Finding and embracing my “schlanke” voice

My voice lesson today housed one of my bigger technique ah-HAH moments since the semester began.  In the weeks leading up to this, my new teacher (I wonder at what point I’ll think of her as just my teacher and not my new one) has identified my technical hiccups and begun making suggestions for ways to smooth out my registers, strengthen my low and middle voice, release my top voice, and access my extension.  As is almost always the case for singers, I get what she’s saying during the lesson but am not sure if I’m doing things right as I practice during the week.  Most singers are extremists: if you tell us to do something. we grab onto the idea like a new toy and practice so hard with it that it’s almost unrecognizable the following week… then you have to tell us to do the opposite of what you told us last week.  So it’s very possible that we spend a lot of time practicing the wrong thing.   No wonder it takes 15 years to learn how to sing.

Today’s ah-HAH was that I was singing too much from my throat and thereby creating a thicker sound.  I know we’re not supposed to sing from the throat, and I wasn’t doing it intentionally – but I admit I was trying to sing with a full voice.  This throatiness probably grew out of a breakthrough I experienced about six months ago, a breakthrough that I may have taken just a tad too far (we’re all extremists, I tell you!).  Back then, I had a method of cheating up during an ascending interval where I would drop my breath energy and have my voice pop up into my head.  This gave me some cool floating high notes, but it ruined my phrasing and my breath support.  The breakthrough came when I finally sang through the note changes.  I’d always taken that phrase to mean having a legato line, but that day I understood it was also a reference to energy and texture.  This continuation from one note to the next gave a new uniformity to my sound where before my high voice seemed disconnected from my middle.

Looking back now, I can see a correlation between the discovery of this sense of continuation with a struggle to get on top of my high notes.  Notes that I’d never had trouble getting up to in the past became more of a struggle, and I would be slightly under pitch.  I didn’t know exactly why, and I actually attributed it to a hole in my technique rather than extra baggage in my technique.  After today’s lesson, I see how I morphed the idea of continuation into vocal weight, which is what has been making those high notes more difficult.

To combat this, my teacher had me bend over at the waist with knees unlocked, neck released, and arms dangling so I could feel the blood rushing to my eyes, nasal passage, and forehead – where I felt the pounding was where my voice should be vibrating.  She had me sing through a few phrases from “Willow Song” in this position: I expected to have more difficulty singing with half my body upside down, but beyond having to take a little more energy to initiate my onset of the phrase, the high notes were easier to sing.  My throat didn’t have to act as a resonator anymore because I was sending my voice to the areas where the blood was pounding.  That throbbing in my head from the upside-down position combined with vocal vibrations is unmistakable.  Usually I worry about being able to access the technique in my practicing without having a teacher to guide and prompt me, but this was so visceral that I don’t think reproducing it will be a problem.

Yes, I used to suffer from a slight complex about having a “small voice,” as if this meant I couldn’t have a successful career as a singer, but this is mostly behind me now.  My technique has filled out enough that I don’t think my voice is small, although it is on the side of “lighter” compared to anything full lyric and bigger.  I’m just happy to know that it’s possible for me to sing with the core of my voice without sacrificing accuracy and ease in my upper register.   I didn’t “lose” my high notes; I just had to accept the nature of my voice in order to access the high notes properly, letting the core ring in my head rather than generating mass in my throat.  As my teacher said to me today, the Germans call it schlanke and it’s a good thing.  I can’t wait to practice tomorrow.

Schlanke [‘ʃlaŋkǝ] – adj, German: slender, slim, neat

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