Listen My Children, and you will hear…

It would be wrong to think that the ear is the only useful tool for working with the voice, but worse not to make it our primary diagnostician, constant guide and ultimate authority in the normal course of training. The voice exists primarily as sound heard by both the singer and those listening. The only difference is in perspective. For the teacher or audience the sound is received externally, for the singer internally (‘primarily’, before the singer has time to ‘put it together’). For those who are not used to an aurally based analytical process, the prospect of relying on their ears may seem daunting if not impossible. Indeed, it is fraught with dangers, typically arising from a lack of objectivity or an over-eagerness for results.

When as teachers we first meet a voice we have to assess its strengths and weaknesses, which may or may not be immediately obvious. In any sung sound we can learn to detect aurally exactly what produces it, what’s working and what is not, what is under-working and what is over-working. This isn’t important either for an audience or for the singer; at least to begin with, when such analysis can be counter-productive. But it is of prime importance to a teacher of singing who, without being able to hear how the sound is being produced, cannot help the singer to correct it.

Outlines of an aural picture

Throughout the whole vocal apparatus, movements and their combinations are reflected as an ‘aural picture’, providing a teacher with necessary information and the singer, in due course, with self knowledge. Logically, the clearest sound evidence of a voice’s working order is to be discovered at its source, at the larynx, where all the movements involved become sound. Ironically, it’s from this somewhat divided realm that our ears get their first useful clues about how to proceed towards wholeness. The outer registers (tensing and stretching) provide the greatest sound contrasts. We could begin by describing these sounds simply as hard and soft, because of the relative absence or presence of air in them. Since every voice is different, however, and every singer may have his own idea of what sounds hard or soft (or rich or warm, thin or round) a teacher must appeal to the singer’s impression of his own sound if such descriptions are to be aurally useful. Whatever the teacher’s and pupil’s perception, the important thing to determine in each individual case is how well the folds stretch and tense, and to what extent these activities support or are at odds with each another.

Put simply, we have three main sounds: that described variously as ‘head voice’ or falsetto, ‘chest voice’ or ‘chest register’ and a mixture of the two, which we call ‘mixed voice’.

Harrison, Peter T. “The human nature of the singing voice: exploring a holistic basis for sound teaching and learning.” (2006).

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