Monday, December 27, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Blog Is Three Years Old

With this post, we reach 200 articles.  I began this post three years ago on my birthday with the simple desire to share what I have learned about the science of singing, because I thought that so much valuable, pedagogical useful information had been denied many singers and teachers who really desired to understand.  Much of vocal science can appear daunting at first glance, but indeed we are not dealing with brain surgery and the average person can over time master this information.  Yet singing and the teaching thereof is no simple matter.  Knowledge is only one prerequisite for teaching.  The art of teaching requires courage, faith and patience as well because the information we have, even if we were to master everything available, is incomplete.  We must make up the rest, we must intuit it, we must guess it, we must hope and pray for it.  Beyond having courage, faith and patience, a teacher must have the ability to inspire them.  And to be truly credible, a teacher must challenge himself/herself every day. Teachers are on a journey with their students and there must be trust, which develops often to a level of intimacy and even love.  Love in the sense of caring enough for the student to challenge them beyond what they imagine to be possible, and love in the sense of creating a mutual caring that eliminates possessiveness, for every good teacher’s wish is to make his/her students independent.

I have tried to maintain a balance here, whereby I do not write anything if I do not have something worthwhile to write about and I try to write often enough to keep the blog family engaged.  Indeed the readership has multiplied to several thousand over the last year and many followers of the blog have become friends.  I had always hoped that the blog would remain respectful, a place where ideas can be exchanged even if I lead the discussion. The blog has gone beyond everything I had hoped and has transformed into an entity of its own.  I have received many private emails in the last year from singers who were about to give up and read something here that has inspired them to continue on their journey.  I received one such letter a few days ago from a young woman who I know will become a special singer.  People write with such heart and conviction, such as this young woman did, that I feel humbled. Whatever the ills of technology, to be able to share so deeply with people I hardly know is proof that we can engage each other in positively transforming ways without even any face to face contact. This is something to celebrate not feared.

The blog has become a bond between me and my students as well. As I travel a lot, it is a way of sharing principles with them and simply remaining connected.  For that reason I try to share my own journey here as openly as I believe is constructive.  I have not posted any clips in the last couple of months because my own development has been snowballing that if I post something today I would be dissatisfied with it tomorrow.  Much has happened with my own singing since the last clips and I am looking forward to share.  I know that the next year is going to bring the final results of my journey to tenor.  Like the blog, my voice has taken me to places I did not think were possible with a voice like mine.  I am excited to share this as well.  As often is the case, the end of the year meets me with a cold.  Anticipating the possibilities of another bout with bronchitis, I went to the doctor and had a three-day antibiotic as a preemptive measure.  It worked.  A few days from now I anticipate sharing some exciting clips with you.

The next year will also see the creation of a book based of the principles and knowledge presented here.  The process is already on the way. Many of you have written me about this and I believe I have  amassed enough knowledge and experience through our exchanges to make such a book worthwhile.

I wish to take this opportunity to wish all of you around the world a very joyful holiday season and the very best in singing and in your lives during the coming year.  Kashu-do (歌手道) will be one of the singing places to be in 2011. Your interaction has made this blog valuable to the wider community and I hope you are as proud of our work together as I am. I wish you a new year filled with faith, courage and patience. Hard work is a given.

Jean-Ronald LaFond

Kashu-do (歌手道): Achieving Voce Magra (Another Paradox)

Achieving Voce Magra (the lean voice) is a very mistunderstood paradox.  The sensation of leanness and ease that comes with ideally balanced phonation is often confused for singing thin. This ezine article describes lean vs. skinny in terms of female olympic athletes and super models.  The principles also apply to a singer who develops a balanced lean production and those who sing a thin, squeezed sound.

Achieving a thin sound is relatively easy. The crico-thyroid muscles must simply be dominant over the vocalis muscles.  In such a case, phonation is more a matter of fold length rather than longitudinal tension.  In such a case, fold oscillation is less efficient. The tendency is for the folds to because thinner than necessary, resulting in a squeeze. This results into higher-than-appropriate levels of sub-glottal pressure leading to a raised larynx and loss of lower resonance.  The singer often deals with the excessive pressure by releasing air via the arytenoid juncture ( in essence keeping the folds tightly closed along their length but opening slightly at the arytenoid level at the posterior end of the vocal folds). This is a very clever way of dealing with excessive sub-glottal pressure and pressing, but this type of phonation does not yield a rich spectrum even though the sound maybe sweet to the ear. Many singers who specialize in Lieder-singing produce such a sound.

Achieving a balanced sound that feels lean is a different process altogether.  Both muscle groups must be strong and an agreement achieved between them to achieve the exact combination of appropriately deep fold edges and complete closure (complete and rapid closure during the close phase allowing enough time during the open phase for good flow). This kind of phonation promotes good air flow, a lower laryngeal position that helps in the production of a 1:6 ratio between pharyngeal circumference and epilaryngeal circumference, which produces the singer's formant.

An active vocalis muscle makes the job of the crico-thyroid more difficult for sure. Thus in order to achieve appropriate CT dominance when producing a full tone (requiring enough vocalis activity for appropriate fold depth) without the tone getting too heavy (thick), the CT must be trained in context with vocalis activity. In the beginning full voiced high notes are difficult, but after training, the top notes become not only easy but they maintain a full spectrum.  This kind of production requires muscular development and has a strong influence on the way the rest of the body behaves during phonation. This is the quality we hear from singers of the past. They either developed this muscular coordination and strength unknowingly through good speaking habits and cultural influences of they consciously do so when they become aware of the necessity during professional training.

Today we hear the thin production a lot more. Today's generation find it easier to develop a lean body than to develop a lean vocal production.  Sports Science makes targeted training of skeletal muscles very quick and efficient. Most gyms have a certified sports science person on staff.  In singing, this used to be the job of the voice teacher.  José van Dam´s character in the excellent film Le maitre de musique, explains to his pupil that he is not a baritone but rather a tenor; that he has the voice but lacks the physical stamina.  The stamina is not only in the torso-down but also in the larynx.  Dynamic coordination between the muscles of the larynx produce an easy but substantial sound as opposed to a skinny and fragile sound.

As modern, superficial pedagogy demonizes the use of chest voice, the popular aesthetic is currently favoring the fragile, skinny sound. With amplification technology, such voices can record beautifully but do not fare very well in the presence of an opera orchestra.  Such voices are often preferred to singers whose muscular development is only partially achieved.  Th skinny voices can often demonstrate great flexibility since the production is closer to falsetto than a bona fide fully compressed modal sound.  For a modal voice to become lean, a great amount of muscular development is necessary and such a tone may sometimes sound superhuman in comparison to the the skinny voice.  This is what makes fully developed operatic voices exciting to listen to.  The skinny false voice is easier to achieve and unfortunately we are in a world in which expediency is valued above substance.

It has been my honor to witness the transformation of my students over a year's time.  I heard one of my dramatic sopranos yesterday after a month away. To hear such a full-bodied sound riding on a lean edge, able to produce sumptuous pianissimi and mind-blowing fortissimi in Verdi's Ballo made my day.  She feels herself suddenly at a different level vocally and remarked that producing such a sound has a profound effect on one's confidence and the way that one handles life situations.  It makes total sense that the same strength it takes to control a fully-engaged tone would influence one in handling difficult life situations with finesse.  When I hear such affirmations I am convinced that not only does the difficult process of learning to sing a real operatic sound influence a person's character positively but it may very well have an effect on the workings of the brain.

Thin and fragile may be easier, but lean and strong is far more interesting and in matters of fitness and of voice, the latter is superior and healthier in every sense.

copyright 12/27/2010

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Tongue Tension and False Brightness: A Chicken or Egg Scenario (or so it seems)

I am honored to be asked by Jack Livigni to address this issue on his blog. This article first appeared a few days ago on TenorTalk, here.

There is a kind of brightness that is accompanied by the back of the tongue pressing into the back of the buccal pharynx. Some singers have found comfort in this sensation and believe erroneously that this adjustment is necessary for the production of squillo.

It is important to understand the order in which the brightness and tongue pressure occur. First, the tongue is the most flexible muscle in the body. It is a multi-layered muscle, the parts of which are able to move independently of one another. Like the diaphragm that responds spontaneously to provide pressurization when it lacks, the tongue often spontaneously responds to make resonance adjustments when the source tone and the vocal tract vibrations do not agree. The tongue, in a sense, is the primary instrument of resonance. Its subtle or sometimes not subtle movements have a powerful impact on the resonance of the vocal tract. Indeed what we refer to as tongue tension in singing is a compensatory reaction to a resonance imbalance.
If the tongue responds to correct an imbalance in resonance, it would be an error to try to address the tongue in an attempt to correct what is perceived as tension therein. It is rather the source tone that must be addressed, for the purpose of which a thorough understanding of fold morphology is important. It is common knowledge that a ratio of at least 1:6 must exist between circumference of the vocal tract and that of the epi-laryngeal fold (sometimes called epilarynx or the collar of the larynx) in order to produce the Singer’s Formant (i.e. squillo). Therefore, the epilarynx must be narrowed and the vocal tract widened. The narrowing of the epilarynx depends on the contraction of the oblique inter-arytenoid muscles which are also responsible in part for medial approximation of the vocal folds. The production of the [i] vowel, for instance, induces better medial closure and overall efficiency in the production of the source tone. It does not however help with the width of the pharyngeal space. The widening of the pharynx occurs when the larynx assumes a comfortably low position, which can only occur when the propagation of air is not obstructed at the laryngeal level.

Therefore the erroneous process of brightness accompanied by a depressed tongue occurs as follows: when the source tone is pressed (and a pressed tone requires less fold mass in order to prevent pitch from lowering), the sub-glottal pressure will rise to the point of pushing the larynx up out of its naturally low position, causing a rise in the frequency of the first formant (a narrowing of the lower pharyngeal space raises the frequency of the first formant). In that situation, the tongue comes into play, either to push the larynx down to achieve a lower first formant frequency or else simply push into the pharynx to narrow the space even more and raise the first formant further. In the latter case, the lower overtones are lost, robbing the voice of natural warmth. The resultant sound is extremely bright (strident). Some mistake this extremely bright sound for squillo, which it is not. Such a thin sound does not carry in the hall very well. It may be heard better than a sound lacking in medial closure (the kind of hollow sound typical of some basses) but it will not carry well enough to have a real impact when the orchestra is involved.

Where this causes problems for the tenor (or any voice type for that matter) is in the passaggio and higher, where the first formant needs to lower to allow the second formant to take over. In such a circumstance, the singer will have a difficult time “turning the voice” (girare). The best structure for a squillo is a source tone that allows both adequate closure (reinforcing the epilaryngeal narrowing) and adequate flow, preventing the larynx from being pressed up from excessive sub-glottal pressure. A tone with adequate fold mass (right amount of chest content, i.e. vocalis activity) makes just that kind of structure. In any case, the retraction of the tongue is ill-advised for the reasons mentioned. Correcting the source tone by having adequate fold mass will prevent the necessity of pressing (greater fold mass increases the length of the close phase, as does pressing). The only caveat is that one must be careful not to sing with too much mass. The balancing factors are mass and closure. They should keep each other in check.

In more simplistic terms, the glottal squeeze accompanied with retracted tongue gives the impression of chiaroscuro. In a sense there are elements of bright and dark in that kind of production. However, the bright is too bright and the dark is a compensatory mechanism to cover the inherent stridency of the source tone. Furthermore, the retracted tongue prevents the production of intelligible vowels because it is stuck making up for an imbalance in the source tone and therefore the resonance of the vocal tract. At the extreme, the retracted tongue could push on the epiglottis and obstruct the natural propagation of air. The sound would become seriously muffled and would be unviable. In short, the glottal squeeze accompanied by tongue retraction should be avoided.

copyright 12/26/2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Two Different Approaches ForTwo Different Phases: Two Parts of One Complete Technique

At this point in my teaching career I deal largely with singers who have an excellent foundation and who need to be refined, what the Italian School might refer to as corso di perfezionamento.  The other group of students I deal with come with problems to be corrected in terms of fundamental principles. Those in the first group I consider to be muscularly strong.  These singers, whether through unconscious development due to cultural/environmental habits or through rigorous purposeful training have developed the necessary strength in the muscles that govern breathing, phonation and resonance adjustment.  Our work is prinicipally one of coordination leading to musical concerns such as legato, correctly executed portamento, fioratura and trills.  We may also discuss refinements in breath management, vowel modification and onset and deal with issues of pacing and efficiency, dynamics and phrasing, concentration and mental strength. The second group of singers is comprised of those who have fundamental muscular imbalances and weaknesses including issues of physical fitness.  The process with them is fundamentally one of fitness and muscular balance.  While the exercises I use are meant to support the singer through all phases, their application may be different and certainly the expectations are different in the short term.

The singer who comes with issues of muscular imbalances and weaknesses cannot expect a final product in the short term.  With such singers I am not interested in a beautiful sound immediately because a truly coordinated beautiful sound is simply not possible with such a singer.  Such a singer will not be producing high notes with ease and will probably not be able to produce a perfectly supported sound right away.  The exercises will yield muscular effort, yes! And the singer will have to experience many periods of imbalance until the muscles have been trained to balanced strength.  Every muscle in the body is paired with a balancing antagonist.  Both muscles must be equally strong in order for the person to have full range of movement.  So it is not only with the muscles of breathing, but also with those of phonation. Gradations of pitch require a careful antagonism between several pairs of muscles working in concert.  Weakness in one muscle causes an immediate imbalance in that paired system and then has a domino effect that touches upon the entire muscular system.  Indeed we sing with our entire body.  Resonance relies on efficient phonation, which relies on balanced respiration, which relies on balanced body alignment.  And the entire system relies on a complex and refined nervous system.

Unfortunately a great and growing number of teachers concentrate on refinement issues before the funamental muscular training has been done.  Too often, a singer who believes himself/herself to be advanced is confronted with the idea that there is fundamental work to be done.  Not everyone has the courage or patience to take the time to address fundamental issues especially when they have received adulation with their current way of singing. I am often addressed with the question: "How did so and so get to sing at a major opera house if the technique is so unbalanced?" I will let the celebrated mezzo-soprano, Luciana d'Intino reply as she addressed the issue in an interview with (I have requested permission from Liricamente to translate this important interview to English here on the blog and my request has been granted. This translation will appear soon):

E' cambiato tutto: è rimasta la passione, ma c'è molta ignoranza...
Accostarsi ad un'arte necessita di tempo, di studio, di umiltà, non si può improvvisare, altrimenti si rimane sempre a livello di esordio. Oggigiorno addirittura non è richiesta nemmeno la tecnica di canto: c'è lo spartito con delle note e delle parole, ti dicono "canta"... ma cosa significa "canta"? Significa emettere un suono? No, non è così. Non è come ho studiato io.
Everything has changed: the passion remains but there is a lot of ignorance...To take on  an art form requires time, study and humility. One cannot improvise (technically). Otherwise we remain always at the level of a beginner. Today, truly, not even vocal technique is required: here is the score with some notes and words and they tell you: "sing"...But what does "sing" means? Does it mean simply make a sound? No, it is not so! That is not the way I learned!
The issue at hand is one of voice building.  Until a voice has been conditioned to endure the muscular challenges that operatic singing demands, musical issues are not even possible. A student of mine said today after accessing her full voice:

When I feel the full voice engaged like that, expression seems inherent in the sound. My feelings seem to come through by default!
This is very true. The problem is that a great deal of pedagogy is approached as if all students belong to the group whose voices are already muscularly trained.  As I have said here often, many singers come to classical singing having developed their voices through some cultural ctivity that promotes vocal conditioning, whether a young Mexican who grows up singing Mariachi tunes full voiced and with full emotions or a young African-American who grew up singing Gospel full-voiced and with full emotions, it is all the same. From such backgrounds, operatic refinements  are a matter of degree.  Such students will response well to simple directives like "sing on top of the pitch" or "sing with an open throat" or "focus the tone a little more"!  These refinements are relatively easy when there is already a coordinated process with respect to the laryngeal musculature.  Asking an unconditioned singer to focus the voice more or open the throat is the equivalent of asking a baby who has just learned to crawl to get up and walk like an adult.

Indeed there are even working professionals who need to address certain aspects of fundamental conditioning. Conditioning is the word that needs to be propogated in the halls of vocal pedagogy.  When that aspect of the work has been accomplished, the common language that we hear in most voice studios becomes effective. Before conditioning, those words are just empty pronouncements without context.

© 12/19/2010

Friday, December 10, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Paradox of the Passive Larynx

Our ultimate goal in vocal technique is to have the feeling of a "passive larynx" with maximum sound output. Indeed when phonation is balanced and breath pressure is adequate and constant, and resonant adjustments are exact, it feels as though the larynx is not involved.  The paradoxical part is that the larynx feels like it does not exist when it is actively doing what it is supposed to do.  The problem is that most singers come to training with some level of laryngeal imbalance and before we expect them to make ideal sounds, the imbalances must be remedied.

Along these lines, I often think of my first car, a used 1978 Honda Civic that I had bought from a Heldentenor named George Gray, a wonderful singer with a great heart.  The car was old and used back then and I got it for the more than fair price of $300.00 from this wonderfully generous man.  Among other benign problems, the wheels were misalligned.  To drive the car straight, I felt I had to compensate to the right. Before I got the wheels alligned, making a right turn was dangerous.

I think of the voice in similar ways.  We come to life with a perfectly balanced instrument.  The vocal folds begin vibrating towards the first trimester of the human gestation period. When babies are born, one of their first test is to cry. The all sound balanced.  If the voice were used in its primal, emotional and physically supported manner as babies do then we would grow with natural magnificent voices like lions and birds and dogs, etc. Few of us (maybe Jussi Björling) come into adolescence and adulthood with such balance. Thus, to expect a passive larynx from the average singer is the equivalent of releasing the steering wheel of a misaligned car and expect it to go straight.  As the car must be taken to the shop to be realigned, so must the singer be taken to a vocal mechanic to have his voice realigned.

The vocal folds must be aligned to make for balanced pressure flow.  Balance between CT and TA as well as adequate closure.  The breath must be calibrated between adequate pressure provided by the diaphragm and resistence provided by the external intercostals. When these elements have been mastered then appropriate vowel modifaction is necessary (laryngeal depth and vocal tract adjustment) to achieve ideal acoustic efficiency. The shaping of the vocal tract has a strong repercussion on the propagation of air, which is essentially what we experience as vocal sound..

Until all the elements are balanced separately and organized together, the larynx will not become passive. Appropriate activity creates the impression of passivity.

© 12/10/2010