Basic Vocal Tone

by Justin Petersen

Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes once wrote,

“We are all of us three persons: the one we think ourselves to be, the one others think us to be and the one we truly are.”

This plight is never so acute as when applied to the student singer and how they perceive themselves through their voice. In my work, I have found that one of the most important things to do is to help singers find their ‘basic vocal tone.’

In his book Voice: Psyche and Soma, Cornelius Reid makes an exceptionally important point often skimmed when examining his substantial pedagogy: the topic of aesthetic listening and its inherent dangers.

Aesthetic listening is hearing a voice in a way that overlays aesthetic and stylistic preferences onto the mechanism (‘the one we think ourselves to be’). For example, a classical voice teacher might prefer darker, rounder tones and would train students to emit sounds in that way. A musical theater voice teacher might go the opposite way and entrain a voice into a very bright, brassy, forward sound.  Both are ‘specializations,’ a term borrowed from Peter T. Harrison in his book The Human Nature of the Singing Voice.

What occurs in specialization is a kind of locking in of kinesthetic responses. The student habituates specific vocal maneuvers, regardless of their particular intrinsic health, and begins to label vocal qualities as being either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ against these specialized responses. Those deemed bad are shunned, never to be exercised or examined again.

For example, liking a sound isn’t often necessary for a singer (or teacher!) when exercising the voice. Many sounds made in voice lessons might be funny, silly, interesting, or unusual. Exercising chest register in younger girls can prove daunting for a gentle personality. Getting more focus in the voice might demand whimpering, or witchy sounds. Exploring falsetto comes with challenging gender concepts for young men. Readjusting vowels and vowel shapes can prove difficult for the singer accustomed to forming vowels in a certain way.

All that is accomplished in specialization is a limited vocal and musical palette. Fundamentally, a very clever vocal edifice has been erected. Achieving particular stylistic vocal behaviors gives a student a sense of success, and more importantly, a sense of CONTROL over the sound. But is this vocal and communicative freedom? To this writer, it would appear to be the abdication of freedom in favor of something that will temporarily work or ‘sell.’

Harrison argues, and I agree, that a teacher’s work should be on integration, not specialization. Imagine a psychiatrist who only wanted to bring out specific aspects of the human psyche and leave behind those other parts that they didn’t like? So a singer and voice teacher should be cautious of working in a way that specializes the vocal instrument in any one direction. This may mean making sounds that are NOT very ‘pretty.’ It may mean making MORE sound than the student is accustomed to, and which might frighten them.

(I should digress here to state that this is not to acknowledge that styles DO have particular vocal requirements to which the singer and teacher should be aware. My argument lies in a singer’s inability to GET OUT of the style, which is so often the case – even in classical singing.)

The grievous error in specialization is that the underlying natural sound of the voice is never found. The sole purpose of training becomes the style. The singer has no real idea of what they REALLY sound like (‘the self we truly are’). In an interview in the book Living Opera by Joshua Jampol, opera singer Joyce DiDonato recounts the story of her vocal development as a young singer and the struggles she encountered with her voice. She suffered with considerable tongue and jaw tension in an effort to ‘sound like an opera singer.’ If this world-class artist is not immune from end-gaining to aesthetics, how much more aware should we be with our biases and preferences? Our lifelong work SHOULD be on finding our basic vocal tone, our natural quality – developing and preserving THAT throughout a lifetime.

The work of finding the basic tone is one of the most revealing and vulnerable experiences a singer can have. Classical singers are especially prone to making sound in a specific ‘way,’ and will be hard pressed to take a step back and emit sound that is not classical in approach (or at least classical in the way that they perceive it). The student will begin to favor particular sounds and develop those very strongly as a reflection of their ‘true voice.’  A classical singer that prizes volume will be reticent to sing more peacefully and quietly, especially if the technique warrants it, because it will appear to them that they are ‘singing off the voice.’ They cannot psychologically entertain a particular sound because it falls so far outside their perceived aural envelope of “acceptable vocal sounds.”  – they will feel threatened because what is being asked for in the lesson is so far afield from what they associate with classical singing. I am convinced that making authentic sound is the hardest thing for singers to do. It is immediately exposed, personal, open, vulnerable, unique – and terrifying. It goes to the heart of our self-doubt, a sort of “Am I enough?” in sound.

Finding the core tone of the voice gives the singer a sort of ‘‘control default” for singing explored over a lifetime. Some teachers refer to this as vocal or functional balance. A student guided to a style or aesthetic may NEVER be given the keys to this balance if style and repertoire is the only way the voice is measured. When the wheels fall off the technique, the singer will be left defenseless against an understanding of how to rebalance and coordinate the instrument.

The ancient Greeks admonished those visiting Delphi Gnothi Seauton “Know Thyself.” The greatest gift any teacher can give a student the ability to know themselves through the medium of their voice. The self in sound that they TRULY are. This will lead to greater potentiality and more honest and vulnerable expression, which should form the heart of any humanist pedagogy.


Justin Petersen received his M.M. in Opera at the University of Kansas, and his Bachelor of Music degree at Simpson College. His performance career includes performances with the Des Moines Metro Opera, the Kansas City Lyric Opera, Opera North, Sarasota Opera, and the Santa Fe Opera.

Justin has a deep passion for working with damaged voices and helping to bring them back to health. He actively works with Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs) in Boston, facilitating cross-functional dialogue between singers, teachers, and voice therapists.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Love this- what a treasure it is to know how to make a basic clear clean tone- to press the reset button after a rigorous day of singing. Invaluable!!!!

    1. I’m so glad you saw this post! I was thinking of you when he wrote it and was so grateful to have his viewpoint. Agreed – invaluable, and something that people just don’t talk about. Just an awesome, awesome piece of writing!!

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