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  • Writer's pictureJulia Radosz

The Death of the Big Voice (part 2): Teaching Dramatic Voices

Birgit Nilsson and vocal advice
Lighten-Up: The potential death sentence for a big voice.

About 3 years ago, I wrote Part One of this blog post, and I am just now following up on this subject. Part of the reason I have hesitated is it is such a massive topic to explore. What constitutes a big voice? Is a voice only big from the nature, or is training involved in the creation of a big voice? Do bigger voices take longer to develop, and if so, why? Why do big voices tend to develop wobbles and timbral inconsistencies? Do you need more support for a big voice?

And I'm not finished with the inquiries.... there are so many topics to explore.

In Part One, I discussed why many big voices may have difficulty at the outset of their training and can run into problems are young singers striving to attain balance within their instruments. Many big voices struggle with singing with a too thick fold mass, and have difficulty thinning the folds as they ascend in pitch. This creates a weighty sound which causes teachers to say "lighten-up", and the singer, trying to do the right thing, will raise the larynx in an attempt to make an appropriate timbre that is considered "light". The teacher will then agree that this is a more appropriate sound for a younger singer, and thus training continues on this higher laryngeal position, still coupled with too thick vocal cord mass. So, the root of the problem never gets sorted, the singer ages, and starts developing more problems, like over-blowing of air through the thick folds, root of tongue engagement, loss of ease and dynamics, shortened range, and sometimes even vocal pathologies like muscular tension dysphonia, nodules, and compromised thin edges of vocal folds. Undoing this process takes time, but can be done.

In this follow-up, I would like to look at what constitutes a big voice, and the question of whether big voices are born vs. made and a brief look into teaching dramatic voices,

A big voice can be defined as a voice that can carry in a fuller way over a larger orchestra. There are more dense formants in a bigger voice. If the formants are not balanced, the voice can sound sharp or shrill, but will still be louder than a smaller instrument. A big voice is NOT a dark voice. It is not a woofy voice with a big vibrato. It is a dense concentration of overtones/formants/frequencies that allows a voice to have more dimension and presence. However, I reiterate: an imbalanced big voice may not sound "rich" if it is imbalanced. It is important to understand that especially in early stages of singing, a darker sound is usually coupled with a lighter production, and does not necessarily mean a big voice. There are big voices with darker timbres and big voices with brighter timbres (Jessye Norman vs. Birgit Nilsson, for example). However, a typical hallmark of a young big voice is a strong presence of the fundamental harmonic, and a bright timbre that cuts quite easily. However, the voice at this point, although equipped with the necessary components, is still not "big". It must now be developed. The voice takes time to grow into a label of "big". The muscles need to catch up, coordinate, and grow.

Big voices take time- there is no way around that.

This is something that is misunderstood. Voices that are labelled "big" at the beginning of studies can be encouraged to always sing with too much cord mass, and for a while, and up to a certain range, it can sound good. But singing with a lot of mass, even if is apparently comfortable, must be coupled with appropriate development of the cricothyroid muscle (the muscle responsible for head voice and for laryngeal tilt). If the cricothyroid cannot antagonize with enough strength against the thyroarytenoid (vocal cord muscle), then the range and balance of the instrument will suffer. This is why it is imperative, while training, to continuously balance these muscle groups together- not allowing one to dominate too much over the other.

The best way to build the voice in balance is to slowly add a bit of antagonism to the cricothyroid, gently over time. This strengthens the action of the head voice while maintaining the fullness of the voice. Without the antagonism of the thyroarytenoid muscle (chest voice), the head voice can't develop as fully. This is why both elements are crucial in great classical singing. But this must be tempered, as the cricothyroid muscle (head voice) needs to "lead" the process. The head voice is what allows the fullness, beauty, and ease of the instrument. The teacher and singer cannot allow the chest voice to dominate, otherwise there will be a loss of freedom and color to the void.

During training, careful observation on laryngeal elevation or depression must be made. The tongue must not be assisting the laryngeal position- The tongue, jaw, and lips must be taught to operate separately, so as not to impede the natural processes of the larynx.

Even with all the correct elements in place, a voice may not reveal its fullness or "big-ness" for some time. This is normal but can be a cause of frustration for the singer. One cannot rush this process, or there will be consequences. Slowly adding repertoire, and singing lighter repertoire more fully may be the answer for a while in the "intermediate" phase. By singing too dramatic repertoire too soon, the body will naturally recruit compensatory muscles if the coordination hasn't yet been developed. This does not mean the singer is necessarily singing out of fach (although sometimes this also happens), but it can mean the singer is singing beyond their current development.

More to say on this subject... hopefully it won't take another 3 year for part 3!

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