Pathways to progress

I recently got an email from Oliver M.  He asked some very important and difficult questions:

I am only a few short months into my own journey (of many years, I hope), and I wonder if there are certain checkpoints in development that you noticed yourself or that you know to be reasonably common. Even better if you were to write a sequence of guiding principles, simplified for the beginner, in what to look out for or avoid. In any case ,keep up the fantastic work!

I have been teaching regularly for about 3-4 months now, and have noticed a common pattern: there are people who have studied for years and have serious difficulty singing.  So to answer Oliver’s petition let me give a first idea:

1) If you have not seen any progress in your singing within 3 months of studying with someone, it is likely that you have a bad teacher.  If you have been studying with someone for over a year and have seen very little progress and the teacher says that it takes time to develop the muscles, and you have been practicing their exercises regularly 4-5 times per week on your own, and seen the teacher regularly at least twice per month… you are very likely to have a bad teacher.

Though this may offend some teachers, it is only fair.  The bottom line is this: if you have not progressed, and it is your fault, then after a certain period of time your teacher should dismiss you and tell you to move on and do something else, or find someone else.  If they hold on to you as a student when you have progressed little, whomever is to blame, a change is warranted.  If there have been positive developments, then patience and perseverance is warranted as long as the progress is constant.

Some teachers can actually demonstrate what they say in their singing.  While this is very useful, it is not a sure sign of a good teacher.  I am one to demonstrate.   I often demonstrate faults and corrections, and help induce the change through mimicry.  However, this is not essential.  Some of the best teachers in the past were not top singers.  Some were, like Cotogni.  Your teacher may not be able to demonstrate effectively the path they are trying to channel you in to.  But they may be able to hear what is right and wrong in you nonetheless.  Of course, if they can demonstrate and mimic right and wrong, you have a great asset at your disposal.

2)  Listen, listen, listen.  Listen to great singers.  Listen to Bjoerling.  Listen to Caruso.  Listen to Martinelli, and Pavarotti, and Gedda, and Lauri Volpi, and Bergonzi, and Gigli, and Fleta, and Merli, and Filippeschi, and Wunderlich, and all the great tenors.  Choose a tenor that is similar to you in timbre and that is GREAT.  Listen to that tenor until you know every detail about their sound and what they do.  Dissect their voice.  Learn how they tune harmonics.  Learn how they sing in the passaggio.  Learn how they weave in and out of the passaggio.

3) The first steps in vocal development should focus on two main principles: relaxing the larynx in a low range and compressing the vowel.  Everything should rotate around these two pillars.

There are exercises that help to phonate in a low larynx position, and there are exercises that help compress the vowel sound.  These are two important polar opposites in  sense, and a careful balance between the two is important.  The low larynx instinctively induces looseness in the cords.  The mind knows that when the larynx is relaxed low, we are usually replenishing deeply our breath supply.  So, the mind knows to open the cords.  This is important because some students will start of with very pressed voices.  Focusing on relaxing the larynx helps find greater balance and flow. 

On the other hand, some (many) are too loose.  The focus with these people is to induce greater compression of the vowel.  A correctly produced ringing EE vowel is the guide to finding the correct closure for the other vowels.

4) Once the chords are closing and the sound is ringing, then it is important to learn to tune the harmonics depending on the range.  So the lower voice will be focused on singer’s formant.  The middle range below the passaggio is about learning to tune the 1st formant.  The upper middle above the passaggio is about tuning “eco sonora” or the 2nd formant in combination with singer’s formant.  Finally, for the range above A flat, one chooses whether they will focus on 5th harmonic strength (old school) or 2nd formant dominance (modern tenordom) with 6th and 7th harmonic resonance (Corelli, Pavarotti) or 6th and 7th harmonic squillo (Del Monaco, Tucker, etc).  This is a choice of the singer; what aesthetic they are most attracted toward.   All this while maintaining a healthy and strong 1st layer of vowel.

So pretty much I have just shut out a great number of teachers from this prescription because the majority will have no clue how to train a tenor to do the things I just described.

5) When the tenor (or other voice) knows how to produce sounds correctly, they must begin to perfect the balance of phonation and breath by learning legato. The idea, as Cotogni and all the great teachers of the 1900s in Italy taught,  is one of a constant connection between breath pressure and sound so as to establish a path for an unimpeded river of resonance emerging from the larynx and finding its way into the mask where it strikes  very specifically certain areas depending on the range and harmonic tuning chosen.

6)  Now, that is all general stuff… the golden thread running through these ideas is the building of a correct mental intention linked to text and emotion.  From the very start the tenor can learn to link scales and meaning, and associate tuning of harmonics with emotional and metaphysical concepts, but this should be done carefully because it is important to NOT associate strong impressions with incorrect functions.  The good teacher will seek to make strong emotional connections with well produced sounds.  It is important for the teacher to have the student verbalize what they do right – both reinforcing the concept by giving it a verbal narrative, and also by infusing the correct function with a strong emotion generated by positive breakthroughs  and achievement.  The teacher should tell the student when things are “different” – when they have broken through a barrier.  The student doesn’t know how profound of an impact small changes have over the course of months, but the good teacher does, and he or she needs to very convincingly help the student feel the spiritual and emotional connection to the breakthrough.  Sometimes the student may think their achievement doesn’t warrant the reaction of the teacher – but that is because the student doesn’t know any better.

It is incredibly destructive for the teacher to praise incorrect functions.  Swift progress occurs when the teacher reinforces very small changes.  Often the student won’t even be able to discern the difference – barely recognizing it even in recordings.  So another step in progress is the actual ability to discern.

Finally, there is no linear progression in all this.  Most of the time, you will pick up all these things at the same time, each principle feeding off the other.  Remember, il teatro e la vita non son la stessa cosa (Canio).  Careful what you wish for.

Best of luck Oliver and everyone!

(PS. I have been working on an article on one of my favorite young voices – Michael Fabiano, who recently has performed just superbly.  Hope to bring that this week.)


3 responses to “Pathways to progress

  1. carlosdonofrio

    Thank you for the blog. I really enjoy it and it had helped me a lot!
    Pñease keep on writing.



  2. Now is perhaps a good time to collect courage and ask: what is loose phonation and how does it sound? Do you happen to have an example? I feel somewhat embarrassed to ask, though, as it seems to be a term that everybody uses…

    Then a question about del Monaco. You seem to imply that he uses a singer’s- formant-dominance above the passaggio, and not so much the 2nd-formant strategy a la Pavarotti. Did I understand you correctly? I remember noticing, however, when I once compared del Monaco and Corelli that del Monaco had a more typical 2nd-formant-like 3d or 4th-harmonic dominance above the passaggio compared to Corelli. Or maybe I was mistaken…


    • Judging from how many singers and teachers I have heard that sing very loose, I would say that most people have no idea what loose phonation really is. I think people think that as long as you are not breathy, then you are not loose. This is certainly very wrong. Flow needs to be found in the context of narrowness.

      As to Del Monaco – he was definitely strong in the 2nd formant above the passaggio, as was also Corelli. However, Del Monaco was much more squillo oriented. If you look at his harmonic structure compared to Corelli, he has greater strength in the singer’s formant in the passaggio.

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