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Incredible Talent

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If any of you have been watching America's Got Talent, you are probably already familiar with this girl.

Jackie Evancho is 10 years old but she seems to have an operatic voice of a mature, experienced adult singer. I'm not much for Catholic Mass music but she sang Pie Jesu the other night on the show and it was simply phenomenal. See what you think.

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As a professional opera singer and someone who has acquired a certain level of knowledge of technique -acquired the hard way after some years under the hands of bad teachers- I see something horrible being done here. The young girl's voice is truly exceptional, it has an unusual beauty --- and in some years' time it will be completely, utterly ruined.

The lip tremble and chin wobble that is evident in several of her videos, as well as the unsteady and fluttery nature of her vibrato denote a *large* amount of sub-glottic pressure. These are things that aren't simply aesthetic problems, they are indicators of things that destroy voices and ruin careers.

The presence of the jaw shake this early is extremely worrysome. Technician David Jones explains the consequences of this in this fashion:

When I search my memory for singers who suffer this vocal problem, one large-voiced soprano comes to mind whose career was supported early on by Luciano Pavarotti. She has a beautiful instrument with fullness of color and beauty of timbre. However, this singer suffers chronically with a shaking jaw and tongue. The focus of the voice is sacrificed and over time, a large wide vibrato (wobble) developed in her voice. Tragically, this singer who once had a mainstream career hardly sings.

The chronically shaking jaw is merely the external symptom of a serious internal problem that is a combination of one or more of these elements:

*Breath pressure: When breath and support are not low enough, it causes a lot of problems for the onset of sound or what some singers call the "attack".

When the breath is not 'low' enough (diaphragmatic) , it is essentially a clavicular breath (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPITHzdUUDk you can see it in the closeup here at 2:27 where the camera changes angle and you can see her shoulders moving up with her breath-- this is the indication of a clavicular or shallow breath) and you ennd up having too much breath pressure blasting upwards through the larynx. The result of this is that tension ends up accumulating in the shoulders, neck, jaw and tongue. The reason for diaphragmatic breathing is that it allows the singer to control the pressure using the lower body muscles-- with shallow breaths, you don't have these muscles working towards a regulated air pressure and the result is that, as vibrato occurs, the back of the tongue begins to shake uncontrollably. The result of this amount of tension is the shake in the jaw. Instead of creating a steady vibrato, this causes vibrato to become fast (the warbly 'Snow White' vibrato, which this poor child has started to develop) and often irregular.

*Incorrect Attack: When the singer hasn't been taught how to properly initiate the sound (what Joan Sutherland called the 'feathered touch', which is essentially a tone that is initiated in a gentle fashion from which vibrato occurs occassionally, versus the 'hooked' approach), the vocal cords do not come together properly after inhalation and the jaw and tongue try to control the sound. Because too much breath pressure has come through the cords at the attack (the 'onset of sound'), the tongue then tries to regulate the excessive breath pressure. At this point the vocal cords are not vibrating healthily and the singer essentially resorts to 'fabricating' the vibrato by shaking the jaw and the tongue. Although this often fools many listeners, this isn't true vibrato and it causes severe damage in the long run. The use of the tongue and jaw cause the eventual rising of the larynx-- which sets the singer up for potential vocal damage, as the larynx must remain in a naturally lowered and relaxed position.

*The High Larynx: Phonating with a high larynx can cause many bad things to happen. The vocal cords don't vibrate correctly (because they don't approximate the way they should), the soft palate (the 'vellum') collapses and the jaw tenses--- this is extremely dangerous and it robs the throat of the protection that technique grants the singer. This approach only causes problems as the singer's voice matures.

Unfortunately her high breaths create too much breath pressure under the larynx, therefore setting the stage for the "shaking jaw and tongue". When the breath is clavicular, the body often attempts to compensate by applying a downward pressure to fuel the breath (often attempting to depress the tongue). The result of this is that it 'overblows' the vocal cords, the jaw and tongue respond to too much breath pressure and shake uncontrollably. The long-term result of overblowing the cords can result in bowed vocal cords, nodules and polyps on the vocal cords- and the long long-term effects are, in sequence, loss of roundness of the voice, a 'lightening' and 'thinning out' of the singer's sound, loss of brilliance, the development of an exceedingly slow vibrato or 'wobble', and eventually the loss of most of the singer's register and a 'white' voice stripped of most of its attractive qualities (such is the state of another once famous 'girl singer,' Charlotte Church, whose voice has essentially been reduced to a colorless pinched sound

, she is now incapable of singing the classical repertoire with which she started)

The truth of the matter is that the girl's parents either have no brains whatsoever or they are too blinded with the promise of celebrity to think of her long-term interest--- but even worse, the girl's voice teacher -who SHOULD know better- is an absolute criminal for 1) Allowing her to do this AND 2) for having given her such an atrocious and damaging technique. I can assure you that I know that your objections to this will be "But she sounds great!"--- and indeed, she does, BECAUSE she has a naturally gorgeous voice. Voices that have a naturally ready beauty (as opposed to voices that eventually come into a beautiful quality after years of working them) are very deceptive- their lovely quality often overcomes technical problems at the very beginning. Young bodies can, for a time, compensate for bad techniques- but only for a time.

My own voice was one of those cases: I have an unusual instrument which most who heard me found naturally beautiful--- I had many technical deficiencies, but the pleasant nature of the instrument camouflaged most of those issues and I was essentially coasting on my youth. I was fortunate in time to find an amazing voice teacher who warned me of the incoming crisis (and, indeed, I had started to experience some of the early symptoms of problems during my then recent performance as Nemorino in Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love") and with whom I have been working towards attaining a solid technique and an intimate knowledge of the principles of singing and its physiology. Having said this, I am very much afraid for this young girl precisely because she has such a beautiful voice. The wobbling chin is a HUGE warning sign to anyone who knows anything of vocal technique -most female classical vocalists have to re-tool their approach to breath support after menopause due to physiological changes in the body. When they fail to do so, the chin wobble immediately appears and it indicates that the proper adjustment for breath support (or appoggio as the italian school calls it) has not taken place and that the singer is running the danger of ruining their voices. When a ten year-old girl is displaying this so early in her career, it is even a worse sign.

What disturbs me the most is that people don't see the truth for what it is: A potentially gorgeous instrument is in the hands of butchers, the people who should be watching out so that she should come to no harm are the blindest, but the only thing people seem to notice is how pretty she is and how lovely she sounds like. Sorry, Rationalbiker, this is something for the horror files. Whomever her voice teacher is, they should be punched squarely across the face for this. Repeatedly.

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What disturbs me the most is that people don't see the truth for what it is: A potentially gorgeous instrument is in the hands of butchers, the people who should be watching out so that she should come to no harm are the blindest, but the only thing people seem to notice is how pretty she is and how lovely she sounds like. Sorry, Rationalbiker, this is something for the horror files. Whomever her voice teacher is, they should be punched squarely across the face for this. Repeatedly.

While I agree with your analysis, I think you are being overly dramatic. There is a "healthy" way and an "unhealthy" way to sing, and all variations in between, and an unhealthy voice will deteriorate over time faster than (not instead of) a healthy voice. BUT, all of these variations have made it big as singers; the singer's technique, in pop music (the greatest public interest in a voice), does not correlate to his or her success. Coldplay's frontman Chris Martin has terrible technique, but he sings so lightly and with so much falsetto, it likely will not matter over time, not to mention his "bad technique" is what makes his voice pleasant to listen to. On the other hand, Lady Gaga probably has "better" technique, yet her voice is not very pleasant. Look how much that has affected her career given the rest of her crazy, creative self. The point: you can't just analyze technique when judging or predicting a vocalist's staying power. This young girl's career, particularly given her vocal style, likely ends on this show.

I do recognize that in the world of "commercial" (for other readers, read: backup vocals for "bad technique"/more popular pop acts, or actual radio or television commercials), and/or operatic (your own) vocal work, technique is everything for someone who wants his voice to be working nearly as good ten years down the road. Ironically, with commercial work, "good technique" vocalists are often required to mimic "bad technique" vocalists. But overall, these vocalists do not realize a fraction of the success of most successful pop acts, who are also likely to sing "bad."

All that said, you seem know more about technique than I, and I would appreciate it if you would please analyse this heartbreaking (from a pop-vocalist admirer's standpoint) vocal deterioration from mid 90s to mid 2000s (also note that she had wild success with a mixture of great technique and bad, and wild success with all bad, too):

Mariah Carey, Live in Tokyo, 1996

Mariah Carey, Live on Letterman, 2005

These days all she can do is whisper-sing, it seems.

(40 million views! :( ).... sigh.... Edited by JASKN
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The main point, JASKN, is that if this girl were to choose -later in life- to pursue a classical/operatic career as her passion and vocation, it is most likely she would not be able to do so due to the cumulative damage done to her voice if these technical tendencies continue unchecked. Should she win, it is most likely that that would be the case.

As far as Mariah Carey is concerned, her deterioration is due solely to improper technique caused by a high laryngeal position. Anytime you see a singer spreading their mouth when singing and they are not in their uppermost high register (For the tenor this being the high B natural, high C, and in rare cases C sharp and D- for the soprano we're talking high D, E and F over soprano high C) it is often a reflection of high laryngeal position and a collapsed soft palate. In order to access their upper middle and high register (what singer call traversing the passaggio) singers with high larynxes often end up pushing immense amounts of breath pressure through their vocal cords.

Now, keep in mind that your vocal cords are extremely vulnerable and sensitive little bits of mucous membrane no larger than your thumbnail. A correct classical technique -which is ALSO excellent for singing popular music (in fact some of the best and most long-lived voices in popular music had classical technique as a background)- causes a gentle oscillation of the vocal cords where they adduct (come together) at regular oscillating intervals without causing too much stress upon them. This level of healthy production can allow a singer - if they choose their repertoire wisely and exercise their healthy vocalism regularly- to sing for decades with more or less the same quality of voice (a good example: Alfredo Kraus whose voice at 72 was almost exactly the same vocal quality he had at 30). Instead, what Mariah Carey and other popular singers who are woefully ignorant of techniques that can preserve their voices do is, essentially, raise their larynxes (putting stress on the vocal cords) and then proceed to shove terrifying amounts of breath pressure through these vulnerable folds.

A good example is Mariah Carey's once-famous "high notes".

Carey's natural upper extension was what colorattura sopranos call their 'whistle tone'. Carey, completely ignorant of how to approach this register properly, essentially *shoved* her vocal cords together and exerted roughly twice the the amount of pressure (or more) that she used for her regular singing, bruising the vocal folds in the process.

You can tell this is happening because of the 'breathy' quality of these upper notes. You can hear air escaping (listen carefully and you'll hear the hiss) and that is caused by the vocal cords not vibrating at all but being under extreme pressure- like a kettle.

The result? She lost this upper register in a short time (compared to colorattura sopranos) and the rest of her register has followed.

The healthy approach to the whistle tone where the vocal cords are vibrating (at a higher frequency, but still healthily) can be heard in these recordings of the German soprano Erna Sack and the french Mado Robin, two legendary colorattura sopranos. As you will notice, the upper whistle tone maintains healthy vibrato throughout--- these two women had careers that spanned decades.

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Kainscalia, I can definitely hear and see what you've written about on the videos. I was wincing while watching, because I read your explanations and then watched the videos in sequence. The hissing sound is very apparent, as well as the widened mouth compensation, and the fake vibrato with the jaw/chin shake.

I noticed too that the first girl was singing as if she had a golf ball in her mouth, like she was deliberately pulling her soft palate way up while keeping her lips open only slightly, so that again, as you explained, an enormous amount of pressure would be exerted against the whole instrument, like back pressure on a hose that causes it to blow out eventually.

What is your understanding of speech-tone singing? I've studied a bit here and there, found dramatic improvement in my voice through some of the explanations given by Brett Manning, and I don't want to end up wrecking my voice. He and his coaches definitely insist that the larynx should be relaxed and not move up and down while singing, though I now will be scrutinizing with what you've provided. Given your explanations, I am going to revisit Manning's tutorials, but perhaps you have more knowledge you would be willing to share.

Do you have a video of yourself singing? :)

Edited by Imogen
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As far as Mariah Carey is concerned, her deterioration is due solely to improper technique caused by a high laryngeal position.

Thank you very much for this explanation, kain. I've always admired her natural instrument and her crazy ability to manipulate it. Likewise, it was sad to witness the downfall over the years, and I've always wondered about the cause and hoped I could read about and discover it someday.

A note to the thread, it really is a full time job to maintain a healthy voice, especially a singing voice. General health is necessary, as well as extensive knowledge of how sound is created through the body and then how to actually develop those habits yourself. Personally, I've always considered a healthy voice to be a lost cause to the public at large.

Edited by JASKN
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I'd stay away from Manning. Speech-tone singing is a harmful approach. Observe him as he demonstrates how to sing the i italian vowel.


Keep a close eye on his throat as he demonstrates. At one point his neck itself seems to start to wobble. That's a sign of sub-glottic pressure. Your cords should be the ones vibrating, not your larynx to the point of showing visibly.

I don't have any recent videos, only this recent recording.

O Del Mio Amato Ben.mp3

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kainscalia: Thanks for the analysis. We've been watching a bunch of Kathryn Grayson movies lately, and it always looked like she wasn't singing, because her jaw/throat never vibrated, and it

(watch to the end). Now I realize she was just doing it right.

It's a shame about Mariah Carey's voice, although I never cared for her music. You would have thought her mom would have taught her right, being a former opera singer and vocal coach.

Some more Grayson examples:


Edited by brian0918
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I appreciate the information and I certainly don't wish to see anyone ruin this girls future or her voice. You certainly appear well-informed on the subject of proper technique.

That said, the thread is veering in a direction I hadn't intended. One can hope that with the exposure she is getting because of this show, a properly trained vocal coach will contact her parents with some advice.

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Here's another example of effortless-looking singing. If it *looks* effortless and the sound is top notch, they're doing it right. If the singer looks like he's trying to lift 500 pounds with their privates, they're doing it wrong.

This thread is depressing me...apparently I'm shredding my vocal chords with every karaoke performance of "Crazy on You" and "Bring Me to Life"...gah.

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Kainscalia, that Brett Manning tutorial is really terrible! I hadn't seen it before.

The dramatic improvements in my voice came from doing some of the warm-ups such as holding the cheeks up and toward the lips and making that 'raspberry' sound through scales, and singing 'nay-nay' through scales as well. There are some others that I've done, but I'm glad I haven't spent the money on his program, or used any of the vocal techniques such as the one above.

I also benefited from the lesson on how to relax my voice while singing, and to never force notes at the ends of my range (rather, sing them gently) or force volume from my voice, but instead to do it effortlessly by projecting like in speech, which I somehow figured out through the warm-up exercises.

I have long wanted to have a vocal coach, but I want to wait until doing so doesn't interfere with my present occupations.

Also, low thyroid reduces the quality of my voice substantially. It is one of the ways that I know that I am due to take some dessicated thyroid. Low thyroid can tighten the whole throat and vocal apparatus. Bizarre, but true.

Do you know of any excellent coaching available online? Or as a program that I can follow at home? Obviously an in-person coach is the way to go, but there must be ways to learn and improve in preparation for when I will seek a coach. It would be helpful to know how to determine an excellent coach from a poor one, too.

Thanks for 'coaching' here! And for the recording; I'll have to listen when the littles are in bed. I can't hear it well enough presently. :)

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Dear Imogen: What you want is not a vocal coach, but a voice teacher. Coaches are often used by singers who have already achieved a high level of technical proficiency and usually only as repertoire, style, interpretation or language guides. Trusting your vocal development to a coach is not what you want- seek out a voice teacher who has a firm grasp on technique AND has a good pair of ears. I would advice against ANY kind of coaching online, and lean heavily on a dedicated voice teacher- while the principles of technique are universal, each singer feels things differently in their bodies, and it is the role of the teacher to come to know how each student 'works' and how to suggest a sensory approach to the technical principles that works for each student. Online learning is discouraged because you will not receive the individualized attention you require.

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Thank you, Kainscalia.

My ignorance shall be remedied. :D It's fun for me to discover through learning how much I didn't even have a clue about, and how much there is yet to learn. I have thus far focused my arts education in the visual arts, so in music, I am an early (but eager) beginner.

Thank you for the listen too. It ended up being a whole family affair as our children have shown a great interest in opera lately and we've been listening to pieces from many operas for sometimes 12 hours each day.

This has all been very illuminating. Perhaps once I have a voice teacher, I will post my vocal progress.

Edited by Imogen
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Jackie did not win, but she came in second place behind another singer.

An interesting note relating to the discussion of her training; she was given the opportunity to perform with Sarah Brightman. After their perfomance, Ms. Brightman commented that she had a beautiful voice and that she should work to preserve it. Perhaps Ms. Brightman observed the same issues that have been discussed here. Perhaps some direction from her "idol" will push in the right direction to get proper vocal training.

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