Over the waning days of summer, I’ve been reading and re-reading the book Singing: The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organs by Frederick Husler and Yvonne Rodd-Marling.
As a companion text, I’ve been referencing Peter T. Harrison’s wonderful must-read The Human Nature of the Singing Voice, which is drawn in large part from the functional pedagogy of Husler and Rodd-Marling’s work. These two books could form terrific reference material for a teacher interested in a holistic pedagogy.
The Husler/Rodd-Marling book Singing is an in-depth look at the workings of the vocal system in a functional way. It gives the teacher an understanding of the totality of the singing instrument in all of its parts. Through the book, the teacher begins to understand the role of specific parts of the vocal system: the larynx (Openers, Closers, Stretchers, Tensors), the suspensory mechanism (the Elevators and Depressors of the Larynx), the breathing, and the body.
To the singer or teacher just picking it up, the book might appear a daunting text of anatomical drawings and explanations. It may be fairly off-putting for teachers who tend to work along more imaginative or esoteric lines. For someone like myself who is interested in all things voice, I’ve found it to be an affirming book to use as a general reference. My only wish is that it would be published in a new volume (the one I have is a hardcover book from 1965). Schott Publishing has released it in a German edition so I’m hoping that they will consider an English one as well.
One of the interesting chapters in the book is on “Placement.”
Now, many teachers will already begin to get riled up and begin foaming at the mouth. “THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS PLACEMENT!,””SOUND CANNOT BE LOCALLY PLACED!,””SCIENCE SAYS NO TO PLACEMENT!”
But when taking a critical read of Husler and Rodd-Marling (as well as Peter T. Harrison and Theodore Dimon) I’m beginning to understand placement as a useful METAPHORICAL concept. After all, many Speech Language Pathologists, such as Joseph Stemple include the concept of “forward focus” in their rehabilitation practice.
The authors are some of the first, outside the imaginative work of Ms. Lehmann, to actually map different areas of ‘placement.’ They go into detail on the physical workings of the voice for each particular location. They are also some of the first writers to detail the role of the suspensory muscles of the larynx, which they term ‘suspensory mechanism,’ or ‘elastic scaffolding.’
Theodore Dimon, in his book on singing lays out an apt description of the concept of placement:
Placement, then, is a way of arousing certain functions of the larynx and throat by trying to reproduce the vibratory sensations that are associated with these functions. We can’t achieve these effects by consciously or directly controlling muscles, so we work backward by thinking of the effect to awaken the cause. This is an elusive concept, since when we speak, say, of placing the tone at the teeth, we are really affecting the vibratory action of the larynx and not vibrating the teeth. But again, since we cannot directly affect the larynx but can sense its effect in vibrating the teeth, we access this function by suggesting the effect, and then working backward from effect to cause.
Dimon asserts that placement is a ‘metaphorical’ and imaginative procedure. This isn’t something that we can physically ‘do,’ but a way of innervating the entirety of the vocal mechanism in all of its parts.
Harrison describes it as such:
The idea behind ‘placing’ is to imagine the voice ‘placed’ in a specific locality, where, if successful, vibration may be felt. However, the various localities around the head and throat are not like magic buttons producing instant predictable results on pressing! How successful placing has been can be best judged by the sound that ensues, since it is the vocal activity that produces the vibration. We are not groping for a physical sensation so much as using our imaginative and aural faculties to avoid doing so. The word ‘placing’ may be the stumbling block for those who shy away from this approach. Placing does not mean locating or positioning the voice or ‘putting it’ somewhere. It is merely an aid to inducing audible activity. Anyone who has worked in this way with an aurally perceptive teacher will have experienced just how facilitating this tool can be, and it’s precisely this quality which makes it both effective and healthy. Imagine the discomfort and confusion if all the movements of the larynx, intrinsic and extrinsic, had to be physically felt! Correctly handled and aurally monitored, placing provides an accurate focus for ‘aural targets’ and enables this to be done with strength and without discomfort.
Husler and Rodd-Marling warn the reader in their book that favoring one location of placement and ‘sticking the sound there’ will unbalance the entire voice and ultimately destroy its functional freedom:
Every single ‘focal point’ is identified with different muscle and groups of muscles in the vocal organ, all of which are component parts of a large mechanism; it follows, therefore, that to train the voice properly, each ‘position’ must be practised in turn, until the various muscles are so well-innervated that they require no special attention to function freely.
If the singer practices one particular ‘placing’ exclusively, he over-accentuates its corresponding muscle-system, thereby causing a specialization in the vocal organ that eventually damages it. (That is why ‘technical’ exercises can be far more dangerous than practicing songs or arias.)
In this connection, a word of warning against a very common misapprehension: if a voice has been brought to a standstill in this way, and the teacher changes the manner of placing, he will probably be able to record a success. But if this leads him to believe that he is now teaching the one and only correct position, it means the the pupil’s voice will once again be brought to a standstill, though in a different manner. (This explains the eternal wanderings of some singers from one teacher to another, their constantly renewed enthusiasm and their repeated disappointment.)
They go on to emphasize in a note in the text that,
*Placing is not a fiction, as science would have it. It is not purely imaginary (though singers may use fictive ideas, e.g., the frontal sinuses as resonators, while practicing it). By placing the tone in various ways the singer rouses (innervates) the inner and outer muscles of the throat, and it is the activity of these muscles that produces vibrations in the different localities mentioned above. The singer is pursuing, in fact, his own kind of science, a ‘science of the ear’, a ‘heard physiology’. Thought it may not penetrate his consciousness in ‘objective’ form, it is able to operate with perfect accuracy.
How does this translate?
If I am working with a student on a ‘nasty nay,’ ‘forward’ ae, or ‘dopey’ exercise, they may find these placement sensations of their own accord. I sure wouldn’t use these ideas in a beginning student, nor would I use them until the voice had some degree of registrational freedom in the chest and falsetto registers.
But for singers who are adept in their techniques, the suggestions can be creative and imaginative, as long as they are understood to be METAPHORICAL and not physical realities.
After working on these ideas in my own voice, I can definitely notice the difference, but it’s important to remember the admonishment of Husler and Rodd-Marling:
PROPER SINGING CONSISTS OF A WIDESPREAD CYCLICAL PROCESS WHICH IS DESTROYED BY ANY KIND OF ONE-SIDED SPECIALIZATION OF POSITION (of placement).
To view a document that I created on the various locations of placement that Husler and Rodd-Marling suggest, as well as the systems affected, I am sharing a Google Doc I’ve created with my readers here. I hope it provides some stimulating food for thought and a re-evaluation of placement as a metaphorical concept. I also highly recommend the work of Peter T. Harrison and Theodore Dimon to deepen one’s understanding of these pedagogical concepts.
If placement is a metaphorical, playful concept, then I think it may warrant a re-evaluation. Especially if systems of muscle action are targeted in these ‘positions.’
A laboratory experiment and research paper could be an interesting project to determine the true action of muscles in these placement positions!