Sunday, November 30, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Demystifying the Wobble!

1.  The Anatomy of a Wobble

A wobble does not mean your career is over!  It is a classic muscular imbalance and it can be eliminated!  I wanted to state this categorically and clearly at the onset of this post.  On the other hand I do not want to trivialize the matter.  I will address this issue as thoroughly as possible.

A wobble is essentially a vibrato extent (frequency range) that exceeds the ears ability to distinguish between the desired fundamental pitch and the extremes (low and high) of the vibrato extent.  It is not necessarily true that the vibrato rate changes during a wobble.  Vibrato rate is more connected to brain signals to the laryngeal nerves than it is to muscular imbalances. That says, an extreme muscular imbalance can interfere with the intermittent brain signal that produces a regulated vibrato.

The components that contribute to a wobble are all-encompassing.  The central issue is hyper-function in one of the frequency altering muscles (Vocalis or Crico-Thyroid) producing hypo-function in its counterpart.  An efficiently produced tone depends greatly on an ideal contact area controlled by the Vocalis and ideal longitudinal tension produced by the CT.  In a wobble situation, the vibrato extent tends to vary between one vibration cycle and the next, signifying that one muscle is overly dominating during one cycle and then the opposing muscle overcompensates in the next.  The sensation to the singer is that one moment the sound feels too heavy and the next it feels to light.  It is in effect a continuous yodel sensation.

The laryngeal imbalances causes, or is caused by,  irregularities in trans-glottal flow, whether originating from poor breath management/support or causing inappropriate sub-glottal pressure.  In other words, incorrect laryngeal dynamics can cause problems in breath function and vice-versa.  Excessive volume or inadequate support can both lead to a domino effect that result in a wobble.

Lastly, inappropriate resonance adjustments (e.g. high larynx, tense jaw and inappropriate vowel choices) contribute to irregular fold oscillations and inappropriate sub-glottal pressure.

In a sense, all aspects of singing must be addressed to correct a wobble or better yet, avoid it in the first place.

2.  How Age  and Time Factor In

Up to the mid 20s, it is very rare to hear a wobble (yet I have heard it in a few 19 to 22 years old college students) because the larynx tends to be more flexible until around age 25.  The natural calcification of the laryngeal components around 25 years of age results to allow for a more stable system as the adult body produces greater sub-glottal pressures with age, heightened expression, etc.  With this new stability, there develops also a lesser ability to bounce back from malfunctions and imbalances.  After 25 years of age, the singer can no longer party all night and wake up to a voice that is fresh the next day.  Longer recovery time is required and the elasticity of a pre-adult larynx is no longer available.

It usually takes a long time for a wobble to manifest to the point of disturbing performance.  However, the signs of an oncoming wobble can be measured (Voce Vista's vibrato tool is particularly convenient) even without machinery.  A teacher with a well-developed ear can hear tones that are not ideally balanced, which left unchecked can develop into a wobble.

Wobble is not only a thing of old age. Today I hear discernible wobbles in top singers in their late 30s and early 40s, either caused by singing inappropriate tessituras for over a decade or singing more loudly than the voice can safely sustain.  A lack of total training makes for imbalances to become more pronounced much earlier than with earlier generations who took more time to train and were more discriminant about repertoire choice.

As for aging singers, a wobble does not have to be part of the equation.  A singer can avoid a wobble by being thoroughly physically fit.  The muscles directly involved in singing are supported by muscles throughout the body, particularly core muscles and costal muscles responsible for a great deal more than singing.  If core and skeletal muscles can be kept strong and the vocal musculature is trained in balance, a wobble is avoidable.  Longevity does not have to be selective if the singer has the patience and is training correctly.

3. Ode To A Special Singer

I dedicate this post to a singer I have had the pleasure of teaching for the past four years.  I mentioned her in passing in a post some three years ago.  This true dramatic mezzo who had the beginnings of a bourgeoning professional career some 30 years ago thought she had lost her voice and after many laryngologists and expensive voice teachers could not find an answer and she had stopped singing altogether for some 12 years, she read this blog and contacted me.  After an hour of exercises I theorized that her problem was probably the cause of an extreme muscular imbalance.  The chest voice was totally devoid of CT participation and the head voice was totally disconnected from the bottom.  So much so that more than an octave from F4 to around G5 could not be coordinated.  No one bothered to see if notes above F4 could work.  I found that B5 came right out.  A kind of flute function that was so loud, no one would have called it a flute voice.  But when you have a voice so substantial it might make the magnificent Stefanie Blythe sound like a lyric mezzo, it is understandable why the flute voice might sound so loud.

I mention this wonderful singer who is now in the final phases of her training, because she started to work with me around the same time as another singer around her age began with me.  The other singer who had a pronounced wobble but whose problem in my estimation was not so unusual progressed little and eventually gave up.  I felt that the other singer was not practicing regularly as much as she needed to to reverse the pressing and weak breath support that had been built over many years.

Our current singer, however, who is the most challenging case of muscular imbalance I had faced in my entire career (including literally thousands of singers) did go through a period of wobbling, which I expected when the two sides were first coordinated again, exhibits no signs of a wobble now.  I do not post any clips of this most extraordinary singer because I would like her sound to be unimpeachable when we finally reveal her secret work.  This was a high level singer who included Domingo and Ramey as her early colleagues.  I have not met a singer with this kind of courage, determination, patience and work ethic ever!  I believe most singers would have given up.  But when you have made strides the way she did, measurable strides due to daily, regular practice, good day or bad day, rain or shine, then it feels wrong to leave the work unfinished.

Thanks you B. for being the inspirational singer you are. As much as I guide you, your peerless example has been my personal daily inspiration.  When I see how far you've come and the mountains you've climbed, I cannot even begin to imagine stopping my own work halfway.  YOU demystify the Wobble and conquered it as one small hill among the Everests you've had to climb.  I look forward soon to the time when we can display your implacable courage and the fruits of your hard work!

© 11/30/2014

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