Monday, February 2, 2009

What happens when the fat lady sings

There's been a lot of talk over the last several days about Jessica Simpson's weight gain. And while I've talked about Jessica Simpson in this blog in the past, I haven't talked about this particular issue, though some bloggers that I respect (such as Duncan Riley and Eye of Polyphemus' Jamie) in on the issue.

I haven't talked about this issue because I'm trying to preserve this as a music blog, not a celebrity gossip blog, and because discussion of a person's weight has no place in a musical discourse.

Or does it? According to a 2001 post by Lloyd W. Hanson, weight loss and weight gain can affect how vocalists sing:

Many overweight singers develop a method of breath control in which they push outward against the layer of fat that surrounds their mid section. This is similar to the technique of breath control that is taught with a wrap around girdle similar to the type worn when one has broken his/her ribs....

But the appoggio technique of breath management does not use a pushing out procedure. Instead, it encourages a sustaining of the inhale mode as one begins the sung phrase....

It would be most logical that an overweight singer would develop this pushing out against the fat technique and have to relearn how to breath with the appoggio technique when the overweight layer of fat is gone.

Now between you and me, Simpson hasn't really gained huge amounts of weight. She's not in Pavarotti territory or anything.

Michelle Tsai didn't discuss Pavarotti's weight in her 2007 article, but she did discuss the physiology of women and fat. First, let's look at her general comments on a singer's voice:

The best violinists can play with top orchestras as teenagers, but opera singers take the stage much later. Vocalists spend years mastering their techniques, but physiology also explains why opera singers have to wait. Hormonal changes continue to alter a singer's voice in adulthood, long after the end of puberty. The vocal folds—muscles that rapidly open and close as we speak or sing—get stronger, as do the muscles that support them in the chest, abdomen, neck, and back. When the hormones stabilize—and the muscles and lungs reach the right levels of development—then the singer's voice reaches its prime form for opera. Singers have to project their voices above the orchestra, reach the farthest corners of concert halls, and possess enough stamina to last most of an evening.

Tsai then discussed Pavarotti's technique, but not his weight:

One reason Pavarotti was able to sing for so long was because he didn't strain his vocal folds; he delivered songs as easily as if he were conversing, embodying an approach that voice coaches call "Si canta come si parla," or "Sing as you speak." He also knew what his voice was capable of and stuck close to arias that made the most of his talents....

Other opera singers aren't so lucky.

When menopause hits, the loss of estrogen lowers women's voices and they lose their highest notes.

With one exception:

Since fat cells produce estrogen, though, obese opera sopranos tend to be more resilient. They can keep on singing.

However, Jessica Simpson is not obese, and is certainly not menopausal.
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