Sunday, May 17, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): The distinction between weight and tension

A very interesting phenomenon became very clear to me over the past few weeks, or rather I have discovered with clarity how to put into words what I have always aurally experienced relative to tension (i.e pressed voice, glottal squeeze) as distinctly different from singing "too heavily", (as many teachers and singers often misrepresent). When we consider the vertical dimension of fold vibration as it relates to pitch, it becomes very clear that glottal squeeze, which is often mischaracterized as heavy singing actually occurs for the exact opposite reason, namely "singing too thin." Let us consider the following picture from the website of the University of Stuttgart!



Imagine that the vertical plane where the folds meet (fold depth, fold thickness) represents the fold mass necessary for the pitch A4 (440 Hertz or 440 vibrations per second. The pitch is arbitrarily picked for easy mathematics)! This means that every 1/440 of a second a puff of air will travel through that specific thickness, which requires exactly 1/440 of a second to open and close thereby allowing one puff of air to come through. The repetition of this process normally occurs 440 times a second for the pitch A4, whereby 440 waves traveling at the speed of sound strike the eardrum 440 times within a second, which is translated by the brain as said pitch. In fact it is the desire of the singer to produce that pitch that sets up the mechanism to produce it.

Under normal circumstances, the appropriate thickness would be set up appropriately to produce an even oscillation whereby adequate pressure is build up and released depending on the desired level of volume. It can be assumed that fold oscillation would be nearly 50/50 ratio between the open and close phase.

However, not all circumstances are normal. The singer desires not only pitch but also timbre (sound quality) which may be or may not be in keeping with the singer's natural vocal function. This is where the pertinent information comes in: Imagine that the singer desires to sing that same pitch A440 but has a timbre in mind that sets up the folds at a different thickness, a thinner one to be exact. By the explanation above, a thinner production would cause an immediate rise in pitch because it would take the folds less time to open and close when the vertical dimension is shallower. However a singer can increase the close phase by pressing the folds together, thereby slowing down the release of air for each cycle. This then causes a great increase in sub-glottal pressure that would build up with each cycle since less air is released than the air that pressurizes beneath the folds. This pressure causes the larynx to climb. The resultant sound is strident and brittle, lacking in warmth (low partials) since the natural depth of the larynx would be compromised.

I have found that the great majority of female singers that I hear is particularly prone to pressed voice in the middle range because of inadequate fold depth. This stems from a misunderstanding of the issues relating to the first passaggio between Eb4 to Gb4. There is an acoustic change in this area, which leads many ill-advised singers to change their mode of phonation, often attempting to access what they believe is head voice, when in fact they end up producing either a slightly breathy sound remedied by pressing the folds together or by a thinner production that must be pressed to maintain pitch level, as explained above.

The either/or approach to head voice and chest voice is the cause of this. A good broadway belter, compared to the average operatic soprano, is often more exciting to listen to in the middle range at a visceral level because she is usually applying proper fold depth to accomplish the sound. The result is a firm more present sound. The acoustic element (first formant dominance beyond the passaggio point resulting in a high larynx) is what distinguishes a healthy belt. In this case the high larynx is not caused by sub-glottal pressure but rather by the singer's desire to sing a speech-like quality. The fold depth is appropriate and the pressure/flow balance also correct. In fact the successful classical singer needs the phonation balance of a healthy belter but with a different acoustic strategy that like a man's passaggio at the same fundamental frequency levels (Eb4-Gb4) accesses second formant dominance by maintaining a low larynx, which prevents the lower formant to follow the rising pitch. The "and" approach requires what is often called "chest voice", which in fact is appropriate fold depth. This is the speaky quality. What is associated with "head voice" is adequate pressure/flow controlled by how the the folds come together medially. Both elements are necessary: the grounded feeling produced by adequate fold depth and the floating sensation produced by balanced pressure/flow. One without the other produces an unbalanced sound.

In addition, it would seem logical that an appropriately low larynx is achieved when the correct fold depth has been accomplished. Since a longer vocal tract is associated with the conditions for inertial reactance of the vocal tract (which induces flow phonation), it would follow that adequate fold depth is of prime importance to vocal production as a whole. It will have an effect of the nature of breath management by creating the desired glottal obstruction. It will by definition correct phonation-related dysfunction and as it relates to inertial reactance will effect resonance in a positive way as well. It is my opinion that greater harm is done to the voice by singing a thin sound than by the opposite.


© 05/18/2009


Sunday, May 10, 2009

René Pape: Ein Retter der deutschen Liedkunst

Ich möchte eine Meinung propagieren, die mit keinen Zeitungen oder Musikmagazinen zu tun hat, über den denkwürdigen Debut René Papes als Liedsänger in der Carnegie Hall, diese theure Halle der alten Meister der heiligen deutschen Liedkunst. Keiner allein kann die vom allgemeinen Publikum fast verlorene Kunst der Liedinterpretation richtig retten. Nichtsdestotrotz ist eine Spitzenfigur nötig, die eine neue Generation von Liedkünstlern inspirieren darf. Während der letzten Jahrzehnte wurden viele Sänger als Nachfolger Dietrich Fischer- Dieskaus deklariert. Die Idee selbst ist verwirrend. Jeder, der versucht, auf die Art Dieskaus zu interpretieren, wird immer im Schatten desselben  bleiben. Das ist die Gefahr und auch leider der Fall, bis zum 25.4.2009 in der Carnegie Hall in New York. Dieskau ist einzigartig! Ihm wird nie jemand gleichen. Eine neue Spitzenfigur für die Liedkunst muss keine Kopie sein, sondern auch einzigartig auf seine eigene Art. Aber wie Dieskau muss er die Fähigkeiten des echtes Liedkünstlers verkörpern: 1) eine perfekt behandelte Stimme 2) perfekte Beherrschung der deutschen Sprache 3) eine große Musikalität, die nur von einer tiefen Verständnis des musikalischen Sprache herrühren darf. Alle diese Qualitäten waren am 25ten April in der Carnegie Hall zu erleben.

Die schöne, starke Farbe der Stimme René Papes ist schon überall in der musikalischen Welt bekannt. Von der erste Note des ersten Liedes (Schuberts 
Aufenthalt) war klar, dass es, zumindest stimmlich, ein schöner Abend werden würde. War es aus Nervosität vor einer ganz vollen Carnegie Hall am Abend des Debuts, oder wurden die ersten drei Schubertlieder (aus dem Rellstab Teil des Schwanengesangs) nur als "Einsingemittel" benutzt? Der Bassbariton hielt sich scheinbar zurück.  Alles war trotzdem musikalisch klar und ganz deutlich. Am Anfang seines Carnegie- Hall- Debuts war die Präsentation passend und beruhigend. Grossartige Stimme, starke Bühnenpräsenz, musikalische Intelligenz und perfekte Aussprache wurden willkommen geheissen.

Bei den 
Michelangeloliedern von Hugo Wolf war Herr Pape wieder vollkommen zuhause. Da hat er dem Publikum seinen Herz geöffnet, und für 10 Minuten hat das Publikum den René Pape kennengelernt: Starke direkte Emotionen ohne Sentimentalität, zarte pianissimi und riesige forti ohne die Kontrolle der Stimme zu verlieren. Da war Herr Pape bezaubernd, beeindruckend und vor allem menschlich. So ging es weiter mit anderen Liedern von Schubert, u.a. Das Heidenröslein, Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren und Prometheus. Mit diesem letzten wagte nicht nur der Prometheus den Zeus zu versuchen zu vernichten, aber vielleicht auch der Pape-Prometheus den Dieskau-Zeus zu
 ersetzen. Wenn Herr Dieskau dort gewesen wäre, hätte er selbst den neuen König gekrönt. Keine Tricks, keinen emotionslosen Stoizismus als Gegenweg in Verhältnis zu Dieskau, wie es andere Sänger versucht haben, keine übertriebene Sentimentalität, die wieder andere Sänger benutzt haben, wenn keine echte Interpretation zu finden war.
Letztendlich sind Musik, Text und Gehirn und Seele genug, wenn alle von demselben Sänger so komplett beherrscht sind.

Nach der Pause hat Herr Pape Dichterliebe von Schumann angeboten. Die Tonarten dieser Lieder sind miteinander genial verbunden. Bei Bassstimmen muss man unbedingt viele von den Liedern transponieren.  Diese unregelmässigen Transpositionen waren für mich persönlich eine starke Ablenkung. Aber Herr Pape hat eine neue Seite der Hauptfigur gezeigt. Dieser Dichter war kein romantischer Mann, der schon am Anfang ganz in der Liebe verloren ist, sondern ein Jedermann, der tiefer und tiefer verletzt wurde, und noch am Ende trotz des "die Liebe ins Meer versenken", hoffnungsvoll geblieben ist. Hier hatte ich das Gefühl, dass der Zyklus von Beginn an wiederholt werden könnte. 

Es gibt auch keine Liedkunst ohne grossen Pianisten. Der Amerikaner Brian Zeger war der perfekte Partner. Sein Klavierton bei jedem Vorspiel bereitete das Lied wie einen roten Teppich für den Eintritt eines Königs. Er hat Kraft und Zärtlichkeit, auch Gewalt und Tränen selbst dem Klavier entfesselt, wenn es nötig war. Sein Ausdruck, wie bei Herrn Pape, war auch direkt und deutlich. Das Nachspiel am Ende der Dichterliebe war traumhaft, doch gleichzeitig logisch und ausgeglichen. Das kann nur von jemandem kommen, der eine perfekte Beherrschung der musikalischen Sprache hat. 

Als Zugaben waren Zueignung von Strauss und Some Enchanted Evening. Das Publikum applaudierte stehend bis zum Ende.

Vielleicht ist es ein Fehler von mir, Herr Pape mit Dieskau zu vergleichen, weil beide, von Stimmfach wie von Personalität, total verschieden sind. Aber ich habe bisher keinen anderen angetroffen, der so eine Verheissung schien, eine neue Liedkunstbewegung führen zu können. Es ist akzeptiert heutzutage, dass ein Sänger mit weniger Stimmkraft ein Liedkünstler sein darf, wenn er/sie eine grosse künstlerische Vorstellung hat. Ich finde diese Meinung auch verwirrend. Bei der Liedkunst muss der Sänger dieser künstlerischen Vorstellung durch einen effizienten Stimmapparat Leben geben. Ohne Stimme gibt es keine Liedkunst. Herr Pape ist mit einer goldenen Stimme begabt und wie in der Carnegie Hall zu erfahren, eben mit einer grossen künstlerischen Vorstellung und alles dies ist nötig, um der Liedkünstler unserer Zeit zu sein.


Es war ein grosser Abend in der Geschichte der Liedkunst. Ich freue mich sagen zu können, dass ich da war!

© 05/10/2009

Ich möchte Alexandra Schulz herzlich bekanken für ihre gramatische Hilfe.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Rest In Peace, Richard Miller (1926- May 5, 2009)

Like many curious young voice teachers, I attended a couple of Richard Miller's seminars in the late 1990s. I did not get to know him well, only because my schedule often took me to Europe while he was in the States. However, over the years I got to know him well through students of his that I have gotten to teach in New York, or through my former students who went to Oberlin to work with him, or through his many articles and books, or through mutual colleagues.

What I have come to know of Richard Miller is that he lived in great part for his work. He must have felt he had a mission to complete. And he did complete it. Voice teachers can no longer pretend that the voice is a totally mysterious entity. Richard Miller did everything possible to bring empirical knowledge of the vocal instrument to the masses in a language that they could understand. While Vennard and Coffin gave us the rudiments of acoustics and anatomy, Miller gave us practical strategies for teaching singing based on an ever-developing discipline now coined vocology.

Vocology or applied vocal science had developed quickly since personal computers became a household item. But it was Miller who championed the idea of science-based teaching. The work I do via this blog is an offshoot of what he had done with more conventional means. My goals are very likely the same as his were: 1) to disseminate the fact that the voice is not as mysterious as it is comfortable to think, through finding a layman's language with which to explain vocal function 2) To challenge vigorously vocal myths while preserving the wisdoms of tradition 3) To arm singers and teachers with knowledge so they may enjoy their voices with confidence and help others to develop theirs. 

Such noble pursuits are often met with ridicule and those who understand little prefer to understand little and do not like the fire that such a Prometheus as Miller brought with him. The vocal establishment was very resistant to take the journey with Miller. In the end, he prevailed and inspired a whole generation of science-based teachers who owe it to themselves not to ride on Miller's laurels--because the masses  know neither the difference between crico-thyroid and crico-arytenoid nor between formants and formaldehyde--but to continue the work that he did by educating a new generation of voice teachers that see vocal science as a necessity. 

Dear Richard Miller, the world of singing is eternally in your debt and I for one will sing your praises whenever I get a chance. I disagreed with some of your concepts and dwelt more on those minor differences than on the fundamentals you so carefully laid out and that have fostered my own vocal science education. Though we barely knew each other, I could not have found my path without the vast road that you have paved before me.  You are a hero to so many and I remain humbled before your timeless achievements.

Requiescat in Pacem

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): A regimen for vocal warm-up

As I have mentioned here, I have a passionate connection to the martial arts. What I value about the martial arts, as well as yoga and the sports I played is that there was always a routine that everyone had to do every day. It is in the routine that we discover our strengths and correct imbalances. In fact, my personal vocal philosophy is based on this. I am convinced that a proven routine is the ultimate tool for continuous growth. I have watched my own voice gradually rebalance because of committing to a routine. I did not worry about the results, but my voice continues to get better. This is a basic warm-up routine, which when done daily builds awareness of the elements of balance. Beyond these exercises, there are others for strengthening and flexibility, as well as those geared to specific voice types. Those will be included in later posts. Furthermore, over time I will include video clips of the exercises. This is a very busy time and I have not been able to dedicate the time to record students or myself. I hope you find the exercises helpful.

1. Pendular breathing: Warming up the breathing mechanism

Natural breathing is cyclical. When watching a person sleep peacefully, it can be observed that there is an imperceptible amount of time between the release of air and the intake of air. As if a pendulum, the amount of time it takes to change direction from exhalation to inhalation to exhalation is minimal. The ability to accomplish this helps to achieve a flexible manner of breathing and indeed reflects inherent flexibility.

a. Exercise: Breathe out as if through a straw, observing the gradual release of air, the rise of the diaphragm, the contraction of the abdominal muscles, resulting in near complete contraction of the lungs until no more air can be squeezed out. Observe the gradual slow down at the end of the exhalation process and without holding the breath, smoothly reverse the process by wishing to breathe in (still as if through a straw): 1) the abdominals release, the diaphragm contract downward 3) the external inter-costal muscles expand the ribcage outward, all creating very spacious lungs that vacuum-like gradually fill up with a little resistance from the lips. The intake can take a long time, as the lungs continue to expand and more air can be packed in. Observe the last molecules of air come into the lungs as the inhalation process slows down. Without holding the breath, slowly reverse the process by wishing to blow air out: 1) resist the collapse of the ribcage by softly, flexibly maintaining the feeling of expansion achieved by the inhalation 2) observe the diaphragm (center of the torso) gradually rise and the belly follow it 3) observe the abs contracting, vertically, horizontally and obliquely (diagonally) until the lungs contract to a tiny center. 4) Observe the exhalation process slow down as the last molecules of air leave the lungs and smoothly (without holding the breath) reverse the process again .

2. Controlled exhalation: Preparing the breathig mechanism for phonation

a. Exhale and then inhale as above (exercise 1). When the body is filled with air, maintain the supple feeling of expansion and release an even, uninterrupted stream of air of [f], counting slowly with the fingers to 10. Continue releasing the remaining air quickly of [f] until the last molecules of air are released, and without holding the breath, smoothly breathe in as if through a straw (as above), and then repeat the exercise counting to 15, 20, 25, 30, etc…). Seek to increase the length of the release over time without losing the fluidity of uninterrupted release of air and without collapsing the ribcage. This builds strength and a dynamic relationship between the opposing muscles of inhalation and exhalation. The [f] (upper teeth and lower lip) form a resistance to the air stream in the way the glottis will in phonation. This resistance gives a feeling of pressure in the body, which we commonly call support.

b. Exhale until the lungs are empty. Breathe in as if through a straw for four counts. Then exhale on [f] for four counts and breathe in silently on [a] on the “and” of 4 (the last eight-note, semi-quaver), then exhale on [f] for three counts and breathe in silently on [a] on the “and” of 3, then exhale on [f] for two counts and breathe in silently on [a] on the “and” of two, then exhale on[f] for one count and breathe in silently on [a] on the last sixteenth note (demi semi-quaver) of the beat. Continue one beat of exhalation on [f] and a sixteenth note value of intake of silent [a]. This builds flexibility in the breathing mechanism as well as glottal passivity resulting in the ability to breathe quickly and fully when necessary. By breathing quickly on silent [a], the singer also learns to avoid involuntary glottal resistance (as when the glottis is too closed during inhalation and results in a noisy intake of air).

3. Phonation: Natural balance of Vocalis and CT by removing the medial component:

Gentle humming: By taken away the desire to make a perfectly “focused” tone, all pressure can be removed that might throw the voice off balance. Some singers have natural phonation balance and do not need this exercise. Most do have a muscular imbalance and need to relearn how the folds naturally come together before a certain sound is imposed that is against the nature of the instrument. THIS FIRST IS NOT A FINAL PRODUCT. This is merely an exercise to prevent singing with too much or too little vocalis activity.


a. Exercise: In the lower middle voice, take a quiet breath then hum a gentle [m] on a chosen note then go down on a five-note scale. Repeat progressively a half-step higher, as high as is comfortable. At no time in the exercise should tension be felt in the throat. The natural low position of the larynx must not be compromised. Too much medial pressure will result in increased sub-glottal pressure and a high larynx. For this particular exercise, better slightly breathy rather than pressed, although ideally the [m] should be clear and vibrant.

b. Exercise: Building breath support (pressure/flow) during phonation: In the lower middle voice, take a quiet breath then sing gently on [v] on a chosen note, then go down on a five note scale. The point of this exercise is to maintain muscular balance while increasing air pressure. The intensity of the sound at the lips ([f]) should be in balance relative to the glottal phonation (the voiced sound that turns the [f] into [v]). When balance is achieved, there is no tension in the throat. This exercise may also be done on [z] ([s] at the lips).

c. Exercise building further breath support (pressure/flow) during phonation (gentle m followed by Lip trills). Repeat exercise a ([m]), adding on lip trill and then going down a five note scale. This induces greater flow/pressure and prepares the mechanism for louder singing without undue tension in the throat.

d. Exercise: Variation of exercise a. In the lower middle voice, take a quiet breath then hum a gentle [m] on a chosen note, make it gradually more intense (focus). At this point vibrancy is felt in the area of the mask (this is a result of desiring to intensify the sound, not a putting the sound into the mask). When the vibrancy has been felt, take the newly intensified [m] down on a five-note scale. There should be no tension at the throat level.

Repeat the exercise progressively one half-step higher. This exercise should induce more complete glottal closure via increased activity of the inter-arytenoids (as opposed to the thickening of the folds by increasing vocalis activity).

e. Exercise: variation of exercise d: Intense [m] followed by lip trills. This is the same as exercise d with a lip trill added before going down the five-note scale.

4. Resonance Exercises:

The vocal tract is the voice’s resonator and must be fully erect (open) from glottis to soft palate in order for the best benefits of resonance to be achievable. For this to occur, the jaw must be released to the common [a] position. This is normally the open position where the jaw would naturally stop. Those who have TMJ (temple-mandibular jaw) or a history of wearing braces often do not achieve a naturally released [a] position. In the case of those who have worn braces, it usually feels like a bit of work to open to what was once natural. It feels too much at first. Those with TMJ experience a stopping point before the natural opening of the jaw and may build techniques based on a smaller jaw opening, often using other muscles (often the tongue) to complete the natural position of the larynx that with a closed jaw remains high. When the jaw is released adequately and flow-phonation has been achieved (through the exercises above), the larynx and soft palate assume respectively adequate depth and height. The concept of vowels that are natural to the individual throat is crucial to the final vocal product. These vowels must be achieved with the jaw released to its ideal position. The [i] vowel in particular causes problems because it is easier to produce it with a closed jaw. The correct production of the [i] with a released jaw requires greater activity from the tongue. It must rise higher and more forward. This at first feels very unnatural for some singers. Accomplishing it is crucial to consistent resonance. There is also a tendency to create the [u] vowel and mixed vowels with a closed jaw when all that is needed is rounded lips. A collapsed vocal tract reduces the number of overtones that are propagated through the vocal tract. The resultant sound is comparatively thinner, less complex (i.e. less interesting).

a. Exercise: tongue vowels. Take a quiet deep breath and sing a chosen note in the lower middle voice on intense [m] as in exercise 3d, then open to [a, e, i]. Maintain the jaw position of [a]. Only the tongue should move for [e] and [i]. Repeat exercise, this time with five note scale up and down on [a-a-e-e-i-i-e-e-a]. Repeat exercise at different pitch levels as needed. Minor vowel modifications happen depending on pitch.

b. Exercise: lip vowels. Take a quiet deep breath and sing a chosen note in the lower middle voice on intense [m] as in exercise 3d, then open to [a, o, u]. Maintain the jaw position of [a]. Only the lips should round for [o] and [u] (with minor adjustments in the tongue, which happens automatically). Repeat exercise, this time with five note scale up and down on [a-a-o-o-u-u-o-o-a]. Repeat exercise at different pitch levels as needed. Minor vowel modifications happen depending on pitch.

c. Exercise: mixed vowels. Take a quiet deep breath and sing a chosen note in the lower middle voice on intense [m] as in exercise 3d, then open to [a, oe, y]. Maintain the jaw position of [a]. Only the lips should round and the blade of the tongue should move up and forward for [oe] and [y]. Repeat exercise, this time with five note scale up and down on [a-a-oe-oe-y-y-oe-oe-a]. Repeat exercise at different pitch levels as needed. Minor vowel modifications happen depending on pitch.

d. Consonants: The release of the jaw is crucial in order to achieve the natural low laryngeal position and the stretched position of the soft palate. Consonants cause two principal problems. They give additional resistance to the airstream and some of them require closure of the jaw. Well-articulated consonants induce strong flow through the articulators and actually help in phonation because they require strong trans-glottal flow to achieve the supra-glottal pressure necessary for flow across the articulators (lips tongue, hard palate, or teeth or a combination thereof). As for the closure of the jaw, those consonants that require closure must be followed by a release of the jaw back to the [a] position.

Exercise: Articulation of consonants. On a chosen pitch in the lower middle voice, articulate the following sequences: [a ba], [a ka], [a da], [a fa], [a ga], [a ha], [a dƷa], [a la], [a ma], [a na], [a pa], [a kwa], [a ra], [a sa], [a ta], [a va], [a xa], [a za].

Repeat exercise with the following sequences: [a ba a bi], [a ka a ki], etc…

Note: For every sequence, the jaw should either remain open when the consonant does not require closure, or reopened immediately in cases where the jaw must be closed (e.g. fricatives like [f] and [v]). A consistent, flexible jaw position helps in accomplishing consistency in the quality of the resonance.



© 05/2/2009