February 20, 2019

An Evening with Christine Ebersole

Two weeks ago, I noticed a notice on social media about Christine Ebersole singing at Alice Tully Hall. 

Go, said a little voice. Go. How often do you hear a great singer?

So I did, and she is.

The voice and woman behind it can do just about anything: chest voice, soft high head voice, mix, character voice—you name it—it’s all there.

Jazz standards, Harold Arlen songs, Show Tunes and the Methodist hymn "How Can I Keep From Singing" are sung with equal integrity, each song a deep dive into authentic, straight from the heart music-making.

I performed with Ebersole in Lady in the Dark with City Center Encores! in the mid-90’s; and if anything, her voice has become warmer with no loss of an innate ability to mine old-time vocalism, which includes a melting portamento—so rarely heard today. 

The youthful quality of Ebersole’s voice (we’re talking head voice—the cinderella of vocalism) is undeniable and accompanied by a sense of poignancy. From the aching beauty of "How Are Things Glocca Morra" to "My Shining Hour," Ebsersole touches the listener deeply while exploiting what seems forbidden on the Broadway stage these days: clear, resonant, glorious tone.

How does the 65 year old soprano—who will be 66 February 21—keep her voice intact? The program contained an interview with a clue: Ebersole talks to the animals—especially her bird.

On the face of it, the reader might think, what?

But I get it. Ebersole uses her ear, mimicking and assimilating tonally rich sound that stretches her vocal folds. She’s not nuts. Rather, she’s intuitively prescient in keeping her ear intact, which really is the voice.

Interestingly, Ebersole was a violinist before realizing (while sitting in the orchestra pit as a teenager) that she wanted to be up onstage singing. This explains a lot, since one hears a unique connection between notes that goes beyond the usual legato. Whether real or imagined on the part of this writer, it is a fact that 18th century Italian singers learned their art through use of the violin as an example of perfect tone. Why not Ebersole?

(The theme here is that great singers have great listening ability.)

Yes, she can belt with the best of them (belting itself not being exactly beautiful in anyone’s voice) as evidenced in "On the Aitchison, Topeka and Santa Fe." But Ebersole knows where to leave off and go into head. Knowing her limits, and having fuel to burn, she knows how to sing full throttle without stripping her gears. It’s no surprise then when guest pianist Marc Shaiman refers to Ebersole as a Maserati—the descriptors associated with the iconic automaker fitting perfectly.

Elegance, style, passion and performance.

Does the average listener know just how vocally smart Ebersole is? I wonder. She may not give it much thought, but her skill is evident everywhere.

Ok. There was one moment in "Will You" from Grey Gardens when I thought—oops—what’s up with that—coming as it did at the end of the song when two repeated high notes weren’t in the center of the pitch. But then, having taught the song, I know that the word “dreams” on the high note coming immediately after the lower note “fade” is damn hard to keep in perfect tune—the [i] vowel wanting to go towards the middle register when it really needs to go towards head. As a consequence, the second high note on the word “you” is hard because Larry isn’t resting in his hammock anymore. Sum total: While Will You is a great song, the composer’s vowel placement doesn’t make it easy for the singer.

Too technical? Perhaps, but you’re reading the blog of a voice teacher, not a plumber. Be that as it may, Ebersole made me want to cry more than once with the sheer sumptuousness of her singing.

She’s at the top of her game, singing at 65 like you wish you could at 30. It really doesn’t get any better. Find Erbersole wherever and whenever you can and treasure her voice and artistry.

—An Evening with Christine Ebersole, Alice Tully Hall, February 20, 2019: Lawrence Yurnam, Music director and Piano; Aaron Heick, Reeds; Paul Woodiel, Violin and Viola; Davic Fink, Bass; Jared Schonig, Drums.

February 13, 2019

Hints for Singers: Alberto B. Bach


Deep breathing is to be persistently cultivated. Let the student diligently practice the art of firmly retaining, by the deeply-compressed diaphragm, the breath thus obtained. The best and simplest way to to accustom one's self to deep breathing is to stand upright, and, folding one's hands on top of the head, to draw in the air as gently and as deeply as possible, retaining it well down by the diaphragm for from ten to twenty seconds. I may also recommend the following as being to the purpose: Pass a stick across the back through the bend of both the elbows, taking the arms well forward, and in this position breathe gently and deeply. By this procedure diaphragmatic breathing is induced to a remarkable degree, whilst it is also conducive to good carriage. 

The following two exercises are also advisable: Join the hands behind the back, carefully maintaining an erect posture, so that the shoulders are drawn well down, and breathe deeply. The second is, breathe deeply and slowly through the nostrils, 20 to 40 times; during inspiration bring the arms up to the level of the shoulders, and during expiration let them fall slowly down. 

The student should, as often as possible, breathe quietly through the nose, and retain the air in the lungs by contracting the diaphragm. The shoulders should never be drawn up, only the chest is to expand and to arch out forward, and then the air should be allowed steadily to steam forth for the formation of the tone. The expiratory muscles must never force the air against the vocal cords, but should allow it of flow out gradually, otherwise the voice will tremble. If we force the air against the vocal cords, they are disturbed, and their regular wave-like vibrations are interrupted; one part of the air thus needlessly escapes, and the tone is consequently weak. 

The middle tones of our voice require the least air; the lowest and the highest notes require more. the ability to produce a beautiful, rich tone with the most moderate expenditure of breath betokens the artists, and every singer must aspire to the accomplishment. 

Position of the Mouth 

A correct position of the mouth is one of the first conditions of the production of tone in singing. If the position is faulty the timbre is muffled and obscured, the development of a refined tone is rendered impossible, and the voice is made unfit for artistic purposes. The height of the cavity depends partly on the structure of the mouth and partly on the different vowels we sing. Under no circumstances, however, should the mouth be opened either too much or too little; and if we consult the laws of beauty respecting the appearance of the mouth, we should have an elliptical opening. This position is best achieved if the lips are distended toward each side as if for a smile, and this condition can be most completely realized in singing the vowel a (ah). 

The upper teeth should become visible to about half their size, while the lower teeth should be almost completely covered. The upper lip should, accordingly, be somewhat raised. We should guard against allowing the lips to cover and rest on the teeth, because they would then absorb the tone like sponges, and make it sound dull. It is through the medium of the teeth that the metallic ring is imparted to the tone, and through the smiling position of the mouth that brightness and grace are lent to it, and this smiling position of the mouth at the same time gives an agreeable expression to the features. The position of the mouth here described is correct according to the rules of art; the old Italian school made it one of its axioms, and the best singers-schools of all countries have adopted it. 


A beautiful tone—one fit for artistic purposes—must be free from all faulty sounds, and must not therefore have a guttural, palatal, nasal, noisy or uncertain quality. Every note must ring out by itself, independent and clear, and should never be used or forced. Just as the spinner draws the thread of the spindle, so must the singers take or draw off the tone softly and carefully, and never force the air against the vocal cords. We have three different modes of attack, but it is advisable to begin with one of these—the soft attack—and only later should the pupil exercise the other modes. All vocal studies should begin with the improvement of the middle tones—those notes which everybody has received from nature and which everyone uses in conversation. All voices should begin on the vowel a (ah) which remains forever the best foundation, the primary basis of all tone-culture. A fine and pure tone can thus be best produced, as all parts of the vocal apparatus are, while that vowel is being produced, in a natural, easy and unconstrained condition. The voice sounds on a (ah)  fullest and most sonorous, because the tone-waves can move freely and easily. One should try to keep the tongue flat and quiet and the soft-palate raised. We must also practice the other vowels, but we should always being our studies on a (ah), because all faults and defects of sound are observed best on this vowel. The air must strike the hard roof of the mouth—the hard palate—above the teeth as all notes should be formed in the front of the mouth. 

Equalization of Voice

Piano Singing.—In all voices the middle register is the best, and admits the easiest of cultivation. The first object in the formation of tone, therefore, consists in equalizing the middle register of the voice in all degrees of force. To attain this object the tones of the middle register must, as a first study, be sung quite piano. Thus let the pupil first sing three, then four, then six notes of the middle register, and then extend them gradually to nine notes. From the beginning, let the pupil sing on a fairly clear a (ah),  all the notes in slow time, and let him distribute his breath equally on these notes so that each note is equally piano. The expiration must be effected without any strain or forcing, in a quiet flow, and the jet of tone should always strike the hard-palate close above the teeth. After having sufficiently equalized the middle register by studies in piano, one or two higher notes and one or tow lower notes may be added, and be sung softly with limited breath. Then one may progress cautiously to higher notes, and if the singer allows his breath to flow out equally with all moderation, the falsetto register will appear, so to speak, of itself. This falsetto will, in all voices, uniformly appear on that higher note, which, taken piano, no longer is given by the chest register, and in which, accordingly, a moderate measure of breath is no longer able to set the stretched vocal cords into vibrations throughout their entire extent. This note in piano singing at which falsetto sets in, is generally B in a bass voice, D in a baritone, E and F in a tenor, B or C in an alto, E flat or E in a soprano. After having effected the connection between chest and falsetto register on a (ah), the other vowels may be practiced in succession. The tension of the vocal cords must be relaxed in some degree when the note is sung crescendo, an must be increased again on singing it decrescendo. 

Mezzo-Forte Studies.—If we desire to produce mezzo-forte any note which we have been singing piano, the tension of the vocal cords must be somewhat relaxed, and the breath proportionally increased. If the next note in the scale is to be equal in force to the preceding, we have to apply to only the same force of breath, but also the same ratio, in the relaxation of the vocal cords. The production of each higher note depends on a farther tension of the vocal cords, and yet the quantity of great may remain the same throughout the entire scale. In singing mezzo-forte, the transition to the falsetto is somewhat more difficult than in the piano scale, for here the larger supply of breath that produces more powerful notes makes it possible to sing one or two notes in the chest-register which appeared as falsetto in piano singing. A bass voice whilst passing in piano singing to the falsetto on B, will, in singing mezzo-forte, only make the transition on C or C sharp. The transition, will, however, be effected without much difficulty, if the singer maintains a steady position of the larynx, and strictly preserves the same limited supply of breath he has been using in the chest-voice, while at the same time he colors somewhat darker his vowels previous to entering the falsetto. The falsetto will then appear more powerful and resemble in sound the chest-notes. The equalization of the chest and falsetto voice consists essentially in the greatest possible obliteration of the difference in timbre between chest and falsetto notes, or, in other words, in the avoidance of too massive and full a tone in the chest-notes and too sharp and shrill a tone in the falsetto. This is effected by a suitable adjustment of the resonance of the cavity of the mouth, by change of timbre. The rule to be adopted therefore is to sing the ascending scale in dark timbre and the descending in clear timbre. In the treatment of voice that have been spoiled by a bad method, and whose falsetto does not come forth with ease, it is advisable to employ the vowels oo and ee, and not to allow the pupil to follow up his highest chest-notes with this first note in the falsetto, but to make him take after his highest chest-note a falsetto note lying tow or three tones above it, because such higher notes in the falsetto are much more easy to start, especially on the vowels oo and ee, than the lower ones. It is advisable that the singer should endeavor to start even his chest-notes with a gentle breath, in order to deprive them of their natural firmness and hardness, and to make them and his falsetto more equal. Later on, the falsetto notes, too, make be taken also with a more decided, energetic start, in order to develop every kind of starting in all the registers. The object in the formation of voice is simply to equalization of the difference voice, chest and falsetto. 

Forte,—The same operation which produces a mezzo-forte tone must like-wise take place, and in a higher degree, in the production of a forte note. Here the oscillations produced in the still more relaxed vocal cords by the more powerful current of breath are much wider, and they are still wider in the fortissimo, because here the breath attacks the more relaxed vocal cords in the greatest possible volume. If a note is not to became higher in the forte, the tension of the vocal cords must be somewhere more reduced than was necessary in the production of mezzo-forte notes, because the breath has to furnish compensation for more relaxation than in the mezzo-forte. The transition from forte chest-notes to the falsetto is more difficult in the mezzo-forte, and it would be very unwise in a student to commence his equalization studies in the forte. Unfortunately, however, the number of those who see their success only in forte singing is to induce them to sing their high chest-notes mezzo-forte, and therefore after piano, until they become convinced that it is through piano singing that the voice is to be equalized in the quickest and most natural manner. If once the singer has mastered a fine artistic falsetto, the next exercise should be to start a notes in the falsetto and make it pass into a chest-note, and again to effect its return to falsetto. 

—Alberto B. Bach, "Hints for Singers," The Voice, 1886: 70-71. 

Whether appearing in print as Albert or Alberto (click on his label below for biographical information), the now little known writer, singer, and voice teacher with the famous surname of Bach gives the reader a very clear expression of the method of Francesco Lamperti. That there is no mention of the "spot"—a key aspect of Lamperti's teaching—doesn't mean Bach didn't teach it. Rather, it accords with what I have learned about the expression of Lamperti's method in America; the "spot" was only revealed in the decade after Lamperti's death in 1892. Considered proprietary information, it is a teaching that is now considered wacko, weird, and wrong by literal-minded voice teachers raised on the altar of voice science—the vocal tract considered the only resonator.

February 10, 2019

Finding Lamperti

Do you use the search box here on VOICETALK? Hello, I use it to keep track of what I've written since, more than once, I have found myself thinking of posting an article and then found I'd done it already.

(eye roll) 

Today, I wanted to find all the Throne of the Pharynx posts that had been written to send to a student. So I entered the key words and all five posts appeared on the page. Nice, huh?

Remember when you had a hard time finding stuff? When your computer could not execute a word search? When Google didn't exist, libraries had card catalogues, and we all had to remember a lot more stuff than we do now? (I wonder if we're actually getting more stupid because we don't have to work to remember things.)

Back to the Throne of the Pharynx posts I was looking for earlier. They give the reader key teachings from the studio of Franceso Lamperti, who I call The Last Great Empiricist. 

For the modern vocal pedagogue who only has a passing interest in historical vocal pedagogy, Lamperti's teachings will seem strange, odd, and rather peculiar. That's their gift, since they are meant to enable the student and teacher to both listen and feel—two sensory pathways that find their origin in the inner workings of the ear, the cochlea and vestibular system having everything to do with creating the audio-vocal loop we call singing.

February 8, 2019

Sanford Sylvan: The Desire for Hermitage

I find myself waking with Barber's haunting song on a loop in my head, having learned that the eminent baritone Sanford Sylvan died suddenly this past week. That its taken me this long to write about it? Silence seemed the only answer until now. 

We were more colleagues than friends, having met in New York City Opera's 2006 production of Semele—Sandy singing the bass roles of Somus and King Cadmus. From then onwards, we would run into each other on the Lincoln Center campus and chat about singing, Sandy's own vocal lineage which touched upon García, matters operatic, and everything and nothing in particular. Our meetings became more frequent when Sandy joined the Juilliard faculty in 2013. Not forgotten is his profuse congratulations on the publication of my little book which came out the same year. Kind, supportive, and effusive with praise, our last meeting happened right before the holidays, Sandy complimenting my work with a young baritone. I cannot think of a more generous colleague.

We had another connection beside music which vibrated in the air during our meetings, both of us gay and having lived through the horrible years of the AIDS crisis. Members of a club with no name, our survival could, at times, feel like an obligation to make a difference. Sandy certainly did, singing in the first performance of the AIDS Quilt Songbook in 1992. Curiously, no obituary I have read mentions his sexuality, which mystifies me since Sandy was quite open about his, even appearing in the Advocate.

What is not a mystery is Sandy's teaching, which drew on age old concepts and began with his insistence on clear diction, which is evident in all of his recordings.

I will miss running into Sandy, miss our shop talk, and his beautiful, luminous, radiant soul.

February 7, 2019

To Practise a Song

The student, when practising, should stand firmly (on both feet) in an upright, easy position, the head erect, the chest well expanded, the shoulders kept downward; he should open the throat as wide as possible, but the mouth only moderately, drawing the lips rather tight, so as just to show the upper row of teeth, as in smiling, in order that the sound striking a hard surface (says Signor Lamperti), may vibrate with greater intensity, and give a ring and brilliancy to the voice. 

It is a great mistake to open the mouth too much—it causes a thick, unpleasant sonority, and renders rapid and distinct articulation impossible. The tongue should remain at full length, so as to leave the largest space in the mouth. 

The student would do well to practice before a looking-glass, or hold a small mirror in his hand, to see if the aperture of the throat and the uvula are visible. 

M. Lutgen.

The Etude, March 1, 1894, page 52.