The Recovering Female Opera Singer – Part 2

In my previous post about the recovering opera singer, which you can read here, I went through the typical scenario of how they came to my doorstep.  In this part, I discuss some of the techniques used to help them achieve their goals.

I call these students “recovering opera singers.” They are possibly the most challenging students a teacher like myself can get, but ultimately also the most  rewarding: challenging in  that  the vocal  behaviors are so ingrained through training they sometimes resist change; rewarding in that a successful recovery makes a career in their real choice attainable.

Well, what does one do? The first step in this process is to get the singer to connect out of pure chest voice.  Often the singer has been made to feel fearful about this part of her voice and either sings all in head or mixes in head very low in the voice.  The singer has probably heard chest voice called crude, masculine, or even vulgar.  However, the root of almost all non-classical female vocal music is chest voice.

In an attempt to feminize the voice, most classical pedagogues advocate mixing in head at Eb4. The words used above to describe the female chest voice are not ones that are functional in manner, but  rather, value judgments firmly rooted in outdated, Western European, sexist male attitudes.  Women are obviously not the same now as they were in the nineteenth century, and today’s vocal music and vocal technique need to reflect the change in values.  The sounds of female classical singing are a reflection of values that most people can­ not connect with anymore.  The use of chest voice reflects a change in attitude among women and towards women.  It connects with how the world views modern femininity.  To ignore chest as the foundation of the non-classical female voice is to ignore reality.

Is getting a recovering female opera singer to find her chest voice a difficult thing? No! Most females speak in chest voice.  Getting them to appreciate and understand that chest  is the equivalent of their speaking voice is not usually a difficult task, but it can be a difficult  task getting  them out of it in a coordinated, connected manner.

The non-classical female singer (depending on voice type) needs to be able to sing in chest u p to at least A4.   Once a recovering opera singer finds her chest voice she often at­ tempts to pull it higher than A4 (often to C5), which results in a huge disconnect in the voice at around C#5.  The key to creating the illusion of chest higher is to create a strong mix at around Bb4 where the cricothyroids (CT) start the lengthening process while the thryoarytenoids (TA) still offer strong resistance.  A long (yet still healthy) closed phase needs to be engineered to retain the firm sound, which stays connected to chest.  The vowels need to modify, but in a way that retains the purity of the intended phoneme.  Finally, a connection into head at around E5 needs to be established, but in a way that it is still connected to the chest voice.

Does that registration description above sound familiar? It should; it is how the male voice registrates, although at different notes in the male voice.  At a music theater workshop I presented, I pulled up an opera singer to try to teach her how to connect in this manner.  Using a device called the pharyngeal voice (also referred to as the witch’s or puppet voice), I was able (much to the surprise of the singer) to get the volunteer to sound like an R&B singer within ninety seconds.  (She obviously took to the exercise very quickly.) After that demonstration, world renowned otolaryngologist Robert Bastian pulled me aside and said, “That was the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed.   I always suspected a female voice could registrate like a man’s.  Now I have heard it!”

How one goes about this transformation is still a matter of great debate among devotees of different camps.  While there are distinct aesthetic and functional differences in these camps, most recognize the differences between today’s musical demands and the approaches taught in a majority of studios.  These differences are ignored in most studios to the detriment of many aspiring young singers.

It is for this reason that all voice teachers should ask themselves several questions:

  • Do the students I am teaching really want to sing classical music?
  • What do they want to sing?
  • Is what I am teaching them helping them achieve their goals or creating a roadblock?
  • Am I being ethical?

These were the questions I asked myself very early in my teaching career.  My answers led me to change the way I taught in order to help my students achieve their goals in a healthy and relevant manner.  Our job as voice teachers is to help our students in their aspirations, not to impose our musical tastes on them and teach an approach that is irrelevant or a hindrance to their achieving their goals.  I urge all teachers to look at themselves and ask these questions so that lives and potential careers are enhanced instead of sidetracked.

I call the students discussed in this article “recovering” opera singers, be cause, like all individuals in recovery for an issue involving behavior, an enabler was present.  Do not be an enabler, but one who creates a viable opportunity for students to succeed in their chosen area.