Mar 2, 2010

Singers and Hummers

If you want to get an idea of what the perfect sound is for yourself, nothing is as educational as listening to singers to analyze what makes a great singer and what makes a great voice. There are as many voices as there are instrumental sounds and every person has their own special or not-so-special sound. To a certain extent, we are born with a tendency toward a certain sound, and how much we can influence that sound is a matter of determination.

Singers claim they are born with a certain voice and even vibrato, and nothing can change that. I'm not so sure about that because I see playing a brass instrument, specifically a trombone, as very close to singing. We are able to influence the sound we make by diligent work and study. We start with a certain type of sound and then we refine and beautify that sound over years of study. It's amazing however, how many players don't have a mental picture of the sound they want to make, and of course if it's not in the brain, it won't be in the body, and therefore not processed into sound.

What makes a great vocal sound? I believe as do obviously many others, that the presence of a pure, solid, focused core, is the main component to a great voice. I say many others because those singers possessing this quality are universally hailed as the greatest singers of their era. This core in large part provides the ability to produce a clear pitch center, which is the hallmark of great singing, (and playing.) There are multitudes of singers, even well known ones who cannot produce a sound with a pure pitch center, and what emerges is a large, unfocused sound with a distinct lack of resonance and pitch. Some singers also use a big wobbly style of vibrato, which obscures the center of the pitch and purity of the voice. This may be the cause of the uncentered middle, or used as a way to cover up that very lack of focus in the first place. This is common with the bigger voices, and I mean from soprano all the way down to bass.

As with instruments, as the tessitura descends, the problem of focus increases. Piccolo doesn't have that problem, but tuba's do, with trombones close behind. We are looking for a "pretty sound." What makes a pretty sound? I believe it is a sound that has a pure, golden core in the center, that allows overtones to be produced as a result of a strong fundamental, and an energetic air stream in a concentrated space, much like a bell ringing. One of the best demonstrations of this is striking a marimba with a mallet. Any mallet instrument will do, but the marimba can get into the trombone's register. To get the most resonant result, the grip on the mallet must be as relaxed and free as possible and not choked in any way. The correct method of striking a marimba to get the best sound is also the best way of producing a sound on a wind instrument. The mallet causes the bar to vibrate and the air causes the lips to vibrate a column of air in the instrument. The same style of beginning a note for maximum resonance is common to both.

So, if you want to do some valuable investigative work on what you want to, or should sound like, make a survey of a wide variety of singers, opera, recital, oratorio etc. and see what makes the great ones that way. I'll bet you'll find that they are the ones, no matter how big the voice is, there is a pure, focused, solid core in the middle that captures every pitch dead center. If you're lucky, you might be able to do what the great Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling did: the louder he sang, the bigger the voice got. Also, if you want to hear what a solid core of a voice sounds like, listen to some Lauritz Melchoir recordings, the greatest Wagnerian tenor of all time. Another of my favorite singers of old is the Italian soprano, Amelita Galli-Curci, or recently, German soprano Ruth Ziesak, who for me is possibly the greatest modern musician/singer.

Hmmmmmmm........ lets see now. That sound reminds me of how I feel when I am playing something of medium or soft volume and things are working well. I feel like I am humming with everything below my chin. My embouchure is as firm as it needs to be to get a nice clear, pure sound (see above,) I am leaning slightly against the mouthpiece for stability, and otherwise I am doing the same thing as if I were humming, except instead of buzzing my vocal chords, I am buzzing my lips. Hum and you will get the sensation of how relaxed you need to be when playing. Humming will feel like you are leaning against your vocal chords and letting your lungs empty freely, and playing, it will feel like you are leaning against the mouthpiece and letting your lungs empty freely. When playing the louder dynamics, it is important to get as close to this feeling as possible, keeping the lower torso (and everything else) as relaxed as possible. All firmness necessary to produce either upper range notes and/or louder dynamics (and there is some required,) come from the embouchure, and not the body, and this includes the slide arm.

I've always thought that instrumental sounds and trombones in particular, should have the same identifiable terminology as vintage wines. Example; "a strong blast of oak, with hints of mineral, tart plum and a layered finish of peach blossoms." Or; "Ripe tannins, hits you with a full blush of pomegranate, hints of honeysuckle, followed by a swift kick in the chops," and so on. I'm no wine expert, but you get the point.

This article has been translated into Italian by Alberto Tortella.

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