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Filtering by Category: belting

Unaccompanied minors

"They want me to sing sixteen bars a cappella," the student says as we start to prepare her for the audition. "What?" I ask. "No pianist?"

"No music at all, just me singing," she says.

What I'm thinking: "But you're auditioning for Fiona from Shrek! In the show you will have to belt high D-flats. How will they know you can do it? As your voice teacher, I know that having the musical score underneath helps you nail those notes. Unless the music director has perfect pitch or has a tuner handy, they won't know if you (or any other singer) can sing the notes the score requires you to sing. This is stupid. I can't believe you're expected to audition a cappella for a show that will have a full orchestra in the pit. That's like signing a baseball player to the team after he walks the bases, or telling McDonald's to cook your Quarter Pounder medium rare.

So they don't want to pay a pianist for auditions, or they don't have access to a piano in the audition room. Okay. You mean to tell me that no one in your drama organization can figure out how to provide you with a karaoke track to give you at least a little support? Well here, I took 25 seconds and found it on YouTube, and now I'm playing it on my phone at high volume. You can do this at the audition, if they'll let you. Or at least listen to it right before you go in. Definitely buy the Cleartune app, which can give you your starting pitch.

I don't blame you, student. I blame American Idol and Pitch Perfect, which have made a cappella auditions seem cool. In fact, a cappella auditions are often terrible and they make iffy and nervous singers sound horrid. Even professional singers can sound slightly unsupported and shaky in an a cappella format, without the bass line and melody of the score to balance out the voice. Most amateur singers don't know how to edit a song for a cappella performance. The singer continues to "hear" the melody of the accompaniment in their heads and they unwittingly include it, but the auditioners only hear awkward silence, and that ruins the energy of an otherwise good audition. Who thought this was a great idea for less experienced kids and teen singers?

I can't believe that in addition to teaching notes and rhythms and performance skills, I now have to teach you how to sing an accompanied song unaccompanied, just because someone thought it would be "easier." I just have to cross my fingers and hope that you sing the correct pitches in your audition. It stinks because I know that pitch accuracy matters, every time you open your mouth. Ultimately you will be singing with accompaniment, so you have to sing what's written. But your auditioners won't know if you're accurate or not (or if anyone else is, either). You could be vocally perfect for this part and sing a flawless audition, but you could easily lose out to someone who actually can't sing the role at performance time. GREAT IDEA, A CAPPELLA."

What I say: "Okay, here's your starting note. Go."

 

 

 

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.

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.

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'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.

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)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Seven, Vol. 7: Lung me tender

1. So I'm recovering from the flu. No one else in the house got it but me. I'm sure its nastiness was blunted by the flu shot I got last October, but it still got me good: Muscle aches, fatigue, fever, and this damned cough. I have been coughing for over a week now and am having difficulty stopping. You know that awful feeling, when you are trying to stifle a cough but can't? Yeah, that's me all day long. 2. I have tried honey, Prednisone, red wine, hot baths, Mucinex, Maximum Strength Tussin. I'm also hurling prayers to St. Blaise, the patron of throat ailments (he did some miraculous things for a kid with a fish bone caught in his gullet). St. Blaise said he's busy with all the other coughing singers and he'll get back to me. Blaise's feast day is next Sunday, Feb. 2 and I can think of no better way for him to celebrate than to heal my throat.

St. Blaise, you know what to do

3. The rest of me is fine, it's just the coughing, and it's keeping me awake at night and tired during the day. I watched the entire miniseries Cranford (it was like watching a long movie treatment of an Austen novel, but with many more deaths). I caught up on New Girl and The Mindy Project (aren't they the same show?), I saw the movie musical Nine (really liked Fergie's performance but not Nicole Kidman's) and Frances Ha (lame). I can't seem to focus much on reading at the moment but I'm trying to get back into my Truman biography and also The Sellout, about the history of the 2008 financial meltdown. I was hoping these heavy tomes would help me sleep. Didn't. The Best Photographer In The World said, "When I can't sleep, I start saying 'God Bless' and start naming everyone I can think of, and it helps." Yeah, he's just a saint, ain't he? I did it, it helped somewhat.

4. My coughs are (ahem) not very productive, but my bronchial passages are so irritated, they just freak out at the first sign of air moving through them. I can feel that squirmy "I gotta cough" feeling as I breathe. I don't even want to THINK about how red my little larynx is right now. I am the singer who should be told to just shut up and rest. But somehow I managed to teach two whole days and cantor two Masses this weekend. I didn't say it was pretty, just said I did it.

5. I thought it was just a bad cold, because it wasn't nearly as debilitating as the last time I had full-fledged flu nine years ago, so I downplayed it. It took me over a week to see a doctor who told me, no, it was flu. If I had realized it in time, I might not have attended the three-day Somatic VoiceWork conference with all my voice teacher peeps. (Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I was careful to quarantine myself as much as possible, and I limited my socializing!) Though I was a bit lonely in my self-imposed isolation and couldn't sing a note, I managed to have fun and as always, I learned a great deal and continued to solidify my own pedagogy. We hear from speech therapists and pathologists, we share techniques and advice, and we practice teaching each other so we can benefit our students back home. Analzying the vocal function of a great singer in front of Jeanie -- whose veteran ears are sensitive to even the smallest vocal changes -- sometimes feels like doing differential diagnosis with Dr. Gregory House. Which is why it's so fun!

Jeannette LoVetri listens carefully as Level III Grad Justin Petersen explains his pedagogical thinking during Teacher-Teaching-Teacher time. Justin tells me that the accurate caption of this photo is: "Does the fear on my face inspire your confidence, Jeanie?" ;)

 

My ears get such a great tune-up and when I see my students again, I can make finer and finer adjustments to their singing. That is, when I am not trying to protect them from my coughing.

6. I'm going to try this throat-calming recipe from Dr. Peak Woo. Besides having an awesome name, Dr. Woo is one of New York's most prominent otolaryngologists and a friend to Jeannette LoVetri, our SVW founder and guiding light. He has treated a lot of famous throats and this is his The Gargle Of The Stars: Mix together some saline (6 oz water with 1 oz non-iodized salt); some large sugar molecules (1 T honey, or white corn syrup or glycerin), some baking soda to coat the throat (1/2 t), and a wedge of lemon (to promote saliva). This gargle is safe to drink, but you go ahead without me.

7. We watched some really funny videos on the first evening of the SVW conference, including a hilarious one of some famous Italian opera singers insisting they never, never ever used chest voice. At all. Nada. Then they started singing and proved themselves wrong with every single note. Even better, they were being interviewed by a countertenor who used nothing but head voice! Enjoy, especially if you're a voice teacher. We were laughing so hard, I bet no one even heard me coughing. XO EC

 

Simple Dreams

The great American singer, Linda Ronstadt: The Lovely Linda

Dorky Linda Ronstadt wanna-be No. 1: 

Dorky/adorkable Zooey Deschanel, often compared with Linda Ronstadt. (www.cheezburger.com)

 

 Dorky Linda Ronstadt wanna-be No. 2: 

The dorky sophomore Eden, about to sing from the Great American Songbook at the high school talent show, 1985

While I was learning how to ride a bike, Linda was enjoying a multiplatinum rock career and dating Gov. Moonbeam. She had even sung operetta on Broadway to good reviews, around the time I convinced my mom to let me get my ears pierced. I memorized "Blue Bayou" because my dad played it over and over on the 8-track in his Lincoln Continental. Occasionally I'd try to sing like her. I got kind of good at "Silver Threads And Golden Needles."

The Lovely Linda, singing a standard from the Great American Songbook, 1985

And one night, while I was asleep with Clearasil on my face, Linda appeared on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" in a vintage dress, singing "I've Got A Crush On You" supported by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. Some viewers thought it was an elaborate joke -- a rock singer, crooning a Gershwin ballad from 1928? But it wasn't a joke, it was a revelation. No other rock singer had so successfully crossed such a wide musical divide. (If this music is all new to you, watch this wonderful concert from beginning to end, just like I did for most of 1984! Thanks early HBO!) Ronstadt's three albums with the legendary Riddle -- "What's New?," "Lush Life", and "For Sentimental Reasons" were all surprise hits, and resulted in the following life-changing occurrences for a teenager living in Dublin, Ohio:

1. I was introduced to Frank Sinatra. Before Linda, I thought he was just the guy who sang "New York, New York." I rooted through my parents' old LPs to find more versions of the songs I first heard on Linda's albums, and discovered the genius of Sinatra (who had worked with Riddle), Julie London, Keely Smith, and Peggy Lee.  Sinatra's Where Are You? is the finest suicidally lovesick album you will ever hear. 

2. I discovered fake books. They're everywhere now, but in the mid 20th century fake books were illegal due to copyright restrictions. I had never seen one until my dad, intrigued by my interest in the "oldies" in the age of Madonna, dug into a box in his closet and produced several thick notebooks of yellowing lead sheets. He described buying them 'under the counter' at a music store in the 1950s. He played piano and organ in bars and restaurants to make money during his college years, and used the books to take requests and lead sing-alongs. I tore through them, learning novelty songs, ballads, and tunes from the Great American Songbook. I also learned that having music in a singable key is really important and most fake books totally fail in this regard, legal or illegal.

3. I learned to read lead sheets. Thanks to the sketchy, incomplete music in the fake books, I learned how to read chord symbols for the first time. My musical reading began to pick up speed, and I found a reason to stick with piano lessons. 

4. I learned I am not very good at arranging a tune. Riddle's masterful arrangements (he died before the last album was completed) were published as piano/vocal songbooks; I still have them and still use them. That dorky photo from the talent show?  Ronstadt had sung My Funny Valentine supported by a string quartet arranged by Riddle. I re-arranged it for three clarinets. Because my fellow sophomores Terri, Missy and Shelly were all good clarinet players and agreed to serve as my musical guinea pigs, that's why. They endured one Saturday afternoon rehearsal as I wrote and re-wrote. This was before Sibelius and Finale! It went so well I sang "I Only Have Eyes For You" instead, because the music was already in print and I had a pianist to play it. (And, now that I think of it, I sang it in the dorky key of C. Should have lowered it, but that was the key on the printed page. See No. 2.)

I just finished reading Simple Dreams, Linda's new musical memoir, and I eagerly read and re-read the few pages she devoted to her vocal technique! I hoped she would talk about how she did what she did, so I could pass on that wisdom to you, my eight blog readers. Well, she did, kind of. Linda was raised in a very musical home in Tucson but had no training for her pure rock singing. She always identified herself a soprano who sang rock and roll. But when she took on the role of ingenue soprano Mabel in a rock-tinged, mash-up version of The Pirates Of Penzance (a production and movie that spawned many other pop-style reboots of classical music), she knew she wasn't vocally prepared.

Linda as Mabel in "The Pirates Of Penzance," singing "Poor Wandering One" in the keys of her choice.

Linda: "Until I went to work in Pirates, I had never had any formal voice training. The show's vocal demands were considerable  . . ."The girls' chorus {was} belting high notes that had originally been written to be sung in the upper extension of the voice -- where an operatic soprano sings. It sounded funnier that way, and more like the contemporary pop style that Wilford Leach had envisioned for the show. Eight performances a week of belting high notes could have created serious vocal problems for the chorus. . ." 

Yes, Linda. Yes it could. I think your chirpy, high-pitched, head-dominant speaking voice actually helped to balance your chest-dominant singing voice for all those years and probably saved you from sounding like Yoko Ono. The music director of "Pirates" also lowered a lot of the keys for you (which you readily admit helped) so you could belt with gusto in the range you knew best.

"From all those years of screaming over a rock band, I had an overdeveloped belt range and an underdeveloped upper extension. [I hear it all the time, Linda! It ain't just you!]  . . . my high voice sounded more like a choirboy's than that of a grown-up lady opera singer. Rex [Smith, who played Frederic] and I, coming from rock backgrounds, had developed the unfortunate habit of muscling our way through difficult vocal territory and, for lack of a better word, yelling."

"Vocal coach to the stars" Marge Rivingston came to help Linda and the rest of the cast bring some balance to their belting, so they could survive eight shows a week, and they survived well enough to make a movie of the production. But the existence of the movie -- and its role in adding pop elements to opera -- means that almost everyone who sees (or produces) a live production of "Pirates" now expects to hear at least a little chest voice somewhere in the 2 1/2 hours. They don't realize the popera version has lower keys, shortened scenes, and rock instruments. They think that's the way it was originally written. It can make things . . .difficult.

Me as Mabel, trying to think of how to belt in original Gilbert and Sullivan keys

When I played Mabel a few years back, I knew I was expected to try to add a little Ronstadt somewhere, but soon I realized it was vocally impossible for me in the original keys, and we weren't going to be rewriting. It's only possible to belt "Go ye heroes, go and die!" if you're in a lower key, like she was. So, when I got to that scene, I did my best to act tough and belty, since my voice was going to have to stay right where it was, in head and mix range. Sorry. But, in honor of Linda, I transcribed her exact cadenza for the end of "Poor Wandering One", gave it to our flutist, and we performed it together for every show.

Linda's singing career ended several years ago due to the advancement of recently diagnosed Parkinson's Disease. This year she'll be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, but she may not be able to travel to the ceremony. I'm glad I saw her perform live in the late 1990s, when her voice was as strong as ever. Oh, that voice! 

(Depending on how you look at it, you can also thank her or blame her for The Eagles.)

Voice Lessons, Vocal Coaching, Piano Lessons, Performance Coaching, and Musical Production.

Eden Casteel Music Studio, 81 Post Road, Wakefield RI 02879. Phone: 401-932-5589.