Douglas Stanley was a pedagogue of very strong opinions. He has been considered by some as an ‘arch-mechanist’ for his rather direct control methods of voice training. His contributions, however, are food for thought in our scientific zeitgeist.
His writings are at times ferocious and strongly worded. He minces no words in his work, and his way of working was not for everyone. His student, Cornelius Reid, was highly influenced by him. Reid, however asserted that his voice and psyche were ruined by Stanley’s particular approach.
Despite his idiosyncratic personality, Stanley’s writing does offer some pearls of wisdom, especially as relates to the issue of the mind’s interrelationship to the voice. One such topic was the psychological component of vocal development.
Stanley describes vocal ‘openings’:
An “opening” is the result of a muscular development which occurs because of a release of muscular interference as well as being the mere outcome of the muscular development itself. Thus, an “opening” of the throat may occur in order to match a laryngeal development, i.e., a purification of the registration action, which makes it possible for the singer to actuate a larger, better-“tuned,” pharyngeal, resonance cavity. The actual opening of the throat occurs because of a development of the tongue muscles and this development is accompanied by a release, or relaxation, of tension of the neck muscles and a reduction of jaw interference. The actual “opening” itself is, of course, a wider opening of the throat, i.e., laryngeal pharynx. If this “opening” is attained suddenly, we have a sudden “opening” process, which is most often found with unharmed, but undeveloped, voices.
Stanley later goes on to discuss the specific psychological attributes that accompany such “openings” of the voice. Having taught voice for some time, I can attest to the fact that singers will have many reactions to such vocal “openings”:
- Laughter – The sense of freedom for some is so delightful that they can’t help laughing in lessons. Even tones with more freedom will be interspersed with laughter. I often find this with singers who sustain free tones – the tone will be a beautiful free sound, and the singer will feel the impulse to laugh at its freedom.
- Tears – When constrictions of the voice are unlocked, the sound and physical approach will become so free, that the singer will invariably cry. I have found this true not only in the singing voice, but the body as well. When the body is free to move, the self-imposed control must release and this can cause tears which may be difficult for the singer to identify. They will cry but not know why or be able to verbalize it.
- Confusion – When active controls are released, the entire somatic experience may be one of confusion. The singer is suddenly left with a sense of freedom and ease, but not be able to trust it, because of the singer’s lack of ‘doing.’ They must accustom themselves to feelings of ‘decontrol’ in order to gain the control they have imposed from without.
- Shock – Vocal freedom gained in lessons might cause people to go into mild shock as they find more of their true and natural sound. The idea that they don’t have to work as hard, or that they can let go of YEARS of tension can often be a shock for singer.
- Anger – Many singers who have worked many years will become very angry in sessions, because the freedom is something that they feel they should have always had. The sense of ease in singing can cause many students to become angry at past instruction or teachers. It is VERY important that the current teacher not play into this anger by speaking ill of past instruction, but encouraging every singer to take their voices from the current moment, and release feelings of bitterness or resentment at past instruction.
Stanley elaborates on this concept:
Now, in realizing this fact, the teacher must also understand that he has a very real problem to face in dealing with the psychological side of his work. The difficulty of persuading the pupil who has a powerful voice, which is shut off, to eliminate fear and go after the tone is no simple matter. Nevertheless, this psychological development is absolutely essential if he is to learn to sing with freedom, using his real (natural) voice. Each time an opening occurs, the psychological factor must be dealt with with the opening is to be established.
It is important that we realize that the singing voice is innately tied to the PERSON that is singing. To effect a change in the singing voice, the teacher and student must be alert to any psychological manifestations that freedom engenders.
Occasionally, we simply must be present with the student as they experience these emotional upheavals, and give them the space they need to continue to move into greater levels of vocal freedom and natural singing.