But the Professionals Do It!

Great singers have offered their wisdom and insight throughout the history of the singing art with varying levels of success. In most cases, their efforts have caused greater confusion than clarity. Jerome Hines’s book Great Singers on Singing is amusing reading for the pedagogue and the scholar of voice.

As a teacher, I MUST be on guard and not fall into the trap of thinking that just because someone is a professional singer – even a celebrated one – that their advice is Gospel. This is the logical fallacy of the argument from authority.

This logical fallacy states that:

A is an authority on a particular topic.

A says something about that topic.

A is probably correct.

Logical fallacies are not a compelling approach to vocal pedagogy. What singers SAY they feel often contradicts what is ACTUALLY happening. I watched a one-hour masterclass with a famous mezzo whose advice to all vocalists was ‘more space.’ What this woman understood of the pharynx, the superior, middle, and inferior constrictors was obviously dubious. There is a LIMITED amount of space in the human throat and head. 

Young impressionable singers (and teachers) see the manifestations of idiosyncratic singers and often believe that by imitating them they will gain some greater technical skill. But true artists don’t imitate each other. Just because ‘a famous singer does it’ is shoddy logic and bad pedagogy.

Here are some celebrated singers and their ‘quirks’:

Tenor Placido Domingo often sang with a retroflex tongue as he sang higher in his voice. Many young tenors believe that doing this will help their ‘resonance.’ Others think that by bringing the tongue back in the throat they are doubling or bifurcating the resonance space.
The peculiar postures and facial grimaces of mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli have become part of her performances. Many singers now present florid music with the same physical manifestations of tension, believing since “Bartoli does it” that this is the only way to sing this difficult music.
Soprano Kathleen Battle often tilted her head to one side when singing into her higher voice, as seen from this picture. Tilting the head in this manner unbalances the larynx, but many singers believe that they must make some physical change for rising pitch.
Soprano Kathleen Battle often tilted her head to one side when singing into her higher voice, as seen from this picture. Tilting the head in this manner unbalances the larynx, but many singers believe that they must make some physical change for rising pitch.
Bel canto soprano Joan Sutherland almost always sang her highest tones with a ‘flip top head,’ throwing her head back for pitches above high C. While this worked for Sutherland, it wouldn’t be a reliable technique for all singers.
Many of Maria Callas’s filmed performances show her singing with her arms wrapped around her body. Several authors and writers have speculated that this closed posture provided her with ‘something to push against’ after her transformative weight loss. To think that singers should emulate her in this is a grave mistake for finding true vocal balance.

In closing, no less an authority on the body than F.M. Alexander wrote:

“It is well known that different people will get a different conception of the same word, spoken or written, and from the same gesture, showing that conception is dependent upon the nature of the impressions taken through the sensory mechanism which controls the functioning of the cells (receptors and conductors) of the eyes and ears, etc. The conception likewise of what is happening within ourselves is dependent upon impressions which come to us through the sense of feeling (sensory appreciation) upon which we must rely for guidance in carrying out our daily activities. When our sensory appreciation is deceptive, as is the case more or less with everyone today, the impressions we get through it are deceptive also. The extent of this deception depends largely upon the extent to which our manner of use has been put wrong and the nature and degree of the faulty guidance of deceptive feeling. When a certain degree of misuse has been reached, the deceptiveness of these impressions reaches a point where they can mislead us into believing that WE ARE DOING SOMETHING WITH SOME PART OF OURSELVES WHEN ACTUALLY WE CAN BE PROVED TO BE DOING SOMETHING QUITE DIFFERENT. This is equally true of the things we believe we think, which more often than not are things we feel.”

Alexander, F. Matthias. “The universal constant in living.” (1946).


One thought on “But the Professionals Do It!

  1. I would like to venture a defense of Domingo here. Domingo’s habit as seen here is because the soft palate responds to the height and position of the highest point in the tongue. Which can go higher when the tongue mass is further back (and up!). This in turns lowers the larynx because, as Manuel Garcia explains in “hints on singing”, the larynx and soft palate move in opposition. This lengthens the vocal tract and allows for strong resonance in the first available overtone, located on octave above the fundamental. A strong first overtone sounds “clear”.

    The soft palate stretches in response to the high tongue arch almost instinctively. This distance helps create the target vowel-timbre and creates overtones above the first partial, if desired. Domingo doesn’t use this same position lower in his range, instead he brings the arch of the tongue forward.

    It’s important to note that this position of the highest point of the tongue is “up and back”, not “down and back”. If the tongue hitches down and back, the soft palate will drop to create the same target arch to palate distance.

    The distance between the roof of the mouth and the highest point of the tongue is responsible for creating the correct “vowel-timbre”. When it’s just right this coincides with a partial.

    At the bottom of the range the same rules apply and so the movement must be reversed such that the highest point of the tongue is under something more sturdy, lest the soft palate drop, which results in a raised larynx and , again, excess shortening of the vocal tract. (The above assumes the movement of the larynx isn’t being impeded, which nobody wants).

    Domingo is was fine tenor, and not at all idiosyncratic. Rather, his naturally lower set voice created a challenge that he met beautifully and according to the laws of physics and anatomy.

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