Thursday, April 25, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Chest Cavity AND Mask: Complimentary Antagonism

If there is any symbol of consistency on this blog it is the words "AND"and "PARADOX".  The biggest problem in addressing vocal technique issues is one-sidedness.  Even in the case of a teacher addressing a missing part, it is too often one-sided in treatment.  It is more common to hear: "You need more brilliance!"  There is nothing wrong with that statement except it should be followed by: "...However be sure not to lose your excellent depth in pursuit of brilliance!"

After a singer has developed muscular-balance training (the part usually taken for granted) comes the issue of vocal coordination, too often based on personal esthetics.  Some like brighter sounds and some like darker sounds.  One to the exclusion of the other however leads to imbalance.  I have often quoted my late teacher, Ada Finelli: "Chiaro e scuro! Non chiaro o scuro!" (Bright and dark! No bright or dark!).

The question is:  what are the characteristics of dark and bright?  How does the singer feel these sensations?

Indeed bright and dark can be expressed in all kinds of ways that may help or hurt the ultimate vocal balance.  I would express it thus:

Scuro (Spaciousness):  Sensations of a vibrating chest cavity is associated with low notes.  It is because in the average singer, low notes are relatively relaxed and balanced.  This sensation of resonant chest cavity is based on four aspects of singing that I can think of:

A. Relaxation of the throat (i.e. the natural low position of the larynx when there is no laryngeal constriction)
B. A clear source tone, whereby the folds approximate adequately, without breathiness or pressing.
C. Consistent breath pressure/flow induced by a need to express (I believe idiomatic, i.e. specific support is driven by emotional commitment to the note being sung.
D. A clear idea of the text being sung (specificity of vowel concept and clear and efficient articulation of consonants).

It might be interesting to some that I include efficient phonation and clear vowel as a part of "Scuro".  This is purposeful.  The vowel should have a spacious, three-dimensional nature that reflects the complete resonance chamber including not only the chest as mentioned above but also sensations of vibrancy in the head.  What brings the vocal intensity "forward" inducing "mask" sensations is the following:

Chiaro (Brilliance):  Given that the folds are approximating well (i.e. deeply enough and fully closing the glottis but not pressing), the length of the folds (i.e. the stretch) is what ultimately produce true brilliance (strong high overtones as opposed to weak low ones produced by pressed voice).

Attempt this exercise:

Sing a comfortable low note and attempt to find its best balance: A) a complete sense of resonance space low and high, a clear tone that also flows and is sung with some emotional intensity (think happy for starters) on the clearest, deepest [a] vowel possible not pushed too loud or held back too softly!  From this ideally comfortable note, sing legato to one octave higher on the vowel [i]!

Unless you resist too much, the voice will feel like it stretches upward and even feel like it turns a corner toward the mask.  This is natural!

The questions in finding balance are the following:

1) When you sang to the octave on [i], did you lose the sense of the open chest cavity of the low note?

If so, the folds have a tendency of thinning out too much as you go up in pitch.  Solution: Seek to maintain the sensation of flow and clarity and spaciousness as the voice naturally stretches to the top note.

2) Did you sense that the voice did not stretch up at all?

If so, it is possible that your own concept of your tone may be too much geared to the dark sounds.  The folds may be forced too thick to create a sound that is richer than natural, which would resist the natural stretch.  Maintain depth and clarity and flow, but be sure that the tone has buoyancy (that it is not stuck or rigidly anchored).

Over-producing the voice in the low range and over-thinning in the top are the common problems that young singers face.  Often these natural tendencies are then over-corrected.  The singer may then sing way too lightly in the low or over-resist the stretch in the high to compensate for the tendencies of too stiff at the bottom and too elastic at the top, respectively.

As in anything balance is the key.  We should begin with the premise that all the best qualities are possible in any voice.  The voice should be substantial, rich, spacious, clear, flowing and brilliant all at once.  Never give up one good quality to achieve another!  However one should be willing to reduce a quality that may be exaggerated.  Each voice is different and so each singer must find the ultimate balance that gives rise to all these wonderful qualities in balance: A sensation of Complimentary Antagonism.

© 04/25/2013

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): So Much More Than Voice!!!

Sometimes we teachers cannot help it!  We occasionally get on a philosophical soapbox attempting to explain to students that success in the field has so much more to do with "extra-vocal" things.  In my new studio space in New York, there is a photo of George London.  It is an ad by Columbia Artists from the early 1950s promoting their magnificent Bass-baritone.  One does not need to know much about George London or his unusually resonant and elastic voice to realize that promotion of a singer has in fact little to do with their voice quality and so much more to do with their ability to exude a charismatic energy, which has everything to do with a sense of confidence in their talent.  Yet it is not only about how George London fit in his balletic tutu-like outfit, portraying Don Giovanni, but rather how he got to the point where that photo became necessary.

According to the moving biography written by London's wife, his beginnings were relatively normal, but that magnificent voice was accompanied by a 1950s American post-war ideology of self-reliance and self-determination.  The dominant questions back then were "what can I do to move myself forward?" or "How hard do I need to work to get there?" Granted, operatic expectations were clearer.  A voice perhaps played a bigger part, but musicianship and stage-deportment and language skills were as important even at a time when there was no internet and access to a foreign country was nearly a pipe-dream.  Nevertheless, singers back then in large part were musically more aware and linguistically better studied.  My own former teacher, George Shirley, still has the best recording of the role of Pelléas  available anywhere and his French diction is flawless.  How does an African-American born in Indianapolis and raised in Detroit get to pronounce French that well and to sing the quintessential French opera better than most if not all French speakers?  And this during the American Civil Rights era, when it was very difficult for African-Americans to get cast in lead roles in opera?

Having spent six years in the company of George Shirley, I can say without hesitation that I have met few people in the world who are as positive as he is.  His success came through perseverance and hard work and a voice devoid of "pretense!"  I have aspired to be like him since I met him. Authentic! True to myself.  Yet as much as we claim to value authenticity, the world is a paradoxical place that seeks to assimilate people into the "general" consciousness.  And performers, who are supposed to train to seek their inner truth, are just as easily victimized by this fear of coming out of the "norms".

Most singers I meet are afraid to be themselves or are afraid to discover who they truly are.  Yet the only chance they have to become special in their field is to discover their unique voice.  To be "natural," "unpretentious," "transparent" is usually untrained out of us when we come out of the womb, perhaps already before.  Young opera singers for the most part have already formed a "false" voice the moment they decided to follow the path of operatic singing.  They usually manufacture stylistic idiosyncrasies before they have developed a sense of what their true vocal center is.  The search for the true voice is "personal" it is "intimate" it requires a sense of "defiance" against anything false, which includes most often family conditionings that we have come to accept as innate.

Most of the singers I work with are very hard working people.  But very few are willing to work hard at the things that are hard to work on.  There is a reason that truly "realized" people are few.  It is because it takes a "revolution" against many things we were taught to hold dear in order to become our true selves and as much as I hate to admit it, most of us are not willing to take the scary adventure of ridding ourselves of our earliest brain-washings.

We are all of us afraid.  The question is whether we chose to be defined by our fears or that WE define ourselves despite our fears.

I tell my students always.  I cannot guarantee anyone's success.  You succeed only when you are prepared and willing to go "All-In!"  "Walk the tight rope without a net!" "Put it all on the line!"

Nothing is more difficult for me than to see the potential in a student and then see them turn away from it!  Turn away from themselves!

The conflict I see in the average aspiring opera singer is the following: A little voice deep inside says "you are here to sing!" And so the desire and instinct to sing is powerful. But the brain that has been washed says: "what makes you think you could ever become a successful opera singer?"

Most singers are more willing to listen to the second voice even though they cannot silence the first voice.  So they are tortured, pulled between the truth of their inner purpose and the denial by their learned fears.  That kind of torture is exhausting and depressing!  Consequently they use their energy on easily achieved goals to soothe the inner fear of failure.  They resist inner change and deny themselves the very experiences that can teach them how to deal with this inner struggle. Even though they do not realize it, they have already given up!  It does not matter how many positive examples they see before them, of colleagues who have persevered and conquered.  They prefer to see the reasons why they are bound to fail.  "I'm not thin enough!" "My voice is not big enough!" "I'm not big enough!" "My voice is too big for the current market!"

If you are not willing to tell the negative voice: "Shut up! You're distracting me! I've got work to do!" Then you should shut up! Because you are distracting people who have got work to do!

© 04/10/2013

Friday, April 5, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Vocal Fry: A Means To Efficiency

Teacher: "Your folds need to close completely!  The tone needs to be more 'focused', less breathy!"
Student:  "But how much?  Won't it be pressed?  Is there a sensation of what the right amount is?"

The question is one of precision.  What is the ideal sensation of fold posture?  After years working with the "vocal fry" with the purpose of training efficiency, it has become one of my fundamental tools.  I once asked an esteemed colleague if he ever used the vocal fry.  His response was:  "yes the 'creaky voice' is an ideal set-up.  The problem is going from the low pressure of the vocal fry to the higher and constant compression of actual singing."

Over the years I realized that the reason why the vocal fry only works in the low range is that the lower range has enough natural mass to allow efficient vibration without too much medial pressure (this is discussed often here on the blog. See here!).  Therefore if fold depth were appropriate in the upper range (beyond the muscular passaggio where the folds are in thinning mode instead of thickening mode), that is, not over-thinning as is the tendency, the "fry set-up" could be maintained.

In fact, the gentle vocal fry (one could go from a fry tone to a pressed tone by over-compressing) is as efficient as the folds can come together (i.e. full-closure without pressing, which necessitates ideal fold depth).  The object is to teach the entire range to accomplish the three-way dynamic between the CT-TA-IA muscle groups in order to achieve the necessary fold depth that makes a fry posture possible when compression is increased to create a self-sustaining vibration.

The training exercise (videos forth-coming on the Kashu-do Website, which will be launched by May 1, 2013) would be simply to sustain a gentle vocal fry, clear and regular and then go to tone without a change in the fry posture.  Again, this exercise only works when adequate fold depth has been achieved .  This I have done through occlusives such as vocalizing on voiced consonants, rolled Rs and lip-trills.

The vocal fry has gotten a bad rap because it is not a "supported" sound.  This is true.  The 'fry' is not compressed like a good tone, but it does indeed bring the folds perfectly to midline with relatively no pressure.  The key is to use this aspect and go from the fry tone to a compressed tone without a change in the fry sensation.  My success rate with this has been remarkable.

Because the 'fry tone', like any exercise,  can be performed in many different ways, it is important to know how to do it to get best possible results.  I stress the word "gentle."  A pressed vocal fry is tantamount to a stiff chest tone associated with "improper belting" and forcing (Belting can be done with a balanced tone.  In fact I encourage singers to learn how to belt correctly.  It will have a positive influence on classical singing if approached with balance).

If the gentle fry is indeed in a state of a balanced exchange of air from below the glottis to above it (hence the absence of sub-glottic pressure build-up), it follows that if that state is maintained, compressed air can also be exchanged in the same way, whereby the pressure needed for maintaining fold vibration is exchanged into flow thereby preventing an unhealthy rise in sub-glottic  pressure.

© 04/05/2013

Added after publication:

I should add that whenever we are dealing with muscular re-balancing, there will be a learning curve (i.e. if will take time for the muscles to adjust and strengthen in the new configuration).  Some singings whose closure mechanism always included full glottal closure (balanced or pressed) will have less problem with the vocal fry than a singer who has sung breathily up to the point of using the exercise.  With time, the natural compression of singing will not feel like such an effort.  Indeed many singers do not progress because they avoid the necessary compression of full-glottal closure.  Current pedagogical norms, as reflected in much of academia, prizes the avoidance of pressure of any kind.  Consequently, many young singers go out of school without ever achieving the complete closure necessary for a viable operatic/theatrical tone.