Notes on the bass voice and some case studies
Article by Cathy Pope
At this point in my teaching career I have taught quite a few basses. These wonderful voices have vocal issues that present in different ways. Common problems are not being able to depend on the lower notes fully, or reasonable access to low notes but limited access to squeezed notes at the top. Sometimes both these issues need to be addressed. I should also mention basses trained in the wrong Fach as baritones or even tenors, basses who have been singing as bass baritones with too shorter range, and basses who are actually baritones..... Some of these singers have been taught to push the sound forward and some who, at the other extreme, having been taught to pull the sound only down into the throat.
Unfortunately for the bass singer when his cords resonate unimpeded in the open throat he gets very little affirmation that this is happening effectively in his own ears. When it sounds good to the audience it sounds lousy inside to the singer. One bass told me it sounded to him like someone singing in a drainpipe far away. This seems to be a fairly accurate description for a lot of basses.
There is a tendency for the bass to use the back of the tongue to darken the tone in the middle voice. This can create satisfying sound for the singer inside the head but does not satisfy the listener or enable the singer to sing classical repertoire wonderfully or indeed easily. Satisfying the inner ear has the effect of compromising the vocal range as well of losing acoustical depth and ring. This causes irritation at the vocal folds and greater vocal problems as the voice matures.
Addressing the middle voice is critical to helping a bass singer find vocal balance. Most bass voices, after F3, should have a bit of think about what they are doing. For the basso profundo this would be after E3. This is the upper middle range, at this point the upper resonances begin to come in more and more until the voice is at full head at around B4. The cords stretch from front to back more and more in the middle voice and then the top is able to open out on this open throat with the cords vibrating along the thin edges all the way up the scale but connected to the big muscles of the body. This means the singer will feel as if they have the same throat space (by that I mean not shifting the larynx up or down suddenly) connected to the body all the way up the scale but without pressure in the throat and tongue.
The singer must come to terms with a coordination of the body and facial muscles that stimulate the responses that manipulate the soft tissue of the throat as these can act as a mute. So then the primary resonators can be used efficiently. This facility gives the singer gravitas, authentic dramatic line that gives the music life. When a singer is young they should aim to get a handle on why and how this can happen physically even if they have a lot of natural ability, so as to give a good basis for the growing voice. When it comes down to it theoretical or anatomical knowledge are not a lot of use when it comes to business of learning what to do.
Rarely if ever will a singer find the full understanding of this naturally by himself. Some singers have a more natural ability than others to coordinate their body to their voice. I imagine some wonderful voices never get the chance to open because they never are able to solve these issues in the beginning and we never hear of them. Some can even sound like they have it sorted because they are making great sound and have a wonderful instrument but then run into trouble later in their career because the mechanism is just too heavy to be sustained. Understanding and thoroughly investigating a light mechanism. I do not mean singing lightly but rather strongly connected to the body singing with the correct balance for the individuality of the voice to shine in the correct Fach. 'What is vocal balance' 'How can I find balance' 'is this balanced or a phoney balance' 'It does not feel completely good so why not?' are fundamental questions for a young singer.
Here are some bass case studies of singers finding their way.
Case study - A professional Basso Profundo
This singer always had an extraordinary natural talent as a young singer and had already been successful in the USA singing the lighter bass roles on the back of it but as time as time moved on he just did not know how to control it. I admire very much the attitude of the American singers I teach. I find they want to get down to business and really focus in a positive way on the process and sort it out. He had come to Europe to explore his vocal possibilities and find teachers who could help him. So far, unfortunately, he had not been very lucky in that department; he just seemed to have been taught to shove. Now he was in a vicious circle of tight thrust forward jaw, thickness at the vocal cords, held high breath and thrust at the top, and air blowing through in the middle voice, a big warning sign for a voice. His speaking voice was also quite airy and this cleared up as we started to work together. It is interesting to note that Dr Bratt the teacher of Kirsten Flagstad would not work with a singer until their speaking voice was free. She spent the first 6 months of her lessons working only on speech!
It was necessary to get his body released because, while he held his chest so high and tight and at the same time pulling back his neck, there was going to be no release in his jaw. So that is how we started, releasing his chest down and forward in the appoggio. This was a first pass at the appoggio until a more sophisticated way of approaching it could be addressed. This helped him start to feel able to let his jaw and neck go free. He began to physically realise a coordination that meant he could trust his body to control his voice instead of holding on with his jaw and neck. Tongue and jaw separation and the 'NG' were useful concepts for him. He practised inhaling with an 'NG' tongue so that his larynx release down without tongue pressure. We also used the cuperto exercise bringing the falsetto all the way down. About A Flat or B flat is as furthest they should go.
We realised he opened his mouth too much and this tended to depress his larynx. The concept of 'Voce Chiusa' in the middle voice was used to address this issue. This is where a singer's lips look relatively shut but the singer opens inside the mouth. This is achieved by sliding the lower jaw down the cheeks and the front lower teeth down below the lip. This helps the opening in the mouth even though the lips are apart but not very open. The jaw must open with the jaw joint doing the work with a feeling of width between the ears. This allows the middle width of the tongue to float towards the 'ng' more easily. He then felt that he was containing his sound instead of trying to push the sound out of his mouth. It smoothed the way to releasing his larynx and singing with pharyngeal vowels. He just did not feel he had to push sound out of the mouth. He felt the meaning of the words 'contain your sound'. He produced wonderful 'helden bass' sound without brittle force.
A singer must learn to throw the weight off the larynx by allowing it to move between pitches but telling a singer to lighten their voice nearly always has the effect of pulling a singer up off their body. We achieved this by yodelling and/or deliberately cracking between the notes on a very pliable body. This is a fantastically useful concept at the right stage of development. It is useful for all singers. I just gave it to a singer soon to make her debut as Donna Anna. It is helping her not to listen to herself and instead trust the larynx to find its own way without manipulating it with her ear. This concept has the power to being back your joy in your work and gives vocal spontaneity.
This throwing the weight off is usually an advanced concept for the bass voice. I say this because first they generally need to thoroughly explore the downward laryngeal release without tongue pressure and the body must know how to respond to onset of sound. I would recommend any bass to listen to Feodor Chaliapin. You can really hear that free vibration at the vocal folds. The sound is of course fantastic.
Put tip of tongue behind bottom teeth and say and voiced 'n' with the bit behind the tip on the alveolar ridge so more of an 'n' 'ng'. Flex the tongue wide to allow some air through to the soft palate.
Same breath flow from 'ng' to ah.
- 1 2 3 4 5 5 4 3 2 1
- Ng. . . . ah. . . .
Tongue and jaw separation exercise
Look in a mirror open you mouth a little way and use your tongue across the gap to pronounce the following.
- 1 3 5 3 1
- De nta le . .
Pharyngeal vowel exercise with 'ng' ring over
- 5 4 3 4 5 4 3 4 5 4 3 4 5 4 3 2 1
- Ng. . . in. . . ö . . . i . . . .
'in' as in French nasal 'in 'and 'i' as in the word need. Try to leave the tongue carrying on going towards the 'ng' on the vowels. You can replace 'i' with 'o' as in hot or 'u' as in hoot or 'e' as in set. For the 'a' vowel replace the 'in' with French nasal 'en'
If you find this tricky do staccato and let the air through your nose on the 'NG'. If it is still not working it is because there is not the body hook up there to help and perhaps too much neck and jaw pressure. You will need someone to work this out with you or get an idea of what might help by reading more articles.
I do not separate technical work from interpretation in my mind or when I am working because I think knowing how to use yourself through the phrase gives the music life and authentic dramatic intensity and spontaneity. I am sure everyone agrees self knowledge is key. I think exercises are a route to find it. They are a tool to make it clear about that which we are talking. They are a language for the physical sensations of the different parts of the coordination necessary for the whole singer to emerge. Some exercises give you the nouns some the verbs, adjectives.... if you like. Then you can explore the whole language to express yourself in and can think easily, fast, spontaneously in the language.
Case Study - A university scholar who had moved on to an operatic career
This singer had sung as a choir scholar at a major university. He had gone on to sing professionally. His voice was starting to shut down progressively above C4.
A closed voice in the middle voice will mean that the throat will close as the singer goes up resulting in a middle voice that will not be a healthy blend of head and chest and a squeezed top. The upper notes sit on the open throat you have forged in the middle voice.
It is true to say that some singers manage to go up without tipping the larynx without too much discomfort more easily than others, but ensuring your vocal longevity with this technique is problematic because the larynx is held so still. Laryngeal movement between the pitches is necessary to free singing. This singer managed reasonably well but as he was getting into his 30s the top was thinning and closing down. He was taking too much weight up ie his cords were over closed and unable to stretch. This combination causes a pulled up larynx as the pitch rises until the voice cuts out and goes into falsetto. I could hear that it was an absolutely beautiful voice stuck and caged in his throat. When he sang high for a while then his low notes disappeared - an indication that the larynx is stuck. It was very confusing for him.
One of the exercises we worked really helps the stretch of the palate from front to back in the middle voice. A bass will tend to thicken the sound in the middle voice. We also used staccato exercises in the middle voice down. They are a god send because they encourage the vocal cords to meet along the thin edges if they are done with knowledge on how to use the body. This started to open his throat. The feeling of a larynx tipping was a whole new concept. It is vital for healthy vocal fold function in the middle voice and is the basis for accessing the top. It allowed his throat to open to reveal an unforced burnished sound from his sternum. This openness in his throat allowed the ring to come in over it by using the French nasals in the exercise above without neck and jaw tension and with the tongue free. The sound must not be pushed into the face or nose. Rather I tend to say to singers make the shape for the French nasal but do not send the sound there.
This was a singer who leaned backwards in his posture. This pushed the hips forward out of alignment with the upper body. He just did not realise it. A habit of leaning back causes rigidity and tightness. The ribs and abdomen need to be engaged and pliable. It feels pretty strange at first to a singer to change a habit. The thing is when he felt the coordinated connection of body and voice, he just never went back to leaning backwards.
Case study - A bass who was trained as a baritone.
The bass voice has similarities with the female contralto voice. Just as it is quite common for the contralto to be mistaken for a higher voice so it is with the bass. These big cords can make a nice sound going up and it can confuse everyone and people can think they have a Baritone without a proper top in front of them. But on close examination it is tremendous squeeze of the sternocleidomastoid muscles and not the full voice at all.
When a singer comes to my studio and it becomes obvious that they are singing as the wrong voice it is necessary to put myself in their place and sense how they feel about their singing. This is what any teacher would want to do, I am sure. It does not matter what I know about this possible vocal Fach change situation, it is how the singer feels that counts. I cannot just bluntly say it, but rather, better to prepare the ground for the singer so that a change in vocal Fach is an obvious step. If I can invite them to explore new sensations of vocal freedom and expression then they can sense the vocal relief and safety which will sustain them. The voice tells the signer what it wants if it gets the chance to be free enough to speak. The journey, then, is more than possible.
This was the problem - this singer had no notes below C3 (C below middle C). As he reached for these notes, his larynx pushed too down with pressure from everywhere. Then as he went up in pitch, it went too far up. So the larynx was either too down or too up. He did not look like a baritone and he did not sound like one. He could make quite a nice sound as a fake baritone without a proper top and he had no low notes at all. He had been pushed vocally into a place where he should not be for years. Finding your correct vocal Fach is essential!
Finding pliability in the intercostal muscles was a big key. A singer who is habitually singing above where they should be will be very tight in between the ribs and can find no release. Another characteristic of a singer who is singing higher than they should be is, that they will lean back, and may twist up and off to the left or right during a phrase with the chest, with the strain. Feldenkrais classes helped this release. Another characteristic is that the larynx will be too high at the inhale, with tight jaw and neck and tongue and so on....
This bass found the warmth on his sternum, by opening his throat with a slight pre vomit feeling. He had been singing as a baritone by squeezing the muscles in his neck inwards so, this knew sensation helped him widen. His neck jaw and tongue began to give up holding the larynx stuck, and it released down in the middle voice. All this helped him realise what his voice needed to do. He felt positive about this journey he was embarking on.
He began to experiment with a pliable support. In truth I rarely if ever use the word support because it makes me think of a strut that holds up a bridge or something. The release of the appoggio is just as important as the appoggio itself. Stuck intercostal muscles create a stuck voice. This singer had been taught to widen his ribs deliberately with every inhale. This is the worst kind of breath management. For a start it pulled his abdomen up with the in breath, a physiological reverse of nature. Unfortunately this is still being taught. I guess some teachers must think it works but you know, I do not think it makes physiological sense and is not useful. It creates unwanted and unhelpful tension.
A singer needs to feel a sense of tallness through the middle of the body. As somewhere to start I got him to stand with his back against a door. The back of the head must not be against the door. I asked him to place only the lower part of his shoulder blades, across this width, against the door and his gluts -the back of his butt- against the door and not to put his upper shoulder against the door and not press his waist unduly against the door flat. This length goes from the middle of your foot through the middle of your lumbar vertebrae up through the middle of the chest though the middle of the neck to under the ear lobe with the head buoyant on top. A male singer will generally have the tendency to shove his voice using overmuch tension from lifting the front of the chest. This should be replaced with the chest gently going forward to where the floor meets the wall at the skirting board and a widening in the ribs and back. So long as he was in the act of lengthening up posturally the appoggio can become very pliable. (When the inner posture collapses the ribs get stuck) He realised that this had strong parallels with what we do when we laugh or cry. Hence the old saying 'He who cannot laugh, cannot sing'. The pay off in terms of sound and comfort was huge. His voice began to stretch down and his bass voice came in.
With all singers I explore thoroughly the question of pharyngeal vowels. When the larynx releases down the vowels appear in open throat and sound less in the singer's ear. It is absolutely necessary for the opera singer to do this and it allows the full voice to appear and be reliable. It is scientifically proven fact. (see the end of the article)
As a baritone this singer's abdomen had been very tight, now it rolled up, neither pushed out nor pulled in, and was responsive to the needs of the breath. His back engaged in the whole coordination. This is a beautiful bass voice. From being a baritone with no career prospects he is in work as a bass. His determination to find his way out of this was truly heroic. He has a great sense of humour which always helps I think, but in the lessons he expected to have answers and to sort it out. That intensity from someone who really wants to know and expects answers is very important to progress, as is a sense of humour. A singer must expect to have answers to all their vocal questions. Their livelihood depends on this after all.
Case study - A young bass baritone using too much physicality to sing
This bass baritone was more comfortable singing bass. He had a very strong compact but large frame and he was using too much tight physical 'dramatic' tension to get through performances. He loved being on stage but he was limited and uncomfortable vocally. All that tension was stopping the breath. The back of the neck was tight and his jaw was thrusting hard down and forward in the middle voice on every syllable slamming the cords together. We needed to get the jaw to release down and back freely with the jaw joint flexing in the width near the ears and to get him to contain his sound and not push out.
This singer domed forwards at the solar plexus during phonation and the solar plexus ballooned forward at the inhale also. This put weight on the front of the diaphragm and stopped it's even all-round movement up and down. It created a block, shutting the throat and making connecting to the abdomen inaccessible. This is a strain. I have known it cause acid reflux and eventually a torn sphincter. This took time to sort out.
All the singers in these case studies are very talented, fiercely intelligent, dedicated and creative human beings. Not being able to sort yourself out vocally is no measure of intelligence.
Lastly I would recommend Johan Sundberg's book 'The science of a Singing Voice'. This voice scientist has been giving the scientific explanation for the necessity of pharyngeal vowels years. You can also catch him talking on You Tube.