Thursday, September 20, 2012

Thirteen-Year-Old Virtuoso Singers

You know how you suddenly notice a trend that has been going on for a while? I'm starting to realize that young female virtuoso singers are really a big trend. Here is the kind of thing I mean. She doesn't really get rolling until the one minute mark. But from then on this anonymous! --yes, I haven't been able to find her name-- young singer from Singapore, gives a very credible performance of the Dolly Parton/Whitney Houston hit. Just wait until the 3:20 mark and you will see what I mean. This girl can sing! (Never liked the song, by the way...)

So much of what we see is carefully produced to come across in a certain way, even on the talent shows, that it is nice to see something so spontaneous. Here is another undeniable thirteen year old virtuoso singer who appeared on The X Factor: Carly Rose Sonenclar:

The astonishment of at least one judge, L.A. Reid (who says "what?" as soon as she starts to sing and before that questions her choice of repertoire as being beyond a person of her years) is pretty obviously feigned--he's a record producer, not an actor--because Carly Rose the year before, age twelve, had already performed in the New York jazz club Birdland, to considerable acclaim. I'm pretty sure that music industry insiders, such as the X Factor judges, keep their ears close to the ground and know when young talent is coming up.

But what amazes me about both these young singers and about their even younger colleague, Jackie Evancho, is the richness and depth of their vocal quality. How do voices in bodies so young develop this kind of dark sound and amazing agility? Here is Jackie Evancho to show you what I mean:

The first time I heard her I honestly thought that the sound had been processed. You can take the signal from a microphone and put it through all manner of digital processors for tuning, tone color, compression and stuff I don't even know the names of! Especially since the clip above was when she was only ten years old! But I've started to realize that no, very young girls can actually sing like that. Now I have dated enough sopranos to have picked up a bit about singing. Used to be, singing teachers would not want to push the voice to sing stuff like this in people so young. You didn't really start serious work until you were in your twenties and your voice didn't reach its real peak until you were in your thirties. That was the conventional wisdom of yore. So what is going on here?

Two things I notice: there has been a huge swing away from male singers to female singers in the pop world in recent years. There are always a host of pop 'divas' vying for position. Right now I suppose it is Rihanna, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. But the male equivalents are few and far between. Male vocal virtuosity doesn't seem to be a marketable commodity right now. But go back a few years and it definitely was. Here's an example with Paul McCartney doing an hommage to Little Richard:

Or back a bit further, James Brown and "I Feel Good". Listen to the amazing trill he does on "in your arms".

But the new generation of male singers seems to be anything but virtuosic. Here is one that can sing, but notice the big 'break' in his voice in the chorus. A 'break' in the voice is when the timbre changes radically in a higher register. This is the kind of thing that singing teachers try really hard to get rid of and you can hear a good example at the 1:54 mark:

But a lot of the young male singers make little pretence of vocal virtuosity, seemingly preferring to present a kind of minimal singing as a token of authenticity. Take for example this song by Packwood, another Australian singer/songwriter. I have to send you to Vimeo for a good version of this one:

This is from an album just being released now and there are lots of interesting things going on that I might get to in another post. But one thing I want to point out is the weak timbre of the voice set against the orchestral instruments. This kind of self-effacing singing seems more and more common as opposed to the robust, very masculine singing of James Brown, or even Paul McCartney. So the young male singers sound more and more like boys and the young female singers, even at age ten, twelve or thirteen, sound like fully mature adults. What is going on here? Does it have something to do with the many efforts to raise women up over the last thirty or forty years? I'll leave that to you readers to fight over in the comments section.

My question is a different one: just how the heck is it possible to train--and have no doubt about it, no-one sings like the young girls we heard without a lot of very professional training--a voice to this level of virtuosity so young? What progress has vocal technique made in the last few decades that has enabled this kind of progress?

I'm a guitarist. If you show me a video of a young guitarist I can probably tell you, if not which teacher he or she studied with, then certainly from which school of playing. There are only a few important schools of technique at any given time. When I was a young guitarist there was the Segovia school, the French school (Ida Presti, who played on the right side of the nail) and the English school (Julian Bream). In an instant you could tell from which school a young player came. There were important differences in sound that were instantly identifiable. As time went on the French school tended to shrink and new schools associated with Narcisco Yepes and the Uruguayan Abel Carlevaro appeared. Nowadays most players are probably more influenced by Abel Carlevaro than anyone else, whether they know it or not!

I do not have this kind of intimate knowledge of trends in vocal teaching. But my experience with the guitar world convinces me that there have to have been some major advances in the training of young female singers. Thirty years ago, it would have been inconceivable for children of this age to be capable of singing with such virtuosity. Of course, virtuosity in female singers seems to come and go. There is a famous quote from the then-retired Rossini about the bel canto ("beautiful singing") of earlier days:
Alas for us, we have lost our native bel canto ... [there are] three elements: first, the Instrument--the voice--the Stradivarius, if you like, second, Technique--that is to say, the means of using it; and third, Style, the ingredients of which are taste and feeling.
This quote is from 1858 and Rossini is referring to singing in the 1820s. Female singers' training, he says, commenced when they were twelve and consisted of years of singing scales until all the colors were equalized over all the registers--no 'breaks'! A typical course of study involved three years of this sort of exercises then another three years putting all the exercises together in a whole, then, after a final year the teacher could say "go away, you can sing anything". Through all this time, scarcely a song had been sung! All this was Technique. Then the singer had to learn Style. What Rossini was complaining about in 1858 was that all this rigorous school of training had disappeared:
Today there is no such school, there are neither models nor interpreters, for which reason not a single voice of the new generation is capable of rendering in bel canto the aria "Casta diva."

Perhaps modern training is more efficient, but still, if someone is a virtuoso at age 13, just when did they start? At age eight? Let's hear that famous cantabile from Bellini's Norma:


cnb said...

The video you link at the top has been removed, I think, but I believe the young Singaporean singer is called Zendee. Is that right?

That Carly Rose Sonenclar is unbelievable.

Isn't it true that vocal virtuosity has always favoured women over men? Tenors get high notes, but it's the sopranos who get the real fireworks.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks so much! It is hard keeping up with expired links. And thanks as well for suggesting a name--I was hoping someone would know her.

Virtuoso women singers have only really come forward since the decline of the castrati. I should do a post on them! Prior to the 19th century, castrated men, who could sing in soprano range, usually took the female roles in opera. Farinelli was the most famous of them, the subject of a recent film.

cnb said...

That's a good point about the castrati, but the point is still (sort of) the same: it's the higher voices that are more virtuosic, all other things being equal. I'm sure this must have something to do with how the voice is produced, but I don't know enough about it.

Bryan Townsend said...

It could have something to do with the range, true. But I can recall hearing Nigel Rogers do the most amazingly agile things with ornamentation in Caccini that you would scarcely believe. The Queen of the Night aria not even close! He's a tenor. I'm not sure any of this is on YouTube, but I heard him in concert in 1978. He had to do seven or eight encores!

You see, I don't think it is the voice type so much as it is the training.

cnb said...

Well, you might be right about that. I really don't know enough about voice training to say.

Bryan Townsend said...

Mr. Burrell, you probably know as much about voice training as I do! All I remember is that my voice teacher once told me that the real source of the sound is that the voice should come, not from the diaphragm, but the scrotum! And I don't think that helps us here!

One big point in your favor is that we never hear this kind of agility from basses, do we?