January 4, 2014

Flexion & Extension



You'd think the world was coming to an end, that is, if you believed all that's been written about women's voices and the production of musicals on TV the past few weeks. No more legit singing allowed. That's what I've been reading from colleagues and friends on social media and blogs. Instead, producers want real voices. Not those cultivated hot-house conservatory ones with an ample amount of head voice. Nope. It's all about throwing grind and grit into the stratosphere. Of course, it ain't pretty. But then, it's not supposed to be, is it? It's all about keeping the vocal folds dense, shortened and thick, and producing mind-numbing amounts of vocal intensity. Super-belt even. This, my friends, is flexion at its finest. 

The other avenue is extension, which is all about obtaining "loft" in the voice, ethereal vocal tone where the vocal folds are stretched taut, rigid even—a must for the early music singer (don't get me started on its supposed historicity). It's production is considered real too. But in a very different way than that of the Broadway super-belter. Closer to heaven, it is considered Platonic—an echo of the Real. 

Of course, both of these approaches can be seen as being diametrically opposed, which they are, when viewed from a functional perspective.

Alfred A.Tomatis is the only person I know who made clinical observations about the singing voice in terms of how the two muscles of the ear integrate with the body. One of his observations was that the audition of high frequencies initiates the extension of the spine, while the audition of lower ones causes it to contract (stapedius vs tensor tympani). Another is that the voice can only produce the frequencies that the ear can hear. What does this have to do with the production of super-belt and straight-tone? Good question. 

In straight-tone singing, there is the tendency towards stiffened extension of the muscles of the body, while in super-belting, there is a tendency towards stiffened contraction. For many vocal pedagogues, this stiffness is often addressed by having the student "relax." But this mental maneuver cannot bring the singer's audio-vocal loop into balance. For that, the singer has to change their  conception of tone. 

Tomatis also observed that, when the singer's ear is open towards higher frequencies, depth and warmth are present in the voice. However, he was talking about "legit" vocal production, be it that of the monk who sings his prayers, or the secular artist who sings on stage—the latter having more body in the tone. This is the Middle Way, which is reflected in balanced muscle tonus of the body. It steers clear of extremes, where present day American culture seems to find itself, whether is it in the division of political parties in Congress, or the musical values beamed across the airwaves. 

2 comments:

  1. Your explanations of flexion and extension have done wonders for my voice, helping me to overcome a lot of tension and gain strength and flexibility. Thanks and have a very happy new year--Kamilla

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    1. Thank you for your kind comment, Lady Socialist. It's a very curious thing, this link between the ear, voice and body. The Old School was nuts about breathing, if only because, from a Tomatis perspective, this is when extension begins.

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