Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The simplicity of vocal technique and why it is so hard to learn

The basics of vocal technique, like that of any instrument depends on the mastery of three elements: actuator (our breathing mechanism) vibrator (our vocal folds) and resonator (our vocal tract). In the best case scenario, the voice in question is perfectly healthy and no extraneous muscular habit has been learned.

Those who possess such voices are very lucky and with a good teacher tend to develop very quickly. Whether or not these natural singers become our great stars depend greatly on their aptitudes in the many other facets of our art form (e.g. musicianship, language skills, acting ability, poetic sensitivity, etc).

But how does one get such naturally healthy unmarred voices? Is it a gift from God? It might as well be, because the many things that distinguish the natural singer from the rest of us humans do not seem to follow any kind of logic. Yet much of it can be explained. Most of us begin with healthy instruments as babies and in fact instinctively knew how to produce the most perfect vocal sounds, whether through crying or laughter or baby cooing, etc. As soon as we begin to make conscious sounds, which we learn from our immediate environment (parents, siblings, housekeeper, etc) we begin the process of undoing the natural process of vocal production. The lucky baby who will become a natural singer may have had parents or siblings who spoke very healthily, and who may have voices similar to his (hers). In such a case, the baby will have had excellent vocal models. If the baby is lucky, people in the house sing. It could be professional singers, or people who simply sing along to a radio station that broadcasts good vocal music.

The issue however is for the rest of us who seek to re-acquire our natural vocal coordination. What happens to a young coloratura whose mother speaks like a contralto and she emulates this production? Such a singer might be miscategorized early as a lower voice and spend many years struggling with this "unnatural" voice with frustrating results. When such a singer discovers the true coloratura voice, the change does not happen automatically because years of a false muscular imbalance must be undone, and the new muscular balance takes time to strengthen. The frustration that comes with the transition time is often discouraging, and an otherwise extremely talented singing actress may never achieve her goals, unless of course she has the dedication and patience of Job.

The issues however are rarely so extreme, although I have taught several coloraturas who believed that they were mezzos. What is most common are coloraturas who are taught as lyrics because they have over-developed the middle voice to the detriment of their top, and lyric tenors who begin as baritones
because they lowered their speaking voices to sound more "manly". In the case of dramatic voices, very often dramatic sopranos begin as mezzos and dramatic tenors as baritones because they can sound impressive even when singing a lower tessitura than that which is more appropriate to them.

I have discussed here how health is the first component to a healthy technique. Problems like allergies, acid reflux and post nasal drip can lower the quality of the voice to such an extent that could be career threatening. I suggest that every voice performance program should send every student to a laryngologist who specializes in the singer's voice, at the beginning of each year. Even if the student sounds impressive, there can be problems that are undetectable by the naked ear (e.g. mild peresis). Such programs should also include a nutritionist who could run the necessary examination to see if the digestive tract of the singer is functioning properly, including taking bacterial cultures. Problems like acid reflux and allergies have a strong influence from dietary practices and the basic ability to digest the food that the singer intakes. When these hindrances are removed, the process of vocal pedagogy is profoundly simplified.

© 10/07/2008


George said...

The health issue can be very difficult to deal with. Because your instrument is not readily visible to others, when you're instrument isn't healthy it's almost always a matter of other people having to take your word for it. Often people will say that it's all in your head. It's psychological. This is beyond frustrating to deal with. Others will insist the problem is technical. They are only partly right. When the apparatus is not healthy one will usually employ unhealthy technique to try to make the sounds they are used to being able to make.

My first semester of grad school I suffered a lot from sinus infections, and other physical aggravations largely provoked by a septum that had been severely deviated in a diving accident the previous year, and turbinates that had swollen massively since that time. What a way to start at a new school. It wreaked havoc on my singing, and I'm sure I employed a severely pressed phonation to compensate for the ring my voice had lost being constantly inflamed.
The problem was not all psychological, nor was it all technical. I eventually got surgery to correct these things, which was another frustration. The surgery left no visible scars or bruising, but my recovery was still difficult.

Often when I know my vocal cords are swollen and I need to save voice I fear that others (voice teachers, coaches, conductors, etc) think I'm just being a lame neurotic singer. Those times can be very trying, but I have to rest assured that I know my instrument better than anyone else possibly could.

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

A very crucial issue, my friend! My folds are finally healing from Acid Reflux. Those who do not suffer from illnesses have no sympathy whatsoever. And that is the most frustrating. I cannot tell you how many singers say to me that reflux is in my head. The common reply is: "why did the great singers of the past not talk about reflux?"

Simple: 1. It was not called GERD. 2. The cases were much fewer because our foods had far fewer chemicals in them that ruin our digestive system and cause GERD. 3. Those that made it probably did not suffer from it when they began. 4. Maybe some were victim to it and did not know that they were, and their careers simply went down the drain.

I am finding that when the voice is healthy, results can be achieved much more quickly.

Thanks for sharing, George! I have a student who has had the same experiences you've had. After his surgery he changed from baritone to tenor and is doing well right now.

thetruth said...

I've had my throat stretched twice for unknown causes to my doctors and I sing quite well for someone of my age so I have been told by many,But I think with my ability to sing from my diaphragm as most I have met sing from their throat, is purely by chance and as a baby I grew up around music and singers. I do think that my voice has been hindered from it because it takes about a day for my food to get out of my throat and into my stomach, so when Im singing after eating or sometimes just doing so, I get these little trips in my voice and my throat never hurts until I try to sing over whats in it. I think im going to go back and get it stretched again cause its a weird issue, Its not acid reflux although I have been prescribed Nexium, which I never take.

It's very frustrating although Ive noticed if I'm on a high like after exercising and im all warmed up body wise, my diaphragm feels very powerful and relaxed and when I sing, I can sustain a lot more power and go on for hours without any or feeling strained at all..It's just my throat issue that makes me sick. It's really gonna have me giving up on singing because I cant seem to control it. I've sent a video of me singing to TOREADORRSONG a few weeks ago, I dotn know if he got it though.

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

I did not receive it. Please send it to toreadorssong@googlemail.com (1 R 2 S)


thetruth said...

im on it it!