January 31, 2014

listening vs feeling

Don't listen to yourself! Feel yourself! That's what the voice teacher is often heard telling a student, my own teacher being among them at one time or another. Of course, she would also say that singing was like a coin, with feeling on one side and tone on the other, which is just about the most comprehensive teaching I've ever encountered, if only because it describes the two avenues by which we process sound, that being bone and air conduction. 

Here's the thing really. Too few voice teachers and singers understand that bone and air conduction are indivisible. You can no more stop listening to one than you can the other, that is, if you know what is good for you. Some, of course, do not, and maintain that feelings are illusory and you can't really hear yourself, so why bother? With that view, one is left to hoard all kinds of neat facts about the voice, and then yammer on about singing without actually doing it. If you think I am kidding, you should go to a voice symposium and try to extrapolate the information that is heard into something useful in the studio.

Several years ago, I spoke with a leading scientist at just such a voice symposium, who noted that, during his training, it was common for those across the hall, that is, the audiologists and hearing specialists, to be involved in research with the guys trying to unravel the mysteries of the vocal tract. But those days are long gone. Now, everyone trains and focuses on their own field, the result being—as far as I can see—a peculiar kind of intellectual myopia. The majority of research on the voice has very little to do with the actual means by which the singer monitors what he/she does, which involves auditory, rather than visual, processing of information. The ear and the larynx aren't separate after all. But you wouldn't know that from current research which confines itself to investigating the vocal tract. Don't get me wrong. It's incredibly valuable research. But knowing the physiology of the vocal tract doesn't teach the singer to sing any more than knowing the grammar of English teaches a Korean immigrant to speak with a Brooklyn accent!

So let's get practical for a minute.

The singer who stops listening to what he/she is doing, and has no awareness of bone conduction is yelling, which is dangerous and damaging to the voice. The Old School, of course, made a big deal of voice placement, which has everything to do with bone conduction. It is felt, being one half of the "coin" that my teacher often talked about. The more bone conducted activity involved, the clearer one's perception of tone.

What does bone conduction sound/feel like? To quote my teacher: "It's the buzzy business that never turns off!" Once clearly apprehended, its application is put to use in exercises which entail a high degree of skill in processing auditory information. As an example, let's take an Old Italian School exercise.

Sing /i/, /e/, /a/, /o/, /u/ in succession, without loosing the gleam of gold inherent in the first vowel, /i/ being the buzziest of them all. You will have to keep your mind's eye on the buzz of /i/ to do this, your ear guiding you through to the end. Will a knowledge of the muscles of the larynx help you?

Nope.

3 comments:

  1. Hi!
    I ended up reading your blog just by pure incidence. I was actually googling on the subject of ashtanga yoga and the affects of the ujjayi breathing and read your blog post about it. Then I started to read more, and got pretty much hooked.

    I was myself interested in bel canto -singing last spring, after reading a book about Jenny Lind, who went to study with Garcia for a while. At first I wanted to write a thesis, which would compare bel canto to Werbeck-singing (some information here: http://theschoolofuncoveringthevoice.blogspot.fi/) but then I kind of gave up the thought. One reason was purely the fact that I didn't have enough material on bel canto and also because of time limitations.

    By reading your blog I anyway now seem to get an interesting image what the bel canto singing might have been and it's also interesting to try and compare the different ideas behind Werbeck-singing and bel canto. I'm studying Werbeck-singing in Finland and will graduate this May, but the journey with singing has really just begun.

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  2. Hello, Heini.

    Thank you for your comment. I am familiar with Steiner's work. Hilda Deighton also studied with Steiner, and wrote "Singing and the Etheric Tone."

    For a compressive yet simple understanding of bel canto singing methods, I humbly encourage your to read my book: Hidden In Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based Upon The Famous School Of Manuel Garcia (VoiceTalkPublications), 2013.

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  3. Yeah, and actually Valborg Werbeck-Svärdström also studied singing with Signe Hebbe.

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