I didn't know that! Issue# 8- Carrying Power of Singing

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If one disregards stylistic demands, it might be said that opera singing differs from recital singing in only one substantial way, that is, the voice of an opera singer must be audible in a large hall despite the considerable decibel output of an orchestra. A recital singer is required to be audible only above the weaker sound created by a piano, except for those occasions when the modern concert business forces the singer to perform in an unsuitably large hall. Thus, “carrying power” becomes the distinguishing technical characteristic of an opera singer. Indeed, unless the conductor can be persuaded to hold the orchestra down, a singer who lacks a big voice and/or the ability to cut through an orchestra is at a grave disadvantage.

Clearly, the auditory parameters of your voice are more or less determined at birth. Your vocal gift is just that—a “gift” possessing certain proportions. Trying to enlarge a basically slim voice to suit the operatic marketplace, where “large” is venerated by most listeners and many musical colleagues, almost always ends in the tragedy of a lost voice or the loss of high notes and pianissimo.

Yet, achieving a tone with enviable carrying power is not out of the question, regardless of the size of your “gift.” The first step toward understanding is to define our terms carefully. (Vocal language is notoriously imprecise.) Is a rich, deep, large, warm voice synonymous with a voice that carries well? Not necessarily. “Size” is not the defining issue for an opera singer. The annals of opera are stuffed with stories about that type of singer whose voice, judged to be too bright, almost drove the listeners out of the rehearsal room, only to triumph on stage in the performance as the only member of the cast whose tone quality seemed to have infinitely more beauty in the house than in the rehearsal room, and the only singer who could be heard in the top balcony and the back of the hall. Or, what about Tito Schipa, a legendary tenor with a smallish voice, about whom each and every article mentions at some point that “every note of his slender voice could be heard in every seat in the house!”

The next step is to understand what will give carrying power to a relatively small voice--or indeed, to a large voice as well. (Just as a flabby three hundred-pound man is not stronger than a one hundred eighty-pound man who works out, a big voice can be large but flabby and a small voice can be slender but focused!)

With the appearance of the many fine vocal research teams in the United States and abroad, it became evident that there is an overtone, the frequency of which, when present in the singing tone, will permit it to be heard through the sound of the orchestra, none of which instruments can play in this vicinity. That overtone lies somewhere between 2000 and 3000 Hz. The human ear can distinguish this overtone (commonly referred to as 2750, the frequency of “ring”) from a group of other overtones, thus making the listener hear as “louder” the tone that contains it better than he/she can hear a tone that is without it. Listeners’ non-scientific descriptions of a tone containing 2750 include:

“focused” “centered” “packed with beauty” “full of tone” “visceral”
“slender, but with great tensile strength” “satisfying” “clear” “strong core”

This “ring” can be maintained by the singer regardless of the vowel being sung and regardless of the dynamic level. It is not a figment of someone’s imagination. It is visible on the graphs. On the printout one can clearly see anomalies such as the momentary loss of the overtone or its presence throughout an entire small slide upwards during the attack of a particular high note. Singers vocally gifted in such different ways as Birgit Nilsson and Edita Gruberova have a very strong showing of this overtone. One could say that this overtone is somewhat more valuable for men than for women, because men sing in the pitch area where the orchestra plays most of the time. Women’s voices of the lower fachs spend a lot of time there as well. But a poor high C will actually carry as well as a good high C, more’s the pity.

The Power of Performance