The Recovering Female Opera Singer

By Randy BuescherRandy Buescher, SLP

A sad, but typical story from the studio of someone who works with nonclassical singers.

A woman, somewhere between the ages of 25 to 30, comes into my studio for her first lesson. After a few minutes of interviewing to discover her history, goals, what she perceives as her problems, I find out she has a degree in vocal performance but now wants to pursue a career in music theater or pop. I have her sing a five note scale on /a/ starting fairly low in the voice. Hearing a lack of chest voice, I tell her to come out of pure, raw chest on the bottom. As the scale ascends, the buildup of subglottal pressure is evident, the vowel goes very wide, the larynx ascends because of the involvement of suprahyoid muscles, and a discernible flip into a falsetto-like head voice or an overly cultivated sound (neither having anything in common with what came before them) occurs around C#5. The singer possesses a fine sound but lacks the correct coordination to make the sounds necessary to have a chance when pursuing her new goals (and most likely her original goals when she started singing). The singer is very frustrated by the situation. I usually intervene at this point by saying, “Let me tell you your life story.”

Life Story of an Opera Singer

“When you were a little girl, you loved to sing. You sang what was on the radio, watched musicals with your mom, pretended you were in the musicals, and were recognized by people as having a wonderful voice. You continued in this fashion until you reached high school where the choir director said you should take voice lessons. Not knowing any better, you went with a teacher the director recommended. You were implicitly or explicitly told that the music you liked was not worthy, your chest voice was beaten out of you, and you were told, ‘if you can sing classical music you can sing anything’. You went along with the program because they were your teachers, and your teachers would not steer you in the wrong direction, would they?

“Your choir director loved you, gave you all the solos, entered you in contests where you did well, and cast you in principal roles in the musicals. When it came to the musicals, you struggled vocally. You tried to sing in the style that you heard in movies, recordings, and on stage, but were unable to make those sounds. You resorted to yelling (which made you hoarse), all head voice (which did not fit the music), or a big disconnect between chest and head, which sounded like yodeling. Your high school teacher told you to use middle voice and modeled it for you, but that did not sound right to you either. It still sounded classical. You suspected something was wrong with what you were being told but did not know where to go to fix it.

“Looking for guidance, you talked to your choir director, parents, voice teacher, and other respected individuals. The general recommendation was that you go to college to pursue a degree in vocal performance. You were accepted into a prestigious program and were inundated with art songs. You learned to sing in a variety of languages and were schooled in Western music theory, ear training, etc. The sounds you heard around you were very operatic and the attitude in the institution was rather snobbish. Once again you were told, ‘If you can sing classical music, you can sing anything’. A master’s degree was possibly in your future.

“You went out into the world armed with your degree in vocal performance, and guess what? You could not find work. Why? Because you were not good enough. Classical singing is a very niche market with little demand. Those who make it are extraordinary in that field. I am not saying you had a bad voice and could not perform as a singer, but that very few people make money at classical singing. Statistically, you had a better chance of being a pro athlete.

“You recognized this, and had the epiphany that you never wanted to sing classical music in the first place. Nonclassical music was what you wanted to do, and besides, you were told, ‘If you can sing classical music, you can sing anything’. So, you started auditioning for musicals, bands, etc. and no one would hire you. Why? Because you sounded like an opera singer. You are in a vocal no man’s land.”

The Recovering Female Opera Singer

At this point I ask the student how right I am with this description. The answer is usually that I am pretty dead on. I know this may sound like a shocking, harsh way to start off a relationship, but if one is to fix the problem, one must expose it first. The problem in these cases was the student’s training. Students need to know that they were given some well intentioned (perhaps), but totally irrelevant advice to what their initial goals, and, now re-realized goals, were and now are. However, with patience, humility, and hard work, a new coordination can be established.

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.

The First Step

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 head voice. The singer has probably heard chest voice called crude, masculine, or even vulgar. However, the root of almost all nonclassical female 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 cannot 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 nonclassical female vice is to ignore reality.

From Opera to R&B in 90 Seconds

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 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 nonclassical female singer (depending on voice type) needs to be able to sing in chest up to at least A4. Once a recovering opera singer finds her chest voice, she often attempts 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 thyroarytenoids (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 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 90 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!”

The Transformation

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:

  1. Do the students I am teaching really want to sing classical music?
  2. What do they want to sing?
  3. Is what I am teaching them helping them achieve their goals or creating a roadblock?
  4. 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, because, 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.

Randy Buescher is a Chicago-based voice teacher, singer, lecturer, and voice therapist. He has a degree in music from DePaul University, along with a BA in Mass Media Communications. He is also degreed in Communication Disorders.

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