Technique for the Coloratura Soprano

I am writing this article as I have had quite a few demoralised coloraturas in this studio who feel things are not quite right and want to find out why and I thought I should post something on my website. There seems to be very little technical information out there for them and I hope this helps a bit. A coloratura voice in perfect acoustic balance is a wonderful thing!

What are the problems associated with training a high coloratura voice that has been trained as a lyric soprano?

It is not unusual for coloratura voices to have been trained as lyrics. This really doesn’t work at all well since the coloratura voice does not release into the head at the same place as the lyric voice does. The lyric voice passaggio is lower than that of the coloratura voice. The leggiero coloratura passaggio is usually around A flat and the lyric is at around F sharp. The dramatic coloratura there again is very individual as to how it will behave.

It is not at all helpful for the coloratura to look for what she perceives to be lyric colour going into the head voice in the sound at around the F sharp, as in order to do it she will tend to employ some of the techniques which have unsatisfactory results as follows:-

If the coloratura pushes at notes in the scale up to her passaggio then too much weight is bought up the voice and this can make some heavier voices very unwieldy and make some lighter voices unable to close the cords in the middle voice.

Tightening the mouth at the corners, known as the smile technique, cannot help a singer find vocal freedom. Pulling the mouth at the corners produces tensions in the throat and drives the sound tightly into the singer’s ear. Singers can sometimes be taught this in an attempt to help them stay in the upper resonance as they go down. It needs to be part of a general lifting wide and up, more like that old adage smelling the roses feel in the face not something undertaken by the corners of the lips alone. If a maturing voice shallows out like this consistently in the middle voice then the longevity of the voice is compromised. The registration becomes too unbalanced. This technique if taught with this pressure in the tongue will mean the larynx will not tip. Therefore difficulties will appear as the voice goes up the scale. Singers need to feel this inverted megaphone feeling of width. The lips can mirror that feeling but smiling at the mouth I would say is not a technique to stick to and certainly not for the coloratura. No singer should look to maintain any face posture in any stuck way and some singers can have a mouth that can be quite wide, and still find the free voice. That is not the issue. It is the tightening at the corners which is causes tongue pressure.

Sometimes the singer will say that they have attempted to keep the larynx low in the middle voice but in practise what has happened is the throat is squeezed and the back of the neck is tight pressuring the larynx. A singer should never attempt to keep the larynx low and stuck. The larynx drops a little at inhalation. Sometimes a singer will breathe their larynx too high in some parts of the voice and too low at others. This can be addressed without over consciously holding the larynx in any stuck position. The aim should be to allow the larynx freedom; it is incorrect to say that the larynx must be held still in one place. It needs to move slightly between notes and to do that the throat must not be tight. The larynx will feel neither low nor high. If a singer needs to feel the larynx lower in the breath then this should only be a for a little while. Keeping the throat free should be every singer’s goal. A singer who forces the larynx low up through the middle voice will not be able to tip the larynx as the voice goes up. This tipping of the larynx is essential as it stretches the cords from front to back thus ensuring that more head resonance is gradually brought in until the voice is in full head. This process needs to happen for the coloratura at around B flat or C in the middle voice on up to and including G. Tipping the larynx is achieved by encouraging the jaw to release back and down. This discourages the swallowing mechanism to be stimulated to take over and helps the singer manipulate the size of the vocal tract. The body must be managed in such a way that phonation is on a steady stream of air to the vocal cords. The muscles of the face need to encourage the palatal arch to lift and the back wall of the throat to open in a supple way. Some lighter coloraturas in the high part of their voice their cords will hardly be touching because of the nature of the instrument. Dramatic coloraturas come in many size voices and weights and they work in a different way.

The end of the middle voice at G has to be in balance with the top and middle of the voice and generally it is very helpful if the mouth is not spread wide more towards how the shape would feel if you were stifling a yawn. The coloratura needs to have her mouth open enough in the middle of the voice to be able to find balance of registration in all the vowels. Subtle movements of the facial muscles and tongue help change the shape of the pharynx to help with formation of the vowels. The coloratura should not generally need to open her mouth more till the A flat. It is better if she do this at this point as if lifting the top jaw off the bottom rather than pushing into the lower jaw. This apples to other voices too. The upper jaw just tips up a little and the jaw releases.

How should a high coloratura voice be trained?

The most common problem for the coloratura voice whether it is a dramatic voice or a lighter one, is how to bring in the middle of the voice in balance with the top. It is absolutely essential that Coloratura voices have exercises available to them that help bring the brilliance down from the top of the voice right down through the voice on the thin edges of the cords. Then the voice can be balanced in with the chest voice after. The coloratura soprano is the female equivalent of the Leggiero Tenor. The chest voice which are the lower resonances of the voice come in as the singer learns to keep the supple, the tongue free and a genuine steady flow of air. The dramatic coloratura though has a different set of technical tonal values.

The Garcia Cuperto exercise is so useful but only when it is worked with accurately over a period of time. It helps to realign the whole coloratura voice even in the most difficult circumstances of vocal misuse.

The singer will find that the body will need gradually to feel the way to work in a gentle stretching way which does not overload the throat with sudden bursts of pressure breath pressure. There needs to be a steady small stream of breath and this can only come into play as the body feels its own internal ability to stretch the breathe gently and strongly but not aggressively.

The singer will find that she needs to check how much she is spreading the mouth from side to side and release into a more oval shape (that is with the long oval axis from top to bottom). This enables the muscles of neck and jaw and tongue to release. The singer needs to feel for the ring in her sound. Placing the sound forward is not something I recommend as that usually encourages the student to push the head and tongue forward and usually creates less resonance not more. The ring is arrived at by releasing the corners of the mouth, using the imposto (slight feeling of gathering of top lip under the nose and at the side of the nostrils), a sense of width of the tongue all the way to the back of mouth. Appropriate co ordination with the body that keeps the throat open and at the same time closes the cords to create phonation. Also a flexible attitude to the face muscles and tongue which helps vowel formation and manipulates the vocal tract. An example of this would be to sing the word my with the diphthong pronounced up the scale. Keep a steady stream of air. You can probably feel a lift at the back as you go. You can experiment by keeping the first consonant of my narrow not wider at the lips than the nostrils and offering the wet of your lower lip to the top lip. It will help your upper lip move forward in a relaxed way. When working with the palate stretches I always find it useful to think under the surface of the skin and how it feels if you think only in one place and on the surface things can get so stuck. For instance of you think of the imposto so much that it pulls down all the muscles under the eyes then there needs to be a feeling of lightness returned to these muscles and this feeling at the nose made part of that lightness. Just as any wideness in the mouth is part of the cheek. The muscles in the face do a better job of helping stimulate the vocal tract when the handling of them is light and not one muscle takes over .

This process gradually creates sound which will carry and have colour but without tightening up at the neck and jaw and tongue. Gradually the colour will come in but without the weight. Before the colour does come in the coloratura will probably not like the sound – most often she finds it at first unsatisfying as she cannot hear her voice in her inner ear as she did before. It can sound thin to her at first but as she progresses the voice will feel easier and emotionally freer in repertoire than before.

The singer can be unaware of the extent of inappropriate muscling up of the throat that can be caused by too by tension into the corners of the mouth, and general jaw and neck tension. This tension causes a cutting off of the correct communication between body and voice so that the whole mechanism cannot flow properly and the voice is not sufficiently hooked up the body.

Some voices have a tremendous natural ability for fioratura. As this type of voice matures though this rapid note singing can sometimes be achieved on a bit too much squeeze and breath. In other words the voice will be getting bigger without the body knowing how to accommodate it. This usually acquires a release of pressure at the tongue and at the back of the neck and gentle and gradually deepening of the sense of co-ordination in the body.

Some coloraturas feel that they have very little sound in the middle of the voice and that the cords will not come together. This can encourage the singer then to spread the mouth in order to make colour from the throat and chest, with resulting over approximation of the vocal folds. They feel they have to do this in order to create colour in the sound. When this tongue pressure is released sometimes the vocal folds will not come together at all at first but as the voice and body feel their way forward on the correct work with the breathe then the voice will gradually release into it’s true colour. As the voice strengthens the chest tones will mix in without dragging the voice down at all.

Where is the upper passaggio for leggiero coloratura?

The upper passaggio is at around A flat. I certainly find it is a good idea to check and see if this voice wants to go in there and not to push it to be lower than it is. They have another release around C on into the high extension. This applies to the leggiero coloraturas

Coloraturas trained as mezzos and what is the difference between the leggiero coloratura and the dramatic coloratura

It is not uncommon for coloratura voices to be mistakenly trained as mezzos as sometimes there can be a long extension right down towards the C below middle C. Some mezzos can get tight up the staff too but that does not mean they are coloraturas. Some lighter coloratura voices have this extension and also dramatic ones. The dramatic coloratura is more likely to be mistaken as a mezzo as they can have an acoustic release at the second E above middle C as does the mezzo. If the middle register is weighted too much it can get more pronounced. Training this voice as a mezzo is achieved by unhealthy neck and tongue, and body tension. If it is persisted in the voice can be severely damaged which takes time, patience and appropriate exercises to undo so that the voice can come into its own. A dramatic coloratura shifts again at f sharp and then is in head more like a lyric. The bottom of the voice can have a dark colour but not the weight of the lyric mezzo. They sometimes have another shift again as the voice goes down into the lower middle voice and more chest voice comes in. It can be around F sharp. I have found long soprano voices that have the high extension are extremely variable and I have to really help as much as I can to balance things with appropriate exercises and see where it takes the singer I am working with. The voice will then sort itself out.

Does a coloratura voice mature as other voices and sing heavier repertoire and what happens to the voice at menopause?

Some types of dramatic soprano can sing high F in alt. A dramatic coloratura who doesn't understand her middle voice will often find that as the voice matures the quality of the sound is compromised. They are often told to lighten off in the middle voice by coaches but that is uncomfortable. Under-singing is never an answer to vocal problems and it is hard for them to figure out what repertoire to sing and that is disheartening. Some mid weight voices gradually acquire depth and the physicality to more dramatic repertoire. As women get older their larynx drops a little but some voices can sing high Gs if the voice drops it does make too much difference in range. They can move into the more dramatic soprano repertory depending on the weight of the instrument. As it matures a voice acquires more colour and depth naturally so long as it is kept in physical and emotional balance. It is not always easy for professional singers who are travelling and singing in different venues all the time to keep this balance, but that is the key to longevity.

The voice needs to be kept in balance up to and through menopause or the difficulties associated with menopause, such as dryness and loss of range and thickness and wobble in the voice, are magnified. Even if there has been lack of vocal balance through and up to the menopause, the voice can be put back into balance and the top can come back with patient work. David Jones has found this to be so many times and I am seeing these problems alleviated in my studio too with accurate work. It is important the voice be worked every day carefully to keep it supple. Any kind of gentle stretching exercise such as yoga is also very beneficial.

I first started to gain a real depth of understanding of the different voice types from listening to David Jones teaching from 2001. I have always been immensely grateful for the sheer number of lessons I have been able to audit. I have continued to develop my teaching instincts from my work in my studio together with the knowledge I have picked up over my singing career. The knowledge of the Garcia and Lamperti principles underpin my technical work. I am continually learning, I have to say.

Here are some case histories

Case 1

A really lovely singer a mature student, whose voice had become too spread, thick and squeezed in the middle. A lot of weight was being dragged up the voice. There was a beat in the voice. There again she did not have the information as to where her passaggio was or how to deal with it and so was listening out to make the voice have acoustic release at the wrong place.

The top had become tight and short of some of the notes on the very top and the whole instrument was off the body. Attention needed to be given to freeing the neck and jaw and tongue so that the sides of the mouth and muscles under the jaw could release. The corners of the mouth were too drawn out to the side and this lowers the palate and tightens the tongue. When there is tension around this area then the body cannot coordinate with the voice. The larynx was very squeezed in the throat. Moving the head as if indicating ‘no’ or ‘yes’ while singing a combination of the reflexive exercises and the Cuperto were useful tools to help free the muscles. The throat gradually released open so that the voice found the ring. Instead of the lower ribs squeezing in tightly, they stretched gently wider, bringing an elasticity and freedom which reflected in the sound moving up and down on acoustic ring instead of squeeze.

Case 2

A lovely young singer with a very extensive range was trained as a lyric.

Sometimes the cords would come apart on the way down as too much muscle grabbed it. The voice needed to come down on ring and back up a gain on ring or it can become too weighty. If the neck tenses and the jaw grabs then the natural carrying qualities and colour of the voice are obscured and this is very obvious in Italian legato line or fast singing. This kind of instrument when it is young, and even if it does not have the right help will have the strength and range to get through many different types of repertoire as it will tolerate a lot of punishment. This does not help the quality and beauty of the instrument blossom into a good career in the correct repertory.

In order for this singer to progress the breath needed to be lower so that the body engaged. The voice then is able to float on a small stream of air allowing the jaw and neck to release and the larynx to tip in such a way that narrows the passaggio. To do so a singer needs reflexive exercises that allows her to feel this rather than intellectualize it.

Case 3

A very young singer came to me who had been mistakenly trained as a mezzo resulting in a condition known as diplophonia. This is a very emotionally upsetting situation for a singer to be in of course. This is a condition where a singer sings two or more notes at once. This is caused by an overload of squeeze in the throat. If sound persistently goes ahead of resonance and the breath pushes at it in vocal trauma. This was the first time I had come across this in my studio and with David Jones advice I was able to know what to expect. She found her way by finding first a narrow way up and down on head voice and opening up the width in the vocal track. Being totally visual and not at all kinesthetic it took time for these feelings to come in but she passed her grade 8 with distinction and went on to Cambridge to study music. She did fantastically well to make such progress out of such a difficult and upsetting situation.

Case 4

A talented singer who had been told so often to lighten her voice in the middle that she was in a total muddle as to what repertoire to sing as nothing felt comfy. Ok, the middle voice at first did sound pressured and tight but that was because she did not have the information to help her balance the registration up through her middle voice. By the end of her first lesson she was singing phrases from Donna Anna's second aria in perfect balance with the most beautiful balanced tone.

What are some suggestions for exercises for the coloratura?

It is always difficult to give exercises as always there will be a lot more to say and communicate in working with each individual singer that is impossible translate to paper. It is better on the other hand to write some thing than not at all, so here we are!

Umlaut ‘ü’ with the feeling of uh as in uncle behind is a good concept to work on. Feel for the ‘eh’ as in the English word ‘met’ at the back between and behind the ears but without tongue pressure. The tongue should be left alone. Let the palate and tongue release wide as they wish to go. (try ‘ü’ with this feeling ‘1232123212321’). The ü helps the mouth stay in the oval shape in the front. Much is talked about lifting the palate but lifting the palate is a reflexive action. It is necessary to be shown the physical direct actions which stimulate the stretches of the palate for ease in singing. Briefly it is the imposto and width at the back of the cheek bones and slight indent under them at the molars, the jaw down and back and wide tongue which stimulate the palate to stretch and lift. correct proportions and in a supple way, balanced way with nothing stuck. Rather it is better to move fromr one palate stretch one way to another stretch the other way. From the width to the length lightly using the muscles of the face to manipulate the vocal tract.

This concept can help the tongue release in the ‘ng’ position rather than forced into it.

So, feeling the width across the check bones and throat and tongue make a soundless ‘ng’ just letting the body and tongue, neck and jaw release as much as you can. This may be a strange suggestion but if there is any rasping in the throat then the tongue is bunched up and needs to release. You can feel air come through your nose. How much tension can be released? There should be a gap between the teeth so that the jaw is not clamped. Feel lower abdomen releasing upward and the chest going forward in slow motion for the onset. Think of an easy mid voice pitch and gradually halfway through the out breath sing a note on the ‘ng’ softly and very gently. You should be able to go very simply from one pitch to another without any reactions except continual release in wide back of the neck as the body opens back and front as you sing the ‘ng’. See what reactions you get in the throat and jaw and tongue area. This is a simple way to check that it is the body starting the note and not the squeeze in the throat with too much help from the tongue.

Another suggestion is to sing the vowel in the English word ‘fir’ and then gradually bring that to the ‘ng’. Then combine the sounds ‘firgnuü’. Voicing the ‘f’ will help the body find the onset. The first vowel of this combination will help to keep the tongue released wide in the ‘ng’ and ‘ü’. It helps to flair the nostrils very slightly and also to gently place your fingers pressing gently just underneath the lower lip moving it gently from side to side. If the lower lip has a tendency to tense this will affect the throat and tongue and this is a way of helping this release with the gentle massage of your finger as you sing. You can also try this pattern starting with rolled R singing ‘roooo’ on the notes 535354321. Keep the same mouth shape replacing the 54321 with the 5 vowels. it really helps this voice to go down through the middle voice without spreading the lips when singing consonants and vowels. These exercises help registration balance. Move your head gently around a bit if the neck feels tense as you sing:-

Cathy Pope