April 11, 2014

What is an open ear?

My first real contact with the perspective of Alred A. Tomatis took place at a vocal pedagogy event in the summer of 1999, which was hosted by Marvin Keenze at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. I'd come prepared, armed with my listening test. When I showed it to Paul Madaule, the director of the Listening Centre in Toronto, who was presenting Tomatis' work to students and teachers over two days, he remarked that if he didn't know better (which he did), my test indicated that I should not be able to sing professionally. However, I was doing just that, being smack in the middle of my career at New York City Opera. Yes, I was beginning to experience some difficulties, but only I knew that. 

He told me that my listening curve was reversed, a mirror image of the ascending curve those with perfect musical ears had, which, interestingly, made it possible for me to sing since I still had a curve (see The Ear and the Voice for more detail). That gave me something to chew on! Then at the lunch break—my curiosity having gone into high gear—I asked Paul what really good listening looked like. His response struck me like a thunderbolt: He told me, with his hands and face demonstrating, that Tomatis taught him that an open ear was nothing less than the look and feel of the Buddha's face.

In an instant, García's teaching of singing on /a/ with "the approach to a smile" flashed through my mind, as did Lilli Lehmann's assertion that the muscles of face should feel as though hung over the ears, even a "saddle" being placed over the nose. Then in quick succession, I remembered a little known text by Sauter-Falbriard who observed that the body should feel as though hung from the ears, as well as the student of Sembrich who noted that her teacher always had an ineffable smile on her face. Bing, bang, boom. It all made incredible sense. Paul went on to point out that the nerve of the face inserted into the inner ear, and that the Buddha's face reveals that he is listening to higher frequencies, his big ears listening to everything.

Practically speaking (and it is a practice), those who meditate and have a modicum of proprioception will notice that, when inhaling quietly for a long time through the nose‚ the external muscles of the ear are felt to rise, which is then summarily maintained on the exhalation. Of course, this echoes Giovanni Battista Lamperti's breathing technique of inhaling and exhaling for 18 seconds. Is breath the link between mind, body and brain? Even modern science has picked up on that in the last twenty years regarding stress management. (Neural plasticity anyone? As a guy with tinnitus who wanted to kill himself, but didn't and learned to deal with it, I think I know a little something.) 

But there is more. If you sit on a cushion long enough with awareness, two things concerning breath becomes apparent. The first is that fear freezes, stops and restricts it, and can even pull you down into a ball; while equanimity of mind—bliss even—is accompanied by a sensation of suspension and uplift. Two different directions: one open to the sky, the other experienced as the sky having fallen. The singer, of course, learns how to nurture one of these avenues if only because it makes singing possible, the ear literally opening from above. Does active listening change the alignment of the body, spine, larynx, pharynx, soft palate, facial muscles and vocal folds? Yes! But what is experienced is a top down endeavor, rather than a bottom up proposition which Vocal Wisdom: The Maxims of Giovanni Battista Lamperti rightly records.

What is an open ear? Imagine actively wanting to hear a very soft sound from far, far way. Inhale slowly with your mouth shut and your teeth slightly parted as you do this, and become aware of what happens to the breath and the feeling of the musculature around the ears, face and head. 

Active listening takes skill and training, the whole matter being made somewhat paradoxical if only because muscle and bone heighten awareness of lower frequencies while dampening higher ones, which brings to mind something Manuel García the Elder is reported to have said.

You must lift up through yourself! —Manuel García (1775-1832)

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