I’ve observed that a vast majority of opera singers and even contemporary singers have a constant quiver in their tongue as they sing, it tends to quiver more so when they sing the higher notes. how does this happen? my singing teacher does it, and when I asked her about it she quickly changed the subject and stated that it was simply her “putting too much pressure”.
Yes, I have noticed this as well. I notice it more in women than men. An example that jumps to mind is Teresa Stratas who was in a lot of broadcasts in the 80s and 90s. Her tongue had a very pronounced movement when she sang. But many other famous, and wonderful, artists displayed this same trait.
In this scene from La boheme we can see what we’re talking about at 2:45. I originally assumed this was related to age. But I don’t think it necessarily is. There are videos on YouTube of Teresa Stratas from the 1960s and she had the same quiver when she was young. I remember a classmate in college had this also.
Notice also the manner of the breathing. There is too much movement of the chest with the breath cycle. This tells us that the chest is being used to provide the air compression instead of the abdominal muscles, as is natural for the body. (The chest is used for compression but it must not move. We should not be aware of the participation of the chest) The reason this is a problem is it is more difficult for the body to regulate the pressure from the chest vs. from the coordination of the abdomen/ribs. Since more women tend to have this sort of breath coordination it might have something to do with why more women tend to have this quivering.
Your teacher’s attitude is not surprising. (We don’t usually like to be questioned about our short-comings :) But my take on this common condition is it is a result not simply of “putting too much pressure” on the voice, but rather having too little stability in the larynx and too much “looseness” in the breath. (Where the result is like having too much pressure. But we can’t reduce the pressure because it is needed. It is more like too much uncoordinated pressure.) This imbalance of pressure causes the whole mechanism to move with the natural oscillations. (It is related to fundamental principles of vibrato)
The tongue is not the only thing moving. It is connected to the larynx and windpipe. This whole structure is moving because it is not providing an appropriate resistance against the necessary air pressure. (Usually the lips move sympathetically as well) We can’t sing without air pressure. This air pressure must be of an appropriate level and type. But it also must be balanced with a stable opposition from the laryngeal structure.
As we sing higher there is a natural increase in air pressure. This must be met with an equal increase in structural resistance to keep
the two balanced. When there is balance there appears to be ease and relaxation. But it is caused by the opposite of relaxation –
coordinated activity. Notice it is not tension that I am describing. Because of our aversion to tension we tend to avoid appropriate levels of necessary activity. This then tends to result in instability. And the body responds to instability unconsciously by creating tension.
Ironically we create tension, the very thing we were trying to avoid, by trying to avoid it rather than taking appropriate action.
So this shaking tongue is a result of the instability of the larynx structure, partially caused by poor breathing coordination. It is a lack of appropriate opposition to the necessary air pressure for singing, which would keep the breath in a “compressed” condition instead of “loose”. It can be caused by an “air-flow” concept of phonation, or just by being too relaxed. Phonation must be a balanced relationship between the larynx and the breath-pressure. Most vocal problems can be traced to some disruption to this balance.
If the larynx is stable it won’t be displaced by the breath pressure being applied to it. When the larynx is displaced it can rise, shake,
constrict, any of these and other problems. If it is stable the throat will stay open and the folds will stay in an optimal vibrating
condition, which results in natural amplification of the tone. This type of tone is the quality everyone is searching for, usually through
ineffective techniques that are more like imitation.
Another aspect of balanced phonation is an appropriate vibrato, rather than a shaking or excessive one. Balance also releases the mechanism from the holding that causes straight-tone singing that can be damaging over the long-term.
I hope this has been helpful. Please add questions of comments below. Thanks.
Chris, great to hear things are moving forward for you.
Dinko, very well stated. The basics are like common-sense, not all that common or all that basic.
Thank you both for your words of encouragement.
Michael, one thing really neglected today in so many fields of art, including singing (I come from the visual arts background, but trust me that interestingly the problems are exactly the same in both teaching and the profession itself), is that the very basics, the very foundation is wrong or missing. The very core of everything. And that is something that is so little talked about today and that so many don’t understand and some who know it don’t know how to pass it or how to explain it, and again, not just in the art of singing. And your blog is the only place I have found which concerns with exactly this. The very basic of sound production, the function of voice. It’s an understanding which separates your writting from all the others I’ve found. A little gold mine on the internet. It made me for the first time listen to all sorts of different singers, including myself, in a completely new way. I might even say I got a new pair of ears after spending a year on your blog. It’s still a work in progress, but it is definitely progress, and not blind walking in the dark. (I completely understand Simon’s exerience with the nay nay nay’s and lip-tongue-palatte trills, I’ve been there…and don’t do either of those now and sing ten times better, because I’ve changed something else, something fundamental in my approach to singing.)
So many times I’ve been in concerts and productions where singers of beautiful voices were singing things musically and technically very difficult and complex, yet unable to do justice to one simple sustained tone. Just like I’ve seen my collegues and myself struggling to draw very complex drawings, yet unable to draw a straight line with correct function of hand (which is so similar to correct function of voice in theory). After years of drawing classes I recently met a teacher who came back with me to the basic of actually holding a pencil. And I’m not alone with this.
In our world, there is no time to do the basics, you run trough them (if you have luck) and move on to “more important” things. However, without them, you’re lost, you’re nothing and have no security in anything what you do or will do. When you have them, even if you don’t get anything else except them, you have a solid foundation to work on everything what comes after it and develop it. Without it, you see your mind progress, but you’re left unable to express it. That is something I see what truly separated the old generation, in many fields of art, from the new one. They had a very strict, sometimes even rigorous education to master the basics. Not all what they did after it was good, nor did many use it, nor did many develop enough to get to certain heights and star statuses, nor were many of them great artists. However, they all had it. This secure basic and foundation is something you can, will and have to always come back, revisit and can’t be without.
And you have a rare talent (I think Maestro David Jones wrote it very nicely on that intro comment on your page) for teaching exactly this and understanding it. And that is exactly what people need. Sometimes opening other peoples eyes in just a few sentences. And because of that, even if you are in doubt, you have influenced more people all over the world than you are probably aware. And they will also influence others around them…So you planted a seed which will just grow. Even if it’s not completely understood right away, you have opened doors to the correct path. You have something to offer in a way which nobody else does or can, and that is your strenght. And I certainly can’t imagine my current or future singing without your contribution to it, even though it was based on just a few mails and one short talk over Skype, and of course me visiting your blog. I’m like many also looking forward to reading more from you in the future.
All the best,
Well I, for one, am relieved that this place won’t be disappearing any time soon! I must check this blog at least twice a day and I constantly re-read articles and comments – as much for the motivation as for the information! In fact, this blog (and my email contact with Michael) has led to me changing career and continent (I’m in the process of selling my house and moving to Canada so I can be in a reasonable timezone to work with Michael long-term, and also get serious about music in a city with an actual music scene!)and I’ve completely changed my posture and many other aspects of my movement (although I still have a long way to go). So I suppose you could say it has motivated me to completely change my life!
I’ve been on lots of singing forums and sites, I’ve been to a number of teachers, but all I seem to come across are people who hand me a bunch of vocalises, dismiss my concerns about my voice, and can’t really offer anything helpful that I couldn’t have found myself in a Richard Miller text. This is the one place I have found where I get useful information that I have never seen before, and where even the most accomplished singers are humble enough to consider themselves perpetual students in the pursuit of vocal excellence.
As someone with frustratingly intermittent vocal problems, who had all but given up on the dream of developing the full potential of my voice until very recently, I am very thankful to everyone for their input, and especially to Michael for sharing his knowledge. It has allowed me to begin to believe that I can beat my problems, and that one day I might even sing professionaly. So I welcome the opportunity to put my money where my mouth is and contribute to the new features.
Thanks, Joseph and Simon. I’m glad to hear these comments. Simon, I agree it would be ideal to have everything organized in a nice way like you describe. But that was kind of my point. It takes a lot of time to do that. In a way, a blog is by definition random. But it does keep it from being as usable as it could be. But to do something like what you propose I would need to get a lot more out of it than just a nice feeling that I am helping people. I’m not real big on getting attention, so that is not a pay-off for me.
That is why I said I either need to be real casual with it or make it my business that makes me revenue. I’ve chosen the latter because then I can continue helping people learn about their voice and work on dispelling the false concepts ruling the vocal world. Plus, this is what I’m good at. Why shouldn’t I be compensated for it. So I’ll be making some announcements regarding the new features soon.
I find your blog very helpful and it would be a shame if you stopped writing. You have opened my eyes (and many others) to a way of singing that is based on how the body works and to use that understanding in order to improve our singing. Such a way is always superior to doing exercises blindly in the hope that it will eventually click (I refer to my hours of doing lip rolls and “nay nay nay”s and not knowing why I wasn’t improving. At least now if my voice functions badly, I have some idea of where to start).
Anywho, I do have an idea which I think will save you time from writing long emails. It would help if you listed the fundamentals in short succinct bullet points and then linked to articles with further explanation. I find that with this Q&A format, it’s hard to find the information that I’m looking for or had forgotten but is vital e.g. not judging or separating oneself during singing, but focus entirely on the singing – I have to go to this Tongue Vibrato article and then scroll down to the comments to find that information. It would probably be better to have an article dedicated to this subject (I know you haven’t written one yet). Then once you’ve covered the fundamentals, when someone emails you, you could point them to these articles then add one or two sentences relating to their specific problem and it would save you a lot of time (and make my reading experience nicer too. :)) I wrote an article myself a while ago trying to get my head around the fundamentals because I felt the information was a bit haphazard on this site…”pronounce at the larynx, don’t let any air out, have a nice lift in the face like you’re smelling food, say it like you mean it, don’t be afraid to be wrong – fail catastrophically if you have to” and so on. :)
Anyway, thanks again. I’m trying to get back into the swing of things after a break and it’s nice to see that things around here are lively as ever.
Just to back up what the others are saying, I am very appreciative of this website, not only because there is so much information from someone who knows what he’s talking about, but because it is presented in a way that makes the concepts understandable. It really is helpful and has aided me in my understanding of the voice. Of course, that doesn’t mean I am suddenly a great singer – because of course one can’t learn to sing properly just from reading – but it has helped me know what to look for and be wary of in the vocal world. And the fact that these articles can be commented on and discussed makes this site more enjoyable. It is definitely a treasure trove of useful knowledge that can lead toward greater understanding.
As for expansions to the website, my curiosity is now piqued, and I would be very interested in seeing what new doors may be opened by future additions to what is already present. So in the end, I say to keep up the great work, Michael. I can definitely attest that what you are doing has helped me, and will undoubtedly help many others.
I do wish you the best with that endeavor. One thing I really noticed was this time you talking about your athletic background. Myself, I am not all that athletic in the sense of playing sports or what have you. I enjoy swimming, walking, some running, but mostly dancing and fencing (yes, I got hooked on it). I even studied ballet for a few years. I was HORRIBLE, but it was an interesting endeavor, and one where I learned just what the body DOESN’T do naturally (the turnout from the hips is entirely unnatural, even if elegant). But I did learn some poise, much better balance, and grace in movement. I was really too old to start dance, but it was still an experience.
But the issue is just how different physical conditioning is for an athlete than it is for what most singers are taught. Athletes are in tune with the movement of their bodies. That doesn’t mean they always treat them correctly, but they are aware you must do things to get results. They are also more aware that the body works as a whole not as parts.
The “Every Day” behavior that modern singing uses as a pseudo-science to explain singing is totally based on nothing. Even in the past, where they may have had a few things wrong, they at least stressed using the body to achieve those ends.
I was just talking to a young man today who talked to me about how his vocal folds are not damaged (he had a specialist look at them) but they do not close completely. He asked me why this could have happened. I don’t really know his training specifically, but based on how I have seen him sing, he is one of these people who blows out far too much air, and his cords have become accustomed to never being able to close all the way. After only a casual session of talking, I had him do a few little things that I use to make sure the folds close (the NG singing, a “happy surprise” all very enlivened BEFORE he sang; nothing too difficult or confusing, we had but moments). Then he sang me a line. His speaking voice was even very breathy prior, yet, after a few moments of those little things, he sang a line, and the voice came out ringing! He was shocked. I took out a mirror, and had him sing again with the mirror close to his mouth. IT DIDN’T CLOUD UP. He was shocked. Usually when he sings, he cannot even sing near a candle on a cake, for he will blow it out.
Of course, he will need much more work, and he has found a good teacher (I know her) and should learn a solid foundation. One of his issues was this silly “scientific idea” that we need to BLOW the air out of us to create the sound. He had never heard in all his study that one NEVER uses more breath/air than is required to actually create the sound. More air doesn’t create more sound. The muscle coordination of his body is completely wrong (this is the FIRST time I have actually seen that weird belly breathing you have talked about before, and I mean really breathing into the belly to the point his entire upper part of his chest and ribs looked FLAT, totally FLAT, as if no air were inside him at all).
I had him take a deep breath (deep into the body with the chest and ribs up) and then imagine he were giving a speech (why I chose that was simply because of where we were). I told him he had to look important, to imagine the press there. Now with that posture, do the ssss sound. It was amazing. While pretending to speak to a crowd before the cameras, he stood with correct posture, he used his breathing muscles correctly and with coordination, and showed great life and energy, not his usually “smile.”
I had him think the same way, and sing a line of music. When he was NOT thinking of his former singing training, but this pretend situation before the camera before a crowd, he did what was natural to the body. And did the voice every sound fine, was free moving, and the folds approximated well when he took in a breath.
Of course, this was just sort of playing around. I really didn’t have time to go into depth with him on anything. But he saw for himself that the body works as a whole, not as parts. He saw for himself that he could use his breath much more effectively, if he didn’t PUSH it from his body (I would actually say in his case, DRIVING it with super force from his body and through his vocal folds).
A lady came by who is a runner, and she thought the entire affair funny. So, she stood there and did the same, and her voice was good. The difference is, she instantly knew what to do, how the muscles all worked together. I had to help him figure it out.
This experience, which is really nothing compared to what you encounter, really illustrates to me that singers really do not learn at all what their bodies are doing. They just learn THINGS.
I really think discussing the difference between an athletic approach to singing, or how an athlete would approach using his body, and comparing that to how singers use “psuedo-scientific babblings” to understand tne body would be well worth the effort.
This young man felt like someone finally turned on a light. He understood we breathe with the diaphragm and all that, but had no clue really how it works in the body. I am amazed how few singers and singing teachers do.
Your former articles, or the ones on the physiology of the voice, have some really excellent diagrams of the various parts of the body that we must understand to sing. I had to look at so many pictures of the anatomy I figured I could become a doctor. But that was the approach used. People reading your blog should go back and read those entries and look at those diagrams. They tell a great deal.
I have gone on enough. All I know is today I met a young man who for the first time (even after years of university singing) realized his body was not small parts working apart, but rather a group working as a whole.
One can try, but I can’t see how, to argue with anatomy and real human physiology. Things are no longer just theories when we see how their work with the body.
I really wish you well on your approach to your site. I look forward to seeing what will be there.
Thanks, again, Bea. This was a fairly large undertaking. I appreciate it. I also have gone and read these old articles recently, 10 years after the first was written. And I was surprised by how right I had it even back then. I have definitely learned how to communicate these principles better over the years with continually increasing experience. But conceptually nothing has really changed. Maybe I will start highlighting these old articles with new blog posts so they are brought to the attention of new readers.
I have thought about what direction I want to take this web site. And I have bounced between the extremes of cutting way back or going all out. I do feel there is much for me to offer through this site. And as you just pointed out there is already a huge wealth of information. My feeling is to make my web site my business because I feel I can reach such a larger audience and help so many more people through the medium of the web versus the limited number that I could help in person.
Of course I will continue to work with people individually, but I have plans to expand the tools I use on my web site. So over the next few months you will likely notice some changes gradually taking place. Hopefully people will find them for the better. They are definitely intended to increase the value of the site and the amount of information available.
Thank you, Bea. Your encouragement is always appreciated. And Iris, thank you as well for your feedback. It is especially good to hear from a college age singer. Although I aim to help anyone learning about their voice, you are actually representative of the singers I particularly want to reach. So I’m glad to hear from one that is getting it.
Bea, I think it is significant that your teacher was an athlete, as you mention. I feel much of my understanding has been possible because of my athletic background. There is a completely different sort of physical behavior exhibited by the athlete versus the average person. And it is this behavior the singer must practice, not their “every-day” physical behavior that modern science uses as a model for singing.
Iris, you speak of very common practices by teachers that I also find frustrating. They speak of things that aren’t really there and that the singer can’t actually control. You can’t control those sensations that are the result of the function of the voice. All you can do is observe them after the fact, which is of little help to the singer who can’t produce them already.
What needs to be learned is how to coordinate the body so the three main components of the instrument work together to produce a balanced, regular vibration which is then amplified through the resonators into a tone that expands acoustically, enveloping the listener, with little or no effort.
When this is accomplished there is some impression of these “images”, but they are not something we try to do. And they are not the main objective. They are more things we notice as subtle impressions, but don’t concern ourselves very much with them. They just confirm what we are doing, they are not something we try to do.
Michael, I just reread all your entries, not in the blog of your site, but in the site. Your articles you wrote in the past about Physiology of the voice, and your articles on voice (Fundamentals of singing, etc; they were written a long while ago, but what they say is still important). It had been many years since I read them the last time. I have kept up with all the blog entries, and even reviewed them. However, this time I decided to reread all those articles on the voice. What a wealth of information they contain. I could sense you were wanting originally to write more such articles, but have never had the time to do so. Still, what is there is exceptional. I do not know how many who have come to your site, or who comment on the blog, have gone back and reread those articles. I am glad I did. Yes, that information is not new to me, but it was so good to reread it, to rediscover it all over again. May I recommend that all your regular readers reread those articles. So many of the things often discussed are presented in those articles in a really clear way. Perhaps all of us who do read your blog regularly should do as I did: review all the entries right from the start, the good ones, the ones from many who just “didn’t get it,” and the comments from those who really are getting it, and of course, all your explanations. There is a wealth, a goldmine, of information there. Then, after reading through all the blog entries, then read all the articles, the weekly wisdom, and those thints. There is so much there, so much work has gone into all that, so much knowledge and understanding. Thank you for all your efforts. They truly are impressive, and so very informative. You have given much.
I completely agree with what B has said. You have definitely reached a generation of young singers in writing this blog. Although you use imagery, you use it wisely and don’t confuse the student further. Personally, Maestro David Jones and your blog are fast becoming the mainstays of my research into vocal technique.
Here at the university, I study with a teacher who has a masters in vocal pedagogy. However, I find her instructions during lessons to be very unclear. She often tells me to “aim” the sound up and over the hard palate and to let the air direct the sound. I’m all for metaphors, but the ones used in the lesson are confusing beyond belief.
I sincerely appreciate and am grateful for your blog. You have elucidated so many aspects of technique for me and have given me hope that I need not struggle through endless fruitless hours of trying to direct the sound toward my front teeth well enough as to produce a satisfactory sound.
I understand if you must forgo maintaining this blog due to business obligations, but if it be due to you feeling discouraged that your words are being left unheeded, rest assured, you are still reaching us, stubborn as we may be.
Michael, I am going to be copying a statement you made earlier in this post. Here it goes.
“When I work with someone directly these specifics are made very clear. But when writing that is just not possible. I can only give a hint, a clue, the beginning of the situation. If I need to give the whole complete explanation in the writing it just won’t be possible. And that is what makes me question whether I want to keep doing this. It just doesn’t feel worth it to me.”
I am sure perhaps you think that you are speaking at times to the air, that it is worthless to write all you write because you really cannot explain everything as you can in person. I believe that has been the challenge for everyone who has ever written on singing. BUT DON’T GIVE UP! The things you have written, even if they cannot be as detailed as a real class or teaching experience, have opened many minds. What you have written has actually helped many people you don’t even know about who have never commented on your blog to consider things, to think about what they are doing or expecting when they seek to sing or even what they are being taught. It may be true that not everyone agrees with everything you say. That is normal for anyone. But there are so many who have learned so much. Your exchanges with the various people who have commented on your blog have opened many doors of understanding. Even if people don’t always get what is being said, and comment in ways that require further clarification. It still opens the door for people to think about what is involved with singing. Words are never perfect, but they do inspire many people.
Your blog has affected more people than you can know. Will they learn how to sing? Of course not. A blog can’t do that. But they have had the questions posed. They now know there is more to consider than they thought before.
You said I was one of the lucky few who had the rare blessing of learning how the voice works young. I had that because I had a teacher who taught well, and ENCOURAGED me to discuss things with her, and ask questions when I didn’t understand WHY something should be done a certain way. She was not only a great singer, but a great athlete, and she understood the body. She understood that one must never work in opposition to how things work in the body. Yes, she put much emphasis on support, breathing, and appoggio. To her, it was all using the body to do the work, not the vocal folds. She understood that tension in one area of the body could cause imbalance in another.
I said before that she made me learn fencing, dancing, climbing, and all sorts of things so I would know how to sing well even while moving, so there would be no conflict between the various parts of the body, and so they would not conflict with the art of singing.
When I was getting off base, she always brought me back to the beginning, always to the basics (which I have NEVER stopped using all my singing life).
Your blog has been that “conversation” that I had with my teacher. For so many singing students, there is no opportunity to discuss and learn WHY something must be done. They usually are told what they must do, and even if things are not working, must submit their wills to the will of their teacher. In the end, we all have seen some pretty damaged voices because of that.
My teacher, and I think mostly because of her athletic side, really felt I had to understand the workings of the body, for the body is all I had to sing with. A lot of what she thought important would be seen as strange to most, but it worked. It kept me centered on HOW to use the body without working against it.
Personally, because you are getting students to think about that, to think about the fact they are singing with their bodies and bodies work a certain way, and that way only, you are offering an insight they will NOT find most other places. They may not fully understand what to do, specifically, with what they have read, but their minds are open to the fact that there is something very valuable to think about.
Even with that limited understanding, when they go to a voice teacher, and he has them doing all sorts of things that work against the natural function of the body, that make them feel they are singing in such a way they are afraid that at any moment they will strangle, they will now understand a bit that this is the result of learning how to do something that really WON’T function well. It works against their body function.
I know that perhaps you think you write the same thing a million times in a million different places in your blog. And in reality, you do. You see, there are so many entries for your blog. I went through them all just to see how many there were. There is so much covered. If someone just joins in, and they have not read everything (and I am sure they haven’t) they tend to ask the same question. Also, so many different issues of singing actually DO require the same explanation to clarify things. That is because everything works as a whole.
If keeping up with this blog is really interferring with your lesson time with students, then yes, it is perhaps time to let it go. If it is because you feel you are not getting your message across, well, that I can assure you is completely wrong. You are getting the message across. But this message is NEW. Yes, it is old in the sense it was common understanding for the most part in the past. But it is NEW now. Because of many factors: use of microphones, difference between what is seen as good singing (now between popular and classical, which don’t even sound like they would be related in anyway anymore), public view of what a singer now must look like, some idea of what is acting, and a whole list of things, people lost focus on what real singing was all about.
So many of the great singers I sang with are all saying the same thing. They are saying that young singers of today have super voices, beautiful beyond belief, are super musicians (like many in the past were not), but they really are not learning how to sing properly. We can hear what is missing in their sound. We can see the strange bulging, twisting, straining muscles of their necks. We see their weird head bobbing and strange facial expressions (which were not allowed when we sang). We know that is not expression but poor function of the body. They are under super intense tension to do what they do. To many of us of the older generation those things are WRONG, and should be addressed. BUT NO ONE LISTENS TO US either when we visit universities.
But you have reached people, students, who of themselves, I believe and I hope, will demand that teachers start teaching them correct principles. And they are now becoming aware that there are correct principles, and if the technique they learn, no matter how nice the voice sounds, isn’t based on correct principles, they will soon lose their voices.
These discussions have made them aware of this, and I am sure for most for the very first time ever. Becoming aware opens the door to further study and seeking to know.
I hope you don’t give up, even if at times you think your efforts are fruitless and a waste of your time. I can assure you, they are not. They have made a difference in many people’s lives.
Yes, if the man was horrid then his heart was not in the right place. Criticism should never be about the critic or even about the singer. It should be about what the singer is doing. It is not a personal attack. It is sharing the observation of what the singer is doing so they can recognize what they are doing that might be working against them. And even if that singer never hears the criticism perhaps another singer can learn from it.
Amen to all of this. Excellent Michael. I agree my friend was just as wrong and the critic she condemned and humiliated, but he IS a horrid man, a truly horrid man (if you knew him), so, in my weakness, I didn’t feel sorry for him. I fully agree that in order to learn what to do we must see what is wrong. A fault cannot be corrected, if it isn’t acknowledged. Or as Dr. Phil puts it, “You can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge.” I agree that singing has really gone strange. I have witnessed it first hand. Yet, I hate admitting that sometimes, for singing teachers as far back almost as we have record have lamented the “decline in singing.” Each one has clung to the greatness of some former time and some former form of opera (with F. Lamperti it was Rossini, all other composers were destroying the voice with their music). Each has praised a long past golden age, often one they actually never themselves lived through or witnessed.
And I have really dated myself when I have commented at various musical events.
I DO fully agree with something you shared at the end of your comment. It is something so very important that few people really think about, especially when just starting out. It is the idea of “splitting” our attention between what we are doing and judging the results. That is almost a disease now days. People are so concerned about HOW they look, what they sound like, if the audience is reacting to them as they wish, and a whole host of things, that one wonders when they actually have time to consider what they are doing — singing.
A singer MUST be in the moment. Performance time is not time to learn the music, figure out what you are going to do, listen to see if you are producting the sound correctly, etc. That is for rehearsals. I don’t know about most singers of today, but when I started most singers took their time to learn a role. Sometimes up to 2-3 years before they presented it to the public. Even the last minute substitution I did as Ortrud right at the beginning was not really singing something I learned in a day. I had studied that role for over 4 years before that opportunity presented itself.
That was not considered a waste of time back then. I learned Norma, the music, in about a day, but took 3 years going through every nuance of the music, the words, and the expression in the dynamic markings, before I actually sang it. And we learned, back then, EVERYONE’S music in the opera, not just our own. In performance we believed we had to LISTEN to each other (not how we sang, but what was being said) so it appeared we were actually living the drama. There was much less “jumping around the stage” and calling that acting like there is today.
It is that moment of expression that you have, the only moment you have, to communicate something to the audience, to move their souls, to open their hearts. And I can honestly say, the body CANNOT function as it should, or in a healthy way, if our minds are divided between a million things. We become lost in a quigmire of garbage. With all the many faults we now see in singing, I think this being divided against yourself is one of the worst. Singers are divided from their bodies and what they naturally do when they are worried about impossing a set of technical rules, especially if those rules defy what the body does. Yet, one can also work against oneself even doing the right thing, if the mind is too focused on that thing and not the singing, expressing, of the moment. A singer must be in the moment. The life of the music is all you are living. After it is through, then you can appraise, you can listen to a recording (if you can get one made; I found it hard to record operas I sang in because of the fear one of the other singers would be recorded and thus violate their contracts, etc. but I had family and friends who would record backstage what I did, the great moments, so after things were done I could hear if what I thought I was doing was what actually came across; very informative, but I couldn’t, absolutely couldn’t, be aware of the recording or when it was turned on. If I thought of that, then my focus would drift to the act of recording, not of singing, performing, and living the music. When a singer loses forcus, nothing is shared but notes, no matter how beautiful they are, they are just notes.
So wonderfully said, Michael, as usual. You put things so well.
Yes, no one is perfect in actuality. We might say a singer has perfect technique, like Jussi Bjorling, but that doesn’t mean the realization of that technique is always perfect. Like you said, we are not machines. It just means the concept is perfectly in line with the design of the instrument.
But this discussion again comes back to understanding what the purpose of technique is. It is only partially for the purpose of sounding good. In my opinion it should only be a little about that. Of course we want to sound good, but if that is our main focus we will likely do things that go against the nature of our instrument.
In my opinion our main focus should be on health. And what that means is our technique (what we try to do) should be in line with principles of natural function. Because this is what will maximize our odds of the voice surviving for the length of our life and not wearing out before we are ready to stop singing.
Bea, you are certainly one of the fortunate few who received good guidence from a young age. This has allowed you to fulfill your goals for a career singing. It is my observation that very few singers have been so lucky. Even ones that have been able to pursue a career have done so without the benefit of an accurate understanding of the voice like you have.
It is this reality that has guided my mission as a voice researcher/trainer/writer. I agree that it is common for singers to be critics of things they are not masters of themselves. I admit I was like that at times as well. I think it is a fault of youth.
But at the same time, if there is no one pointing out these flaws then no one will be aware of them. And without awareness of the flaws no one will try to understand them so eventually they can master them and fix them. That is what I have done.
I feel this is what has led us to the state of singing we find now. It is not a matter of singers occasionally being off a little, or trying to do the right things but being human. It is a matter of the very nature of how people sing is completely different from what singers tried to do in the past and from what is natural, or optimal for the vocal system.
Of course the voice is not just like a reed instrument or any other instrument. But for people who have no understanding of what the voice IS like there needs to be some way of illustrating it. And using other instruments as examples is very effective. But always with an understanding of the nature of the voice being the voice and the nature of the other instrument being the other instrument.
When I work with someone directly these specifics are made very clear. But when writing that is just not possible. I can only give a hint, a clue, the beginning of the situation. If I need to give the whole complete explanation in the writing it just won’t be possible. And that is what makes me question whether I want to keep doing this. It just doesn’t feel worth it to me.
As you know I have been criticised like your friend did to whoever that critic was. (And whatever their knowledge of “Swedish/Italian” such-and-such might be, it has no relation to me) And to a certain degree it was equally unfair as the critic she was attacking. Both parties are wrong in my view.
Obviously, at least to me, the critic was missing the distinction between healthy function and quality performance. It is possible to be lacking in one and excelling in the other. In either direction. There are many unhealthy singers that give great performances and healthy singers that give lame performances.
Ideally we find both working together to maximize the potential of the artist. That is the objective, but is not often realized. But like I said above, the most important thing is to keep the voice healthy. I’m willing to bet that if hard pressed betwenn sounding not as “impressive”, at least in their mind, and losing their voice, the majority would wake up and realize what is most important. Especially when they actually face that decision.
Unfortunately most are not lucky enough to know they are going down a dangerous path until it is too late.
And after all this discussion of perfect this and perfecting that, I think there is too much worrying about things being perfect. If we are acting freely we can’t be concerned about the result. We have to trust that the result is what we intend. We need to keep our attention on what we want to express and be committed to that.
Because that is how the body works. We can’t split our attention between what we are doing and judging how well we are doing it. Once we do that we guarentee that our results will suffer. It is a simple matter of how the nervous system works. We need to have our full attention and commitment on what we are doing. This requires us to have no concern over how well it is coming out.
That is for rehearsal, practice, afterward when we can review a recording. But not in the moment of expression. Otherwise there will not be any expression because the attention of the singer is on listening to how well things are going and not on what they are saying next.
Well, that is for another discussion.
As a PS, I noticed that Dinko didn’t find Caballe’s pianissimo all that secure. Nor was her trill all that great. You know, I must confess here, she didn’t really have a trill at all. It was a sort of fast vibrato, but not a real trill. If you are singing something you really cannot do, I can’t imagine how it could be secure. Listen to Sutherland’s trill, one of the loveliest on record. She is very secure in her trills, even when old and when they were not as fresh sounding as in the early stages of her career.
I have also felt like you, that Caballe’s famous pianissimi were not all that secure either. Yes, they were lovely, but one seldom heard her expand them into a forte sound, or heard her diminish a forte into that delicate pianissimi. The phrase was mostly sung totally that way. I, like you, found other singers had a more solid foundation under their pianissimi. But again, that is me. And yes, much of what I say is based on actually singing with them, or being there live to hear and see them. I am like you. I am very attracted to a sound that is solid, that has a reliable and solid foundation holding it up; a sound built on a solid foundation, and that feels reliable. I really enjoy that security in the tone as well. I have always felt uneasy with singers whose tones, especially the pianissimi, seem they could shatter at any moment. I get all worried for them. And believe me, when you are singing with them, that added worry is NOT great to shoulder when you have responsibilities of your own. But you have to think about it when singing duets with them. You have to regulate your own sound to match their sound. That delicate almost “ready to shatter sound” is moving to the audience, but really hard to blend with. Even if you have a great pianissimo of your own, you always feel you have too much to give for what you are singing with. It is unnerving. Or at least, that is how it is for me. When someone has a really solid foundation, one of real security, there is no feeling of having to hold back for fear of removing all the balance in the blend of the voices. You feel secure because they are secure. You don’t feel you need to prop them up, or hold back so much as to choke your own sound just so you don’t sound too big.
I think, Dinko, your observation is really interesting. I think many people really do want to hear that stability in the sound, that security, when they listen to singers. I think it puts an audience on edge when they have to wonder if the singer will survive. Now, that can add an added dimension of excitement to a performance, that is true. But in my view, a really good performance will add even more. Personally, I think that is what most people feel is missing in so many performances today. That is why they are turning to the recordings of long forgotten times. They want to hear/listen to singers who are THERE, who are solid in their production, who are secure. Even if some of the things they do in performance are stylistically wrong or even really crude, they are still offering something secure, moving, and exciting for people to enjoy. I believe what you noticed has great merit, for I think it is that lack of security that most listeners really miss.
Michael, I fully agree with your assessment, even regarding Caballe. The reality IS no one is perfect, not even the fabled Jussi Bjorling. He had his very off nights as well when it came to complete function. There were even times he stiffened his neck to approach high notes in a very unhealthy way. I think that is because we are all human beings, and we have to rely on our bodies to do the work. And, people being what they are, our bodies sometimes simply will not do what we know they should.
I agree, there is nothing wrong with seeing where a great singer is having issues dealing with function. We can learn from that, IF we really understand what it is we are supposed to be learning from it. If our intent is to simply run them down for their imperfections, we have missed the boat. If it is to pick things apart, then again we have missed the boat. If it is to learn what works and what doesn’t and to better understand what it is we are supposed to be doing to have balanced function, then we have learned.
I only say this as a caution to students, for so often a student, who in reality can’t sing his way out of a paper bag full of holes and sopping wet to the point the paper would give no resistance, is often the first to notice all imperfections in other singers, particularly those who have great careers and actually contribute to the art form for the pleasure of all. In my view, one must give deference to their achievements as artists, even if they are imperfect. We can then learn from their strengths AND their weaknesses. But I have found often, too often, students with not even a rudimentary understanding of voice are always the first to find faults in everyone else. They may actually be seeing something that is wrong, but they don’t have enough expertese to actually know WHY it is wrong, or what to do about it were they doing the same thing wrong. Instead, they sit in judgment and condemnation. Now I am not saying anyone here has acted in this way (I do not believe they have) but it happens so often it isn’t funny. Just as you say to not let other opinions keep you from looking at reality, don’t let reality and the ability to spot mistakes make you condemning and judgmental. That shuts off all passage ways to learning.
I had a discussion with a friend, not a singer, but someone who loves music greatly, and an accomplished violinist and pianist (she accompanies professionally), and she was very interested in why it is that all the “Academicians” in music are the first to point out flaws, point out errors, point out how singers are not doing this or that right, where their technique is faulty, where they are not balanced in their function, and a whole list of things (the list went on a long while) while they themselves can’t do anything at all, except talk about what is correct. They can’t sing, they can’t demonstrate even the smallest function they are talking about and make it worth while. I found her question interesting.
Of course, it was sparked by a concert we attended together. It was a lovely concert. The singing was truly divine. But in the last number of the night, the one singer was showing signs of stress. It was evident he was not really certain of what he should be doing (which can come from many things, even fear because he was not fully prepared to sing what he was singing; which I personally think was behind his unbalanced function at that moment, as it was in good form most of the evening). His good function faltered. But the singing was still beautiful to listen to.
A critic was there who simply had NOTHING good to say about anything. He had studied voice many years, had his doctorate in voice, knew all there was about voice. His credentials were impressive, and yes, he knew all about the Swedish Italian method and balanced function and what have you.
My friend got really miffed with him, so she asked him to come back stage with her. He did. She took the piece of music that the performer had the most issues with (which the critic really trashed) and began to play. He was stunned. She told him, “SING OR SHUT UP!” It was terrible, in fact, even terrible is not nearly horrible enough to describe his singing. Yes, he knew about technique (learning what to do to sing, and making the body do it) and he knew about balanced function (doing things that fit how the body works), but it was all intellectual understanding without the slighest evidence of ability to actually DO it.
My friend glared at him and stated; “Were you my teacher in piano or violin, you would have been fired and had no students at all, for you simply cannot do what you are blabbering about; you are a fraud: you know things, but have no clue how to do them, maybe if you had listened and LEARNED from the mistakes you heard, you would be able to do better now; but you didn’t, instead all you did was criticise, condemn, and feel your understanding made you superior.” And when his review was written up in the paper, she wrote a “special invitation column” in rebutal. And she was blunt.
We see this all the time in singing, though. People are experts at spotting what is not right (and sometimes it doesn’t take much to know what is wrong, even people not in the know can figure it out) but they themselves cannot do, nor do they really have a clue what to do to fix a problem.
That is my caution to students: don’t simply learn to find fault, or pick out mistakes, you will end up being like this critic; rather, if you see faults learn WHY they are faults, and what must be done to fix them. That is the only way you will ever learn what to do when you sing yourself.
All singers know, especially the great ones, that they are examples of what to do, and what not to do. And we all know that NOTHING we do is the definitive presentation of anything. None of us is perfect in any way. Some singers work their entire lives trying to fix a problem of balance, and it is a never ending struggle. Some singers are so gifted with such a beautiful sound that no one notices those mistakes and faults in production until it is too late to do anything about them. But we all know we are human, and that is what makes perfection so difficult, if not almost impossible. But most of us really do try. Always seek to learn from our faults and you will be better than we.
I also agree with the assessment that one cannot judge the voice and compare it to the flute. We all know why that has happened. It stems from all this coloratura singing where the singers doubles with the flute, or like in Lucia, actually plays off it during a very difficult cadenza (Donizetti originally wrote that for a Glass Harmonica, which one can hear in the Beverly Sills recording — now imagine if people started patterning their voice production after that instrument). Suddenly, and it is not new as it was written about all the time in the 17-1800s, critics compared a singer to the purity of the flute, or talked endlessly about her “flute-like tones.” Personally, and I could be quite wrong in this, that is why I feel so many people look to how the flute is played to understand how to sing. They two instruments have NOTHING in common, least of all how the breath is used.
I, myself, don’t even like comparing it to a reed instrument, for even in that case, one can change the reed, buy a different type, or trim it, to achieve the wanted sound. And like all blown instruments, the player has no real personal involvement, not like a singer, with the instrument. They may need skill to know how to press the buttons that produce pitch, and how hard to blow, but they do not create the sound the same way the human body creates the voice.
To me, the voice is the voice, and should be compared only to itself. Other instruments are outside the players bodies, and therefore not really a part of them. Their own health, their own body misfunctions, will not for the most part destroy the tone of the instrument. All those things can play terribly with the voice. A singer can know exactly what to do, know what balanced function is, know exactly how to apply it to their body, and stil because of a cold, or even an uneven shoe (believe it or not) have things not work ideally. People are not machines. We cannot be programed to do everything just perfectly (as much as we would wish it, and believe me, many singers do wish it were so). Any misfunction in the body can put a very easy production where everything is normally great way off base. Even troubles with the stomach, the fear of diarrhea (gross as that sounds, but hey, singers must sing often under the worst of conditions) can make a singer not dare involve the support muscles. And things go out of balance.
We can watch video of singers at the beginnings of their careers and often see in them conditions and flaws that will not be there later in their careers. It is amazing what we can do in the studio, and how balanced we can be when with our teachers, and how far out of wack it all goes when we are up there on the stage performing for the first time. Sometimes it can take four or five years of performances to work it all out, to transfer what we do in the comfort of the studio into our actual performances in public.
I think it is interesting that students who write in noticed this wagging tongue, and then asked about it. They were wanting to learn, to understand, and I am impressed with that. I also think it wonderful that Dinko noticed the stability in production in those other singers, even ones as long ago as Pol Plancon (his recordings are from that era where there is really very little of the voice there at all). That is why I say NO ONE here asked anything with an attitude other than one seeking to understand. I certainly hope your sharp eyes can help you in your own journey. I know your desire to understand and think will. But as an old hat at singing, I must say, it is sad to be human, for it is impossible to be as perfect as we all would love to be. It is impossible to do everything perfectly all the time. And what is worse, is when we can see with our own eyes something is not functioning correctly and can’t find anyone who can help us fix the problem (and you would be surprised at just how hard it is to find someone to help you when things go wrong).
And I can assure you all, it takes far more than just support (for which Caballe was legendary) to sing with good and reliable function. That is only a piece of the puzzle. And you know, it is while learning the music you are to sing, you are challenged to learn HOW to use technique, how to keep balanced function so you are not doing anything in opposition to how your body naturally would work, and than how to bind all this into a real performance (often with dancing, fencing, walking, running, dashing up stairs, and yes, swinging from Chandeliers at times). It is a miracle anyone does it. Most of us do it tremendously well, even if we have our little flaws that show we are not completely functioning in balance. And no one knows better than singers what is required to do it all. I know for myself, nothing is more humbling than to know there is still so much more I have yet to learn and perfect, and that my own career will not last for many more years. The voice will be great, but the body is getting old. I just don’t look heroic, young, or delicate enough anymore for all the wonderful people/characters/women I have sung. I am getting to the point the old grandmas are going to be best for me. I look back on what I learned, what I know, how I have done what I have done, how I used the information I had, and everything. There is so much to learn, so very much. And so much to perfect. The questions asked in this blog are so good. They inspire such good discussions. I hope you all can learn so much faster and so much better all there is to learn. And even then, most of what you will learn you will learn as you are doing. This is such a wonderful blog with such wonderfully thinking people who comment, and with such wonderful insights given by the master of the blog, Michael. This has been rewarding.
Thanks for your comment, John. Yes, Caballe is highly regarded for her technique. But that doesn’t mean it is not possible for her to have some level of malfunction. Often when people talk about good technique it refers to their ability to fulfill the music. i.e. sing coloratura and trills well. Or for a dramatic singer be able to produce a rich, powerful tone. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are structurally and functionally complete.
Using that criteria she did have great technique. The way I use the term “technique” is to mean what we deliberately try to do with our body to make the voice work. In other words our intention. Then we have “function”, which is what the body actually does.
So we have our intention, which is our technique, and we have the function, which is what the body is actually doing. They are not always the same. And our intended technique is not always an optimal function.
In fact it is quite common to have an intended technical act, but the resulting act of the body is not what we intended. That is the norm for singers still working out their technique.
Then there are others who are successful in doing their intended technique, but what they are trying to do is not in line with how the body is designed to operate.
Both of these situations would qualify as poor technique. One because they aren’t getting it right yet, and one because what they are getting “right” is actually counter to what nature intends for our instrument.
Now back to Caballe. I have noticed that she suffers from the moving tongue. But when I watched this video it was less pronounced than I expected. It was not that bad, actually.
But my suspicion is that although her technique is lauded, and is pretty darn good, maybe she is slightly off when it comes to stability. Which doesn’t surprise me considering the common opinion regarding the breath among singers.
I remember reading an article about her that highlighted a conversation with a high level flute player. They talked about breathing and technique and how the two instruments were treated the same. She was an example for the flute player and the flute was an example for her in her breathing.
The problem is the flute is an instrument of a completely different nature than the voice. And I believe it is when singers treat the voice like a flute that this instability and tongue/jaw movement appears.
See, the flute does not involve any vibrating material to oppose and resist the breath pressure. So the nature of how the breath participates is completely different than with the voice.
The voice is more like a reed instrument, except the vocal folds are a more ideal vibrating material than the reed. Through the skillful adjusting of a developed singer the vocal folds can create a flexible resistance in opposition to the air pressure, resulting in a pure, efficient vibration that maximizes the acoustic potential of the vocal tract.
If we treat the voice as a flute we will bypass this resistant relationship of the vocal folds and the breath. With the result being instability of the larynx and some degree of irregularity in the vibration.
So I guess my point is, it doesn’t matter how respected a singer might be or how many think they have great technique. They can still be off to some degree functionally. That doesn’t mean they are bad singers. It doesn’t even mean they would necessarily be better singers if they fixed their functional problems. It just means that there is something slightly off and that is why the tongue moves.
But she is still a great singer. Just don’t let other opinions keep you from looking at reality. Nobody is perfect. And just because a singer is great doesn’t mean they can’t have malfunction.
Hm…But the earliest video of Caballe I saw is from 1966. She was 33 years old. And she has a shaking tongue there as well. (Can be found on youtube by searching Caballe 1966) Though the singing is overall impressive. It’s actually a thing I wondered myself as well about her.
But, neither on these early recordings, her voice doesn’t display “stability” (I really can’t think of a better term, maybe it’s a wrong expression for what I want to say) which I’m sort of very attracted to personally, something one can for example hear in Cristina Deutekom, Björling, Tancredi Pasero, Pol Plancon, Joseph Schmidt, Sandor Konya, Lemešev (he’s a great example because he had so so many health problems later in life) and others. In her case, it’s as if everything is there, but in each moment you’re on the edge of the seat weather it’s going to break or not. Especially when she was about to trill or rise to a high piano. A feeling I never ever get when listening to Deutekom for example. When she attacks a high pianissimo you can actually sense firmness and security and the tone is firm and consistent trough the whole duration of the note(s). From all the recordings I’ve listened, singers who had this “firmness” in their voices remained vocally most consistent as they aged.
Maybe I am wrong, since I never saw any of them live unfortunately, since I was born long after, so maybe then I would have a different perception, this is just observation based on record listening.
People have mentioned Caballe having a shaking tongue. She didn’t in the beginning of her career. That developed much later after many bouts of cancer and many operations that damaged many of her support muscles. The fact she regained any support at all was a miracle in and of itself, and a testiment as to her wonderful skills and understanding.
And age plays a factor. We get old, and muscles get tired. Many singers who were once very strong physically seem to lose that strength as they get older, even if they try to keep it. But there is a nasty habit that happens also. Singers are often taught, right from the beginning of their training, to use only the interest of their voice, never the capital. In otherwords, they are to save their voices. Since no one really has a clue what the interest of your voice is (you can’t save up your singing notes to recall later), people assume it is not stressing or overusing the voice. That all sounds logical, but there is a catch. Unless the voice is used in a way that keeps it strong and healthy and keeps all the muscles involved in singing strong and healthy, they begin to “sag.”
It is no different from learning to weight lift. You start out with small weights and work up. Before long you are doing a lot of work, and are able to do it quite well. Now imagine that one of your trainers started telling you to only lift small weights so as not to use up your physical capital. In a short period of time you would not be able to do the lifting you used to be able to do, and when you would try to do it, your body would shake and tremble all over the place (maybe even injure itself).
Well, singers fall into that same trap. In order to not stress their voices, they sing with less than the strength necessary to sing. They hold back. They strive so hard to be so relaxed so as not to make the muscles work that soon they simply don’t have the strength to sing the roles they used to, and have to force breath through the folds to reach the notes that at one time were easy. The jaw shakes, the tongue wags, they look worried. Soon their performances are not what they should be, and so they believe they must sing even more only on the interest of their voices and use less and less of the capital. Soon, they are singing less and less altogether. They may occasionally give some very good performances, but they seem to lack “life,” that something that really breathes energy and electricity into the music.
Soon, they reach about 50 and think it is time to retire, as well, things are harder and singing isn’t as fun as it used to be. They know they can’t sustain the work, and they think it is just old age.
Yet, in my early career I met many old time singers who were still singing well in their 60s and 70s, even if they had given up singing actual operatic productions, they were still singing concerts, and quite a few a year. Their voices were strong, if not perfect. Their abilities to sing what they were known for singing still were in tact. No terrible wobbles had developed, even if the sheen of youth was now gone. And they all said the same thing: they kept on practicing all the time, they worked on their breathing all the time (some as much as 50 minutes a day!), they tried to keep physically fit, they walked a lot, they learned to enjoy life, and NONE of them sang on their interest, for they realized that was a falsehood. You either sing correctly and well with your voice, or you start drawing back which makes it fall apart. Jerome Hines talked a lot about this, and he sang well, if not with all the sparkle of his youth, right up until he died, which was near 80 years of age. He worked hard on his voice, and studied all the time always striving to understand what it was doing. And he learned very quickly that “saving your voice” actually destroys it. The problem with singing on interest is it makes people UNDER-SING which is just as hard on a voice as oversinging and pushing. The more you under-sing the more problems arise, and the only way to avoid them is to under-sing more. One is forever forced to not press the voice at all, for even the smallest demand of forte soon becomes a mess and the voice breaks all over the place. The reason is simply that the muscles are no longer able to do the work because they were not required to do any.
Many singers start to add unwritten pianissimi on the high notes. They think that reflects vocal health because most teachers say not being able to sing a pianissimo in the high range is a sure sign the voice is not functioning. But not being able to sing a forte is also a sign that things are far from working well. Before long, all high notes above a certain note (which will vary with each singer, but most of them start doing it around a G sharp or an A above the staff) are taken in pianissimo. Caballe had a fabulous pianissimo, and used it with wisdom, and seldom did it ever replace a required forte. But after many operations and some really bad health breaks, she too, began to replace required powerful notes with light pianissimi. But with her, it didn’t become a habit. With others, it did. In time, such singers, who at first impress with those delicate tones, start to bore the audience, for life was gone. Very shortly after replacing everything with pianissimi these singers start to draw back in performances, choose only repertoire that will allow endless pianissimi (mostly light bel canto roles; any Verdi they used to sing is out, any Puccini is out, anything that required “guts” or characterization is gone). And in very few short years, they simply fade away. There is no real farewell performances. They just vanish into thin air and no one hears of them again. And everyone is shocked decades later when they hear they just passed away, and why, because everyone actually thought they died decades earlier than they did.
When Sutherland was old and retiring, she had her vocal folds examined, and they were as fresh as someone in their youth, even after all those many decades of singing. Horne was the same. I would not say either of these ladies “sang only on their interest” but rather just sang wisely. I never attended a performance of either singer what was not filled with real energy and excitement, even if transposition did occasionally occur. And both women sang what I would call a full schedule all their careers.
Other greats were not like that at all. One most wonderful American singer got to the point she was lucky if she sang 10 performances a year before she retired from opera. And as for concerts thereafter, those were extremely few and far between. Yes, her voice remained able to sing the music she sang. It remained beautiful (and still is) but all the energy and life she used earlier in her career was simply gone.
I think of Grace Bumbry who retired at 60, and it was not a planned retirement. She just decided one second to do it. Her voice was still extraordinary. She sang in Electra, I believe, and blew away all the other singers in the cast, most of them half her age. Whatever one thought of her transition from Mezzo to Soprano, and back to Mezzo is an individual thing. But at no time did I ever witness a voice in decay or one that lost anything in its power, ability, or in its sheen. And her performances were always exciting. The late Shirley Verrett was the same.
If any of these singers thought they were using only their interest, their performances and the energy behind them certainly puts that notion to rest. They sang full throttle all the time (that doesn’t mean totally with unending loudness, rather, there was no obvious “sparing of the voice”).
I attended a Broadway play with the great Regina Resnik singing a role in it. She had but one number, I believe, but what she did with that. And at her age (she is quite old) she had a voice of extreme power and excitement. It was a bit lower than when she was one of the most wonderful Carmens around, but it had lost nothing. Even her speaking voice put the others on stage to shame. I don’t believe she ever under-sang in her life. And NONE of these singers I have mentioned had a wagging tongue, or a bobbing chin. Age didn’t rob them of vocal stability. They learned to “lift the heavy weights” and kept their training and workouts so they could remain “lifting the heavy weights.”
The under-singing caused by a false belief one is saving the voice by using only the interest is often another reason we see wobbling tongues and chins. Many of the wobbling singers mentioned were near the end of the careers when we began to see the super strong wobble. Some of those careers had been quite long before any of that happened, others had short careers that ended when the wobble began. But to me, it relates to the strength of the muscles needed to sing, the proper management of the breath, and using the WHOLE body to sing, not just the upper chest and the throat.
Singers, even in the past, who did those things sang long carees, and often singing some of the most difficult and demanding repertoire imaginable. And even if the bloom of youth eventually left (which it will for everyone) the voice remained stable, strong, energetic, and effortless as it faced the challenge of the music before it. Those singers spared nothing, except maybe bad production, forcing the voice, over-singing, and under-singing that removed life from their art.
I saw a few lead singers in Anna Bolena (watched it at a local cinema as part of the Live in HD program) with tongue vibrato. Is it something that can’t be helped, or are even these top-tier singers doing stuff incorrectly?
OK, but what about Caballe. Everyine knows her legendary tehnique and breathing support, but if you watch her close in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MfUsCP6d3U
this Madrid performance, she does the same. And I doubt she’s doing anything wrong.
But I’m no expert of course.
Yes, that is the example that came to mind for me. It is an imbalance, and uncontrollable. It really is difficult to recreate it intentionally. I feel it is linked to the “air-flow” fallacy that is prevalent in voice training. The nature of the breathing has a lot to do with that, as Bea spoke about. As I said, you can see a lot of movement in Stratas’ chest. This way of breathing basically makes it impossible to have a steady, coordinated compression of the breath feeding the vibration. That would be unregulated, as you said. And it is an accurate observation that more women breath with the chest than do men. That is why the shaking tongue tends to be seen more commonly in women.
An analogy that I sometimes use in a different context is a fire hose. The pressure of the water coming out of the hose is quite strong. So much so that it requires at least 2-3 strong people to hold it or else it might knock one over. Imagine if one were turned on and let go. The force of the water pressure would make the hose swing back and forth. It is moving by the same principle as jet propulsion. The pressure from our breathing system is similar. The stabilizing of the larynx is like having enough people holding the fire hose to keep it directed correctly. If it allowed to let go it will be moved by the force of the air pressure.
I think this is basically like what is happening in the mechanism of the larynx/tongue/jaw when it shakes.
I watched some of La Traviata (the film) not too long ago in the opera workshop at my college. I definitely noticed the quivering tongue that Teresa Stratas was exhibiting, an immediately I thought of Jones’ article on the shaking jaw and tongue. I don’t know if it’s for the same reasons as Jones describes in his article, as I haven’t read it in a while, but I still couldn’t help but wonder what Stratas was doing wrong. Unregulated breath pressure, perhaps? ‘Cause I can’t even move my tongue that quickly if I try it deliberately. It must be a byproduct of some sort of imbalance.
Excellent explanation, Michael. When Jerome Hines asked Marilyn Horne about this issue (since it is really something one sees more with women than men) her answer was simple: their beathing in not low enough into the body. I have watched this often while singing with collegues, and usually such singers breathe really quite high. They do not use the lower parts of the body at all. Often they are accompanied by what I call the “Bouncing Bosoms.” When I have sung with such singers, I have often had the misfortune of being able to tell what they eat before a performance as too much breath is carried out of the mouth. Some excuses that are given is women used to wear corsets and that is why they had shallow breathing. That may have been true a hundred years ago or more, but most women haven’t even worn a girdle in a long time. It must relate to something different. I was never allowed to breathe that way. And as I learned to breathe correctly, I also saw my waistline increase. As the muscles developed, it really increased by quite a bit. I became thick waisted. I still had curves, but not like I had before. Whenever I have taught women, I have found that they have a very strange habit of pulling in the abdominals when they inhale, really pulling them in like they are consciously thinking about making sure that their waistlines do NOT increase.
Also as my solar plexus area increase, became stronger, had a much larger expansion, my bosoms seems “smaller.” All the supporting muscles around them got larger, but nothing in breathing or singing will enlarge them.
This is just how the body changes when the muscles are developed. In men, one doesn’t notice it all that much. They remain fairly normal, even if thick waisted (which most men are to begin with). The larger breathing cavety in the solar plexus area only accentuates their already larger chests (and if they keep their arms developed, they look very strong and masculine, well built).
With women, though, the changes do make us more bulky, more thick waisted, less curvy, less delicate, and to a degree less femine.
I find this higher breathing very common in lighter voiced women, the delicate ones who play youthful roles. Yet, even with them, in time they have to face the ravages of age and start to use the lower muscles they have avoided most of their careers. And with that comes thickening, which we associate with becoming older.
Many older singers of the past with light voices also breathed very high: Lilli Pons (and you can watch her in many videos) never involved her mid-section at all, which is evidenced in her costume she wore in Lakme. She also had a habit of closing her mouth on very high notes, but that didn’t remove the carrying power they had at all. Those lighter voiced singers that did involve it (use of the lower abdominals) didn’t involve the use of the lower muscles to the same degree that larged voiced singers did. Large voiced singers (women in particular) had no troubles using their lower bodies. Most of them had rather “heroic bodies” to begin with, so the thickening of the waist was not much of an issue. Flagstad even talks about how when she really learned to support the voice how she added several centimeters to her waist without any gain in weight, and actually was popping out the seams to her dresses. Tetrazzini claimed wearing a corset that went higher than the back of the ribs would make it so she could not sing and breathe deep enough to support the tone. These singers who kept the breath low never had wobbling tongues or jaws. And they didn’t look like move stars either.
Since men usually do breathe very low in the body, they usually don’t have this problem at all (but many do get hernias because of the pressure they use to press out to give support).
I have often wondered if this didn’t have a direct results on the weakness of the breathing muscles and the stability of the larynx. In NO CASE was I able to reverse the wobbling tongue and jaw of a collegue or student without getting the singer to put the breath lower into the body and to accept that they would not remain as thin looking as before. Only when the singer was willing to accept that their real desire was to be a singer, and that they would have to let the small waist go, did they improve.
Some singers, like Helen Traubel, were completely straight. There was no curve at all. Her chest was large, her waist was large, and her voice was large.
I have not seen this issue often in Dramatic sopranos, but I have seen it (in Ghena Dimitrova). Yet, in so many of their cases, they were singing with very low support, and very strong support. In those cases, all I could think of was undo pressure in the throat that may have caused the problem. Some singers really do “stretch out the neck and widen it a great deal” when singing high notes, or striving to reach them when they are the top of their ranges. Again, men do this more than women, but it does happen. To me, anything that causes that much stress on the neck must also cause a sort of instability in the larynx. Even if the breath pressure is correct because breathing muscles are being used correctly, there is still something causing the instability or the tongue would not wag. That is simply an observation I have seen often as I have sung, and by all kinds of singers, the country of origin and even the method of teaching didn’t seem to really be a factor.
My question now is: I see more and more of this with younger singers, especially women, why? It is as if they are taught now that they can see how good their vibrato is if they can count the movements of the tongue (I am sure they are not actually taught that, but because the situation is so common now, one is left to wonder). I have noticed a real trend for women to be small, slender, and very pretty. Really, they DO get the roles just because they can wear the small skimpy dresses that production designers want to see. Voice is really quite secondary, it seems. Even the public seems to enjoy listening to a Brunhilde that looks like she could have danced in “a Chorus line” but hasn’t the voice needed to even begin to tackle the vocal requirements of the music. We all know of the famous soprano who was fired because she was too fat to sing Ariadne (Debra Voigt). But no one tells us that her replacement (who looked great in a super skimpy black dress) sang so badly people actually left the performance. She simply didn’t have what it took vocally for the role. But directors get their way.
I am left wondering how much of this bad vocalizing we are now hearing (which is now far more commong than not) is not the results of singers striving to be thin like Broadway singers, like movie stars, at the expense of really good vocal technique.
I hear it all the time. I hear basses singing King Phillip that when I started would be consigned to the chorus to help develop their vocal skills. I her Normas who in their raging couldn’t make a fly move. Their tiny chirping amounting to nothing. Although one doesn’t need a huge voice to be a singer (though some roles require huge voices and that is just the facts), one must have a voice that can do the job, and that can be heard, and that can do justice to the music and drama being presented. A Trovatore I attended lately (in Europe) was so bad that ALL the principles had to be miked or their voices wouldn’t have left the stage. Every one of them was a matine idol in appearance, but NONE of them had a voice to do any justice to Verdi’s music. And the Mezzo was so high and squeaky she didn’t sound like an old gypsy mother, but rather Leonore’s five year old sister. Even the baritone sounded more like a frightened tenor than a real baritone. There was no heft to the sound, no body to it, no soul, no depth. And they ALL had wagging tongues (and that was a first I had ever seen a man have one).
So, can we really say our fixation with looks has not played a role in seeing wagging tongues, jaws, and what have you? It is just a thought.