January, 2008

One day, in the late 1980’s, a review in the N Y Times of a recital given by that most magnificent soprano, Renata Scotto, caught my eye, I had met Renata when Beverly Sills had asked me to sing for the re-opening of the fire damaged Wolf Trap Theater and subsequently had sung with her at the Met, in Francesca da RImini. The review was less than flattering. I recalled, when first we met, Renata saying she had heard I was a very good voice teacher, so I sent off a note … and she called me two days later.

Having listened to her in recent years and been on stage wither, I knew her lovely vibrato had become a less than attractive “wobble” and she had evinced a decided, consistent break between high B flat and C.

In our first session, I taught her my sophisticated breathing and support technique, which she assumed without hesitation (solid professionals know immediately when their singing is suddenly easier … and also better … when they no longer have to worry about getting a full breath).

Then told her, “And now I am going to fix your wobble!” She almost left the floor with that one, but I calmed her down by telling her I wouldn’t have mentioned it, if I couldn’t immediately fix it. Well, maybe not immediately …

Having shown her how to supply flexible breath pressure on demand, I again had her stand in front of the mirror and asked her to sing a straight tone … no vibrato (wobble). It took twenty minutes for her to sing a straight tone! Then I played it back for her, on the tape recorder and asked, “What do you think?” She uttered with some disdain, “Ma, che brutta!” I said, “Yes, it isn’t very attractive, but, uhn… where is the wobble?” Her smile was slow in developing as she realized that, for the first time, in a long time … she could take it out, just by going toward a straight tone, firm tongue holding the focused vowel in the “honk” (that is a place where all good and great singers spin their tones)! The realization is, that if one can take it out, at will, they can put back as much or as little vibrato as they choose.

I then had Renata release the pressure, just a tad, and she had her lovely vibrato, rotated forward, ringing where it always rang when she was in her prime, rather than wobbling back in her throat. This whole process took twenty-five minutes …

Then I addressed the break. I asked her to sing an octave scale from C, an octave above middle C to high C … watching to keep her mouth long and narrow. Predictably, her voice cracked on between the A and B, but the C was solid

I asked if she saw in the mirror, what she did and she didn’t know what I meant.

I told her,

“You flinched (blinked) when you sang the A missed the B, but sang the C.” (Parenthetically, she had no trouble singing the higher C, D E flat.)

I had her sing it again … and the result was the same. “You flinched again,” I said. “No I didn’t!” I turned to her trusty, brilliant accompanist, Robert de Ceunynck and asked, “Bob … did she flinch?” Bob said, “Yes, you flinched!”

“OK … Let’s try it again, “ I continued, “only this time, just as you sing the A to the C … open your eyes.” “My eyes were open!” “Yes … except when you blinked and couldn’t see the flinch.” I exaggerated with my eyes flying open, “Like this!”

She then soared to the high C, eyes wide open … and then another and another. She had conquered the break. It took ten minutes!

That’s what you can do with great professionals who really know their instruments … but who, through the years, begin to lose the support concept they had earlier in their respective careers, through attrition. Then, the glorious balance that is the vocal technique, suffers and things just start to come apart.


Many singers have trouble identifying their wobble. One of the first clues is that many of the notes in a song are decidedly under pitch. Singers often become inured to that fact … because they have no one to tell them how to fix it!

Of course, there’s more to it than just singing a straight tone. To get the full effect, one should also have the mouth long (not too long) and narrow, the top lip down and threatening to tuck under the top teeth. That configuration mechanically opens the “honk” so that the tone can “rotate” forward and be in that lovely place where all lovely tones spin easily and freely. You can’t do it if you smile … because your soft palate will come down … and the tone won’t go forward.

But, then again … that’s for what I am … for!  RF