Jo Stafford: Easy Lessons in Singing
I was asked to write a piece on Jo Stafford's singing technique. I thought to take an orderly listen to Jo's body of work and see if anything jumped out. Before I got started, though, it turns out that Jo also wrote a singing technique book. This is definitely a Thing, and my ears pricked up in interest.
Jo Stafford wrote a 'Technique' Book!
There are more vocal technique books out there than you can shake a spinto at, and who doesn't have fond memories of flipping through the Vennard and giggling at the pictures of phonating vocal cords? Yes, they DO look like ladyparts! Caruso and Tetrazzini taught us about the apoggio (Tetrazzini joining the battle over Garcia's much argued-over 'coup de glotte'). Miller talked turkey in a series of increasingly specific books, specializing in real-world solutions to specific challenges (I particularly liked Training Soprano Voices; even for a ProbablyAMezzo, it's a good one). Lehmann put the fear of the goddess into us with idiosyncratic descriptions of sensation and a bone-deep Germanic determination that the sensations she experienced were the only correct ones. Hines (a favorite of my husband, Mr. Kinsey) "outlined a number of technical approaches and examines their respective advantages and weaknesses". Coffin gave us a fascinating chart minutely detailing the chromatic progression of each vowel's shape and color shifts, from top to bottom. Reid extrapolated a Super Technique by amalgamating and clarifying the principles of bel canto singing offered by the dynastic voice teachers of the 17th - 19th centuries.
The books have proliferated, multiplying like warbling rabbits. Some even can even be found, in their entirety, online now. An example, Voice Production in Singing and Speaking (Mills) is particularly involved, with chapters like "Breathing Considered Theoretically and Practically" and "The Larynx Reconsidered". It's a good book, but those titles just cry out to be teased. "The Larynx Reconsidered", in particular, sounds like it should be a line in a very odd poem by Sylvia Plath, or half a caustic couplet from Dorothy Parker.
In any event, countless books provide --to a greater or lesser degree-- diagrams of the larynx, pharynx and whatnot (the whatnot is found just above your glottis, I believe), sometimes utilizing sweeping arrows to illustrate the movement of the cricothyroids, the cricoaritenoids, the diaphragm or the flow of the breath. The books usually include some version of the half-headed human, the better to identify his labelled resonating spaces and other anatomy, his tongue snaking down his bisected throat like the treacherous bastard it is. There are vocal exercises and repetitive patterns to sing, designed to accomplish legato, staccato, fioritura, breath management, clarity of onset, vowel modification, extension of range, focused resonance, release of various and sundry tensions, messa di voce (I never got much of anywhere with that) and, of course, the big Kahuna: traveling, smoothly and without incident, amongst the registers.
The canon is contradictory, fractious and often impenetrable, and it was all required reading for the young singer determined to Get It Right. The policy wonks pored over the drawings and memorized the vocalises, and the naturals rebelled, reading just enough to meet the academic and social bar.
So when Jerry Osterberg of the New York Sheet Music Society told me Jo Stafford wrote a technique book, nothing would do but I must have it for the collection. My search was met at every turn with "This book is out of print" or "Your search turned up 0 results", so many thanks to Jerry for providing a copy of his. Someday I'll have the original, and no mistake.
The copy arrived just now...I confess I didn't expect it to be especially controversial. However, in Lesson one, on Breathing, she drops a bomb. Jo says: "Lie down on your back, rest your hands on your stomach, take a good deep breath, just as good and deep as you can." Ok, I see where this is going. "If you feel your stomach swelling as you breathe, you are breathing incorrectly."
"If you feel your stomach swelling as you breathe, you are breathing incorrectly." Thirty years of voice lessons (oy, seeing that in writing) just flashed before my eyes...
"We breathe with our lungs, not with our stomachs, and it's our lungs that should fill with air. Try it again. This time, place your hands on your ribs and take another breath and feel your ribs expand. This what we're after, because you're filling that area between your ribs with air, and it is from this area that you will get the best support for your voice." and finally, "Practice breathing like this until you can take your maximum inhalation without your stomach expanding at all."
Somewhere in the world, a voice teacher just got chicken skin.
I talked it over with fellow singers, and after the usual round-robin because the lexicon is all over the map --and boy is the lexicon all over the map-- I decided that she must be into 'back breathing', in which the lion's share of the lung expansion is felt in the upper intercostals, possibly accompanied by the perception of a broadening of the shoulders. It has the advantage of looking good -- it doesn't spoil your waistline, and It's the single credible breathing approach I can picture that avoids the belly so determinedly. Avoiding it so determinedly, though, does take her off the beaten path; breathing into and feeling motion in the lower belly (in contradictory directions, depending on who's driving) is one of the precious few items on the technique checklist over which the famed technicians don't typically rumble. Some version of the diagram at right appears everywhere in the body of information, from the golden age ancients to the five-minutes-ago blogger.
We considered the dilemma, tried it her way, argued about the relative sensation of expansion when avoiding the belly, and remembered lying on voice studio indoor-outdoor carpeting (or sitting unattractively in folding chairs with feet planted apart), hands pressed to our burgeoning muffin tops, trying to make our bellies SWELL MORE, so our breath wasn't SO HIGH, DAMMIT. Voice teachers the world over want that belly to drop and fill, to release all that back and neck tension. If I tried to never move my stomach at all, I'd suffocate.
Jo Stafford breathing exercise: The Feather
In the end, the verdict: As counter-intuitive as it is for me to imagine singing without the lower belly involved, she nevertheless sang her face off. So. It's hard to argue with success, and not something I do, typically. Anyhow, her feather exercise is super traditional (if frustrating for ye of short breath, like me).
With respect to the mechanics, the balance of the book was less substantive. However, she offers good, real-world advice. She suggests, wisely, that young singers not imitate a particular star, that they consider their diction carefully, that they sing in choirs or small ensembles to train the voice for intonation and the ear for harmony and, last, that they travel with evening skirts and sweaters (bringing color combinations that make for easy mix'n'match, on the road) rather than gowns that want pressing before each wearing. The book is lively, engaging and chock full of useful instructions, but other than her point of view on breathing, offers precious little to the technique wonk.
With the book dispatched, it's time to examine the singing.
(Apologies in advance if the way I put it is not the way you put it. Finding two singers from different studios who express similar imagery or agree on technical approaches is a little bit like finding ....well, it's like finding two singers from different studios who express similar imagery or agree on technical approaches. You won't, in this life.)
As a generality, I believe these things are true about Jo's singing:
First, the instrument is an honest alto -- her discography reveals consistency over time; the tone is clearly not he result of hard living or a tough schedule, as is true with so many girl singers with long low extensions. Nor is there an apparent chasm at the upper middle that would stop her going up into the pasaggio if she wanted to. While it's true that the range she sings in pretty uniformly stops at about D5 (third line on the G clef), it's also true that this is well high enough to show trouble if it's imminent. Given that there is zero pressure on the voice at the top of her go-to singing range, her keys never feel like a canny avoidance of exposure, or that she's stopping short of a gap. It sounds like she knows just where her upper middle voice stops and the prima pasaggio begins, which she has no need of, stylistically.
Also, the quality of the lowest notes is telling. In Indiscretion, which is notable for its octave-skips, she passes with no effort from the upper middle to touch the low F and G sweetly and naturally; she employs no downward pressure on the larynx. She's not digging in.
Even factoring in the microphone making it easier, there's still no shifting of gears between the upper middle, the lower middle and the bottom of the voice (which, given that her low extension includes an F at minimum, a perfectly useful E on occasion and a rare E-flat, is quite low). The registration is entirely lined out. So. We can say she's a born alto, and that's not nothing. It's a rare bird. It's rare in opera, it's rare in pop music. Pushed down mezzi are common, and pushed down soprani making style out of swelling and at least mild damage, even more so.
Hers is matchless diction. She sings on the voiced consonants, short or long, perfectly; they vibrate at all times at the same rate as the vowels before and after. Unvoiced consonants have no audible effect upon the air flow or the quality of the adjacent vowel. The dipthongs are perfectly placed in the bar and always hold the pitch. The vibrato rate is unaffected whether she's on the primary vowel, the dipthong or the consonant. There is no audible tongue or jaw tension. This drives me crazy.
Additional proof in this pudding is found in Jo's first solo, "For You", with Tommy Dorsey in 1940 (she enters at 2:40):
Beautiful, as expected. I originally thought this seemed higher than the key she'd choose a few years later. She's twenty-three, and early in her career with Dorsey; the middle voice mix, which is a signature of her tone for me, feels stretched just a little high. But I was wrong. When she recorded the song again on her 1961 album Jo + Jazz, she sang it in the same key. Which, alongside the lack of muscling or pressure, goes some distance toward convincing me that her voice was an alto when it was young -- born, not made.
Jo singing For You, in 1961: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZcVv9eD9Kg
I would say, though, that the 1940 recording is a tiny bit more 'free' in the technical sense; the head voice is more dominant, which is probably why I thought the key was higher. In 1961, more chest is present, but that could come down to something emotional. I'd say 1961 is emotionally less precious. The vocal/technical difference seems, to me, to be informed more by an emotional maturity than by any major vocal shift or physical change in the instrument. In any case, it's a little unnerving how much she sounds like she always did. Preternaturally surefooted as a youngster and 20 years later, she seems not to have aged a day. In 1961, a different person is singing, but not an older one. Somewhere, a portrait of a Jo Stafford record languishes in an attic, growing younger. .. 1961:
When she slides, she does it right on the edge of the cords, the attack is clean and spare; she's not "blowing air" (as, ahem, I have been known to do) to keep the palate up or the pharynx open. She's where she wants to be, register-wise, and she's strong as an ox, holding the resonating space and playing her instrument inside it. She's neither bearing upon the chest voice to steady the phonation, nor breaking off into falsetto action (and eating the mic to compensate). When traveling from straight to vibrated tone, she doesn't relax into the vibrato but leans into it, saving her tone from any flaccidity, bleat or wobble. The vowel remains unchanged on moving notes; she neither over-opens nor reduces the space as she moves melismatically. There is no cheating, ever. She was accused of having perfect pitch, but demurred, describing herself as a "careful singer with good relative pitch." Careful indeed.
After those two versions of For You, I thought it'd be interesting to compare versions of songs she recorded more than once, with some years in between. The first that jumped out at me are her versions of Almost Like Being in Love, from 1947 and 1956, respectively.
The aural experience of the two versions is quite different, which makes the technical singing sound different, but it isn't, if you listen close. In 1947, she's "singing out", using a tone that would be appropriate for an acoustic setting, using vibrato constantly, and employing operatic portamenti, to gorgeous effect. One could complain, if one wanted to, that it's a little "schooled". She sings it very much like an aria, which is lovely, but then! In 1955, she takes the tempo quite a bit quicker and takes all the weight off. She backs off the long notes and indulges in some nicely produced -- open-throated and nicely registered -- straight tones, with nary a portamento to be found. The key does change by a step -- she's in F in 1947 and in E-flat in 1955, which change contributes to the extent to which the versions sound different. But listening carefully, theattack is unchanged. The tone is identical at the original gesture: Comparing the phrases side by side -- for all that one vibrates and the other does not; one is full and the other narrow; one is quasi-operatic and one feather-light -- the moment when the tone begins is the same, which is to say thatthe attacks are characterized by clarity of onset, buoyant breath, balanced registration and pressure-free stability; the difference is that one blossoms and one slips through the needle. The diction is substantively the same and both tones are free. She could have backed off the bloom in '47, or leaned on it in '55; it's all there for her n both records. Dealer's choice. The difference for me, again, is the sense that she is musically more mature, emotionally freer to play her instrument more creatively, in the later version. She's got a solid technique under a natural and suitable-for-the-repertoire voice and, mid-career in 1955, seems to be taking it out for a spin in a way she didn't before.
This last example, I didn't know about you illustrates again her new freedom. In the Jo+Jazz version, she's using straight tones on longish notes; not something she did as a youngster. And in addition to bending the pitches into each other, she's really tasting the words, using the diphthongs.
Ugh. I want to kill this post with fire. The upshot is: There's no damned difference. She could sing technically beautifully when she was a kid, and she never fucked it up. The end.
Sigh. This is what happens when you start writing before you've proved your thesis. Learn from my pain.