This is the hardest (and longest!) blog post I’ve written yet. I try to avoid discussing in-depth singing technique in these posts because the physical sensations you feel when singing are complicated and they’re difficult to express through words alone.
Today I’m up for the challenge.
So, here it goes, the evolution of my high notes throughout my life, according to my age.
With each age bracket, I’m going to write what was going on with myself vocally at that time and how my voice has developed over the years, with an emphasis on my high notes.
I’ll get into the strengths, weaknesses, ongoing frustrations, and lightbulb moments. I divided them into the most pivotal moments of my vocal changes.
Thank you for going on this journey with me!!
One thing I’d like baritones out there to avoid is comparing themselves to my journey.
No two vocal folds are the same and it’s simply unrealistic to be consistently similar with another singer throughout their development. So, save yourself the struggle of thinking that if you hit a certain age, you must hit certain notes. Everyone develops at their own pace.
My high notes took a long time to cultivate — it took lots of hard work and practice. You can develop your high notes too but know that it’s a slow and steady race … and there is no finish line. You’ll see what I mean.
Time Is the #1 Ingredient
Before we begin, let me share my thoughts on high notes.
To sing them, you have to understand them first. It’s a chicken and the egg sort of thing.
You might hear about the science of singing high notes over and over again, year after year, from multiple voice teachers. But it’s not until you actually lock in and feel the correct sensation that you’ll ever be able to sing them consistently. This takes time and practice.
My experience was exactly that. Even though I understood the concept of singing high notes theoretically, I couldn’t consistently recreate them with my voice.
Every once in a while, I’d accidentally sing a correct high note in a lesson and my teacher would get so excited. The next time I tried it though, it was usually gone, like sand through my fingers.
It’s frustrating because you don’t know when, why, or how it’s working. You have to repeat it, comprehend it, figure it out through trial and error, and take it step by step.
Think of the process of singing high notes almost like an escape room. You have to go from the very beginning step by step, clue by clue, from one to one million. You can’t skip from one to 999,999 and then expect to solve the riddle. During the journey, you’ll find the knowledge you need to succeed.
Light and Bright
High notes are hard but not impossible to sing. To achieve successful high notes, I have to multitask many things. It takes a combination of ability and an understanding of what needs to happen while relaxing and accepting those needs.
As I was developing, I took my teachers’ advice to keep my voice light and bright and never darken it. This advice is vital for a young baritone.
The consequence was that many people mistook me for a tenor. This happened because my high notes were bright and forward, so the timbre reminded them of a high voice type when in reality, I was just a young baritone in training without forcing my development ahead prematurely.
By singing in a natural, forward way (even if it sounded tenor-like), my development stayed true to my voice. I advise other baritones to do the same. It preserves the uniqueness of your sound over the years and becomes the main factor that sets you apart from the rest.
Finding the balance of placement, support, and vowel modifications are the three things that impact your high notes the most. Balancing this trifecta is what I still work on today.
So, let’s get into it. Here’s my high note development over the years according to my age.
My High Notes Over the Years
My high notes didn’t exist at this age without a high larynx. You could have called me a necktie tenor. I couldn’t sing above a D without raising my larynx in a fake sort of way.
At 18, my high notes were just air passing over the cords. Lots of falsetto extension things were happening for me at this time, but my full classical sound was barely in swing.
I was so fresh that I didn’t know how much I was messing up. It was kinda nice — I was just singing because I loved to sing, without thinking much about it.
My range was a low C to a high D, barely over an octave.
I listened to myself a lot and tried to make as pretty of a sound as possible. My singing was a little R&Bish because a classical sound wasn’t in my ear yet. That’s all I knew.
I sang the 24 Italian Songs and Arias and lots of English and American art songs. I specifically remember singing Michael Head’s “A Summer Idyll”, “Sebben crudele”, “Danza, danza, fanciulla gentile”, and “Caro, mio ben”.
During this time, I sang in choir and auditioned for any and every solo. I was chomping at the bit to get any opportunity to sing because I loved it so much.
I was also my choir teacher’s nightmare because I learned the music so quickly. I’d always improvise and add harmonies and confuse the hell out of them. Bless them.
Until I was 18 years old, I was a tenor 2. When I started university at age 18, my voice teacher told me I was a baritone. This was shocking news to me. I thought, “What does that mean? LOL”. I was so clueless.
All of a sudden, my teacher wouldn’t let me get away with high larynx singing and introduced me to the concept of breath support and how to use it.
I had to kick my old habits and this is when I practiced as much as I could. I had to relax everything like I was a dental patient with Novocaine shots in my neck so I could comprehend the feeling of a relaxed larynx.
Once in a blue moon, I felt a relaxed larynx but quickly went back to my old habits. Nonetheless, I persisted and practiced.
My language skills were slowly beginning to form and I learned some basic diction rules. I was singing my first arias such as “Se vuol ballare” and “Warm as the Autumn Light”.
These were the years where I saw the biggest development in my high notes. I learned how to sing them through imitation and listening to others.
Not only did I learn what to do from singers that I looked up to, but I also learned from certain singers what NOT to do. I was active in summer festivals which helped me hear a variety of other aspiring singers at different levels of development.
One summer I met and heard another young baritone “hook” or “over-cover” into his high notes. I tried to imitate him in the practice room and all of a sudden out popped a high G without a high larynx. There was something about this type of pushing my high notes out that slightly worked for me.
Then I relaxed it a little bit and took it to my teacher — I was so excited about this development and so was he. He tweaked it a little more by backing it up a little bit. By over-supporting, I could kick in my high notes. The catch was that I couldn’t connect it to my lower voice.
I could either push into my high voice or sing with a natural sound in my middle and lower registers. It was almost as if I had a big hole in my voice because my high voice and mid-low voice were totally different from one another.
At this point though, any sound without a high larynx was progress for me. I basically worked from my lower to my middle to my high voice to connect the dots and find a relaxed laryngeal position.
I worked myself up to my top register with a naturally forward position and a newly learned relaxed larynx. This is when my high notes became easier.
From there, I could loosen up on the hook/cover and sing 90% forward. This is when a lot of people began to say I was a tenor.
I began to sing more rep: Marcello, Barbiere, The Count. The beauty of my middle voice is what helped me win competitions and get auditions. And my support was much more solid at this point.
This was when I experienced the biggest professional shift in my voice.
I’ve been told many times what chiaroscuro is. At least three teachers attempted to describe it to me, but it wasn’t until my fourth teacher explained it that I finally understood.
Chiaroscuro isn’t something that happens overnight. Even if I found some “cover” in my sound, my default was always bright and forward.
High notes don’t need one specific “place”. It’s like a “multiverse” where you do several things simultaneously. If you set yourself up well, it happens for you.
What I do:
- Modify the vowel
- Lift the soft palate
- Create space between my back molars
This led me to find the “bow and arrow” effect (balance of forward and back space) and then fine-tuned it to minute degrees for each vowel, each phrase, each pitch, each musical moment.
At 28, I began to find what worked for me from what my teachers were instructing me while preserving my natural sound.
Ready to hear about one of my biggest mistakes? I auditioned for the Met when I was still figuring out these details and totally blew it. About a month later my high notes were solid but, man, I wish I could go back in time and erase that audition from the panel’s memory!
A different type of support is needed for high notes and I found the balance for myself at this time.
This is when the shift happened that my teachers predicted. My voice matured all of a sudden without me having to add any artificial weight and my high notes were more baritone-like, naturally.
Every few months I heard a change in my voice as I listened back to recordings. I could tell I was hitting a pivotal moment.
At 38, that worried voice in the back of my head that I might be a tenor completely vanished. My voice rounded out — this was exactly what I was waiting for my whole singing life.
It was the result of all the effort I made until this point by not over-darkening and staying true to my sound. Now I get to sing Verdi bravura roles and iconic bel canto roles. And the best part is I get to sing with my real voice. This is the most satisfying accomplishment to have finally reached.
Here’s the gist of my high note development: for many years, they didn’t exist unless I sang in a pushed way. Then I relaxed it a bit into a forward position with no cover. Then, I added “cover”. Finally, I decided how much to cover until I found a well-balanced chiaroscuro sound.
I’ll wrap things up by answering some questions you submitted online:
Q: Were there any exercises you did to improve your high notes?
A: Runs and arpeggios to bridge the gap between the passaggio and middle voice. Breath support exercises.
Q: As a young baritone, what’s a reasonable goal for the end of the year if I can only sing an E?
A: You’re right where you need to be. Be patient and work on your middle voice. Slowly work up and down. Expand slowly. Think if you gain a half step a year, you’ll sing high Gs in 2-3 years easily.
Q: Necessary things for high notes?
A: Open jaw. Vowel modification. Support.
Q: How did you find the balance of covering?
A: I didn’t. I was always too covered or under-covered. After a lot of practice, you’ll find the balance that works best for you.
Q: When did you stop worrying about high notes?
A: Two stages to this answer. At ages 24 and 30.
Q: Should a young singer work on high notes by hitting many or the center?
A: Center. Then jumping or powering up to it. Then arpeggios up and down.
Q: Do you enjoy high notes or are they a hurdle to get over?
A: I enjoy them.
Q: What are your techniques for hitting high notes softly?
A: Voix mixte (mixed voice) or think of covering then over-cover but the intensity remains.
Q: What about scenes that ride on E-natural?
A: These are the hardest scenes for me. It depends on the genre, the composer, and the emotion you must convey. You must be able to sing it in many different ways to choose what color to use. In the beginning, keep it wide open.
Q: Do you feel high notes affect your low voice?
A: Not anymore. Sometimes I become too warmed up and my voice feels brighter and lighter.
Q: I tend to be overly picky about my high notes when I hear recordings of myself. Any tips to be any less objective?
A: Ask yourself specifically what you don’t like.
Q: “E gettata la mia sorte” from Attila, the high A is written? Can you do it?
Q: Have your low notes expanded over time?
A: Yes. Never cover or artificially darken. Even if you feel like you sound like a pip-squeak.