Thursday, June 17, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Lost Fundamentals and the Deterioration of the Classical School of Singing

The last three weeks I have been intensely training in the basics of the Art of Kung Fu.  My teacher is one of the most accomplished Kung Fu masters in the world. Interestingly enough he is also born in Haiti. I practice Kung Fu with the same intensity I do singing. In truth Kung Fu complements singing perfectly. As I begin my black sash training, I am not yet surprised.  Sifu (Master) pushes us hard. But I expected no less. I must have done over 150 push-ups today, hundreds of crunches, hundreds of jumping jacks and that was only the beginning. Then there were punching drills and basic stances and blocks, etc.  These exercises are done routinely in every class. Beginners like me and black sashes do the same fundamental exercises daily.  All good Kung Fu studios do the same fundamentals.  This original martial art, which is thousands of years, is in no danger of being lost. Not as long as Sifu Karl Romain continues to teach these wonderful values.

Meanwhile the classical school of singing has all but lost its roots. The traditional language of singing still exists but not many know how to translate it. Singing fundamentals have become subjective. In past times teachers had different methods of achieving the fundamentals, but they generally agreed on what was good technique. The acoustic signature necessary to sing with a large orchestra was recognized by all experienced teachers. But now there is debate even about what a viable sound is.

By the time I graduate from white sash, I will have done thousands of push-ups and jumping-jacks and crunches, and will have practiced my series of stances and punches and blocks hundreds of times with intensity.  A good deep stance is fundamental and is practiced for a life-time by the greatest masters.

1) How many times must the correct scales be done until the muscles of the throat and the body coordinate to produce an efficient, powerfully resonant tone consistently? Thousands of times! And thousands more to upkeep! I love it when after basic scales the student says: "wow! That was a workout!" Not because there is tension in the throat, but rather because there is balanced tension throughout the body--that often the quadruceps (yes in the legs) contract to support the proper production of a strong tone.

2) What are the fundamentals? Like every instrument, vibration (vocal folds for singers), actuation (breathstream for singers) and resonance (vocal tract for singers)


  • Vibration: There is an axiom that says "sing with your body and not your throat!" Like everything in singing, this also is a paradox. The sensation of a passive throat requires proper function of the throat muscles that set up the vocal folds for vibration. The flexible balance of CT/TA determine the depth of the vocal folds and has a direct influence on the medial pressure (IA) that will result in a specific length of time for the vibration cycle, which in turn determines a specific frequency (pitch). The percentage of the cycle length that the folds are in the close phase (close quotient or CQ) determine how much breath pressure is build up. Then the length of the open phase must be long enough to allow the pressure to be released into sound pressure into the vocal tract. Too short a close quotient does not allow enough time to build appropriate pressure and the tone will sound weak and will lack intensity. This is fundamentally a breathy tone, although it may not sound particularly breathy. If the close quotient is too high, there will be intensity but there will not be enough time for the air to be released adequately. The sound pressure will be weak because not enough air will be released. The sub-glottal pressure would rise with every cycle and cause great strain on the larynx. The appropriate pressure/flow balance is what the old school teachers call "singing on the breath!" When the fold cover (the upper layers of the fold structure) close completely, there is a sensation that the tone is concentrated in front of the face.

  • Actuation, the breath: Actuation simply refers to the mechanism that causes the vibration, whether the hammers of a piano striking the strings or the breath of a singer causing the vibration of the folds.  The availability of the air that is to be pressurized beneath the folds is set up firstly by the muscles of respiration, including the diaphragm, the most inervated muscle in the body. The function of the diaphragm is unconscious. It responds to our need to do specific work. However, the diaphragm and the other respiratory muscles must work in balance with the correctly set-up vocal folds to create the adequate pressure that is felt at the sternum. This sensation of pressure in the torso (chest voice) is the regulating tool of glottal closure.  It the sensation of pressure in the chest is extremely high, it is a sign that fold closure is too tight, which means that fold depth is shallow, and that the vocalis muscle (internal TA) is not working enough to create the necessary fold depth. Too little pressure constitutes a loose phonation. Weak medial pressure (fold closure) results from the IA not contracting enough. But this is a result of a fold posture that is too deep. The interdepence of fold depth and closure is fundamental. Balanced air pressure is therefore a result of the diaphram's subtle function on the one hand, the fold posture in the other. In addition, the core musculature must provide a support system directly beneath the diaphragm such that air pressure is not lost at the lower side of the structure. This complex system creates the pressure beneath the folds that is called "appoggio" or "breath support". This second paradox of pressure/flow is of paramount importance to good singing. It is unfortunate when teachers say, there must be no pressure, only flow, advocating what is tantamount to a breathy sound; or when on the opposite side of the argument some say that pressure is necessary and there must be no loss of air, often advocating a pressed sound. Both arguments "sound" plausible, but each alone is inadequate. Both are necessary for balance.

  • Resonance: The vocal tract must be set up specifically for resonance. Issues include, laryngeal depth, jaw release and quality of vowels (tongue and lip migrations).  These articulators must coordinate to create the specific vocal tract set-up for each sung pitch. For a given pitch, the vocal tract must assume a specific shape (vowel) that will effect a complex series of sound waves in such a way as to produce the greatest sound pressure. The [a] sung on a Bb5 is a different shape than the one that is sung on the neighboring A5. In essence there is necessary vowel modification from one pitch to the next. Yet the axiom "sing pure vowels" is correct when understood. The singer must be able to concentrate on the desired vowel. The modification will be automatic if the fold posture is correct. When phonation is balanced it will require the vowel to conform to its needs.  Hence the vowel will be changed even though the singer conceives of the vowel in its most recognizable (i.e. pure) form. This paradox of pure concept and modification induced by a balanced fold posture is of paramount importance to proper resonance management. Phonation (coordination of breath and folds) is interdependent with resonance (vocal tract adjustments).
In the martial arts, fundamental stances become habit and are not abandoned when complex attack and defense patterns are added unto them. Good stances remain as the fundamental set-up for every movement.  Likewise, balanced phonation must remain the basic stance for singing. Vowels must not alter that set up, and emotion must go through it.  A balanced phonation pattern is what the audience perceives as a sound that is present in the company of an orchestra of any size.  If the set-up (the stance) is weak, it could be easily altered by a vowel change, or by the intensity of emotion, which is usually converted to changes in sub-glottal pressure via subtle or extreme adjustments in the diaphragm and supporting respiratory musculature.

Like a martial artist must do thousands of push-ups and the like to build up strength and flexibility, so must the vocal artist develop strength and flexibility, particularly in the laryngeal musculature. There must be a long training process that teaches proper basics, which must be practiced throughout the singer's life, especially as advanced repertoire is learned. Difficult songs are so-called because they challenge the phonational balance of the singer in question. So are complex forms in the martial arts.

These are the fundamental obstacles. But there are advanced obstacles like foreign languages, musicianship, stage craft, health, looks, and personal charm. A conscious weakness in the fundamentals or any of these skills will cause the singer apprehension. In such a case, the singer cannot be free to express his/her unique personal charisma, which is the one thing that should distinguish him/her from another singer. That unique signature of self, that "it factor" cannot come through when the singer's thoughts are occupied with weaknesses in his package.

To become a special singer, one must be free to express that unique personal signature (charisma), which can only be done when the singer has no concerns about any aspect of his art. Therefore, the fundamental rule of singing is that the singer should excel in every aspect of the art form. Confidence, which yields charisma, comes from an awareness of achievement. Today in class, my sparing partner for Chinese Kickboxing, who is much more advanced than me, asked me if I had been boxing for a long time.  I told him that the only boxing I ever did was one single session with Sifu (Master) who taught me the fundamentals.  He had a hard time believing me. This gave me the confidence that I had learned the fundamentals relatively well from Sifu (but certainly not that I have mastered anything yet.  I should add that my very skilled sparing partner also reminded me of errors during the session. I appreciated this very much).  Likewise, after two years and two months of training to achieve balance as a true tenor as opposed to the false baritone I was for 25 years, I have achieved efficient phonation and I can see the response in the eyes of my students when I demonstrate for them. This gives me confidence as a singer and as a teacher, because I can recognize immediately when another singer lacks the fundamentals I struggled with for two years.

Many singers think they are business-minded because they can accomplish what is superficially impressive such as singing loud high notes or moving comfortably on stage or even paying for breast implants. These things are not necessarily bad if they complement a package strong in fundamentals.  What is wrong is when these superficial aspects become what the singer concentrates on primarily.  What is wrong is when impressarios and agents do not understand the difference. An artist sells art. A great painter sells a painting and a great singer sells an unforgettable performance. Singers and actors especially whose instrument is their very body and soul often misunderstand, and think they have to sell their bodies and souls rather than the artistic product that can come from their bodies and souls. Because of this we are in a time when the business of opera has turned into a meat market rather than an art market. For that reason, it is high time that we singers change this. We have to give the unimaginative impressario something to sell. Art!  The times of great operatic impressarios like Rudolf Bing is gone. Mr. Bing was a rare impressario who understood the art of singing and opera better than the singers themselves. He understood voices and he understood developed talent. Such costudians of the art exist no more. We singers are the only ones who can safeguard our art form. The only way to do that is to be the most perfectly developed artists we can be. This takes a lifetime commitment.

I dedicate this post to my Kung Fu master, Sifu Karl Romain. He and his school embody these principles and inspire me daily to continue to pursue a disciplined, philosophical and excellent approach to the art form to which I have dedicated my life.  Kung Fu will remain an essential complement to my pursuit of excellence in singing and in life.

© 06/17/2010

5 comments:

Rebecca Fromherz said...

If there is such thing as a teacher of vocal enlightenment, you are it!

林奕廷 said...

嘿,你的部落格不錯耶~~只是想跟您問聲好!! .................................................................

Jean-Ronald LaFond said...

Very kind, Rebecca, but enlightenment is possible for everyone. It is not a teacher who gives it, but rather a thirsty spirit that seeks it. A teacher is just one of many guides along the path. Nothing I say here is original. To quote X-Files: "The truth is out there!" Those who really want to know it will seek it out.

Rebecca Fromherz said...

Indeed~! (-:

邦雄 said...

一棵樹除非在春天開了花,否則難望在秋天結果。....................................................................