June 17, 2014

The Problem With Placement

The Self Ray Voice Placer 
Simply put: it's an auditory sensation that is a result rather than a cause. There is no stream of air that can reach the front of your hard palate or the bridge of your nose, or fill the space behind your eyes, or the middle of your head. No, it doesn't work like that. 

Are you surprised that this blogger, who's written quite a bit about placement, has just penned the paragraph above? Well, I may have a thing for historical vocal pedagogy, but that doesn't make me an idiot! I know my anatomy, physiology and acoustics, though I don't parade it before my students. I only talk about such things when 1) the student wants to know, and 2) it's relevant to what is happening in the lesson. The reason for this is that scientific explanations don't help the student very much, if at all. I agree with the legendary Madam Schoen-René who stated: 

"Scientific explanations can only be grasped by those educated in the principles of their art." —Anna. E. Schoen-René 

Now that's a provocative statement!  To know what it means, it's necessary to understand two things: 1) the principles involved, and 2) what it meant to be educated by an exponent of the Old Italian School.

Let's the take the matter of education first. As I've written many times, an Old Italian School voice student spent a good deal of time—at least a year usually—practicing scales and exercises before essaying repertoire. Of course, our conservatory system isn't designed to accommodate this approach. However, it is one what can still be observed by teachers and students in studio time and home practice. However, before the latter can take place, the student must know 'what' and 'how' to practice. This leads to the principles involved.

What is one principle of the Old Italian School? Pure vowels. How were they acquired? Students were asked to first speak and then sing the vowels /i/, /e/, /a/, /o/ and /u/, often with 'l' or 'm' preceeding. This relied on the ear of the student as well as the skill of the teacher. For the American, /e/ was often the vowel to start with, since /i/ was usually rendered gutturally. However, /i/ was thought to "concentrate" the voice, both /e/ and /i/ giving the student the aural awareness of ringing tone. The other vowels having their uses, /a/ was often left for last since it could be the most problematic. 

When working with vowels, Old Italian School teachers used "calling" as their concept of choice if only because this is what Italians do when they communicate with gusto. They call, which is altogether different that yelling (and if you don't know the difference, you won't understand the rest of this post). 

What does calling on pure vowels do? It leads to the auditory experience of open throat—another principle of the Old Italian School. Notice, I didn't write the 'physical' experience of open throat even though this can be felt by the student who is experiencing it for the first time (those who speak gutturally or nasally are often shocked by the resulting sensations which pure vowels engender). This is because the Old Italian School—in as much as it was set down by Manuel García in physiological terms in his Traité—is based on auditory information, which is expressed in the phrase: The Italian Singer Has No Throat. 

What does all this have to do with placement? That's a good question. The singer experiences placement as a byproduct of pure vowels and open throat, especially as vowels are rounded as the scale ascends. 

Can these auditory events be experienced by the musical theatre and classical singer? And can they be heard in the art of a country western star? Certainly. It's not necessary to speak Italian to obtain value from Italian Tonal Values, nor is it necessary to sing Italian art songs—i. e. the 24 Italian Hits. You simply have to have a teacher who can demonstrate these sounds to you, which can be executed in every musical style (no, I am not kidding). It's not rocket science, which speaks to our era of information overload. We think—because we know more—that we should be able to do more with what we know. However, the art of singing—il bel canto—isn't one of complexity. Rather, it's a very simple language spoken by those who have an ear for it, for which no amount of muscular manipulation can substitute. For those with ears to hear and eyes to see, it is apparent that the body responds to the desire to communicate in this manner in very specific ways. However, these events, which can be observed scientifically, should not be misconstrued as causing the sounds that are heard. Rather, they are simply an expression of the ear.

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