When Coordination Goes Wrong

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“Singing, The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ” was one of the first texts in the 20th Century to give an overview of a functional pedagogy, inspired by the investigations of Frederick Husler.

I wanted to share this section on ‘support’ from the book Singing, The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ. Frederick Husler and Yvonne Rodd-Marling are not widely known in mainstream American pedagogy unfortunately, but their work has continued to be influential upon such writers as Cornelius Reid, Peter T. Harrison, Theodore Dimon, and Pedro de Alcantara.

The authors give an interesting perspective on the totality of the singing voice, and especially the relationship to the breath, and what happens when specific functions of the voice are atrophied or non-functional.

Whatever it may be that ‘supporting’ is intended to achieve – let us say the activation of the vocal folds – would be present automatically if the throat and the organ of breathing were able to co-ordinate perfectly, to amalgamate instantly into a single mechanism, acting and reacting together in an harmonious interplay. But such perfect integration is seldom found; the organ needs help and, being extremely versatile, it substitutes a foreign element instead: the breath. If the compressed breath, the so-called ‘column of air’, is strongly propelled, the larynx immediately and perceptibly resists it, the throat stiffens and this produces the sensation of a strong and steady contact between the lower and upper part of the organ; as if the throat, or the tone, were getting ‘support’ or ‘leverage’ from below.

Bad or imperfect attempts at coordination (where is the singer in whom it always succeeds to perfection?) go invariably hand in hand with a greater or lesser amount of air pressing up against the throat, and it is, and always has been, far easier to recognize this accompanying symptom than the essential process underlying it. That, indeed, is what has given rise to the fallacy of the supporting ‘column of air’.

Supporting the throat by the breath, and the tonal quality that results from it, is not characteristic of pure singing but belongs far more to the mechanism of the shriek (practised already in infancy). The voice trainer has to reduce and finally to eliminate the ‘supporting’ pressure of breath, which is always normally present, until finally the activity of the two functional partners is perfectly synchronized. It is then an intimate correlation, a mutual dependency, but never a supporting of the one (the throat) by the other (the organ of breathing). We consider this distinction to be of major importance.

A question worth repeating is why is the connection between the larynx and the breathing organ generically broken (to all intents and purposes), so that it is always the pushing, pressing breath that tries at first to re-establish it? What deficiency is mainly responsible? As mentioned before, it is the inactivity of the suspensory muscles of the larynx that is more to blame than anything else. These muscles are meant to supply the direct and active link between the two regions, but they are normally badly innervated, flabby and possibly even atrophied. If this bridge is out of action, it means that the entire mechanism is in a state of collapse and the immediate result is typical of the whole situation. In singing, every functional deficiency in the organ is replaced by either breath pressure, or by an excessive consumption of breath. Either the breath is dammed up, or it escapes partly unused (‘wild air’, ‘superfluous breath’); the former stiffens the larynx, the latter makes it flabby, and either turns it into a mechanism that has little to do with singing. It ends in unphysiological complications, in unnatural supports, in ‘kinks’ in the organ of breathing or in the complete immobilization of its motor existence…Yet in some schools of singing this immobilization is taught as ‘supporting the tone’.

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

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