Volume Continued: Mancini and Tosi

From this comes the rule that he who departs from natural usage passes from pleasure into annoyance. Above all else the young singer should avoid exercises and studies sotto voce, because not only the trill, but every other ornament of singing, more and more, when sung sotto voce, makes it impossible to execute them any other way, and every time that he wishes to produce them in full voice, huge in large and vast places, he cannot execute these passages, or if he executes them, they cannot be other than full of imperfections, and unpleasant. While it is easy to execute any ornament in a weak and soft voice, it is very difficult to execute them with a large and strong voice.

Mancini, Giambattista. “Pensieri, riflessioni practiche sopra il canto figurato (Vienna, 1774), trans. and ed.” E. Foreman as Practical Reflections on Figured Singing (Champaign, 1968): 74.

Gathering from the above passage from Mancini, it would appear that he wanted singers to sing their music, especially of a more decorative nature, in piena voce “full voice.” This is a far cry from the methods of modern practice which aim to ‘lighten’ the coloratura passages in order to render them.

Perhaps a reassessment of our relationship to ‘soft singing’ is in order, especially from the point of view of actual voice building in the studio.

Let the Master instruct him in the Forte and Piano, but so as to use him more to the first than the second, it being easier to make one sing soft than loud. Experience shews that the Piano is not to be trusted to, since it is prejudicial though pleasing; and if any one has a Mind to lose his Voice, let him try it.

Tosi, Pier Francesco. Observations on the florid song. J. Wilcox, 1742.

 

 

The Restricted Larynx (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Intensity)

Primum non nocere.

“First Do No Harm.” Don’t hurt someone’s voice or their psyche – good teaching goals, right? I agree 100%. But I also think that ALL voice training carries with it some risk, both good and bad. This is something that we don’t talk about too much in the profession. Oh well.

As a singer who experienced functional deterioration myself, I find I project my own history on my students: being overly cautious, maybe a little too gentle. Over the past 9 months, I’ve been questioning my approach. Am I doing enough to stimulate positive change in the vocal mechanisms of my students?

The answer that I’ve come up with is, no, I’m not.

I want students to build strength in their voices and that doesn’t come by singing gentle scales all the time. “Building on the soft” will NOT work for a student as a strength-building approach. If you lift the pink weights at the gym, you will register a change at first, but you must lift the SAME weight more and more to continue to build your muscles. Do you want to do 1,000 reps? 10,000? How much time will that take?

How does intensity manifest in a lesson? I ask students to give me a full sound in their chest register (Mode 1), rising ABOVE the speech pitch (F0) and usual intensity of speech range on open vowels. (Think open mouth “ah” or “eh” or “ay” on slides.) We do exclamations: “HEY!””WHOA!””NOOOOO””YEAAAH!” ALL in chest register, (Mode 1).

The students are excited about taking the vocal “horse” out of the barn and giving it a trot around the field. They get excited about what good volume feels like – even my gentler female students have been coaxed to make more assertive exclamations. (Another benefit of this: these gentle ladies become MORE assertive and more communicative in lessons as their voices get stronger!)

The timeliness of Ingo Titze’s recent paper in the Journal of Voice “Human Speech: A Restricted Use of the Mammalian Larynx.” Journal of Voice 31.2 (2017): 135-141” confirmed a lot of suspicions I was having in my own work regarding intensity.

Here are some quick takeaways from this article:

  1. Speech is not varied enough in pitch or intensity to stimulate the intrinsic structures of the larynx.
  2. The lack of calling, yelling, howling, hooting, roaring, screaming, chanting in our civilized society MAY pre-dispose a student to motor control issues in the larynx. Students who present with vocal control problems may have lost touch with inner laryngeal function.
  3. The laryngeal mechanism’s evolution can be attributed to a need to communicate over great distances. Current speech habits restrict the use of the voice, and in time, may cause the evolution of the larynx to naturally select ‘out’ the fullest properties of voice. Full, open, ringing sounds may become a thing of the past if the larynx isn’t stimulated enough in our species.
  4. Certain consonants do not possess the carrying factor. Vowel sounds are best for this type of communication. (Could this be why the vowel centricism of Italian was SO successful in the training of voice?)
  5. Children with developmental issues that do not use the voice NEVER develop a vocal ligament. Adults that lose the ability to talk also lose the ligament structure of the folds.
  6. Titze argues that speech alone uses about 10% of the sarcomere length of our vocal folds (the length at which the actin-myosin overlap produces the maximum contractile force).
  7. Functional issues such as spasmodic dysphonia (where patients can SING but not speak), may point to this restriction of usage that fails under speech conditions.
  8. Semi-occlusion and vocal function exercises (VFEs) are the vocal equivalents of taking the voice to “the gym.”

I was immediately struck by similarities to Frederick Husler’s book Singing: The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ (1965). Husler’s entire pedagogy was built around ‘unlocking’ the functions of what he called a ‘normal’ mechanism.

…forming, training a voice is a process of re-generation. It consists in restoring the organ of singing to the condition intended by nature, or strengthening and revitalizing it in all its many parts. It is essentially a remedial operation. Leaving aside all artistic considerations, voice training as such is therapy more than anything else.

Husler goes on to state (echoing Titze):

There can be little doubt that the larynx, together with its other functions, was planned and constructed as a specific instrument for singing, if only for this reason: the edges of the vocal folds divide into harmonically ordered sections which can have no purpose other than to produce ‘useless’ aesthetic sensations. No such complex mechanism is necessary for speaking. If we may express it, the mind that formed speech took possession of the organ of singing.

Titze argues that mothers and babies speak in “mothereses” with each other, gliding up and over the F0 area of the voice, reflecting the evolutionary move from an early singing quality to a lower restricted laryngeal use as the infant becomes socialized.

From Husler again:

In many ways Man developed his most human attributes with the invention of language, and speech grew into so vast a superimposition that it has resulted in a chronic lack of INNERVATION, a lack that affects the purely SINGING function of the vocal organ.

[…]

As a result of this long and persistent disuse, the musculatures concerned have generally become extremely weak, even atrophied (atrophy through inaction), with a parallel fading of what is known as ‘organic memory.’

This civilizing process on the voice is ALSO interesting from an historical pedagogy concept. Edgar Herbert-Caesari in Tradition and Gigli believes that much of the Camerata’s work to develop their masterful vocal techniques were taken from observations of the lower classes of society that had not been subject to a ‘civilizing’ process: loud farmers, tradesmen, and field workers with impeccable laryngeal coordination. The Camerata was observing those human beings that had NOT lost their ‘organic memory’ of their vocal mechanism.

All this correlates to a lively and active use of the voice in a training program. In my studies and work as a teacher, I have come to realize the importance of full-throated sound to innervate the instrument, evoking the liberated sounds of childhood. (And yes, it also helps the head voice when the chest register is strengthened.)

Vocal intensity is good.

Intensity is healthy.

Intensity is what the mechanism was intended for.

We should consider our training directives, and question if a diet of gentle and easy is really going to do anything to build a sturdy voice, and then proceed accordingly.

However, Primum non nocere. 

The Taste of Sugar

Although one can read about the Zen in the martial arts, true knowledge of it is experiential. How do we explain the taste of sugar? Verbal descriptions do not give us the sensation. To know the taste, one must experience it. The philosophy of the arts is not meant to be mused over and intellectualised; it is meant to be experienced. Thus, inevitably, words will convey only part of the meaning.

Hyams, Joe. Zen in the martial arts. Bantam, 2010.

Hyams has nailed a foundational and often neglected element in voice training: learning to sing is an experience.

The voice profession has terms for thousands of vocal qualities (some proprietary to the individual teacher!). A student will walk in and may have NO prior experience with the following expressions:

Head voice Spin Lift
Support Stable larynx Legato
Staccato Chest voice Mix
Legato Edge Falsetto

My central aim is to get the student to EXPERIENCE particular vocal qualities. Working from the WORD we get confusion and end-gaining. Striving to achieve the word. I want a student to experience the above qualities in an indirect way that allows them to experience it- and THEN we can name the behavior. The student may very well have THEIR OWN WORD for the experience they’ve had! We should leave room for that.

This is why I will always struggle with directives such as:

“Support that phrase more!”

“Spin the tone more there.”

“Lift up before you go down.”

All of these terms ASSUME that student 1.) knows what you are talking about and 2.) has HAD that experience before. This is rarely, if ever, the case.

Let’s rework them from another angle:

Soufflé that phrase more.”

Chocolate the tone more there.”

Purple up before you orange down.”

Make sense to you? Think how the student feels hearing the above-mentioned directives in a master class with a famous teacher/singer, all WORD based.

WORD orientation is also a huge trap for intelligent singers who believe they are “doing the words,” when in fact, their EXPERIENCE of that word is entirely different.

Some of my favorite moments in lessons:

CONVERSATION #1:

STUDENT: Gee, it feels like the tone is really spinny and alive and I have a good sense of elasticity in my body, and my breath seems to be lasting a lot longer.

ME: What you are feeling and experiencing is what some voice teachers and singers have called “support.”

STUDENT: Wow, I would never have thought that “support” would feel like that.

CONVERSATION #2

STUDENT: I really want to work on my “mix.” (Student begins to vocalize in what they believe is a mix, but is in reality just a long head voice.)

ME: So, that’s your “mix,” yes?

STUDENT: Yes, my last teacher and I have been working on it, but I can’t seem to get any chest quality into it.

ME: O_o

Clearly, each student was having a different experience in relationship to a concept through LANGUAGE. In the first example, the student had NO word or concept to work from and was able to find the “word” through the coordination of the body first. Their experience was remarkably different from how they interpreted the word from conversations with other singers and teachers.

In the second conversation, the student had been given the word first and told that their experience of that word was a mix,  but in reality, it was a head-dominated registration with little to no chest register participation. Both examples demonstrate how words can potentially get in the way of proper concepts.

I think that athletic coaches have a distinct advantage over us, they can monitor largely through their eyes. We voice teachers must monitor another person’s experience through their SOUND. When a student finds a very strong chest register participation, what is more important?: – that they understand a WORD or they have an EXPERIENCE of chest register? Once experienced, it lodges in the student’s consciousness and becomes an indelible experience in learning how to use the voice.

Coming back to our topic, I invoke the comparison with food and taste regularly in lessons. If you have never tasted sugar, you would be hard pressed to describe it. Using an adjective like sweet isn’t good enough. It’s the same with the word ‘support’ if you have never experienced that in YOUR body –  We voice teachers are a loquacious bunch and will do our best to ‘describe you there.’ Nonetheless, real time and energy can be spent in developing a pedagogy that can elicit the behavior first and then name it. Once experienced, the student has acquired an invaluable piece of information: what a particular vocal behavior FEELS and SOUNDS like.

Perhaps this is why TRULY great singers are so hard-pressed to describe their experience? It goes BEYOND MERE WORDS.

Pedagogue Herbert Witherspoon found a similar strain of thought in his book Singing:

Sensation is responsible for much of the confusion in teaching, because teachers try to induce correct sensation in the pupil through imagination, imitation, or suggestion, in order to get the correct tone, instead of asking the pupil to”do” something to cause correct action which produces correct tone, and which in turn will cause the correct sensation. That is, sensation is an effect and not a cause of tone. Correct sensation may be a guide after it has once been experienced by correct singing; it cannot be obtained except by correct singing. We may ask a man who has never eaten an olive what an olive tastes like, or what is the real “taste sensation” of eating an olive. He will promptly voice his ignorance, and say, “Let me eat an olive and I will tell you.” The sensation then becomes a guide for future eating.

Witherspoon, Herbert. “Singing.” New York: G Schirmer (1925).

WORDS in teaching only convey a mere SHADOW of the experience. They are NOT the experience.

Again: the word is NOT the experience. This should be taken to heart and contemplated as one works with all sorts of bodies and intellects. Experiential pedagogy also leads to a pedagogy that is student/experiential oriented and attempts to draw out the voice that is already there. WORDS can be an intellectual block and create a pedagogy that attempts to introduce controls from the outside in.

Get the behavior. Then name it.

The Cruelest of Ironies

I had a session with a soprano last night working to clarify her registration between head and chest for a production for which she is preparing. Her middle voice had become overly thick, denying access to the upper range, causing upper pitches to squeeze in the throat.

We are on a track of isolating the two registers in their respective pitch ranges to clarify the function of the intrinsic musculature and clarify vocal cord behavior. Some of the work includes:

  1. Straightening out the tone through the middle range (which was wobbling perceptibly from an over-aggressive approach) in an effort to find a better vibrato pulse on the ‘other side’ of the straight tone. (The student was working very much to ‘make’ a certain type of full sound in this range, and several years of overly heavy singing caused the middle to wobble perceptibly).
  2. Establishing a firm, strong chest register LOW in the scale, weeding it out of the middle and upper middle range.
  3. Using a lot of staccato throughout the middle portion of the voice on hooty [u] and [o], to redefine a better sense of vocal cord ‘weight’ in this area.
  4. Alternating staccato against legato and monitoring that the legato doesn’t become much heavier than the staccato. Exercises that alternate the two against each other have proved successful in rebalancing the approach through the middle and into the top.
  5. Quiet and calm arpeggios on [u], which instill a sense of vocal and psychological ease throughout the middle range, and prevent too much fold thickness in this area.
  6. Listening to examples of classical sopranos, including many early 20th century dramatic sopranos that did not thicken the middle or top of the range, and note the sound of the vocal cords thinning upon ascent without added ‘bulk’ or ‘weight.’ (Maria Jeritza’s recording of “Es gibt ein Reich” is a personal favorite. Her high B-flat is unlike anything sung today in the aria.)

Last night we worked on a “firm-dolce” octave. In this exercise the lower tonic is sung, with a firm approach to the lower tone on an open [a], and then the octave is quickly ascended into a gentle, dolce approach on either [u], [o], or [a]. This helps align the registration, maintaining resonance adjustment, and places the two registers within their proper boundaries, preventing thickening in the upper tone.

Then we varied our approach: adding stacccato reiterations to the top note, and then used an appoggiatura of a lowered seventh, quickly reiterating the upper octave.

When she experienced this free, clear, and ringing sound, the laryngeal mechanism had clearly responded – giving us a spinny, free, ringing upper note.

We were both stunned.

In the silence that followed, I asked her, “What did you think of that?”

She said, “It’s hard to believe that it can be so free [when I leave it alone].” She became emotional, her eyes welling up.

I instantly retorted, becoming tearful myself, “Isn’t that the cruelest of ironies? That we have gold within us that is just sitting there waiting to be polished and displayed, and we feel that our truest and freest sound isn’t good enough? That Mother Nature saw to put this magical instrument out of reach, and it innately KNOWS how to function if we get out of the way?” I then asked rather pointedly, “Don’t you find it maddening NOW that any technique of singing that would try to control that, or harness, or manage the freedom you just found are ANTITHETICAL to what you just experienced?”

Cornelius Reid used to say that the voice “is an organic system that people just haven’t caught on to.” From the work I did with this soprano, I believe it. It is one thing to know how a system functions, and another to WORK that system in a way that elicits freedom and not muscular control or what I call doings. Singing is a GESTALT – a concert of instruments all playing at the same time. My job is to balance the forces involved.

There is a nugget of gold in the throat of every human being, waiting to be found and released. “Nothing can be added to the organ of song,” as Frederick Husler and Yvonne Rodd-Marling said. Our job as teachers and singers should be to find the freest, most authentic sound of the voice from WITHIN.

In my studio, we are all about Voice CULTIVATION, not Voice PRODUCTION. This reflects the PSYCHOLOGICAL approach of the Old Italians. The idea of cultivating a voice leads to a completely different pedagogy – distinct from one dedicated to production. Cars are produced. Not human voices.

My job as a teacher is LIBERATION. Not CONTROL.

CONTROL is end-gaining, and singing in this manner is rarely rewarding for the singer or the audience. It leads to muscular and psychological confusion. STRESS. ANXIETY when our controls fail.

This level of vulnerability and willingness to ‘go there’ is scary and costs everything. You must purge a false sense of self in sound. What is me? How to I think about my sound?What is my authentic sound?

The answer is right there inside us, sleeping.

 

Freeze! (Actually, Don’t)

I recently attended a performance of young singers who sang from the stage frozen in one position. Feet cemented to the floor. Lots of furtive gesturing (what I affectionately refer to as ‘serving muffins,’ and ‘herding geese,’) and vague attempts at facial expression to convey the meaning of the text.

It got me thinking about two people: Richard Miller and Uta Hagen.

I’ll start with Hagen.

Hagen’s method of teaching was very centered in the body. Her first Object Exercise (Destination) was all about the body in space, and understanding what moves us from one place to the next on stage. Every time a student makes an unmotivated cross I die a little inside. Hagen saw this as foundational to building an ‘inner’ life onstage. We have to observe ourselves through her Destination exercise to make the distinction of where we go and why.

(By the way, I realize I owe everyone an outstanding blog on Hagen that hasn’t been completed. I hope to come back to her this summer!)

An understanding of WHERE we are and WHAT surrounds us, as well as our relationship to those things goes a LONG way to developing a sense of relaxation onstage as we let our creative life take over. Students who lack this sense of circumstance, destination, and place will FIGHT to relieve the tension that they feel. They have not been shown how to develop an inner life from their body first. Observation is key here, and I think the singer should spend a month doing the first Hagen Object Exercise.

The other question you must ask is: under what circumstance do people literally FREEZE in position – not moving at all? I can’t think of very many, unless they’re hiding from a serial killer and don’t want to be noticed. But FREEZING is ALWAYS ASSOCIATED WITH FEAR. This is the connection that isn’t made very often as to why rigid postures are so unhelpful to young singers. Nothing makes them feel even MORE afraid than the direction to HOLD STILL during the singing act.

The body is predicated upon MOVEMENT not stillness. All the shaking knees and legs can be ameliorated by MOVING around – taking a step. I have found it interesting to see how bodies and psyches relax when given the direction to move around when singing a bit. For a beginner, some planning into ‘where to step’ in the music may be necessarily.

There’s an idea that to be ‘grounded’ the singer must plant both feet SOLIDLY on the floor at ALL times. Well, the problem with this is that we are rarely always standing in that posture in real life – it is artificial. It can be a good ‘home base,’ but the minute you feel constrained to one location, the body rebels: the knees will lock, the posture will be thrown off, and psychological fear ensues. I have known coaches who have promulgated this ‘frozen’ position as vital to good singing.

This is where I come to Richard Miller.

In his book, Solutions for Singers, he was asked that very question. I think his response is solid. We want to portray human beings onstage: not statues. I’ve underlined some key points from Miller’s assertion below.

In short, the body must be free to move. Locking in place is NOT GROUNDING. Let me repeat that: LOCKING YOURSELF in one place is not GROUNDING. It is an attempt to ground oneself by END-GAINING a rigid tenseness into the body that does little to relieve muscles of inflexibility, or the performer a sense of freedom, and lack of fear in singing. None of the aforementioned qualities are necessarily or desired for a free expression of music and text.

Inexperienced singers, trying to keep erect posture, tend to cement themselves to the floor of the stage. They stand with feet firmly planted and move only from the waist as they attempt to communicate the text; the torso typically sways slowly back and forth in response to rhythm or to phrase length, but the feet never move. This rigid fixation of legs and of feet bears no relationship to the body language of spoken communication. How often does a speaker sway from side to side? Never, except to portray distress or madness. In speaking privately or publicly, we do not weave rhythmically back and forth from the waist, but we do make slight alterations in our stance. We do not separate the body into two parts—the lower half consisting of the hips and the legs, the upper half of the torso and the head. We remain axial, but from time to time we shift our weight.

During singing, the weight of the torso should be seldom equally distributed on both legs for long periods of time, unless we are being as statuesque as the Commendatore, or pretending to be invisible. Body language is altered now and again by shifting from the right leg to the left leg; then the reverse process. Arms are relaxed, occasionally making small emotive movements, as in narrative speech, while avoiding meaningless gesticulation. As a new thought or emotion arises in the text or music, while remaining axially poised, we occasionally shift the body—a nearly imperceptible half-step forward or half-step back—while still retaining noble posture. At a later moment, we return to the original position. During the singing of a lied, a mélodie, or an art song, such occasional shifting of stance is in response to the drama or mounting emotion. On the opera and music theater stage, the performer finds independence from rhythmic servitude. Accommodating the varied pace of the drama, one learns to walk out of rhythm, to make predetermined movements that appear free of the musical structure. The technique of altering body language through weight-shifting is an integral part of producing a believable stage persona.

Intermittent shifting of stance produces performance freedom and dramatic authenticity. It places an audience at ease as well. Stance alteration removes the artificiality of singing an hour’s recital, appearing like a statue attached to the crook of the pianoforte or being rigidly positioned center stage for the aria. Occasional weight-shifting also avoids the wiggling, jiggling, and meaningless gesticulations that seem, like a communicable disease, to beset some solo and group performers. But don’t overdo it.

Richard Miller, Solutions for Singers

 

 

Summer Vacation and Quote of the Day

I have been very lax in blogging these past months, and it’s due to the fact that I have been teaching a lot, as well as working on developing my skills in French.

I’ve gained some insights into the process of language acquisition that are simmering for future posts, but I haven’t quite codified my ideas yet, so they’re merely just hunches and observations of the similarities. Will hope to share these in future posts.

Now that summer’s on its way I hope to muse with you more on pedagogical insight.

As I spend time thinking about Voice Science, a recent reading of Erwin Schrödinger (the cat guy) really spoke to me:

‘…there is a tendency to forget that all science is bound up with human culture in general, and that scientific findings, even those which at the moment appear the most advanced and esoteric and difficult to grasp, are meaningless outside their cultural context’.

Looking forward to writing more for you in the future!

Stay tuned!

-Justin

 

Oui, vous pouvez lire ceci, mais est-ce que vous parlez? 

The struggle of learning a foreign language is not necessarily the grammar, the verbs, the vocabulary, or the writing.

The real test is the ability to SPEAK it. Live. In front of a native speaker awaiting our message. 

How many say, “I understand exactly what I’m reading or hearing but I’m not able to speak it!”

Speaking is the central difficulty for many. 

So it is with singing.

As one can learn intimately particular nuances of tense, active and passive voice, and the subjunctive – and still not speak well, so can those who understand the voice from the anatomical, acoustic, and physiological perspectives – and still not sing well.

Why this disconnect? 

Comprehension of a subject is wonderful for tests, but we must not lose sight of the fact that to be a singer is to SING.

We can have a vast knowledge of the voice on paper, but does it translate into actual words when you’re standing in the boulangerie and want to order your favorite pain au chocolat

We learn to sing by singing

We learn to speak a foreign language by speaking, warts and all. We WILL make mistakes. (Fear of perfection holds people back from speaking a foreign language more readily. People are afraid of looking and sounding foolish.) 

Communication is messy. So is singing. 
Speaking to another is a kind of verbal performance, n’est-ce pas? 

Our audience wants to know what we have to say musically, not necessarily how much we know about every usage of the passé composé. 

As language is about connection and communication from one human being to another, so, too, is singing.

We must never forget that.