What We Need Is Knowledge

I am certain if the teacher of violin or piano should tell his pupil to chase an imaginary dove around the room, to make the “foolish face” so as to “relax;” or to make the letter S with his arms, or to think of his biceps when moving his thumbs, the pupil would think him crazy and seek another teacher. Yet the uncertainty of how to approach the dreaded question of “method” in voice training has filled both teacher and pupil with so much doubt, that the one has been willing to resort to anything, no matter how weird or queer, and the other has been willing to accept it, often in the last throes of despair. If all the teachers who indulge in these queer practices were really charlatans, we should have an obvious method of dealing with them. But the greatest difficulty is the fact that most of them are really honest, sincere, hardworking men and women simply laboring under delusions, or fighting against an ignorance which makes them all the more dangerous. Many of the books on singing are as dangerous as the teachers, perhaps more so, for they pass on erroneous ideas as truths, and we all know the power of the printed page. Ideas and assertions are all very well and often interesting, but the crying need is knowledge, accepted knowledge, put into concrete form understandable by all, so that we may finally build up a standardised method of teaching, even if we cannot now or ever standardise tone. And certainly we should never desire to do the latter, even if it were possible, which it is not.

Herbert Witherspoon, Singing, 1925.

Another Question or Six

Here’s an unpublished article (as far as I can tell) from author Edward Foreman.

One of the points that REALLY stood out to me was that register balance is CULTURALLY determined. When you think about that, it makes perfect sense, and explains the world wide variance of vocal use that we see across humanity in general (Muezzins, Chinese Opera singers, and Native American singers are but three easy examples).

JP

Here’s Another Question or Six
As far as I know, no one has addressed this question:

When (and if) the register junction has been successfully accomplished, is the result a coordinated voice (single register, so to speak), or is it a voice made up of two registers which must be kept joined?

OR: If the joined (coordinated) register voice is the natural (not normal, but supposed to be joined) then is joining them a way to fulfill their potential functional design?
(Better: If joined (coordinated) registers are part of the potential of the vocal design…)

OR: If the entire vocal range is designed (by Nature) to be one coordinated whole, then simply exercising over the compass of the voice—without pressure—should join the registers.

BUT: Since the voice is capable of almost endless varieties of sounds (the result of adjustable or variable coordination) how is it possible to say any particular one is right or wrong?

SO: Register adjustment (vocal coordination) is culturally determined.

The entire question of registers revolves on the nature of the vocal organization. Are the registers real, or are they the result of speech-usage and the neglect of one or the other register?

It seems to me that they are real only in the sense that they can be created within the design of the vocal organization through usage. Ergo, they can be uncreated through usage, or be absent entirely in a vocal organization which has been sufficiently utilized to make the widest possible varieties of sound over the whole range of the voice since early childhood.

Reid seems to suggest that the voice must be manufactured from the two registers, which must be separated and exercised in isolation until they are strong enough to be joined. This does eventually result in a lengthy range, but is it an optimal situation, or even a necessary one?

And at this point we come around once again to the fundamental question:

What is the aim of vocal training?

Registers, the Messa di voce and the Coup de glotte

The joining or unification of the registers was important enough to be mentioned by Tosi, Mancini and Manfredini, but only Manfredini comes close to giving any instruction for accomplishing it beyond holding back the stronger of the two and strengthening the weaker register before effecting a juncture.

There are no indications of the manner in which the strengthening of the registers was to be accomplished, and this is where speculation about the nature of the messa di voce may be helpful.

Most of the later instruction books—Aprile/Tenducci, Corri, Celoni, and Nathan—provide exercises and solfeggi, which are lacking in Tosi and Mancini, and only rudimentary in Manfredini. The preliminary exercises all begin with long notes with the indication of a messa di voce—the complete swell and diminish—on each one, over the range from a sixth (Celoni) to an octave and a third (Aprile/Tenducci).

Nathan gives a set of various shapes which the swell and/or diminish may take:

Nathan's MDV

The remarks which accompany this table indicate that the swell and diminish were to be practiced separately before being combined into the complete messa di voce, and herein may lie the most complete explanation of the treatment of the registers as practiced in the Porpora school.

The Characteristics of the Registers

The mechanism of the registers, their number and their character, have become subjects of considerable controversy since Manual Garcia II decreed there were three: chest, falsetto and head. (Traité de l’art du chant, 1841) His assertion was unsupported by explanation, and the whole section in the Traité which deals with registers is a bit muddled. The only description of the falsetto—which Garcia places in the middle of the voice between the chest and head registers of traditional Italian pedagogy—is that he was referring to that section of the voice as “artificially created by the blending of the registers,” hence a “false” voice having its origins in mechanical training and not in nature. Garcia does not make this clear, leaving us with the inference that the falsetto is a separate register function, albeit one which does not have a mechanical explanation.

It is generally agreed that there are two sets of muscles involved in every muscular action of the body, including the voice. While this is true of the voice, the larger conception of two sets of muscular movements must take notice of the actual number of pairs of muscles involved in forming a long range of sounds. Since the several different muscle sets are not susceptible to localized or individual control, the image of two complementary muscle systems can stand for the whole.

This being the case then, there are three potential register sounds available to the voice:
1. The chest dominated;
2. The head dominated;
3. The combined, or blended action of (1) and (2).

Examples of all three types can be found in trained and untrained singers alike.

Further it can be observed that there are two elements involved in the production of a sound:
1. Breath energy;
2. Vibration in the vocal folds.

Each of these expresses itself differently in terms of the registers. The chest register partakes much more of the vibration of the vocal folds; the head register of the action of the breath, facts which are supported by the pictures of the vocal folds in these two registers. In the chest register the vocal folds are parallel and vibrant; in the head register there is an aperture between the vocal folds and less of the body of the folds vibrates.

In the combined, or blended, activity of the voice, where both registers are functioning at optimal coordination, the chest register provides the body of the sound, and the head the ductile, fluid and motile activity which enables the singer to master florid singing with ease and accuracy. In addition, the head voice liberates an upper overtone spectrum which results in easy intensity and focus which is sometimes fancifully described as “high placement.”1.

Developing and Combining the Registers

The image of the finished voice ought to be that of one long, unbroken range without noticeable register breaks or significant and sudden changes in color, volume and flexibility. A more primitive, less-developed image is of the two registers somehow welded together so that an easy transition from the one to the other may be made, but with differences in color, volume and flexibility noticeable.

The commentaries by writers of the early 19th century outside the strictly pedagogical materials suggest that tenors in particular were prone to this kind of combination. If we probe a little more deeply into these comments, we find that in reality the transition might be almost imperceptible, but that the upper range was still sung in a head voice without much substance, so that when Gilbert Duprez introduced the “ut de poitrine” (“chest high C”) to Paris in 1837, it was a sensational and significantly different kind of upper range sound from that of the prevailing tenor style of Nourrit and his teacher Manuel Garcia I.2

In order that the registers become capable of combination, they must be equal in muscular strength—not to be confused with volume or intensity—which can unfortunately only be measured by their ability to combine, if the characteristics of the registers are kept separate. By this I mean that the action of the chest register must be kept to a minimum in exercising in the head voice, and vice versa, until they are able to blend, which can only be determined by trying to combine them.

To achieve this, swelling and diminishing must be practiced in a form appropriate to the nature of the registers. Thus the chest voice will strengthen most rapid using a crescendo:

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 11.05.12 AM.pngon [a].

The head voice will strengthen most rapidly on a descrescendo:

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 11.05.16 AM.png on [u].

The chest voice vowel must be kept firm and centered, without vibrato or wobble, without a “singy” kind of sound, in order to take the greatest advantage of the vibration of the vocal folds.3

The head voice vowel must be treated in just the opposite way, a breathy, open [u], the shape maintained even as the vowel uses up all the breath.

When the two registers have been exercised enough in this manner, it is time to attempt to go from a head voice decrescendo on [u] to a chest voice crescendo on [a]. This should be first attempted on the “F” above Middle C:

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 11.07.47 AM.png

The transition between the vowels must be done very carefully to avoid a sudden shift into a chest dominated sound on the [a].

Once this blending can be done successfully and easily, it may be extended to a few pitches either side of the “F,” although the important point is for the singer to experience and learn to hear the blended sound quality.

When the sound quality is well-established in the center, it will be possible for the singer to begin practicing the complete messa di voce on all the pitches of the range, beginning in the comfortable lower-middle part of the voice.

This is the moment in training at which we begin to find the pedagogical literature fairly specific about progressive exercises.

The Coup de glotte

In the chest voice, the vowel should be started with a coup de glotte as Garcia understood it, not the vicious hard “stroke” of controversy.4

There are only two ways to begin a vowel sound:

  1. As an aspirate, preceded by an “h”;
  2. With a coup de glotte, which exists in two forms: a.) The hard “stroke” which is actually a plosive at the vocal folds; b.) The balanced coup de glotte in which the breath is present at the vocal folds at the exact moment that vibration begins.

The result of (2b) above is a neat articulation of the vowel in the presence of breath which avoids forcing or spreading of the vowel, and involves “singing in the throat” as opposed to attempting to “bring the voice forward,” or any of the 19th and 20th century nostrums which have created such havoc.

Since the vocal folds are located in the throat, and the action of phonation takes place in the throat, to speak of singing from or in any other location is to avoid the facts, mislead the singer and produce a sound which is not firmly grounded either in reality or in the actual mechanism of phonation.

To locate the vocal folds and initiate the coup de glotte, we have only to follow Garcia’s description, that it is like a small cough which becomes a vowel ([a] is to be preferred) and then can be sustained at the vocal folds. This will inevitably result in establishing a clean and clear chest voice free from the pernicious throatiness which so ubiquitously affects modern singers.

The coup de glotte is not useful in the first stages of developing the head voice, since it is the absolute opposite of the desired “open” quality of the [u] vowel.5

Caveat

This is only my personal, theoretical explanation for the foundation work in blending the registers, based on the literature at the point at which we join it, with the foundation work already accomplished. Others have written just as persuasively on this topic, with somewhat different approaches.6

It must be noted that in the traditional Italian method, the laryngeal position was allowed to respond to the pitch, rising and falling in correspondence, and this must be allowed if the above approach to blending is to be successful.7

There is no correspondence between laryngeal position and the use of the coup de glotte in the chest voice.

The useful analogy is that the breath and the vibration in the vocal folds should be similar to the relationship between the bow and the string on the violin: precise, specific, but unforced and gentle.

Footnotes:

  1. Hours of listening to old acoustic recordings from the first 25 years of the 20th century reveals this characteristic in the majority of the voices, particularly those whose owners enjoyed lengthy careers. It is missing in many contemporary voices, as are skill and ease in florid singing.
  2. Duprez accomplished this sound through the use of the voix sombrée or timbre oscure, which is based on the lowered laryngeal position which Garcia II claimed he had been teaching for some time before 1837. It is interesting to suggest that the lowered laryngeal position—in direct contrast to the mobile larynx of the Italian tradition—may create the third, or middle, register phenomenon which Garcia mentions. On the other hand, Corri and Nathan both mention three registers (Nathan four), and the laryngeal position is not discussed by either of them.
  3. This is by way of being an isometric exercise for the vocal folds, producing precision and neatness of approximation.
  4. Discussion of the controversy is out of place here; let it suffice to say that both vocal physiologists and teachers misunderstood the concept through an inadequate reading of the Traité.
  5. The coup de glotte in the head voice is the route to follow to develop the male alto, however, who wants a focused head voice at his disposal. See note below.
  6. It is sometimes suggested that the head voice should be strengthened to sound like that of the male alto, but I find this particularly difficult to blend with the chest voice, since it incorporates a kind of cooperation between the registers which is at odds with the independent development of the registers.
  7. The French pedagogy of Jean Baptiste Bérard also incorporates the motile larynx; he has a rather lengthy discussion of this, and apparently had some Italian tuition.

William Vennard on Coordination

Vennard has brilliantly stated something that I must remember to return to time and again: that coordination and integration is the goal of all voice training. Knowledge of the parts and what they do and how they work is important, but we must never forget that singing is a coordinated act. JP

A knowledge of the various processes involved in singing is like a disjointed skeleton until their interrelation is understood. An organism is greater than the sum of all its parts, and no analytical study discovers the whole truth until it leads to synthesis. Of what use is the valve without the breath pressure? Can one understand the vowels without a knowledge of both vibrator and resonators, and a knowledge of their coordination? What meaning has all this without articulation?

A pedagogy can major upon some one essential of voice production, such as breathing, or the developing of the registers, or the shaping of the resonators, or the training of the ear—the mental concept of the tone; and such a pedagogy can succeed if its particular stress is made to imply all the others. Usually such a teacher will say, ‘I teach breathing; if a pupil breathes correctly it will necessarily release the valve and activate the resonators’; or, “I try to give the student a proper concept of the tone, and the power of the mind over the mechanism is such that the ideal will command the proper support and the correct adjustments”; or will make a similar statement to the effect that some other aspect of production is the touchstone. I agree in each case, as far as the teacher’s own pupils are concerned, because each teacher tends to attract those students who will be most benefited by his own method. If after a certain amount of breath-control pedagogy, for example, a student is getting nowhere, he will perhaps go to someone who stresses resonance imagery, and find himself. A versatile teacher tries as many approaches as possible, until he discovers the one that works with each pupil. The important thing is that all the essentials of singing are so interrelated that if a student can be led into a profound knowledge of any one phase of his art, he will learn the others along with it.

The one thing that all must achieve is coordination. This is what every teacher works for in his studio. His analytical knowledge of the mechanism is like the sub-basements of a skyscraper; there may never be occasion for it to be displayed, but it is necessary foundation. Studio time should not be spent in academic discussion unless it leads to practical results. The student can learn as much as he likes from books, and can check his knowledge by questioning the teacher, but the main purpose of the lesson time is to practice the coordination of the vocal act. From time to time a teacher may need to bring specific technical details into attention. Most teachers will do this, even though they decry ‘local effort’; their real hesitation is where they are not sure of themselves. If they are certain that some particular of the pupil’s technic is incorrect, they will ask him to correct it. But most of the training is in the coordination of the entire instrument—more than that, the entire personality.

The foundation for teaching this is a knowledge of what is being coordinated. There remains a great deal to be discovered by the scientists, but that is no excuse for refusing to learn as much as we can of what is already known. A man may never learn the mechanics of his own car, but if he hires a chauffeur, he has a right to expect him to look under the hood occasionally. It is sometimes said, ‘You don’t have to take your watch apart in order to tell time,” and I agree. The singer need not analyze his art in order to sing. But if my watch does not keep good time I take it to someone who can take it apart. To help a singer who does not sing well, a teacher must be able to analyze.”

Vennard, William. Singing: the mechanism and the technic. Carl Fischer, LLC, 1967.

Maybe

 

The parable of the Chinese Farmer strikes me as one of the missing components in many pedagogical discussions.

We are so keen to assert:

The larynx must always do this.

Maybe. 

The tongue must always do that.

Maybe. 

The formant has to be tuned THIS way.

Maybe.

Old School wisdom is worthless.

Maybe.

Voice science is the solution to all our problems.

Maybe.

THIS exercise, method, or approach is a guaranteed success.

Maybe.

If you learn to sing classical, you can sing anything!

Maybe.

MAYBE could go a very long way to remaining open – trying things out that we might dismiss as being out of fashion or too novel.

Put this sign above your piano:

MAYBE

 

The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity and it is really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad – because you never know what will be the consequences or the misfortune, or you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.

Alan Watts