Monday, April 27, 2009

Requesting your patience

Dear Readers,

I ask your patience during the next few days. A few projects keep me very occupied. However, I am working very hard on the exercises and they are almost done. Hopefully by week's end I will deliver them. They will cover breathing to ready the mechanism for phonation as well as focusing the singer's mind in preparation for singing; phonation exercises to coordinate breath and folds; and resonance and articulation exercises.

Additionally, I am preparing commentary (auf Deutsch and in English) on the superior Carnegie Hall Recital Debut of René Pape. In short, a remarkable singer who may be the figure of salvation for an almost extinct art of Lieder-singing, a discipline very close to my heart. It is worth putting the possible influence of this great  singer in perspective.

Another post is forthcoming on the importance of adequate vocal weight. Too heavy is not good, but we should also understand why too light is not good either. Furthermore, it is paramount that we distinguish between weight and glottal squeeze. The latter is a result of singing too lightly (more on this), as well as inadequate glottal pressure/flow balance.

Finally, my sincere apologies to Adam who responded expertly to my comments on the lip trill.I meant to comment back, of course. In short, I did not say that the lip trill was dangerous, but rather that the breath pressure necessary to vibrate the lips may cause a tense glottal response in singers who have a history of glottal squeezing. The Titze article does not take vocal history of the singer into account. In a "virgin" voice (meaning without negative history), a lip trill done adequately would induce strong trans-glottal flow, which would become high supra-glottal pressure to vibrate the lips. Achieving a balance between the glottal tone and the lip trill is the key. In this I agree totally.  [v] and [z], and the light [m] seem to induce more moderate glottal resistance in singers who have an imbalance at the glottal level because those occlusions require less supra-glottal pressure and therefore less sub-glottal pressure (i.e. trans-glottal resistance). You may not have the kind of history that causes any problems relative to lip trills. As you say, you find the [v] a good follow-up to lip trills. This also makes sense. The [v] in my experience seem to induce a more exact vocalis-CT balance while also inducing trans-glottal flow. I find it a very important exercise.

To all,

A lot of good things coming in the next few days.

All the best,

JRL/TS

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): One Must Die To Rise Again: Rebuilding the voice from imbalance to balance

I have not forgotten about the promises I made here, and today is a day to deliver. First, Happy Easter and a belated Happy Passover! These last couple of weeks have been full of activities upon seeing my New York students, and it has been truly a blessing to see with what dedication they have taken on the work of developing their own voices while I was away. Everyone has made marked improvements and that is heart-warming. My hope is that a language could be developed that tells the student facts that they can understand and apply to their own singing, gradually becoming independent of the teacher. And I am seeing that happening. I intend to deliver on two promises. First, in this post I will include a clip that gives a glimpse into my own process and where I am in my journey from bass-baritone to tenor. Second in the next post, which I may write today, I will give a series of warm-up exercises that can be done as a daily warm-up, explaining what they do. Clips for each exercise will be added later.

As I observed each student, I saw a pattern that applies to my own process as well. In all cases, we have dealt with two principal issues: 1) Reestablishing muscular balance (weight) and 2) accomplishing pressure/flow balance. It is true that technical problems with the greater share of singers stem from too much vocalis activity, what we in layman's terms refer to as too much weight. Yet in a great many cases, the problem is the opposite, too little vocalis activity. In the case of several coloratura sopranos that I have taught over the past couple of years, that has been the issue. In those cases, achieving consistency in the Queen of the Night's high F passages depended on not less weight but more. Contrary to popular belief, an approach that is too light (by this, I mean too little vibratory mass, fold depth) does not help the process of phonation but in fact creates a need for unnecessary muscular activity, namely pressed voice (very likely hyperactive adductory muscles making up for a lack of mass).

There is also a common misunderstanding that tension is associated with too much weight. A student of mine who is also making the switch to tenor from baritone kept saying: "that was too heavy, wasn't?" The question he should have asked is whether it was too tense. In fact, true freedom is not possible until appropriate weight has been established. In the case of lower voices becoming higher voices, there is naturally a weakness in the upper end. That weakness manifests usually in tension, often wrongly described as weight. In the case of the tenors changing from baritone, what I have observed is that they do indeed sing heavily in the lower part of the voice and just beyond the muscular passaggio (where crico-thyroid becomes dominant over vocalis, around C#4). They had to do so in order to sound viable as baritones. The big job is achieving appropriate weight in the lower and middle part of the range in order to allow proper muscular balance. Once the appropriate weight has been accomplished, then flow phonation (and by association, vocal tract adjustment) can be addressed.

The problem is that many changing bari-tenors do not like to give up the dark quality of their lower range. There is a psychological attachment with the vocal color that had been used for so long. In that sense, one must die before s/he can rise again. In order for the excessive weight in the lower range to be normalized, the singer must accept a different sound quality. For that bari-tenor, it is important to die a baritone death before rising again as a tenor. This is an emotional death, a letting go of something that has served well, often for a long time. The average person wants to hold on to what feels familiar. That is the principle difficulty in making a voice type change, particular from low to high.


Consider another scenario:

A soprano who sings too lightly consequently develops pressed phonation, which limits the top range. How do we remedy this? Based on the discussion above, it is important to bring the weight to balance. This means increasing the weight in the top voice where it is too light and pressed. However, this would cause more tension. I find it logical and practicable to fix the problem in reverse. First remove the pressed phonation that is essentially lack of air flow, and then adjust the weight while being conscious of the need for air flow. The end product is appropriate fold depth (thickness) and flow phonation based on the edges barely touching. A simulated complete glottal closure by means of supra-glottal inertia will be achieved through a long vocal tract resulting from low larynx and high/wide soft palate and vowel choices that keep the relevant formant frequency below the respective harmonic. I must stress that appropriate weight (fold mass, fold depth) is central to the phonation equation. A given pitch can be distinguished by the fold mass required to produce it. When that is altered, there must be extraneous mechanisms in order to achieve that particular pitch. Those extraneous mechanisms (pressed phonation, often followed by mild muscle tension dysphonia) are what we recognize as tension. Accomplishing appropriate weight makes those mechanisms unnecessary.

This has been a part of my personal struggle in making the change from bass-baritone to tenor. In my early days at the University of Michigan, George Shirley did warm me up to C#5 more than once. So I knew that I had the notes. Among many of his wisdoms, was the idea that one should feel an anchoring in the chest. I have come to identify this anchoring as associated with vocalis activity or better said, fold depth. This explains why there is such a correlation between chest sensations and heavy mechanism. This is an effective way of approximating the appropriate fold depth. However, it is important to consider flow simultaneously. The released sensation associated with falsetto and flute voice should be combined with this sensation of connection via the chest. Balancing these two sensations will ultimately result in appropriate fold depth and flow-phonation mode. I will give exercises in the next post that encourage the balance between fold depth and flow phonation (one exercise to be found below). In the mean time, I share the following clip recorded yesterday between voice lessons. There are moments where the muscular balance is still tenuous, particularly around C#4 where I believe the muscular passagio (as opposed to the acoustic passaggio that occurs higher around F#4) occurs for more robust tenors (this causes a slight instability in the pitch). The first Bb has some tension to be resolved. The second is better. Now that the basics have been accomplished, the work of the next few months is strongly breath-related. Teaching the fold edges to return to a natural mode of vibration. The ability to sing the consonant [v] throughout the modal range is a sign of balanced phonation. This is also an exercise that promotes such balance. During the exercise, there must be enough air pressure in the mouth to create a strong [v] sound. This requires enough air flow through the glottis and guarantees flow phonation at that level. In other words, enough air pressure must be created to vibrate both the glottal obstruction and the obstruction at the lower-lip-upper-teeth juncture. However the pressure must convert to flow at the glottal level in order for enough pressure to become available above the larynx for the lip vibration. Achieving a clear vibrant [v] is therefore a confirmation of flow phonation. Singing a scale on [a] right afterward always yields exciting results in my experience. This is a safer exercise than the lip trill, which requires greater air pressure in general. I consider lip trills a stronger version of the [v] exercises and should be done once evenness has been accomplished with the [v].

© 04/12/2009

Friday, April 3, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): Warm-up routine for beginners and professionals, Introduction

I promised my students a warm-up routine that they can follow every day. This was two months ago before activities grew to a fever pitch during my recent trip. I apologize to my youngest student, Rémy especially because he got to a level of commitment whereby he really needed a daily routine. I could have concocted a series of warm-ups that could have been functional, but just about that time, I arrived at a level of clarity about the workings of the voice that required of me a more complete philosophy about the process of teaching. As I have often mentioned here, I am a great admirer of the martial arts. I practiced for a short time. The process of learning to master the art of music is very similar to that of the martial arts. There is a necessity for discipline, daily routine in practice, clarity of philosophy, and a commitment to a proven process. Now I practice Bikram Yoga. The Russian schools of piano and ballet are well-known for the rigorous attention to consistent daily practice and exactitude of technical approach. Most instrumentalists have a similar process, because the instruments they play can be seen, taken apart, analyzed (in fact the instruments were crafted with specific acoustic theories in mind). Because of this, specific techniques for playing the instruments could be developed. Such is not the case with the voice, at least not until the last couple of decades.
For all of the mystery and pomp made of the Bel Canto School of singing as developed by the Italian Masters, it was never truly a systemized coherent process. There have been many branches of the Italian technique, with extreme differences in approach and in aesthetic values. Certain fundamentals have come down to us, such as open throat, high soft palate, appoggio breathing technique, singing on the breath (sul fiato), mask resonance, etc. However, precisely because none of this had been based on verifiable science, it has been easy to dispute what these catch phrases really mean. The one guiding light to the sustaining of the myths associated with these approaches has been the keen hearing of gifted voice teachers who have been able to guide their students by instinct and trial and error to excellent vocal habits devoid of tension and acoustically satisfying. The very best of these teachers have been able to identify the fundamentals that must be addressed: onset (phonation), breath management, resonance adjustment. Because all three elements of vocal production are inextricably tied to one another, it has been difficult for teachers to identify a phonation problem, from a breathing problem from a resonance problem. Jaw and tongue tension are routinely identified as root causes to vocal problems when in fact they are symptoms of more fundamental phonation (therefore breathing) and resonance issues. Furthermore, many malfunctions occur because of a lack of basic core strength in the musculature associated with singing (the whole body really), which in turn causes hyper-function resulting in misalignment of the body and tensions throughout the body, and because of a lack of psychological and spiritual guidance as to the singer’s relationship to his/her own psyche.
Now however, we have enough information to experience real cause and effect relative to the ideal myoelastic-aerodynamic balance of the voice. We have a firm understanding of what a singer needs to do to achieve a strong acoustic signal conducive to the needs of an operatic performance with large orchestra in a large hall. Paradoxically, knowing how the instrument should function does not mean that the instrument is ready to function in that way. The problem of muscle memory must not be ignored. Most singers come to the studio with some muscular imbalances that hinder the ability to correctly produce the desired final result. Yet, in the many lessons I have observed, many teachers will spend the hour attempting to produce that very final result, which in the given state of the singer can only be produced through malfunction. Malfunction also means that the resultant sound is not really the final product that is desired. There are many acceptable sounds, that combined with the singer’s charisma can produce a result that the audience is satisfied with. However, those sounds are a far cry from the balanced phonation that reinforces good physical development of the vocal mechanism and maintains natural and healthy structural conditions. The truth of the matter is that many singers cannot produce the desired final sound when they enter the studio (whether because of the afore-mentioned physical limitations or psychological and spiritual blocks), and in these times, which are conditioned by a desire for immediate gratification, such is not acceptable. Rather than learning the principles that lead to correct development of the balanced, efficient sound, the student prefers to find immediate gratification in a quick fix that has no hope of consistency. Everything about the current state of the arts, and indeed the current state of our societies worldwide, reinforces a quick gain at the risk of long term loss. How can we expect any better from opera and classical singing?
It is for that reason that I did not want to disseminate a series of exercises for my students until I had time to consider specifically what the exercises mean in the context of a greater voice building protocol. The exercises I would have given my youngest student would have been no better than the many random exercises to be found in the many collections of warm-ups, which although excellent, have little effect unless the technical reasoning behind them is understood.
I have assembled a series of warm-ups based on the principles that we have been discussing here for the past year. The exercises themselves are nothing new. The difference is that I will explain precisely what our final product should be and what the necessary elements are and how to arrive at eventual balance and strength. The martial arts, ballet, piano, violin, gymnastics, track and field, tennis, etc are all taught with such protocols as a foundation. The knowledge now exists to produce such a protocol for vocal development. My students and I have been the guinea pigs, so to speak, of the process. And it is worthwhile in the near future to post clips of us along our path of development. This will happen here as I develop a format that is easy enough to follow. And my promised clip of myself will be up as soon as I stop traveling. I am on a train right now on my way to South Jersey and then Washington DC. So I have not stopped yet since returning to New York. More importantly, in the next day or two, I will post that series of basic exercises for developing and maintaining a balanced vocal habit. Later I will also post remedial exercises to help rehabilitate voices that are muscularly out of balance.
Upon returning to New York, I taught a few of my students and was so elated with their development in my absence. So here is a shout-out to Dave Morrow for finding his natural baritone weight through patient practice after singing as a tenor for years; to Donatella Moltisanti for respecting the coloratura nature of her voice and achieving consistently accurate intonation, after years of attempting to sing as a mezzo, and a huge hug to Ross Cruchlow who has made the switch from baritone to dramatic tenor in record time, turning the adversity of what seemed like a bad audition to a triumph. Hearing you sing Eisenstein yesterday is one of the highlights of this teaching year. I can’t wait to the performances at the Liederkranz. The most satisfying thing is that you guys did this in my absence, which means that our process over time does indeed yield results. You had the faith to continue with your exercises and you reaped the rewards. A teacher’s goal is to make himself/herself irrelevant, a bad economic model according to some of my colleagues, but the right pedagogical model if you ask me. Thank you for making me a little more irrelevant.

© 04/03/2009