Sunday, September 5, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Pleasure of Palpable Progress: Say that 10 times fast!

The pleasure has been mine the past few days! Hearing and seeing the progress in some specific students has been particularly satisfying. Some students walk into the studio with what some teachers call "no voice". The obvious inaccuracy of the statement has often irritated me because it is a dismissal of the student's native worth and the teacher's lack of vision. As much as I experience great enjoyment working with my advanced professional students, I find great affirmation in the "palpable progress" of the students who have had difficult roads.

When a student who walks in my studio sounds uncoordinated and the vocal quality is poor, my first thought is to find out what kind of coordination issue, muscular malfunction, acoustic maladjustment, or baisc physical weakness is at the root of the problem. When a top professional walks into my studio the process is not much different. The difference in balance between the two types of singers is a question of degree. My hope as a teacher is to be able to envision the voice that hides behind the haze of dysfunction and weakness.

Many functionable singers have enough native strength and coordination in the vocal mechanism and complimentary skills to acquire professional opportunities. Such singers are often very protective of what got them their early adulations and are often resistent to making changes that would bring their talent to a higher level. Such singers want to improve to have better opportunities but are often unwilling to make the changes that would get them there. A quandry! Many young singers who appear to be very promising often do not achieve greatness for exactly this reason.

For different reasons, I find great similarity between top professionals and the passionate, uncoordinated beginner. Singers who deem themselves comparatively unskilled but really want to sing are willing to do whatever is necessary to acquire ability because they have nothing to lose. Top professionals are willing to make changes because most of them got to the top by being adaptable to all kinds of changes and situations. I find them open to suggestion and willing to try something that makes sense to them. Of course they are already very skilled to begin with, the changes they need to make are often not very invasive. Still, we seldom imagine that very skilled singers had to work hard in some way to be successful.

After teaching for more than 20 years, I find that the determining factors to a student's progress are more psychological than they are vocal. To what degree does a student seek to recognize the real obstacles to acquiring high level skills? The Zen concept of coming to a lesson with an empty cup keeps following me. My Kung Fu master reminded me again of this principle. Progress depends on the degree to which a student is willing to empty his/her cup and the degree to which the teacher is able to fill it.

I have also often heard the inspirational saying: "Every master was once a disaster," originated by a Canadian success trainer by the name of T. Harv Eker.  I came across it again in Kung Fu training. It is not accidental that my teacher, Sifu Romain has been so successful.  Many inspirational thoughts of this kind find their way to  his students.  These are more than inspirational thoughts to me. They are phylosophical axioms. Indeed the student who goes through all the steps, "crawl, walk, run" will have lasting skills.

Many of the middle level students I teach feel rushed by what they see as impossible expectations of the gate-keepers of our field. Ageism, lookism, etc., all give the student a sense that they do not have time to address all their issues before they can audition.  One such student returned from a trip to Austria during which she had the opportunity to observe top professionals at work.  All of my speeches about taking time to become truly professionally viable seemd to not have reached her (so I thought). But apparently my talks needed a complimentary experience to take hold. By observing that the professionals were not so perfect, she realized that she could get herself to a professional level and be viable. She said today: "Since I am committed to do this, I might as well do it in peace, without feeling rushed".  Not only had she improved extremely since we last saw each other, but today's lesson was our most effective. We were working entirely together without the pressing energy of the rigors of the professional world. When the singer has a vision of her own future, my job becomes easy. "You have no more significant obstacles that cannot be ovecome. You have eliminated the only difficult obstacle: your former doubting self!"

Another student drives four hours several times a month to come have her lesson with me.  When I think of what she sounded like a little less than two years ago when she first walked into my studio, I was humbled. She sang some songs and an aria I have deemed inappropriate a couple of months ago. Today I told her she must work on that aria.  She recognized her own progress and left charged and ready to find the next level. "Enjoy your new gorgous middle voice"!

Another wonderfully determined students who also travels from afar, walked into the studio today after losing 70 pounds (and counting) in the last year, by changing her diet and finding an exercise regimen that works for her. She came armed with questions about what her next professional steps should be. "You look fabulous"!

There are three other very special students who have dealt with extreme deficits who completely astound me by their dedication.  I find something very similar in all those successful students.  They are able to celebrate when they learn to crawl, when they learn to walk and when finally they can run.  Those who have a hard time progressing, are blinded by the ability of others to run and never learn the joy of celebrating a small victory.

Indeed the gate-keepers of our field are there for a reason. They are there to discourage those who are discourageable.  Our field is not for the faint-hearted. Singing classical music requires so many diverse skills. It is a lifetime apprenticeship. Many singers sacrifice a lot along the way, only to hate that they ever started to sing because they have not gotten where they wanted to. The difficult lesson is not to be concerned with what may come but rather with what we can do in the moment toward our goal. This particular principle permeates every aspect of our discipline.

Concentrate on the G you are singing and you will give the following high C the best chance to be great. Worry about the C and the G that prepares it will be ignored, thereby destroying any chance of that high C begin successful.

The ability to celebrate "palpable progress", finding pleasure in the smallest step forward is the hallmark of the successful person!

© 09/05/2010


Jeremy said...

Hello Mr. LaFond. My name is Jeremy. According to the folks on the new forum for classical singers, you're supposed to be the man when it comes to acoustics as they are applied to singing. So I have some questions for you. What is a formant? What is the singer's formant and what creates it? When people say it occurs at approx 2800-3200 Hz what is the vibrating body they are talking about? The vocal folds are making the pitch, and in male voices no pitch would require anywhere near that many vibrations a second of the vocal folds. All I've been able to decipher from reading is that he creation of the singer's formant has to do with the pharynx being six times as wide as an opening in the larynx, but why is this the only resonating body able to produce this phenomenon? Violinists have concerti galore and they have to be heard in the back of large spaces as well so how does that work?

The reading I have done seems to describe formants as frequencies that make vowels easier to discern from each other. The first one is related to how open the jaw is which is why [a] is high on first formant frequencies. The second formant is more sensitive to how narrow a vowel is, and so [i] is very high in second formant frequencies. Is that right at all? Every time I try to articulate that to anyone they tell me that I have misinterpreted the whole issue. What does the singer's formant have to do with vowel shapes? Something else I read said something about how the formant frequencies interact and create this high energy level that seems to only be present in the operatic voice.

I also don't really understand how the singer's formant can be an overtone. Because the overtones are different on each tone sung correct? So that's why I want to know if the singer's formant is a pitch that is part of the harmonic spectrum of the note being sung or just some high energy level that is unique to the physiology of the larynx. Any response would be greatly appreciated either on your blog or on the blog I started recently about the issue on the new forum for classical singers. Feel free to explain to me as though I know absolutely nothing and break it down to the most fundamental elements, because that's how I feel. I honestly just want to be able to articulate this concept to other musicians without resorting to the use of magical explanations that don't make sense.

Jean-Ronald LaFond said...

Jeremy, you ask a question that is not so easily simplified:

There are some wonderful experts here who read the blog and I hope they will add to my commentary:

I will try to simplify this while trying to be thorough.

First what is a formant? There are many ways to explain it. I like to think of a formant as an area of strong acoustic energy. The vocal tract displays five such areas. Their specific frequencies depend upon the size and shape of the vocal tract. So the depth of the larynx, the opening of the mouth, the rounding of the lips and anything else that changes the shape of the vocal tract has an effect on the the formant frequencies.

The formants are numbered based on their frequencies. The lower formants frequencies are naturally dependent upon larger spaces or vibrating bodies. The tongue partitions the vocal tract into two main spaces. Those two spaces are the most variable since the tongue shape varies so extremely between vowels. Those two frequencies, F1 and F2 have the greatest influence on vowels because they change more than the higher three formants. The first formant can be as low as 225Hz for the brightest version of the [i] vowel and as much as 900 Hz for a recognizable [a] vowel. The second formant can vary between 900 hz for certain forms of the [a] vowel and as much as 2200 Hz for brightest forms of the [i] vowel. There are many possible vowel permutations between [i] and [a].

Jean-Ronald LaFond said...


In short formant frequencies are as variable as vowels. Different vowel qualities have different formant values. Two vowels recognized as [a] can have slightly varying formant values

The upper three formants vary less. They tend to cluster (they are close to each other in frequency although located in different parts of the throat) between 2500 and 3000 Hz. (more on this later).

Where vowel formants are important is how they can be adjusted to interact with a specific pitch.

Now we must define pitch: When we sing what we hear as a fundamental frequency, we are singing the fundamental and an endless number of overtones. The natural balance of the fundamental and overtones is that they are weaker the higher they are. However, the vowel formant frequencies will boost the energy of the overtones (partials) in their vicinity. So many sung pitches have a very weak fundamental because the vowel formants draw the acoustic energy produced in the vocal tract to them.

A vocal fry neutralizes the strength of overtones. By suppressing the overtones, we are able to observed the only strong acoustic areas (the formants). With an average spectrographic analyzer, if you sing a vocal fry and change the vowels, you will see the peaks change. The first and second formants are very clear and the cluster around 2500 to 3000 hz is also clear.

Now how we can use formant frequencies! By adjusting a vowel we adjust the formant frequencies. Our strategy is to adjust the formant frequencies to boost the energy of nearby overtones. Boosting the appropriate overtones has a boosting effect on the entire spectrum (fundamental and overtones).

Here is th fun part. The human ear hears the fundamental based upon the overtones it can perceive. A fundamental pitch produces a specific unchangeable series of overtones. The ear reconstructs the fundamental by the many overtones it can perceive. The human ear is particularly sensitive to the region around 2500 to 3000 Hz.

This is were high overtones, especially the singer's formant, are important. What the singer's formant does is that it boosts the energy of the high overtones around it. The human ear will reconstruct the only fundamental that these strong high overtones can come from.

We do not sing louder than the orchestra. However, the orchestra has its resonance peak at 500 hz. It's energy reduces in power above 500 Hz. Yes violins and flutes can make sound much higher than that but they weaken as they go higher. Such is the case with most instruments. Brass have variable resonators so they can sound very resonant higher. That is why singers do not like to compete with brass instruments. It is also why there are so many string instruments in the orchestra to balance winds and brass that tend to be stronger in the top range.

The average male voice does not sing fundamentals higher than 500 Hz. But it creates overtones that are easily perceivable as high as 4000Hz. Women sing as high as 1600 Hz fundamental pitch and produce strong overtones also in the 4000 hz range and higher. The orchestra cannot compete when these overtones are strong. The singer's can provide the kind of boost that makes the high overtones easily availabe to a human ear sensitive in just this area. In a way, the human ear was created to be able to perceive the singer's formant. Babies crying produce very strong singer's formant frequencies making them easily audible to their parents in other parts of the house.

A singer that produces strong acoustic energy in the 2000-3000 Hz range will be perfectly conducive to the function of the human ear. That is how we win the battle with an 80 piece orchestra. We have an acoustic advantage, as long as we produce a strong source tone to begin with.

This should get the discussion going!