July 12, 2014

The Art and Science of Singing by Lisa Roma

Lisa Roma (1892-1965)
I've had Lisa Roma's book on my shelf for a long time, and have had to ask myself why I haven't posted about her work. The answer is simple: her pedagogy is a vigorous and bracing one, utilizing a method I had been taught by one teacher, but do not teach since I consider it dangerous. What am I talking about? Contracting the gluteal muscles, or, in more vernacular language: tightening the butt! 

Why dangerous? Try singing onstage while clenching your butt. You may find, as I did, that the throat tightens as a result. There is such a thing as going too far, and for me, actively tightening i.e. squeezing a dime didn't do a damn thing for me. 

This is not to say Roma's book isn't useful. It is. My mind simply zero'd in on something that didn't click when I first read it; and isn't that the case with every vocal pedagogy text we encounter? We take what is useful and let the rest go. In this I am indebted to another excellent teacher who encouraged me to try out technique as though putting on a coat. Does it fit? Feel good? How does it wear after a couple of days? This way of working can be quite useful. But let's get back to Roma's teaching. 

There is a great difference between actively contracting your gluteal muscles and feeling that they are active. Do you hear what I'm saying? In my estimation, the latter is allowable, while the former is not. And this is not just a matter of semantics. The student who has a good sense of proprioception will know the difference, the point being: muscling in singing has short-term benefits and long-term consequences. This goes back to the concept of "local effort" which Edmund Myer wrote extensively about (you can find his works in the download link in the right hand column). 

Here is the diagram from Roma's book which captured my attention. Scanning the page, two words stood out: "contracted" and "forced." The diagram itself appears seven times through the book, which one can view as either redundant or insistent. And in Roma's defense, what voice teacher hasn't found him or herself saying the same things over and over, and not for lack of imagination? There is only so much reinvention of the wheel where basics are considered. Happy is the day, of course, when the student walks into the studio and says: "You know, you've been telling me about so-and-so for than a year now, and during my practice yesterday, I finally understood what you meant." Of course, it's not a matter of the teacher being right and the student simply agreeing. Rather, in the best of all possible worlds, the student's audio-vocal loop finally awakens.

Roma's vocal pedagogy is founded in breathing. Here are her basics from chapter two.

The easy and persuasive attitude of the body while singing, is acquired by having the body perfectly poised; arms loosely dangling and relaxed, lower jaw dropped away from the face. Avoid rigidity and discomfort of any kind. Balance on the balls of the feet and heels. Avoid all mannerisms habits and idiosyncrasies. 
There are six steps in the act of breathing to consider. 
SPINE STRAIGHT  
SHOULDERS DRAWN BACK AND DOWN 
CHEST HIGH AND IMMOVABLE  
STOMACH DRAWN IN 
DIAPHRAGM EXPANDED LIKE A STRETCHED RUBBER BAND 
PELVIC MUSCLES RAISED AND SUPPORTED BY GLUTEAL MUSCLES

Can most young students follow the instruction above and avoid "rigidity and discomfort"? Probably not, which points out the difference between executive function and those learning to sing. That said, however, has shown me that singing is always better when no effort is involved.

I should point out this: I've had in my possession an account by a voice teacher from the 20's who knew the great Caruso and asserted the latter also used his gluteal muscles when he sang. But this knowledge should be regarded with caution by the young tenor (or anyone else for that matter) who thinks clenching his butt will make him sound like his idol. 

As I see it, this whole matter has everything to do with how the muscles of the ear integrate with those of the body (yes, I'm talking pyschoacoustics now). Students who experience extension are much better equipped to understand matters of flexion, which is what words like "contract" and "forced" reference. This is why I have come to think of singing as a form of yoga. Anyone who has practiced the latter soon learns that demanding postures are only attainable when the muscles of the body are first able to extend. Sure, you can force your way into a pretzel shape with your flexors, but there is always hell to pay. The body rebels against such maneuvers, as does the voice. This is why I never utter the word "support," since it evokes the activity of flexion rather than extension in the student's body. 

If you've looked closely at Roma's chart, you'll see she also deals with voice placement. I rather enjoyed reading the following on page 26. 

If the tone sounds loud inside the singer, it is not placed properly, and will not carry as a full vibrant tone to the audience. Conversely, if the tone is small and resonant inside the singer, then the volume of the tone will sound strong to the audience. 

Sounds like the audition of bone conduction to me!

Roma was a protégé of David Bispham, who had been a student of Luigi Vannuccini and Francesco Lamperti. She also studied with Trabadello in Paris (a gentleman who will appear here eventually) and Max von Schillings in Berlin. Hers is an interesting book. I suggest reading The Science and Art of Singing (1956) as the work of a pro at the top her game. To play her game? You have to extend yourself.


Photo Credit: University of Southern Florida Digital Collection 

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