Stirrup of the inner ear
I sometimes tell students this, and now there is evidence to back it up. It seems that Canadian researchers have found that musicians who have practiced for more than six years "retain the ability to distinguish speech in noisy environments far longer than non-musicians." How is this possible? The researchers posit that it may have something to do with "cognitive reserve". This perspective is one of the brain at work, and while it is perfectly reasonable, I can think of another, more compelling, idea. Yes. The brain is certainly at work. But what about the muscles of the ear? Isn't that what comes first? And what do these muscles do?
If you've been reading this blog, you know my interest and participation in the work of Dr. Alfred Tomatis who discovered and proved that the larynx can only emit those frequencies which the ear can actively process. The word active is key. Too often, the perspective- and one that seems to be shared by the researchers in the link above- is that hearing is a passive phenomena. Tomatis' perspective is, of course, very different. He observed that hearing and listening are two distinct skills. He also theorized that active listening has everything with how the two muscles inside the ear interact with each other. One muscle is behind the ear drum and connected with the hammer (the three bones of the ear are the hammer, anvil and stirrup) while the other is connected to the stirrup. This latter muscle, called the Stapedius, is especially suited for high frequencies and has a neurological connection to the face.
Excellent listening is most likely when accompanied by exceedingly functional hearing. Fitness of muscles of the inner ear makes possible the optimal use of the inner ear. This requires an ongoing coordination between the muscles of the hammer and the stirrup. Under optimal conditions, these muscles act synergistically rather than antagonistically. Their reciprocal actions induce an optimal tone resulting from a balance between the flexor muscles and the extensor muscles.
The muscle of the stirrup is an extensor; the muscle of the hammer is a flexor. The muscle of the stirrup regulates the inner ear. It is the last of the extensors to have developed and controls a set of synergies and controls a set of synergies that will be described in the chapter about posture.
The regulatory system controlled by the ear impacts the whole body and prepares it for singing. In fact, to "prick up one's ears" is to open them. Moreover, it also opens the entire body by acting on all the extensors.
The physiology of the auditory system allows for the possibility of harmonious interplay between the muscles of the hammer and the stirrup. It balances the tensions between both muscles, reaching a point of equalibrium. When one muscle dominates, it can be seen immediately in the listening test. If the two muscles act in concert, and each has the same divided tension, the test shows an "idea profile."
A dislocated curve is observed as soon as one of the muscles prevails. For example, a functional disharmony appears when the muscle of the stirrup, the extensor, takes over. The regulation in the internal chamber of the inner ear is no longer optimal, resulting in too great an absorption of the endolymph fluid and causing a muting of the high frequencies. Thus high frequencies are not perceived and the hammer-stirrup block moves backwards and outward, further decreasing acute perception of high frequencies while increasing the receipt of low frequencies.
The action of the extensor becomes greatly exaggerated in this case. This hyperextension spreads throughout the body, impacting all the extensor muscles, precluding good vocal emission. There is also disharmony in the interplay of the antagonistic flexor-extensor pairs because of the exaggerated tension of the extensor muscles. The posture us therefore somewhat overcorrected. This looks as though there is a sort of hyper-opening in the general posture which, in the extreme, seems to override the role of the flexors. The result is a stiff "military" posture.
The opposite can also be true. Excessive tension in the muscle of the hammer also precludes an excellent posture for singing. This type of perceptual disturbance reduces auditory control necessary for singing by eliminating too many low frequencies. A series of simultaneous signs manifests as difficulty integrating one's body image. In psychological jargon, it means the person is cut off from the perception of his body as an instrument. He is like a musician who no longer knows his instrument. He will seem under-energized and clumsy.
The right muscular balance is important. This is true for the ear as well as for the whole body. Each one reveals the other. Having understood this, one becomes aware that singing requires the naturally existing tensions between the flexor muscles and the extensor muscles to balance each other. Any breach of balance appreciably modifies vocal emission, in a way that is apparent to the well-trained ear. -from the Ear and the Voice by Dr. Alfred Tomatis, translated by Roberta Prada and Pierre Sollier, 2005
What does this mean for the singer and the singing teacher, especially the aging singer and voice teacher? Posture matters. Posture of the spine as well as the posture of the mouth/face opening. It is this posture, one that is mirrored in the actions of the muscles of the inner ear, that maintains auditory discrimination, the kind of which researchers in Canada found to be intact in older adults who made their practice permanent.
Since the activation of the Stapedius is reflected in the openness of the face (see my previous post for further details), attention should be given to how this opening is affected. The area of the upper lip, especially, should be given much attention. The opening of the jaw, which is neurologically connected to the muscle behind the eardrum, also needs careful consideration. Too little or too much opening will rob the ability of the Stapedius to do it's job. As well, great harm can be inflicted by the teacher on insisting that the jaw be totally passive. Why? The facial expression becomes passive as well, thus robbing the singer of audio-vocal control. How to stay open but not stiff and tense? That's the trick.
Here is my observation: the opening of the face and the opening of the jaw are dynamically interrelated. The more enervated the muscles of the face, the greater the enervation of the muscles of the jaw. This is seen, of course, in the highest notes where intensity of expression is at its peak and the jaw opening is greatest. The Old School, however, taught that this opening should not exceed the opening of one's best [a] in the middle voice. Is it any wonder that they also taught their students to consolidate the voice in just this area before venturing to vocal extremities? (Tomatis might say that this was where the muscles of the ear are also in balanced activity.) Mastery of [a] was, according to the Old School teachers, one of the essential elements of bel canto singing. And what happens during a chiaroscuro [a]? The opening of the face and jaw is in perfect balance.
A beautifully rounded tone can change your life. Why? Because it opens your ears. No wonder those who sing for many years retain this ability.
Addendum: A reader made a comment after this post was written asking if there was any scientific research being done on Tomatis' work. My answer was that a study is currently being done at at center in Belgium. And then I remembered an article I had read in the NYTimes earlier this summer titled "Study Sheds Light on Auditory Role in Dyslexia." This study, while not directly addressing Tomatis' method of Listening Training, speaks to his work, specifically addressing the role of one's listening fitness in regards to language and learning, which is what Tomatis was positing over 40 years ago with regard to dyslexia. It would seem that science is starting to catch up with the father of Psychoacoustics. A deeper treatment of dyslexia and Tomatis can be found in Paul Madaule's book When Listening Comes Alive.