Saturday, December 29, 2007

Phonation 1 (Introduction)

It is good to begin our discussion with phonation because phonation is at its best an automatic function. In fact vocal function as a whole is an automatic process. As babies, we were all able to make perfectly efficient sounds by simply wishing it. This is the way we naturally develop. At the early stages of fetal development we are indistinguishable from other mammals in the way we look and in the ways we develop. The vocal folds form and begin spontaneous vibrations at the end of the first trimester (10th week) unless there is a problem in development. In short, vocal fold vibration at its most efficient level does not need our conscious help. Like moving a finger, we only need to desire it and the brain makes it happen. If that's the case, why do we need to learn to phonate in singing?

There are a couple of significant reasons: 1) the musculature responsible for coordinating phonation, particularly when it comes to operatic singing, requires a certain amount of toning. 2) As soon as the human brain develops enough we gain the ability to mimic. It is the way we learn human behavior. These two facts, outside of congenital anomalies and genetically or environmentally influenced deformities, are the two most significant reasons for the vocal dysfunctions we develop. If the sounds we mimic are compatible with the make-up and muscular capacities of our vocal mechanism, then we will tend to spontaneously make those sounds in ways that do not violate the natural functions of the mechanism. However, attempting to create sounds that the instrument is either not designed to make or not muscularly conditioned to make will necessitate hyper-function (excessive muscular activity) or hypo-function (insufficient muscular activity) or compensatory function (unnecessary muscular activity) or a combination thereof (let us call them functional imbalances).

I sang a lot to my daughter when she was a baby. She was so sensitive to singing that she matched pitch by the time she was two months old. She also became very attached to my voice which is naturally much lower in pitch than hers. By the time she was two years old, she sang a lot. She used to ask me to give her voice lessons like I gave to my students. We had mock voice lessons (I had her sing simple scales and played accompaniments to her favorite simple songs). I noticed then that she had a very chesty voice and she had difficulty accessing the lighter mechanism. So I began so sing with her in falsetto without any commentary. Over time, she developed a very natural transition from her lower range to the upper.

Functional imbalances become problematic when they become habitual. Our brain has the nasty tendency of accepting the new habit to such a degree that we begin to consider it natural. Given this tendency, when I first hear a student, I do not assume that the voice that comes out (speaking or singing) is the true voice, whether he or she has had training before or not at all. Only with experience can we learn to recognize balance in the phonatory process.

The following video gives us a very valuable diagnosis of vocal imbalance and distinguishes between two conditions that are often confused for one another: muscle tension dysphonia and supraglottic squeeze. The first part of the video is especially significant to our discussion. Notice in the slow motion section of the video how the vocal folds come together perfectly, then bulk up considerably to produced a pressure between the two folds and finally open up at the posterior end. However, the breathy nature and weak acoustic yield of the young singer's voice suggests hypo-function. This is a paradoxical situation where muscular hyper-function yields an apparent hypo-function aesthetically. Something influenced the young girl to go beyond her natural ability to phonate. She wanted more than was natural for her, or perhaps she wanted something simply different from her true sound. It is worthwhile repeating that an ideal adduction coordination is observed just before the young singer begins to squeeze beyond that coordination. Looking ahead, remedying her hyper-function has to do with undoing the portion of the phonatory pattern after the natural adduction phase (i.e. the squeezing phase of adduction).

For voice teachers, this video also has a major significance. One of the scientific issues that has filtered down to undergraduate vocal pedagogy classes and therefore to the large number of young people who become voice teachers in their communities is the concept of the mutational chink. William Vennard, one of the early vocal science pioneers introduced the idea that the inability to close the posterior (cartilaginous) third of the vocal folds is a symptom of undeveloped musculature. However, given the present video, I ask myself whether a great number of those cases are not the result of muscular tension dysphonia (MTD) rather than hypo-function of the undeveloped inter-arytenoid muscles that are supposed to close the back end of the vocal folds. However, we would have to subscribe to Dr. Thomas' definition of the term and I do. I find his explanation very logical.

How would we then remedy the breathy phonation exhibited by this young girl? Rather than try to induce vocal fold closure by increasing medial pressure (common sense approach), knowing what we see on this video, it would seem necessary to make the counter-intuitive choice: have her sing lighter (in the direction of an easy sigh, for instance). This approach would reduce the contraction that brought the vocal processes so far in. The lighter approach would also help reduce the muscular action that causes the bulking of the vocal folds. The compensatory counteraction that causes the abduction (separation) of the vocal folds at the posterior end would no longer be necessary and the folds would in essence meet completely by reducing muscular activity (less work).

This situation instructs us in many ways about the basic principles of vocal pedagogy: 1)The true voice is the most efficient voice. 2)Efficiency means greater vocal power achieved by the least amount of work necessary. 3)Correct function is automatic unless the singer in question has learned some bad habits (most of us have). 4) The teacher's job is to bring the student to correct function, which involves undoing faulty muscular habits ( as not to interfere with the natural process) rather then learning new muscular function.

Finally, this is a situation that most likely cannot be properly diagnosed with the naked ear. However, an easy test would reveal whether the problem was hypo-function or hyper-function. If it is hyper-function as in the video, singing lighter (a light hum, for instance) would bring the folds together. If it is hypo-function, singing higher, which has the virtues of 1) bringing the folds together more closely and 2) increased longitudinal tension (antagonism between vocalis and crico-thyroid groups), which makes the fold cover bulk slightly, would help bring the folds to full closure.

In our times, it is important for the voice teacher to learn as much as possible about vocal anatomy in order to come up with solutions that make sense. Today, students cannot afford daily voice lessons as they did in the 19th century. But time does have a way of providing a solution. What has been lost in terms of the impracticableness of daily voice lessons is correctable through the pedagogical efficiency that is possible with newly discovered science and newly developed technology. © 12/29/2007

Coming next: Philosophy 1 (Science and Vocal Anatomy)

Friday, December 28, 2007


Hello. My name is Jean-Ronald LaFond. When someone decides to do a blog on vocal technique, he should give his credentials. I am a singer and voice teacher currently teaching between New York City and Berlin. I taught in academia for 11 years, at various smaller programs including University of Florida, East Carolina University, University of Delaware and Utah State University. I earned my Doctorate and Masters in Vocal Performance under George Shirley at the University of Michigan where I also studied orchestral conducting under Gustav Meier for five years and composition under Leslie Bassett among others. I earned my Bachelor of Music degree also in Vocal Performance at Westminster Choir College under Judith Nicosia, Daniel Pratt and Lois Laverty (voice)and a remarkable musical education from the likes of Joseph Flummerfelt (choir) Frauke Hasemann and Constantina Tsolainou (conducting) and Dalton Baldwin and Glenn Parker (opera and song coaching). During my academic years (both as a student and as a teacher), inspired by my first vocal pedagogy teacher, Judith Nicosia, I developed a ravenous appetite for anything that had to do with vocal science. I attended Voice Foundation conferences, and produced scientific papers with some of my colleagues who specialized in vocal science and disorders. Along the way, I spent a lot of time in Europe, getting the opportunity to work with some Italian masters (Ada Finelli and Mario Sereni) and participating in master classes with the likes of Piero Cappuccilli, Carlo Bergonzi and others.

Like every singer, my story has been adventurous to say the least. There was always confusion about my specific Fach. During my first years at University of Michigan, one faculty member said I was either a bass or a lyric baritone. I wonder why she never considered something in between. My own teacher, George Shirley,when he first heard me thought I was a dramatic baritone of sorts, but then decided to go the lyric baritone route. With him I discovered my top and was able to warm up beyond high C. He thought I might eventually become a tenor, but there were things to work out if I would ever sing that tessitura. During grad school and during my academic tenure I sang a lot, covering over 300 song recitals in the U.S., Europe, the Caribbean and Japan. I sang some 30 operatic roles between Academia, regional theaters in the States and Japan and lots of orchestral concerts and oratorio. By all accounts, although I had not sung with major theaters, I was working constantly and was usually invited back by the companies that hired me. For some 20 years I sang bass roles in oratorios, baritone and bass-baritone roles in opera (even some Sarastros in concert) and hundreds of songs covering nearly three octaves. Naturally, I wondered why I was not breaking into a higher level in the field.

Throughout my development there was always uncertainty about my voice type. I had a range that covered the bass, baritone and tenor range, depending on the repertoire I was singing, some famous person would tell me to consider dramatic tenor repertoire or Bass repertoire. They seemed less interested in me as a lyric baritone. When I asked, I was sometimes told that my voice has a dramatic energy about it, but not the cutting power to sing dramatic baritone roles. On the other hand, I would get comments that were exactly opposite: that the voice was really powerful. One conductor even hired me to sing Wotan's Abschied in concert. It was really well received.

Finally, I realized I was always attracted to dramatic tenor repertoire. It was a little guilty pleasure I enjoyed in the privacy of my practice room or in the occasional concert encore, in the form of a Neapolitan Song or the like. Recently I committed to exploring this possibility and finally it all makes sense. The lyric baritone tessitura that my teacher George Shirley adopted is very close to the dramatic tenor tessitura. The dramatic quality that was heard in the voice came out with little effort in this new repertoire. Most importantly, the tessitura always felt natural. Consistency in the stratosphere was the missing element. But all real dramatic voices deal with this problem. That kind of consistency requires all the principles that I have committed to over the years, and which have served my students well.

I had dealt with acid reflux for a long time. As a baritone, I was able to sing regardless. Of course, some quality was lost, and I subconsciously pushed to make up for it. My transition to tenor required me to let go of all excess weight in my singing. In the process, I was able to discover to what extent reflux really affected the voice, and how, in order to compensate, I had gradually and unconsciously diverged from the very technical principles that I hold dear.

For the past couple of years, I have shared my experiences online via The New Forum for Classical Singers. Several members of that community found that I had a particular knack for presenting vocal science in an accessible manner, and suggested that I begin a vocal technique blog. I have attempted to write a book on vocal technique several times, but until now, some elements were missing. I did not want to write yet another book that was either rooted in subjective information that could not be verified, nor one that was a litany of scientific verbiage of which the average person could not make heads or tails. I cannot help the fact that I have one foot in the Italian tradition, via my years with those teachers in Italy and another foot in vocal science. Unlike the typical teacher, I do not find the two traditions to be mutually exclusive. In fact, I find the two interdependent.

What I hope to record here, is not a vocal technique, but rather basic principles that should not be violated when seeking efficiency in vocal production. These principles include certain pieces of scientific fact. Science is not so much the answer, but rather a map that gives some specific landmarks that we can always count on. It is my hope that by utilizing these scientific landmarks, it might be possible to erase some destructive myths, and make sense of others that are based in reality. Rather than suggesting a specific method, the purpose for this blog is to help teachers and singers in developing methods that are consistent with information that we know are factual. Science does not have all the answers for developing a vocal method. However, if a vocal method has scientific facts as its cornerstones, it should be much easier to fill in the blanks that are not addressed by science.

Proprioception and kinesthesia, two senses dealing with the human ability to determine the position and movement of muscles and body parts, are interesting abilities to consider in singing. The fact that they are unconscious abilities is even more important. Entire vocal methods have been built on the thought that proprioception can be consciously controlled. Even the terminologies are difficult to define, and scientists do not fully agree on the meaning of these terms.

What we can agree upon however is that through proprioception and kinesthesia we have the ability to distinguish between relative efficiency and inefficiency in muscular function. The many vibrations and tensions that we as singers feel are feedback mechanisms to understanding how efficiently or inefficiently our vocal mechanism is working. Understanding them fully, rather than conveniently and inaccurately labeling them, can lead to balanced, subconscious control of the instrument.

It is also important to remember that vocal fold vibration begins very early in fetal development (tenth week, first trimester), and that a baby's cry is a very efficient vocal function the acoustic basis of which is meant to be compatible with the human inner ear. In such a way, parents are able to hear a crying child from afar. This compatibility between human vocal production and human hearing is the basis by which a nature-based vocal technique should be developed. Orchestral instruments, loud though they may be, have very little strength in the acoustic band between 2000 and 3000 Hz. This is the 'sweet spot' of human hearing (most sensitive at ca. 3000 Hz. See definition for "decibel")if you will. The human voice is able to create sounds, the harmonics of which are very strong in this frequency range. In a simplistic sense, the goal of the classical singer, who does not utilize artificial amplification (microphone)and must compete with large instrumental forces, is to maintain a high level in the frequency range between 2000 and 3000 Hz. How we best achieve this goal and how we deal with all the issues that factor upon it is the purpose of this blog.© 12/28/2007