In the profession of vocal training, there is one voice that is rarely discussed in detail regarding specific technical needs. What characteristics define the Bass instrument and what vocal challenges consistently appear as a pattern? Why do many Basses find it difficult to approach the upper register with ease and what specific training is required in order for balance in registration to be achieved? In this article, specific concepts and exercises will be presented to address the special needs of the Bass instrument.
Types of Basses:
As in every other vocal fach, it is important to define and discuss the different types of Bass voices. In order to simplify this process, I have narrowed the list to three basic types. It is a fact that some Basses are thicker and enjoy the lower range and lower tessitura more than the upper register. On the other side, there are those singers who enjoy flexibility and ease of high range, yet sustain the rich color of a Bass instrument. In the following paragraphs, different types of voices in the Bass fach will be defined and discussed, clarifying the vocal issues that can be present within this voice type.
Basso Profundo: The Basso Profundo would fall into the category of a thicker and lower instrument in this vocal fach. This type of singer usually finds it more difficult to release and sustain enough head voice function. Enjoying a large sound in the lower register, these singers can fill the lower part of a choir, a characteristic that choral directors enjoy as the foundation of lower acoustics in a choral setting. In Opera, the Basso Profundo is often appropriate for the comic roles or what many call the buffo roles. This singer does no like to stay in the upper register for longer periods of time, but would rather touch an occasional high note and go back down into the middle or lower register. Large, rich, and resonant are three words that come to mind when thinking of the Basso Profundo and this type of singer offers a sound that audiences enjoy both in Opera and Oratorio. It is often the warmest of the three Basses discussed, but not always. The deeper color is usually an indicator of thicker longer vocal cords, making it more challenging to achieve balance through the middle voice and into the upper register. What confuses some vocal teachers is that this is due to the fact that both the upper passaggio and head voice transition begin quite a bit lower than in other singers. Later in this chapter, I will discuss techniques to drop the weight (diminish the thicker chord mass function) off the voice when ascending into the high range, making it easier to sustain the upper middle register and go into the higher register.
Basso Cantabile: (Lyrical Bass) The Basso Cantabile possesses a voice type that enjoys a more lyrical upper register and can often sustain a higher tessitura than that of the Basso Profundo. This kind of voice comes in various sizes, but is often slightly smaller in mass than the Basso Profundo, indicating thinner and perhaps shorter vocal cords. Even though lyrical, this voice still reflects the darker color of a true Bass voice in the lower middle and low registers. The Basso Cantabile usually possesses ease of flexibility and can sing more easily in the upper tessitura, often finding flexibility (coloratura function) enjoyable. Even though this voice type can achieve florid lines, the singer does enjoy dropping into the deeper darker sound of the low register. When proper register balance or passaggio balance is achieved, most of the time the Basso Cantabile is able to vocalize up to the high A-flat or higher. The Basso Cantabile possesses similar register transitions in the upper voice as the Bass Baritone or the Dramatic Baritone and when a free throat is accomplished, the singer will develop brilliance of ring on the upper range that makes for a wonderful blend of color and high overtones. This is a wonderful type of singer for Elijah.
Bass-Baritone: The Bass-Baritone is the most lyrical of the voices that can sustain a lower tessitura with presence and color. However, the color in the low register is not quite that of the Bass voice. There is more of a sound of head voice mixture in the low range. This voice type, when trained properly, achieves a trumpeting resonance in the upper register like a baritone, but with a slightly different color and more intensity. The Bass-Baritone still can achieve the lower register, yet usually with slightly less volume and slightly less color than the two types mentioned earlier. Bass Baritones are often a more common voice type than the other Bass voices. When well trained, it is a voice type that can enjoy the flexibility executed by many baritones, yet can drop into a lower extension register when the repertoire requires it. Even though it might not be as big as the other Basses in the low register, the Bass-Baritone is a voice type that often enjoys the ability to sing many different cross-over roles, making it an instrument that is extremely useful in the Operatic world.
Registration Problems Defined:
Most of the lower male voices, including the lower Baritones, do not know how to negotiate the middle register from F to A-flat. Usually this part of the voice is sung wide open (voce aperto) without addressing the concept of narrowing, rounding the vowels or the pivoting of the larynx. Thiswide-open singing makes for a common mistake that often leads to the vocal wobble (large slow vibrato function). Tuning problems (usually flatting in pitch) result when the middle voice is NOT rounded enough. The reason for the flatting of pitch is that the singer is taking up too much vocal weight (thicker vocal cord mass) through the middle register. If the vowels do not round, there is no possibility for the pivoting of the larynx in the middle register, a function that is critical to using the thinner edges of the vocal folds. It is extremely important that teachers train their ears sufficiently to hear when this middle part of the voice is too wide open (voce aperto) or working in an unprotected throat function. Left unaddressed, many of these lower singers can look their entire singing life for the upper range without success.
Confusion and Vocal Weight: What is the automatic response when a Bass is dragging weight through the middle register? The singer begins the process of THE PUSHING OF BREATH PRESSURE!!! The pushing of breath pressure usually consists of the singer pushing large expulsions of breath through the mouth space, usually with the complete absence of any nasal resonance. The singer’s automatic response is the worse possible scenario. When the voice feels uncomfortable and there is a hesitation toward free oscillation, the singer then tends to push breath pressure in order to force phonation in this part of the voice. This negative response leads to a circle of confusion, frustration, and questions as to what to do. The pushing of breath pressure does not allow for healthy vocal cord adduction, resulting in more and more pushing of breath pressure. The tongue then becomes tense at the root, creating a gag reflex at the back of the tongue. In turn, this gag reflex causes direct pressure at the glottis, making healthy vocal cord vibration impossible. This paragraph describes the MAIN problem in training the lower male voices; weight in the middle register or pulling too much chest mechanism too high in the scale. Many teachers have asked why these types of singers push so hard on the voice. The answer to this question is imbalance in registration.
The Wobbling Bass Singer:
What causes the vocal wobble in the Bass? The vocal wobble in the Bass voice is a result of the same issues that cause the vocal wobble in other voice types. These issues include too much breath pressure in the middle voice and lack of focus or nasal resonance. Nasal resonance is a result of a lifted and spread soft palate and a forward tongue position. The reason nasal resonance is so critical to the freedom of this voice type is that it releases the gag reflex at the root of the tongue, therefore allowing for healthy vocal cord function. Another cause of the vocal wobble in the Bass voice is the forward swing of the jaw, which does not allow for full adduction of the vocal cords. When the jaw is forward, then the vocal folds do not vibrate closely enough for full resonance to result. Then the singer tends to push breath pressure to compensate for this loss of resonance. It is important to note that many Bass singers push too much sound when singing in different acoustical environments. Professional singers fight this tendency all the time. Part of a healthy career is learning to sing by sensation no matter how large the theater.
Over-Breathing: Many teachers do not approach a common issue in many singers: that of over-breathing. The main resulting problem of over-breathing is a loss of the thin edge vocal cord function in the voice. This is another cause of register issues, thickness in the vocal fold function, and pushing of too much breath pressure. When a singer takes too much breath (which usually consists of too much air under the rib cage), the tongue is invited to cap the breath with a gag reflex at the root of the tongue. The singer is already set up for failure. The onset or attack cannot be a healthy vibration of the folds when there is such pressure at the root of the tongue.
The prominent sensation at the intake of breath should be felt in the lower body, NOT under the rib cage. While the rib cage needs to feel open, it is critical that it feel buoyant at the same time. Hyperextension of the rib cage can cause the singer to over-breathe, setting up negative results.
Technical Solutions for the Bass Voice:
- Be sure to make quick articulation at the vocal folds while vocalizing a short scale (healthy yodel function). This can be achieved while still sustaining a legato line.
- Breathe with an expansion of the hip sockets and leave the breath low throughout the phrase. According to Lamperti, the vocal cords will draw the air they need without pushing too much breath pressure.
- Check the posture so there is a slight bend at the hip sockets and at the knees. The gludial muscles need to feel under the singer. This allows access to the strength of the lower abdominal muscles.
- The head posture should reflect the ears are over the shoulder area, helping to eliminate neck pressure. NOTE: If neck pressure is present, the origin of the problem is often an overly arched lower back. (Locked hip sockets or knees will cause this problem.)
- Breath Management: Make sure that the top of the solar plexus moves slightly forward at the onset as the lower abdominal muscles pull straight up with a slight east-west expansion. This helps to initiate the first tone without pushing too much breath pressure, yet offering a healthy air flow which fuels the nasal resonance. This tool will also guard against a large expulsion of air at the onset or attack.
- Allow the sternum to be open but not hyper-extended (a slight forward stretch but NOT an upward motion). If the chest is too high, allow the sternum to slightly drop at the onset or attack while the lower back ribs tilt open and back. The body weight can be used to begin the tone. The appogio (leaning of the body slightly forward) may be employed to assist in accomplishing this act.
- Check the facial posture: lift of the cheek muscles under the eyes (inner smile) and under the outer cheek bones, sinking of the cheek muscles at the back molars, and the jaw chewing down and back during pronunciation of text.
- Vocalize using open vowels in the lower voice to more rounded vowels while ascending toward the upper range. This encourages a proper alignment of the upper passaggio.
- Round the mouth shape toward an oval and pivot the larynx slightly down and forward in order for head voice to function at middle voice F natural. This is critical for registration balance in the Bass voice. The concept of the neck slightly widening for the middle register (vomitare) will help the laryngeal pivot as well. Do NOT go to far with this concept.
- Other useful concepts may be found on David Jones’ instructional CD, “An Introductory Lesson with David Jones, A Resource for Teachers and Singers”. This double CD Vocal Pedagogy Course of Study uses simple language and focuses on balancing the middle and upper passaggio registers of the voice in order to prepare for a free upper register. It also includes male and female vocalization and may be purchased at www.onesoulrecords.com.
Exercises for the Bass Voice:
1.2..3..2..1..2..3..2..1 (breath) 8..7..6.5..4..3..2..1
(alter vowel to the dominate vowel in the English word ‘book’. When breath is taken, be sure that it is low in the body.)
(On this exercise, be sure to sing the ‘uh’ with the dominant feeling of the vowel in the soft palate. Also sink the cheeks at the back teeth to open the back wall of the pharynx) The slight vomitare may be used to pivot the larynx.
(Round the vowels and make sure there is a north-south AND east-west feeling of space in the pharynx.
© 2004 by David L. Jones