come, and with that the top opened up for me. Vashek got me able to sing a public high C in 6 months by using a combination of blending down from head into full voice and learning vowel modification to access the passaggio and top ( I learned to follow function more than vowel as time went on and I took ownership of my vocalism). Vashek taught that the B natural and high C could only be accessed reliably if one understood there was what he called a second passaggio (Bb could be sung in first passaggio position, but B natural and C needed something new).
He used a “seagull” cry to help me find this.
In October of 1980 I did a 5-week run of “The Desert Song” with the Light Opera of Manhattan, singing 7 shows a week. I sang the high C in 32 of the shows, and took an alternate note the other times.
This approach was working, it seemed. I bought Bjoerling records and played them constantly, adding Corelli later that year. Listening to Bjoerling was so valuable for the velvet in his sound, the halo that comes from head voice exercises. Corelli helped me unleash my inner beast and get release in the top notes. One can hear these influences in my singing.
My sensation of breathing has developed into an image of the air arriving through my whole body, not my mouth alone; the division of inside and outside disappears, and energy flows up and out of me, being concentrated as it wells up from me into focused sound. This, I realize, is highly subjective, but I wished to share it. By the way, this imagery helped me in scenes like Otello’s Niun mi tema or the finale of Carmen Act 4, where by making myself bigger, spreading my arms in a forward arc and drawing energy into me, I was able to receive the dynamism for a strong finish.
Operatic singing is an energetic, full-body event. However, the relaxation, breathing and blending exercises help us learn that out of an inner stillness the voice emerges; what must be activated is activated, what is unnecessary is not. This is the meditation that is singing.
Here is a sound demonstration of how I learned to sing the high C. It is slender, the embryonic form of a tone that will develop with time and growing confidence in achieving it reliably. Important to understand is that the seagull gets you there, but the resultant high C is not what it will be later on. Even
now, when I do it after and with the influence of the seagull, the high C is more slender than I do it when approaching it as a mature singer. For me now, this sound is not complete enough. But, one step at a time! Later, you must abandon the seagull in favor of a strengthening of the chest component and great support for a more rounded, virile tone. BTW, the interval of the sixth as in Act 4 Manon Lescaut (Ah! Manon) or la presence in Salut demeure are good choices for a budding high C, as the interval helps shoot over the top and have the necessary support. However, people are different and YMMV!
My personal experience with these exercises was limited to the sigh exercises which were very helpful in my finding a balance between squillo and release. I am grateful that Stephen O’Mara was willing to share this information with this community!