Monday, August 29, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Pray for Salvatore Licitra's Recovery!

Four months ago, I had dinner in New York, with Salvatore Licitra, his brother, cousin and a close friend of his who introduced me.  It was one of those unforgettable nights that makes one think: "What a remarkably charming guy!"  Salvatore has this amazing ability, like the best of Italians, to bring sunshine to a room, in the middle of a rainy night in Manhattan.  A month later, we met in Berlin after he brought the house down at the Deutsche Oper in an unforgettable Tosca that I wrote about here on this blog.

Our art is a mysterious one, a multi-faceted one full of singular souls.  In our times it has been difficult for such great, talented singers to fully develop, either because of the dysfunctions of the business or the loss of hope among singers themselves.  Between the Toscas in New York (which I only heard about) and that night in Berlin, it would seem that Salvatore had found his stride.  As an opera-lover I was and am determined to see any performance he will give.  As a person, I was totally taken by the guy--Not because of his fame.  I could not care less about such things.-- Because of his humanity, his exceptional joie de vivre, and his particular gift for making everyone around him feel like the world is a good place to be in.

Now he is resting in a hospital, recovering from a moped accident.  It was a serious accident!  But a guy with that kind of light does not get taken out by an accident.  In such cases, I believe totally in the power of group meditation.  We are thousands who make up this blog and I believe that our positive vibes sent to Salvatore in Catania, Sicily will go a long way in helping to power up his spirit after this.

We had become really good acquaintances and I believe we were becoming real friends.  I want the opportunity to develop that friendship and the opportunity to see this great Spinto finish the job of taking his place in the Pantheon of great Italian Tenors.  I urge you to send your most beautiful energy Salvatore's way!

Jean-Ronald

Berlin, 2011.08.30

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Singer's Formant and the Singer's Formant Region: Defining "Ring"

Superficial understanding of vocal science is one of the greatest enemies of progress in science-based vocal pedagogy.  When a self-described science-based teacher refers to the acoustic region between 2kHz and 3kHz as the Singer's Formant, it is not always clear what they mean.  Too often, one will point to one of the 3 potential peaks that lie between 2000 and 3200 Hz and say: "see, there is the ring in the voice!" To this a self-described "Bel Canto" teacher will say, "well I don't hear much ring!"

The five formants (regions of acoustic strength) in the vocal tract occur approximately around 500Hz, 1000Hz, 2000Hz, 2500 Hz and 3000Hz.  These are not precise numbers and their values shift depending on adjustments (vowel changes) in the vocal tract.  The first formant of the [i] vowel for example lies around 280Hz.  This means that the lowest area of acoustic intensity when the vocal tract is shaped to the [i] vowel is around 280Hz.  When the tract is shaped to [a] the lowest area of acoustic intensity is around 800Hz.  Any space will have acoustic regions that amplify sound. Some concert halls are friendly to high voices and others to low voices.  This is simply a way of explaining the nature of formants.  What is unusual about the human voice as an instrument is that its resonator, the vocal tract, is flexible and changeable.  It can readjust to intensify any given pitch.  The region of the singer's formant is particularly interesting because the human ear is extremely sensitive to the area between 2000 and 3200Hz.

Now to the argument between the "self-described" science-based teacher and the "self-described" Bel Canto teacher.  The former points to strong energy in the SF area and calls it the ring in the voice.  The latter claims not to hear any ring.  Empirically they would be both correct and therefore paradoxically both wrong in their assessments. The reasoning is the following:  strong energy in the region between 2000 and 3200 Hz will be perceived as particularly strong to the human ear and could be enough to make a singer easily discernible in the presence of an orchestra.  Practically that could be enough (especially given the low expectations of modern day opera).  But to the Bel Canto teacher who seeks a particularly intense experience relative to ring, the mere presence of the upper three formants in strength is not enough.  And so he will discredit the science-based teacher for not understanding the nature of ring.  This would not be entirely wrong.  However, most voices exhibit energy in the SF area precisely in this way and it is enough for most orchestral situations.  Nevertheless, this does not constitute "ring" in the traditional sense, nor does it in fact meet with the scientific definition of "ring", which  indeed coincides with the results the Bel Canto teacher expects.

The scientific definition of "ring" is not a mere presence of strong energy in the upper formants but rather a cluster effect of two of the three formants.  If we take the note Bb4 (c. 460Hz), the fifth harmonic (5th multiple of the fundamental frequency)  would be at 2300Hz, squarely between the third formant (cir. 2100 Hz) and the fourth (c. 2500Hz).  Effective vocal tract tuning (including, vowel, laryngeal depth and  aryepiglottic fold diameter, etc) would raise the 3rd formant and lower the fourth such that both energies would impact the fifth harmonic.  Most of the vocal energy on the upper part of the spectrum would center on the fifth harmonic.  The third formant of the [u] vowel falls just below 2300 and its fourth formant just above 2300.  This would support a constant assertion by Gioacchino Livigni that the Old School tenors (before Corelli and Del Monaco) tended to pursue this strategy of clustering around the 5th harmonic on notes Bb and above.  A similar strategy is possible on the 6th harmonic (c. 2760 Hz).  This would require tuning the fourth and fifth formants of the back vowels ([u, o, a] respectively up and down to cluster around the 6th harmonic or the third and fourth formant of front vowels ([i, e, E].  This is the strategy of the tenors of the second half of the 20th century.  This is equally viable.  What is not as efficient is spreading the tree formants on three different harmonics.  Because the human ear is particularly sensitive to the SF region (c. 2000-3000 Hz), even if the energy is spread between three harmonics, as long as it is strong, it will have a strong impact on the listener's ear even with an orchestra.  It will however not be the same powerful impact that is heard from top singers, who by some personal sensitivity can achieve the complex tuning of the vocal tract necessary to cluster the formants as described above.

The fact is that science and tradition agree, if one takes the time to really understand both.  The constant assertion that science is not far along enough to make a difference in vocal pedagogy is just the easy judgment of those who are either not interested in understanding science as deeply as they need to for it to be relevant or are simply afraid to have their techniques proven inadequate.  In truth, science is less there to discredit anyone's approach, but proactively present to help us refine the approaches dictated by our instincts.  Inspired teachers begin with great instincts.  Great teachers go beyond their instincts and educate themselves with all the available facts.  We must never forget that the most celebrated voice teacher at the height of the Bel Canto period was Manuel Garcia, for whom Rossini composed the role of Conte di Almaviva in Barbiere di Siviglia.  He is the same Manuel Garcia whose son, Manuel Garcia, Jr., invented the first mirror laryngoscope, basically the same tool used by doctors and ENTs for superficial pharyngeal/laryngeal analysis.  Garcia, Jr. is considered the first true science-based voice teacher.

PS.  Since my latest PC computer crashed, I acquired a MAC.  I have tried to calibrate the frequency region of Audacity for spectrographic analysis but to no avail.  It is possible that the version I have has a bug.  I would welcome advice from other MAC users who use Audacity or who have recommendations for another spectrographic analyzer.  Spectrograms would enhance this post but unfortunately Voce Vista does not work with MAC and will not any time soon.


© 08/25/2011

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Low Larynx and Fold Posture: A Symbiotic Inter-depence

Let me begin by rejoicing that my spiritual sister, Susan Eichorn Young (SEY) is now writing her blog weekly.  This means I return her blog title to her. Still, as she recovers heroically from a horrible automobile accident, that could have taken her from us (Thank God that she remains with us), she remains in my heart and in my prayers.  I urge you to send positive energy to our SEY, as I believe strongly in the power of collective meditation.  Let us concentrate on her complete recovery!


First, forgive my long silence on the blog.  As my studio expands, my teaching responsibilities become a major organizational issue.  And with the book, the Kashu-do Studio Website and some other offerings on the way (not to mention my voice doing exciting things now that I have found out that my ills stemmed from Gluten Intolerance), I needed a few weeks to catch up.

Now to the subject at hand!  Recent studies on the resonance of the singing voice suggest at least a 6:1 ratio between the size of the pharynx and that of the aryepiglottic fold (collar of the larynx) in order to achieve the singer's formant (ring in the voice).  Furthermore, it is suggested that this relationship necessitates a deeper laryngeal position in order to accomplish a pharynx that is at least 6 times the size of the aryepiglottic fold.  There is enough data to confirm the findings (Titze et al).

The question of applied vocal pedagogy is: How does one achieve the low larynx and the narrow aryepiglottic fold?  First the collar of the larynx!  The transverse Inter-arytenoids (IA) that narrow the collar are the same muscles (along with the lateral IAs) that contribute to fold closure.  Achieving excellent fold closure without pressing would be the measure of IA contraction.  Hence, the collar should not be narrowed too tightly as that would also contribute to pressing (if done to excess).  Therefore the greater measure of achieving the 6:1 ration rests with the size of the pharynx and by extension the depth of the larynx.

The question therefore is how to achieve a lower larynx without depressing with the root of the tongue.  I maintain that a vertical fold contact area that is too thin will reduce the length of the vibration cycle causing a raising of fundamental frequency (pitch, in simpler terms), which would be compensated for by pressing the folds together (lengthening the vibration cycle), as long as the singer insists on singing the given pitch.  Any kind of pressing prevents air flow, which would cause increase sub-glottal pressure and raise the larynx.  The necessities of the singer's formant (SF) are also the necessities of a balanced tone (i.e. a balance between the depth of the folds and closure of the same, yielding a balance between breath pressure and flow).

To that end, I devised an exercise that promotes the three fundamental elements of good phonation: 1) low larynx 2) efficient fold closure and most importantly 3) breath flow.  The exercise is done on [hwi], whereby the singer attempts to execute all three elements (h, u, i) in a quick, and immediate onset, as if all three elements where performed simultaneously as opposed to sequentially.  The speed of the onset and release of the [h], the depth of the [u], and the brilliance of the [i] are of paramount importance.
(see exercise below: second and third lines).


Although [hwi] is not an occlusive by definition (the vocal tract is not obstructed as it would be by a [v] or voiced th), I include it in the occlusion exercises because the shaping of mouth and tongue have partially occlusive properties.  I have not experienced an exercise, either in my teaching or singing that yields quicker and more balanced results.

There is a reason why the exercise sheet begins with lip-trills.  Lip-trills when done with the above three fundamentals in mind, yield a balanced posture of the vocal folds over time. Preceding the [hwi] exercises by lip-trills sets the mechanism up for better results.  A frequent reader has asked me to demonstrate how the lip-trills should be executed.  There is no one single way to do the lip-trills.  The lip-trills should be done with a goal of achieving balance between laryngeal depth, fold closure and air-flow.  When the balance has been achieved, the resultant tone is of substance and it is free. However before balance has been achieved, the lip-trills can be strenuous.  Since their purpose is to induce muscular balance, it will be strenuous when one begins with imbalances.  Additionally, the lip-trills require strong diaphragmatic and pan-costal muscular actions. In other words, they develop the core strength that is necessary for an efficient breath mechanism.  


Although there is not one single way to do the lip-trills, there are ways that do not promote growth. For that reason I will do a blog dealing specifically with this wonderful exercise. Patience! It will come soon!

What is of crucial importance scientifically is that certain vowels do not occur on a given pitch because the balance of overtones is skewed. More importantly, the strength of overtones depends centrally on the nature of the phonated tone. The [i] vowel for instance is often uncomfortable and imprecise in the low range (male low and lower middle range) when the fold mass is lacking. [i] has a very low first formant and requires strong low partials in order for the first formant (dominant in the low range) to have a strong effect.  Weak lower partials mean a weak and sometimes imprecise [i] vowel.  More to the point, the resonance of vowels depends first and foremost on a tone rich in overtones.  The mechanism of a low larynx often brings the vocal folds apart.  The coordination requires the paradoxical ability to have a fluid release of air during the open phase and the ability of the IAs to close the folds adequately during the close phase.  Being able to release breath, maintaining the depth of the [u] and the the brilliance of the [i] simultaneously is precisely the coordination necessary for the sought-out results.

© 08/23/2011