My Sunken Chest

All of my voice students spend part of each lesson warming up the head voice register and the chest voice register. I learned this as part of my Somatic VoiceWork training. It’s not optional, it’s mandatory. A strong, flexible voice includes a healthy head voice (think of angelic high “ooh” sounds) and a healthy chest voice (think of Santa saying a deep “Ho Ho Ho.”).

Relying on one register while disregarding the other is a recipe for frustration. I know, because for the first decades of my life, that’s exactly what I did. I took traditional classical voice lessons from the age of 13, and I developed a great stratospheric head voice — my natural range and easy for me to use. But, whenever the melody descended towards middle C, it got difficult for me. I noticed it when I sang solos and when I sang in my school choir. I just couldn’t figure out how to move from head voice to chest, let alone how to get back up. I carried my head voice down too far, and ended up with a tiny breathy low sound at the bottom of the staff. No one talked about it with me when they heard it, and I didn’t know enough to ask.

I was taking voice lessons with Professor Hickfang, who was a great classical teacher. But I didn’t have a clue about registers, what they were for, or how anyone actually sang anything. If any teacher gave me advice about it, I forgot it instantly. I just knew I was great at high notes and lousy at singing in chest voice and I could never unite the two. When it was a matter of musical life or death and I had to be heard, I would shout and squeeze out the lowest notes in my chest voice. It didn’t feel good, and it was more difficult for me to reclaim my head voice afterwards. Like anyone else with one overdeveloped range and one underdeveloped range, I had a noticeable break. I knew my chest voice and head voice were as different as Jekyll and Hyde, and it embarrassed me. So, I gravitated to songs that showcased my high range. I embraced opera and 1940s and 1950s girl singer repertoire. George Gershwin’s “Summertime” – in the original key — was my jam! I loved Eydie Gorme and Peggy Lee, crooners who exhaled into the microphone, did not push or strain in chest register, and rarely ascended to head voice. The chanteuse Sade had a breathy dominant chest register, a big break, and an even weaker head voice. Ironically, that made it easier for me to imitate her so I became a big Sade fan.

UnknownIn the absence of any instruction to the contrary, I convinced myself that I couldn’t sing notes below a certain pitch. I might as well have admitted that I couldn’t turn left. 

I spent a frustrating year in Shillelagh, my high school’s show choir. I had auditioned as a singer, but my break and breathy low range was obvious. Then I made the mistake of showing our teacher Mr. Reardon that I could play keyboards, so naturally I became the keyboard player. I watched the backs of all the beautiful girls as they sashayed through each show, doing jazz squares in sparkly red leotards and black wrap skirts. Meanwhile, I was hidden behind the Yamaha DX-7, playing the accompaniment to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “We Got The Power,” keeping my mouth shut. I loved trying out new sounds on the keyboard and jamming with the rest of my bandmates, and I loved getting out of class to play for the Christmas parties of local businesses. But I wished I could sing with them, and sing like them.

Shillelagh, 1986. The disappointed keyboard player is front row, far left.

Mr. Reardon was a fan of vocal jazz, so Shillelagh performed a lot of songs originally recorded by The Manhattan Transfer. All the performing girls were invited to audition for a short alto solo in “Birdland”. I begged to be allowed to try out, too, and after a lot of pleading, Mr. Reardon relented. I memorized Janis Siegel’s rendition, all expertly mixed head and chest. I thought I had done an okay job of blending the break between my registers, and making some chest sounds when required. I sang the solo, hands shaking with nerves, and I looked and sounded just like a 15 year old opera singer with an undeveloped chest voice. And so I played the keyboards for “Birdland”.

Finally, I got to perform a solo on one of Shillelagh’s final concerts of the year. I loved a torch song by Julie London (another breathy chesty singer), called Cry Me A River. But there was no way I could sing those low notes, even with a lot of breathiness and a microphone. So I rearranged the song to make it easy for another pianist to play, and transposed it six keys higher. (SIX keys higher??? *Smacks forehead*)

I took music theory the following year, sang Soprano 1 in choir, and someone else played the DX-7. I played Milly in Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (an alto role!) who never really sang high notes and didn’t have to sing beautifully in her lower range, either. I just emitted some chest voice sounds and left it at that. It could have been a golden opportunity for me to start learning how to balance my registers. Instead, I learned how to square dance.

It took me another twenty years to finally learn how to strengthen my chest voice so I could blend my registers and make all kinds of mixes, including a belt sound. Right after I learned to belt, I got an unexpected promotion from keyboard player to solo performer . . . more later.

Organic

Manual(s) . . . not automatic.

What, me worry?

I’m feeling the need to stretch myself, musically. Rapping is out, so I’m learning how to play the organ. I already play and can credibly “fake” my way through a service, but I want to be better than that. I’m serving as an itinerant sub in a few churches and want to serve more, so I’ve decided it’s time to make organ study a priority. Five months in, I guess this is one of my resolutions for the year!

This is my first textbook: Flor Peeters’ Little Organ Book. In addition to being a great resource, it contained a wonderful surprise. For years I heard a certain Bach piece played by different organists. I would hear it and think, “That sounds like something I could actually play.” But I was never able to locate the sheet music. I finally found it in Flor Peeters — the final piece in the book!  Makes sense.

Eine Kleine Orgelbuch

Eine Kleine Orgelbuch

If you want to donate a minute of your life you can never get back, here is me stumbling through part of that Bach prelude at the back of the Peeters book, for the very fourth time. I was wearing my seldom-used dance shoes (leather soles are better for pedals than rubber soles) but I know I’m going to need actual organ shoes to improve my pedal technique. I’m attracted to the silver ones but worry that silver might be a little too Diane Bish.

I wanted to start organ study with a mountaintop experience, so I had my very first organ lesson – ever — with George Kent, the living legend who happens to be the organist at Christ Church in Westerly. He escorted me up to the choir loft and gave me a tour of the church’s legendary C.B. Fisk organ, completed in 1965. I didn’t get a picture in the loft because I wasn’t there as a tourist and a selfie might have broken the spell. In the easy way that masters impart knowledge, Mr. Kent explained the stops and their functions (“This is the sasparilla stop . . .just kidding, it’s sesquialtera. . “), and gave me permission to find it all a little overwhelming (“Even Biggsy had trouble pronouncing gemshorn correctly!”). The lesson confirmed that in a few small ways, I know more than I think I do. The rest is learnable.

Ronald Casteel worked his way through college playing organ at Seafood Bay and Maple Grove United Methodist Church.

My dad’s organ skills helped pay for his college.

My dad played organ in church at age 11, and he played organ in bars only a couple of years after that (ah, the ’50s).  I’m clinging to the hope that in my DNA, I’m more prone to be a good organist than a lousy one. I’ve got many organist friends in low (and high) places, and with their willingness to talk shop and my willingness to beg for help, I’m bound to improve.

Playing beautiful organ music on a grand instrument is worth any mortification. Will I mess up the postlude? Not just possibly; I will mess up the postlude! What’s exciting to think about how I mess up the prelude — in the pedals, in the stops, or in the manuals? Probably all three! I can’t wait!

 

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The “Babbino” Bunch

The small and lovely Salt Marsh Opera will present Puccini’s comic one-act opera Gianni Schicchi on May 16 at the Pequot Museum in Mashantucket, CT. You should go see it! The gorgeous aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” was written for this work, which premiered in 1918.

You can buy the aria at G. Schirmer. You don't even have to show ID.

You can buy the aria at G. Schirmer. You don’t even have to show ID.

You’ve heard that song, right? Such a beautiful, simple yet elegant melody. Lush, emotional strings support the singer throughout. It’s easy to dress it up with a few tasteful portamenti, and a fermata here and there. It’s been used in commercials and in the opening credits of the movie of E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View. My favorite version is by Kiri Te Kanawa. Her voice is rich and round, just perfect for this aria. Feel free to disagree, my eight blog readers. But I’m right. Anna Netrebko’s pretty great, too. Kathleen Battle’s voice is smaller (like mine) and her mouth does weird stuff (a source of much discussion among voice teachers), but it’s a heartfelt, artistic statement.

The English translation is “Oh, My Beloved Daddy.” Gianni Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta is begging her father to let her marry Mr. Right. “O Mio Babbino Caro” was the second aria my voice teacher Prof. Hickfang ever gave me, and I loved it instantly. What soprano wouldn’t? All those octave leaps from A flat to A flat, all those delicious long notes practically sighing off the page, all those threats of suicide if Daddy won’t let her get married! I think my teacher assigned me the aria so I could work on my Italian diction, and get an introduction to grand opera style. The A flats were easy for me to sing. Of course my baby diva voice didn’t have the fullness or richness of an actual Lauretta onstage. I sighed with despair when I heard Te Kanawa’s version, figuring I’d never sound even half as good or half as loud. I never actually performed it or used it for an audition in high school or college; I was no Lauretta and it was just a study aria for me. (The first aria Prof. Hickfang assigned me was “The Black Swan” from Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium, an aria I never really liked from an opera I never really understood. Feel free to agree.)

Through the glories of YouTube I found a “Babbino” by Maria Callas, using an amazing amount of chest voice, as she was wont to do. La Divina can get away with it. If the desperate maiden is pushing 50, chest voice is appropriate and adds a certain note of verismo.

Jackie Evancho: Your curfew is 8pm, 7pm Central.

Jackie Evancho: Your curfew is 8pm, 7pm Central.

It’s trickier if the maiden is 9. “O Mio Babbino Caro” is now a staple for the Infant Diva who wants to audition for talent shows, but can’t belt. (Dear Lord, it’s like all talent shows are down to two acts: “Let It Go” and “O Mio Babbino Caro”!) The attractions of the aria remain the same: High notes, easy Italian, quick song. But most of the baby divas I’ve heard sing it on YouTube try to imitate Te Kanawa and other adult women in all the wrong ways — they add chest voice to be able to hit the low notes, bunch up their tongues in the backs of their mouths, move their bent arms stiffly like mannequins, and add wobbly vibrato to try to sound more grown up. Some hear “The Voice Of An Angel” who is blooming early like an azalea; I hear a singer whose career will be over before she can drive.

Vocalists who have learned to sing without constriction and distortion will eclipse them. The only exception to this rule is Sarah Brightman, who commits all these vocal crimes and still seems to be able to put food on the table. I can’t explain Sarah. I can’t explain why the dinosaurs died, either, but as with Sarah’s approach to Puccini, it was tragic.

I believe this is the fate that awaits Jackie Evancho, who sang the song she called ‘O Mio Poppino Caro’ on TV as a fourth grader. It might come even more swiftly for Amira Willinghagen, Holland’s strangle-throated answer to Jackie, who was America’s answer to Charlotte Church, who was England’s answer to Deanna Durbin, who was singing the heroic tenor aria “Nessun Dorma” in English at age 22, on film. At least Deanna sang the hell out of it, and was wearing something larger than a training bra. She also had the good sense to retire in her mid-20s and live on as a legend until her death last year.

Good idea, Charlotte. (Alex Mills)

Good idea, Charlotte. (Alex Mills)

I’ve actually coached a nine year old who chose “O Mio Babbino Caro” for — of course — a talent show. Like Jackie, she had no idea where the song came from, who was actually singing it in the opera, or how old that character was. She had heard lots of versions of the aria on YouTube and was imitating Jackie’s bad traits, and internalizing them. So, I did some reprogramming. I insisted on natural vibrato only, and only very light chest voice on the lowest notes. I kept encouraging a light, age-appropriate head voice and an unaffected presentation. She won second place.

I’m looking forward to Salt Marsh Opera’s production, and enjoying the aria in context. I admit, there’s something about Puccini that brings out the opera singer in everyone, and sometimes they just can’t be stopped. Here, the maiden looks a lot like Chris Tucker and sings a perfectly fine amateur countertenor.

Oh gosh, that was funny. I loved the predictably fatuous pronouncements by the judges. I loved the ending. I loved that it was over.