July 19, 2014

Watch Your Mouth

Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) 

For those with eyes to see, this photograph of Enrico Caruso is positively stuffed with auditory information. What can be seen? Caruso's open ear, for one thing, which is evidenced in his wide upper lip, labionasal groove and innervated check muscles—the facial nerve itself, which inserts into the inner ear, providing the means for this activity. All this—together with the expression of Caruso's eyes—tells the viewer that he is singing pretty intensely, but beautifully.

The ear, body and vocal mechanism are inextricably intertwined in a dynamic system—an audio-vocal feedback loop that is self-sustaining. Of course, most people think of the ear as a passive agent, there to judge the quality of vowel and tone after the fact. But the truth is a very different matter. Not only does the ear set up singing before it comes out of the mouth, it also keeps it going through the audition of bone conduction which reaches the inner ear before air conducted sound. The teacher who tells you not to listen to yourself, but rather, to feel yourself is half right, in that you shouldn't be chasing your tail listening to air conducted sound alone. Rather, your attention should be on the feeling of the sound, feeling itself being a vestibular aspect of listening and a matter of bone conduction, which is something the singer feels and hears inside the head. As I often write: It's the buzzy business that never turns off. Giovanni Battista Lamperti called it "regular vibration," and that is it sometimes mistaken for phlegm.


There is something else. My perspective is that we don't shape our mouths to make beautiful sounds. Rather we observe a certain shape of the mouth when the vowel and tone is beautiful—a very different thing. It has to come from inside the ear, rather than being imposed from without.

Within the bel canto tradition, this means a shape which, visually speaking, looks like /a/, which is the shape Caruso's mouth assumes in the photograph above. The bel canto mouth, as noted above, exhibits a wide upper lip which some teachers refined, saying the upper lip should have its "natural length," which I take to mean the length one feels when one is very happy, even blissful, rather than a lip that is artificially stretched or held in position. My own teacher told me in referring to this: "Singing is like running to meet your lover. Yes, that's right." When you see that look, you know the person's ear is going its job. And don't you know, this shape—this widening of the upper lip—appeared on my face when I was at the Listening Centre in Toronto in 1999 while listening to filtered Mozart, the lower frequencies having been attenuated. What was the training doing? Opening my ear. 

Find a great article on Enrico Caruso here.


Photo Credit: Caruso's method of voice production by P. Mario Marafioti, 1922. 

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