Saturday, 27 April 2013

Diagnosing voices

One of the biggest challenges for a singing teacher is to identify what a voice "is". This is not an optional extra: correctly identifying the voice type is essential if the teacher is to set appropriate repertoire and give appropriate technical advice. Bass voices simply don't behave in the same way as tenors and should not be treated as if they do. I was frankly horrified to hear another singing teacher commenting that these days no-one really bothered with vocal classification any more. She might not, but I do. I teach too many people who have had vocal problems because they were not singing in the right way, or singing the right repertoire, for their voice type. Not diagnosing the voice type is in my view a dereliction of duty.

The traditional choral classifications of soprano, contralto, tenor and bass are utterly inadequate as voice descriptors. They are only a basic indicator of vocal pitch (what we call "tessitura") and range, and need extensive qualification. Mezzo-sopranos and baritones both sit between two classifications and people with these voice types often find it difficult to know which part to sing in a choir. And even if a voice can be clearly identified as belonging to one of the choral classifications, that says very little about the sort of repertoire that will be suitable. A light soprano is arguably further removed from a potential Tosca than a lyric mezzo-soprano - but she is still a soprano, whereas the mezzo may well be classified as a contralto.

The German "fach" system of voice classification can be helpful, especially for sopranos (there are more different sorts of soprano than any other voice type and the repertoire differs wildly). But even this is flawed, and if the classifications are used too rigidly it can result in people being forced to sing repertoire that is unsuitable for them. For example, I am a lyric mezzo-soprano, but because the top of my voice is enormous (I can do 80 decibels without much effort) the lighter end of the lyric mezzo repertoire doesn't suit me, whereas some of the dramatic repertoire does. In the soprano fach system I would be "spinto" (Jugendlich dramatischer), which sits between lyric and dramatic: but for some reason there is no equivalent in the mezzo fach system.

Any vocal classification system can only be a guide. Fundamentally, it is the teacher's judgement as to what technical advice and repertoire is suitable for a particular voice. And we get it wrong. I frequently have to reclassify voices: so many times people are told, or choose to believe, that their voice is low when it is actually high, or vice versa. Even when they get vocal tessitura right they may get the scale wrong: I've written before about the problems caused by teachers setting repertoire that is too light for their student's voice.  The problem is that for many people, the type of voice they have is related to their identity: they "see" themselves as "a soprano" or "a tenor", and it can be as devastating for them to hear that they are something else as it would be to tell them that their hair is red when they've always thought it was brown.  When someone's incorrect perception of their voice type is very bound up with their emotional identity, I tread carefully: if their self-image is so mistaken in that respect it is likely to be in others too. I am not a counsellor or psychotherapist, and sometimes people need more help than I can give.

Diagnosing a voice is done on two primary criteria: the tessitura of the voice - where it "lies", pitch-wise - and the timbre. Of these the first is more important than the second, especially in a young singer or where there are vocal problems that interfere with the tone quality. However, extreme physical tension and poor breathing habits can make a voice appear higher than it is, and an over-dark vocal quality can give the impression of a lower voice. I am currently teaching two people who presented as - respectively - a higher and lower voice than they have turned out to be.  One is a light lyric mezzo-soprano who when she started was so tense that she had no low notes at all and could only produce a small high squeaky sound: she sang soprano at the time, of course, but now she is learning to relax she is finding singing lower more comfortable and we are beginning to hear the richness and warmth of her mezzo voice. The other is a really rather good dramatic tenor who told me he was a deep bass and produced the darkest and most muffled tone quality I have ever heard.

It isn't always easy to diagnose a voice correctly, and there are a number of common mistakes. The first is to confuse tessitura with range. One of my students was originally trained as a high soprano. At the age of 17 she sang to a choral director who said he thought she would be a mezzo as an adult. She went back and told her teacher, who said "Oh, don't be ridiculous. You have a good top C", and carried on training her as a soprano. But as the years went on, her voice began to rebel: she lost her high notes and was eventually forced to drop down to alto in choir. The trouble was, she had never sung low and had no idea how to use the low part of her voice. She ended up with her voice fragmented and was forced to leave the choir. When she finally came to me for lessons, I confirmed that her voice was indeed a very good mezzo-soprano - but by that time significant damage had already been done, and it has taken literally years to stitch her voice back together and re-establish her confidence. It is tragic to see someone with a lovely voice and real musical ability forced to stop singing because of wrong diagnosis and bad training.

The second common mistake is scale. Generally we err on the side of "too light" when setting repertoire for young singers, because serious damage can be done by attempting repertoire too heavy for them. But that is not true of adults. For them, the scale of the voice must be respected in setting repertoire. I'm currently teaching a spinto soprano. Her previous teacher is a light soprano who teaches everyone to sing like her, which completely confused this student and left her with very restricted high notes. She sang Mimi's first aria from La Boheme, which she found comfortable. But she struggled to give enough weight to the high notes, so we tried Musetta's aria from the same opera. It was a disaster. She couldn't sing it at all:  it just didn't work. Bemused, we tried Mimi's second aria....which like the first was fine except for the restricted high notes. The problem was Musetta. Now, in the fach system, Mimi is a spinto and Musetta a lyric. So Musetta is just too light for my student. She needs bigger stuff to feel comfortable, and we have to resolve the technical problems and mental hang-ups that are restricting her high notes. She's currently singing Casta Diva from Bellini's Norma. That's more like it.

And the third mistake is timbre - the "sound" of the voice. Typically, bigger voices tend to have darker tone qualities. So many times I have seen spinto and dramatic sopranos singing mezzo or even contralto because they have a dark tone quality, when the voice clearly wants to be higher. I once had a 14-year-old girl  referred to me by another teacher, who said it was a very unusual tone quality and she thought she was probably a contralto although something didn't quite add up. It really didn't. Yes, this girl did indeed have a very dark tone quality. But her voice did not want to go down. It went up - into an enormous dramatic soprano with a comfortable (and deafening) top C. It is a truly extraordinary instrument and I am still very sad that she has chosen not to pursue a singing career.

I could add lots more examples. I've spent much of my teaching career rediagnosing and retraining voices, to the point where "Go to Frances for lessons and she'll turn you into something else" has become a standing joke among my Rochester Cathedral choral colleagues.  But my final case study is myself - and it shows how prevalent mis-diagnosis is, and how damaging.

I've always known that my voice prefers to be in the middle. But because the best part of my voice is my high notes, many people believe that I have a high voice. I spent twenty years fighting with vocal coaches, choral directors and adjudicators who insisted that I was a spinto or dramatic soprano. I even had two singing teachers who attempted (unsuccessfully) to train me as a soprano. One of them went on to become the Head of Vocal Studies at my alma mater, the Royal College of Music - after setting me on a path that eventually led to vocal damage severe enough to require surgery. I despair. Surely a top conservatoire professor should be able to diagnose a voice correctly?

The ultimate guide to voice diagnosis is, of course, the Coppola Rules. If it hurts to sing, or singing is difficult.....something is WRONG. A throat constantly tightening up and breathing forced into the shoulders when singing is often a sign that the tessitura is too high. Lack of resonance and uncomfortable breaks appearing in the middle of the voice can be a sign that the tessitura is too low. Hoarseness after singing indicates wrong repertoire. Singing should feel easy and comfortable and the voice should "flow". If it doesn't, don't struggle - get help. And if your teacher won't listen, find a different one. You only have one voice. Don't risk it.


One of the things that we are asked to do as singers is to tell a story using both words and music. The ancient tradition of ballad-singing is essentially storytelling: a ballad in the traditional sense is a story, usually with a sad ending and often intended to reinforce cultural values or beliefs. We have come now to regard a "ballad" as a slow song on a sad subject, but that's not its original meaning.

This week, I worked with a young singer on the ballad "The Banks of Allan Water". This is a harrowing tale of love, betrayal, grief and suicide, set within the context of the four seasons of the year. As it is not very long, I reproduce the words here in full (note the traditional use of the word "gay" to mean "happy"):

On the banks of Allan Water, when the sweet springtime did fall,
Was the miller's lovely daughter, fairest of them all.
For his bride a soldier sought her, and a winning tongue had he;
On the banks of Allan Water, none was gay as she.

On the banks of Allan Water, when brown autumn spreads its store,
There I saw the miller's daughter, but she smiled no more.
For the summer grief had brought her, and the soldier false was he;
On the banks of Allan Water, none was sad as she.

On the banks of Allan Water, when the winter snow fell fast,
Still was seen the miller's daughter; chilling blew the blast.
But the miller's lovely daughter both from cold and care was free;
On the banks of Allan Water, there a corpse lay she.

I've written before about expressing grief in song. But here we are not asked to express grief.  We are the onlooker - the reporter, the journalist - describing what we see. And it is our OWN emotional response to such a horrible story that we should be expressing.

So my young singer sang the first two verses of this song - which is all she is asked to do for an Associated Board Grade III exam. I asked her to use dynamics and tone colour to make a clear emotional difference between the joy of the first verse and the sorrow of the second. This should not be particularly difficult for a singer of her standard, and as I expected she did indeed make a distinction. But towards the end of the second verse there was a burst of anger that surprised both me and her. She had allowed her own feelings of outrage at the soldier's behaviour towards his beautiful wife to influence the way she sang the song. And it transformed it. Suddenly this was not simply a neutral observer. This was an angry young woman involving herself in the awful fate of another young woman, with whom she clearly identified.

This is the job of the ballad singer. We are not asked to be neutral observers. We are to be emotionally involved in songs where we are the storyteller just as much as those in which we are playing a role. The difference is that when we are playing a role, it is the emotions of the character we are playing that we need to feel: for me that is best done by stepping into the skin of the character we are playing - for the three minutes of the song, becoming someone else, feeling what they feel and doing what they do. But when we are the storyteller, it is our own natural emotional response to the story we are telling that brings it to life.

My young singer's anger was entirely natural and appropriate. I hope she sings it that way in her forthcoming exam. Of such exceptional expression are distinctions made.....

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Expressing grief in song

The other day I was coaching someone on the interpretation of Fauré's lovely song "Après un Rêve". In sleep, the poet dreams of his lost love, seeing her again as beautiful as ever and hearing her lovely voice.....but when he wakes, the vision fades. In desperation he cries out: "Come back, radiant one!" but to no avail....the "mysterious night" has gone and with it his happiness.

Technically this is a difficult song, with very long sustained phrases and requiring expansive singing and a full tone. Added to that are its considerable emotional demands. Grief is perhaps the most difficult emotion to express through song: if the singer feels sorrow too strongly, the voice "chokes" and maintaining a stable tone and accurate pitch becomes all but impossible. And yet the singer must feel the emotion strongly enough for the audience to feel it too. Finding the balance between too much and too little emotion is quite a challenge.

Après un Rêve is by no means the only song that has this problem. Richard Strauss's Allerseelen is even more challenging. Whereas Après un Rêve speaks of a faded dream, Allerseelen is a living nightmare - a recent bereavement and terrible unresolved grief. By the grave of the beloved on All Souls' Day, the poet remembers how they were in May.....and desperately pleads for her to come back, even if only for one day, so that they can be again as they were then.

Both composers helpfully set the cry of pain in their respective songs high in the voice and loud. In classical music we usually adjust the pitch of songs to suit the singer, and this offers an opportunity to choose a pitch that helps express emotion. Because of the emotional intensity of Allerseelen I normally sing it in a key which is on the high side for me, and I don't restrain the high notes at the end - such pain cannot be held back. I know some people may find this too loud and intense for chamber music, but which is more important - preserving people's sense of decorum, or accurately portraying the suffering of the principal actor in this mini-drama?

The Fauré piece is more subtle and the emotion is less raw. The night has gone and the vision has faded, but there will be another night......I choose a medium key for this piece and the high notes at the end are within the general dynamic range of the song. But "Hélas! triste reveil des songes...." is still a cry of pain and needs to sound like one. I still let rip, just at medium pitch so it isn't quite as loud and intense as the climax of Allerseelen.

Deliberately restraining emotion in song is not a good idea. Coldness is perhaps the worst crime of all in art singing: if you don't feel the emotion yourself, you shouldn't sing the song. We have to let our songs affect us. I remember my teacher, Tony Hocking, suggesting that I should sing Hageman's setting of Rabindranath Tagore's harrowing poem "Do not go my love", about a parent watching his child slowly dying. My own children were very young at the time, and I found this song almost impossible to sing....but Tony's brutal remark was that my emotional reaction improved it. So if there is a song that really moves you, sing prepared for the choke in the voice, sing as loudly as you need to to maintain tone (never mind the dynamic markings - actually producing the sound is more important), and have a box of tissues handy. Eventually, you will be able to sing the song with feeling but without tears.

Mind you, tears and a choke in the voice can be part of a great Sinead O'Connor's singing of "Nothing Compares 2U" shows us. Sometimes beautiful singing is not enough. Grief is ugly.....

(When I am organised enough I will produce my own recordings of the classical songs in this post songs.....but for the moment, the singers are Véronique Gens (Fauré), Barbara Bonney (Strauss) and Elizabeth Bailey (Hageman). My thanks to them.)