A topic of conversation that often arises in my work is the issue of ‘control’ of the voice and establishing said control in the effort to gain ‘technique.’ Students wish to be told what maneuvers they should engage in to effect an improvement in their vocal technique. This reduction of singing to “button pushing” is against the wisdom of the organic nature of the singing voice. Students want instantaneous improvement, but we must wait on Nature to reveal herself over time.
Two authors who wrote on following the path of Nature and the relationship to psychological issues of control were Manuel Garcia II, writing in the 19th century, and Cornelius L. Reid, writing in the 20th century.
Manuel Garcia II was interviewed by Frederick Root in 1894 for Werner’s Magazine when Garcia was 89 years old (he lived to be 101 years old). At this late stage of his life, he had enough time to look back upon DECADES of teaching and reflect on the various pedagogical thoughts of his day.
I have sought out a few of those best known in the United States, among others the Nestor of the profession, Signor Manuel Garcia. His great experience and his scientific habit of mind give unusual weight to everything that he says. He was very emphatic in his recommendation to avoid all these modern theories, and stick closely to nature. He also does not believe in teaching by means of sensation of tone. The actual things to do in producing tone are to breathe, to use the vocal cords, and to form the tone in the mouth. The singer has nothing to do with anything else. Garcia said that he began with other things; he used to direct the tone into the head, and do peculiar things with the breathing, and so on; but as years passed by he discarded these things as useless, and now speaks only of actual things, and not mere appearances. He condemned that which is spoken of nowadays, the directing of the voice forward or back or up. Vibrations come from puffs of air. All control of the breath is lost the moment it is turned into vibrations, and the idea is absurd, he said that a current of air can be thrown against the hard-palate for one kind of tone, the soft-palate for another, and reflected hither and thither. He drew a picture of the throat, and scouted all that. With regard to the position of the larynx higher or lower or the more or less raising of the palate, he said that the singer need only follow natural emotional effects, and larynx, palate, and the rest will take care of themselves. Speaking of breathing, he said ‘Do not complicate it with theories, but take an inspiration and notice nature’s laws.’
These ideas of observation of nature, and allowing control to manifest indirectly was also echoed in 1983 by Cornelius L. Reid in his Dictionary of Vocal Terminology. I’m reproducing his entry in full.
Control: the ability to direct or restrain the functioning of the vocal mechanism.
Basically, there are four types of vocal control:
- That which is governed by hearing;
- That which is regulated by an awareness of sensations of vibration;
- That which is made possible by the arbitrary positioning of volitionally operable parts of the vocal mechanism, such as the tongue, mouth, and uvula, especially those having to do with the breathing apparatus, and
- That which is based upon instinct, an understanding of natural movement, and the functional logic by which the vocal mechanism is governed.
Of the four approaches listed above only the first and last, used conjunctively, are essential to the development of legitimate vocal control. These are discussed below under their appropriate headings.
The kind of hearing necessary for the attainment of this objective is a special talent which must be carefully cultivated. Instead of “producing” qualities which reflect an aesthetic preference, the singer must learn to recognize the innumerable combinations of tone quality yielded as a result of the exercise patterns projected by the teacher. An essential feature of these exercises is to induce, essentially through the mechanics of registration, new and unfamiliar qualities. These qualities represent important changes in the response pattern of a complex of laryngeal muscles whose movement lies beneath the threshold of consciousness, and which are consequently inaccessible to direct control.
It is in this way that the singer learns to equate the numerous tone qualities he is capable of producing with their corresponding functional origins. Through careful cultivation, it is possible thereby to grow into an understanding of the qualitative properties associated with the two register mechanisms, the relationship between a wide assortment of tonal colors and their functional origins, and the specific nature of the adjustments formed by the throat parts – whether open-throated or constricted, too “heady” or too “chesty,” ”thick,” ”dry,” ”ringing,” ”brittle,” etc. Simultaneously, the singer will have gained a profound insight into his own natural tone quality.
Other advantages are to be gained from attentive listening. Differences will be discerned in the tonal pulse, and the singer will soon learn the types of tonal oscillations, together with their variants, perceived of as a vibrato, tremolo or wobble. Attentive listening will further enable him to detect the slightest imperfection in vowel quality, and most important of all, to “hear” that the voice is capable of moving from pitch to pitch without the aid of overt, prepared, or consciously controlled movement.
Since a valid subjective attitude toward quality is exceedingly rare as a natural gift, “trained listening” must be inculcated under the guidance of a skillful teacher. When properly developed, these perceptions will refine concepts and encourage natural movement, two essentials to vocal progress. For the talented, this will lead to an understanding of the functional logic by which the vocal mechanism is governed.
The fourth category is as important as the first, for it is the release of the “singers instinct” through improved function and encouragement of spontaneity that allows free, natural tone production to be developed.
Controls growing out of spontaneity and understanding of natural movement are diametrically opposed to all others in principle. This is because the singer, not having prescience, cannot know how to control and use his instrument properly until after he has learned to sing freely and naturally. In essence, for a long period of time, the only controls one is capable of putting into effect or the very controlled to be relinquished.
SENSATIONS OF VIBRATION
Attempts to control function through the duplication of sensations of vibration thought to be desirable can be marginally successful at best. First, if the sensation one is attempting to duplicate is one’s own, the procedure arrests progress, since it is only through change that improvement can be made. If sensations of vibration (which are ultimately the products of compensatory tensions) are not allowed to change, the coordinative process which produced those sensations will not be able to improve, and technical progress will again be at a standstill. The perfectly sung tone is a coordinative act which is free and exhilarating as a total experience, and notable for a lack of localized sensation. Second, if the sensations one is attempting to duplicate or someone else’s, progress is even less likely. In this instance, the singer is not only limited by the technical efficiency of the example, but also by the fact that a physical symptom (e.g., a sensation of vibration) is always the reflection of a physical condition. Thus, in order for the sensations of vibration experienced by one individual to be felt by another, the two would have to be emotionally, psychologically, physiologically, kinesthetically, and functionally identical. The probability of this happening is remote.
Mechanistic controls are at best minimally helpful. The vocal problem centers around the fact that all important muscle groups involved during phonation are involuntary. These cannot be directly energized, and to attempt to do so inevitably invites muscular interference and compensatory tensions. Arbitrary tongue and mouth positions will sometimes predispose interior muscles to react differently, but this procedure fails to exert a profound influence on the coordinative process. Special techniques for breathing exacerbate technical problems by encouraging stiff, self-conscious physical attitudes that inhibit natural movement.
The inherent danger in all methods of direct control is that they tend to discourage natural movement. In fact, the feeling of being able to control one’s voice by overly acting upon the mechanism is not necessarily desirable. While such controls may be reassuring, they are usually related to habits which should be discarded. Risk is an inherent factor in vocal freedom, and if progress is to be made, one must venture upon uncharted seas in search of new experiences. Imposed controls are self-limiting; those associated with freedom are not. It is therefore essential to abandon all controls during training, for only then can progress be made.
To learn to sing freely, one must learn to “let go:” to respond, instead of attempting to master a series of learned responses. The best kind of control is that which finds the mechanism functioning as a self-regulatory instrument, and operating in accordance with procedures founded upon a belief that organic activities are inherently rational. The ultimate vocal control, therefore, is that arrived at after contact has been made with the logical movement potential of the mechanism. Outer-imposed disciplines do not lead to that kind of control.