A Variation on a Cord Closure Theme

If you haven’t made time to read Jack LiVigni’s fantastic blog on cord closure, please do yourself a favor and read it. The link is here.

LiVigni’s article distilled my feelings on the training of the Old Masters, especially on the issue of Garcia’s vexing coup de glotte. My work on this blog has (hopefully) served to hold up LiVigni’s assertions from an historical perspective. The historical record on the singers and the pedagogy could not be more clear: the vocal core of the sound is the larynx itself. In voice training, we are (or should) be TRAINING THE LARYNX.

Everything else in teaching singing is a ‘supportive’ element, but is not the main issue of true voice training. Breath fetishization is a recent trend, unknown for the first 450 years of vocal training from the Renaissance. The sources on this are beyond dispute, and in agreement. 

In our current pedagogical climate we advocate an idea of flow phonation. It is my experience that these sounds are all gentle, relaxed, mostly breathy, and largely theatrically undramatic. The sounds tend not to ‘rock the boat.’  Many singers are taught to ignore the throat entirely, or told that the throat should always be relaxed and free. So getting more sound from the source becomes a vicious death spiral. Singers work all around the instrument (lips, tongue, jaw, resonance, breath) to solve the problem of inadequate cord closure.

In my experience, cord closure solves many problems with a minimum of fuss, and lays the ground for a successful healthy technique.

One of the adduction exercises I use is something I call “the squeaky door.” I learned this exercise from Seth Riggs, the Los Angeles voice teacher.  The maneuver has several other names: friendly compression, stingy hum. When used, I encourage singers to monitor the digastric muscles under the chin for any stiffness or grab. The exercise can be performed in chest, head, and then in chest into head and vice versa.

I start this low in the range, on three or five tone scales, with a slight staccato glottal on each note (the mouth is closed). My understanding is that this mirrors Garcia’s intention when describing the coup de glotte. I also admonish my singers not to practice this for more than five minutes at a time (I’ve also taken that advice from Garcia). They can break up the five minutes, but it should not EXCEED five minutes at a time. Set a timer. This is extended over time, but gradually. We’re dealing with very small muscle movements here.

For women, adduction can be rather telling, especially if they have been trained by a classical voice teacher to avoid the chest register entirely. Getting fold closure in women makes dramatic changes in the voice, regardless of the genre of music sung. A woman without a chest register can quickly develop one with firm cord closure. 

Once the singer has a sense of the stingy/squeaky sound – and therefore the correct feeling – I take them on a longer scale into the top of the voice – (the folds will or won’t stay together). The goal is to keep the folds firmly adducted. When the singer goes through the passaggio the folds may come apart as the registrational event is reached. Work must be done over time to eliminate this abductory event.

This longer scale – usually an octave and a half (Hi, Rossini!) – is first performed with slight glottal/creaky reiterating on every third note in a quasi gallop.

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Once that is working well, I work to extend the stingy humming throughout the same scale, but this time less reiteration of staccato.

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The third step is translate the stinginess into a legato hum throughout the entire scale.

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Once that is holding together very well, I have the singer vocalise the EXACT same scale on a well-defined “AH” or “EH” vowel, while maintaining their memory of the adduction.

The results of this work are immediate and startling to the student. As LiVigni so brilliantly assures, the ‘sense’ of height in the top of the voice is totally lost. High notes NO LONGER feel high. The breath needed is minimal. The sound is legitimate and complete. The tone is exceptionally bright. The sound is resonant. The singer has a sense of strong vibration with minimal physical ‘work,’ especially in the area of breathing. 

The sound of the exercise IS WITCHY and creaky. It has a small, stingy feeling. Little air is needed to sing when the cords are firmly adducted. This matches up with the Old Masters – who never mentioned breath in any of their writings. Perhaps they instinctively KNEW this cord closure was integral to singing operatic material. They prepared singers for large spaces, not small chamber salons.

Daniela Bloem-Hubatka, in her book, The Old Italian School of Singing, states:

The historical art of singing is founded on the mechanical action of the larynx or vibrator that brings forth the vocal sound completely independent of the articulator and resonator.

[…]

A soft or voiced attack of the singing voice as it is practiced nowadays will invariably produce a voice without a proper focus, the reason being that a soft attack goes hand in hand with “expiratory singing” (with the breath flowing out). As a consequence of the soft attack, the remedy is then sought in forcing the voice into places of resonance where it would have traveled and come to rest (focus) of its own accord after a firm laryngeal attack. Expiratory singing is the result of singing in the direction of the sound and is always accompanied by breathiness. The voice sounds as if it has a veil placed in front of it, which can be of varying degrees of thickness: a hooting voice or the voice can be likened to the sound of the chainsaw as a result of strong nasal resonance, to mention some common aberrations.

It is my conviction after years of reading, teaching, singing, and listening to singers, that firm laryngeal cord adduction solves a litany of problems.

Teachers trying to solve:

  • breath issues
  • tongue tension
  • jaw tension
  • throat tension
  • breathiness
  • lack of ring/resonance
  • register imbalances
  • lack of high notes

should aim their sights first and foremost ON THE FOLDS.

What are they doing? How firmly are they adducting?

Jeannette LoVetri wisely states that the folds are the Godfather, the “Capo di tutti capi.”

She is absolutely right. Those working on those aforementioned external manifestations are working effects instead of causes.

Get the FOLD BEHAVIOR right, and you are halfway there.

Vocal Violence

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. Sun Tzu

I have decided to no longer make violence against my voice. I would encourage others to join me in this fight. It will take enormous courage.

Everywhere I read that the voice must be managed, controlled, or harnessed. Like a wild animal it must be subdued, pinned down, adjusted, or even destroyed completely to be rebuilt again from square one.

  • The woman that twists herself into KNOTS to sing in the soprano voice part because she likes it better. If she could just manage to find the right breath system, she believes her success would be achieved. She grips desperately on her obliques and abdominal muscles in an effort to gain access to this control.
  • The man that REFUSES to allow himself to go lightly into the upper range on a diatonic scale, pulling the weight of chest up through the passaggio and beyond, because he ‘doesn’t like the sound or feeling’ of effortlessness that comes with the maneuver.
  • The woman that cannot dynamically modulate her sound because she views loudness as a virtue to anyone bearing the moniker “opera singer.” In her view, when she can cut an orchestra she will feel validated, not realizing that what gets over that orchestra might not be pleasant. Her singing becomes a battle: her versus the orchestra, her versus the space, her versus the audience. War.
  • The man that believes that if he manipulates his throat constrictors he will somehow manage to find more ‘space’ and gain greater resonance.

Why must we commit violence against the voice (and our own BODIES) in the attempt to sing well? Can there be any joy in any of this singing? Can there be any exaltation in the struggle? Can there be sweetness in sheer pain?

I have decided on peace. I’m reminded of Sir Henry Wood’s book The Gentle Art of Singing. Where is the gentleness for ourselves, physical and psychological? Ladies and Gentlemen, we are not kind to ourselves when it comes to singing. How tragic for us in our short lives that we should live a pedagogy of control and manipulation? And fear – So. Much. Fear.

I’d be the first one to put myself in front of the firing squad when it comes to my singing. But I can’t live making war against myself anymore. I’m tired of fighting. I want peace in my singing. I want joy in my voice. I want love in my music.

I can no longer stand by while others make violence in their bodies and minds in order to sing. I am saddened by those who have come to me to show their scars, or those who have openly wept in my presence from the pain and heartache of the struggle, having fought so long and so hard, and having lost so much.

My vocal world will be a place of peace. A place of listening and calm. A place of gentle guidance and a place to explore. Strength can be built in peaceful training.

War never solved a voice problem without another war needing to be waged somewhere else.

The two most powerful warriors are patience and time. – Leo Tolstoy

He was right.

 

 

10 Observations on Nezhdanova

Some quick observations on Russian coloratura Nezhdanova, to whom Rachmaninoff dedicated his Vocalise:

  1. The singer is not young.
  2. The voice is startlingly bright.
  3. The breath renewal is slight and free of gasping or need to breathe.
  4. The singer appears to sing on MINIMAL air.
  5. The tone is rock steady and lacks any ‘wobble,’ despite the singer’s advanced age.
  6. The tone has a ‘girlish’ quality.
  7. The mouth postures are largely non-divergent, the mouth opening slight for the top notes.
  8. The top note is sustained for some time on what would appear to be a minimal intake of breath.
  9. The sound possesses what the Italians might call ‘squillo.’
  10. The singing appears to be largely effortless and devoid of strain, pressure, push, or forcing.

Quote of the Day

It’s very hard to build a business as a voice teacher, or develop successful teacher-student relationships if you have adopted an adversarial ‘me vs. the student’ mentality. This is a win-lose equation- your ego wins and the student’s self-esteem and worth loses. Great teaching should be a collaboration of two people working together for a common cause. Not a servile experience between Master and Servant. If you find yourself in this adversarial situation more than once, you need to ask yourself if YOU’RE not the common factor in the problem.

Yours truly

How Can We Bridge The Gap?

A blog by Seth Godin got me thinking a lot about how voice teachers interact with each other online.

Whenever the human ego is involved, there will be lively discussions. But what I see a lot of is cognitive bias and logical fallacies. Teachers make sweeping generalizations and assert information on personal experience, erect strawmen, and believe that correlation equals causation. (I’m guilty too, I’m only human.)

No truly great voice teacher thinks they know everything, nor are they unwilling to consider viewpoints that might run contrary to their own.

Here are a couple of quick thoughts when we try to convince others of our pedagogical assertions:

Goals:

An uncomfortable truth of our profession (rarely discussed) is that not all teachers share the same goals. We might never agree in our discussions of pedagogy if we don’t share the same goals in teaching, or learn how to ‘translate’ the other’s goals. (i.e., Direct vs Indirect Control? What should breath do and how should we do – or not do it? Registers? Resonance?) What is the end result? We may not agree. Important to know. We can get hung up on the smallest of pedagogical ideas, but what is the LARGER goal? Forest for the trees.

This touches the abstract: personal ethics, values, aesthetics. Why do we teach? Can the teacher outline this in a crystal clear fashion? The profession would improve if we could clarify important goals to ourselves.

Reality:

When I argue with reality I lose. But only 100% of the time  – Byron Katie

Can voice teachers agree on factual realities? Do we live in the same reality as each other? HUGE when it comes to discussion with another teacher. We need to get CRYSTAL CLEAR on terms, ideas, and define what we are talking about before we can have a successful conversation. Let’s define the realities as we see it. Yes, realities include science: acoustics, physics, anatomy, physiology of function, etc. The BEST arguments and debates I’ve ever seen are those where the debaters agree on terms FIRST.

This course of interlocution also may not work. You may be in a TOTALLY different reality from me. Why? We should work to figure that out. The earth can’t be flat AND round at the same time. Someone’s thinking needs re-evaluation. If you think that there’s an anatomical part in the head that spins to create vibrato – well, Houston, we have a problem.

Measurement: 

How are we going to measure that the pedagogy is working? How do we measure success? There are several pedagogies out there that lay this information out in a clear manner. Several authors have also described how to measure improvement in a singing voice. Do we know what our measurements are?

How are we measuring? Is it by STAR students? Is it how successful our studios are? (Careful!) Is it by the singing itself? What do we measure? Range? Successful negotiation of the passaggio? Dynamic control? Languages learned? Songs sung? Rep learned? Styles able to be embraced? Not everyone has the same measurements of success!

If you’re measuring against an aesthetic, that may inform how you measure a student’s progress. Do they “sound” like the aesthetic? Can you outline how a student can measure their own success? Can we discuss those measurements amongst each other? (Goals and measurements are interrelated).

For an online discussion to be fruitful, we must understand that not everyone shares the same worldview. But we can do better by working to understand ourselves, and what we think of as our goals, realities, and measurements. When another teacher begins to grandstand, we can interact (or not) in a way that will help us grow a bit.

But we have to decide if we’re speaking the same language.

 

Is there a Masculine and Feminine Pedagogical Approach?

 

Short answer, yes.

We could easily define two ways of thinking about teaching singing: linear and spiral.

The linear is obviously a phallic, masculine concept.

A linear masculine vocal education might look like this:

  1. First A
  2. Then B
  3. Then C
  4. Then D
  5. Then E
  6. Then F
  7. Then G
  8. Then H

The masculine pedagogy might be something called a ‘method.’ It might be codified by a pedagogue in a specific order or way. In fact, masculine pedagogy can appear synonymous with a ‘method.’

Feminine pedagogy is more spiral. The spiral has no hard edges: it’s a softer, rounder feminine approach. It can HARDLY be seen as a method. (This would align with many of the earliest singers who remarked that their teachers had no method. Lamperti himself said that great singing has no method.)

A spiral feminine pedagogy would be:

  1. First A
  2. Then B
  3. Then C
  4. Then maybe more of A
  5. Then revisit C
  6. Then more of B
  7. Then D
  8. Then back to A

According to written sources, linear pedagogy appeared in the mid-19th century. The training manuals of that century are written in a format that moves from the simple to the complex (a logical educational system). It sets up a mindset that all students must move in a graded manner. Many piano theory books currently follow this paradigm.

However, these graded systems or ‘methods’ (used from 1820 or so to the present day – Vaccai, Abt, Marchesi, etc.) are not appropriate for EVERY singer in the order as written.

feminine spiral pedagogy is vexing to one accustomed to a masculine approach. On the surface it appears to have no logic, is random, and defies specific codification. Those watching someone teach a feminine pedagogy might be hard pressed to define exactly what is happening moment to moment. The teacher appears to be meandering about.

It would seem from the historical evidence that feminine pedagogy was the standard of the oldest teaching of voice. This may explain why the old bel canto training is lost: it is lost because the system appears to have been student oriented, and based on their current abilities, and the teacher’s ear IN THE MOMENT.

Feminine pedagogy is very hard to pin down. It’s very difficult to our rational minds to think that a process of voice training could be so apparently ‘chaotic.’

It is my belief that our frustration with the earliest writings is precisely because the pedagogy was more feminine than masculine.

 

This is not only reflected in the pedagogy, but also in the MUSIC. We are able to note the decline of agility, flexibility, trills, appoggiaturas, and improvisation that were the hallmarks of the Old School in the sweep of musical history from 1830 onward. Today, we associate these decorative vocal sounds with femininity yet in their time men just as easily sang these ornaments. (How many current basses can execute a perfect trill or swift chromatic scale?)

 

When you consider these two diametric ways of working, the confusion of the oldest writings comes into clearer view. The Old Italians were unpredictable, spontaneous, and not ‘planned’ in any sense. To think that the Old School is a linear process is to completely misinterpret the information we have on singing. We mustn’t forget the Italians inherited an oriental system of voice training from the Greeks that developed into what we came to know as ‘bel canto.’ (A term with which I am not on friendly terms.)

Linear pedagogy belongs to the Industrial Revolution and with the factory.

Spiral pedagogy tends to be more agricultural or horticultural.

Both are ways of working with the voice, and teachers might do well to contemplate both approaches.