Mar 18 2013

My Biggest Vocal Mistake

Recently I subbed for my church choir. I had been the Tenor section leader/soloist for a few years but resigned two and a half years ago. I had a similar position in Greenwich, Connecticut when I lived in New York. Classical Singers will be familiar with these “Church Jobs”.

The catch-22 with these positions is often a voice that is well suited to being a soloist is not well suited to singing in a choir. That’s not to say they can’t do it. It is just not as comfortable.

I know there are plenty of singers that have shared my experience. I never felt comfortable singing in the choir. Especially in the choirs I have sung in, which have been small and I have been either the only tenor or one of two.

Which magnifies the catch-22, if you sing at a comfortable level, because of the tessitura you will stick out and not blend. If you sing lighter the part doesn’t have enough presence because of the small number of singers.

What I always fell into was the bad habit of holding back, or muting, my voice. This creates some serious imbalances in the instrument because there is too much resistance to the air pressure. It follows that the act of singing becomes much more work than it should be.

The reason I tell this story is because this particular recent Sunday I felt totally comfortable through the whole service. I sat there between hymns thinking, “I can finally truly sing. I can do what I want with my voice. I don’t have to resort to singing either full or disconnected.”

Those were basically my choices for years. Now, this is not to say that I couldn’t sing. I’m talking about a level of coordination that is beyond what the listener can distinguish. You can sound good to others a long time before you reach a level that is satisfying to your sensation.

But the key for me has been what I have learned and committed to over the past nine months or so. And that is accepting that I naturally have a lower tenor voice. This makes it harder to sustain the tessitura of most choral music.

As a result of that change of mindset I am able to approach the challenges of the choral repertoire in a more successful way. This is an example of learning to see the reality of my situation like I discussed in a blog post last year. http://vocalwisdom.com/facing-reality/ (as I said, we all need to do it)

So by understanding what the true nature of my voice actually is I can now know what will be necessary to deal with the challenges I will face in various repertoire. This may very well be the ultimate reason we must understand the nature of our unique voice. So we have an accurate expectation of what is needed to meet the challenge of the repertoire.

I’ve heard it before from others, they believe their voice is a soprano but they have difficulty with higher notes. Or any variation of this. I thought I was a lyric, then a lyric-spinto tenor. But I could never deal with the tessitura of the repertoire. I always thought that I just needed to improve some more and then I’d be able to do it. But it never happened, even as I improved quite a bit.

At some point we have to realize that it is not a problem with the coordination. It is a problem with the conceptualization. Because I believed my voice to be lighter than it naturally is I unconsciously altered my voice to fit that concept.

Once I changed my concept my function became more complete and everything became much easier to sing. I guess it basically comes down to we absolutely must use our voice. Our true voice. Not what we believe our voice to be or worse, what we want our voice to be. Unfortunately we can’t get the voice we want. We can only have the voice we are born with.

Of course we can want to use the voice to its greatest potential. But that must be based on what it actually is.

And that is my biggest vocal mistake. Allowing myself to avoid my true nature.

Even with the knowledge and understanding of the voice I have gained over all of these years it was still possible for me to fall into the trap.

The frustrating part for me is my gut has been telling me this for a long time. Even as far back as College. But because “everybody is a lyric something” in College I had that mindset ingrained. So I modeled the great lyric tenors of Fritz Wunderlich, Luciano Pavarotti and Jussi Björling.

As a result most of the teachers I worked with never really considered the possibility that I wasn’t a lyric tenor. Even in my 30s when I would experiment with Otello in my lessons it was hard to feel permission to really go that direction. Especially since it felt right. It felt like where my voice wanted to be. Although mine was more like a child Otello at that time than a Big Boy.

It is interesting that a teacher I consulted with for a while a few years ago compared my voice to Jon Vickers. Who was a Dramatic/Helden tenor. So I wonder why he didn’t suggest I explore that repertoire. Because the Dramatic/Helden repertoire is quite different than lyric and Lyric-Spinto. It is written with a lower center and more emphasis on the middle and low voice. And coincidentally is exactly where I am now. The repertoire I am learning just happens to be what Jon Vickers sang.

Considering the fact that my voice always felt more comfortable in the low and middle range, and had strength there, now it makes complete sense that my voice fits that category. But it is hard to make that move.

Which is why I want to talk about it so others that might be dealing with similar issues can find some help.

An odd byproduct of this situation is when you sing lighter it is difficult or even impossible to sing high. But when the voice is connected as it is meant to be and more completely active high notes that seemed unreachable become a natural part of the range.

On the surface it seems backwards because we think we should be able to sing higher if we lighten up. But the reality is by “lightening up” we are really disconnecting so the instrument doesn’t have the stability it needs to adjust for the complete range.

It just doesn’t seem like the completely active voice would be easier to negotiate the high range, especially with a more intense voice. But that is exactly how it is. And why every voice needs to be used completely.

Another aspect of this mistake of mine has to do with a unique characteristic of my voice. I have always had an intense ring/metallic quality in my tone. This is just there naturally and easily. It is not a result of pinching or forcing the voice. And it increases as the scale is ascended. But it has always made it feel like I am singing louder than everyone else if I sing in a healthy, complete manner.

This is a major trap for singers with an intense voice. Because what I mistakenly did was disconnect to diminish that natural “ping”. Which when discussing it sounds idiotic because that is the quality that many people are trying to achieve. But with inaccurate expectations and trying to fit in it is easy to make this mistake.

The result is things never really coordinate and the voice sounds difficult and just not right. One thing that needs to be understood for anyone dealing with this is that it isn’t completely a self-inflicted problem. All voices tend to be more difficult to coordinate the bigger or more intense they are. So they do require a deeper understanding because they tend to be less naturally automatic.

I am thankful that I am finally singing to my full potential. I am working on repertoire that is challenging but that I can comfortably sing through without difficulty. Which happens to have the reputation of being the most difficult repertoire in the tenor category. But that is another lesson in itself. Because supposedly easier repertoire is impossible for me.

Please leave comments or questions below, especially if you have had experience dealing with these types of issues. Thanks.

  1. Having sung in my school’s choir for 3 years and being one of two people capable of singing the bass line (I consider myself a bass-baritone though as I’m more comfortable in my upper range), I’ve been in the same situation. A situation made especially difficult as our teacher focuses a lot on choral arrangements of pop, rock and musical pieces to keep the younger people engaged — after 3 years of regular performing, I still feel more comfortable doing a solo than singing with the group. In a solo, there’s nothing to compare my voice to. (Really, the only reason my voice stands out is because everyone else just drags their chest register up as far as they can. At that point, they go into falsetto.)

    Conformity will always be both a feature and a problem within any group. It takes courage to stray from the norm and often gets frowned upon, but it’s essential for the preservation of vocal health — which is, I suppose, my main motivation to not mind if others think I’m a bit strange.

  2. Winnie Goree

    This post on soloist as choral singers is outstanding! As my voice has matured, I have found it increasingly difficult to sing choral music. I’m a mezzo soprano. So many directors seem to want a little boy alto sound that is straight toned, light and breathy. I would be moved to the back row. The last choir that I sang for had a director, who stopped the rehearsals, if I let any tone escape from my mouth. So, I finally gave up on choral singing.

  3. Thank you Hugo and Winnie. You each are bringing up even other issues with singing in a choir that challenge many of us. Being more vocally coordinated than the others in the choir unfortunately becomes a problem for us because we’re the one that is different and sticking out.

    Then the issue of what the director wants being unhealthy or just not natural for your instrument. Tough situations for any of us. Thanks.

  4. That was a great post Michael and I think it is not only yours but the biggest vocal mistake of many, since many common problems result from not listening to oneself, but all the “friendly advices” and “understanding” we seem to get from all sides. The truth is, nobody is in your shoes and knows better than you how you feel.

    I can relate to this very well. In quest for balanced voice, it took me quite a while to accept that my voice gravitates, naturally, to singing countertenor. I’ve never had anything against it, because it always seemed to be the end product of my voice, but was always thinking this is just a “phase” on the vocal jurney to a tenor or baritone or whatever. In choir I’ve sung bass, without success – in terms it never felt right, it was difficult. Then as a tenor, but it was extremely hard and would end up in me always being fatigued after singing, because I tried to over lighten the lower part and sort of push the higher part as a consequence and have a non existing middle where I was lost. And then I learned to accept the fact that I feel most comfortable singing as a countertenor and I felt expressively finally free – in terms my voice doing what I want, even though it is still a work in progress and there is a lot to do, but I’m at least not blocking it. At least it worked when singing privately at home.

    But it never stops…this brought a completely new set of problems…First of all this stigma of “weirdness” and getting over all those “is everythign ok with you…I mean…down there” type of questions. But one learns to deal with this, and even with the fact you have to stand up when a conductor says “women please stand up.” (Though I’m becomming very picky about this last thing…) But the new set of vocal obstacles started when, as a reult of previous vocal development, my voice became too big and too “ringy” for what most believed to be “the right” countertenor sound. It would always be that I will loose my voice, that I am hurting myself, countertenors shouldn’t sing that big, you should sing lighter etc. and sometimes they don’t say it, but you sort of feel the obligation to follow what the conductor wants, since a choir is a group work. Even though I never felt fatigued after 2 hours of forte singing at home, but always fatigued after less than half an hour of supposedly right floating choral pianos – when interestingly notes which didn’t seem high at all, become “high” and difficult, due to over lightening. So in this situation it happened that I too often would lighten up the tone too much, often even uncociously among the people around me as a desire to fit in, or not to stand up and would have to rebalance my voice after each abuse in the choir rehersal which lasts 2+ hours.

    So at one point one needs to learn to say no, even if the group is made from the nicest people ever. I found out I actually enjoy singing repertoaire which doesn’t make me musically that happy more, if I am allowed to sing as I feel comfortable, than sing repertoaire which I might musically like, but in a group where I constantly feel I have to compromise my voice too much and as a result leave the rehersals with a fatigued voice and miserable.

    The point of everything being…if you can sing at home or somewhere freely, without difficulty, fatigue and beautifully, without any prejudices and “friendly advices” about your own voice…your guide needs to be this feeling. Avoid as much as possible those groups, people and musicians which don’t allow you to sing that way. Let them be happy and make others happy with their music. But you have to move on to where you feel right, where you’re accepted and respected for who and what you or your voice are, and not only that, but ideally where you might even feel you’re learning, progressing and growing from this healthy base in case you are aiming at further development. One really needs to look at ones own interest with that, otherwise you’ll always end up pleasing others and never outgrow your troubles.

  5. Michael, I believe we are really talking about two major areas, 1), coming to grips with and honoring the Fach we find ourselves in and 2),dealing with alterations of the technique to accomodate others and fulfill our need to participate in choir.
    (1)As we discussed in my last lesson with you, I find myself troubled with the fact that the voice can no longer reach the heights I used to reach a decade ago. I had to face the fact that the voice ages with the body, and as I find myself in a new Fach, I am learning to enjoy Otello, Aida, and some Wagner – not quite the taste of my younger years. One teacher told me we simply can’t kick ourselves for not singing high notes all our lives. [EXCEPT (Google YouTube: Angelo Loforese 92years] In their early years, unlike yours and my early years, famours tenors were molded to become superstars – Caruso sang Alto in Choir as a young boy, Jussi Bjoerling sang in the Quartet with his brothers and David had him kick out high Cs all day long. Luciano sang 1st tenor in choir under a gruelling schedule. I believe if Domingo can get up on the stage (this season) and sing a Baritone role (Germont) without retribution, I too can consider lower tenor roles and not feel guilty. In my opinion, (from what I heard) your quality and tamber does sound like Vickers – the floating, lyric side of his voice!
    (2), One teacher told me that trained soloists should never sing in choir.., that changes made to accomodate choir singing can ruin the technique. Unfortunately, my devotion to my religion comes first and since God gave me my gift, I find it hard to say no… (I guess someday I’ll find out if it was a big mistake). Even in large choirs where the director demands stylistic straight tone, it goes completely against my natural vibrato production. Even though I can be successful at blending the volume, my piercing technique still sticks out – even with 24 other tenors in the choir. The conductor has a special cue for me when I stick out – but hasn’t kicked me to the curb yet! It’s frustrating, but worth it.

  6. Thanks a lot for sharing your testimonial. I saw myself all the time on your words. It took me a long time also to comprehend the nature of my voice. People tried big time to reduce the volume of my voice and when I tried to do so, it became always more difficult to sing.
    Now I finally have found the way throughout my range. I´m still improving my top notes, but how you said: I´m going there with my big and natural voice.
    It was so wonderful to read your testimonial.
    I wish you all the best! And thanks a lot one more time. I´m loving your website! Great job!

  7. This recent thread is highly interesting to me, as a lover of singing (by others, and who long ago gave up any hope of being able to sing outside the shower). So much of what Michael and others have expressed here is completely consistent with what I heard from a singer I admire greatly, Robert Gambill (b.1955), whose career began about 1980 with the light tenor roles of Rossini and Mozart. By 1995 he realized that he couldn’t sing that repertoire any more (he has said that he became physically ill trying to maintain that career) and began study in Berlin to make the transition to Heldentenor.
    See the biography http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Gambill

    To hear Gambill during this period, go to
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbUGSCyOk0E
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FE9dBqYHsXw
    Notice the flexibility he maintains in this period, especially in the first aria (Graun): excellent trills! Three years later I heard his superb Florestan (Stuttgart 1999).

    Here’s Act 2 of his 2003 Tristan at Glyndebourne (love duet starts at about 17:00):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pm5Y4QjIAN8

    To hear the earlier voice, here’s an excerpt from his 1987 L’Italiana DVD, e.g. about 0:50: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTqd_3qYb2s

    He now combines performing with teaching at the University of Berlin.
    -Dan Shea

  8. Thanks for sharing this, Dan. I made the minor edits you requested by email. I have recently discovered Robert Gambill in my research of Tristan as I am studying the role now. But I did not know about his earlier life as a Rossini tenor. I have to be honest, I am not impressed by this singer in his representation as a Heldentenor.

    But his Rossini singing from when he was younger exhibits real vocal skill. Nice clean vibration and flexibility through a wide range. I don’t hear these qualities in his Helden singing. But I don’t mean this as a reason for anyone not to like his singing. If his expression is enjoyable then by all means people should like him. Thanks again, Dan.

  9. Carlos Saenz

    Hey man, cool blog. I tend to agree with your methodology and opinions, especially as regards the tenor voice. I particularly liked your article about “How NOT to Sing Opera”. Good stuff. Thing is, why can’t I find any examples of your singing on YouTube? I would like to hear what you sound like.

  10. Hello, Carlos. Thanks for your feedback. The reason you can’t find any examples of my singing is because I haven’t put any out there. I haven’t been satisfied with my own singing in the past enough to do any recording. Now I’m getting more satisfied but it just hasn’t been a priority. But I do plan on it at some point. Sorry to disappoint.

  11. Carlos Saenz

    Oh no worries, man. No disappointment, here. I respect your methodology and what you have to say, so thought it might be interesting to hear you sing. All best.

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