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)
Please comment below.
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Yes, Joseph. I was in New York for lessons with David. First time in seven years. The city is pretty much the same, but there are noticeable differences as well. Weird how that works.
I don’t know if there is anything in particular, but I will talk about it some in my next blog post.
Hi Michael. You mentioned how you were in New York recently. Out of curiosity, did you have any lessons with David Jones during that time? If so, are there any stories or bits of wisdom that you might be willing to share? It’s always great to hear stories of success and/or personal growth, much like the one in this post. Just my $0.02.
Hello Natalie – I’m just back from New York last week. Your questions are important ones, but also difficult to answer. I don’t think there are any hard rules for us. It really is a case by case situation. That is why the true Fach system can be a problem for singers. If you have Fest contract you are expected to sing any of the roles in your Fach. Here in the US we generally use the Fach system as just a guide. There will be roles in your fach, even if correctly identified, that just aren’t right for you.
Here are some things that I would consider. For the young singer arias might not be the best choice of repertoire for a while. The more dramatic voices mature more slowly, in general. But they (and their teacher) should have no reluctance to transpose songs into comfortable keys. This is what I was forced to do occasionally. And knowing what I know now I would have done it a lot more often. As it was, when I would transpose a song down it would feel like a failure. But does a baritone feel like a failure because they sing a song in a lower key than a tenor? You really have to treat it as a different voice type.
Identifying the voice category is ultimately a fairly simple thing, although it doesn’t appear to be. Where is the voice most comfortable? We have to forget all of the “shoulds” involved with voice types. Even if a voice has a large range, it still will feel more comfortable centered in an area over another. And generally the more dramatic the voice the lower the center.
This week I sang my first full voice B natural, and it is only because I have been allowing my voice to exist in its more appropriate lower center. When I was trying to keep it in a higher center I had difficulty with A flat and even G. But for a voice that has little problem with range, that should not automatically mean they are a high or lyric voice.
The character of the voice, if functionally free, will tell you a lot about the category. And that is really the main thing to understand. If the voice is not functioning to its greatest degree, or completely, then it will appear to be less than it actually is. So that is the most important thing.
I always say that the main focus should be a on developing a complete functioning of the instrument. When that gets realized the voice will usually tell you what it is because it becomes obvious. Hope that helps.
I’m so glad for you!
I have to ask though, considering what happened to you as a young singer (trying to sing inappropriate lyric tenor rep.), what sort of rep. do you think young dramatic/wagnerian singers should be singing?
Also, with the dramatic voice, how would one go about identifying voice category (since usually large voices also have big ranges)?
I know you said that you didn’t feel like a baritone (but could sing the rep.), but what about cases where the singer feels like both a baritone AND a tenor (or a soprano AND contralto)?
I’d be very interested in hearing your opinion.
Thanks, Joseph. No I won’t stop teaching. So don’t worry. Good luck at Basic.
Michael, I only managed to catch up on your newer posts upon getting iPhone access after being at basic training for two months. I must say, I am very happy to hear about your breakthrough. I trust that this doesn’t mean you’ll completely leave teaching behind if you try to have a shot at the opera stage? Because I still want to work with you in the future. But again, I’m glad to hear of your success. Best of luck.
Thank you, Lorna. I appreciate it.
This is so exciting for you! Your instincts were right. David Jones is always so helpful with his finger right on the pulse! Go for your new career and shine like the star you were meant to be!
Thanks, Dinko. You actually hit on some very key points. There are so many variables involved that the reasons behind any problem can be many different things. In my case it was an issue of singing the wrong repertoire. But early in my development it was that but also poor vocal coordination.
So it can have many layers. Even with good coordination if we are trying to sing out of the instruments comfort zone things can still be messed up. But we can’t really get a clear idea of what the nature of the instrument is until it is functioning well. So that is always the first step.
The problem with that is so few teachers really know what good function is, so very few singers ever optimize it. Which allows the problems to continue.
But your point of the training methods limiting the evolution of voices is absolutely right on. I believe strongly that is the reason for the decline of “big” voices. Singers are not being trained to use the voice in the same way that older generations were.
Your last point was very true for me. I always had a voice in my head, mainly subconscious, that would influence me away from what me voice wants to do naturally.
There is also an aspect of artistic sensitivity. The color and intensity that comes out when the voice is used completely doesn’t sound right for the more mainstream tenor rep. So when I sang I would under-activate my instrument so the timbre would fit into what a tenor should sound like.
That is what I have against Jonas Kaufmann. The color he creates completely goes against my artistic sensitivity for roles like Faust. But it works for Wagner. But enough of the opera audience loves him, so what is more important?
I would also like to add my congratulations to the list Michael! I also find your post extremely inspiring…Your problem is definitely not isolated, because people who are talking about not knowing which fach they are, some even which voice type they are, seem to be more and more common, I’m not sure why. And I find myself personally when going trough some new music always wishing it was half a tone lower or half a tone higher or simply tuned differently, because it never seems to fit to the center. I guess this is just an overall problem of how voices are classified, the ideas we have about them, performance practises etc., just like with all other things in singing. 60 years ago, countertenors were believed to be amazingly rare, there were perhaps 2-3 with an international career. Now you can find countertenors all over the place. Heldentenors, or any type of a dramatic voice for that matter I guess is today becomming extint because of the belif in their rarity (because everyone is a lyric today, some dare to call themselves spinto, and those who call themselves dramatic are usually soubrette sized – interestingly), which might not neccesarily be correct, it might just have to do with what the general teaching allows voices to become. And I’m sure dramatic voiced individuals like yourself aren’t then even allowed to evolve properly in this mode of thinking. Because today if you don’t have a finished voice by the time you’re 20, you might already be late for the career train. And some voices just need time. Even if you have so much understanding about the voice as you do, one might still be a “victim” of these belifs subconciously and not allowing yourself or your voice to be what it is or accepting what it is. I wish you all the success with your voice!
Yes,it does and I appreciate your response.
Thanks for your comment, Joe. A little background might help explain. I had been focusing on keeping the depth in my pronunciation. Because of focusing on that along with just getting started I was letting the throat sag some. So he mentioned that and gave me the instruction to “spread the pillars of fauces”. These are the strips of tissue that run down the side of the pharynx from the soft palate.
By spreading these the throat has more stretch in it. I think of it in terms of stretching the throat in a feeling of excitement. When we do this it keeps the palate stretched too. It also has an important influence on the tongue, keeping it from dropping.
It is something I normally do but because I was focusing on being deeper than I had been previously I had let it slip. So he pointed that out. And when I reintroduced that stretch combined with the depth I was adding things lined up. Hope that helps.
Thank you for this post. I can really relate. I am not sure exactly what David Jones meant by keeping your throat stretched in the statement you made (see below), can you explain that a bit? Thanks, Joe Dowell
“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.”
I want to thank everyone for their supportive comments. I am reassured that my experience has connected with you all. And I’m so happy to see many new people joining in. That’s great. But this just shows how much of our experiences that we think are isolated to ourselves is really shared by many. We just might not see it. Thanks again and we’ll continue this discussion in future posts.
Just discovered your site today! I would like to share that it’s taken me more than ten years to admit I am a true contralto – all the way to at least Bb3 with a middle voice of F5 to Ab5. Singing a ‘normal’ pop rage requires too much intensity, but dialling down the pitch has turned from a surrender to victory as have heard no female singers with my amount of chord closure at extremely low pitches, without that ‘airiness’ of higher voices (who have to add false colour down there). This is just what I needed to hear to continue to move forward! I know just how you feel. I thought I was deficient but now I can channel my perfectionist if overachieving nature into the correct place instead of trying to be someone I am not. BTW Kathleen Ferrier didn’t discover her amazing genius till her 30s – and someone ese had to tell her, too!
That was a fascinating post Michael. Over 14 years of searching, learning, researching and now you’ve finally found home, as it were. Congratulations, I’m really glad you’ve finally discovered your voice. If you’re performing in town or have a CD, I’ll be the first to buy it!
It really shows that Wagner knew his stuff and how to write for the Heldentenor because your voice functioned so freely with that aria.
Thank you so much for that post. As a young singer, it was very encouraging to read about your experiences and know that the learning never truly stops.
As I read through your post, I was immediately reminded of my own struggle, and it was nice knowing I wasn’t alone and that even the most seasoned singers’ voices are still growing and changing.
Don’t be afraid to share posts which talk of your own vocal journey. At least for me, I learn as much about my voice by reading the struggles and triumphs of others as from a lesson. :)
Thank you very much Michael for this post and for
My best wishes for every succes in your real fach.
Michel G.-Hart,(prof. Emeritus) NATS member and Association Française des Professeurs de Chant(Paris)
This is by far – one of the most helpful things I have read Michael. I too have found that I am often referred to as a hi-baritone but as I have told you before, some people (teachers) believe that I am a tenor because I have much more “room or space” in the voice.
As a teacher myself I have often avoided committing to telling people what they are because I felt that perhaps because of my lack of committing to a voice I would then stop the possibilities of a higher range opening up in others.
I am so glad for you and this makes me want to have another lesson with you to really sing for you and you direct me in the path of where my voice lies.
Thanks once again – your honesty is exemplary –
Thank you so much for this post! It had me exclaiming out loud! If I changed the gender of this post and used “soprano” and “mezzo soprano” almost everything you wrote would apply to me as well. I would love to set up a lesson when I am in Mpls in August– i will send you a private email for that part! Thank you again for this wonderfully honest and inspiring post.
Hi Michael! what a great post ! I a so happy to hearing you´ve been with maestro David Jones ( also my mentor ” virtually” )
Well, reading your honest and sincere personal experience , I can only thank you for that. As I was reading it , I had a relaxing feeling, a sort of ” yeah, it happens to me too..”
So, I do not intent to consider myself a helden tenor, but somehow, I feel better by hearing that it is possible to be ” in the middle” of tenor and baritone fach , and at the end , just feeling a strong wish to sing good the things we want to sing. I am sure I am not a baritone. Even David told me that, but probably a ” short voice tenor”. I am very proud of you telling your truth which is mine too. Thank you !
It’s great to hear that you’ve finally “found your voice”, Michael. More posts about you as a person wouldn’t be unwelcome — it’s a good reminder that the most knowledgeable people in any field are still learning and striving to improve.
Wow that’s cool. I’m very happy for you! I have known your frustration! You may recall I sent you a note some months ago because I’m pretty new to singing and have a very unusual range — at least I THINK I do. I’m a basso profundo. As a practical matter that precludes me from doing a lot of stuff. The upper end of the “normal” bass range is difficult for me. But, to compensate, I can sing almost a whole octave lower than most basses. When I hit on repertoire that’s friendly to my range it really sounds cool. Otherwise “nyeh.”
I know what you mean, it feels like a sort of vanity to me, to talk about my range so much, but really it isn’t. I simply have an unusual voice and the “standard” answers don’t seem to apply — yet I like to sing! Of course I’m new, too, and I know I can improve my high end with practice. But trust me I just have a very low voice. I don’t want to bang my head against the wall all the time trying to be something I’m not.
Thanks for the post. I’m very happy you found your “zone”!!