My Way

Weekly Teaching Tip – Jan. 25, 2016
by Dr. Hubert Noe

When my opera singers sang together with the greatest singers of the world on the stage of the Vienna state opera, I pondered: why was Roberto Alagna better than my tenor and why was Anna Netrebko better than my soprano and finally why was Jennifer Rush better than my pop singers who covered her song. Was it the vowel? No, we could copy that. The power? No. The range? No.

Singers rely heavily on their control of both pitch and loudness. It took me some time to find out that it was the binding (legato) of the breath, of the pitch and of the dynamics.

First we tried to sing with a fairly constant subglottal pressure. But it was not easy to take the pressure as a measure for an even voice-leading because the pressure seemed to be something static rather felt tone by tone than over whole phrases.

The lung energy consists of two parts: pressure and airflow. Pressure is created mainly in the closed phase (adduction), airflow in the open phase of the glottal cycle. Both are necessary to create sound and dependent on each other: the longer the closure, the shorter the opening. Could we keep the pressure constant for a whole phrase by focusing on a constant flow? It seemed to work.

What we need to know to understand, before we go on: on the average, the singers double subglottal pressure when they increase fundamental frequency by one octave, and a doubling of the subglottal pressure causes about a doubling of the “volume” all other things equal.

So we played around with glissando (portamento) very slowly. 1-5-1 on “ve” [e] not [ae] like Italian vena [ve:na]. When we kept airflow (and pressure) fairly constant we created a perfect gradual decrescendo up (an even decrescendo > from 1 to 5 up, rather than decrescendo after 1 > stop in the middle and going on with crescendo< to 5). We imagined an even soft hiss on “s” while singing a phrase. Vow! And we found out that we could stabilize the voice (including registration) only with the even flow no matter how slowly we sang. When a student sang too high and too loud the outer neck muscles and the root of the tongue started to contract and we went back to the starting point. But caution: most singers with poor technique hold back air when they go up to a piano. Singing piano we need the open phase and active exhalation even more to stabilize the sound. The “inhalare la voce” idea of holding back pressure (good) and flow (bad) was not the solution. We want to exhale permanently the same amount of air in same time segments which is known as “cantare legato sul fiato”. (It is not possible to understand support without distinguishing pressure and flow.)

The larynx became steady without being locked in position but flexible, which could be tested by moving the head up or from side to side during the exercise without blocking and changing the sound. Natural vibrato started without manipulating. It was super easy to add a riff or a coloratura!

In my next teaching tip let’s talk about working out songs with words and consonants on the flow.

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