I know I’ve been out of touch for a while and some of you are noticing. I know this because you’ve told me. So I’m going to get back to business and share with you what is new with me.
In late May I had a pretty exciting experience. My mentor, David Jones, was in Minneapolis for a Voice Teacher Seminar and I was able to see him for a couple lessons. This was great because I haven’t seen him or had a lesson in seven years since I moved from New York.
Now, I don’t know if I should admit this since I’m supposed to know my stuff about the voice. But I have always had trouble singing tenor repertoire in performance. Over the years my understanding and exercising have improved my vocal coordination a huge amount. But I continued to have difficulty actually singing repertoire I thought I was supposed to sing.
It has been this way all through my degree programs and for the 14 years since my Master’s degree. I originally assumed it was a deficiency in my technique. I always felt “if I can just figure such-and-such out I’ll be able to do it”. But as the years went by I did figure such-and-such out, and I still had difficulty. Which was frustrating because I knew what to do to make the voice work. I proved that everyday with the people I worked with. Plus, I experienced it in my vocalizing.
But when I would move from vocalizing to actual music I wasn’t comfortable and I found it difficult. Because of this I pretty much stopped trying to sing operatic repertoire and stuck to songs, where I could choose a key that felt more comfortable. I always felt like my voice was just centered a whole-step lower than the tenor repertoire I was trying to sing.
Over the past few years I have been gradually coming to the suspicion that I am not really a true tenor of the lyric or lyric-spinto type. I even experimented with some baritone arias from Verdi operas. They felt pretty easy and I could sing with my whole voice without holding back. But I also felt like I wasn’t truly a baritone, either. I had the range to sing higher baritone rep. But the character of the voice still didn’t seem like a baritone.
So that led me to think I must be some kind of lower tenor. I knew that when I tried to sing lyric tenor my throat would close and I just could’t sustain the tessitura. If I could transpose it down a step I had no problem. But that isn’t possible in the professional arena. At least if you aren’t already Placido Domingo.
Another thing I noticed when I would sing lyric tenor was as the melody ascended the scale, if I kept a comfortable connection and completeness to the voice, it would take on an intensity that felt inappropriate to the music. For the majority of my vocal life this caused me to back off or hold back as I sang higher. Especially in choral settings.
This would always cause me to disconnect from my voice. When we do that everything is lost, because when we disconnect all of the muscular coordination that controls pitch and registers doesn’t work. Plus, the throat usually closes as well.
The result of this disconnection was that my voice sounded thinner and constricted. And cut off from any high range. So the major problem was because of the thinner tone I sounded like a tenor but I didn’t have the range needed by a tenor. So I was stuck. For years.
The only positive of this eternal frustration was it forced me to try and figure out every single aspect of the voice and its behavior. This has resulted in my ability to assess and diagnose just about any case of malfunction in other singers. Plus, in my practice I was still learning to coordinate correctly. So eventually that has paid off.
I guess I just gave away the point of this post. As I mentioned I had been suspicious of the true nature of my instrument, even though I never really had presented it in performance. When I had heard from David that he was coming to town and I could have a lesson, the only question I had for him that I wanted to know was, “What is my fach and the appropriate repertoire I should be singing?”
That is the only thing I hadn’t figured out for myself in the whole realm of vocal questions. And actually, I could assess this in others. But, although I had suspicions and felt it, I couldn’t definitely declare it myself. Plus, it is an elusive thing with voices that aren’t obviously a certain type. It requires experience with a wide range of voices to be able to assess the true fach of a voice.
David admitted that he has gained a great deal of experience over the last seven years working with voices that don’t clearly fit into the classification system. And it’s lucky for me that he has because within a couple scales of our first lesson he told me that my voice is actually a Heldentenor.
He explained that in a lot of ways it behaves much like a Zwischenfach voice. Which means it is between voice types. That term is generally only used to describe female voices that can sing dramatic soprano or mezzo, and sometimes with dramatic mezzo or alto.
But in the case of the Heldentenor he explained that it is the one voice that is legitimately a “between” voice in the male category. I always think of these types of voices as being a combination of qualities from each. But I have noticed as I have been researching deeper into it that there is some variation in how different people define these characteristics.
As I said, I had been suspicious of this myself because it was the only explanation that really made sense with my experiences. And as soon as he said that to me I felt a liberation from all of the years of feeling inadequate. He gave me a reminder to keep my throat stretched and from then on the voice just sang like a horse running free in the field.
We tried the Wintersturme aria from Wagner’s Die Walkure and it was the first time I’ve ever sung an aria with absolutely no problems, not even the slightest discomfort. The voice just felt like it finally found where it wanted to be all along. It was absolutely easy.
And the feedback I was getting from David, and especially the observers who didn’t know me, was unlike any I had received before. I’ve been told I have a nice voice before, but I’ve never had anyone gush about it. David had me vocalize for the seminar of approximately 80 voice teachers as well, and I got the same response. But even more important than that is I felt right for the first time.
And the real lesson I want to emphasize is it felt easy because it was in the right “zone”. Not because I was trying to sing easy or I had done anything significantly different. In fact it is the opposite. I was singing more completely and more hooked up. More connected. It was literally within a couple minutes of starting the lesson that my voice showed itself. So it wasn’t really anything David “taught” me.
What he did do, though, was give me permission to be the voice I truly am. For better or worse that is all any of us can be. But it is the only way we will be able to survive. I think in the back of my mind I had a hang-up about allowing myself to be a Heldentenor. In some way I think I might have felt it pretentious because of the rarity of the voice type. Like I was saying “I’m more special”.
I actually still feel a little awkward talking about it because of that feeling. And I think that is why I needed someone else to declare that for me. I don’t know if that is a common feeling or if it is just a part of my personality. But once he said that definitely I felt like I was suddenly a viable performer. No more developing, no more figuring it out, no more getting ready.
And luckily for me this voice type is one of the few that can make their debut at a later age. It is generally understood that these types of voices don’t mature until the late 30s. That might be part of the reason for their rarity. How many singers stick it out until they are 38 or 40 without much success until the voice matures to reveal its true nature?
So what does this mean for me now? Who knows. I had kind of given up serious performing and planned on just doing small local things. But now the possibility is there for me to make a run at a real career. I had a number of knowledgeable people telling me the quality of my instrument is up to the level needed. So that is what I’ve been working on for the past month.
I’m not used to talking directly about myself so much here on my blog. But I’m hoping my story can help others trying to figure out their voice and realize that it might be an issue of finding the correct fach.
- Q&A – Losing My Voice (vocalwisdom.com)
- Q&A – Freely Accessing Upper Register (vocalwisdom.com)
- Q&A – Vocal Abuse in Modern Society (vocalwisdom.com)
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