The journey of a versatile singer: an autoethnographic study of preparing and performing five different vocal genres and styles

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Engelbrecht, Albertus
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University of the Free State
This project is an autoethnographic study aimed at developing the vocal–technical versatility required to perform various Western art music styles and genres appropriately while maintaining a singer’s vocal health. Vocal quality is mainly dependent on glottal closure (also known as glottal adduction), which can be categorised into firm and loose glottal adduction. Vocal registration is strongly interrelated with glottal adduction: simply put, firm glottal adduction corresponds to heavy registration and loose glottal adduction to light registration. Furthermore, vocal registration influences the vertical laryngeal position and subglottal pressure and its varying degrees ideally relate directly to different approaches to styles and genres. I came to realise during my professional career that different vocal registrations are appropriate to different vocal styles of Western art music. These considerations led me to my research question: How might a singer develop the vocal–technical versatility needed to meet the demands of performing diverse vocal genres and styles? The existing scholarly literature does not provide singers with concrete advice regarding vocal–technical adjustment for singing across all the major vocal styles and genres of Western art music while at the same time maintaining vocal versatility. Consequently, my goal with this project was to generate these answers through praxis and making explicit the tacit knowledge embedded in my five examination performances, namely: (1) Bach oratorio; (2) verismo opera; (3) Viennese operetta; (4) 19th-century Lied; and (5) 20th- and 21st-century art song. This project resides in the field of artistic or practice-based research in which I, the performer, became the researcher and used my practical experience as a research tool. In order to describe the personal sensory experiences of my singing, I decided to follow an autoethnographic approach within the paradigm of practice-based research. Central to this investigation was the documentation of the physical processes at play during the preparation period; in producing this documentation, I aimed at describing, in written form, the tacit knowledge of the ways I adapted vocal–technically to the different styles and genres. The data were collected in three ways: (1) by keeping a journal and/or using annotations of my preparation process; (2) informal recordings of my rehearsal period; and (3) video recordings of the actual performances. Critical self-reflection constituted the basis of the data analysis, a process that was conducted as follows: close listening to the examination video recordings in which I analysed the outcomes of my preparation period and compared my findings of the examinations with those of the examiners by consulting their reports. My enquiry revealed that I was able to develop vocal–technical versatility across the five vocal styles and genres by focusing consciously on the appropriate configuration of heavy and light registration. The use of voix mixte played a significant role in the colouration of the voice, which necessitates using light registration (regardless of whether the relevant performance situation gravitates more towards mainstream or historically informed performance). I conclude that my findings suggest that it is possible for singers to adjust their vocal technique convincingly to interpret the different performance practices and styles applicable to the genres which are discussed in this thesis.
Thesis (Ph.D. (Odeion School of Music))--University of the Free State, 2023
performance practice, vocal registration, vocal technique, HIP, autoethnography, practice-based research, modern singing technique, oratorio, art song, verismo opera, operetta