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)


Brian said...

I do not understand this:

If it is hypo-function, singing higher, which has the virtue of increasing fold bulk would bring the folds to full closure.

That seems opposite to me. Shouldn't the folds become less bulky (thinner) as pitch rises?

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Excellent question Brian! It is true that the folds are naturally thicker in the lower range and thinner as you rise. However, as one sings higher, providing that an antagonism is maintained between crico-thyroids (stretching) and vocalis (thickening) there is a bulking of the fold cover. That is relative, of course. If a singer sings higher and softer, it is possible that the folds will simply thin out. In general when we sing higher pitches in modal range (where there is antagonism between the two muscle groups) there tends to be this slight bulking effect. There is also the additional effect that the folds are drawn together more closely on higher pitches which is why high falsetto or flute voice (devoid of vocalis action) can achieve full closure. Now if you combine the effect of the folds being drawn in more and the slight bulking that occurs in modal range, despite the fact that the folds are thinner on higher pitch, the sum total is better adduction.

Now that I am replying to your comment, I think that statements should be less equivocal. I rely on the commentary of readers to keep me honest. I want this to be good.
I will find a way to better express that phrase. Thank you, Brian.

Susan said...

Thanks for this JR - and as someone who works with a great deal of theatre singers, MTD is a major issue...the video and the SOUND made are so classic-MTD. We see this in young men as well who are trying to be "bari-tenors" and have no muscular balance yet and are pushing for higher notes without muscular balance.

Greg Rogan said...

Have you heard of or investigated the Speech Level Singing method? If so, what is your opinion of it?

Just curious.


Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Not enough to have a real opinion. One of my former students who has an amazing pedagogical mind became a certified SLS teacher. From the little exposure I have had to the concept, I understand the principle. It is a principle based upon a mode of phonation that should sound like natural speech. Unlike belting, SLS requires that like classical production the larynx should not be displaced over the various register changes. The idea is not so revolutionary until we have to deal with the concept of speech-like diction and the sensation that one is speaking throughout the range.

Analyzing this without complete information, since one has to become an SLS-certified teacher or study with one to get the secrets, one thing catches my attention, namely that the system has not yielded any classical singers I know of. This is not a bad thing.

From the few singers I know who follow the SLS regime and consider themselves SLS students, success is achieved when one can sing without strain with excellent, speech-like diction.

What I can conclude from this is that differently from classical singing, which relies on vowel modification to tune to one of the two vowel formants in order to deal with register changes, SLS deals with the source tone. This requires a release of vocalis-muscle activity despite the formant violations. This is completely possible. However,without the support of vowel formants, vocal power will be limited to certain extent. But then again, with practice, the voice can gradually gain strength in that set up.

Consequently (and I must say, I am only deducing from what SLS singers have shared. I am not an expert) The kind of power necessary for acoustic singing (classical) cannot be achieved. In what I think are the principles of SLS, many notes will fall out of resonance adjustments that would give greater power to specific harmonics. The harmonic strength is spread across the harmonics as opposed to concentrated on specific ones. This is why this cannot work for opera.

The approach could also be problematic for broadway belters who traditionally rely on a sound that is also formant-dependent. A good belter (female of course) depends on formant tuning that is reversed from those of a classical singer. The reverse formant approach does not yield the kind of power that good classical singers have, but it does yield a more consistent power structure since a specific tuning is involved.

The difference I perceive with the concept (as I understand it) is that it bypasses the importance of the vocal tract as a resonance mechanism. In both classical singing and belting the vocal tract is subservient to phonation, whereas in SLS (as I understand it) the phonatory system is the one that has to conform to the nature of the vowel production.

The lower volume yield is easily handled with microphones. I find the approach particularly useful for Broadway "legit" singing, which is not supposed to be classical since classical singing in females involves a scheme of vowel modification that is too extreme to be compatible with the text-oriented Broadway paradigm. The belt tuning is a little harsh for ballads. So SLS fills a gap in popular music.