Sunday, January 27, 2008

Subject of the day: The Speaking Voice, Part 2

After the last edition on the speaking voice, I received several excellent responses both here an on NFCS. Two issues stand out that I felt I should follow up on: 1) Pitch of he speaking voice and 2) "default phonation."

1) Several people wrote to suggest that speaking higher is not necessarily the desired result, and I agree. In my own case, I was speaking lower than was efficient for me. My correction required me to raise my pitch, but there are others who spoke higher than optimum pitch and consequently they had to lower pitch. There are many ways of finding optimum pitch. We do know however that average optimum pitch for males is around 110 Hz and for females around 220hz. However this is only an average and most people fall between a whole step below and a whole step above of these frequencies. NFCS member, Voixclaire, gives us resources regarding optimum pitch. Experimenting around these pitches is best. There is an accepted premise that when one instinctively says "um-huh" in agreement, he or she says it at optimum pitch. I believe this is less reliable with singers, who tend to be very aware of their desired speaking pitch.

2) Default phonation is a term I came up with. I believe that the way someone speaks will determine the default mode of phonation. Certainly when singing, the singer may alter the default mode to accomplish a desired sound. I believe that in those situations the singer will be struggling with his habitual speech phonation to accomplish the desired efficient singing phonation. In cases where the singer has little time between breathing and singing, the default (or habitual speech phonation) tends to kick in. When the singer's speaking voice is of optimum quality (matches the desired phonation mode) then the entire phonation process tends to be more automatic. In such a way we can explain natural singers who have extremely efficient phonation without having had any voice lesson.

Over the week I have found that my improved speaking voice makes for a much more reliable singing voice. As I complete the revival of BIO's Nozze di Figaro (my last baritone role, Count Almaviva), my colleagues and coaches have remarked on a noticeably clearer, more efficient sound that carries easily. Additionally, my tenor repertoire improves daily and the top of the voice no longer has that feeling that I have reached a ceiling when I sing B4 or C5. As the demands of the productions subside, I will be posting sample phrases and scales and eventually complete arias. As I experience this in my own voice, I must assert that an efficient, optimum speaking voice can save a lot of time in the pursuit of efficient phonation.

© 01/27/2008

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Subject of the day: The speaking voice

My readers probably know already that after 20 years singing the baritone repertoire, I am making the change to tenor. The change is a time-consuming, extremely emotional, and fear-inducing experience that is not for the faint of heart. In three months of disciplined practice, I have gone through so many steps that it would be hard to remember if I did not take notes on them. I intend to post here eventually about the process.

The most exciting step happened a couple of days ago when I experienced a step backwards. I was having a rehearsal for Macbeth, which I am directing for Berlin International Opera, the little company that I am involved with in Berlin, and decided to sing Macduff's aria for our musical director. I had had an excellent practice in the early afternoon and thought that I would share my new voice with our music director. Well it did not go so well, and I felt bad. I spent the evening listening to Alfredo Kraus who had one of the most efficiently phonated voices ever, and confirmed for myself that phonation needed to be easy, etc. But I could not figure out why my voice was suddenly heavy when I attempted to sing Macduff's aria which was not a challenge for me even as a baritone (undeveloped tenor).

The next morning, I woke up with a speaking voice that was rough. I did not eat late, I was not vocally tired, and I slept well. I instinctively tried to speak a little higher and lighter and suddenly my voice was as clear as a bell. I took it as a sign that I should speak lighter in general and get away from the guttural baritone speaking voice I thought was mine. The short of it is that after two days of speaking like this, the tenor passaggio became much easier to handle and the voice cleared up throughout the range. While teaching a lesson, I demonstrated a scale to a high B not knowing that I was already there. It was very easy.

Ironically, this is a topic I often discuss with my students. I say often that the speaking voice and the singing voice depend on the very same mechanism. Misusing one of them will eventually or rather quickly effect the other. Since the American culture is in love with deep voices, I was always complemented on my speaking voice. Over the years it got deeper also as I sang more dramatic baritone parts and from speaking to classes in which I had to speak authoritatively to be heard. I was gradually building tension without knowing it. And since I am always complemented on my speaking voice, I never thought there was anything wrong with it. Now after two days with a new speaking habit that have yielded remarkable results, I am even more vigilant of speaking habits with my students.

I am currently preparing a post on the importance of easy phonation that was begun several days ago. I am working to create videos that accompany some of these posts, so it is taking a bit of time to put together. But I am happy to have confirmed for myself that efficient phonation does not need to be stressful. I had always been amazed by singers like Dieskau, Wunderlich, Kraus Corelli and Gigli who had amazing messa di voce abilities. Now I understand that many of us could lose this ability simply by using the speaking voice wrong.

For now, I will share a clip reading the first line of this post. The first part of the clip presents the speaking voice I have gotten used to and in fact cultivated over the years. The second presents what I now perceive to be the true speaking voice, which used to come up when I was a young singer. Occasionally I would speak like that, and people would ask whether I was a tenor. One teacher even told me once I was speaking off my voice (He was not my private teacher). As I listen to the two voices over and over, I see why some might find the first voice richer, sexier, even more impressive. What my current ears tell me is that the first voice is forced and the second is healthy and naturally resonant. I anticipate this will generate some discussion.

© 01/22/2008

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Philosophy 2: Ideology and functionality, a point of balance

After contributing to a less than civil discourse on NFCS regarding the issue of longevity in today's singers, it became clear that I needed to approach this issue in a more balanced way. The success of any singer depends on the one hand on a technical ideology that must be a foundation upon which he or she bases the treatment of the instrument and on the other hand upon calculated risk-taking that may take him or her beyond those very ideological precepts. A certain amount of calculated risk-taking is part and parcel of any singer's progress at any level of the field, be it a church choir soprano who sings a solo for the first time or a top tenor taking on a role that may stretch the limits of his vocal capacities. The results are those of a conscious quest for balance between the conceptual ideal and the practical reality. Whether the soprano or the tenor fails or succeeds is not the issue, for the possibility for failure or success is part of a conscious calculation.

There is however the tug-o-war between being able to function in a given situation and the possibility of violation of a technical ideology of which the singer is unaware. The difference between stretching against known limits and stretching without a knowledge of where limits are may be what separates the singers of the past (who may have survived longer in the field) from their current counterparts who tend to half a shorter shelf-life.

Rather than this turning into a post about specifics of vocal technique, it is rather a philosophical argument about the general need to have a vocal ideology. The term ideology is often misunderstood for perfectionism. It should be established that perfection is unattainable and should be left out of the practicable discipline of singing. Having an ideology is simply a commitment to a set of principles that helps to keep us balanced. A set of principles gives us a clear sense of our capabilities and limits, as well as guidance in our quest for betterment.

When there are principles that guide us (e.g. an ideology), we are provided with a gauge that tells us how far we have yet to go before breaching our limits, and how far beyond them we may have wandered. In such a way limits may be safely stretched. This is what having a technical ideology offers.

The world is in a particularly strange period where the natural sense of time is no longer a given. Not only is distance practically erased with airplanes, cell phones and email, but the the sense of the passage of time is less a part of every day existence than ever. The idea of immediate gratification is a given. Naturally with time considered an enemy, the desire to live the moment at all cost also means singing now rather than later when the voice might be more ready. In fact many voices are able to impress from day one. This is not new. These types of voices are considered special talents, and it has always been so. The sole difference is that in the past such special voices were considered raw material that needed to be crafted into voices ready for the difficulties of the lyric art. Today, those voices are considered ready. And without a sense of where the limits of such voices lie, singers usually take these voices beyond possibilities and end their career early.

At the moment, I see a dilemma that as a singer and teacher I am compelled to ponder often. On the one hand, time waits for no one, and the world is such that we seem to have little time. On the other hand, the singers themselves whose careers develop spontaneously ultimately get to a challenging point where they must seek the wisdom of those who should know: most often, past singers who have had long careers. Unfortunately, the paradigms between the retired legend and the current young star are so different that what the experienced singer may have to offer becomes irrelevant, because the young singer may have crossed a line that is difficult to cross back.

The only resolution I an imagine is that the young singer from the beginning be armed with a philosophy that guides him through the many stages of the game. But that takes time. And the body that is the instrument needs time. And the development of a voice, a singer, a singing-actor, an artist, needs time. However, when the very concept of time has been changed, this entire argument may be pointless. © 01/19/2008

Friday, January 11, 2008

Subject of the day: Why fear vocal science?

There is a definite fear of science-based vocal pedagogy and several factors feed this fear. First, modern vocal science is a young discipline. The pioneers of this unique field are still alive and continue important research. Names like Johann Sunddberg and Minoru Hirano were first introduced to the wide singing community through William Vennard’s seminal book: Singing: The Mechanism and the Technique. While Vennard and Richard Miller after him contributed greatly to educating the general vocal community through their books, the science kept growing as the very books were being written. In other words, while some voice teachers were trying to understand basic vocal anatomy, great discoveries in vocal acoustics were occurring and new understandings about the nature of laryngeal function were developing. Many teachers felt that perhaps it were better to wait until vocal science has its act together before embracing it. Others thought that it might be useless to spend time keeping up with science when voice can be taught with traditional techniques without anatomical knowledge. Others simply found it difficult to understand some of the basic mathematical principles on which acoustics are founded and the paradoxical nature of muscular antagonism. Others imagined that the process of science-based teaching would involve explanation of difficult mathematical principles and that a singer in performance would have to concentrate on mathematical formulas rather than expression of music and text. All of these assumptions are at least ill-conceived and at worst based on a complacent attachment to the “tried and not altogether true.”

Traditional vocal teaching is hailed when a student succeeds and condemned when one fails. Teachers of opposing principles experienced success and failure. The polemics between teachers and their disciples concerning opposing techniques produce as lively a debate in our times as it did in 19th century Milan at the height of operatic hysteria. There has not been any consensus on vocal technique until the development of vocal science. There could not be. Objective understanding of the singing voice is not possible without the seeing eye of the laryngoscope and the sensitive microphones attached to the spectrographic analyzer. Yet vocal pedagogy is not an objective discipline. Therefore, empirical data should represent a foundation upon which any subjective method is built. The often used axiom “there is more than one way to skin a cat” has always been applicable to vocal pedagogy and must remain so. There should be as many methods as there are voice teachers, but the facts upon which those methods are built should be the same: the cutting edge of vocal science discovery.

Another argument is equally represented by a well used axiom, “the proof is in the pudding.” Has vocal science produced palpable results? Loaded simplistic questions such as this cannot have satisfying results. The fact is that most successful teachers of our time use the most basic facts produced by discoveries in vocal science. Few teachers in our time will claim that the vocal folds are in the mask or that they lay vertically in our throats. Even thirty years ago, many respected teachers would make such claims without anyone there to challenge their obvious error. Many successful teachers I know who would not call themselves science-based teachers have a strong basic understanding of the facts and develop their methods in keeping with such facts. However to call oneself a science-based teacher carries a stigma, which many mainstream teachers might consider unmarketable.

The more damaging influences to the reputation of science-based teaching are unfortunately science-based teachers themselves. It is important to have a grasp of the politics of academic vocal pedagogy to understand this. The safest vocal job in academia may very well be the vocal pedagogy teacher. The vocal pedagogy teacher comes with the apparent authority of a formation in vocal science up to the most recent discoveries. Such a teacher usually has a vocal pedagogy degree, which supposedly includes extensive studies in anatomy and acoustics, and is usually the go-to person for issues of vocal malfunction and disorder. The appeal of the vocal pedagogy person is that he has the capacity to produce scholarship in the form of science-based papers, which in turns command certain research funds to a music department that is often excluded from any such moneys. These moneys can translate into better recording equipment and computers in the studios of all the voice teachers. Such a teacher can authoritatively back up his methods with a science that his colleagues do not understand and simply accept at face value. A single success in the studio is enough to validate his method. But often, the colleagues secretly have little respect for his method and speak ill of science-based teaching because of the dismal results emanating from the studio.

The reason is simply that not all vocal pedagogy programs are rigorous enough to produce teachers that are either completely trained in terms of the equipments available for vocal study or deeply studied in the principles of science and anatomy that would yield methods that are effective. Conversely, some very scientifically minded teachers develop direct relationships with vocal scientists in the vocal disorder side of vocal study and become very comfortable with the science to the point of developing strategies to affect very specific vocal results. Some of the most adept science-based teachers do not have a degree in vocal pedagogy, but develop their knowledge from private study and interactions with those at the forefront of the science.

Consequently there are many types of so-called science-based vocal pedagogues. The more obtuse of them think that science is the final word in voice and may spend countless hours repeating superficial scientific terminology that may or may not have any effect on method. The more effective science-base teacher has a profound knowledge of the science being discussed among the vocal scientists and keeps up with developments that have a direct impact on vocal function. Such a teacher acknowledges science as a beginning, a foundation upon which a method may be developed. Such a teacher has the humility to recognize that despite the information that he has mastered that he is not a scientist. Furthermore, such a teacher will be the first to say that science is not the final word.

The ability to effect change in a student’s manner of singing is an art in itself, which has its roots in the mysterious traditions of teaching, not science. Effective teaching requires many skills of which one is thorough knowledge of his field. That is one of the virtues of the science-based teacher. The original axiom, “the proof is in the pudding” begs an answer. Why is the best science-based teacher more effective? The best among science-based teachers realizes a fundamental paradox: that the complex knowledge that he develops with regards to vocal function must translate to absolute simplicity during the voice lesson. It is unimportant for a student to master the science behind the principles of formant tuning. However it is crucial that the student understands sensations in the vocal tract that are directly effected by formant tuning. When the traditional teacher says: “lift the soft palate,” it could be very confusing to a soprano who is singing G5 on the [a] vowel when 1) she cannot sense the lifting of the palate and 2) even though she thinks she feels the difference, the resulting tone is not improved. The science-based teacher might tell the singer to release the jaw and feel how the beginning of a yawn will help settle the larynx to its natural released position which has a direct effect on the G5 on [a] because that note-vowel combination depends on the tuning of the first formant space between the base of the tongue and the glottis. The well-informed science-based teacher also knows that the traditional teacher’s suggestion “lift the soft palate” is not unimportant because the function of the non-active (passive) formant space is important, because its variations may affect competition between the active formant and the passive one. The scientific teacher might suggest that the student become conscious of sensations in the area of the soft palate in the middle range of the same soprano because he knows that the second formant which dominates that range has its energy focused in the space between the surface of the tongue and the soft palate. That science-based teacher also knows that all of this formant theory means nothing unless the process of phonation is at its most natural: that the adduction of the vocal folds occurs as nature meant for the specific singer in question. To know this, the teacher must develop an acute ear, for he must be able to tell the difference between well-adducted folds constituted by balanced function between all the muscles involved, and equally well-adducted folds that result from unbalanced muscular activity in the larynx.

At the end of the day, the goal is to bring the student to balanced function that produces an exciting performance level sound. The student must experience this balanced sensation often enough to distinguish it as the goal. An excellent traditional teacher will have better results than the kind of obtuse, limited so-called science-based teacher mentioned above. But a gifted teacher who is also well-studied in the available science will be able to bring the student to that experience with less trial and error. The ideal teacher has all the inventive qualities of a great traditional teacher and fully conscious of all the pertinent scientific facts available. Traditional teachers who have been teaching successfully before vocal science became practicable cannot be expected to take time midstream to be educated in vocal science. Those that do should be applauded. However, it is unconscionable that a young teacher would not avail himself of the available science. Vocal science has pertinent information for vocal pedagogy. No other field would accept that a practitioner or a teacher not avail himself of information pertinent to it.

Most important is that the voice lesson conducted by an effective science-based teacher is not different from that of a traditional teacher. The science-based teacher might avoid such language as “put it in the mask” because mask sensation is not a function in and of itself but rather a by-product of certain functional adjustments. But a science-based teacher might use the term “back, up and over” because this suggestion has a functional basis, namely that the “back and up” implies variations in velar function (soft palate), which relates directly to second formant resonance. In other words, “back and up” may affect second formant tuning positively and the result might be sensations in the mask, “over.”

To summarize, like with traditional teachers, not all science-based teachers are competent. The really gifted science-based teachers are amazingly effective, but not enough of them have connections to the upper echelons of the operatic world. While they may be doing remarkable work in academia or in private, their students ultimately make their careers after having attracted the attention of well-connected teachers who are credited for the development of the student. With time and information, the really gifted science-based teachers will become prominent because their work will not be able to be ignored. The fate of science-based vocal pedagogy is currently experiencing its own “Scopes Monkey Trial” in the court of operatic politics. Just as Evolution and Natural Selection continue to meet with controversy even in the face of discernible proof in modern ecological studies, there is a fear that vocal science may deny the mysteries of singing and the existence of the God that gave us our voices. © 01/11/2008

Monday, January 7, 2008

Subject of the day: When longevity is no longer a factor: An impasse in vocal pedagogy

I posted the following on NFCS and felt it should be posted here as well. I welcome responses to this and every post.

I am getting ready to fly to Europe in the next couple of days, so I may not post again for a couple of days. Be assured that I am working to provide the best technical references here as possible. It would be easy to just list laryngeal muscles and have done with it, but my purpose here is to help my readers understand as clearly as possible about the function of all that musculature and how such knowledge help us in the pursuit of optimum singing.

The threads comparing different vocal pedagogies inspired a reality check. It should be obvious from my many posts here that I am an ideologue. I am proud of this fact because lasting vocal technique is based on certain truths and there are no two ways about it. However, time is an enemy to vocal health, in the current vocal climate. I would be interested to know how many singers here are truly interested in a long lasting career, or would rather get to sing in a theater at all cost, including losing their voice in 5 or 10 years.

This may sound like a joke, but I assure you I am being totally serious. Consider that a singer who has had an operatic career of any kind will tend to have enough influence to command an income afterwards, even if the career lasted only five years and that all they managed to do is build a network of contacts. Real operatic experience is a valuable commodity in the complex world of music and music pedagogy. It's a no-brain-er that the highest paid pedagogues in academia tend to be the singers who have had big careers. Well a singer with a smallish career can have the same kind of clout in a smallish school. That kind of experience can make up for not having a doctorate. It is therefore obvious that a "serviceable" singer can make a career without having developed a solid technique. Why? Because the people who are hiring either cannot tell the difference or do not care.

This is the operatic environment we are in. The teacher with a quick fix that gets the student to make an impressive sound right away even at the expense of their vocal health is actually becoming more popular in our times than the teacher who takes the time to build a real technique. The next question therefore is: Is it possible to get an impressive sound right away and with good vocal technique? The answer: If that were the case, we would not be in the dilemma we are now.

I believe that it is possible to get relatively quick results with a sound vocal approach providing the singer does not have muscular imbalances to begin with. In that situation, coordination can be accomplished even at a first lesson and stamina developed pretty quickly afterwards. However, in my experience, we are generally dealing with voices that are muscularly quite out of balance. To regain proper balance usually means going through an awkward period that singers prefer not to go through (especially those who are out of school and auditioning, or already singing professionally).

What the singer often does not realize is that a year of solid work can actually get the kinds of results they need in order to sing comfortably and be able to present themselves in auditions with confidence. Then again, will the hiring people care that the singer is singing better, or are they more interested in how many pounds the slightly overweight mezzo lost since the last audition?

In short, there are many singers who consciously chose a quick fixer rather than someone with a solid technique because they are afraid that they are getting out of time and are not sure whether good singing even matters.

So while it might make fun discussion on forums to compare the techniques of the great masters of the past, a tenor with a reliable high C is going to get work at the highest levels, even if that C sounds like it's coming out of a bovine with labor pains.

Therefore, until "proper" vocal production is part of the criteria for being hired, not only will what we get in the house be of poor quality, but vocal pedagogy will decline by natural selection. The quick fixers will have incomes and thrive and the real teachers will have day jobs and teach out of love for the art. © 01/07/2008

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Subject of the day: Mixed Voice

While I will be working on the more technical information on the blog, I will deal with technical issues I encounter in the studio or that come up on NFCS. I encourage you, the readers to suggest topics you wish to discuss. The Subject of the Day will be a continuing, less formal feature of the blog. Any comment that has a bearing on technical issues is fair game.

A young tenor on the New Forum for Classical Singers questioned about "Mixed Voice". I understood his usage of the term to mean a balanced mode of phonation in the top voice that is not falsetto and not the chest voice brought up, but rather a balanced muscular coordination between muscles that thicken the folds and those that lengthen them. My comments to him will follow, but first we should make some precisions and distinctions in terminology.

Several terms are erroneously used interchangeably, including mixed voice, half-voice voix mixte, voce mista, and mezza voce. We have to refer to Italian understandings of the terms because the original terminology comes out of Italy. But rather than argue about how the terminology was understood four hundred years ago, it makes more sense to investigate the consensus among contemporary Italians. On the site, La voce artistica, maintained by surgeon and laryngologist, Franco Fussi, a poll of professional and amateur singers was taken to consider their understanding of the term voce mista. By a wide margin, the understanding is that the term refers to a coordination between the qualities of the heavy mechanism (heavy chest voice at the extreme) and that of the light mechanism (falsetto or flute voice at the extreme) specifically in the area of the passaggio, D4-G4 (first passaggio for female voices). The term mezza voce (literally half-voice) refers to softer a volume level irrespective of range when compared to voce piena (full voice). The direct French translation of voce mista, voix mixte, is meant by the French in the same way that Italians mean voce mista. It is referring specifically to balance issues in the passaggio. However, in the United States at least, the term has become synonymous with the ability to sing softly irrespective of range as exhibited by masters of French mélodies. The term half voice is an exact translation of mezza voce, and general refers to softer well-supported singing irrespective of range. The term mixed voice has two connotations in different musical genres. In opera or "lyric" singing, the term is used like its Italian counterpart voce mista as referring specifically to register balance in the passaggio. However in popular and Musical Theater singing mixed voice refers to a technique of reducing subglottic pressure by phonating in a slightly breathy manner. Since the need to reduce subglottic pressure in belting tends to occur around the passaggio range D4-G4, the term was most likely borrowed from the operatic glossary.

My response to the young tenor's question is the following: (click here!) © 01/03/2008

Phonation 2 (Laryngeal Anatomy- Intrinsic musculature)

This edition will come slowly because the research required to provide video and image links as well as definitions that are accurate and understandable is time-consuming. And since I want this to be accessible and not a collection of scientific jargon, I hope you will bear with me. I have decided to provide one paragraph at a time, as I go through. In this manner you will have something to read.

Phonation is simply the oscillation (vibration) of the vocal folds. On the surface view of the vocal folds, as seen through laryngoscopy (laryngoscopy for singing research is normally done via a flexible fiber optic laryngoscope), vibration includes a sequence of open and close phases. Because the vocal folds vibrate hundreds of times every second, the current video is seen using stroboscopy. By flashing a strobe light at the speed that the vocal folds are vibrating, the visual effect is one of slowing down the vibration. Where as it would be impossible to view a single oscillation of the vocal folds singing middle C (approximate 280 vibrations per second), by flashing the strobe light 280 times a second the visual effect it that of one vibration per second which is very beneficial for scientific study and diagnosis of vocal malfunction. The video of fold vibration offers a view of the surface of the vocal folds. So we are able to see only opening and closing of the surface. At the end of the video we get a view of the open folds, which allows us to see that the folds have vertical thickness, as seen on this drawing. Therefore, the vibration of the vocal folds occurs like a wave. In fact it is called the mucosal wave, referring to the vibrating cover of the vocal folds which is a mucous membrane. The wave action is usually represented by the following drawing. Following the steps from 1 to 10, the drawing begins with the folds in a close position. The gradually open from the bottom and are fully open at number 5. They begin to close at number 6 leading with the bottom edge, touching at number 8. They are fully closed again at number 10 completing the cycle. Imagining the folds vibrating on an average of 200 times per second in the male singer, at G3 (a fourth below middle C) and twice that for the average female singer (400 vibrations per second or 400 Hertz), as soon as the folds are fully open at the top edges, the bottom edges come together.

The vibration of the vocal folds, including their specific frequency (how many times per second, pitch) is controlled by a number of tiny intrinsic laryngeal muscles, so called because they are inside the larynx, and so distinguishable from those muscles outside the larynx, called extrinsic muscles. Before we begin with a detailed discussion of the intrinsic laryngeal musculature, it is important to understand the basic structure of the larynx and where precisely it is. In the following image of the respiratory system, we can see the lungs and the bronchial trees inside responsible for the exchange of air. Traveling upward, the bronchial trees from each lung end with a branch-like tube called the bronchial tube. The tubes join and become one tube called the trachea (another view of the respiratory system). The structure right on top of the trachea is the voice box or larynx (front view). The larynx is made up of two main cartilages. The ring-like Cricoid cartilage is attached to the trachea, and the Thyroid cartilage rests on top of the Cricoid, connected at its inferior horns (one on each side) by means of the Cricothryroid joints. The Thyroid is able to rock back and forth from these joints. © 01/03/2008

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Philosophy 1 (Science in Vocal Pedagogy)

The next post will begin directly with laryngeal anatomy. What was supposed to be an opening paragraph about the importance of scientific knowledge in vocal pedagogy became long enough to merit a separate edition.

In the most natural voice, as already explained, the phonation process is spontaneous, and this is fortunate. It would be horrible if one had to manipulate the many tiny muscles involved in the phonation process. It is however of benefit to understand how the laryngeal structure behaves because the muscular imbalances that occur in vocal production occur unconsciously and because of the speaker or singer’s desire to produce a specific sound. When the mechanism is balanced, it is very flexible and able to produce a palate of colorful sounds as infinite as the imagination. It is not dangerous to create any of these sounds once in a while. Long-term imbalances are a result of chronic unbalanced use. Screaming many times in a row could injure the vocal folds. Speaking lower or higher than is appropriate for the given voice will cause a lasting unbalance if the inappropriate speech level is habitual. Such habits are difficult to resolve given the complex nature of the muscle system involved, and the problem of resolving faulty habits is exacerbated when the speaker or singer personally identifies with the sound that is being created (i.e. believes such a sound to be his or her natural voice). How to resolve the problems that a singer exhibits requires intimate knowledge of the workings of the vocal instrument.

The relationship between student and teacher is as fluid a system as human nature, and the relationship between a singer and his/her voice (yes singers often relate to the voice as if it were another entity altogether) is a very emotional one. The teacher’s part has at least two facets to it: 1) the relationship to the singer, which as any teacher/student relationship will be dynamic, psychologically ever-changing. 2) The relationship to the singer’s voice which should be as objective as possible. The relative objectivity of part 2 will render the more dynamic and fluid nature of part 1 much more manageable. In short, for the secondary relationship between the two human beings involved in the teacher/student relationship to be successful, the primary contractual relationship must be sound. This requires that the teacher should have a product worthy of the price that the student is paying. The product should be the teacher’s knowledge of the voice.

There are intuitive ways of perceiving what the voice does and equally intuitive ways of addressing technical issues. Traditional methods of teaching voice have developed because there was little empirical knowledge about the workings of the voice. As already stated, the workings of the voice depend upon the singer’s imagination or intuition. It seems fit that treating or training the voice should also be intuitive. I firmly believe that intuition must remain a vital component in teaching singing (beyond training the voice). However, I do not see scientific knowledge as an enemy of intuition. I believe that all intuitive processes are based on knowledge. Intuition is often a reaction to the limits of deductive reasoning. When one reaches a block, intuition often comes to the rescue. It is my belief that the greater our knowledge or capacity for deductive reasoning, the greater our capacity for intuition or creative reasoning.

Even though it is possible to teach voice without having the knowledge of anatomy and acoustics that is available to all of us, I find it morally questionable that a teacher would not want to know as much as possible about the nature of his/her field. But before we condemn every teacher who does not have a grasp of anatomy and acoustics relative to the voice (nor should anyone assume that I know everything there is to know about these subjects), it is important to remember that this information is complicated and is usually presented in a way that is interesting as the anatomy of a pet rock. Furthermore, I have not yet found the book that discusses anatomy beyond the points of origin and insertion of muscles and their basic functions. I believe we must be able to conceive of exercises that target specific muscular function. We cannot see the muscles at work during singing. However, if we have a clear understanding of how each muscular action contributes to the whole, we can devise exercises that focus on specific actions. Relative to phonation, one colleague once said to me that it was unwise to focus on the individual actions of laryngeal muscles since they all work to produce phonation. My response was in the form of a question: “How do we remedy imbalance in the combined functions of those muscles?” This is where I think science and intuition become compatible.

Vocal scientists deal with everything from the physics of fluid dynamics relative to skin tissues to muscular biomechanics and beyond. No vocal teacher in his/her right mind is going to concentrate on those details while trying to help the student sing a better staccato D# in the cadenza of Caro nome. In fact, many teachers avoid this dilemma altogether by avoiding science. The scientifically-minded voice teacher often misconstrues the little knowledge we have about the voice as pure science. The truth about applied vocal science for the professional singer is that it is not pure science and never will be. As a scientifically-minded voice teacher, I believe that our job is to learn as much as possible about how we can impact the function of the vocal instrument, and much of the scientific information that is out there can provide us with a means of cause and effect. Ergo, by suggesting that the student does “exercise A” (cause), the diagnosed vocal malfunction should disappear and the student should then produce a sound that is balanced relative to the nature of the student’s voice (effect). If only it were that easy! Our enemy is time. Habitual vocal malfunction is a result of often mild, unconscious abuse against the balanced nature of the vocal instrument. The resulting imbalance is therefore muscularly programmed and muscularly toned. To relearn original balance requires retraining the instrument by influencing new muscular habits that will meet with resistance from the old. Therefore effect will not be immediate. And the amount of time necessary for such effect cannot be determined, because the history of the malfunction is unknown, and the nature of the cause is also undetermined. If a teacher prescribes an exercise to remedy a fault, it cannot be ascertained how long it will take to see results, because the amount of time that the student practices cannot be truly regulated. The speaking habits of the students will have an effect on the relative efficiency or inefficiency of the practice regimen. How long the student has suffered from noticeable unbalanced singing will be a factor. Dozens of other factors relating to lifestyle will come into play. However, this does not categorically refute that the exercises prescribed by the teacher do not work. It simply means that it is not possible to observe the workings of the vocal instrument as easily as it might be to observe the progress of an Olympic athlete training for the marathon. I believe firmly that knowledge of muscular function and acoustics does impact substantially the process of learning to sing. I will begin with a discussion of laryngeal musculature and function and hope to present it here in a manner that can be easily grasped such that those who have felt alienated by scientific jargon might find the subject matter more approachable. © 01/01/2008

Coming next: Phonation 2 (Laryngeal Anatomy- Intrinsic musculature)