February 28, 2014

The Folly of Falsetto 2

Alred A. Tomatis 
Blogs are funny things. I never know what readers are going to comment on in the form of an email, or in the comment section below a post, but when it happens, I am always grateful: it means someone out there is actually reading the words I've tapped out on my Macbook Pro. Such was the case when I wrote a post about falsetto that generated quite a few comments. 

No, I haven't changed my position on García's teaching since I wrote that post. From the evidence that I have found, he did not teach his singers to sing in falsetto. In fact, he only allowed tenors to use it in one tenor aria—on a high C.

Of course, I bring my own understanding to the word falsetto to the discussion, which needs further clarification. 

When I went to the Listening Centre in Toronto in 1999, one of the more curious experiences was hearing a vocal quality in my voice that I hadn't heard in a long time. Mind you, I was there because I was concerned about the affect minor hearing loss might have on my voice, and had the sense that there was something not quite right with my audio-vocal control. What quality did I hear in my voice? Head voice. That's the term I use for it on this page because, that's where I heard it. In my head. I appeared during my second week of training, after I had been listening to high frequencies, and had experienced a lengthening of my spine, as well as a release in the muscles of my tongue and throat. I was playing around with singing softly, and there it was—a ripple of vibration coursing through my body from the center of my head like a beam of sunlight finding its way through dark clouds. At first, I could only produce it when I had my headphones on and was being stimulated by Tomatis' Electronic Ear. Eventually, as I worked at home, establishing my right ear as leading ear, it reasserted itself. In time, I came to understand the sound I heard as the essence of mezza voce singing, since it could grow into a full-throated tone and back again—the messa di voce. It was quite extensible, reaching far past my usual register break at E above middle C, and went all the way down to low B, where my chest register would then reassert itself even at a soft volume. It was a very different vocal production than the one I associated with falsetto, which came from the throat and sounded hollow.

My colleague Justin Petersen recently quoted Tomatis' thoughts on falsetto from The Ear and the Voice (2005) in a post on his blog, which you can find here. Petersen's post reminded me of a conversation I had with Paul Madaule, the director of the Listening Centre in Toronto, who asked me what I thought about his mentor's words, and I remembering telling him that the passage was confusing because Tomatis' use of falsetto did not jive with my understanding of historical vocal pedagogy even if he did describe my experience. Heck. Even García himself thought the word difficult.

My ear had just been opened. I could sing in head voice into the stratosphere and back again. My voice sounded young, vibrant and agile. What did that have to with the hollow, throaty sound male altos pushed through their throats in steam pipe fashion? It made no sense to me then, and still doesn't.

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