Spinning All the Plates

A concept that came up in my teaching this week was the idea of spinning plates as a metaphor for teaching and learning to sing.

In training (hopefully) we’re aiming at learning how to invigorate many different aspects and functions of the larynx and the body – and then maintaining them over time.

Spinning plates is an apt descriptor of working around the voice to invigorate its various functions, and not getting too attached to any one plate. If a plate is about to fall off, you’ve got to pay some attention, lest it break. If a plate is spun to the exclusion of its companions, you get a fast moving well-functioning plate, but lose another aspect somewhere else as the others fall off their rods. Beginning students might only have 4 plates; an advanced singer several dozen.

We might have a plate for chest register, head/falsetto, laryngeal height/throat constriction, vowel shapes and definitions, intensities, articulation, legato, staccato, emotional flexibility while singing, Italian diction, French diction, and on and on.

Teachers are too one-sided if they think that ONE particular plate, or aspect of technique is taken to the exclusion of all the others. For example – if I think training is all about the breath, or the falsetto, or the placement, or the resonance, or the laryngeal height, or the yada yada yada…I may get so enamored of the minutiae I might not step back and look at the bigger picture.

At that point, I’m ‘specializing’ a function that may well nigh impede its development and ability to ‘spin’ in other directions. This is why ‘methods’ and ‘techniques’ can be SO dangerous. If you don’t have the bigger picture in mind, it’s easy to go into the weeds. I’m reminded again that the greatest singers said their teachers had no method.

This plate analogy explains why students who transfer to a new teacher will make rapid improvements in the first few lessons: the teacher is spinning new plates for the singer that might not have been started, or were neglected entirely. The newness of a particular ‘plate’ will lead the student to believe that the new teacher a god. In reality the teacher just spun a new plate or two. The voice has been invigorated in a new direction. 

Douglas Stanley had this much to say in his lecture to the Franklin Institute in 1931:

Vocal technic has heretofore been taught almost exclusively by singers, ex-singers, coaches, accompanists, music composers and, in a few instances, throat specialists. Now, all that is really true about the subject of voice must be based not upon the several and separate sciences of physics (acoustics), anatomy, physiology, psychology, and upon the laws of music, interpretation and dramatic utterance, but upon the sum total of all of these sciences. It will be quite evident, then, that, when this question of voice is considered from only one or even two special angles, the resultant deductions will inevitably be subject to error because of a lack of inclusion of the remaining angles.

Peter T. Harrison explained the same training concept in his book The Human Nature of the Singing Voice. 

The image of a spiral indicates development and refinement, achieved by constantly ‘doing the rounds’ of all facets of the instrument from the deep postural superstructure to the finest margins of the glottis. At each slight turn we see where we are, rather than where we ‘should be’ in relation to the whole, working from reality, not false assumptions. This also helps to ensure that we lay firm foundations for each stage of progress. The reluctance to move in the sensitive and crucial area of the emotions may call for spirals of careful affirming work. Spiralling work can enable us to check out progress from different angles. Constantly changing the perspective can help us to work thoroughly and incrementally without cutting corners, and without getting stale. The work should always be fresh. Indeed, however well we may think we know a voice, we should always begin work as though we are meeting it for the first time. In this way there’s no room for boring routine or mindless repetition. Because it can be difficult for the singer to assess progress, it’s important to constantly point out what is being achieved incrementally – a little more strength here, greater ease there – as we proceed. Returning constantly to every facet of the instrument and weighing it up against the whole helps the singer to become self-aware and gain confidence, while assisting the teacher in measuring balance, strength and details.

The ‘wholism’ (as W. Stephen Smith says) of the voice must never be lost in our aims of building the voice. Specialization is a kind of limitation that teachers might be ‘grooving in,’ if other functions and areas of the singing art are not given their due.

 

“Oh, it’s you again!”

Pedro de Alcantara released a video today (in his creative way) all about the closure of the glottis.

It’s worth the watch.

(There has not been ONE student in my studio that hasn’t gained greater clarity in their voice just by getting their vocal folds together.)

Perhaps Manuel Garcia had some good ideas after all. 🙂

Quote of the Day, 19th and 21st Centuries

I will keep telling people the same thing until I am red in the face: there is no secret placement, no secret turning of the voice, no secret path of the breath that you need to spin the breath into, no magical soft palate position, no perfect laryngeal depth, no secret diaphragmatic support system that will give you a voice – if your vocal folds aren’t closed.

Jack LiVigni

 

Loose, pushed out breath is useless even injurious, though you have lungs full, for it causes local effects, irregular vibration and disrupted energies. Compressed breath comes through co-ordination. It has only to be guided, and restrained. Its inherent power feeds all the effects made by the vocal cords. It does not upset the pose of the voice. It permits the throat to act naturally, ‘open’ as in talking. It does away with both breathy and pinched tones. It does not demand one quality of resonance only but commands all colors, from the darkest to the lightest and all pitches, from highest to lowest. Compressed breath permits all effects made in declamation, provided same effects do not become a ‘method.’ In fact, stereotyped singing is impossible, when breath is compressed. There is no ‘attack,’ no ‘mouth position,’ no ‘tongue control,’ no ‘voice placing,’ no ‘fixed chest,’ no relaxing this or that muscle no stiffening of any part of the body, in fact, nothing that would not spring from instinctive utterance. 

W.E. Brown (quoting Lamperti Jr)

A Variation on a Cord Closure Theme

If you haven’t made time to read Jack LiVigni’s fantastic blog on cord closure, please do yourself a favor and read it. The link is here.

LiVigni’s article distilled my feelings on the training of the Old Masters, especially on the issue of Garcia’s vexing coup de glotte. My work on this blog has (hopefully) served to hold up LiVigni’s assertions from an historical perspective. The historical record on the singers and the pedagogy could not be more clear: the vocal core of the sound is the larynx itself. In voice training, we are (or should) be TRAINING THE LARYNX.

Everything else in teaching singing is a ‘supportive’ element, but is not the main issue of true voice training. Breath fetishization is a recent trend, unknown for the first 450 years of vocal training from the Renaissance. The sources on this are beyond dispute, and in agreement. 

In our current pedagogical climate we advocate an idea of flow phonation. It is my experience that these sounds are all gentle, relaxed, mostly breathy, and largely theatrically undramatic. The sounds tend not to ‘rock the boat.’  Many singers are taught to ignore the throat entirely, or told that the throat should always be relaxed and free. So getting more sound from the source becomes a vicious death spiral. Singers work all around the instrument (lips, tongue, jaw, resonance, breath) to solve the problem of inadequate cord closure.

In my experience, cord closure solves many problems with a minimum of fuss, and lays the ground for a successful healthy technique.

One of the adduction exercises I use is something I call “the squeaky door.” I learned this exercise from Seth Riggs, the Los Angeles voice teacher.  The maneuver has several other names: friendly compression, stingy hum. When used, I encourage singers to monitor the digastric muscles under the chin for any stiffness or grab. The exercise can be performed in chest, head, and then in chest into head and vice versa.

I start this low in the range, on three or five tone scales, with a slight staccato glottal on each note (the mouth is closed). My understanding is that this mirrors Garcia’s intention when describing the coup de glotte. I also admonish my singers not to practice this for more than five minutes at a time (I’ve also taken that advice from Garcia). They can break up the five minutes, but it should not EXCEED five minutes at a time. Set a timer. This is extended over time, but gradually. We’re dealing with very small muscle movements here.

For women, adduction can be rather telling, especially if they have been trained by a classical voice teacher to avoid the chest register entirely. Getting fold closure in women makes dramatic changes in the voice, regardless of the genre of music sung. A woman without a chest register can quickly develop one with firm cord closure. 

Once the singer has a sense of the stingy/squeaky sound – and therefore the correct feeling – I take them on a longer scale into the top of the voice – (the folds will or won’t stay together). The goal is to keep the folds firmly adducted. When the singer goes through the passaggio the folds may come apart as the registrational event is reached. Work must be done over time to eliminate this abductory event.

This longer scale – usually an octave and a half (Hi, Rossini!) – is first performed with slight glottal/creaky reiterating on every third note in a quasi gallop.

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Once that is working well, I work to extend the stingy humming throughout the same scale, but this time less reiteration of staccato.

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The third step is translate the stinginess into a legato hum throughout the entire scale.

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Once that is holding together very well, I have the singer vocalise the EXACT same scale on a well-defined “AH” or “EH” vowel, while maintaining their memory of the adduction.

The results of this work are immediate and startling to the student. As LiVigni so brilliantly assures, the ‘sense’ of height in the top of the voice is totally lost. High notes NO LONGER feel high. The breath needed is minimal. The sound is legitimate and complete. The tone is exceptionally bright. The sound is resonant. The singer has a sense of strong vibration with minimal physical ‘work,’ especially in the area of breathing. 

The sound of the exercise IS WITCHY and creaky. It has a small, stingy feeling. Little air is needed to sing when the cords are firmly adducted. This matches up with the Old Masters – who never mentioned breath in any of their writings. Perhaps they instinctively KNEW this cord closure was integral to singing operatic material. They prepared singers for large spaces, not small chamber salons.

Daniela Bloem-Hubatka, in her book, The Old Italian School of Singing, states:

The historical art of singing is founded on the mechanical action of the larynx or vibrator that brings forth the vocal sound completely independent of the articulator and resonator.

[…]

A soft or voiced attack of the singing voice as it is practiced nowadays will invariably produce a voice without a proper focus, the reason being that a soft attack goes hand in hand with “expiratory singing” (with the breath flowing out). As a consequence of the soft attack, the remedy is then sought in forcing the voice into places of resonance where it would have traveled and come to rest (focus) of its own accord after a firm laryngeal attack. Expiratory singing is the result of singing in the direction of the sound and is always accompanied by breathiness. The voice sounds as if it has a veil placed in front of it, which can be of varying degrees of thickness: a hooting voice or the voice can be likened to the sound of the chainsaw as a result of strong nasal resonance, to mention some common aberrations.

It is my conviction after years of reading, teaching, singing, and listening to singers, that firm laryngeal cord adduction solves a litany of problems.

Teachers trying to solve:

  • breath issues
  • tongue tension
  • jaw tension
  • throat tension
  • breathiness
  • lack of ring/resonance
  • register imbalances
  • lack of high notes

should aim their sights first and foremost ON THE FOLDS.

What are they doing? How firmly are they adducting?

Jeannette LoVetri wisely states that the folds are the Godfather, the “Capo di tutti capi.”

She is absolutely right. Those working on those aforementioned external manifestations are working effects instead of causes.

Get the FOLD BEHAVIOR right, and you are halfway there.

Vocal Violence

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. Sun Tzu

I have decided to no longer make violence against my voice. I would encourage others to join me in this fight. It will take enormous courage.

Everywhere I read that the voice must be managed, controlled, or harnessed. Like a wild animal it must be subdued, pinned down, adjusted, or even destroyed completely to be rebuilt again from square one.

  • The woman that twists herself into KNOTS to sing in the soprano voice part because she likes it better. If she could just manage to find the right breath system, she believes her success would be achieved. She grips desperately on her obliques and abdominal muscles in an effort to gain access to this control.
  • The man that REFUSES to allow himself to go lightly into the upper range on a diatonic scale, pulling the weight of chest up through the passaggio and beyond, because he ‘doesn’t like the sound or feeling’ of effortlessness that comes with the maneuver.
  • The woman that cannot dynamically modulate her sound because she views loudness as a virtue to anyone bearing the moniker “opera singer.” In her view, when she can cut an orchestra she will feel validated, not realizing that what gets over that orchestra might not be pleasant. Her singing becomes a battle: her versus the orchestra, her versus the space, her versus the audience. War.
  • The man that believes that if he manipulates his throat constrictors he will somehow manage to find more ‘space’ and gain greater resonance.

Why must we commit violence against the voice (and our own BODIES) in the attempt to sing well? Can there be any joy in any of this singing? Can there be any exaltation in the struggle? Can there be sweetness in sheer pain?

I have decided on peace. I’m reminded of Sir Henry Wood’s book The Gentle Art of Singing. Where is the gentleness for ourselves, physical and psychological? Ladies and Gentlemen, we are not kind to ourselves when it comes to singing. How tragic for us in our short lives that we should live a pedagogy of control and manipulation? And fear – So. Much. Fear.

I’d be the first one to put myself in front of the firing squad when it comes to my singing. But I can’t live making war against myself anymore. I’m tired of fighting. I want peace in my singing. I want joy in my voice. I want love in my music.

I can no longer stand by while others make violence in their bodies and minds in order to sing. I am saddened by those who have come to me to show their scars, or those who have openly wept in my presence from the pain and heartache of the struggle, having fought so long and so hard, and having lost so much.

My vocal world will be a place of peace. A place of listening and calm. A place of gentle guidance and a place to explore. Strength can be built in peaceful training.

War never solved a voice problem without another war needing to be waged somewhere else.

The two most powerful warriors are patience and time. – Leo Tolstoy

He was right.

 

 

10 Observations on Nezhdanova

Some quick observations on Russian coloratura Nezhdanova, to whom Rachmaninoff dedicated his Vocalise:

  1. The singer is not young.
  2. The voice is startlingly bright.
  3. The breath renewal is slight and free of gasping or need to breathe.
  4. The singer appears to sing on MINIMAL air.
  5. The tone is rock steady and lacks any ‘wobble,’ despite the singer’s advanced age.
  6. The tone has a ‘girlish’ quality.
  7. The mouth postures are largely non-divergent, the mouth opening slight for the top notes.
  8. The top note is sustained for some time on what would appear to be a minimal intake of breath.
  9. The sound possesses what the Italians might call ‘squillo.’
  10. The singing appears to be largely effortless and devoid of strain, pressure, push, or forcing.

Quote of the Day

It’s very hard to build a business as a voice teacher, or develop successful teacher-student relationships if you have adopted an adversarial ‘me vs. the student’ mentality. This is a win-lose equation- your ego wins and the student’s self-esteem and worth loses. Great teaching should be a collaboration of two people working together for a common cause. Not a servile experience between Master and Servant. If you find yourself in this adversarial situation more than once, you need to ask yourself if YOU’RE not the common factor in the problem.

Yours truly