I know how the word “passaggio” is sufficient to cause a significant rise in blood pressure. I have been there. I remember trying everything in my power to find the right sinus cavity to place the voice in so I could get the same sound Pavarotti had in his passaggio… I remember the years of seeking to understand the width of Corelli’s passaggio and seeking space in the throat rather than in the sound. I remember listening for years to Bjoerling and Caruso to understand the significantly different approach to the passaggio they employed and wondering what was causing the differences in sound between someone like Caruso and someone like Corelli. No one had the answers. That is the solemn truth, I promise. If there had been an answer printed or an approach documented descriptive of these methods and techniques, I would have found it, no doubt. Some like Miller scratch the surface, but have not documented any true understanding or the process which could engender discernment and understanding.
In fact the greatest achievement in my quest for understanding opera I believe is the secure discovery of what leads to the voce girata of both great Italian traditions – the singer’s formant based passaggio and high voice, and the second formant dominant one. I am not one to make boastful claims, but I humbly can say that I understand these two, and have the method to get to them. Most of these methodical tools were handed to me, but the ability to actually apply them in teaching has been based on an analytical gift of evaluating the impact of trial and error on my own instrument. I have been my own guinea pig in this respect in learning discernment. It is one thing to understand the principles I write about here, and another to get someone from point A to point B in vocal progress. The discernment involved in that process is somewhat of a gift. It is about understanding empathetically what is happening in another’s throat, maybe even imitating (which my students will tell you I am particularly good at), and explaining how to morph phonation to get from point A to B. That is not an immediate journey. There is no 30 second timer to get you Big Mac in this art form!
Getting a student from one point in vocal progress to another is a building up of the voice through minute changes that have a significant impact on the voice. It is comforting to experience quantum leaps every now and then, certainly the fruit of the small adjustments; but overall piloting a voice toward the achievement of a solid technique is about very minute adjustments in understanding the relation between breath energy (the support), the lowering of the larynx, differentiating between expanded pharynx and relatively narrow laryngeal opening, and the three muscular dynamics impacting the functioning of the vocal folds.
Knowing what minute adjustments lead over the months to building all those coordinations is something you MUST learn if you are to be a great tenor. I talk about physical structures, but they are completely irrelevant to the approach. You have to know what you are hearing. I can tell from a sound if an epiglottis is too lowered for example, and so should you. You should know the sound of a laryngeal opening that is too wide. I know the difference in sound between singer’s formant produced by thick chords and the same produced by voce magra mechanism (interarytenoid closure), and so should you. What if you think you understand voce magra because you can sing with “a cry” in the middle voice… but you don’t understand that short cord chest voice brightness is significantly different than long cord closure of the vocal folds given by the true voce magra mechanism? What are you going to do when you rely excessively on thick chords to get brightness, but pitch requires you to stretch the chords? Vocal instability up top… You unveil this when a tenor can’t sing in voce finta on a high B… all he gets is a hooty falsetto. I can produce a voce finta that has the same harmonic signature of a full voice, and so should you. Of course, the top is unstable for those who get brightness through chest-head antagonism. That is not the path of the old school. You hear so many talking about the antagonism between TA and CT… and you just have to shake your head knowing that they have 2/3 of the equation in theory only.
Sure, along the way you become a very good, and possibly even a very popular and rich performer, but you shouldn’t settle for being a popular tenor only, or for people lauding you on forums and on Facebook. You should seek an evermore refined technical approach to your voice, even when you are in a flourishing career. Why? Because, stuff happens! You might be on top of the tenor world, and then all of the sudden you have a bad case of reflux and a cough at the same time, rupture a capillary which leads to scarring on the edge of your vocal fold, and then all of the sudden your technique isn’t working anymore.
Or perhaps, more commonly, you may find that a certain role pulled you very much into a certain focus of mind on the sense of space and darkness of the voice, and all of the sudden you find that the ringing qualities you had for so long are suddenly gone and you don’t know how to get them back… and you have to perform on top of that. Trust me, you didn’t just get there suddenly. There were minute changes in your focus in listening to your own voice which morphed your mental intention of what the voice should feel and sound like. The modification in intention lead to a gradual shift in functionalities of the 20 somewhat coordinations that are necessary to keep the voice. Is there a reason why Pavarotti was a great “A mes amis” tenor in 1970 and then started cracking high Cs in the late ’70s? Definitely. Is there a reason why Corelli became increasingly more chesty and stiff after age 45? Definitely.
What if you have a little bit of arthritis as you age, or your nutrition is such that you have flares of joint problems and then all of the sudden your top voice isn’t working because the cricothyroid joint is inflamed and not working properly? Suddenly your larynx won’t pivot and wont allow the chords to stretch correctly.
Or perhaps you found brightness by thickening the chords through shortening them excessively in the passaggio and top rather than by bringing them together through the correct voce magra mechanism (learned through voce finta)? Then all of the sudden you have a very bright EARTHBOUND ringing voice that can’t handle the passaggio very well or soft singing.
Or maybe your voice is so far built on falsetto that every time you seek to get a full voice it tends to get darker and overblown. To compound the problem people tell you that you need more chest voice so they lead you to get darker and get more of a rumble in the chest (head voice intensity, looseness) instead of getting brighter and laryngeal, which is what chest does…
Perhaps it was the dogged quest for understanding the passaggio of the great tenors that lead me to get myself to lessons with tenor Arrigo Pola (Pavarotti’s first teacher) and discover a few things about registration. I have written about Pola’s approach before, but let me go over it here again just to reiterate a few significant details about the idea of vocal registers in the Italian tradition, both modern and old.
Pola had you sing very bright in the lower voice, but very natural. Then between C and F he would place his hand in front of his face parallel to the ground, with the thumb heading toward the right, the index finger toward the left, with the right angle formed by index and thumb directly in front of the mouth, and would give the clear impression of the voice expanding right at the palate (sotto il palato) between C and F. Then with the passaggio the hand would flip upwards going from parallel to the floor to vertical with the thumb now pointing upwards, indicating the voice had turned over the palate, which was keeping a lid on it in that middle range.
This is a first step for the beginner. Understanding the “giro della voce” – the turn of the voice – is the most essential thing for tenors, but is also beginners stuff. True, it is a defining point separating tenors that will likely have a career from those who probably wont, but beyond that, it becomes quickly common and non-descriptive in terms of bravura. 90% of tenors that study don’t get the giro. So it is a huge selective force in tenordom. But once you get it, knowing how to tune the harmonics so as to produce a highly refined and consistent sound is an ongoing quest, and you have to know how to discern the sounds and the feelings so that you can adjust your approach as you age and as you navigate through the realities of how repertoire impacts your approach longterm. A small adjustment resulting from the impact of a passage in an aria or a segment in a role, if focused on, can dominate your mind’s attention and significantly shift your “intention” resulting in different coordinations over the course of a year. If you have success with a wrong approach, you may end up convincing yourself that you have to maintain that deviation. All of this is typically a tacit process and not fully conscious. This is why you need a good teacher to correct aberrations as they occur… and they will occur. You need to be brought back on track so as to not let your mental intention drive you in a direction that might amplify itself into disastrous results over the course of two or three years of singing.
Over the next few days I am going to approach this discussion about vocal registers. I will suggest some exercises to you as well. You have to pretty much realize that the tenor voice has distinct areas that you have to know how to navigate. The zone below middle C, between C and F, F# and G#, and A natural and above. There are specific functions that dominate in those areas, that you have also in other areas, but in different ratios. So, for example, in the high voice (when you correctly position the vocal tract) vocal fold action is correctly characterized by a heightened interarytenoid coordination producing “raggi sonori” – sound rays (old school tradition in Italy). This action that glues the chords together laterally is not entirely absent when you descend below middle C and the chords are thicker and more easily adducted. Sure, the voce magra mechanism is certainly not as prominent as the thicker chord chest mechanism down below middle C, but it has to be there to an extent in order to not rely to heavily on laryngeal appoggio. Who is going to tell you when you have gone too far? Quick answer: you have to learn to discern this. Sure, you have to have a teacher that helps you navigate those waters (good luck), but you are the one that has to ultimate get this. It takes years of training before picking up a song book. So since most tenors wont do that because they believe in the false destructive philosophy of some (unfortunately and undeservedly influential people) who say that if you are 27 and not in a full blooming career, your chances have gone away.
My opinion… if you are in your early 20s and studying voice, you shouldn’t look at an aria book or do anything but scales and phrases for 3 years. Academia is the death of voice for this reason. They want to show their students can sing. Ridiculous… They shouldn’t take anyone that hasn’t had at least 3 years of consistent studies and has a proven vocal technique. No school dealing with beginners that has them sing songs or arias is worth even mentioning.
I apologize for not posting for a few weeks on this blog. I have gotten the emails, and I apologize. The development of 2UArts.com has proven challenging as programmers are almost as fickle as tenors… but the site is almost ready to start its active marketing. (2UArts is my brainchild in cooperation with a few friends, and will deal with webcasting live and recorded video of performing arts events worldwide, bringing the brick and mortar theater to the Internet audience much more aggressively).