Afraid of High Notes

As I travel up to NYC for my Saturday marathon of lessons I ponder the emails from tenors I have received over the last week.  In particular one from a friend who has one of the most magnificent tenor voices today, singing in every major opera house, and who goes through some troubles here and there because of inconsistent technical issues.  People come to me for help at times, and it is a bit scary because it is hard to convey the fact that 75% of technical success is pure methodical discipline.  If we are too emotional about the way we sing and conceive in our mind our technical approach we end up playing mind games with out voices.  Remember, the number  one element of importance in developing a technique that works day in and day out IN THE OPERA HOUSE is developing a correct mental intention toward the voice.  This includes the way we REACT TO OUR VOICE.  I would know this as well as any tenor in the world.  If there is something that I always have found difficult it has been getting on stage and reacting correctly to my own voice.  I hate the unknown.  The idea that the voice may do something we don’t foresee is front of an audience is the scariest thing ever!!  Let me give you some advice in this matter…

You are an oracle.  Like all true oracles, the message is revealed just as much to you as to those listening.  If it comes from your mind, then you are just a professional entertainer.  But if you are able to not panic in the presence of what comes out of you, you have accomplished something monumentally important in technical terms.

Technique sets parameters; it sets boundaries that define a range of possibilities.  Within that range, the permutations and possibilities are unlimited.  You may experience a correctly ringing A flat in a 100 different ways on a 100 different nights.  Does this scare you?  What do you think live performing is like the canned 100 do-overs of a tenor studio recording?  Not a chance.  Learning technique is about learning the range of functions that keep your voice safe from harm, and capable of producing  honest and free resonance.  Can you perfect those ways?  Can you learn great ways to do things?  Can you learn to produce a phrase the same way 100 times in 100 different theaters?  Of course.  But my suggestion to you is to not think that way.  Think that within the realm of your technique, a different truth may be revealed tonight.

My tenor friend told me that amidst the most disastrous week from a technical standpoint (which BTW is better than 95% of tenordom alive anyway) he felt completely lost, and then he just applied the ideas of the squillo based phonation you can read about here, and he just got on stage and went for broke… He just gave up controlling it and let the sound go out of him just thinking laser-like squillo and his trumpet like lips.  He reported that he was just as much a witness to his voice as others were… and in the end, everyone in the house admin and fans were completely blown away.  What happened?  Well first of all he is just that good… second of all, he didn’t judge it.  He knew the parameters he needed to sing within, and then he got the heck out of its way.

What are some guidelines?  Number one parameter when singing in the house:  if you are pressing breath against the larynx you are pretty much toast.  Sure, you can get through shows that way… you can clamp down with your epiglottis and with the tongue if you want… you can build pressure and find a sense of false control.  If you do,  you are just a freightened singer.  Do you think it won’t be noticed?  Think again.  This is a spiritual art.  If you are afraid, then you are an ego-driven singer, and you are boring as hell.  Collect your paycheck and go home please… I won’t be needing your autograph.  Let go of the need to micromanage your voice!  Learn the boundaries of correct and safe technique, and then allow yourself to reveal the truth of your character IN THE MOMENT on stage.  Your audience will thank you.  They will know.  They will feel it.  You will feel it too.

Do not push breath against the larynx.  This is hard because if you sing correctly you sing with an energetic closure of the chords.  Your sound is narrow.  It is easy to catch too much breath with your chords.  This is especially true if you carry too much chest because you are thinking to sing 110% of your volume.  Take it back a little.  Too much chest coupled with squillo will tend to crush the first layer of the vowel… the  embedded OO head tone. Steven O’Mara would say that your chords are scratching.  That is a good image of this bad vocal event.  You can be projected and loud without catching too  much air at the chords, but to do so you have to find the path that allows the voice to strike forward in the mask while remaining “buffered” in the larynx, meaning that the head tone is well nourished.

I have found that the best way to do this is to think of the head tone as a straight tone.  This doesn’t mean that you paralyze the chords to produce a straight tone, it means that you think of it in your mind as a straight tone and you intend to produce one, but in the moment of singing as you relax the larynx, you let the voice do what it wants.  The vibrato will tighten up, but it won’t be straight.  In these conditions your voice and the breath pressure will find a constant connection.  If you let this condition dominate as you sing with the voice striking forward you will likely create a pocket of sound forward that you can “lean” against.  Your larynx is bypassed and you have found a place that is “push-safe”, meaning you can’t really push in this mode without breaking the mode.  Also, the less you push in this mode and the more vibrant and loud you get.   This works particularly for the top voice.

Have you ever noticed how you are never afraid to sing a middle voice note on stage?  Why the heck would you be afraid to sing a top one?  If you are it is because you haven’t found your honest, natural, modified but still real mode of emitting a sound.  Also, singing the top with this kind of spontaneity requires a “punto d’appoggio” – a leaning point.  The leaning point for the pressure is in this pocket forward.  If you get it right, you will feel like the breath and the larynx work in sync in a way that requires you to just sing with the same mental intention of not pushing as you would in a spontaneous unafraid and non-neurotic middle voice tone. 

Within these boundaries, you can just get out of your way, and listen to the orchestra, think of your words, and follow your instinct to express.  Be an oracle.


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