It only seems natural that our discussion of Josh Groban would turn to others of his type. So we have some good comments from readers about Sarah Brightman that I would like to highlight and contribute to. She provides some good examples for us to learn from.
On Sarah Brightman’s own website, but also here,
you can actually see a very short video clip of her singing lesson with David Romano. It doesn’t show that much, but I think for someone who understands, he’ll see enough of what is being done. Fascinating, on that album, the one before it and all live performances after it, her singing changed for the worse drastically.
At first being a great fan of Brightman, but also Groban, I was always fascinated by the fact that singers such as them, before, used to actually sound good with a potential to evolve to great and in a period of few years deteriorate so much and remaining ignorant about it. One can only ask do they ever listen to themselves or self analyze what they do or how they sound?
When one looks at this, recorded in 1994 I believe at the same time as her album Fly where she vocally sounds superior, at least to me, to all her other albums and probably all the singers in this genre, it’s actually hard to believe that this is her singing, but it is an excellent, but also very sad example….
And a decade or so after it this happens…
…One can only stand in shock and ask oneself what the hell happened there? What needs to happen that a singer with obviously a very beautiful voice and quite good technique over a decade changes so drastically to sound worse, sing with less beauty and ability than ever in their life and yet, remain ignorant about the problem? I guess listening to others, and not yourself…
In the clip I earlier mentioned you can see David Romano say to Sarah Brightman “excellent”. And the fact that everyone, based on some earlier image you created, still keeps clapping after everything you sing, no matter how bad it sounds and you sell records like crazy, plus you have a fanatical fan-base, you in a way I think loose the touch with reality and can’t rationally judge yourself and what you do anymore.
If I think from my own perspective…If all the people around me were telling me how amazing I sound and audiences still react fanatically to everything I sing, plus I made tons of money from my records…Maybe I would also loose the sense of self criticism and analyticity I believe to be necessary when doing anything with your voice. It’s hard to say until you’re in the situation. But having in mind examples such as this one I believe help one to stay on the track…
These examples from Sarah Brightman are funny in a way. As a younger woman, she seemed to be looking for a “rounded” classical tone, and for that she used an excessively small and rounded mouth opening – I actually hear her singing “Pio Ioso” instead of “Pie Jesu”… Then as she got older, and had more success singing electronic/pop music, she goes for that weak breathy tone that in pop is always associated with a supposedly sweet voice. She has also changed her mouth position to the so-called “smile”, showing all of her front teeth, and as a result, all the vowels that previously sounded like “o” now sound like “e”.
Yes, but functionally, her voice is on a much higher level then, at least it seems to me.
Even though the vowels are over modified to the rounded ones when she sang classical, as she was probably aiming at sounding as dark as possible, but still not distorting the basic production of tone which seems more or less good and free untrapped with many constrictions one can see later, at least to me, correct me if I’m wrong, she “only” sacrificed diction to get that.
But when she sang pop back then it also sounded much more free and natural.
Later in her career she started to over-darken, not only by modifying the vowel to dark (what distorted diction), but also artificially imitating a dark tone. That seems functionally completely wrong.
But yes, the spread production now is quite obvious and somehow problems which one finds in the case of Groban now are also present in her singing, maybe due to same teacher. And interestingly others in the genre, such as Westenra. I was thinking that it maybe has something to do with trying to sound “young”, or what they believe that sound should be, in any case, trying to get a tone, not natural for the voice. Or maybe in a case of Brightman, singing a tessitura higher than what would be natural to her now.
I wanted to highlight these comments because Sarah Brightman is a big figure in the singing world. At least to a generation of young singers. I first heard Sarah Brightman from a friend who was obsessed with the Phantom of the Opera recording. This was back when Phantom was still running and she was making a big name for herself. I didn’t really know much about the voice at that time. Like most people, I thought she sounded like a classical singer in a musical. It seemed nice but I wasn’t really interested. I just noticed that she could sing really high.
As I got more understanding about the voice my tastes moved more to real classical singers. And mainly Tenors. I didn’t really care to listen to Sarah Brightman. But I would listen when she popped up on TV. I did notice at some point in the mid-90’s that it seemed like she started to really round and darken everything she sang. This was a noticeable difference from the clear tone she had originally. It seemed like she was trying to be more classical. But it made all the vowels seem mushy.
From my perspective now I can kind of see what she has been doing. Originally, from her Phantom time period, she sang in a fairly straight-forward manner. The vowels were pronounced without much altering, which tended towards spreading on some higher notes. And she always has had a somewhat breathy phonation, which contributes to spreading.
Here is an example from the 1988 Tony Awards:
She seemed like a natural singer with some defects. Certainly not perfect. Like I said, she never had a pure phonation at the glottis. This often happens when singing with microphones. And I hear an influence of trying to sound like a British Choir Boy. That sound is very common in England and is very unhealthy. But she was still a very good musical theater singer.
The video above from 1994 shows the change that I mentioned in the mid-90’s. It seems like a conscious decision to sound more “classical”. In some ways it improves her function. It definitely steadied the vibrato and made it more regular. And the tone is much more beautiful and touching. (I personally find it some of the only singing of hers that I enjoyed because it is the selection with the least amount wrong) But it also makes most of the words unintelligible. And for an artist that wants desperately to communicate this is a problem. I would describe this as a great example of the right idea poorly realized.
If we compare this singing with the subsequent video from 2008 we can make some very clear comparisons. Both of them are great examples of exaggerating the opposite ends of the balance spectrum. In ’94 she was too rounded and dark and in ’08 too spread and bright. This is why I always remind people that we are looking for balance. It is not enough to just do one or the other.
I am working on a post dealing with “vowel modification” that will discuss this more. But the basic idea is we need to keep our balance. Another rule to keep in mind is whenever faced with an “either-or” question the answer is usually both.
For example, regarding mouth form/pronunciation. These two examples we are looking at show the two basic possibilities we can choose between. She even takes them to an extreme. Then the question naturally arises, “which should we do?” Either round and dark or smiling and bright? Well, we should try to find a combination of both that will give us balance in the tonal result.
In the later performance we see her smiling and almost trying to have the tone as far out in front as possible. This is what I call “exposing the tone”, and is a big problem functionally. When we sing this way we are by-passing the majority of the resonating potential of our instrument. When we do this we throw the larynx, and the whole instrument, out of balance. This will cause stress to the larynx and break it down.
In the ’94 performance she keeps the tone “inside”, which is the reason for the great improvements in the quality. But what about the lack of clarity in the words? This is because the larynx still has an incomplete action. Containing the resonance helps to reinforce the vibration of the larynx, and there is a more complete resonance, so there is some improvement. But we still need to have a complete vibration of the vocal cords.
Another problem with the way she is doing this is she is in a static condition. We need to stay dynamic when we sing. In other words the adjustments must be free to change with the change of pitch and vowel and intensity. She keeps the form in a static condition, never changing.
I always say “clarity of the words comes from the larynx, not the mouth”. We often see singers trying to “pronounce clearly” by exaggerating the mouth opening. But this ruins the quality of the tone. And then we see the opposite where the singer emphasizes the quality of the tone, but we can’t understand the words. This is the very definition of the difference between musical theater and classical singing in the modern era.
I mentioned that her ’94 performance was the right idea but not properly accomplished. What should we do to properly realize this idea?
First is the action of the larynx. Every sound we make needs to be completely articulated by the larynx. This produces the source vibration sound that is amplified into the tone we hear. We need a nice, complete vibration source that we can then “mold” into tone.
Second, we need to work out the proper form of the mouth and resonators that will provide the most effective acoustic amplifier for the vibration sound coming from the larynx. These are two distinct functions that combine to provide the result of tone.
Some might be asking at this time “what about the breath?” We can’t help but have air pressure to feed the vibration. We don’t have to do much, if any, consciously. It will learn to improve its coordination with practice. But our breathing does best when allowed to follow rather than forced to lead.
When we learn to combine the smiling and the rounding together in a balanced way we can find a resonance condition that has the best of both worlds. Rich, round, beautiful tone while still retaining the clarity of the words. Then the determining factor between musical theater and classical is one of intensity and natural reaction to the different music. In other words we can think in the different style the same as an instrumentalist would. And the voice will respond to our different thoughts and intentions naturally.
The key difference when we combine the seemingly opposite forms is the opening and utilization of the top part of the air-way. The space above the palate and behind the nose. When we just round the resonance is contained lower in the oro-pharynx behind the mouth. When we just smile the resonance is allowed to escape out of the mouth and appear to be in front.
I’ve heard singers try and use this resonator to less-than satisfactory results. Like Josh Groban, for one. Again it comes back to the vibration of the vocal cords. If they don’t vibrate pure and complete some unvocalized breath will escape. When this happens it leaks breath into the resonator instead of vibration-sound. This is then noticed as nasality to some degree. If there is only vibration-sound then it is resonance.
This is the resonance experienced with the proper “ng” hum. But there are more ways to do the “ng” wrong than there are to do it right. So it is not fool-proof. I never could get the “ng” right until I learned to lift and open the upper resonator.
I should say again that when talking about specific singers we can “touch a nerve” with some fans. So I repeat that we are not discussing the artistic validity of the singer. That is up to each individual audience member to decide for themselves. If you like the performance, fine. If you don’t like it, that is fine as well. That is not for us to say for anyone else.
We are just looking at different examples of vocal function to help us learn and develop a deeper understanding. Hope this discussion has helped do that.
Comments and questions are always welcome below. Thanks.