September 3, 2014

The Kingdom of Singing

You must be like a kid to enter the kingdom of singing.  

Now that's a highfalutin' statement! Think I am exaggerating? I am not. It's just my observation after having taught for a long while now. What have I noticed? Students who do really well from the get-go have two things going for them: 1) they know how to play, and have 2) excellent imitative abilities. In other words: they have great ears. Give them a tiny bit of demonstration and they will run with it, their fine-tuned proprioception enabling them to both feel as well hear the sounds they are making. Give them a new tool to play with and they will tell you exactly what is happening both auditorially and physically. This is heaven for the skilled voice teacher because a great deal can be accomplished in a short time. It also makes the process simple.

Oh, I know what some of you are thinking. 

"It's easy to work with someone like that. However, the real teacher is someone who can take a person with average ability and make something out of them." 

My answer? That's great advertisement. 

The truth is that cream really does rise to the top, notwithstanding the hilarious observation made by my teacher that poop also floats on occasion. Yes, you can train a person's listening ability over time, but you can't magically change it into something it isn't. Singing depends on listening ability, which involves active participation on the part of both teacher and student, and a hell of a lot more than the acquisition of stacks of facts. 

My point here is that muscles follow the ear, rather than the reverse. Even those who pride themselves on changing the "function" of the muscles within the larynx are—in the end—seeking to change the student's listening ability. It's an audio-vocal loop after all, one that is self-sustaining. 

You can't get into the kingdom of singing through analysis, that is, with a closed face and dead eyes—a sure sign that the ear is turned off.  Rather, you get there through joy. 

Photo Credit: Bosco Sacro, Monteluco di Spoleto, Italy. 

August 19, 2014

Where Angels Fear to Tread

I've been back from vacation with Umbrian Serenades for a few weeks now, and hit the ground running the day after my plane touched down, having learned that I do better by teaching rather than sitting around waiting for jet-lag to abate.

Before I left, I happened to read a paper released by the American Academy of Voice Teachers, which I mulled over, at first thinking that I wouldn't write about it, but then—finding myself thinking about two paragraphs that kept coming to mind—decided to go where angels fear to tread.

The document in question? In Support of Fact-Based Voice Pedagogy and Terminology, which you can read here. The passage that set my mind awhirl?

A common misunderstanding is the belief that primary resonators exist in other physical locations such as the skull, the sinuses, the trachea, and the area of the face referred to as the "mask." As previously noted, vibrations felt in these and other places such as the chest and head are the result of forced resonance. These vibrations may help to provide kinesthetic feedback for singers (a "feel" for singing), but they do not contribute to the sound that is heard by the audience. 
Instructions to direct or "place" a vocalized sound in a specific location (e.g. "bounce the tone off the hard palate," "send the sound out through the eyes," "place the vibrations at the end of the nose," "focus the air down the spine") are often based on sensation and kinesthetic feedback experienced by the instructor. Because we are individual human beings with unique personal morphology (body structure), there is no reason to assume that all singers will feel vibrations in the same anatomic locations. Pedagogic preoccupation with creation vibrations in specific places may undermine the singers efforts to develop an efficient vocal technique. In fact-based, functional voice technique, vibrations are recognized as only serving personal sensory feedback that is unique to each individual singer.

Let's see. Where does one start with such a passage? First off: you won't find me telling a student to "place" their voice anywhere. Nor will you hear me talking about vibration in the sinus cavities or anywhere else. No, I don't go there for the simple reason that the facts don't support such language. That said, I have observed that once students with open ears (now that is saying a lot) have learned how to breath, keep their "singing position," and have explored the nature of vowels, "placement" has a way of rearing its head—like it or not. That's one curious fact, which I addressed in my introduction to Hidden In Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method, where both Klein and his teacher García observed the phenomenon. As such, I believe the matter to concern the morphology of the ear and the brain's perception of sound, which falls under the heading of psychoacoustics. Have the writers thought about that matter in this way? I think not. Not that I blame them. Most voice teachers know precious little about the ear and its perception of sound, much less the body's response to it.

So what have the writers given the reader? Facts about the vocal tract. That's it. Really. It's too bad when you think about it. How do I read this document? I hear these writers as telling their readers that listening isn't necessary. Instead, one reads about "vibration" and "forced resonance."

The American Academy of Voice Teachers may have gotten their facts right, but in doing so, will have reached the wrong conclusion. 

Photo Credit: Cathedral in Spoleto, Italy, with Umbrian Serenades. 

July 23, 2014

When in Rome

I am in the Eternal City, having arrived yesterday after the long flight from New York, and will be a man about town for a few days before joining Umbrian Serenades in Spoleto—this being my fourth sojourn with the amazing choral group founded by Paulo Faustini. 

Having found Tosca's church last summer, I knew I had to experience its golden light again, which is what I did after dropping off my bag at my hotel near the Pantheon (and having an adventure at the Vatican). This time, I took my time exploring its nooks and crannies, finding a mummified saint and other relics, which I wrote about on my other blog, which you can find here, which is where I'll be posting for the next two weeks or so. 

VoiceTalk is on vacation! 

July 19, 2014

Watch Your Mouth

Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) 

For those with eyes to see, this photograph of Enrico Caruso is positively stuffed with auditory information. What can be seen? Caruso's open ear, for one thing, which is evidenced in his wide upper lip, labionasal groove and innervated check muscles—the facial nerve itself, which inserts into the inner ear, providing the means for this activity. All this—together with the expression of Caruso's eyes—tells the viewer that he is singing pretty intensely, but beautifully.

The ear, body and vocal mechanism are inextricably intertwined in a dynamic system—an audio-vocal feedback loop that is self-sustaining. Of course, most people think of the ear as a passive agent, there to judge the quality of vowel and tone after the fact. But the truth is a very different matter. Not only does the ear set up singing before it comes out of the mouth, it also keeps it going through the audition of bone conduction which reaches the inner ear before air conducted sound. The teacher who tells you not to listen to yourself, but rather, to feel yourself is half right, in that you shouldn't be chasing your tail listening to air conducted sound alone. Rather, your attention should be on the feeling of the sound, feeling itself being a vestibular aspect of listening and a matter of bone conduction, which is something the singer feels and hears inside the head. As I often write: It's the buzzy business that never turns off. Giovanni Battista Lamperti called it "regular vibration," and that is it sometimes mistaken for phlegm.

There is something else. My perspective is that we don't shape our mouths to make beautiful sounds. Rather we observe a certain shape of the mouth when the vowel and tone is beautiful—a very different thing. It has to come from inside the ear, rather than being imposed from without.

Within the bel canto tradition, this means a shape which, visually speaking, looks like /a/, which is the shape Caruso's mouth assumes in the photograph above. The bel canto mouth, as noted above, exhibits a wide upper lip which some teachers refined, saying the upper lip should have its "natural length," which I take to mean the length one feels when one is very happy, even blissful, rather than a lip that is artificially stretched or held in position. My own teacher told me in referring to this: "Singing is like running to meet your lover. Yes, that's right." When you see that look, you know the person's ear is going its job. And don't you know, this shape—this widening of the upper lip—appeared on my face when I was at the Listening Centre in Toronto in 1999 while listening to filtered Mozart, the lower frequencies having been attenuated. What was the training doing? Opening my ear. 

Find a great article on Enrico Caruso here.

Photo Credit: Caruso's method of voice production by P. Mario Marafioti, 1922. 

Singing at the Met (or not)

Lincoln Center Plaza in Winter 

Having survived (thank you very much) the demise of New York City Opera with a modicum of grace, I've found recent news regarding contract negotiations at the Metropolitan Opera somewhat disconcerting if only because, sounds all too familiar. While I don't have a dog in the fight, my sympathies and concerns are with my colleagues who—you will not be surprised to learn—work harder than god. The thing is: it's very hard to sing your heart out when your boss wants to cut it out. One recent article by Case Arts Law puts the matter in perspective, which can see a nose being cut off to spite a face, and we're not talking Shostakovich. More bad news from Slipped Disc here.

Photo Credit: Daniel's Dinky iPhone 

July 17, 2014

Fact-Based Vocal Pedagogy: Then & Now

The human voice is produced by the action of the breath upon the vocal bands. Its tone is greatly reinforced (even as the phonographic record is reinforced) by the co-vibration of the air in the cavities of the chest, mouth and nose (perhaps even in the atrium of 
Highmore and the frontal sinuses) and by 
the resonance of the bonus of the face.  

This eternal principle is so old that it 
always seems new with each new generation. The old Italians insisted upon it 
strongly, although they used other words 
to express it. It is practiced by every 
ragman, every huckster, every itinerant 
preacher, every railroad train-announcer, every public speaker, every newsboy, indeed every man who uses his voice forcibly and continuously. These men learn 
to use their resonances, or they get 
hoarse, lose their voices and must seek 
other occupations.

Giuseppe Sbriglia, an Italian who spent his later years in Paris, was perhaps the most famous exponent of this principle, although it is very clearly shown in the work of almost every one of the great modern teachers, notably Marchesi, Stockhausen, Lilli Lehmann and Randegger. Sbriglia was neither a fine musician nor a remarkable scholar. He had, however, a marvelous feeling for tone, and an uncanny instinct which led him unerringly to the obstructions which prevented its proper emission. The singing world owes him many a debt, but perhaps his insistence upon the triple resonance of the chest, mouth and nose (head) cavities is his greatest legacy to posterity. It is not meant by this statement (nor did he teach it) that the amount of co-vibration remains constant in each of the three resonators with every note of the scale. Naturally the proportion changes with every note. There is more head (nose) resonance on the high tones, more chest resonance on the lower ones.

Each singer must find out by long and patient practice, by fasting and prayer, by constantly listening to his tone, just what proportion sounds best and is easiest to produce on each note of the scale. A high tone sung with only the head (nasal) resonance sounds too white. It needs a little more chest resonance to give it body. A low tone with only the chest resonance sounds thick and ugly; in the singers parlance it is "too far back." It needs mouth and head (nasal) resonances to give it bite and brilliance.

Most voices need the upper resonance most. Jean de Reszke, a supremely great artist, wrote "La grande question dc chant devient une question do nez"—“The great question of the voice becomes a question of the nose." Pol Plançon, one of the greatest vocalists that ever lived, used to spend hours in soft practice to get the resonance of the cavities of the face and head. To sing "Dans la masque" is a great thing; no singer can be great without it. And yet to sacrifice the chest resonance for it is to fail to use the complete vocal mechanism. 

Mr. Nicolas Douty, The Etude, Volume 35, 1917, 48. (Note: Duty gets Sbriglia's first name wrong in this article, a not uncommon thing I have found.) 


Those who keep up with the times understand that the vocal pedagogy of the past had a very different set of "facts" to work from than the "fact-based" pedagogy of today. For them, what was felt and heard took precedence over academic stacks of facts, the old Italian school teacher being guided by ear rather than eye awareness. Even García, who got the fact-based ball rolling with the desire to see what was happening in the larynx when he sang, was more of an empiricist that we suppose, though this doesn't sit well with the fact-based crowd today. No, García must be worshiped as all Greek and Roman gods are seen today, stripped of their original color, pristine and white, the polychrome of the past deconstructed into bland homogeneity. No wonder everyone sounds the same. 

I was given the very concepts Sbriglia taught his students, that being an awareness, a listening that is a feeling of three places: sternum, upper lip and bridge of nose. Where did my teacher acquire this knowledge? From her own teacher Anna E Schoen-René, who studied with Pauline Viardot-García and her brother Manuel García. Oh, but that's Schoen-René's teaching, the cynic says. You can't use this information to prove García taught any such thing; after all, there is his statement to Frederic W. Root which denies voice placement. Such constitutional originalists these self-appointed judges. If García didn't write it down in either of his works, it can't and must not exist! Yes, and we must not have gay rights, women must not vote, civil rights for blacks must be rolled back, and the South will rise again! 

How did modern vocal pedagogy become so segregated?

This marks VoiceTalk's 500th post. 

The Lamperti School: Method & Means

Francesco Lamperti (1811-1892) 
He was a man of small stature, and not possessing to look upon. He taught in classes, and I am inclined to the opinion that that system prevailed in the early of this century and most of the century preceding. It was the custom in the early days to bind out the pupil to the teacher for several years, one of the terms of the agreement being the pupil was to receive daily instruction. Now, granting this to be the case, the teachers being successful must have many pupils; they therefore must needs meet together for instruction—and this is in no way unreasonable when we consider that the class met every day for a session of two or three hours. Under those circumstances a pupil would not fail getting even more than what is equivalent to our present mode of two or three half-hour lessons a week. The difficulty of conducting such a system in America is to find pupils who are able to exempt themselves sufficiently from social, home and other duties to be able to give the two hours and a half every day to their work, which they would be glad to give if they were in another country for the exclusive purpose of study, and which, in the manner of living a century and a half ago, was expected and entirely possible to those who had adopted music as a profession. 

Lamperti is said to also have given much attention in his class at the expense of others who were less talented. He was not courtly or impressive in his manner, nor did he exact deference from his pupils. He paid little or no attention to them except in his relation as a teacher of singing. It is said that his method of teaching the high notes was a most easy and natural delivery; the high, light, suspended tone must be taken without effort and once properly formed, increased by the study of messa di voce and agility studies. He ignored entirely the subject of registers. 

Lamperti was noted for his abruptness, but not his unkindness, in the treatment both of pupils and voices. He spoke much in metaphor, and his language was of more an Italian dialect than the pure Florentine Italian, which made it difficult for foreigners, especially those who studied the language in its purity, to grasp the meaning of many of his observations. He inspired his pupils by precept rather than by example, resorting to idealizing and to exciting the imagination to get certain effects, but never giving a tone in illustration. Like many and most of the greatest and most successful voice teachers, he ignored entirely the physical side in his work; preferring to get a tone which could be said to be a cause of a good vocal condition, rather than to first formulate the right condition and look upon the tone as its result. 

What was Lamperti's method? It is not a difficult question to answer. First, recognition of the beauty and charm of simple, natural tones, and the wonderful possibility of such tones being increased and developed in great breadth and power. Second, a keen discernment of what was ideal in art. Third, intimate acquaintance with the standard Italian works and writers, whose compositions must forever stand as models on the score of recognition and loyalty to the limitations of the vocal instrument. 

The old Italian method, the, was, and is, natural tone developed by natural means for natural uses. We hear that the old Italian method is a lost art; we know better. We hear that there is a modern Italian method that is an improvement upon the old; again we know better; Lamperti knew better. 

H. W. Greene, The Etude, 1897, Volume 15, No 7, 192-193. 

July 16, 2014

The Lamperti School: Panting

Did you know that Francesco Lamperti taught his students to pant? Knowing this to be the case, I developed an exercise geared to help students understand it and another Lamperti School concept: inhalare la voce, or what Lamperti called "drinking" the tone. It's simple really. I have the student pant silently in one second intervals with the accent on the inhalation. This gives the student an immediate sense of lift or extension of the muscles of the body, and is observed in the student's "open" face, which telegraphs to both student and teacher that the ear is now ready to do its job, the muscles of the face and head feeling quite busy. Keeping this activity going while singing exercises and scales is not only necessary, but imperative. The way I see it, Lamperti knew in his bones what we are just beginning to understand: the ear is the body. 

The Twelve Steps for Wayward Singers

  1. We admitted that we were powerless over our voice—that our singing had been become unmanageable and we had never learned to trill and sing messa di voce. 
  2. Came to believe that a Higher Placement could restore us to sanity. 
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of an Old Italian School singing master. 
  4. Made a searching and fearless vocal inventory of ourselves. 
  5. Admitted to our voice teacher, and to ourselves, and to another student of vocal wisdom the exact nature of our technical flaws.
  6. Were entirely ready to work patiently with our voice teacher to remove all the defects in our singing and learn how to listen. 
  7. Humbly asked our voice teacher to show us how to remove our vocal inadequacies. 
  8. Made a list of all persons who's ears we had harmed with our caterwauling, and became willing to make amends to them. 
  9. Made direct amends to such listeners whenever possible, except when to do so would mean injuring their ears and artistic sensibilities even further.   
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we sang badly, promptly admit it. 
  11. Sought through study and practice to improve our conscious contact with historic recordings and the teachings of García, Lamperti, Nava, Trivulsi, Sangiovanni and Vannucinni as we understand them, praying only for knowledge of their teachings and its power to make us sing like gods. 
  12. Having had a vocal awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other wayward singers and to practice these principles in all our affairs. 

Inner Voice

If you went online and downloaded Pressfield's book Turning Pro, and gulped it down in one sitting like I did, you will have found your way to page 70 and read this:  
"What happens when we turn pro is, we finally listen to that still small voice inside our heads. At least we find the courage to identify the secret dream or love or bliss that we have known all along was our passion, our calling, our destiny. Ballet. Motorcycle maintenance. Founding a clinic in the slums of San Paulo. This we acknowledge at last, is what we are most afraid of. This we know in our hearts we have to do." 

The audition of the still small voice is what occupies my attention in this post. 

For Alred A. Tomatis, the Christopher Columbus of the ear, the inner voice of the singer had everything to do with the audition of bone conduction, which—I believe—can be observed in the Lamperti School's insistence on the focus of tone above the soft palate in the center of the skull (see Vocal Wisdom: Maxims of Giovanni Battista Lamperti by William Earl Brown). I mean, can you think of a better explanation for this Old Italian School teaching? Vincenzo Cirillo, who swam in the same pedagogical stream as the Lamperti people, described this same phenomena as a "compound" vowel in A lecture on the art of singing (1882), which was formed..

"...within the back cavity of the mouth, which is located behind the uvula, and connects with the pharynx; and thence the vibrations should spread into the front cavity of the mouth, striking against the hard palate, with an inclination towards the frontal bones and the various cavities of the skull, all of which assist in giving quality to the tone." 

Ok. You are asking yourself. I get that the Old Italian School was referring to something that you describe as the auditory awareness of bone conduction, but what does this have to do with the singer's "inner voice"? You're losing me buddy!

Well, let me see if I can explain things simply.

Tomatis' first work was the rehabilitation of opera singers. He developed a machine which stimulated the muscles of the ear via bone and air conduction, and in doing so, observed that when opera singers were stimulated with high frequencies, the spine lengthened and the ribcage opened, while the facial muscles became innervated. This was expressed in a widening of the upper lip, greater expression in the muscles around the eyes, as well as greater tonus of the muscles of the face. Of course, the singer was generally unconscious of this activity until it was observed in the mirror, so it was not a matter of consciously making a face. Since the nerve of face inserts into the inner ear via the Stapedius muscle and the stirrup, Tomatis posited that what he observed was an expression of an open ear, that is, an ear capable of analyzing all the frequencies from high to low.

It is not lost on this blogger that what Tomatis observed resonates with Manuel García's instruction to open the mouth with an "approach to a smile," which many other Old Italian School vocal pedagogues described in like manner.

But I still haven't addressed this matter of "inner voice" have I?

If the reader has a clear comprehension on what has been written above, experiences fully the singer's sensation of breath which results in a "lifting" of the muscles of the body, and practices the Italian vowel /e/ in a lower middle range (it is often more useful than /i/ which is frequently sung and spoken through a closed throat), with what Herman Klein calls "Singing Position" (see Hidden In Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based Upon The Famous School Of Manuel Garcia), he will, in time, discover the inner voice referred to by both Lamperti and Cirillo. He will also be in a position to practice García's vaunted coup de glotte. Of course, an ounce of demonstration makes instructions such as these unnecessary.

Having taught this, I have observed that once inculcated, the student often expresses reservation at what is heard. The mezzo-soprano, who discovers this phenomena after months of work, says that she hears a "cat-like" sound in her head, while a tenor describes the phenomena as his "gay" voice, the one he spent a great majority of his life avoiding. That both express feelings of vulnerability, openness and uplift, and are heard to sing with clear, beautiful and resonant tone—one classical, the other musical theatre—suggests that the audition of the inner voice has a psychological, nay, even a spiritual component. Suffice it to say: the singer who discovers it has found their voice—both literally and metaphorically.

Heightened bone conduction is small, buzzy and unnerving to the neophyte, and takes some getting used too since the sounds perceived have no correlation to those within the English language, which is both guttural and nasal in timbre. That it also involves the phenomena of voice placement is certain as well as disconcerting to the fact-based vocal pedagogue who has no explanation for it.