Passaggio: Voce di Petto

In an email I was asked to clarify what I meant in my previous post when I said:

“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.”

Apparently I was criticized online for the scientific value of this statement, so perhaps I should explain further, and also apologize if my science is not exact.  Unfortunately, critics seldom ask questions; they typically tell you what you meant and then criticize what they say you meant.  But it’s all good… Discussions like these are easily misunderstood and therefore, misrepresented.

I try to find scientific correlates to the Italian method – a method that undoubtedly developed an approach deeply rooted in transmitting knowledge through a process of discovery centered around sensations and subjective imagery.  So I am very interested in hearing about the science because I would like to find the objective correlates behind the traditional subjective concepts passed on to  me, and those I have experienced first hand as a  singer; but let’s remember that the science is ONLY a language that allows communication among those interested in communicating with that language.  Developing into a legendary singer has never required scientific knowledge or objectively rooted terminology. I don’t mean to downplay the value of scientific language in the process of learning how to sing, but rather just want to put it in its right spot which is minor at best… and that is coming from someone who would LOVE to see exact scientific language in everything.  It is not an effective pursuit in learning this art in my opinion.  

The Italian method is profoundly rooted in the subjective, in experiential feedback, in creating mental images, in learning how to discern sounds, hear individual overtones in your own voice, and discovering how to tune those harmonics based on discerning how the mechanisms producing them are experienced audibly, physically, spiritually, and abstractly – a time proven approach to learning the art of the opera singer. 

I have a wonderful tenor-friend-student who has to think consistently and feel his voice vibrating outside of him… never egotistically absorbing it within himself.  When he does this, he almost always gets the right sound.  How does one explain this scientifically?  You can try.  I do.  But, in the end, it won’t make the tiniest difference in learning for him.  But admittedly things like that are fun to speculate on. 

I have found that as in all objective scientific inquiry, the language of science endows the user of the language with an implicit authority conveyed by the empirical process itself.   This at times can be quite unfortunately misused as we see on youtube and elsewhere many often hurling appalling insults and nasty criticisms at singers all based on the application of “science” to what they think they hear.  This is very unfortunate and damaging to the student who gives any ear to this chatter.  There certainly is a clear difference between knowing the science of singing, knowing what you hear, and knowing how to lead a singer in their development.  

I was lucky to have my father, and other mentors like Bergonzi, Corelli, Pola, Raimondi, my AVA coaches and Bill Schuman, all good mentors.  Out of these however, I think only my father and Bergonzi were in neighbors of the old school.  This old school method can even take some modest larynges like my own and make the possessor into a much better singer than what was expected.  I wish I had always followed my father’s advice and not taken some detours… sure, but overall I was very lucky, especially as I hear singers who have been butchered by hacks.  Unbelieveable… the things I hear teachers tell their students…  But overall, there is much more than just technique in being an opera singer of significant talent. Great focus, discipline, courage, faith, firmness of mind, patience, humility, health, etc…

Now to my criticized statement, I speak in the language of the Italian method:  when we sing with strong chest voice (registro di petto) the voice gets brighter and more earthbound, piu’ laringea (laryngeal) in its appoggio.  In its bi-locality (laryngeal and mask) the laryngeal gets stronger, and the mask, while clearly “ringy” has no defined sensation as we get heavier.  The brightness is not focused but rather like a spray gun, emits a buzzing cloud into a high harmonic range.  Harmonic intensity extends upwards even above 10,000 hz. We see this clearly in Pavarotti, Corelli, Del Monaco, Alagna, and many other modern tenors – great tenors; and we can see the negative effects on tenors of lesser talent who because of their enharmonic sound seemed like they were shouting instead of singing. 

The same harmonic problem occurs when a singer sings with too much head voice in order to darken the voice,  loosening it and overdarkening it in the middle and low; and then to go up they push chest into the voice rather than close the cords with the correct voce magra mechanism.  This happens often in tenors who sang as baritones before.  They start off thinking head dominant, but because they don’t know the voce magra mechanism they push chest as they ascend.  So they get an overdarkenned middle voice and a screamy or whiney top.  The problem is still too much chest but for different reasons.

Conversely, if you study the sound of Bjoerling, Caruso, Martinelli, and many other old school tenors you will notice a drastic reduction in harmonic strength above 4,000 hz. and a virtual muting of non-harmonic sound.

From what I understand of the science, the chest mechanism shortens the cords and in so doing creates a thicker edge where the cords can come into contact, enriching the voice with higher harmonics.  Now my misunderstood statement was that if the cords are shortened excessively, the passaggio can get brighter.  Apparently this statement was distorted into meaning that the cords are exclusively made short with no antagonism from CTs muscles and with no contribution from the IAs – an absurd straw man that was argued against.  My statement should’ve begged the obvious question “excessive compared to what?” Surely not to a voice devoid of CT and IA activity.

I will let scientists discover whether there can be a variance in the amount the cords can stretch in producing a pitch in the F# – G# range.  My bet, and I think it is a very good one, is that the cords can vary in their length to a certain extent based on the level of antagonism between TA and CT muscles and still produce the desired pitch.  If this is true then I believe I have my answer as to why heightened chest produces a voice that is felt more laryngeally and that is significantly brighter, particularly above  the 3,500 hz. level.  I believe the thicker contact edge is the reason.  Assuming adequate medial compression, I think the thicker cord will produce more noise. 

But it doesn’t matter really.  The old school gave answers way before any objective analysis ever took on the task.  I know the old school method one hears in Bjoerling, Gigli, Caruso, Lauri Volpi, Schmidt is the result a very precise tuning of sound from F# upwards that focuses on maintaining a deep OO position which has significant depth and height; and then closing that looser position with the correct squillo mechanism, which I believe is characterized by a measured but significant IA action, and a very precise balance of chest (and of course correct vocal tract positioning), the result of which the old school would call voce squillante, voce magra, raggio sonoro, perhaps even pharyngeal voice mechanism, as some argue,  etc.  Without enough chest the voice would remain just a voce finta, which is very weak, though it has an acoustic signature demonstrably similar to full voice, but far weaker in decibels and body.

Passing from voce finta to full top voice generates a very real sensation of the vocal fold activating muscularly…  Going too far feels like a rigidity in the larynx (I think this is excessive antagonism between TA and CT).  So it’s important to not think of going full blast in volume.  Do not exceed a baseline of effort.  Focus more on not “blowing past” the squillo, or also not pressing against the ringing.  If your cords are correctly closed and ringing in the voce finta, when you pass to the full voice they should continue to ring that way, just much louder.  Your sense of flow should continue.  When done correctly the air is not jammed against the cords nor is the sound overly narrowed.  This requires a very careful and gradual insertion of chest.  Too much chest brought in quickly will make the pitch drop and the voice drop into the pharynx and lose its focal point in the correct sinus spots (punti d’appoggio).  It will probably also lift your larynx.   The tilt forward of the larynx is opposed.  The process of achievement of balance in this is a real hit and miss, and so you need someone to pilot you into the sound in minute ways.  It is not easy to maintain the firmness of the OO position when going into full voice.  It requires a long period of training to learn to hear this.

So increased chest in the passaggio can increase Chest Voice brightness –  this is what I was referring to in my statement.  The old school tenors had a great amount of velvet in the middle voice and passaggio. Even though their sounds were tremendously focused, the ring was compact and very harmonic.  This process requires a very well trained First Layer in the vowel.  Some call this falsetto, but falsetto does not have notable overtones.  The first layer is a sound within your sound… it is a function yielding specific results.  By tuning the sound you draw out its impact on the other aspects of the voice.  So by tuning the 1st layer, you impact the other functions of the voice which yield other overtones.  You can’t get this by getting breathy and falsetto-ish.  You must learn to tune the 1st layer within the context of efficiency.

Similarly, you can have a very incredibly defined way to produce Singer’s Formant (Squillo), or you can just pull out the spray gun and instead of having 3 harmonic peaks at the 5th, 6th, and 7th harmonics you can have a clustered mix of harmonic and non-harmonic sounds ( which extent to the 8th,9th, 10th harmonic areas, etc.) .  Tuning a very harmonic sound in the squillo and reinforcing the 5th harmonic from A natural upward is a lost art and requires a very specific concept of how the sound is produced. 

When singing this way there is no such thing as “the vowel”… a vowel is the result of a few vocal functions that target specific harmonic areas.  I can sing an AH but be thinking of an OO and EH and a little OH-EUX mix… every one of those “vowels” representing more a specific function targeting harmonics and not actual vowels; and when activated correctly, the listener hears the AH that they are expecting, even though the singer is not thinking of an AH per se.  The listener will hear the vowel they want… you sing  the correct function.

Anyway, the right old school squillo is not a loose sound.  There is a certain firmness that is felt in the position of the OO.  The OO is thought of as almost a fixed sound within the context of a vibrating (I.E. vibrato) sound.  My father would equate this to a fog horn… the core of the sound must be a deep and tall OO that resembles a fixed vibratoless sound.  This is only a mental intention, and while the singer may try to produce this portion of their sound with this intention of straightness, in reality the effect is quite the contrary.  I believe this is the conundrum which often presents itself in understanding Garcia’s words regarding singing with a straight tone, which in fact, his best singers never did.  With the firm OO, the voice finds its connection to the breath, the cords harness the breath correctly through the EE/EH mechanism yielding the upper harmonics, and the vibrato actually stabilizes.  This firmness in the OO is severely damaged by inserting too much Voce di Petto – chest voice.  Why?  I think its because the balance required which favors a taut position in an elongated cord is overpowered by the TA musculature… but that is speculation.  I will leave that to the scientists to discover.  All I care about is that too much Chest Mechanism produces a sense of loss in the firmness of the OO, and the lightness and precision of the organized ring gives way to an orgy of sound that in no way resembles the exact nature and sensation of the isolated harmonic structure of true old school singing.

Is that a bad thing?  No.  It just depends on your acceptable aesthetic of singing.  Some feel Corelli is the best tenor ever.  Others think he is a pygmy compared to Martinelli or Lauri Volpi (let it be told that Corelli considered himself inferior to LV, which says something).  Some lavish praise on Gigli and others on Di Stefano.  Truth is that technique, while important, becomes truly secondary.  One of the greatest tenors of all times was IN FACT my fellow Sicilian Pippo Di Stefano.  He was a great technician save a few INCREDIBLY DUMB departures from the tradition.  But he communicated the true essence of this music.  Learning technique should be a perfecting of communication.  Unfortunately, I myself am guilty at times of a tendency to deconstruct that which is undefinable.  When we try to deconstruct too much we rob learning and singing of its true essence which is spiritual.  If you trust anything I say trust this: learning how to sing is a spiritual affair interwoven with heart, faith, humility, passions, and abandon in the moment of creation, whether in learning or in performing, if such a distinction can be made.

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2 responses to “Passaggio: Voce di Petto

  1. Very interesting and didactic

  2. with regard to the possibility of short folds and long folds producing the same pitch, we only need to look at a violin. you can produce the same note with any of the strings. The thicker the string the shorter it needs to be to produce the same note. in this way it looks likely that your original hypothesisis correct or at least within the realms of possibility such that noone should be able to catergorically deny without evidence.

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