Saturday, January 30, 2010

Master Class in Berlin 18-21 February, 2010: A reminder

Just a reminder about the Master Class. A few of our international blog readers will be in Berlin and there are a few active spots left as well as many spots for non-performing participants. I welcome you to peruse the PDF below and sign up if you have an interest.

Don Miller, the developer of Voce Vista is planning to attend (not yet 100% confirmed) and several members of the Berlin vocal scene will be present. Of course I would love a full class and would welcome my blog readers in particular since I am curious to meet you all.

In addition, I will be teaching 3 days in Gotenburg, Sweden  on April 2-4, 2010.
Dear Friends,

I had promised to share the information about my first master class in Berlin here on the blog. The following PDF file contains all the pertinent information. I would welcome any of you to participate if you are in the area:

Vocal Science Workshop.pdf

My sincere best wishes to you all for the New Year!


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道)The Illusion of one step forward and two backward

Voice teachers often try to placate the frustration of their students by telling them it is normal to feel as if they take a step forward and two backwards. Indeed they are correct in terms of the feeling. But would it not be more beneficial if they also knew that along with that depressing illusion was also the more positive fact that they were actually moving continually forward? Indeed that is the case. The illusion of "steps backward" is indeed merely an illusion. Those of us who have had experiences with sports do not find the concept foreign, although the passion of singing often renders us forgetful of parallel experiences that indeed could have been helpful.

In sports medicine, we learn that athletes train often to transform fast twitch (generate quick contractions but tire quickly) muscular motor units to slow twitch (better for endurance). Slow twitch units recover faster and contribute to stamina. As the muscles are in the process of being transformed, it is not unusual that an athlete will experience great stamina on a given week and then suddenly less on the following week. It is because the stamina of a given muscle group depends on many motor units that do not necessary grow in strength in the same amount of time. When all the units are strengthened, then the muscle as a whole will be able to recover faster and lasting stamina will have been achieved. (Skeletal muscles have both slow and fast twitch fibers recruited depending on the nature of the work at hand).

The recruitment of muscular motor units is specific for each pitch. The specific balance between the CT and TA (and by extension the IA) for a given pitch is what yields a pitch of a desired quality. If the production of that given pitch had been out of proper balance (such that would yield peak phonation efficiency), then the process of achieving proper balance would require a reorganization of the laryngeal musculature (not only those primary three). Such reorganization would require a different recruitment strategy of the motor units, which depending on their strength could cause the singer to feel considerably weak at the onset of the new muscular organization. In other words, what is correct would feel strange, weak and more difficult for a period of time during the transition.

It is a common experience to see the singer worry when they first begin a muscular rebalancing or a little impatient at the end of the process. One of my coloraturas sang an Ab6 at her last lesson and with the joy that came with it was also a little frustration that the extreme top notes are not yet at the strength level of her newly strong middle range. She is peaceful at this stage because she had gone through the process and saw her gradual improvement. She now knows that the illusion of steps backward is just an inertial period that will give in to a new level of strength. The trick is to get a new singer to understand this.

Even explaining the process here is of little comfort to the singer who has been struggling for years. When singers have been struggling without the desired results for a long time, it is difficult to gain their trust relative to a time-dependent process. The simple goal of this quick post is to reassure the singer that s/he will experience weakness even as s/he gets stronger vocally and to encourage him/her to persevere through the periods of weakness to eventually accomplish lasting strength and stamina.


© 01/27/2010

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Let It Come To You: An Issue of Faith in Career Management

I don't believe there are short cuts in attaining the level of artistic proficiency that makes a singer's product viable for market!  Unfortunately, because singers often achieve certain proficiencies without being conscious they have been learning, there is a false belief that immediate results can be achieved. When I put singers through the paces, there comes a point of questioning whether they have the talent to continue. These moments of doubt often come because they have not had to confront head-on their weaknesses. Two things may result: 1) They will persevere and achieve results having consciously worked out their problems. Real confidence come from seeing that a problem is indeed soluble when addressed logically and given enough time. 2) The student will believe that another teacher can accomplish results better than I can. Both have occurred and both will continue to occur. Fortunately I seem to attract students who have had enough of the short-term quick fixes and are often ready to pursue a long-term solution. And so I adopt Beverly Sills assertion:

There are no short cuts to any place worth going!

It is also true that singers who are looking for a short cut are also in a hurry. The music field as we know it seems to rush people along. But I am of the mindset that time is inconsequential when the product is of the highest quality. What impresario would not want another René Pape

or another Luciana d'Intinto

Hence a Daniel Webster quote:

There is always room at the top!

We are plagued with the impatience that fosters the need for immediate gratification.  I am an admire of baritone Timothy Noble who made his operatic debut in his forties after a career as an opera-loving truck driver or Magda Olivero who was unknown in the US until Metropolitan Opera General Manager, Rudolf Bing discovered her in her sixties in an Italian theater and had her open the Met season with Tosca, of Giuseppe Verdi who failed to be accepted to conservatory twice and became arguably the greatest operatic composer ever and yes Susan Boyle who sang for 35 years before stunning Britain's Got Talent.  In a sense it is not about perfection, but rather a commitment to long-term self-perfectionism.

How does one get to readiness for success?  The moment one stops following the rules and creates his/her own path!

Along those lines, one student of mine who seemed in her late twenties pressured by the operatic machine of fall auditions and spring auditions, running a race stacked against her needs to take time to fully develop, decided to stop the turning wheel in which she was the hamster. She began singing for fun again and low and behold, her former weakened middle register is the strongest part of her range now.

Some people will have the kinds of attributes that suit the current system and they will progress in it. Some will come to a dead-end because the system is very flawed, but some will ride the system as far as it goes and then invent the road where it stops. But others need to create an altogether new road for themselves. In such cases, they will create a product and the career will come to them.

I have seen a lot of faith among my students, but it takes ultimate faith to say: "I have something unique and extraordinary inside me and I will craft it until it is ready for the public to enjoy!" Indeed:

Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time!

Nor should a singer present himself/herself before it's time!

In the end, it comes down to whether one believes that there is something unique and interesting and true inside of himself that will inspire the average person. If one perceives himself as just another singer trying to make it, then that is precisely what will manifest. And that one will spend a career competing in a huge pool of others who perceive their limitations rather than their infinite possibilities.  Some of those will succeed simply by the law of averages, but there will be no science as to why they succeed. It will be a crap shoot!

We are all diamonds in the rough! Some of us with a lot more rough! It takes faith, courage and patience to shed the rough and make manifest the diamond! When a diamond is evident, all will come to it! There is a science in this! When the diamond has been released, everyone knows it!

If you do not see the diamond in yourself, why should anyone else?

© 1/19/2009

Monday, January 18, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Of Soft Palates and Released Jaws: Issues of Resonance

One student recently asked me about whether the soft palate should be up all the time or not. I have not been particularly obsessing about the soft palate because I deal with it in terms of vowel quality, that is to say as part and parcel of a larger resonance concept. Yet there is a good reason why so many teachers swear by conscious control of the soft palate. When phonation is unbalanced, one of the immediate by-products is a slightly droopy velum, causing slight nasality. I find that this is also connected with excessive medial pressure, which also leads to a raised larynx. Often taking care of one takes care of the other. The point is that they are caused by the same thing, namely imbalance in the phonation mode.

In most cases I would suggest that one deals with the root cause, which is to say, phonation. However, there comes a point when phonation is near enough balanced that a thought to the soft palate could be the tipping point that yields real pressure/flow equilibrium. The question is how to get the soft palate raised or properly adjusted (for it must be flexible--It changes as the vocal tract changes resonance and with pitch change)! Many exercises are possible including a pre-yawn sensation, preceding a vowel withe the sound of "ng" in the word "sing" or simply concentrating on the quality of the vowel. The completeness of a vowel sound depends on three factors: 1)the source tone, which is the primary factor (without an efficient tone, vowels sound dull or strident) 2) Tongue and lip shaping, which respond to accurate conception of the vowel sound and 3)the dimensions of the vocal tract (i.e. vowel space).

Dealing with "vowel space" alone, without a thought to vowel conception and source tone can lead to a hollowness that the Italian masters call voce ingolata (swallowed voice). In those situations, some teachers will insist that the soft palate is down. This is not always the case. The lack of brilliance in such a situation is not so much related to resonance adjustment as much as it is a consequence of loose phonation. In a sense, phonation and vowel conception should be dealt with first before issues of resonance space are dealt with.

Similarly, I was working with a student who made remarkable improvement in dealing with a pressed middle voice. This mezzo-soprano had developed a very even and full range except for the area F4 and below. That part of her voice had improved as well, but it seemed fragile and unable to withstand increased breath pressure. Having accomplished what I felt was good coordination at the laryngeal level, I was momentary at a loss why that part of the range was so much weaker.  I became aware that her jaw (we had addressed releasing the jaw because it was very tight in much of the range), although released downward, was also pushed backwards. Upon suggesting that she allows the jaw to release a slight bit forward, there was a much fuller sound in the lower range and a much smoother transition from middle to low. In the "pushed-back" jaw position, it seemed to me the larynx was being cramped and consequently the natural lower pharyngeal space was compromised. This was less the case in her middle range and certainly not the case in her upper range, where she had a more natural jaw release.

Although the problem was existent also in the middle range (though less pronounced) it did not affect that range considerably. I believe it is because the middle range is second-formant-dominant.  I believe the second formant is more dependent upon the upper pharyngeal space. Indeed both vowel formants are affected by lower pharyngeal cramping, but the first formant suffers more (This is an assertion from observations in the studio and not a scientifically supported fact). Proceeding from this theory, it makes sense then that the notes that are first-formant-dominant in the low range (suffering from laryngeal cramping) would be the most compromised. Indeed that was the case. The improvement in the sound after the jaw adjustment does suggest that inappropriate jaw release can have a detrimental effect on lower notes event in cases where phonation balance is possible. The inadequate resonance adjustment due to tense jaw can alter phonation pronouncedly in otherwise balanced laryngeal function. I also believe that such jaw tension is often compensatory when laryngeal function (CT-TA-IA balance) is inadequate. In such circumstances, it may be difficult to deal with the jaw tension before phonation balance has been achieved, at least with occluded continuants (e.g. [v], [z], [m] [n], etc).  The ability to produce clear and present occluded continuants is a sign of laryngeal balance (caveat: A different balance is necessary for each note. Therefore, balance in one part of the range does not mean balance throughout. Indeed one note may be perfectly balanced while the chromatic neighbor may suffer imbalance).

To summarize, it is my opinion that dealing with the soft palate and/or jaw tensions when phonation imbalance is extreme may not yield sustainable results. However when near-balance has been achieved in the phonation mode, a slight jaw or palate adjustment can be the tipping point to peak efficiency.

© 1/18/2009

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Special Message on Behalf of Haiti, My Birthplace

Dear Friends,

I like to keep the Blog free of extra-vocal issues, but this is extreme! Those of you who do not know much about Haiti, I welcome you to take this opportunity to learn about this marvelous country. A country of amazing possibilities whose growth has been stunted by all kinds of misfortune. We Haitians like to imagine a better day, but hurricanes, political mayhem, etc have made that better day further out of reach. Today came yet another disaster:

The capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince was hit tonight by a Magnitude 7 Earthquake. The epicenter of the quake is Carrefour, precisely the area where I grew up.

Hatians throughout the Diaspora are doing everything they can to get the word out. I figures my blog was one avenue. There are lots of ways to contribute to Earthquake Relief.

For those in the USA, Rapper Wycleff Jean, who actually attended one of my concerts a few years ago has set up an Earthquake Relief number: Send a text message with the text "Yele" to 501501. It will charge your phone $5.00 which will go to relief through Wycleff's foundation. Wycleff has committed his life to helping Haiti. If the number does not work, continue trying. It is generating a lot of activity.

Feel free to share information by commenting on this post. I will not write another post on this, so the blog maintains its focus.

Thank you in advance for whatever you can do to help Haiti!

Jean-Ronald LaFond

Monday, January 11, 2010

Kashudo (歌手道):Top-down and Bottom-up Approaches. The Necessity of an "and" Approach

It is crucial in pedagogy to tailor the technical approach to the specific student. In my current work with a 19-year old soprano, much is learned. It is remarkable how "unspoiled" her voice is. Indeed the voice was not very strong in the beginning, but there was no major imbalance. This soprano is lucky enough to have had good speaking habits from the start, which prevented imbalances. Her middle range was already gaining in strength, but the top was weaker. We were able to isolate the "fluty" but correct phonation mode of the top voice and with gentle crescendos challenge the muscles to withstand more breath pressure without losing the efficient closure. At the end of our month of work, the voice was homogenized and she could sing an even 3 octaves (F3-F6)in a balanced modal coordination. It was important to realize that the "fluty" voice was a weak modal voice and not a vocalis-deficient coordination. In fact the "fluty" top voice was slightly better coordinated than her middle. In this case, a top-down approach was the better choice. A weak sound is not always vocalis-deficient. To have this young singer increase chest voice to make more sound would have been disastrous. In this case, the problem was systemic. The entire vocal mechanism had been unchallenged. Increasing volume gently and maintaining the natural balance of her voice (though weak) was the way to induce strength-building in all the intrinsic musculature. In short, it is normal for a 19-year old singer to have a voice that is incapable of great volume. Some are certainly capable of great volume, but that is more the exception than the rule. It is also important to know that this soprano's ability to access F6 does not mean she is a coloratura. In fact I think she is a young lyric. The natural strength of the voice is more in that tessitura than in the stratosphere.

It is a different story dealing with more mature voices. As I have often said here, the most common problem with female voices is what I call "register polarization" (i.e. the over-development of the extremes at the expense of the middle voice). Developing a strong, coordinated, flexible middle voice should be primary in the minds of any singer and his/her teacher. A well-coordinated middle voice guarantees that the two primary muscle groups (CT and TA) are developed in antagonism with each other. Only this antagonism can guarantee true strength of both muscle groups. Developing a loose chest voice, devoid of CT participation (also called vocal fry) or a thin high voice lacking in TA (vocalis) participation is easier to accomplish but a recipe for all kinds of functional problems. Yet dare I ask: how many female singers we know with a big chest voice and a stretched-up top voice with a pronounced weakness in the middle? I say too many!

Correcting this is in great part what I do. And this is no easy job. In such cases, the recruitment of motor units within each muscle group had been trained wrongly. Training the muscles to recruit correctly for a given middle voice note takes time. A perfect sound will not be accomplished immediately in such cases. Or better said, a well-produced, loud sound is not possible right away. If the student has patience, the better approach is to begin quietly in the middle and strengthen the weak area. It would also require not singing very high nor very low for while, until there was enough strength in the middle to induce a less "polarized" coordination at the extremes. This we could call a "middle-out" approach.

However in the case of active professionals I have had to adopt a more aggressive approach which includes combining a bottom-up "and" a top-down approach, thereby inducing gradually increased mass where it lacks and ultimately better closure afterwards. In such cases the top-down alone does not work because the voice is already pressed (a weak middle voice is tantamount to extremely pressed voice, which by its nature constitutes a lack of adequate fold depth [mass]). Before adequate closure can be achieved, appropriate mass must be induced. In this case a bottom-up approach is a good beginning, but of course the singer will get to a point where it feels that she cannot take the chest voice further. This limit is because the CT is not strong enough to handle increased opposition from the TA at that point in time, not because it is impossible to take a fuller voice up. This is where patience comes in. After having induced as much mass as the middle voice can handle in the bottom-up exercise, it is crucial to follow it up by a top-down approach to see if a combination of increased mass and a good closure from the top voice would combine in a balanced posture.

Additionally, the breath must be used effectively to reduce medial pressure. When the voice is pressed,inducing greater flow is an excellent way to encourage a more balanced posture. However, it is important to distinguish between increased airflow through fully adducted folds and breathy singing resulting from a sudden posterior gap. For that reason I do not recommend using an "h" at onset because it often results in a posterior gap releasing free air. I recommend occluded continuants like gentle m, n, v, z and rolled r. Lip trills achieve the same thing but are often too extreme at first when the middle voice had been pressed extremely.

In the beginning of the process, the singer will feel very uncoordinated. In point of fact, the singer is indeed uncoordinated even though she was getting adulation for an extreme low and high voice. The new low voice will feel weak and the new high will feel "heavy"--heavy in the sense of effortful because the new top voice is experiencing greater opposition from TA. The singer will also lose stamina for a time. That is why many singers who have uncoordinated voices and have gotten praise for the polarized extremes often do not do this work but instead gradually decay until the middle voice is absolutely non-viable.

If however the singer has the patience to make these changes, as the new balance is strengthened, the entire voice will become fuller and the true balanced, homogenized nature of the voice will be uncovered.

This is also the case with tenors in particular among male voices. many tenors develop their careers with a thickened lower voice that yields to a high voice that is pressed, lacking in adequate mass. The passaggio in such cases becomes a real source of frustration. In such cases, reducing volume in the lower and middle voice to attempt to achieve better closure is a good start. When an excellent middle voice has been achieved, then the tenor should attempt to bring that quality up. That too will require patience, but in some ways, it is an easier process than experienced by the female voice, because the pressed middle range can span an entire octave, whereas with a male voice, the muscular passaggio is usual about a fifth at the extreme.

In both cases, I would recommend first a middle-out approach if the singer has the patience to start again with a quiet sound. In the case of active singers who cannot take the time off, I would recommend a two-prong approach consisting of bottom-up followed by top-down. Over time a balance will be achieved and the singer will be able to see gradual improvement. In any case, an either (top-down) or (bottom-up) approach will yield frustration and ultimate disrepair.

© 1/11/2009