Monday, February 18, 2008

Section III: Stance/Structure Continued --

1. Structure is the over-all term we use for the stance of the singer: to include the position of the head and how the mouth is open for an [a] vowel on a top note. Of the five classic vowels, [a] is the only vowel whose structure—mouth opening—may remain unchanged from low-C to high-C. Structure may be viewed as a crucible. If the goal is to carry the original position up to the top, everything that happens to the vowel or voice on its way to the top note happens on the inside, within the original structure—once the voice/throat is fully developed. If the so-called crucible begins to lose its original position as pitch ascends, as when the lips spread approaching the top notes (identify the pitch), one can be sure it is here the vowel must be modified (Section to come) for the express purpose of keeping structure in line or in its original position. Structure (the Figures) is the defining issue and our guide.

2. Note: Although we speak to the top notes, it is in passing. We spend all our time within the first octave and one-half for two reasons: (1) Structure can only be developed where the voice works easily and (2), our reader/singer is not in the studio; he is without guidance, without a teacher. The singer will have to guide himself—a daunting proposition. Within the middle voice, however, we believe our reader/singer has a chance at finding a fully-formed [a] vowel if he realizes (1) they do exist and (2), he stays with it long enough, not just to find it, but to develop it.

3. Lip spreading on the tops notes applies more to the female singer than it does to the male. Men have a greater tendency to funnel their lips under the mistaken idea of projecting the voice. And lip tension has no place to go but back, in domino-effect, and stiffen the throat or pharyngeal wall in degree. This adversely affects not just the vowel and, therefore, the sound of the voice, but the pharyngeal adjustment that must accommodate a rising scale becomes impossible when the lips are locked in tension. The singer in this vocal set-up can only push from here, and shorten the life of the voice (forget the high notes) thereby.

4. Lip funneling is anathema to good production. When combined with the head-down/diaphragmatic-drive/forward-production method, it is all too sad. The variance between smiling while on a glorious top note, and vowel spreading or lip-funnelling because the throat/voice can not handle the pitch, is obvious. Once structure is established and the throat developed within it for the first octave and one-half, the high notes (vowel modifications) will have a greater ease of application and efficiency. The muscles that vibrate the cords on the top notes have a better chance of operating efficiently, if the muscles that vibrate the cords on the first octave operate efficiently.

Figure 2: Dame Joan Sutherland in duet with Marilyn Horne (removed), “Mira, o Norma” from Norma, by Vincenszo Bellini (Great Moments in Opera, Sofa Entertainment, distributed by GMG, Great Neck, NY—all rights reserved).

5. Ms. Sutherland is Ms Sutherland is floating an [a] vowel on high A-flat which, for Ms Sutherland, is not high. She was in a run that topped-off at high-C. We captured it here because it represents best what Tetrazzini refers to as “simple relaxing exercises.” (We call it stretching out.) We draw your attention to how her lower lip is wrapped up against and over her lower teeth (click on the image to enlarge it). This is how Tetrazzini draws her jaw back. In here is Caruso’s smile. This is how we open our mouth for an [a] vowel.

6. Mme Sharnova did not give her students this stretching exercise. She had them locate the jaw-joint as Tetrazzini describes, but what solidified the [a] vowel structure was the structure she employed for the [o] vowel. (The [o] structure is demonstrated in another section.) We share Tetrazzini’s words because she points us in the direction of how to open the mouth with her “relaxing exercise,” and because she is one of the finest singers of all time.

7. This structure of Ms Sutherland's, if applied on a medium-low note, demonstrates an open throat (full [a] vowel) as no other structure can. Every muscle around the vibrant cords is out of the way, relaxed as they are. We suggest our reader become thoroughly familiar with it. Through the first octave and one-half, structure will keep the voice in line all by itself. After that, in this singer's vocal education, structure was everything, but we are not there, yet. As pitch ascends structure is more important than any muscular activity, because it is structure that allows the strap muscles to do their work. Unencumbered by a faulty jaw structure, the all-important depressor muscles are allowed full play. It is the correct release of the TMJ, which occurs when the lower lip begins to hug the lower teeth or jaw, that allows it drop in the back, in a real sense, first; from there the jaw is allowed to hang open, or hang down, on its Path of Least Resistance as demonstrated beautifully by Ms. Sutherland.

8. There is more to successfull high notes than simply structure: vowels have to modify at appropriate pitches, and the muscles that respond to the vowel modifications have to be developed. But within structure, it can happen. Given a voice, talent, intelligence, a gravitational pull to the footlights and a passion to sing, one would think it not possible all that--the life of a singer--could be contingent on the successful articulation of a joint. But it is. For the most part, singers do not seem to understand the intimacy between vowel, voice, and structure. For every vowel that is perfect and on every pitch, there is a corresponding perfect structure.

9. Structure, how one opens one's mouth for any vowel on any pitch, in the beginning, is more important than vowel or voice. A vowel well produced is safely ensconced within a well prepared mouth/pharynx cavity. When the vowel/voice is right, structure is right. When the vowel/voice is wrong, structure is wrong. It can be no other way. But how does a singer identify the perfect structure for an [a] vowel--as simple as that would seem on a med-low note--if no one ever showed him how to open his mouth? We offer structure as step one to that identification. The remaining Figures support the original premise: To set the vocal cords for maximum efficiency with minimum effort, the head must be up and the singer must know how to release the jaw or open his mouth.

Figure 3: Ms Kirsten Flagstadt performing “Hojotoho!” from Richard Wagner’s Die Walkure (Video: The Art of Singing – Golden Voices of the Century, NVC ARTS, 1996—A Warner Music Co.) This clip was also aired on Great Performances (PBS). She is singing [a] on the last high B in the aria, and it is glorious.

10. We understand that she lip-synced this scene for the film The Big Broadway Musical. She doesn’t lip-sync well with the head down either. One comes away with the feeling that she acted it just the way she sang it. Note the position of the head, the jaw down and back, and the lower lip positioned up against the jaw. Note the look in her eye, too. She is living her voice. As you view this figure, know that the lips are the farthest extension of the back of the throat. That flesh is connected and the shape of the lips always reflects the back of the throat, and vice versa. And where most singers are not looking too good on high B, her throat is so strong that her smile is real.

Figure 4: Beniamo Gigli: performing “Mamma e generoso” from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. This eleven-second scene was a beautiful digital-remastering aired on PBS: The Vocal Cords.

11. Beautifull Gigli, another known natural, was truly a singing animal. He could explode from anywhere in song or aria and on a dime. Note the position of his head and how his jaw hangs down and back. Here he is letting it fly on two vowels, [i] and [o], in addio on top A-flat, and without moving his jaw an iota between the two vowels. In deed, all vowels on top come out of [a]. His throat is braced open by the jaw, which bracing allows the muscles engaged by the [i] and [o] vowels to work unencumbered. The Bell Canto Society has the whole scene in Gigli in Opera and Song: No. 9001. The copy is murky, if they have it at all. But on youtube we can hear him in two contrasting songs: “Agnus Dei,” by Bizet, and “Caro mio ben,” by Giordano. As you listen to the “Agnus Dei,” check the dotted eight-note/sixteenth-note combinations in the word Miserere and elsewhere. Many singers sleep through those combinations; do not give them the energy, or the attention required.

Figure 5 Enrico Caruso

12. From Caruso’s biography presented by Arts and Entertainment: He is singing “Over There,” by George M. Cohen for a war rally in New York City, 1917. We have studied the video and in our opinion he is engaged with the [eh] vowel in there (no American r) on Db5. It could be the same vowel in prayer on Eb5. If it is the [eh] vowel of the Great Caruso on either of those pitches, it begs investigation and why we mention it. But know, Americans, Mr. Caruso is a foreigner; his vowels are Italian; his throat is Italian. It is something to consider, because they are foreign to us.

13. What works anatomically and physiologically under the skin with the head up is a later Section: Anatomy. But know: With the head up and mouth open as depicted here, the cords are stretched, strung, analogous to the strings of a finely tuned piano or violin and as flexibly taut. The glottis, the slit between the cords is, therefore, razor thin. In this position it is practically impossible to muscle the vowel through the slit to manufacture a big, meaty tone, because (1) the cords won’t let us through and (2), the vibrant flesh for that production is no longer there—stretched out, thinned, as it is with the head up and jaw hanging down and back.

14. We mention this for those singers who are accustomed to that big meaty production, which is what happens when the cords are slack (relaxed), as they are with the head down. One may have difficulty adjusting to a new structure, a new sensation, a new sound, and a new psychology. We presented the above Figures to let our reader see for himself how the great singers sang.