“Where in your body do you think your voice is coming from?” soprano and NOCCA alumnus Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet asked a young vocal student who had just sung for her. The student looked unsure. “Your voice is not being supported by breath but by the tension in your throat.”
Similarly for the next student Jeanne-Michèle asked, “Where, class, does she go when she’s in trouble? You get the sense that her sound is coming from her jaw rather than the resonators, from high in the face.”
“Learning to control exhalation while still involuntarily inhaling is one of the hardest skills vocalists tackle,” says Vocal Chair Phyllis Treigle. Jeanne-Michèle gave students several specific techniques they could call upon to grow as young singers.
The first involved raising and lowering arms against tension to open the rib cage. “The rib cage is like wings,” Jeanne-Michèle explained. “You want to feel it as a loose, flexible object. You want to feel like flying when you are singing. As you get stronger, the act of opening the rib cage will make you use more breath.”
She also showed them how to develop a natural but powerful posture by elongating the neck via the Alexander technique and relaxing the shoulders. Finally she showed them how to strengthen the diaphragm muscle and eliminate jaw tension by raising the teeth instead of dropping the jaw. “We want the sound to go up into that space high in the face. Tension energy costs you without getting anything back.”
“When I sing,” the soprano explained, “it is me against 110 people in the orchestra for up to five hours. Singing is hard work, it is an athletic sport. You have to learn to have the right amount of energy and air for each phrase.”
Jeanne-Michele’s career has taken her from New Orleans to stages world-wide where she is renowned for her role as Isolde. Having commenced her career in Italian opera, she has more recently become recognized as a leading force in German and contemporary music repertoire. Her 2012 schedule begins in Glasgow, Scotland and continues through Dallas, Texas; Frankfort, Germany; Toulouse, France; Salzburg, Austria; ending in Dijon, France.
“That is something you have to think about when choosing a performance career. You have to love travel, handle being alone a lot, be able to take care of yourself, be away from family. It is not a simple choice. It works for some and not for others. You have to have a firm sense of who you are,” she advised young artists just embarking on career choices.
“In singing, there is no finishing point. It is about the journey. Whenever you figure one thing out, something else changes.”
“But if you have good breath, you can do anything!”