Specialization of the Larynx

One of the pedagogical concepts I’ve recently discovered is the idea of “laryngeal specialization”. This is a term that was coined by Frederick Husler and Yvonne Rodd-Marling in their book “Singing: The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ“.  This is a book that should be studied by any teacher interested in a functional approach to the training of the singing voice. In brief, the concept refers to a specificity of usage of the laryngeal musculature.

According to the authors, the laryngeal musculature needs to be ‘fully innervated’ to give the voice the maximum capacity of technical ability and freedom. An example of laryngeal ‘specialization’ in a singer would be the soprano that can only make loud, dramatic sounds, but is incapable of quiet singing or agility. Inversely, the same can be said for the singer that has a facile coloratura, but who’s voice is of smaller proportions. Laryngeal ‘specialization’ in both cases has given the singer some admirable technical qualities, but they still do not possess the fullest capabilities of their respective instruments.

Anyone who explores the old treatises and vocalization books is struck by the variety of exercises that are called for (i.e., sustained singing, agility, vowels, arpeggios, embellishments). These exercises help to develop the entirety of the laryngeal musculature. Arias like Bellini’s “Casta Diva“, which is a dramatic aria requiring stamina of sostenuto and dynamic contrast is followed immediately by the florid cabaletta “Ah, bello a me ritorna“.  Richard Miller describes these concepts as the ‘two poles of bel canto’. Apparently these great composers for the voice expected a voice would be strong as well as flexible.

Husler and Rodd-Marling lay out what the role of the voice teacher should be in voice training below. Their book is thought-provoking and perhaps a bit controversial. Nevertheless, it should be studied by any serious trainer of the vocal instrument.

The voice trainer cannot limit his work, as so often happens, to the critical assessment of vocal ‘faults’ followed by good advice as to how it should really sound – that is, if his real object is to help professional singers with the general, and often grievous vocal disorders that beset them (and whose full consequences no one but the physician or the expert is in a position to realize). If he really wants to be a helper and not be content as a musician or repetiteur with a slightly broadened field of action (his standard as such must be high too, of course, i.e. a ‘singing teacher’, teaching the musical and artistic use of the voice), what he must do instead – if his aim is to rouse dormant possibilities in a vocal organ and cure its defects – is to acquire as much exact knowledge as possible about the things that give rise to the singing voice.

The science of voice physiology has provided him with a fair amount of basic information; he must learn how to apply this knowledge and then how to use it for further research which he will carry out in his own way – by means of his ear.  His theoretical knowledge must not turn into a sterile form of erudition, nor should he wander so far afield in subjects that do not primarily concern him (such as the physicist’s, the acoustician’s, the technician’s) that he loses sight of his own goal. If he is wise and confines himself to his own task, he will be justified, from his point of view, in looking upon his work as a ‘scientific’ procedure. His chief maxim must be: Acoustic phenomena spring from the physiological: muscle movements are the cause.

The voice trainer, like the physician, carries out a therapy, his concern being to cure defects of a functional nature. He corrects unphysiological movements by exercising physiologically correct ones. He invariably carries out this treatment by way of his ear; his ear and that of the pupil.  He hears analytically when working on parts of the whole; but he never loses sight of the whole so that the organ’s functional balance may not be destroyed. The creative side of his work lies in this comprehensive listening, in this striving towards the whole.

Drugs or mechanical devices sometimes employed by the physician to relieve functional disorders cannot have more than a limited effect (artificial generation may certainly vitalize muscle-movements, but it will also isolate them). In any case such disorders are not really his province. Anything touching the singer and his vocal development should be the singing teacher’s concern as his only. We are the experts, or should be, and it merely shows us up in a bad light if recourse to medical measures seems unavoidable.

When the voice trainer takes ‘sound’ into account as he works, dealing with variations in tone as established magnitudes (which he does first and foremost), his procedure differs entirely from that of the doctor or phonetician. To him the sound is not just a product, as it is them; it is the means he uses, the path he follows, to guide him to first causes. He diagnoses from the tone, i.e., he uses a symptom, an effect, to diagnose basic processes in the vocal organ. Modern science is represented in all its branches by predominantly ‘visual’ people, who rely upon the evidence of things seen, even when their attention is directed to the auditory sphere. But were they to examine the voice trainer’s work in detail, they would appreciate the possibility of using the ear to build up an exact science. In any case, the voice trainer does not work ‘abstractly’. He works concretely – in the original meaning of the word: he experiences his knowledge as his own body. It is a knowledge he cannot possess until he, himself, is able to realize it. In other words: he, himself, must be a complete singer. That is where his science differs from every other.


One Last Warning

The teacher should not be too free with scientific information. He must limit it carefully according to the stage reached in the development of his pupil’s vocal capacities. Any more would be confusing. As always: first hear, then know.

The practice of lecturing singers on the theories of voice physiology, without including the ear, i.e., without giving the corresponding sound values (as done in many schools of music, often on the recommendation of doctors and physiologists) springs from a curious lack of insight. An analogy would be to give a patient suffering from heart disease a scientific explanation of the immensely complex action of the heart in the belief that it would do him good. It would be more likely to aggravate his condition.

Husler, Frederick, and Yvonne Rodd-Marling. Singing: The physical nature of the vocal organ: A guide to the unlocking of the singing voice. Hutchinson, 1976


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