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Peabody soprano breaks a window with her voice

April 1, 2014

Last Friday, Peabody Institute soprano Tammie Woods was practicing the aria in Act One of Verdi’s Il Trovatore when the operatic equivalent of the hole-in-one happened: she broke a pane of glass in one of the studio’s windows.

Image via the Peabody Institute's Twitter account.

Image via the Peabody Institute’s Twitter account.

It didn’t shatter right then and there in the frame, but Woods had developed enough vocal power to pop the pane out and send it crashing to the courtyard below.

How did it happen?

“I’m certain it’s building fatigue and change of weather as much as anything else,” says Garnett Bruce, Peabody’s Opera Stage Director who was instructing Woods at the time. “But it was certainly prompted by the very resonant sound. And it wasn’t a particularly high note. It was just the power of the vibrations we were kicking off in the room.”

Bruce says it was the first time in his 20-year career he’s seen it happen.

Of course, as Bruce notes, it is the opera singer’s job to generate enough of those vibrations to reach everyone in the hall without the help of amplification.

“That’s something that we work on, is to be able to communicate ideas via sound without screaming at the top of your lungs and building up your endurance so that you can do it for a three- or four-hour opera. It’s like running a marathon with your vocal cords,” he says.

For a deeper explanation on just what’s happening with the glass, here’s Scientific American:

Every piece of glass has a natural resonant frequency—the speed at which it will vibrate if bumped or otherwise disturbed by some stimulus, such as a sound wave—as does every other material on Earth. Glass wine goblets are especially resonant because of their hollow tubular shape, which is why they make a pleasant ringing sound when clinked. If a person sings the same tone as that ringing note—a high C in legend but in reality the matching pitch could be any note—the sound of her voice will vibrate the air molecules around the glass at its resonant frequency, causing the glass to start vibrating as well. And if she sings loudly enough, the glass will vibrate itself to smithereens.

Bruce says his initial reaction was “bemusement,” then adding with a laugh, “Well, you want to be sure the rest of the window isn’t coming down.”

Once they realized it wasn’t, building maintenance was notified and they got right back to singing.

“‘The show must go on,’” says Bruce, “another big law of the theater.”

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