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.
Thanks for your comment. Yes, she definitely connected with many different types of listeners. But she did go through some questionable vocal choices.
I had always thought she lost her voice during the Eden tour .
To me her voice was not the same even on the La Luna album .
I saw the Eden tour schedule , could not believe it . ” Greed ” ruined that once
beautiful voice . I have a pirated video of a Eden concert where she was apparently
singing sick, ” hard to watch “. All of the learned classical people can say what they
want, but there has never been any other classical vocalist that that had the impact
on so many different types of people from rockers , to country Red Necks that
Sarah Brightmans Time to Say Goodbye album did .
Thanks for joining in and sharing your observations, Mikko. I can relate to your feelings.
Just a small and several-years-late comment: I was searching for Solveig’s Song on Youtube and ended up listening to a live recording of Brightman, among many others. Her diction was so all over the place that I actually could not figure out if she was trying to sing in Norwegian or English until several verses into the song. It was English, of course, if severely mangled. The contrast to all the opera greats (Bonney, Mattila etc.), whose recordings of the song are on Youtube, is stark, to put it mildly. I don’t really understand what people ever saw or heard in Brightman, but that’s just me. Her whole style and sensibility as an actress just rubs me the wrong way.
Yes, I agree. Thank you.
I’ve been listening to the original cast recording of Phantom, went to look something up and stumbled on this article. Watching a couple of videos I was somewhat appalled: I couldn’t listen to much of the 5 Phantoms video because she was so flat on some notes!
I do hope she has a return to form. She may never have been one of the greats, but I find hers and Michael’s performances very enjoyable on the cast recordings. To hear her singing out of tune is very sad.
Thanks for this insight, Katrina. Good point.
another reason why her voice has deteriorated is because she had vocal nodules removed to at somepoint
That could definitely be part of it, Tanya. A lot of the time vocal issues are just a form of compensation. We just can’t quite do what we are trying and the body needs to compensate to get it done. Thanks for your input.
In my humble and uneducated opinion, she has simply fallen into poor practice habits (if any) and she has gotten older and let herself get out of shape. As singers get older, we have to practice and exercise more, not less. I attended one of her concerts in Calgary a few years ago and she was in very good condition; but there are quite a number of videos on youtube which indicate that she goes very up and down in her weight and, consequently, her vocal condition.
Hello and thanks for reading the blog. My guess is it sounds like she changed how she wanted to sound. And as a result is using her voice differently than she was for a while. I admit that I’m not a fan in the sense of following each album she makes. I don’t dislike her, I’m just not up on the specific times each version of her voice has appeared. But it does sound like she is using her voice much like she did when she first became well-known. It is more natural than the dark, mushy resonance she was using for a while. But the music also sounds more atmospheric than what she was doing. So maybe she changed her voice to fit that more. I really couldn’t know.
I first read this post a long while ago, but seeing as how the discussion is still on, I might as well ask a question.
Sarah recently released the single “Angel” from her upcoming album. As a huge fan of Sarah, yet well aware of the major downturn her singing has taken in the past decade (for me the Harem – Live from Las Vegas recording marks the first sign of big trouble), I was shocked to listen to this new single. I find her voice in the Symphony album, as well as in all her live appearances since, to be very different from her voice up to the Harem album. In between those two recordings, it lost its mellifluous – for a lack of better word that I know – timbre, resulting in a very weak and low version of its former self. What shocked me in “Angel” is that she suddenly sounds much more like the way she sounded around the time of the La Luna album. Since your understanding of these issues appears to be very solid, I wanted to ask if you think this means there is any hope that this marks a turning point towards improvement, or if it is nothing but the tricks of a studio recording.
Here is the song I speak of:
I’m actually seeing her live early next year. Looking forward to that!
Thanks for your comment, Jeni. I think what you are talking about falls into the area of musical expression and artistry. That is ultimately what the singer is trying to convey, and what each listener responds to. So if you like a singer in spite of vocal imperfections it is because their expressiveness and artistry spoke to you. That is what really matters, but for people interested in learning how to use their voice better and understanding how it works it is helpful to discuss the imperfections so they can identify them in their own voice.
I think the technicalities in the way Sarah pronounce words, delivery and breathing that you mentioned are right even I am not a music critique. I got the idea. I would just say that comparing her ’94 performance which you said: ’94 she keeps the tone “inside”, too rounded and dark and her ’08 performance which is too spread and bright, I would prefer the ’94. Though to mention, I simply like the 1994 until before Symphony album year.
What I can say, as a Sarah fan, I think what keeps me to be her fan is because of her natural voice I mean the timbre, if I am not mistaken, timbre is the distinct quality or attribute of a voice/ sound (I googled it) :D Also, I think taking outside the voice on the picture, I focus on the melody of the song itself. I really like the melodies on the songs and style of Sarah Brightman. It sounds peace and soothing for me in case of the Time to Say Goodbye, Eden, La Luna, Harem and Symphony albums which are the ones I have listened + Phantom of the Opera which is perfect for her voice.
I think some fans who are not quite familiar about the fundamentals or proper way of singing, was not able to notice all the imperfections of an artist. For the reason that if they liked it, they simply like it as a whole with the presence of the imperfections. They would not like it without the imperfections. Imperfections could make the sound beautiful to their perception, their taste. Well, just a hypotheses.
I am looking forward to her new album this 2013, the Dreamchaser. I hope she would have different approach and combine the good diction and delivery of words + breathing and her beautiful natural voice/ the timbre.
Hope this comment has a sense.
Hello JLB – Thanks for reading and your comment. I’m not sure if I understand your point. Yes, I would agree that someone would need to know how to say something before they sing it. I guess in my mind that is a given. Having a clear mental concept of what you are saying is the fundamental stimulus for the physical act of pronunciation. Without a clear idea of what is being said the body and nervous system won’t respond completely. And that is a reason for many poor voices. That is what I’m talking about regarding the larynx in the post.
But if you are asking about round and dark or smiling and bright as being elements of how to pronounce a word or phrase of words, no they do not apply to each other. The rounding or smiling are issues of resonance adjustments, not vowel forms. In singing you can, as Sarah Brightman showed, pronounce any vowel in either form. Usually doing so, at least to an extreme, will distort the vowel. But through intelligent use of these resonance forms we can maximize resonance while at the same time keeping the vowel character recognizable. That is the focus of much of what I discussed.
You do not want to be making big changes in the resonance form with the many changes in vowel while singing. In other words, we should not be rounding for all of the o and oo vowels and then smiling for all of the ay and ee vowels. This would come across as disjointed and irregular.
We want to balance the bright vowels with some round elements of the resonance form and balance the dark vowels with some bright elements of the resonance form. That is why I discuss the need for coordinating the combination of both elements. This creates a smoother line of vowel sounds which makes singing easier to do as well as listen to.
Hope that makes sense. Thanks.
I found this site because I had just listened to the YouTube clip of Sarah with the 5 Phantom’s and was wondering what the heck happened to cause the gasp-y breathing.
I don’t know much about singing. My singing experience is in the shower and in my car. :)
The OP makes the question of “round and dark” or “smiling and bright” and blending the two extremes. Wouldn’t you need to know how to say something before you try and sing it?
Again, I have no experience in singing and my comments/questions are being made in the interests of learning and not for any criticism of the OP and those who are more vocally experienced than I am.
Thanks for your comment, Kim. I agree that the coordination of the breathing is an important part of the situation. But I did explain my reason for not saying much about it in this quote, “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.”
The breathing coordination does have a role in the coordination of the onset. But it isn’t really a “support” issue but an issue of suspension.
Like Chris pointed out, the problem begins with a lack of coordination of the larynx. We can’t support something that isn’t there. If there is no laryngeal stability then support is not possible. Any attempt to support will result in forcing the breath through the vibration.
I think of it like a boat on the water. The water supports the boat just by being there, not by actively doing anything. If we move the breath in an attempt to support the tone we will be like a storm at sea and capsize the boat. If the larynx is not properly adjusted to phonate and resting on the support of the breath it is like a boat that has a huge hole in the bottom. The water just goes right through it and there is no support possible.
That is the point that gets overlooked. I didn’t say much about the breath and support because people are already talking about that too much. They are neglecting or overlooking the other half of the equation. The role of the larynx.
There has to be two complementary parts to the relationship. The legs of a chair cannot support you unless there is the platform of the seat. Everyone talks about the breath without any understanding of the platform needed to balance with resistance.
Hope that makes sense.
Here is the video in question: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UC5lMrQf69Q
Boy she makes hard work of a few lines, doesn’t she! I know very little about female voices, but her low notes sound a lot like a man trying to sing in falsetto below the staff. Her entire vocal mechanism appears to have collapsed. She can’t seem to phonate low without using exorbitant amounts of air – I think that gasp is actually a reflex from using up her residual lung capacity during the vocal line. There is no way you can use that much air and maintain the noble posture! While it may appear to be her breath support that is the key problem, isn’t it more likely to be laryngeal hypofunction (and therefore poor laryngeal coordination with the breath) that has led to her lack of breath support?
On a side note, why do all the phantoms sound like Timmy trapped down the well? I can’t work out whether it is bleed from the room acoustics or intentional?
I agree with all your principles of vowel formation and resonance, however you pay for too little importance to energized support aka breath management…..the basic principle that proper support will balance laryngeal function, and provide the means for the most natural vocal production. In the 1988 video, she was at her most natural and has deteriorated since, obviously due to poor training. The breath, no matter how small (and certainly not big) must be engaged at its deepest level, letting the diaphragm drop to it’s lowest elastic postion. One must practice feeling elasticity around the lowest ribs, only engaging the abs, becoming aware o the spread of the intercostals and engaging no muscles above. Sarah’s breathing technique consistently worsened over the years to the point where she visibly gasps for breath which, of course, will auomatically tighten the throat muscles among other things…..she doesn’t have a chance to improve anything because of the way she breaths. Vowel formations in well trained opera singers are much more natural than she will ever achieve at this point. “The rest of the phrase will only ever be as good as the co-ordination of the onset” Sarah has no co-ordination with respect to her breath, therefore will be unable to improve her “smiling and rounding” as she will always over-compensate with the formation of her language. Until she learns to support with easy energy in her body, she will never be understood, and will always hold far too much tension in her upper body. The 25th anniversary performance is a prime example of this….watch her gasp for breath.
Thanks for the comment, Jamie. Yours is the big question. And it’s not just her. There are singers all over that we could ask the same thing about. I don’t have an answer. I can only guess that the people she is listening to don’t really know what they’re talking about. Even though they are big name “teacher to the stars”. This is exactly why I talk about the things I do, because even with the highest level of singing and teaching there is a lack of basic understanding about the voice. A sad state.
I very much agree with you, overall. I’m a bit hazy about the more technical details, however. How come Sarah does not realise what has happened? How come her vocal teachers/coaches don’t sort it all out? It’s a crying shame. Sarah comes in for much criticism and, unfortunately, a lot of it is justified. I can’t understand how/why it has all come about.