Sunday, December 30, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): Appoggio 2: Mental Conception of the Voice and Anatomical Response

The term "La lotta vocale" (vocal struggle) is one often tossed around when discussing breath support or appoggio.  All this terminology makes very little sense without understanding 1) What the body does automatically 2) What the singer is responsible for on a conscious level.

Question: Why does a baby exhibit perfect breath support when crying?

Answer:  The baby has an overwhelming desire to express a specific need.  The expression therefore requires certain mechanical responses from the body, which include strong phonation and excellent compression of the breath by way of efficient muscular antagonism (The so-called lotta vocale).

Therefore we should look at breath support as beginning with a mental concept of the specific sound we need to produce.  Quite erroneously, singers often begin with the idea that "if I support I will create a great sound!"  It is rather the opposite that is true.  If I expect to produce a great sound, excellent breath coordination must be a part of it.

Indeed the compression of the breath is automatic, if:

1) The glottal resistance is adequate (i.e. if the throat is doing its part).  Appropriate glottal resistance begins with a mental idea of what sound is to be produced. A substantial sound will produce substantial glottal resistance, providing the singer has the vocal wherewithal to produce the sound that is conceived.  A sense of flow must also be part of the mental picture of the sound lest the singer ends up with rigid substance.  Nor should flow be considered without sound substance lest the result ends up being unopposed air (breathy singing).  Correct glottal resistance requires a mental concept and learned sensation of flowing substance.

2)  The muscles of inhalation remain active at and beyond the point of vocal onset.  The idea of lotta vocale or appoggio technique, as some like to call it, is indeed simple.  If the muscles of inhalation (which muscularly oppose the muscles of exhalation) are continually active (not relaxing to allow the air to collapse), the only muscles that can push the air out are the exhalation muscles, and they will respond automatically.  

Question: But what activates the many muscles of exhalation?

Answer:  The desire to release a specific sound (as long as the muscles of inhalation do not collapse).

In short, we are left with another axiom from the Old School.  Sing on the feeling of inhalation!

A good inhalation expands the ribcage and the belly (diaphragmatic descent pushes the viscera down and out).  If we maintain this supple sensation of suspended expansion (not rigid), and we desire to sing a substantial sound, the body's exhalation muscles (abdominals of many kinds, internal intercostals, i.e. the core muscles) must respond to help produce the desired sound.

Our responsibilities relative to appoggio therefore are the following:

A) Develop laryngeal structure capable of producing a substantial sound (this is not a given and not equal in every singer before training)

B) Inhale deeply so to expand the body fully

C) Desire to produce a substantial and flowing tone (whether soft or loud)

This will yield the desired response:

D) The many core muscles respond to create the breath compression commensurate with the desired sound.

The body is mostly an automatic machine.  Our responsibility is to train it, such that it is fit and capable of producing the desired results (like an athlete does.  Just because one has athletic talent does not mean one does not need to train daily).  Then we must know what activity we are consciously responsible for (maintain body expansion in this case) such that the automatic parts happen without our interference.

Finally, for my part, I believe that the definition of the term, lotta vocale, and indeed of every jargon found in vocal history, should be updated to reflect what we understand about the instrument.  Lotta vocale speaks to muscular antagonism between the muscles of inhalation and exhalation.  There is a lotta vocale, "a vocal struggle", happening at every level of singing, not only breathing.  The dynamic relationship between muscles of heavy mechanism and those of light mechanism (i.e. TA vs. CT) is a type of lotta vocale.   The dynamic relationship between laryngeal depressors and laryngeal levitators is a type of lotta vocale.  The relationship between laryngeal stability and tongue movement is a kind of lotta vocale.  Indeed the stability of the body in motion depends on a paradoxical and antagonistic relationship between muscle pairs.

A singer's life is made many times more difficult by the fact that we cannot see the vocal muscles at work.  Singers sing by feel and it is very easy to get attached to a particular sensation that might be one-sided.  Many great and balanced voices deteriorate because the singer assumed that his/her vocal balanced was due to the one thing that had been lacking.

Whether it is Alfredo Kraus who spoke only about "sensing the voice forward", or Caballe who speaks exclusively about the breath, or Corelli who spoke incessantly about the low larynx, most of the singers who had great careers began with vocal advantages (mostly cultural stimuli that trained substantial vocal use before the singer was aware).  Many of them define technique by the small part they needed to learn. Something that may work for those students who needed the same thing but often ends up being disastrous for students who have other needs.

Great pedagogy is not only giving the students what they need, but making them aware of what they already have and how and why it works!

© 12/30/2012

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): Appoggio: Confidence and the Speaking Voice

I will never forget having dinner with Mario Sereni during the summer of 1991.  The celebrated Italian baritone was retired but continually received offers to sing.  And no wonder!  Even by today's standards he would have been a catch for most managers.  He appeared a lot younger than he must have been then, he was impeccably dressed, was a charming and supportive person (he gave me a peptalk before I sang Macbeth's big aria in a concert) and then there was the voice!!!  I had never heard someone speak, as he did normally, with such a powerful resonance.  A few weeks later I would do a masterclass with Piero Cappuccilli and wondered if all Italian baritones spoke with such a powerful resonance.  After meeting those two magnificent singers with their powerful speaking voices, I must admit, I had doubts about my own native talent. Over the years, those voices would come back to haunt me, but in a reassuring way.  Somehow I felt they had appeared in such close proximity to help me understand something.  The classes with Cappuccilli ended up being about "using the breath with generosity but without ever wasting it."  Another paradox!

It takes a lot of life experience to put such experiences to good use.  In the end, there was obviously a connection between the way those two "confident" artists used their breath.  In my teaching, I often bring a singer to an "altered" state whereby they sing with a powerful resonance.  Unlike our great baritones, instead of living with it, they wonder whether "it is too much", whether they are "putting it on!"

In a way, it is as if they are putting it on, faking it, because their default structural state is "other", "smaller", "socially more acceptable" especially in a more introverted society, unlike the Latins, Afro-Americans, Koreans, etc, who tend to be much more outwardly expressive.

After having developed my own vocal apparatus (structure), I found I still had to deal with a tendency of making myself smaller, vocally more "normal" (whatever that is).  Even with my years of experience teaching singers that they must become their "whole" selves, I was tricking myself into a "safer" "more limited" approach, whether by developing an approach that was more acceptably "tenorial"!  True "release" is based on a vocal coordination that defines the true voice, not our own ideas of what we wish it were or worst yet what we think we should sound like.  In recent months (as might be evident in a recent post), I am constantly confronted with accepting the "baritone" quality of my tenor voice.  Why would that be a problem?--After all, one of the most important agents in the business defines a tenor with a baritone quality as "very rich!"--

The problem is that it feels superhuman!  It feels like "more than that which I identify as self!"  I am fundamentally afraid at some level to be "all that!"  A fully developed operatic voice is indeed "all that".  It  is James Earl Jones, Patrick Stewart and Birgit Nilsson!  Those are people who are not afraid to be vocally complete in their every-day life.  Particularly when one has a dramatic voice by nature, it is a lot to go around with.  Most of us make it smaller!  Opera can be gentle, it can be quiet, but it is never vocally small.  The lightest coloratura voice fully supported produces a powerful resonance.

When the truly supported sound is not part of the singer's every-day existence, it feels as if the singer is "fabricating" a sound, when it is in fact the voice that is used in every-day life that is fake.  Support, as any aspect of vocal technique, begins with an idea of "self"!  When we imagine ourselves to be "less", "smaller", how can we possibly take on the grand vocal presence that is required in operatic singing?  The first part of any singer's training should be to be introduced the nature of the full vocal resource.  When one expects his voice to sound like James Earl Jones, or Patrick Stewart or Birgit Nilsson or Christa Ludwig, there is also along with that an expectation of a certain kind of breath energy.  I will always remember Mario Sereni's catch phrase: "mi spiego?" (Do I explain myself or Do you understand?) or when I asked Christa Ludwig for an autograph and she replied:  "You are baritone, yes?...My husband was baritone?  You are all sooo loud (zoooo laut)!"  Their every-day speaking voices were as full as their singing voices.  From normal day to operatic stage, there was very little change.  For most of us, even when we know what the proper, supported voice sounds like, it is an unnatural thing.  My students who sing the most naturally also speak with a supported voice.

I discovered the lack of proper support in my speaking voice when I began having difficulties in my lower middle range, where I was particularly strong during my baritone years.  The same rich "baritone" fullness that sang "Thus saith the Lord..." from Messiah,--inspiring audience members to ask me after every concert of Handel's masterpiece: "How does such a big sound come out of such a little body?"--is the same voice that must now sing: "Vincerò!"  "Vittoria!" or any other normal tenor phrase for that matter.

Let us see if we have the humility to dare to speak/sing our true voices!

© 12/19/2012

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): Change 1: Getting To Know Our Changing Selves

I have not been writing very much lately...No, I have been writing a lot, but not publishing anything here on the blog!


I never want to post something here just out of the need to keep the blog active.  In fact, there are more readers reading the blog now than ever before, despite the fact that I have not been writing.

Why not post my writings here?

Because singing is about a lot more than technique in the physical sense.  Also, so much of what I write now needs vocal examples which I should be putting up and yet I do not feel that the product I would put up here is consistent with my standards.  I don't care anymore to put up clips about "how much closer to completion I am!"  The next clip needs to be about the completed process and what it has yielded.

I often tell my students that the final step of their mastery needs to be taken alone!  I have been my own teacher for 5 choice...Only with the help of a couple of wonderful coach-pianists who have had better advice for me than the average voice teacher might offer.

Why is that?

The great Steve Crawford gave me yet another amazing wisdom:  "When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail!"  Unless I become a victim to the success of my own technique, I had to consider a few things relative to that statement.

I became aware that I should drink more water.  Why do I not get thirsty as often as most people?  Is it a personal peculiarity? Or is it a defect?  I had considered the former for quite a while.  Then today I had a particularly dry day.  It is winter!  I sleep with the heat on, it is dry outside and in my studio, I did not sleep enough the past couple of nights since arriving in Berlin...All important factors!

Then I considered something else:  What is the oil capacity of a Nissan Titan? Officially 6.5 quarts!  7 quarts is safe!  What is the water capacity of Jean-Ronald LaFond? 45.3 liters according to Watson's formula for body weight/age/height to body water content!

What is the average oil consumption rate of a Nissan Titan? 2.5 quarts per 1000 miles!
What is the average water consumption of Jean-Ronald LaFond? 2.5 liters per day.

If the Nissan Titan has an oil change every 1000 miles, the oil gauge should not go lower than -2.5 quarts per 1000 miles.  Many factors could lead to greater oil consumption, including dirty oil, driving in extremely dry and/or hot conditions, malfunctioning catalytic convertor, dirty oil filter, etc...

Water consumption in an average human being can also vary depending on myriad conditions.  Unfortunately, unlike the Nissan Titan, which has an oil gauge, Jean-Ronald LaFond does not come with  a water gauge.  Humans close to 50 years of age also lose thirst sensitivity.  A human being in a chronically mild dehydration state can adapt to that state until it becomes normal.  Tangentially, there are many symptoms that lead me to believe that I may have been mildly dehydrated.  I will not bore you with all of them since they can easily be found through a Google search.  One thing I will say however is that my voice (we singers are hypersensitive when it comes to our voices) is always more consistent when I am in Italy.  This I credit to balanced diet and increased water intake as a virtue of the culture.

Assuming that I am mildly dehydrated---deadly to a singer's health because the viscosity of the vocal fold cover (mucosa) depends greatly on water intake---I will not return to normal hydration by suddenly drinking 2.5 liters of water every day.  This may help to a certain extent, because it would be more than I generally drink, however it would not bring my body to the kind of hydration that would support vocal folds at optimum levels of functionality.  If I were like a Nissan Titan, I would have a gauge that would determine my hydration level and the viscosity of the vocal fold cover.  To ascertain that I am drinking adequate water, I would have to drink far beyond my comfort level, because what feels normal is not normal at all!

So today, dealing with my extreme dryness and suddenly becoming aware of my potential chronic mild dehydration, I immediately drank four fillings of my .5-liter bottle (a recent present from my very attentive girlfriend--Thank you, Darling)!  Within 15 minutes my raspy voice began to clear and I felt a surge of energy that inspired a few repetitions of one of my Kung Fu forms.  My mind was clearer and my balance was decidedly more consistent.  Nearly two liters was more than I would ever drink at once.  It felt like my stomach was full.  I began practicing and felt clarity in my lower range where I usually do not.  Then the top of the voice was much more flexible and several high Cs felt unusually free.  After half hour of practice, I drank two more fillings of my water bottle and continued practicing.

I did not expect that all my problems would be corrected in one day, and of course some level of dryness remains as does a degree of inflexibility on certain notes (interestingly enough not the the notes that normally feel inflexible).  Most of the literature would suggest that at least a week is necessary to rehydrate, including potassium intake and salt intake to prevent water loss.  In other words, all the water I drank today did not get absorbed.  I did urinate quite a bit two hours later (not immediately).  I am interested to see how the voice responds after I feel properly hydrated.

I will keep you posted.  I do feel I am on to something important.

Interestingly enough as I write this post, I feel decidedly thirsty.  It could be the power of suggestion relative to writing this over the last hour, or it could be something truly significant.  I am betting it is the latter because I exhibit all the mild symptoms consistent with mild dehydration.  Because they are otherwise mild, except for the perceptible difficulties with respect to the voice (stuff that a non-singer would not care about), I did not think much of them.

I have to change!  I have to become aware of mild discomforts.  It is part of a long process of learning to honor the body as the temple of the spiritual self.  It is part of honoring one's inner worth.

In every sense, my voice has been improving and I have been extremely excited.  The frustration has been with the lack of clarity in the voice and any kind of vocal damage has been ruled out.  Reflux is the laryngologist's default diagnosis.  I have stopped treating myself for reflux more than two years ago and I have not felt any adverse effects.  On the contrary, once I dismissed reflux as the unpredictable devil, I have improved on many levels.  It will be interesting to see what this brings.

© 12/02/2012