By Cate Frazier-Neely, M.M., B.M
What are we to make of this video of Jeanie Lovetri, made in the summer of 2015 at the Contemporary and Commercial Music Institute at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia?
Please permit me to give some background on Ms. Lovetri and on the various styles of music she performed. It will shed light on what you are hearing and why it is important for singers and voice teachers of all styles of music to understand.
Ms. Lovetri is 66 years old. In April of 2013 she was diagnosed, by a prominent New York medical voice specialist, with a partial paralysis (paresis) of her left vocal fold that badly damaged her ability to sing at a professional level in any style. Doctors, surgeons and speech language pathologists in the medical establishment currently have very limited remedies for this kind of neurological dysfunction. But without help from anyone else, she recovered her voice and sang in this live concert an excerpt of a Vincenzo Bellini opera aria, a Hoagy Carmichael jazz standard and a Hoyt Axtons’ rock song made popular by Three Dog Night. This was done within the same performance, within a 45-minute period.
That this is possible is truly amazing to me. That it was done very well is a miracle. Unfazed by her vocal fold pathology, her age or the difficulty of her repertoire choices and their conflicting technical requirements, she stood before an audience of her faculty, colleagues and students, and received a wildly enthusiastic standing ovation.
How did she do this? Through working her own method on herself, Somatic Voicework tm: The Lovetri Method. Why, if the status quo in the medical community is able to offer few solutions, is she here, singing? If a deep understanding and application of the many facets of SVW can help vocal paralysis patients, what does it have to offer singers and teachers free of medical pathology?
Many voice teachers claim to teach “Bel Canto vocal technique,” but I believe that this is a confused claim passed down over the past two generations. Bel Canto (“beautiful singing”) is historically associated with music written by the Italian opera composers Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti. The musical lines are florid, full of runs and ornaments (and although styled, have an contemporary equivalent in the “riffs” of R & B and pop music.) The vocal quality desired is a consistent balance between beautiful sounds (which in themselves require a myriad of specifically-tuned technical feats) and emotional expression.
This is a style of singing that evolved in Western Europe after Bach, Handel and Mozart, and the style was developed to be able to sing what the Bel Canto composers wrote. It wasn’t the other way around–composers did not write this music because people were singing in the style already. Singers had to figure out how to sing it, and teachers developed exercises to help singers. So while “Bel Canto” style is desired for singing the music of Bel Canto composers, it may not be the best term to describe a well-rounded teaching method rooted in healthy vocal function that enables singers to interpret music being written today by other kinds of composers or songwriters.
Many voice teachers use the terms “Bel Canto technique” and “classical training” interchangeably to mean the best training possible to be able to sing many styles of music. This may be true if, by ‘classical training’ they actually mean a functional technique based on registration balance, which takes place at the level of the vocal folds, freedom and strength of the laryngeal muscles without manipulation, healthy breath response and effective breath management, physical coordination and stamina, access to resonance and mindful use of filters and articulators AND the singer must have joy and music in their voice and be free enough emotionally to communicate through skillful use of text. These attributes take time to develop, and even longer to coordinate when switching styles of music credibly.
I maintain that the early “Bel Cantists,” were sane enough not to separate the phonetics of the singing voice from those of speech. The term “si canta come si parla,” or, sing as you speak, logically has to mean something different for a 19th century Italian than it does for a 21st century American because of major differences in language and speech patterns. Sixteen years into the 21st century, it is my opinion that vocal training that is generic in nature—meaning always the same, no matter who is singing and what style of music they are singing in—does not serve the singer and therefore, does not serve the music. There are too many singers, applauded by too many listeners, who think the music should serve them.
Please understand that I have come to this conclusion after a lifetime as a teacher, researcher, listener, learner, classical singer and voracious reader. I do not state this lightly or without a great deal of thought. For those that don’t know my work, students have appeared on Broadway as well as with the Washington National Opera as well as established jazz venues and music halls while they have been working with me. I do not advertise celebrity clients recovering from surgery or illness because it breaches ethics, but I have worked with a few national news anchors, soap opera actors and recording artists of repute.
Let’s take a look at the three styles of singing Ms. Lovetri performs: opera of 19th century Italy, American jazz standards and 1960’s rock. Voice teachers who study SVW come from all musical styles and backgrounds, so I am providing a short description of the needs of each of these styles for frame of reference.
“Spinning” operatic vocal lines consistently while maintaining a beautiful sound throughout loud and soft singing requires a great deal of skill, and like sports, needs constant upkeep and practice. Consonants have to be produced in a way that does not chop up the legato vocal line, which moves from vowel to vowel, and yet remain true to the myriad of languages in which classical music has been written. Musical phrases need a certain “give and take” not unlike a Viennese waltz (called “rubato”) that is part of the expressiveness that must accompany the roulades and decorations so they do not sound stilted, stiff or robotic, but emotionally effective.
An accomplished classical singer needs great physical coordination to have easy control over the amount of air used while singing. The breath is connected seamlessly to the musical line for expressive purpose. All of this is meant to appear to be effortless, like watching athletes who makes their sport look easy.
Normal vocal folds touch, close and vibrate in a wavelike motion when they are making sound. This happens spontaneously and isn’t something anyone decides to do deliberately. When this function is impaired due to illness or accident or muscle manipulation, the vocalist is severely limited because the source of their sound cannot function. Many times, in professional vocalists, such losses cause the end of a career (as in the case of Julie Andrews). Speech remains more or less normal but singing is nearly impossible.
Age is a definite factor in singing well. We lose strength, elasticity and responsiveness as we age. The results of these physiologic changes are typically loss of high notes, loss of volume, less consistency over all pitches, and less responsiveness to the musical phrasing. Keeping an older body strong enough to maintain both freedom of, and control over, the breathing is a separate but very much related activity. Generally, older singers have more trouble doing what they once did with little effort. When I was in my 30’s, I witnessed temper tantrums by Grammy-award winning singers with whom I worked, or knew in venues outside of music, as their once-easy singing became labored. It is a very scary thing to lose the ability to sing well.
The criteria for vocal jazz are not the same as those found in classical repertoire. Often jazz singers are trained “classically” but classical vocal training encompasses things that jazz singers rarely need to do. The use of breath can be different in onset, management and release. Jazz needs free expression of the vocal line so that the melody can change organically in an improvisational, instrumental and conversational manner. There is often a conscious pitch alteration, vocal quality and vowels as a part of expression and style. Pure vocal cord closure is not always required as breathiness is considered a tool to convey intimacy. The use of microphones means that resonance is used differently. While much of classical singing requires a steady, moderated vibrato, jazz may or may not be sung with vibrato, and it can be wide or narrow in amplitude or come and go at random. Consonants are used freely as musical and textural expression and can interrupt a musical line. Jazz is sung in American English, Portuguese and French, and reflects the phonetics of each of those languages by a different use of filters and resonance than Italian Bel Canto.
Rock singing rests entirely on the hard, driving rhythm that sets the overall atmosphere of a song and is intricately dependent on monitors, microphones, the sound system and the sound engineer who adjusts all of those. The delivery of raw emotion is desirable over understanding text and “beautiful singing” and the singer often dances or moves with the driving rhythm. Vocally, singing rock music is the opposite of singing classical music. Chest voice strength is carried further up the range, and science has shown us that airflow is used differently than in classical singing. (Closed Quotient.) It is comparable to being a long distance runner with a sprinter of equal ability, or to a prima ballerina compared to a virtuoso tap dancer.
And here is the point: different muscles and physical and mental coordination come into play for each art form. When a singer successfully changes musical styles, there needs to be differences in the responses of the vocal and breath management systems. It is still relatively rare to find someone who is skilled at classical singing as well as several other styles. I have several colleagues who are professionally successful in switching styles and maintain that the classical technique they teach and use helps them do this. Yet, I experience their classical singing as, what I call, ‘Kermit the Frog on Steroids.’ (Consistent root tongue tension + massive blatted high notes does not = beautiful singing.)
It is rare still to hear someone beautifully sing the filigree of Bel Canto repertoire and then turn around and sing both jazz and rock well.
It is yet more unusual to find someone who can do that within one performance, without an intermission, and to accomplish this task with all the requisite parameters not only intact but also freely, joyfully and musically.
And it is impossible to do any of this if the vocalist has any kind of vocal fold or laryngeal impairment. It is like trying to play the piano with broken fingers and elbows in casts. The vocal folds are compromised in terms of strength, pitch control, vibrato, breath management and steadiness of sound. This doesn’t even include the fact that the singer’s ability to respond to rhythmic and stylistic requirements of the music they are singing is literally, “paralyzed.”
And, as an ultimate challenge, any or all of the above characteristics could easily not be found in an older singer (someone who would be considered a “senior citizen” who does not perform on a regular basis), who has had no academic or formal vocal technique training in decades.
Many famous pop and classical artists try to “cross over,” and sometimes I think that the only reason they get an audience is because of their success in their chosen fields, coupled with the magic of marketing. I wonder after they make their recordings, do they actually HEAR the result? And they are ok with it? Or are they so famous that can put anything out and it’s ok? Where’s the line between exploring artistic freedom and Truth in music making?
There certainly have not been any major singers who have attempted doing opposite styles and making opposite sounds in the same live concert, without electronic alteration of any kind, who have been commercially successful or artistically praised.
So what’s the big deal? It is important because nothing less than musical authenticity, integrity and the ability to communicate the depth of human experience throughout history is something worth developing and preserving.
The world does not need more noise.
This leads us back to Ms. Lovetri’s video. Remember—this is live without any audio editing. For those of you who are used to perfect recordings, you will hear some occasional pitch issues that are the result of the paresis that she is negotiating. Contrast this to pitch problems in people with fully functioning vocal cords that need to be auto-tuned to death.
How did she sing so well given the information in this article?
She accomplished this through a great deal of mental, physical and emotional work. Through her own tenacity, courage and understanding of the connection among mind, body and spirit. The key was using her own life experience and research, and collaborative studies with recognized experts in science, health and wellness, which have culminated in Somatic Voicework™: The Lovetri Method. She restored her ability to sing functionally and artistically well in three very different styles of singing. Working this method, allowed her to sound great, and gave her back the ability to communicate though singing. This is astonishing to contemplate.
There is a reason why Somatic Voicework tm: The Lovetri Method is popular with elite vocalists of many styles of music and voice teachers, and Ms. Lovetri demonstrates those reasons beautifully – her method works, and the longer I work it with students and in myself, the more I discover.
I challenge any singer, voice teacher in academia or vocal researcher to rise to this challenge: Demonstrate, with your own credible singing, that your teaching works in many styles of music. And be a senior citizen with paresis of the folds.
That’s when you really find out if your teaching method works.
MM., Vocal Performance and Pedagogy, University of MD/College Park, MD
BM., Vocal Performance/Minor Piano Accompanying, College of Wooster, Ohio
Certification Levels, I, II, III, SVW tm: The Lovetri Method
Certificate: Leadership Through Emotional Intelligence, Case Western Reserve: Psychology and Business Departments