Thursday, July 12, 2012

When Vocal Difficulties Cease to Exist

"From the easy, unconstrained motion of the fingers, from the beautiful touch, from the clearness and precision in connecting the successive tones, from the advantages of the new mode of fingering, from the equal development and practice of all the fingers of both hands, and, lastly, from the great variety of his figures of melody, which were employed in every piece in a new and uncommon manner, Sebastian Bach at length acquired such a high degree of facility and, we may almost say, unlimited power over his instrument in all the keys that difficulties almost ceased to exist for him."

These words popped as they appeared before my eyes in a biography of Bach I had been reading (Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, by Christoph Wolff).

The little bubble of excitement, desire, and enlightenment they stirred up in the pit of my stomach  made me want to just jump out of my bed at 11:00 at night and go down and practice voice. (Of course, I waited for the morning.)

This is what a student of voice works for his/her whole life.  To get to the point where vocal difficulties almost cease to exist.  To reach the point of vocal freedom.  To have unlimited power over our instrument.  To have an  unconstrained motion of the musical sung phrase.  A beautiful touch, onset.  Clearness and precision in connecting successive tones, legato.  To employ ourselves in every piece in a new and uncommon manner!

Ah ... the stuff dreams are made of.

It has been roughly 27-28  years since I embarked on this journey, although the quest to surmount the difficulties was present in my singing before I ever took a lesson, so in a sense, I've been trying to solve the mysteries of the vocal difficulties my entire life!!

Finally, I can say that I am getting somewhere.  Many difficulties have ceased to exist for me, and I see the possibility of present difficulties being solved as well.

What took so long?  There was a major big imbalance blocking my way for so many years, and there had not come along anyone who was able to identify or explain it to me, and there had not come along anyone who could specifically address the issue.  Removal of this major imbalance required me to let go.  Let go of a grip I had on my voice that somewhere along the line had convinced me it needed to be there in order to have control.

At long last I have got myself in a situation where this imbalance has been identified and addressed and it is opening up my voice to it's true nature!  It's a very happy time, even though it has come late in my life.


  1. What a great teaser!! What imbalance did you discover? I have a lot of identification with you and your singing journey in many respects. I have been studying (this time) for about 8 years and many difficulties no longer exist but I still continue to struggle with my extreme upper register (the B flat, B natural, and the C, which isn't even always there). I don't need those notes to be a church mezzo or even a church soprano (I usually sing second soprano) but to be an operatic mezzo I do. One imbalance that my teacher identified with me is that the pull of my chest register overweights the balance. I think I have only recently discovered a "headspace" that has made the B flat, at least, much easier, but I seem to have much less of that headiness than so many singers, even mezzos. Also, I think (from what you've told me) that like me, you have a big voice, and big voices require a lot more work. Great to hear you're doing so well lately! I've missed reading your blog posts.

    1. babydramatic -- I had the problem with the chest register. When I was young, I sang in a lot of musical theater and thought I was a mighty fine belter (in fact the reason I started taking voice lessons was because I could never say that I knew how to sing "legit" when I went to auditions).

      Once I started taking lessons, all of a sudden that belt was considered a liability. I never knew there were some good aspects of that part of my voice that were worth keeping.

      And, in the end it turns out that the way I had just figured out how to belt wasn't a good belt anyway. I was doing stuff like squeezing the cords together too hard, etc...

      The key to getting to my high notes ends up having to do with airflow. Once I finally figured out how to sing high, I was too tense, and hence the pushing with the abs and shutting the cords tight against all that air pressure. Allowing a flow has been great. My high notes have a lot of core element in them, even high Bs, but lots of airflow and lots of space now.

      Like I said below to Blue Yonder, the approach of Stephen Smith's along with a teacher who knows how to teach it has been very helpful in discovering things, but there are no secret tricks. It's gradual work with the exercises on a consistent basis over time.

  2. Congratulations! I am happy for you. I'd like to know, if you're willing to share--what was the approach, or idea, or explanation/terminology, or exercise that gave you the "a-ha" moment in order to make this breakthrough? What was it that helped you make sense of what you perhaps didn't make sense of before?

    1. Hi, Blue Yonder. I wish I could say there was an a-ha moment, but there really wasn't. If you think of all the practice and work Bach had to do to get to the point where it seemed easy for him, that's part of the point I was trying to make. Hours and hours and hours of work, but working in a smart way.

      If a person sets out to learn how to do anything, in the beginning there is struggle and labor, but at some point it becomes easier. Like if one set out to be able to do 100 pushups or something. I've seen people drop to the floor and do pushups and make them look so easy, but when I do them it is full of effort and struggle.

      I will say, however, that one can be practicing in ways, like I was, that makes them go around in circles if the practicing is not addressing certain things. In my particular case I was working against myself when I practiced sometimes.

      I have been using for two years now the exercises or "inventions" found in Stephen Smith's book, The Naked Voice, and being guided by a teacher who knows how to teach and use those concepts.

      The biggest take-away from the approach was getting me to stop pushing air out and allowing it to flow more freely. When I pushed the air out with my abs, instead of more of a release, my vocal cords were jamming shut to try to hold back all that air pressure. Then I was adding more pressure to try to overcome the resistance from the squeezed vocal cords.

      Another revelation was very specific instruction, which is in the book, on how exactly to form the vowel shapes and the space inside. Where the tongue is, where the teeth are, etc... It took a long time to get those vowels formed. I had to be a bit obsessed with it for a long time, but eventually forming the vowels as described in the book has become habitual now. I needed that space in there.

      Got lots more to work on, like high notes getting freer, but finally feel I'm working in the way that I should be, and I know it's only a matter of time before I'm going to experience that freedom there too ... and so on and so on.

  3. It's interesting that you had the problem with the chest voice as well, although I never belted. My teacher says the issue is that I speak in a very low register (when I was growing up it was called a "social baritone" and was a highly desirable way to speak, being both ladylike and sexy) so I never ever use head voice when I speak. I also had a teacher when I was young who taught a technique involving separating out the registers. His theory was that if you could sing a pure chest tone then you could also sing a pure head tone, which did NOT work with me! My voice just kept getting more and more bottom heavy. Also at that time I was smoking. People say that that is no longer part of the picture as I haven't had a cigarette in over 30 years, but who knows. Then I stopped smoking and started studying with the teacher I have now, and made a lot of progress, but (he says) my voice was much smaller then. And then I stopped singing altogether when I was 30. When I went back to singing at 54 after not having sung at all for 24 years, once again my chest voice was overweighting the mix because I had been speaking but not singing.

    Like you, I have recently discovered more "space". And it was not that much of an aha moment, or if it was, it was after years of working on making space, particularly in my upper passagio. And yes, using the right vowels. Aw not Ah, which can easily turn into something that sounds like the name "Ann" which really spreads the voice.

    And like you I have a lot of "core" in the top notes, which is good. They are not falsetto. However my teacher thinks that everyone's voice has an upper limit, and for me, probably the C is it (I have never been able to make a sound higher than that) and the best I can hope for is a good performance ready B flat. Particularly at the age I am now.