Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Wednesday Cyberspace Recitals will now be Friday Cyberspace Recitals

Today would usually be the day for me to put up one of the 24 Italian Songs and Arias after having spent the week familiarizing myself with it.  However, there is going to be a change this week.  I have decided to shift the Wednesday Cyberspace Recitals over to Fridays and I would like to explain why.

I have my voice lessons on Tuesdays, and very often, like this week, my teacher gives me some great technical assistance after I have tried to figure things out on my own.  If I continue the analogy of the young reporter learning to write by having to submit two newspaper articles a day, then this would be like that reporter, after having wrestled with the article he is writing, bringing it to his editor for suggestions and help.  Once the editor had made suggestions, the writer would bring his piece back to the drawing board and re-write, incorporating the advice of the more experienced person.

Vocal changes take time.  My teacher does not give me quick fixes.  She gives me an approach that I can play around with to discover where these positions are in my own physical instrument.  Once the positions are "found" it takes time to develop the muscles specificity and strength of these positions, develop facility with them, and then repeat them enough to make them an automatic part of my singing. (As my Kung Fu Sifu repeats to us all the time: "Repetition is the mother of all skills.")   I would like to have a little more time to work with the ideas my teacher gives me for the songs I'm learning each week before I post the songs up in Frescamari's Performance Space.  Shifting the cyberspace recitals over to Friday will allow me to have a couple of days to work with the stuff my voice teacher gives me.

Specifically, this week I have been working on "Tu lo sai."  I soon discovered that this piece is hard to sing when vocal cords are just recovering from a head cold and cough.  I also discovered that this piece is hard to sing period, and if you have been following along in Frescamari's Practice Room, you know that I've been struggling with strength and stamina.

Well, when I got to my voice lesson yesterday, my teacher confirmed that "Tu lo sai" is indeed a hard one to sing, despite how simple it looks and sounds. It is one of the more difficult of the 24 Italian Songs and Arias.  The key it is in, the key of E, is very difficult because it sits in the passaggio.  Even many experienced singers might choose, when they perform the piece, to sing it a half step lower, in the key of Eflat.

Before writing this post today, I tried to study up on this "second" passaggio area, the part of the voice between D5 and G5, but most of the writing on passaggio issues that I've found in a short amount of time has been of the one lower in the voice, and the various passaggio issues of tenors.

I have been trying to figure out exactly why is is so hard to sing when a song sits so long between D5 and G5.  The best I can figure with my limited knowledge is that there is a whole lot going on in this part of the range that must be strengthened and coordinated.  For one thing, the laryngeal muscles have to find a good position while there is an increased airflow.  All the little laryngeal muscles that are controlling pitch, approximating the vocal folds and cords have to be in just the right position, stretch, thickness and closure, using just the right amount of strength without becoming tense.  The surrounding muscles that are stabilizing the larynx, and that help keep it from rising, must also be firm and strong, but not tense.  The whole mechanism must "brace" itself in a flexible, not rigid way, for the increased wind energy that is coming, not unlike the way we might have to use more strength to keep good posture while standing outside when it is very windy out.

Yet the "wind energy" must be a regulated and mastered wind.  The support muscles that are regulating the breath energy and airflow have to work harder when singing in the passaggio, especially because the greater demand for air does not mean to let loose without control.  These muscles must regulate the air pressure enough to get a generous stream of air flowing evenly, but not overwhelm the laryngeal muscles.  It's not a matter of using all of one's strength, but using just the right amount of one's strength, which can actually require more strength in a weird kind of way than using all of one's strength.  I picture a child who is going to blow out the birthday candles on his cake, and he inhales very deeply and blows with all his might.  Yet, he does not know that there is a way to blow out the candles with using his strength in a controlled way, with a steady stream of strong air.

And on top of all this, the muscles of articulation must sustain postions without strain that are favorable to the activity occurring during phonation.  In fact, the work to keep space for the larynx to do its thing, and also maintain a space that keep conditions of the air currents and sound waves free and moving is a very taxing job.

That is the best explanation I can come up with for why it is so demanding to sing "Tu lo sai," which is mostly sitting between D5 and G5.

In the blog Bonne Chanson, the writer explains this difficulty well in her post "Writing for Voice".  In that post, she explains that a song that appears to be a simple ballad can sometimes be very taxing for the singer.  It has to do where the song "sits" in the voice, and how much sustained singing without a rest is required.  She gives a good example as an illustration of why it is harder to stay singing in the passaggio than to move up and down through one's vocal range:
Waving one's arms up and down in a 180-degree arc for two minutes is less tiring than holding them outstretched at 90 degrees the same length of time. 
I told my teacher about how I had worked phrase by phrase (See "Tu lo sai: Practicing Chip Shots") and we both were pleased how this work improved my singing of the song in just one day (perhaps I will be able to post the file of me singing "Tu lo sai" during my voice lesson later on today).  But my teacher had some excellent suggestions for another way to work which would show my voice just how much play it really has in a region that feels so cramped and tense for me.  She suggested taking "Tu lo sai" phrase by phrase, as I had done, but changing the keys as I repeated the phrase.  This would show me where the space was surrounding those phrases and help me to free them in the key of E.

She also suggested adding some ornamentation the second time through.  The ornamentation can also act as a freeing mechanism to keep the muscles from getting too fixed when they are in that state of tension.  It can loosen things up and keep the static nature of holding the tone from making the voice too frigid. (These words are my own interpretation of what my teacher told me to do.)

This called to mind another passage I read on the  Bonne Chanson blog on the same subject called "Cadenza Workout"  In this post, the author speculates that ornamentation in baroque music served the purpose of freeing up the voice and eliminating the tension that can build up when singing in the passaggio area:
Perhaps this is why ornamentation, fioriture, trills and other devices that keep the voice on the move (with a high ratio of vowels to consonants) are so characteristic of baroque arias and nineteenth-century bel cantooperas. This type of vocal writing ensures that no single set of muscles gets to carry the burden for too long and that the voice is allowed to flow freely without constant interruption by consonants.
I ought to be able to figure out some of my own, based on the face that I got an A in that ornamentation class I took this past summer.  (post on baroque ornamentation class)  Perhaps now would be the time to dig through my notes from that class and see if I can apply some of what I learned there (Why is this scary for me?)

So, rather than posting "Tu lo sai" today,  I will work for the next two days in the ways my teacher has suggested, and post this work in Frescamari's Practice Room for any who are interested.  Then I will add "Tu lo sai" to the growing list of 24 Italian Songs and Arias in Frescamari's Performance Space on Friday, the new Cyberspace Recital Day.
Recordngs of the work my teacher gave me to do:
Tu lo sai phrases in 3 keys I
Tu lo sai phrases in 3 keys II

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