December 9, 2014

The Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve plays an essential role in the act of singing as well as in speaking. It has several tasks. Usually, nerves are either motor with direct command over muscles, or sensory if their task is to refer perceptual information. Some are both somatic motor and sensory. For instance, the fifth cranial nerve gives the face its sensitivity but also allows the mobility of the jaws. 

The vagus nerve combines all of these functions. It is somatic, motor, sensory, and parasympathetic, giving it the ability to regulate the abdominal viscera. Moreover, it spreads over an immense area of the human body. Its contribution to phonation is fundamental. It is by design asymmetrical, with the right branch being shorter than the left. It emanates from the base of the skull, sends several sensory fibers to the dura mater covering of the brain, and then divides into various branches. 

Let's begin with a closer look at the right vagus nerve. It is most important to remember that one of its branches innervates both the lower part of the external auditory canal and the tympanic membrane. This is its only external point of emergence but it plays an enormous role. It is also important to emphasize that the vagus nerve extends a sensory nerve fiber onto the muscle of the stirrup, which receives its motor activation from the facial nerve. 

From The Ear and the Voice by Alfred A. Tomatis, Scarecrow Press, 2005. 


"You will never get a bright tone with a dull face." —Harry Gregory Hast. 

December 7, 2014

The Tragedy of the New York City Opera Archives

It will come as no surprise that the two most read posts on VoiceTalk concern the demise of New York City Opera and the drowning of its archives in hurricane Sandy. 

The drowning itself erased 60 years of New York City Opera's history; submerging photographs, recordings, scores, orchestra parts with annotations, playbills, original drawings, set designs, financial information and god know what else under 8 feet of water. Of course, no one really knows what was lost because the archive was uncatalogued when water poured into the basement at 75 Broad Street, where it was taken after being removed from Lincoln Center. However, reports made to this writer by those who handled the material suggest the loss of priceless information. 

Of course, the administration announced that the sunken soggy mess would be restored, an arduous and expensive proposition. However, as of this writing, nothing more has been heard of the archive's fate. All this comes to mind as New York City Opera is slated to emerge from bankruptcy court in the first weeks of 2015. 

The situation is all the more tragic when one considers that the New York City Opera archive was offered to the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts, not once, but twice. However, those offers were retracted by the last administration, which thought itself better equipped to administrate its own history and then housed it in the worst possible environment—the first law of archives being the utter avoidance of basements, where water damage is a real and present danger. Hubris, abject ignorance, dumb luck or stupidity, it all amounts to the same thing: the cultural history of New York City Opera now lies in the memory of the diaspora who performed and worked for the company.

I believe it's time to reassess the business acumen of the self-appointed masters of the universe. 

December 5, 2014

When Hearing Becomes Listening

Everything about singing is organized around the ear; it is the superior regulator. The buck stops there. How does this come about? The ear has a double role, based on two polarities. The vestibule organizes the motor activity involved in singing. This is linked to the act of listening carried out by the cochlea. The process begins with assuming a listening posture to which the singing posture will be added. 
But first we need to discuss singing in the context of communication systems. All communication entails a speaker and a listener. When the listener replies, he becomes the speaker and the speaker becomes the listener. As soon as either one of the tow decides to enter the dialogue, there is an element of control, allowing that person to monitor himself. Consequently, the speaker is the first listener of his own speech. In fact, upon deciding to speak, his brain activates phonation so that a message can be emitted. Control is activated simultaneously, regulating different parameters such as intensity, timber, articulation, attack and release of sounds, the melody of the phrase, and the choice of words. Every aspect of language is monitored in this way, and with singing there is even greater control. This control resides in the ear, where three pathways insure this function. 
In reality, we are describing three circuits, two of which arise in the larynx. The first and best circuit is bone conduction. The second circuit, air conduction, relies on muscles and tendons. It gives poor results, and you must avoid using it. By knowing the various loops, you can understand the mechanics of phonation. The two channels you will be using are the internal bone conduction circuit and the external mouth circuit. Each has a completely separate role and the use of each is entirely distinct. The first controls the voice and the second controls articulation. The second depends on the first. Without bone conduction, there is no emission, even if articulation is good. 
The mouth circuit does not permit good control over phonation because of its anatomy. Any sound emitted is always complex. It contains a fundamental tone and an associated gamut of harmonics. Once it is launched into the air, the sound is dispersed and no longer subject to control. The high partials travel in a straight line. This effect is even more pronounced at higher pitches, also called directional. The low frequencies, contained in all sounds that are emitted, expand in a circle, bathing the outside of the ear.  So when we hear ourselves we hear a preponderance of lows. 
When we listen to our own voice on a recording, we are alway surprised to hear how we sound. While making sounds in a room with good reverberation, the feedback we get allows us to control high and medium frequencies as well as lows. This is an example of cybernetic control. Singing obeys the same laws of regulation and hearing becomes listening.  

From The Ear and the Voice by Alfred A. Tomatis (Scarecrow Press, 2005)

December 1, 2014


Persons who have superior knowledge and understanding of a particular field, especially in the fine arts, literature, and world of fashion. 

I know quite a few voice teachers who project this persona to others, especially to colleagues and students. It's what the latter pay for actually, isn't it? And with good reason: Doesn't everyone want to study with someone who knows the ropes as well as how they are made? Of course (to continue the rope analogy), it's a good thing if the teacher has made ropes at some point, and has made them well; but this isn't always the case, especially as "coaches" are concerned. And this is where things get sticky. Anyone can "know" a great deal about the voice—stacks of facts as I like to say, but this knowledge isn't helpful to the student if it isn't grounded in functionality; that is, if the coach can't sing, if only because being able to sing is the principal means whereby information about singing—and singing itself—is really learned.  

"Learn to sing! Learn to sing! Learn to sing!" Pauline Viardot-García cried to an interviewer who asked what composers should do in order to restore the art of beautiful singing. But how many composers do you know who can sing? And what about the coach who has set him/herself up as a voice teacher? I can put both categories together and count the number who can on one hand—a sorry state of affairs.  

We'd think it really odd that someone could know all about the English language, it's history, grammar and literature, but not be able to speak English. Yet many who teach, write and pontificate about singing can't sing.

What's up with that? 

November 26, 2014

The Gift of Curiosity

Margaret Harshaw
Calling curiosity a gift may be stretching things a bit; after all, how is one to quantify what seems natural, inborn and a force of nature? Whatever the case, Margaret Harshaw had it in spades. She was the most curious person I have ever known regarding the voice, which sparked something in me. Once, I heard her say in an incredulous tone that the majority of singers weren't curious about their instruments. They took it for granted, most of them never even putting a finger into the back of their mouths to investigate the soft palate. 

She had a point, I have come to see, now that I have taught myself. Only a distinct minority have a natural curiosity which impels them to know more, the rest simply wanting to know what to do, and how to do it. While this may seem like enough, I am bold to say that enough isn't enough in the long run. You have to know more to run the gauntlet called career, one that lasts a long time. 

Knowledge about the voice is more than stacks of facts. It is made up of impressions, both physical and auditory which must be renewed on a daily basis, nothing taken for granted or overlooked. Yet everything must be held lightly, since grasping too hard makes both singer and singing inflexible, hard and stiff. How to be joyously practical? Flexible, pliant, yet powerful, singing beautiful music beautifully? That's the real skill, one which Miss Harshaw taught by example. 

On this eve of Thanksgiving in the United States of America,  I am thankful for the gift of curiosity. Flame lighting flame, from past to present and into the future: I owe the existence of VoiceTalk to the doyenne of voice teachers and sincerely hope you've enjoyed this page as much as I have in giving it life. And as she might say, I hope it makes you think

November 24, 2014

Authentic Voice Production by W. Warren Shaw

We often hear singers who are said to possess naturally phenomenal voices and who's voices are naturally "placed." This description of the voices of highly gifted singers contains a germ of truth—but the truth is so garbled and distorted by the term that there is often conveyed a false and misleading impression as to ways and means of acquiring what is sought. 

The term "voice placing" as applied to tone production has a very real meaning from appearance—that is to say, the voice appears to be static both to the producer and to the hearer. The danger in the use of this particular term in the field of instruction is that the ideas concerning the constructive process of vocal development are apt to bring about misconceptions which may, and often do, offer serious obstacles to normal progress in this desired development. 

The apparent static condition—which is doubtless the original cause of the use of the term "placing" or "placement" of the voice—is not in reality a static condition. It is merely an appearance. 


All such phenomena are directly accounted for by bone conduction, and by vibration of air in the chest cavity, but by no stretch of the disciplined imagination can it be conceived of, as having anything whatever to do with the augmentation of air waves which might influence either the volume or quality of voice. 


Putting the voice in the head is meant to accomplish the purpose of producing it in such a manner that it will be resonant and also relieve the throat of undue strain. It seems to be in the head, or as it is sometimes expressed, "in the mask." 

The voice properly produced naturally goes to the resonance chambers and is reflected. The phenomenon is really accounted for by the reflection of voice or air waves from the resonance cavities. 

"Things are seldom what they seem"—and the practical application is that this "seeming" must not be taken as an indication that the voice should be put in the head—for by so doing the ostensible purpose is defeated. See to it that the opening to the upper resonance cavities is not unduly restricted. 


From Authentic Voice Production (1930) by W. Warren Shaw, student of Francesco Lamperti, William Shakespeare, and Luigi Vannuccini.  This book is not as readily available as Shaw's The Lost Vocal Art and its Restoration (1914), hence the reader is advised to see out a good music library or search Abebooks for a copy. Its main virtue is that Shaw writes about historical vocal pedagogy teachings having benefited from an understanding of voice science.


November 22, 2014

Pauline Viardot-García's Method of Breathing

Pauline Viardot-García 
There are three kinds of breathing: (1) the diaphragmatic or low breath, (2) the intercostal or middle breath, (3) the clavicular or high breath. All three together mean full contraction of all the inspiratory muscles, necessary for the singer's health. However, for the purposes of singing, the combined diaphragmatic and intercostal breath is to be used. 

It is advisable to have the pupil practice this kind of breathing on a divan with the following scheme: 12 waves inhaling and exhaling (diaphragmatic breath exclusively), 6 waves (diaphragmatic and intercostal breath combined), 2 waves full respiration (for health's sake, 7 counts in, 7 counts out). 

The first attempt to apply the correct procedure of breathing is 4 counts in—4 counts hold (hands on lower ribs) and then from 4 to 24 counts exhale on ZZZZZZZZZZZZ like a humming bee. After this exercise, the pupil may learn to sing sustained tones in the middle or lower range (according to the quality of the voice, on "OH" or "OOH" or just humming. 

From Reminiscences of a Vocal Teacher (1941) by Emi de Bidoli, student of Pauline Viardot-García and her pupil Aglaja Orgeni


It should be noted that Viardot-García also had her students perform their first breathing exercises with a closed mouth, that is, by breathing through the nose. For more details, see Viardot-García's Hour of Study in the download section in the right hand column.


November 13, 2014

The Throne of the Pharynx 2

Francesco Lamperti (1811-1892) 
Practice breathing slowly at first, then quickly. Now see how nearly you can approach the yawn without yawning. Now, put your finger far back on the tongue to the point of gagging. This position of the mouth and throat is favorable to good tone by opening the throat in all directions. 

All these exercises practiced carefully in a strong whisper will be of great value in disciplining, strengthening and controlling the vocal organs, and if the emotions, feelings and expressions are practiced intelligently, they will enable you to assume any character, mood or expression desired at once, but each must be mastered separately. 

When we have acquired control of the breath, the next step is to open the back part of the mouth. Think of the singer's throne at the back and top of the pharynx and raise the soft palate and head muscles without effort, widen the whole pharynx. The very thought will do it. You will observe at once the change even in the speaking voice; always support the tone with balanced ease. 

This exercises will not only make a musical singing, speaking and reading voice, but it will banish clergyman's sore throat and many other forms of throat trouble, which come from wrong placing. Placing means simply adjusting, balancing all points with ease. If we open the back part of the mouth, the front will take care of itself. Take the Italian ah and aw broad, and be sure that you open  the throat, for you can say them without opening the throat. 

Open the throat as much as possible without fatigue or strain and you will be astonished at the volume of voice developed at once, without effort. 

In singing songs and operas, the attention must be given to expression and there is not time to think of a favorable position for the voice, but if you have acquired the habit of keeping the throat open it will adjust itself in according with natural law. The secret of rapid improvement in voice lies in mastering each particular essential, before taking up the next. 

We are supposed now to be building or restoring a voice, but the best voices will be improved by correct practice. If nature has given you a fine voice, well placed, then the right practice will give it expansion, and bring possibilities before you of which, perhaps, you have never dreamed. If your voice is small and thin, you can take comfort yourself with the knowledge that all things are brought about by condition and practice, and if you understand the laws of acoustics and the adjustment of the vocal apparatus, a small voice may be increased greatly in power and extent, and, what it lacks in power it may make up in intensity and sweetness for the softest tones, when controlled rightly, may be heard as distinctly as the loudest, and with far more pleasing effect. Intensity comes through control at the throne of the pharynx. 

Student of Fransceso Lamperti, Manuel García, and Antonio Sangiovanni, c. 1890. Find my first post, "The Throne of the Pharynx," here." 

November 8, 2014

The lynx ears of Lamperti

The writer was a pupil of the elder Lamperti, and of Vannuccini—direct descendants of the great masters of their Italian past—also of Shakespeare, Lamperti's principal English advocate, a man of fine intelligence, and of great musicianship and wider experience before the public than most teachers among his contemporaries. 

The secret of the so-called lost art of singing he sought in vain among the mazes of physiological science, and never did he place much reliance upon these puzzling questions. He tried to show his pupils not only how to master the physical by close attention to it obvious demands, but how to guide all so as to bring about the purest and most artistic vocal results by means of the exercise of that higher mental quality which our author denominates the psychological principle. 

Shakespeare seldom trained pupils for the stage; he taught them to sing. If they succeeded in oratorio, concert, or opera, it was because they knew how to sing, not because they were foisted upon the public and happened to succeed. He was heart and soul with the older Italians in discountenancing mediocrity. The lynx ears of Lamperti and of Shakespeare would not—could not—allow what they considered wrong in note or phrase, or ultimate inner sense to pass unchallenged. 

Reliance upon the principles of physiology to correct physiological defects is, of course, essential; but the art of song is mental, and so is psychological in its higher development. When the body is in subjection to the mind, the will works its way with the world, and the spirit will hold sway over all things inanimate. By bringing to bear upon it the suavity of Italian vocal art, even the majestic roughness of the German tongue may be toned done without loss of strength and with positive gain of beauty. 

David Bispham's introduction to The Lost Vocal Art and Its Restoration (1914) by Warren W. Shaw. 


The old masters never told you what to do nor how to do it, from any learned physiological or anatomical standpoint. In most cases, they did not know about these things themselves; and because they did not know, they were free from all possible deterrent influences of this kind. The result was freedom of tone. 


The smiling mouth spoken of by the old masters was meant by them to be a manifestation of the happy spirit—joyousness. When this instruction was reduced to a mechanical principal by the consideration that the mouth should be in a smiling position, naturalness of expression was jeopardized. Another cart before the horse. The old Italian idea of "impostazione della voce," or placing of the voice, was accomplished by singing forward and focussing the sound, is of the greatest of the greatest value in establishing vocal poise. The idea of focussing the voice forward on the line or level, concentrating the attention upon the sound, is the greatest value in establishing vocal poise. 


The old masters and singers were fully aware of the fact that the singer is at first incapable of correctly estimating the value of his own voice as to the quantity or quality, and hence the entire dependence of the singer upon the judgment of the master. By constant attention to the advice of the master, the singer's ear was educated to the recognition of both good and bad effects. The power of discrimination in the effect of their own voices was thus established. Coincidentally, familiarity with the physical effect upon the singer himself during the production of his own voice was an added factor in the consciousness of right and wrong production. 


Manage the voice with the ear. Don't manage or try to mange the vocal mechanism. 


Go into any large studio building and listen to the more than meaningless, the heartrending, almost inhuman sounds emanating from the throats of many students during their lessons. What a pitiful story is told in the plaintive efforts to find the way, and what a colossal monument stands, not mutely, to the benighted views of the day concerning voice-training, current among the hundreds of teachers who are the real perpetrators of the living outrage!

Witness among the vast numbers of students the seeming prostitution of their divine right o the exercise of just a modicum of common sense in the matter. The students sing their exercises or fancy that they sing them, but in the absence of any thought or intelligence or natural expression during the supposed singing, they are actually uttering sounds which could be more properly characterized as cat-calls, shrieks and howls, grunts and groans, which might be expected to be heard only in the corridors of an insane asylum. 

Tell the operating surgeon—the voice teacher—or the willing patient victim—the pupil— of your impression, and you will be patronizingly told that all this is necessary to the placing of the voice. Yes, they are getting their voices placed in a position where it is incapable of expressive utterance either in truly powerful and intense mode or in the nuance or delicate shading. 


The principal devices recommended are, first, the physical "lift" which is best accomplished by standing erect and gently stretching the body upward from the hips. The condition of elasticity as opposed to rigidity is imperative—hence the upward stretch of the body should not be overdone. This activity is conducive to a condition of flexible firmness of the immediate parts involved in tone production, that than a condition of relaxation. 

The necessary tonicity of the voice can never be established while the muscular system is relaxed. 

The second device is not physical. It is the singing on an imaginary line. This device is one which was used by many of the old Italian masters of my student days in Italy, and which was used by the old Italian masters who taught these singers and teachers. It was handed down by word of mouth and by precept and example—but I never found a lucid explanation of it in print. In my opinion, it is the most effective thought ever advanced by the representatives of the old Italian schools for promoting ideal conditions. I believe it to be one of the greatest secrets of the successful training of singers in the art of "bel canto." 

The following diagram represents the idea, which may easy be understood. The vertical line is at the height of the forehead and at any distance whatever from the singer. The thought of the line of common level of all tones should be carried out in singing exercises, including all intervals—likewise in the singing of songs. 

From The Lost Vocal Art and Its Restoration by Warren W. Shaw (1914) 


Click on the label below to find my other post on The Lost Vocal Art and Its Restoration, which contains an additional photo of the Warren's concept of singing on the "line." This being is one of the most fascinating texts in regard to the Old Italian School, the reader is encouraged to read it in its entirety at the link provided at the beginning of this post. 

November 7, 2014

Naked Singing

The ear is a funny thing, which I can say now after a lot of observation; because it's pretty clear to me that singing teachers, whether they know it or not, are messing with it. As evidence, I cite the curious things which happen in the voice studio. 

What am I talking about? 


The student is breathing, feeling every muscle in the body lift, the spine lengthen and the rib cage open. Vowels are played with for a long while, over the course of weeks, months even, and when the tone starts to get focused, clear, beautiful—so present you could touch it, the "look" appears. It's always the same look. The oh-my-god-does-it-really-feel-like-this look. 

We stop, and upon inquiry, feelings of openness, vulnerability, and self-consciousness are reported.

This is naked singing. 

It's as though the sound itself, or the means by which is produced, makes one feel exposed, raw, far too open for comfort sake, yet incredibly alive. It's a heady experience, and takes some getting used too. And all we are doing is working with vowels. But such is the power of sound when it innervates rather than enervates. When it stimulates the ear, which then opens.

My teacher described this as feeling like a house with all its doors and windows thrown open. Yes, we can see you. Yes, we can hear you. That's what you want, right? To have a voice? That's what it's all about.

You have to lift up—and I mean physically—to a very different place than the one you normally occupy when you are talking during the day. When you start doing this all the time when you sing, you may have the sense (again, another feeling) that there is something Platonistic about it. You know, the philosopher who believed that this world was a shadow of something greater? It's like that. Singing calls out the real.