Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Let the frogs sing

It's that time of year again. Coughs, colds, sniffles, sore throats, catarrh - my students have them all. In due course so will I, no doubt. It's an occupational hazard.

My rule no. 1 - "If it hurts, stop" - applies here. If your throat is so sore it hurts to speak, let alone sing, for goodness' sake don't! Pain is always an indicator that something is wrong. Shut up and let your poor voice heal.

However, lesser ills are not necessarily a reason to stop singing. If it doesn't hurt to sing - even if your throat is a bit sore - it's often ok to do so. But there is a second consideration.

Sometimes voices that are below par simply don't want to work. They don't hurt, but trying to sing is like wading through treacle, and the voice is a shadow of its normal self. If this is how you feel, singing is pointless. You will only wear yourself out and you may do damage. So even though there is no pain as such, rule no. 1 still applies. Stop, and let your voice heal.

But what if there's no pain and your voice is working ok, but every time you try to sing you get the Frog Chorus? This often happens at the end of a cold, when there's still a lot of catarrh lying around. My general advice would be to let the frogs sing. Don't try to avoid them by singing "above" them or pushing through them - that only makes the catarrh worse. And remember my rule number 3 - you can't hear your own voice. You hear the frogs. We generally don't - but we do notice if you compromise your vocal production in order to avoid them.

Above all though, if you have to sing with a voice that isn't at its best, you MUST maintain good vocal technique. So many people start singing too quietly when they have a cold, because they think that preserves their voice. It doesn't. Many people also stop breathing deeply and supporting their voices because they are worried that the sound may crack.  Reducing the breath and support is the WORST thing you can do to a voice that is not well.  If the sound cracks when you support it properly, you shouldn't be singing.

So if you have a cold or a cough, sing normally or not at all. And let the frogs sing too.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Singing teaching and vocal abuse

For a while now, I've been teaching someone who has damaged her voice. She has vocal fold nodules which reduce with rest but never really go away. Normally one would suggest complete vocal rest for her, but....it's been a long time, and there is a real risk that the muscles will start to waste. So I'm working with her to try to establish a safe singing technique so she doesn't do further damage.

She has had singing lessons in the past, and it was evident in talking to her that the problems with her voice started AFTER she had lessons. Now this is odd. Vocal fold nodules are primarily caused by poor technique, so singing lessons should reduce the chances of getting them. I wondered whether the cause was over-use rather than poor technique, but again, it didn't seem she was doing excessive amounts of singing. So what was going on?

Listening to her and "filtering out" the breathiness caused by the nodules, the middle of her voice was far too dark and lacked clarity.  There was no edge on the voice at all (what the Americans call "twang").  Now this student sings mainly musical theatre which requires the singer to make a lot of sound in the low to middle part of the voice.  She admitted she had taken to pushing her voice in order to make more sound, which is undoubtedly why she had developed nodules. But why was she having to do that? She doesn't have a high voice, so this isn't a problem caused by singing at too low a pitch. It's a problem caused by inappropriate vocal quality.

Lack of twang makes it very hard for the singer to project the voice. Twang is the "cutting edge" that allows them, for example, to be heard above a big orchestra.  Some voices are naturally short of twang, and singing teachers prescribe exercises for them to make the best use of what twang there is. But in this case, there didn't seem to be a fundamental shortage of twang. The lowest part of her voice could be heard across the street. So why did the twang disappear in the middle?

I asked her to forget everything she had ever been taught, and simply sing the way she did before she had lessons - and to help her, I gave her a song she had sung at school but never studied with her teacher. She sang it simply and beautifully, and produced an enormous, bright, clear sound in her middle voice. The dark cloudy timbre disappeared completely.  I asked her why she didn't sing like that normally. Her answer shocked me. "I was told it was wrong", she said.

It appears she had studied with a teacher who didn't like twang. My first teacher was one of those. I still remember being told there was an "edge" on my voice which we should try to "round off". And we did, for nearly a year. By the time I went to music college I couldn't be heard beyond the front row and my professor wondered what I was doing there, because he couldn't hear a voice. He spent the next year trying to put the twang back on my voice, with me resisting him all the way. Finally in desperation he cried "Why won't you do this?". And I answered "I was told it was wrong". I explained that my first teacher didn't like the edge on my voice. He was horrified. "But you need edge, or you can't be heard!" he said.

And so I now know how my student got nodules despite having singing training. Her teacher had systematically removed the twang from her voice. The price she paid for this was serious reduction in her ability to make herself heard, which led her to push her voice to the point of damage. 

To my mind this is vocal abuse and that teacher should be shot.

And the moral of today's story is - choose your teacher carefully. There are no professional standards for singing teachers and little agreement on technique. And there are some seriously bad teachers out there. 

Interestingly, my student didn't actually like the way her teacher sang.  So my advice would be, when choosing a singing teacher, listen to them singing, or if they are past it (some are, but may still be good teachers) listen to their students. If you don't like what you hear, DON'T STUDY WITH THEM, however highly recommended they are!

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Lighter is not always better

Among singing teachers, there is a general consensus that heavyweight singing - big operatic or music theatre roles, for example - is bad for young voices. In general I would agree: overstressing voices that are not fully developed tires them and can wear them out before their prime.  But there are exceptions.

I am currently teaching a 17-year old soprano. She's not been studying with me very long, but has had singing lessons with another teacher for several years.  When she started with me she was singing light soprano repertoire, which would normally be the correct choice for a girl of her age.  Her voice was attractively light and bright, but her top notes were restricted and her voice was breathy in the middle and lacking "shine".  Her breathing was too high and shallow and there was tension in her shoulders.  So I encouraged her to breathe more deeply, relax her shoulders and support her voice from deeper in her body.  She did this to some extent in exercises, and what began to appear was a much bigger voice with a real lyric warmth and some of the "shine" that I longed to hear. The trouble was that as soon as she started to sing the light soprano repertoire it all disappeared and we were back to shoulder tension, shallow breathing and breathiness. 

Today I gave her Brahms "Immer Leiser" in the high key to try.  This is a thoroughly miserable song that requires dark colours and a big lyric sound to work well - completely the opposite of what she had been doing, and not everyone's medicine for a young voice.  I encouraged her to make the German vowels as dark as possible - so that her voice sounded "too dark" to her - and to "sock out" the high notes rather than trying to "place and float" them as she had been taught. Singing like this, she sang her way through the piece with complete freedom and produced at the end the easiest top A she has ever sung.  And she made the most glorious lyric soprano sound. Wonderful.

At the end of the lesson she said, "That was so easy! And it's the first time my throat hasn't felt sore at the end of a lesson!". I was horrified. Worried that I had been doing something wrong, I asked her if her throat had just been getting sore in the lessons she had had with me. "No," she said, "it's every lesson I've ever had, and rehearsals and concerts as well. I have to have "quiet days" after singing. I thought it was normal!"

Readers of my website will know that Coppola Rule No.1 is "If it hurts, STOP!"  Throat soreness after singing is ALWAYS a sign that something is wrong. This girl had been singing in too tight and gripped a way for years - all of it in the name of not overstressing a young voice.  The repertoire she has been singing is too light for her and she has never been able to let out that lovely sound - in fact she has been led to believe that singing with her natural rich, warm, vibrant sound is wrong.  Even at 17, she needs to be singing bigger things.

So light is not always best for young voices. It depends on the voice. It is the teacher's job to discern what the voice needs in order to develop and set appropriate repertoire. And if that means giving an 18-year-old Madame Butterfly to sing, then do it - and damn the rules.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Too big too soon: the price of ambition

A few weeks ago I attended an audition day for Mantissa Opera, a professional repertory opera company based in Medway.  I am already a company member, so the pressure was off me and I had a chance to listen to lots of young hopefuls singing their hearts out in the hope of getting a job.

There were some seriously good singers there, with lovely voices, singing repertoire that was suitable for their voices and their age.  I heard some truly wonderful perfomances by singers who clearly have a great future ahead of them.  But there were others who were singing material that was unsuitable for their age, their stage of development, and in at least one case their voice type.  I felt for them as they tried to sing things that were too big, too high or just wrong for them, and they paid the price in intonation, tone quality and expression.

The tendency of young singers to want to sing bigger repertoire than their voices can cope with is a well-known problem extending back at least a hundred years.  Here is Caruso writing about it in the early 20th century:

"...Many singers with voices suitable only for light opera are constantly trying to branch out into big dramatic arias.  Such performances are assuredly distressing to hear and are certainly disastrous for the voices concerned. It is no wonder that these people are often ill, for one cannot make such efforts without injuring the health. I realise that they often do it to please their directors and to be obliging in an emergency, but when they are down and out others will easily replace them and they are heard from no more......"

The same is true - even more so, maybe - in contemporary musical theatre. Directors exhort singers to sing louder and more dramatically even at the cost of their vocal health. They don't care if the singer falls apart, because after all there are plenty more waiting in the wings. The profession is littered with the ghosts of people who have pushed their voices and themselves beyond their limits and paid the price in vocal damage, stress and trauma.  So many, many broken dreams.

Caruso's advice from nearly a hundred years ago is still relevant today:

"To keep the voice fresh for the longest possible time one should not only never overstep his vocal 'means', but should limit his output as he does the expenses of his purse"

So when I hear a young soubrette soprano singing the second Queen of the Night aria when her voice is only suitable for Despina, or a 25-year-old lyric soprano singing Tosca's "Vissi d'Arte" when she won't be vocally ready for it for at least another 10 years, I find myself thinking - have we learned NOTHING in a century?