Singing Higher than High
Ryan Sheehan ’11 accompanied by Valerie Peters, Recital, Fall 2010
Performing “Amarilla, mia bella” by Guilio Caccini (1551-1618)
Freddy Mercury. Adam Lambert. Ryan Sheehan. OK, maybe you haven’t heard of Ryan yet, but he can sing in falsetto like a Mercury or Lambert. Ryan is a countertenor: a male voice part that sings in a higher range than a tenor. In other words, higher than Pavarotti’s highs.
But Ryan didn’t know he was a countertenor until a little over a year ago. A senior music performance major from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, Ryan had trained as a tenor his whole life, though he was aware that his tonal quality, or timbre, was a little different from that of other tenors. An experience in the UNH-in-Italy Program in his junior year shifted his mindset. During a lesson, his Italian voice-teacher suggested he try singing in falsetto. Upon hearing the results, she emphatically declared him a countertenor. Ryan went with the idea and hasn’t looked back.
A shift in voice-part is no small thing and this particular shift was consequential. Countertenors sing a different repertoire than tenors. They cultivate a different timbre and voice register. The voice-part is mired in disagreements about nomenclature and legitimacy. And research into what a countertenor actually is and does is slim. Ryan and his voice teacher at UNH, Professor Jenni Cook, were faced with developing a training regimen for Ryan with very few resources upon which to draw.
Ryan decided to fill the void by conducting his own research. He developed a project, funded by a UNH Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship. He would research the nomenclature debates (“A headache,” Ryan says), read pedagogy for the countertenor (only one out-dated technique book exists, as it turns out), interview as many professional and semi-professional countertenors as he could find (seven), and have laryngoscope tests performed at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary to start to answer the question of how, mechanically, a countertenor sings.
What he discovered is that there is no one way to sing countertenor. While musicologists debate what makes a countertenor a countertenor, those singing the voice-part were telling Ryan that there is no one definitive sound.
“I had a whole range of countertenors telling me what they thought,” says Ryan, “and consistently I heard that there is no one set sound, that different singers have very different abilities, that the falsetto is a very complicated thing and we don’t really know what it is, and that someone needs to come up with more physiological research.”
The laryngoscope tests showed that there is no definitive physiology either. Ryan’s vibrating vocal chords looked essentially the same as those of any other singer, debunking ideas about the way countertenors sing.
“A lot of the research claimed that when you sing in falsetto the vocal folds don't come together all the way and that the sound is created through sympathetic vibrations,” explains Ryan. “But mine do come together for the most part. That is why I say that there are many different ways to sing because clearly I didn’t follow the textbook example of what a falsetto is.”
This variability made proceeding with voice lessons easier. He and Professor Cook could continue their modern pedagogical practices as long as Ryan avoided artificial tension and discomfort and maintained a pleasant tone.
And, from what he’s heard, Ryan does have a pleasant tone, which he hopes will help him perform professionally. Many countertenors have a “hooty” sound, according to Ryan, who adds, “Hopefully, I don't have that—cross my fingers. If you don’t have that, you’re more easily employed.”
However, Ryan’s ultimate goal is to be employed not as a full-time performer but as a professor of music. The research he has done on the countertenor voice is only the beginning of what he hopes will be a lifetime of research on the subject. After all, you can’t reach sound conclusions based upon a single laryngoscope test, but if scores of professional countertenors were to undertake the same test, he would have valuable data. Ryan foresees a time when he has enough research to publish, creating a resource for other singers, like him, who need to answer the basic questions: what is a countertenor, what do I do, and what do I need to know?
Ryan Sheehan will be performing with the UNH Opera Workshop in the role of Oberon in scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Benjamin Britten. April 15 and 16 in the Bratton Recital Hall, Paul Creative Arts Center, at 8 p.m. Free and open to the public.
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