Fach and Hazrat Inayat Khan

Every person is gifted. God has given him a certain pitch, a natural note, and if that pitch develops and he develops that natural note, it is a magic, he can perform a miracle. But he must think about the hall where he has to sing, and of how loud he must shout!

There was a man from India visiting Paris. For the first time in his life he went to the opera to hear the music and he was trying hard to enjoy it. The first thing he heard was a soprano who was doing her best, and then came the tenor, or the baritone, and he had to sing with her. So this man became very annoyed and said: ‘Now look, he has come to spoil it!’

When we come to the essence and the inner principle of sound, the closer to nature we keep it, the more powerful, the more magical it becomes. Every man and woman has a certain pitch of voice. Then the voice producer says: ‘No, this is alto, soprano, tenor, baritone, or bass’. He limits that which cannot be limited.

How can there be so many voices? There are as many voices as there are souls; they cannot be classified. As soon as he is classified, that person is obliged to sing in that pitch. If his pitch is different, he does not know it; if his voice is higher, he does not sing in that pitch. Because the voice producer says: ‘This is a soprano’, that person cannot be anything else. Besides that, a person has to depend upon what the composer has written. The composer never knew the voice of that particular person, the composer wrote only for a distinct pitch, either this one or that one. When a person has to sing in the pitch that is prescribed, then he loses the natural pitch he had.

Apart from singing, even in speaking, among one hundred persons you will find one who speaks in his natural voice, and ninety-nine who imitate. They imitate someone else; they do not know it. The same thing that you find in grown-up people you will find in little children. The tendency in a little child is to change and to imitate. Every five or ten days, every month a child changes his way of speaking; his voice, his words, many things he changes. And where does he learn it? From the children in school. He sees a child walking in some way, or making gestures, or frowning, or he hears it speaking in a certain way. He does not realize it, but he has heard it and he does the same thing; so he goes on changing.

In the same way every person – also without knowing it – changes his voice, and so the natural voice is lost. To retain one’s natural voice is a great power in itself, but one cannot always retain it. In order to have a great, a good, a powerful effect with one’s voice and sound, one does not have to be a singer. What one has to do is to practise the breath in different ways. One must first know how to breathe; one must then know how to blow; one must then learn how to make a sound, how to say a word. If one practises in these three ways, one will attain that power which is latent in every soul.

One need not be a singer, but for every person it is necessary that he should give some part of the day – even the shortest time he can give: five, ten, or fifteen minutes – to his voice, to the development of his voice.

Khan, Hazrat Inayat. The Mysticism of Sound and Music: Revised Edition. Shambhala Publications. 2014.

Profound Wisdom from Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan

Over the next several days I will be sharing the profound wisdom of Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927). Khan was the founder of The Sufi Order in the West in 1914 (London) and teacher of Universal Sufism. He initially came to the West as a Northern Indian classical musician. His message of divine unity focused on the themes of love, harmony and beauty.

It is startling to find in his writing – from nearly a hundred years past – such breadth of wisdom for the modern singer and teacher of voice. I know that I will be coming back to his writing consistently to ‘reset’ my views and values of the singing voice.

When we come to singing it is quite different, because today the art of singing has become as artificial as can be. The whole idea is to train the voice and make it different from what it is naturally. The training of the voice does not develop what is natural in it, it mostly brings into it something which is not natural to it. Therefore when a person sings according to the method of the day he has a different voice. It is not his voice, it is not his character. He may have a great success, he may be audible to thousands of people, but at the same time he is not singing in his natural voice. You cannot see his stage of evolution in his voice. Therefore the real character of the person is to be seen in his speaking voice.

Khan, Hazrat Inayat. The Mysticism of Sound and Music: Revised Edition. Shambhala Publications. 2014.

Quote of the Day

Defective voices enjoy a special immunity. The public, accustomed to their uneven or veiled tones, only perceives with difficulty any problems they may be experiencing.

[But] it is not the same with voices that are naturally pure; the more perfect the voice, the more easily the ear captures any distortion.

Faure, Jean-Batiste, et al. La voix et le chant: traité pratique. 1886.

Theodore Dimon on Breathing

TedDimon

Theodore Dimon, author and teacher, is the founder and director of The Dimon Institute and an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia Teachers College.

 

To say that Theodore Dimon is an influence on my understanding of the singing voice would be an understatement.

Dr. Theodore (Ted) Dimon is the founder and director of The Dimon Institute and an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia Teachers College. Dimon’s pioneering work covers the study of the human mental and physical ‘operating system’ as a holistic entity and how it works in activity. Based on a multi-disciplinary approach that includes work in neuroscience, anatomy, evolution, physiology, psychology, philosophy and mindfulness, Dimon’s work provides a new approach to human functioning and behavior leading to foundational principles applicable in the fields of health, education, and child development.

He has written five books including Anatomy of the Moving Body; The Body in Motion; Your Body, Your Voice; The Elements of Skill; and The Undivided Self.

His book The Elements of Skill, has been one of the most influential books on my work in the studio since I read it two years ago.

A recent blog post on breathing caused me to reach back into this book again to pull more ‘pearls of wisdom’ on the extent to which we go to interfere with the natural process of inhalation and exhalation. Dimon’s assertions track RIGHT ALONGSIDE the writings of the Old Masters, and he presents their wisdom with a modern physiological insight.

How did these Old Masters get such great singers? They understood at a fundamental level these principles of the body and the voice.

Dimon elaborates on the start of the process of training breathing in a singer (all bold highlights are mine). He begins by an assertion of our interference with this natural process:

Nature has constructed us in such a way that in order to breathe normally, we do not do anything to the air; it simply comes in and out through the nostrils and mouth as an indirect result of the fact that our bodies automatically increase and then decrease the space inside our chest cavities. This means that the quality of breathing depends on whether the bellows is working properly— on its not being distorted in shape, and its opening and closing fully. If we want to breathe well, we do not need to do anything to get air into the body, but simply to secure the coordinated, reflexive working of the system on which the movements of breathing depend.

This is where our habitual tensions come into play. When we interfere with our natural support by tightening the neck muscles, pulling back the head, raising the chest, and narrowing the back, then the ribs will not fully expand and contract. On the other hand, when we restore the lengthened support of the body, the ribs can move freely and the bellows can open and close properly. The breathing, in other words, will operate to best advantage when we are properly coordinated in an overall sense.

His thesis made, Dimon goes into further exploration of beginning the process of breathing. It’s important to become aware that interference with breathing complicates the matter, as we will instinctively want to employ incorrect muscles and tensions in the singing instrument.

The first prerequisite in educating the singer in proper vocalizing, then, is to restore the conditions of coordination in the torso and body that allow breathing to occur naturally and easily. In order to breathe properly, the singer does not have to involve himself in any direct attempts to improve his breathing, since the whole point is that the flow of breath occurs entirely as a result of the natural support of the body. In fact, such concern will only complicate matters, since it will invoke the wrong tensions that interfere with this natural support.

It is here that many singers and teachers will nod in agreement (hopefully). But the larger question remains “How do we now coordinate this breathing with singing?” Can we use the efficiency of the body’s natural response in the singing act? Many pedagogues of the Old School thought so, as referenced in my earlier blog. MANY 20th and 21st Century pedagogues, however, would disagree with this. Because they do not believe that singing, especially in an operatic manner, is natural, the body must be given props and support to enact its function; ignorant of the fact that many of the singers that sang the operas of Verdi, and Wagner were trained in ways that ignored direct control of the breath:

But how is this coordinated “use” to be applied to singing or vocalization? The most obvious solution seems to be to make sure to leave the breathing alone— that is, maintain the improved conditions— while vocalizing. This is in fact the theory on which most vocal and breathing exercises are based. In practice it is not so simple. The moment the student thinks of leaving himself relaxed during vocalization or while breathing, he invariably brings into play the wrong habits.

The reason for this oversight is that the singer does not connect the muscular condition of his body with what he is doing in action. Breathing is a result, a natural effect, of the bellows-like movements of the ribs. Air comes in and out of the lungs purely due to reflex expansions and contractions of the ribs, whose working depends in turn on the lengthened support of the trunk. But thinking about breathing or vocalizing (as the singer must) is another matter entirely. The singer then sucks in air and pushes it out by gasping, arching his back, and interfering with the bellows. In other words, anything he does that involves the choice, the decision, to breathe or speak— even when he is trying not to tense his body— activates the wrong habits associated with breathing and vocalizing and thus brings into play the wrong movements.

[…]

The intention to perform the action— even when that intention involves a desire to perform it correctly— invokes the very habits that interfere with breathing. Concern about breathing actually violates the principles on which breathing is based.

The persistence of such harmful habits when we speak or sing can be easily observed, and it is what complicates the matter of improving the singer’s breathing. It is comparatively simple to improve his breathing by making changes in his coordination; he can feel the increased freedom in his back, chest, ribs, and diaphragm, and he can see how easily the air comes in and out as a result. As soon as he begins to vocalize, however, he at once brings into play these wrong habits. In spite of whatever improvements he has made, the fundamental cause of his problem remains untouched.

This is why methods that strive to achieve releases and “freeing” in the breathing do not address the underlying cause of inadequate breathing, even though they appear to. Vocal exercises may temporarily improve the breathing or invigorate the tissues by bringing about some specific improvement in the movements of ribs and diaphragm. But ultimately they can only interfere with the process. Whatever specific results are achieved, the very fact of doing an exercise or breathing in a particular manner is itself an ideomotor stimulus bringing into play the very tensions that disturb the natural expansions and contractions and therefore the breathing. Most likely such approaches are not based on an understanding of how the whole mechanism works to begin with, and so do not recognize the dependence of breathing on the overall coordination. But even teaching approaches that appreciate the importance of bodily coordination overlook its intimate connection with action, by encouraging the pupil to release or change things while breathing. In attempting to help the student, the teacher may be well-intentioned; but the only way he knows to realize his good intentions is by giving the student something to “do,” and the student’s attempts to implement these instructions will only end up increasing the interference. No matter what you tell the singer to do or even to think, if he does it while thinking of breathing he will interfere by exaggerating or distorting the movements of the bellows.

To return, then, to the singer’s problem, how can he maintain the natural coordinations of the trunk during vocalization if the very attempt to do this makes him interfere? Put in terms of ideomotor action, how can he sing in a new way if the idea of doing so evokes the old motor pattern? The pupil must stop trying blindly to correct his actions. He must, in fact, stop entirely, and reconsider his problem. He knows that the breathing takes place automatically when he is properly coordinated. It is only when he attempts to speak or vocalize that he interferes with these coordinations. The question then becomes: What is required to make sound, and can it be achieved without this usual interference?

Two things are absolutely necessary to vocalization: the flow of air in and out of the lungs (which vibrates the vocal folds) and the closure of the vocal folds (which makes them vibrate as air passes between them). Breathing is a simple enough matter. A singer knows that air comes in and out of his lungs not because he chooses to breathe, but because the body is designed in such a way that the air automatically rushes in and out to fill the changing space. In other words, to get this flow of breath, he does not have to “do” anything at all; he simply needs to maintain the correct bodily coordinations, and the air will go in and out by itself. As for the sound, the student knows that if he simply brings the vocal folds together, the air, which is already flowing in and out of the lungs, will cause them to vibrate, and sound— like the breathing itself— will occur automatically.

The student now realizes that it is not necessary to think about breathing in order to produce sound; he only has to continue to think about the bodily coordinations that ensure the natural flow of breath, and then, when he closes the vocal folds, the sound will occur by itself. Without having to do anything more than think about his coordination and bring the vocal folds together, the student has in his control the elements that are required to produce sound. And he has done this without thinking about singing per se.

This means that the cause of his problem— namely, the idea or desire to sing— can be circumvented. He can sing without having an idea of, or association with, singing as he normally conceives it. The sound is then produced with remarkable effortlessness and seems to come from the entire body and not from the throat. He has achieved his end without having the idea of vocalizing, thereby circumventing the usual habits and interference associated with vocalizing.

Like the other skills we have looked at, coordinated vocal control is not the result of deliberate muscular effort or mechanical training, but occurs naturally and effortlessly so long as we understand our inherent design and learn to act without interfering with this design. Many acting and vocal coaches insist that, to produce sound, we must learn to build strength and to exercise the breathing muscles, even when the students who implement these techniques are clearly straining their voices and building up tension in their bodies. At the root of these techniques is the belief that, to produce a full voice, effort is somehow required, even though the greatest singers— not to mention young children and animals— produce sound effortlessly. Real expertise in vocal production, as in other skills, emerges from a process of learning not to interfere with, and intelligently managing, the body’s inherent capacity for skilled action.

A few final remarks regarding the practical demands of speaking and singing: We’ve seen that, in order for the singer to breathe properly, there must be as little interference with the breathing as possible. It may appear, then, that the principles we have been considering will not be of much help to the singer, who must by definition impose a deliberate control on the natural breathing cycle while vocalizing, in order to get breath as the music demands. How then do the principles we have been considering help the singer perform a demanding vocal repertoire?

The act of vocalizing— no matter how complex the specific demands placed upon the voice— is first and foremost the result of coordinated movements of the body as a whole. Any skills involving deliberate use of this system— even when they may place unusual demands on any part of it— must be built on the coordinated whole. This means that the singer must cultivate specific control based on the primary principles on which the breathing and sung tone rest, and then build upon this foundation in order to acquire greater control. The idea that one should first begin by singing, and then attempt to improve upon this by making specific corrections, is putting the cart before the horse. Proper coordination is the foundation upon which all skill is built and should serve as the basis for all subsequent development. If such a foundation is weak, then specific efforts at vocal and breath control will be misdirected and lead eventually to weakened breathing and vocal distortions. Far from being inapplicable to the unusual needs of the singer, the principles involved in normal breathing are all the more important precisely because the singer’s intensified demands require the maximum efficiency of the coordinated whole on which the specific functions are built. These principles apply equally to public speaking and voice for actors, playing wind and brass instruments, and learning to breathe in general.

Dimon Jr, Theodore. The Elements of Skill: A Conscious Approach to Learning. North Atlantic Books, 2003.

 

 

A Baritone’s Letter Home…

Francis Walker was an American baritone student in the early 1880s in Florence. Each day his teacher listened to him sing slow sustained tones (hmm…where have I heard that before?) and scale work, and he described this process of training in letters back to his sister, living in New York. Highlights in his letter are mine.

My main difficulty in “placing” has been in getting a sufficiently bright tone – all my middle and upper voice being deficient in frankness. Doubtless you remember how I had been taught to sing “open” tones up to [middle C] and then upward to make “covered” ones. The quoted words are, perhaps, as good terms as any, but the trouble is that I had not learned how to direct my voice so as to keep any definite texture in it, and the result was that all the tones below the C were veiled, uncertain of intonation, and wholly lacking in any character or timbre, while those above were forced into such pose as they had, and were quite incapable of modulation. In brief, there was almost nothing spontaneous and sure in my entire range. 

At first, with habit and wrong ideas so strongly fixed, it was most difficult to get any tone freely and frankly delivered…For several lessons, that dreaded tone [middle C] would come in the old way – dead in sound, devoid of all resonance. One Friday he [the teacher] said to me: “Now we can get no farther until that tone is given freely and clearly.”…

The struggle with the middle C was not, let me explain, for the sake of getting an “open” tone thereon, but to wrench myself away from old mannerisms of production – things learned from so-called “scientific” teachers.The particular trouble in this matter was that I had been taught to press the larynx down as far as possible. The result was the dull, veiled, middle tones, and no mental sense of directing the voice so as to produce anything firmer and brighter. Pressing the larynx down, forsooth! One might as well attempt to cool this July weather by pushing down the mercury in the thermometer. Larynx, tongue, uvula – all are perhaps in some measure indicators of what is going on, but it is folly to work directly with or upon them in order to place a voice. None of the teachers who muddle over anatomical matters in detail, and thereby create a distressing and hampering consciousness of muscular arrangement, ever turn out an artist – one who makes a legitimate and successful career.

Walker, Francis. Letters of a Baritone. Scribner, 1895.

 

Loud, Louder, and Loudest (or Mack Truck Singing)

Pupil: You have made mention of two great basses, Lablache and Staudigl, which leads me to a remark you made some time ago about some bass singers enlarging their tone too much. I would like to know something about the proper action for the bass voice, as it is plain to me that I have had ideas which you would not consider correct. For instance, I, on one occasion, heard an eminent vocalist sing E, with what you would designate an open tone. The effect was very startling, for the passage required great power.

Teacher: It is probable that the effect would be startling, but was it agreeable to the ear?

Pupil: Well, I thought so at the time; or rather — I am not sure that it occurred to me to think whether it was agreeable or otherwise. I expected a loud tone, and it came, consequently I was not disappointed; but as to expecting a tone pleasant to the ear, I do not think I should have desired it: the passage called only for loudness.

Teacher: Then it might as well have been one noise as another. By “loudness” you, of course, mean noise. Now, let us see how that idea would operate. The violinist wishes to gain greater power from his instrument than it is capable of properly producing; and we speak of the rasping effect. The cornet-player desires more tone than his instrument can properly give, and we speak of the noisy blare. The tragedian forces his voice, and we accuse him of ranting. So you see, that loudness is not the only thing desirable. Legitimate power we do want, but that does not consist in shouting. But you have hit upon a matter which needs some attention. A great many bass singers do just this thing of which you have spoken. Let us now go back a little to the action of the organs, and again repeat, that all sound in the voice is the result of vibration of the vocal chord. A certain number of vibrations per second produce a given tone, and a certain number more per second produce a certain higher tone. Now, it is evident, that, with the same chord, the only way to increase the rapidity of the vibrations, is by shortening them. But let us take an example which all must understand. The ophecleide is a large brass instrument, formerly made use of as the bass in a brass band, — a very effective instrument indeed, and in the hands of Hughes, a remarkable performer in Jullien’s orchestra, one of the richest of solo instruments. I heard this gentleman play the “Star-spangled Banner” at one time. This is a tune which extends over a considerable range, and, when sung by a bass, is usually, I believe, taken in the key of G, which carries the highest note to D. The line in which this occurs is the fifth, “And the rocket’s red glare; ” G A B B C D and the usual way to do it is to give a perfect yell, for I can call it nothing else, on the D. Now, how was it with the ophecleide? The tone gradually pointed off as it ascended, the upper tone being full and resonant, but in proportion. This was not owing to the playing of Hughes: it was the law of the instrument, and may be noticed at any time. But it must strike you that the tone which was sung was wholly out of proportion to the rest.

Pupil: Then you would designate the tone which I thought so fine by the name of “yell” ? It seems to me that you are very hard to please: do you ever hear any thing or any body that is right ?

Teacher: Now you are repeating what many others say. I understand that some people do me the honor to believe my standard to be so high that none can attain to it. I think you will find, however, that I have endorsed some singers as being good examples of their art. You will find that I only oppose wrong that is proved to be such. I am not hypercritical, but aim at genuine progress. I detest humbug and false show. I admire sincerity in all things, singing included. I despise the man who does a good action for the sake of popular applause ; and I equally despise the vocalist who sings only for popular applause. As one should do right for its own sake, so one should sing honestly for no other motive than because it is right and just to his composer and audience. I am perfectly aware that my position is rather a quixotic one, so considered; but I am in earnest in my views. Now, having spoken of the wrong way of doing things, let me return to the two great artists we have mentioned. I imagine, from all accounts, that Lablache and Staudigl were both as near perfection as possible. There are many living who have heard both, and the testimony is not conflicting. I once knew a baritone singer, who claimed to have been a pupil of Staudigl. He had a splendid voice, but was a bad singer, which led me to think that he had not been a faithful student; but one thing was very noticeable: he could sing high G with perfect ease; his voice tapered off beautifully, from which I gather that he was so taught by the great master. Badiali was a wonderful singer, with a delivery of tone easy and natural; no trying to make tone too large ; all was beautifully shaped. He was an old man when he died, but preserved his powers to the last. The present race of Italian teachers seem to aimat making the upper part of the voice large and shaky. It may be said that the first fault induces the second. What is the effect ? The real beauty of the voice disappears, and the tones become dry and unsatisfactory. I always feel troubled when I find people so mistaken, knowing as I do, that they might be far more acceptable singers, if they would be more natural. There it is again, they should be more natural. The effect of that would be to make them sing as they would speak, and consequently deliver their voices in the same way for both. I heard a singer, not long since, having a charming voice, but a wrong delivery, and thought to myself, “How I should love to have you hear your own voice once, that you might realize how far superior it is to this false voice, which you think is yours.” But he will probably never know what a treasure he has, nor will anybody else who listens to his artificial tones.

Daniell, William Henry. The Voice and how to Use it. JR Osgood, 1873.