Spectrograms and Learning to Sing

spectrogram
Some classical singers are using audio spectrogram programs to see if they are producing the “singer’s formant”, which is a band of harmonics in roughly the 3000 Hz range. In acquiring these overtones, it is essential to cross-check against function. It can be easy to bring these overtones in with some pretty nasty interfering tensions. Is the voice in tune? Are vowels completely intelligible in all but the highest notes? Can you sing fast scales? Do you have a dynamic range? Can you sing a whole show without fatigue?

Before computers, these formants arrived as a by-product of free, resonant singing. Now we think that we have the possibility of a shortcut. Using the spectrographic analysis to check on what’s in a functionally good sound is fine, but in beginning stages an underdeveloped technique combined with some counterproductive constriction can also produce these formants. This is why I never turn on the spectrogram programs with young or beginning singers.

In addition to cross-checking against function, it always comes back to listening. You have to train your ear to know from the inside that you are making your sound.

Cornelius Reid stressed that the “resonance adjustment” was the last step in forming a singer’s technique. Fine-tuning resonance before a technique has all the functional essentials going, especially the registration, is a big mistake. Falling in love with a certain “sound” that becomes “my sound” can lock one into a vocal tract configuration that can get one into trouble.

If you are a functional teacher, you are going after function, not “a sound”. The gymnastic exercises, the messa di voce, the emphasis on pure vowels that produced singers with resonant classical voices are ignored, while people spend vast amounts of time singing whole notes into computers to see if they’ve “got it”. If you actually do the functional work, your voice will change. The sound that you make in being able to execute both complicated passagework AND large variations of < > (messa di voce) on clear vowels is IT. From that place, sensitive variations of mouth shape can tweak the resonance.

Having an “empathic” ear-voice connection can be a blessing and a curse. If you try to do what someone else with the desired vocal quality does, you may be going against your own nature. Emulation only helps your singing in the long run if you manage to emulate someone who is enough like you. Even if you do this successfully, how do you know that you might not have fulfilled a greater potential by finding your own way?

3 thoughts to “Spectrograms and Learning to Sing”

  1. Easy for you to say, if you sing naturally. I wasted years going to a lot of voice instructors, doing a lot of voice exercises which never accomplished anything, because none of those voice instructors understood how to sing. They could sing, but they didn’t know how they did it. They just assumed anybody else who went through the same process they did would get the same results. All they did was take on dozens of new students every year and give them the exercises, then say the few who got better did so because of the exercises, and that the ones who quit hadn’t worked hard enough.

    (Actually there was one instructor who was good and knew how to tell singers what to change to get a desired result, from NYC in the 1980s, who called himself “the Master Voice Teacher” or some other ostentatious name, with the result that I can’t remember his name. But he was too expensive.)

    I’ve also spoken with a lot of great singers, with the same results. Not one of them had any useful insight into how to sing. All of them believed firmly that they had no natural talent, just hard work, even though their main piece of advice was to “just keep singing until you get it”. Which I’ve been doing for 35 years now, to no effect.

    So I’m gonna get a spectrograph program.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *