Vocal Automatons

Here is another basic rule: practising should never deteriorate into something mechanical. The term ‘training’ must be taken in its original sense: to draw out, to foster, to release.

An organ is ‘mechanized’ when regulated artificially to such a degree that its unconscious natural impulses no longer take much active part in its movements.

Husler and Rodd-Marling understood that a deadening of the voice occurs when training becomes mechanically oriented. It seems that mechanization continues to be a very real struggle as we look for vocal solutions to the singing conundrum. The emotional, spontaneous nature of the voice is rarely discussed in modern pedagogy. We stay in safer, less subjective waters by talking about scientific concepts and mechanical functions. Nature, spontaneity, intuition and that je ne sais quoi of singing are harder to pin down.

My personal fear is that an exclusionary focus on these more scientific areas (and their inherent elevation) lead to a kind of singing and teaching that becomes ‘mechanized’ to affirm a scientific theory. Subsequently, the singer becomes detached from him/herself in an effort to validate and ‘hit the targets.’

A number of things can be responsible for mechanizing the vocal organ. For instance, practising in a routine way by reeling off a prescribed series of exercises for a prescribed length of time, thoughtlessly running up and down the scale, and so on, while excluding the ear as much as possible. This, unfortunately, seems to be a favourite form of teaching.

I get really concerned about ’empty’ practicing with my own students. Often I don’t WANT them to practice on their own because I have no way of knowing what they’re doing or what they listen for in practice. Even more concerning, they could be practicing the wrong (albeit familiar) responses. Empty running up and down of scales can lead to a sort of ‘one step forward two steps back.’

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Rote, mindless running of exercise mechanizes the vocal organ, according to Husler and Rodd-Marling.

I’m struck by Husler’s and Rodd-Marling’s observation on the exclusion of the ear. That resonates with me. Another fear I hold is that in the rush to gaze upon the charts and the spectrograms bandied around we inadvertently develop a dissociation with the ear and our ability to hear qualities of sound for their spontaneity, FREEDOM of function (i.e., health), and their emotional content or lack thereof (something I’ve never seen discussed in chart analysis).

In science, the primary aim is to describe and explain, not to induce – and that is where the lacuna between science and teaching occurs. Our primary job as teachers of voice is TO INDUCE! Einstein is reported once to have remarked that it is not the purpose of chemistry to reproduce the taste of the soup. Chemistry may nevertheless explain it, and that provides not a bad analogy for the relation between voice physiology and the phenomena of the voice as metaphorically described – but the teaching of voice is mainly induced by the teacher’s jargon along with verbal illustrations, imitation and other less direct means.

 

For those that would construct a ‘scientific method’ of teaching, the authors go on to state:

But the voice is mechanized most consistently by the type of teacher who, with enthusiasm plus a ‘scientific method’, does his best to transform the vocal organ into an artificial instrument. He works with ‘attitudes’ and ‘adjustments’, he forms ‘props’ and ‘supports’. Using all sorts of intricate methods, he fixes every part of the instrument: tongue, palate, throat, chest, diaphragm, abdominal wall, until the organ’s original vitality has entirely disappeared. The ultimate result is a badly damaged voice. The dangerous thing about such methods is that they very often appear to be successful; they may stimulate the organ for a short time, but the success is never more than temporary.

And this is something I struggle with: turning voices into machines. Dead, inanimate things – or trained monkeys. Push this button to make the voice do this, another to accomplish that. I’m concerned about the props and supports brought in today to help the voice trainer in their job.

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If the voice is organic, are we able to find a distinction between training that allows a response from WITHIN versus one that imposes technique from WITHOUT? Would we know the difference? Straws, balls, straps, bands, vibrators, and all sorts of ‘supports’ are used today in training – but what is the endpoint? Are we training a machine? Does the voice need a prop to find itself? How much MUSCLE does the voice need? If a voice is that badly in need of props, is it pathological? Why were the Old Masters adamant about lack of effort or force in singing? Did Farinelli learn to sing with aid of a vibrator? I don’t have an answer to this, but I feel today we consider props and supports as a requirement in training – they are our salvation. And a more pointed question:

If we need so many props to sing, is there too much force and pressure in the first place?

Why aren’t we talking about that?

A word here about the term ‘technique’. To define it is a matter of some difficulty, because it is not easy to decide whether technique applies to singing at all; if it does, where does it properly belong, and where does it end, or where should it end? This may be a pointer: organic being has no capacity for living ‘technically’: to impose technical measures upon it invariably signifies the presence of some alien force. Technique, in short, is not a physiological term. Of course the singer, and especially the voice trainer, cannot altogether dispense with so-called technique, if the problems involved with singing are to be dealt with successfully. The latter must have recourse to ‘technical’ practices to unlock the organ, while the singer is forced to employ them because what he has to perform often exceeds the present capacity of his vocal organ. ‘Technique’, in other words, is a useful tool but nothing more; a crutch, as it were, to help the unfinished or the ungifted singer. Technique as such has nothing to do with the true singing principle. The perfect singer (ideally speaking) is one who has succeeded in overcoming all forms of technical usage; he is past the stage of needing help, he sings with a fully liberated vocal organ, from its inmost nature, with every impulse, urge and drive belonging to it. His singing is a continually creative act. To create is to bring forth from an existing reality; technique is ‘fabrication’.

WOW.

There are some really philosophically profound things to consider in this assessment of the concept of technique. Technical singing can quickly become mannered singing. The voice has been constructed, and the singer stands apart from it à la The Wizard of Oz – flipping switches behind the green curtain. Many great singers said they were only peripherally aware of technique – calling upon it under duress brought on by illness or suboptimal vocal function. Paradoxically, children sing, often quite beautifully, with no time to acquire ‘technique’. Their voices are free, clear, and resonant and yet they remain ignorant to concepts of vocal pedagogy.  Singers in the 19th century remarked that the best teachers of that time PRESERVED these children’s natural function into adulthood – which would betray a sense of technique. Organic development from within?

If technique isn’t the answer what is? It would appear we need to maintain the emotional, intentional aspects of the voice as a corollary to solving functional problems. The joy of singing must be ever-present. Something I covered earlier in this blog. Keeping the singer in his voice, his ear, his heart, and his mind seems to be the best way forward as we pursue this amazingly challenging world of voice training.

Consequently, though training cannot be carried out entirely without technical means, it must always include a purely irrational factor, a certain psychic state, call it emotive expression, to draw the vocal organ back to its intrinsic nature. It must never be excluded from the voice for any length of time because, in the most natural manner, this strange efflux establishes the closest connections between physical and spiritual, material and subliminal. Creative forces are called up by the ‘joy of singing’. The true singer’s need of melos points out the path he should follow. The desire to produce tonal beauty summons up some of the most vital processes in the organ of singing. And in our case, beauty, that intrinsic element in all organic being, does indeed, and quite automatically, exercise a regulation influence.

To recapitulate: avoid too much EMPTY TECHNICAL gymnastic; it injures, brutalizes and ruins all substance. The only reason for ‘technical’ practising is to overcome technique.

And here is an ancient maxim: ‘Sing often – but a little at a time’ (Giuseppe Aprile)

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.

On Language

Last year I took it upon myself to work on my French language skills.

I wanted to improve my abilities and have been frustrated by language learning and its concentration on rules and vocabulary as currently taught in the US. There are thousands of students who have taken language courses and yet cannot speak, read, or write in the language that they have studied.

Why?

Perhaps this is due to the focus on grammar and vocabulary. When a student is confronted in the street by a speaker of French they are usually adrift because they are immediately trying to remember a set of RULES and CONJUGATIONS in the moment. We might say that the language is not fluent. It does not flow.

So, what did I do to study French? Did I read grammar books or study long lists of vocabulary?

No.

I learned about Stephen Krashen‘s theories of language acquisition. According to Krashen, we need LOTS of input in the target language. That means we need to take in a vast amount of the language through listening and reading in the target language. Not speaking. Not grammar or verb drills, and not memorizing of charts. This is learning that is organized around tests. 

 

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Learning French became a joy when I re-evaluated my entire language learning approach.

Your chosen inputs are VERY important. They should be centered on topics you are ALREADY interested in and would read in English. For example, if you enjoyed gardening,  you would seek out input about gardening in the target language. Podcasts, articles, radio, television, books, or YouTube videos all fit the bill.

Krashen believes that we need to take in a large amount of this input before we even ATTEMPT to speak the language. We need many hundreds of hours of listening and reading before we can begin to think about verbal expression. (Notice how this correlates to language acquisition as children?) The ability to speak in the target language literally EMERGES as one takes in greater amounts of input in the target language.

I recommend watching Dr. Krashen’s video to get a high overview of his hypotheses and theories. It’s worth the to watch to understand how I went about learning French more deeply.

At the end of three months of consistent input, I noticed my understanding zooming ahead and my facility was the highest it has ever been in all my years of French study. I knew I was on the right track when a friend, a French native speaker, was legitimately shocked at the sudden development of my language abilities in conversation. He wanted to know exactly what I had been doing in such a short time to improve my French so quickly.

Here is a quick distillation of the approach that helped me:

  1. Don’t learn grammar. If you do, the book should be slim.
  2. Listen. Listen a LOT. That’s the main ingredient. (Mirrors my thoughts on how we learn to sing, too).
  3. Repeat your listening quite a bit. Twenty times is not out of the question – more if you can.
  4. Use your dead time to listen: in the car, on public transit. That was very helpful to me because I was able to practice listening with time that was already ‘lost.’
  5. Don’t stress out if you don’t understand 100%. 70% is actually really good. The more you listen, the more your comprehension will increase. Take a calm and peaceful attitude into your language learning.
  6. Listen to content (input) that is of interest to you. It will hold your attention and you will be more likely to stay with language learning if you are learning about things you ALREADY LIKE. Many French language learning texts are dry and boring.
  7. Learn in accordance with the context of what you are listening to and reading. Context is an important part of ‘filling in the blanks’ of words and phrases that you don’t understand.

So, what does all of this have to do with singing?

When you learn the language you gain a respect for it – as a linguistic and musical event. It is our practice in the United States to push students into foreign language repertoire which they do not understand. So, the diction work done by coaches and teachers is all focused on externals: making the proper ‘sounds’ with no real context for the language’s nuances. It becomes a bizarre kind of parroting in which the student may understand the text but hasn’t grasped the benefits of the language’s colors and flavors. It becomes an indication or an approximation of a text.

Teachers and coaches will applaud a well-pronounced song or aria, but the student has only attained mastery of these externals or rules. They’ve hit the targets. But is that art? Singing is a musico-linguistic event. Communication should be its primary directive. How can a student communicate in a language that he/she does not speak? Listen to Tebaldi sing in Italian, or Callas, or Galli-Curci – they would struggle with ‘rules’ in a diction class, and their Italian pronunciation is idiosyncratic.

Perhaps voice education in the classical model should elevate language learning as one of its central goals. Students should be placed into intensive, immersive language listening as soon as they express an interest in singing classical music. Because Italian is the language of music, perhaps it can be a starting language, and students should be encouraged to listen to Italian content every day.

I can’t help but think that the communicative ability of a singer would take leaps and bounds if they dedicated themselves to a true immersion in the languages of singing. Can a singer learn ALL the languages? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t try. A wise course of study might be to spend an entire year on each of the major singing languages: a year for Italian, French, German, and later perhaps Russian or Czech.

We must VALUE language in teaching singing – as much as the music itself. It is the entire reason that the composer was inspired to compose in the first place. The greater the respect we accord the words, and the language of the poet, the closer we connect to the poet and the composer. We begin to live not only in the musical world of the composer but his linguistic world as well.

We MUST learn to make music WITH the language, not against it as some kind of inconvenient backdrop. 

Merely checking off the rules of a diction book when singing is NOT the same thing as a singer who has LIVED in that language and absorbed words deeply.

If you would like to learn more about Krashen’s ideas, please visit this link.

The Mental Torture of Localization and Specialization

Herbert Witherspoon, celebrated bass, teacher, pedagogue, and arts administrator, worked with some of the most celebrated teachers in Europe and kept detailed notes on all his sessions. He also had a very recalcitrant throat and wasn’t what we might consider a ‘natural talent.’ He worked very hard to conquer his technical shortcomings.

He (like this writer) detested complexity and verbosity. His slim book Singing is probably as close as we will ever get to the ‘how-to’ of the Old Italians. Edward Foreman, esteemed author and pedagogical researcher, places Witherspoon’s book right alongside the works of Tosi and Mancini (and frankly I have to agree).

The principles of the Old Masters were SIMPLICITY married with TIME. That’s it. No magic bullet. No special exercise (except maybe the messa di voce!). No straitjacketing of students into pre-planned ‘techniques.’ Individuality ruled. They would have been horrified by homogeneity. There was no hard and fast ‘method.’

Reading Witherspoon’s words below, it’s amazing and depressing to see how little has changed since 1925. We still want to take the voice apart into a million pieces, localize it, then slap it back together and think we’ve solved the problems. These types of training bear a name: mechanistic.

But do we realize the torment we inflict on our students by the over-intellectualization and over-analysis of every little thing happening during phonation?

Stimulus and response.

Observation.

Adjustment.

Time.

That’s pretty much it – but to our current “5 Tips to Sing Great by 5pm” Zeitgeist we are so deeply dissatisfied with mastery through time. Garcia II tried desperately to speed up the process of voice training throughout his lifetime by taking the voice apart anatomically. He realized later in life that he couldn’t improve on following Nature – the only ‘method’ suggested by all the great Masters of Singing:

I myself studied with many teachers both in the United States and Europe. I continually asked “ why,” but I seldom got a satisfying answer. Some teachers were patient and tried to explain, but had not the required knowledge to do so. Others flew into a passion, enraged because they knew that they did not know. I learned little from most of them, because it was impossible for me to do things without knowing how and why, and also because I had a very stubborn and unruly voice and throat which took years to conquer. But I did learn that many of the teachers of singing were guessing nearly all the time, and that few had a method of teaching based upon real knowledge and law. Tricks, “stunts,” absurdities of all kinds, were what we bought. Some talked science, some preached psychology, some quite frankly experimented, and learned more from the pupil than the pupil learned from the teacher. One teacher told me to “ pull in” when I inhaled, another to “push out.” One, to place my voice at the back, another at the front. One told me that the bass voice was placed more in the head than even the soprano, another that it was placed entirely in the chest. One said to form the lips like a trumpet, another to sing with a smile. One taught that the higher tones went back, another that they were placed in the forehead. One insisted upon a high larynx, another upon a low larynx. One placed the high tones in all pupils with the aid of the vowel OO, another with EE. One told me to lean forward and bow the head, another to press the head and neck backward against the collar. One said to “ focus” the voice in the upper front teeth, another to focus in the back part of the hard palate. One, to “ feel” something, another to “think” something. And so on endlessly! There was no idea of natural law or of coordination. It was all specialization reduced to localization. Let the reader think for a moment of the needless waste of time and money, and what is worse, the mental torture of such an experience.

Witherspoon, Herbert. Singing. New York: G. Schirmer. (1925).

The Impulse to Sing

The effect produced by singing depends upon the depth of feeling of the singer. The voice of a sympathetic singer is quite different from that of one who is heartless. However artificially cultivated a voice may be, it will never produce feeling, grace and beauty unless the heart be cultivated also. Singing has a twofold source of interest: the grace of music, and the beauty of poetry. In proportion as the singer feels the words he sings, an effect is produced upon the listeners; his heart, so to speak, accompanies the song.

Khan, Hazrat Inayat. The Mysticism of Sound and Music: Revised Edition (Shambhala Dragon Editions) (p. 164). Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.

A pedagogical topic long neglected is a discussion on the pre-phonatory impulse to sing. When we make sounds with our vocal folds, there is always an intention behind these vocal vibrations. Babies without language have no recourse except sound to communicate their states of being. A perceptive mother can interpret very quickly sounds of impatience, hunger, annoyance, fatigue or boredom.

This question of impulse would indicate a pedagogical issue more psychological than technical/physical. David Clark Taylor discussed this a century ago when he encouraged singers to work from their ears to develop their concept of tone. The best teachers of the Old School recommended hearing great singing regularly to develop their ears and artistry. (In painting, one studies the works of the Masters as well.)

From Tosi:

Let him hear as much as he can the most celebrated Singers, and likewise the most excellent instrumental Performers; because, from the Attention in hearing them, one reaps more Advantage than from any Instruction whatsoever.

Tosi, Pier Francesco. Opinioni de’cantori antichi, e moderni, o sieno Osservazioni sopra il canto figurato di Pierfrancesco Tosi… Dedicate a Sua Eccellenza Mylord Peterborough... L. dalla Volpe, 1723.

In addition to these values, every successful singer attests to specific inner feelings and impulses which preclude making vocal sound: expansiveness, joy, love, well-being. Marie Withrow, in her book Some Staccato Notes for Singers (1915), encourages a joyous approach to singing when she writes:

The singer must express all Moods and Emotions with his voice, but LIVE habitually with the JOYOUS (p. 8). Let there be positive physical JOY in all so-called breathing exercises (p. 41).

This view of working joyously is a pedagogical approach mentioned by many authors. Clara Kathleen Rogers, (stage name Clara Doria, whom I have covered in this blog) in Your Voice and You (1925) wrote the following:

There is nothing that stimulates the impulse to voice the emotions so urgently as a general sensation of well-being. Consciousness of the joy of living as motive-power to a natural outburst of song. You have, of course, experienced this; we all have (p.4).

Cornelius Reid, writing in his Dictionary of Vocal Terminology (1983), had this to say:

Most of the subtle adjustments made in “coloring” the vowel are emotionally oriented. They take position as a response to feelings commonly associated with vocal literature such as love, anger, fear, disdain, happiness, longing, jealousy, and the like. However, before the ultimate purpose of singing is confronted, i.e., to convey with great sensitivity a full range of emotional experience episodically, the pure joy of making sound for its own sake must be developed. How the singer relates to this is another important aspect of vocal color, for the QUALITY of his identification, his response to feeling THROUGH feeling, will in the long run establish his value as an artist (p. 291).

One of the complaints of this writer is the pervasive generalized emotionless ‘dark’ quality cultivated in modern classical singing. Sounds that might be described as grave, woofy, grim, and even sepulchral. This pervades even the most joyous music. (Let us not forget that when Garcia described the two timbres voix claire and voix sombrée he placed them within a context of emotional expression – not technical achievement!!)

And most importantly, could these dark sounds be due to the fact that voice training has prioritized technical rectitude over emotional expression?

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We mustn’t forget that singing is an act of connection with other human beings, and we must always bring ourselves fully (emotionally, spiritually, and physically) to the act of singing.  Photo taken by the author at the Duomo museum in Florence, Italy.

In an era when anatomical and acoustic discussion are flourishing, it cannot be ignored that many technically proficient voices neglect to bring their souls to their work. Conversely, technically limited voices can enchant and beguile if their emotional connection has not been severed. It would appear connection to one’s soul is the sine qua non of exceptional singing in ANY style.

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Imagine my surprise when I found the article “Consequences From Emotional Stimulus on Breathing for Singing” by Viggo Pettersen and Kåre Bjørkey published in the Journal of Voice, Vol. 23, No. 3, 2009. Their research found that classical singers change their breathing patterns when they vocalize using emotional stimulus compared with using no emotional stimulus. These results implied that vocalizing using emotional stimulus facilitates a more prominent role for lower lateral abdominal activity in the positioning of the abdominal wall and thorax than observed when vocalizing using no emotional stimulus.

This study illuminates the fact that breathing for singing is more delicate and finely tuned than we can imagine.  And more to the point: what attempts do control, manipulation, or management have on the emotional health and expression of the singer? What occurs in the psyche of the singer if these emotional expressions are not ‘released’? Could this emotional repression explain why so many voices tend to be rather darkened, postured, and pre-conceived?

How can we transform our singing with more soul and heart?

It’s a private, personal affair and perhaps should first be done in solitude. Perhaps it can be brought about through meditation, or activities that inspire awe or wonder: starry nights under a blanket of stars, stained glass windows in a church, the expanse of an open field, walking on a beach at twilight, being in the presence of great art in a museum, a particular musical composition which leads to feelings of exaltation. When I am in these situations I always end up singing – I just can’t help it. Most singers would agree with me about this ‘feeling’ as well.

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Finding awe in life and joy in living is the vital essence of becoming a great singer and artist. We should prioritize the cultivation of the human heart and soul alongside the voice.

There is a connection between these feelings of awe and exaltation with the act of singing. I would call this the ‘singer’s sense.’ It is a tremendous feeling of uplift, health, and controlled excitement. It is a lovely, wonderful feeling that sends a positive charge throughout the body, and prepares one to share oneself through the medium of voice. It is not anxious, but energetic, and yet peaceful at the same time.

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The cultivation of the human soul and spirit should progress in tandem with all vocal development. Sainte Chappelle in Paris, France.

 

This impulse cannot be taught directly in a voice studio by a teacher. It can only be stimulated and then cultivated. Every vocal scale should ideally be prefaced with this impulse to sing. It renders an instant LIVING emotionality to the voice which when missing renders the voice lifeless and unengaging – dead. The singer should NEVER sing without this sensation, and should strive constantly to affirm it, by ‘filling the well,’ of beautiful images, sights, and sounds in their daily life.

Beautiful singing should come from beautiful souls. To cultivate the voice is to cultivate the soul. If the voice is the only thing being cultivated, the essential lifeforce of the singer has been lost in a sea of meaningless technical perfection.

The only reason for mastering technique is to make sure the body does not prevent the soul from expressing itself.

La Meri, (1898-1988) American Dancer

Ramblings from the Bench (Pun intended)

Just some random ideas today…

As I work out at the gym, I’m struck by the fact that I don’t really see a high proportion of bodybuilders there. There are a lot of your average, everyday people who wish to accomplish their physical goals or stay healthy in general.

YES, there are elite coaches and trainers for those muscle bound athletes and I’m sure when they compete they need to find higher levels of training to accomplish their goals. Gratefully, there are many high level coaches to help those people win competitions and awards. But how many are helping these people in THIS gym? Zero.

Not everyone is a bodybuilder. And not every trainer works with a studio filled with bodybuilders, unless one is an elite market working in a metropolitan area filled with bodybuilders.

So, too, with voice training.

Not every student that walks in the door is going to be a star. But each deserves to have a vocal tuition that will assist them in finding their healthiest and freest voice.

Elite trainers might not be able to work with the mother who wants to work on her voice to sing for her daughter’s wedding – and may weed out students like her because she isn’t a bodybuilder. I cast no aspersion on that coach whatsoever, but the mother is more COMMON than the bodybuilder statistically.

I find sometimes that pedagogy is geared toward the bodybuilders and doesn’t take into account the average singer. There is a lot of value for these people in singing well. They have no desire to stand on a stage displaying their vocal muscles. For these singers, singing is a delicious pleasure and brings them unmeasurable happiness. Even more, these people DESERVE to sing.

Independent voice teachers tend to get more of your average singer (average here is not seen as a pejorative, merely the statistical average of most voices), while teachers in academia get their pick of talented students. This allows for a higher degree of selection for ‘bodybuilders.’ This can create unbalanced and often lopsided pedagogical discussions: you’re talking about training a bodybuilder, and I’m working with grandma who wants to keep her voice fresh and healthy. You can see how we’d be operating from two separate frames.

There are a lot of ways to exist in the voice training world, but not everyone is a bodybuilder, and we should respect that.