October 31, 2011

The Haunting

Margaret Hamilton

I watched the Wizard of Oz on TV as a kid and was fascinated by - and terrified of - Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West.  Her cackle and campy lines were riveting. 

Just try and stay out of my way. Just try! I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!  
You cursed brat! Look what you've done! I'm melting! melting! Oh, what a world! What a world! Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness? Oooooh, look out! I'm going! Oooooh! Ooooooh!  
Auntie Em! Auntie Em! Come back! I'll give you Auntie Em, my pretty! Heh heh heh heh heh heh heh! 

It was years later when I met another Margaret - the great American vocal pedagogue Margaret Harshaw -that Hamilton came to mind again in a big way. Why? Ms. Harshaw would tell students that coloratura should be sung with a witches hee in mind. Ms. Harshaw also told them that she would haunt them on her broom stick if they ever wrote about her teaching.

October 30, 2011

The Tickle of Tee

No one likes it after they've been taught to acquire it in the voice, that is, if it's not there naturally. Its presence can be- and often is- upsetting. What am I talking about? The [i] buzz. Students look at you in disbelief.

"Really? That much?" You hear them thinking: "That can't be right!"

But it is.

"You need to acquire that buzz in every note of your voice whether loud or soft. It's your own private audition- a bone-conducted phenomena. It doesn't sound buzzy out here. Rather, it sounds round, full, free and beautiful."

But they don't believe you, not at first anyway. You have to keep them on [i] for a long time, combining it with other vowels - [a] especially. If you can get them to hear their voice on tape, well...that can go a long way.

"[i] is like a T. The top of the T is at the level of your eyes, and the stem goes down into your sternum."

Many hear these words, but because they can't quite accept what they hear, look at you and blink. It doesn't make sense yet, but will if they keep at it with hammer and tongs. It takes awhile to accept this [i]. Many want it to be nice and artistic. But nice doesn't cut it, or cut through an orchestra (the Musical Theater singer needs it as much as the classical voice student, abet, without the darkness). The ones with executive ears imitate your demonstration, often getting the idea immediately. The tone gleams and is full, rich and chiaroscuro. But even they need constant reminding. It always seems too much to them. Too aggressive, whiny, too much like one or the other parent yelling, too much too much.

"Really? Are you sure?"

"Did you know the Old School singers vocalized their songs on [i]?"

More blinking.

"It's the steering wheel for the rest of your voice. The [i] vowel is very forward. Take every tone you make from it."

They leave the studio and practice a whole week and come back thinking they've nailed it and are surprised when you tell them it's not enough. Then you take them to the very edge of the cliff and push.

"OMG!  I had no idea!"  They say. "It feels so easy!"

You smile.

"Don't forget your T."

October 23, 2011

NYSTA Masterclass with Benita Valente

Benita Valente

By all accounts an impeccable musician who sang radiantly for over forty years in an astonishing array of styles until retiring in 2000, Benita Valente gave a two-hour masterclass for the New York Singing Teachers Association October 17th at Grace Dodge Hall, Columbia Teachers College. If you weren't there, you missed seeing an extraordinary artist imparting the essence of her craft with style, dry wit, élan and yes- her voice. She sang/demonstrated when doing so could say more than words could. And it was beautiful.

Ms. Valente worked with five singers, Sheila Carroll, Amy Shoremount-Obra, Margaret O'Connett, Courtney Ross and Briana Sakamoto, bringing to each a keen intelligence that focused on musicianship, the meaning of words and the tone that communicates them. This last aspect was - for this listener - the most interesting aspect of the evening. How so? Ms. Valente enabled each singer to make distinct vocal gains by helping them listen to themselves. How did she do this? Though the ancient use of imitation. If a vowel wasn't quite up to snuff, she zeroed in on it and provided correction by giving it auditory context. Compare and contrast - a streamlined manner of instruction which bypasses untold paragraphs of blather and mechanistic manipulation and educates the student's ear. To do it, you have to know what you are doing, and do it well. The student, I should add, needs to have their wits about them. This manner of instruction provided- for those with ears to hear-  a distillation of instruction in self-listening.

"We have to get to the center of the sound," she said, pointing to her upper lip.

"It goes out from there! A circle around us." She gestured with her hands. "It is ourselves. The center is small."

"Like a horse in Central Park, I feel I have blinders on down to here," she said, gesturing from her temples to her jawline.

The singers responded to this auditory short-hand. Ears perked up. Vowels became clear and tone soared. A jaw or two stopped opening inordinately. Coloratura flew.

"It's a roller coaster that doesn't leave the ground!"

Funny-  the things that happen when you help someone listen to what they are doing. (I call this the 'where' of listening.) If you can achieve the same gains that were heard in the room from this brief description minus the original context, you are a first-class autodidact.

Ms. Valente studied with the indomitable Margaret Harshaw.

October 18, 2011

Practice Makes Permanent

Stirrup of the inner ear 

I sometimes tell students this, and now there is evidence to back it up. It seems that Canadian researchers have found that musicians who have practiced for more than six years "retain the ability to distinguish speech in noisy environments far longer than non-musicians." How is this possible? The researchers posit that it may have something to do with "cognitive reserve". This perspective is one of the brain at work, and while it is perfectly reasonable, I can think of another, more compelling, idea. Yes. The brain is certainly at work. But what about the muscles of the ear? Isn't that what comes first? And what do these muscles do?

If you've been reading this blog, you know my interest and participation in the work of Dr. Alfred Tomatis who discovered and proved that the larynx can only emit those frequencies which the ear can actively process. The word active is key. Too often, the perspective- and one that seems to be shared by the researchers in the link above- is that hearing is a passive phenomena. Tomatis' perspective is, of course, very different. He observed that hearing and listening are two distinct skills. He also theorized that active listening has everything with how the two muscles inside the ear interact with each other. One muscle is behind the ear drum and connected with the hammer (the three bones of the ear are the hammer, anvil and stirrup) while the other is connected to the stirrup. This latter muscle, called the Stapedius, is especially suited for high frequencies and has a neurological connection to the face.

Excellent listening is most likely when accompanied by exceedingly functional hearing. Fitness of muscles of the inner ear makes possible the optimal use of the inner ear. This requires an ongoing coordination between the muscles of the hammer and the stirrup. Under optimal conditions, these muscles act synergistically rather than antagonistically. Their reciprocal actions induce an optimal tone resulting from a balance between the flexor muscles and the extensor muscles.  
The muscle of the stirrup is an extensor; the muscle of the hammer is a flexor. The muscle of the stirrup regulates the inner ear. It is the last of the extensors to have developed and controls a set of synergies and controls a set of synergies that will be described in the chapter about posture.  
The regulatory system controlled by the ear impacts the whole body and prepares it for singing. In fact, to "prick up one's ears" is to open them. Moreover, it also opens the entire body by acting on all the extensors.  
The physiology of the auditory system allows for the possibility of harmonious interplay between the muscles of the hammer and the stirrup. It balances the tensions between both muscles, reaching a point of equalibrium. When one muscle dominates, it can be seen immediately in the listening test. If the two muscles act in concert, and each has the same divided tension, the test shows an "idea profile."  
A dislocated curve is observed as soon as one of the muscles prevails. For example, a functional disharmony appears when the muscle of the stirrup, the extensor, takes over. The regulation in the internal chamber of the inner ear is no longer optimal, resulting in too great an absorption of the endolymph fluid and causing a muting of the high frequencies. Thus high frequencies are not perceived and the hammer-stirrup block moves backwards and outward, further decreasing acute perception of high frequencies while increasing the receipt of low frequencies.  
The action of the extensor becomes greatly exaggerated in this case. This hyperextension spreads throughout the body, impacting all the extensor muscles, precluding good vocal emission. There is also disharmony in the interplay of the antagonistic flexor-extensor pairs because of the exaggerated tension of the extensor muscles. The posture us therefore somewhat overcorrected. This looks as though there is a sort of hyper-opening in the general posture which, in the extreme, seems to override the role of the flexors. The result is a stiff "military" posture. 
The opposite can also be true. Excessive tension in the muscle of the hammer also precludes an excellent posture for singing. This type of perceptual disturbance reduces auditory control necessary for singing by eliminating too many low frequencies. A series of simultaneous signs manifests as difficulty integrating one's body image. In psychological jargon, it means the person is cut off from the perception of his body as an instrument. He is like a musician who no longer knows his instrument. He will seem under-energized and clumsy.  
The right muscular balance is important. This is true for the ear as well as for the whole body. Each one reveals the other. Having understood this, one becomes aware that singing requires the naturally existing tensions between the flexor muscles and the extensor muscles to balance each other. Any breach of balance appreciably modifies vocal emission, in a way that is apparent to the well-trained ear. -from the Ear and the Voice by Dr. Alfred Tomatis, translated by Roberta Prada and Pierre Sollier, 2005 

What does this mean for the singer and the singing teacher, especially the aging singer and voice teacher? Posture matters. Posture of the spine as well as the posture of the mouth/face opening. It is this posture, one that is mirrored in the actions of the muscles of the inner ear, that maintains auditory discrimination, the kind of which researchers in Canada found to be intact in older adults who made their practice permanent. 

Since the activation of the Stapedius is reflected in the openness of the face (see my previous post for further details), attention should be given to how this opening is affected. The area of the upper lip, especially, should be given much attention. The opening of the jaw, which is neurologically connected to the muscle behind the eardrum, also needs careful consideration. Too little or too much opening will rob the ability of the Stapedius to do it's job. As well, great harm can be inflicted by the teacher on insisting that the jaw be totally passive. Why? The facial expression becomes passive as well, thus robbing the singer of audio-vocal control. How to stay open but not stiff and tense? That's the trick.

Here is my observation: the opening of the face and the opening of the jaw are dynamically interrelated. The more enervated the muscles of the face, the greater the enervation of the muscles of the jaw. This is seen, of course, in the highest notes where intensity of expression is at its peak and the jaw opening is greatest. The Old School, however, taught that this opening should not exceed the opening of one's best [a] in the middle voice. Is it any wonder that they also taught their students to consolidate the voice in just this area before venturing to vocal extremities? (Tomatis might say that this was where the muscles of the ear are also in balanced activity.) Mastery of [a] was, according to the Old School teachers, one of the essential elements of bel canto singing. And what happens during a chiaroscuro [a]? The opening of the face and jaw is in perfect balance.

A beautifully rounded tone can change your life. Why?  Because it opens your ears. No wonder those who sing for many years retain this ability.

Addendum: A reader made a comment after this post was written asking if there was any scientific research being done on Tomatis' work. My answer was that a study is currently being done at at center in Belgium. And then I remembered an article I had read in the NYTimes earlier this summer titled "Study Sheds Light on Auditory Role in Dyslexia." This study, while not directly addressing Tomatis' method of Listening Training, speaks to his work, specifically addressing the role of one's listening fitness in regards to language and learning, which is what Tomatis was positing over 40 years ago with regard to dyslexia. It would seem that science is starting to catch up with the father of Psychoacoustics. A deeper treatment of dyslexia and Tomatis can be found in Paul Madaule's book When Listening Comes Alive. 

October 13, 2011

Mack Harrell & García Placement

Mack Harrell 

The father of famous cellist Lynn Harrell, Mack Harrell studied with Anna E. Schoen-René (who's own teachers were Manuel García and Pauline Viardot-García) at the Juilliard School and had a distinguished career as a concert singer. He was also a leading baritone at the Metropolitan Opera. His warm and resonate voice is an excellent example of 'García Placement,' that being a particular emphasis on singing into the 'mask,' as it was commonly called. As records of Schoen-René's teaching show (see my previous posts), singing in the mask was not singing through the nose, which was considered a wrong method and one that would destroy the voice. The 'García Placement' was a highly concentrated tone which was found through the acquisition of an exceedingly resonant [i] vowel. The other vowels were then taken from it. The secret (if one can call it that) was to sing this [i] vowel through an [a] that exhibited a slightly lowered larynx. Simple stuff if you can 'hear' what it means.

October 12, 2011

Singing Bones

Go back to go forward!" That's what Margaret Harshaw - the doyenne of voice teachers - would tell her students. She would also give them a 'visual' by talking about how 'going back to go forward' was like the action of a bow and arrow. The idea, of course, was to obtain a clear vowel, one that was perceived as being highly placed at the level of the eyes/middle of head and projected forward. It sounds all mucky-muck doesn't it? Well....

This makes sense if you understand one basic fact about the how we perceive sound. And what is that?  We hear ourselves in two ways, via bone and air conduction. The former leads the latter. It's pretty simple really. What does bone conduction sound like? The easiest way to get an idea of it is to sing a very clear and resonant [i]. The buzzy business that you 'hear' in your head, back of neck and upper sternum is bone conduction. What you 'hear' outside your head is air conduction. Two sides of the same coin (another metaphor!), they can't live without each other. The trick, of course, is to listen in two places at once. 

Inexperienced students are often shocked when I put their hand on the back of my neck and sing an operatic phrase or two. "How to you do that?" They ask me. I tell them their bones have to sing before anyone can hear them. This applies to operatic singers as well as Broadway Babies. Without an unremitting experience of bone conduction the vowel will never be clear, and in the case of the Bel Canto Baby, fully resonant or far-carrying. 

October 11, 2011

Vintage Joan

Joan Sutherland

Ah! The delights of YouTube! I am continually astonished by what one can find there. Consider the Australian TV show below that was produced in 1962 featuring the amazing Joan Sutherland. While I don't know this authoritatively, it's highly likely that it hasn't been seen since it was first aired, and now that it has found its way to YouTube, can be seen by far more people than saw the first broadcast. This is a huge change in how students of bel canto can learn their craft. Of course, hearing a voice live is a very different experience, and I can say from hearing Sutherland sing at Avery Fisher Hall in New York in a concert performance of Anna Bolena that the voice had a distinct quality that cannot be captured on a recording. And it was this: Sutherland's voice hovered in the air in front of one's face as though she was standing not more than two paces away. It was electrifying, and the kind of tone that I haven't heard in anyone before or since.

Sutherland's singing below exemplary. Her trills especially are flawless and a model for any singer today. I heard her once say that they were produced in the soft palate. A proprioceptive perception on her part? One might posit that this is where she focused her listening when producing it. In that sense, the trill is heard towards the middle of the head rather than 'forward'. Try it! First on thirds, and then on seconds, all the while hammering the upper note. The Old School teachers believed that its attainment signified a flexible throat. And since no one does it better than Sutherland, why not learn from the best?

October 4, 2011

The Shadow of Your Smile

Did you know that the facial nerve inserts into the ear, where it connects with the stirrup via the stapedius muscle, the smallest and hardiest muscle in the body? Did you also know that the face reflects what is going on in the ear, or, to put it another way, that there is a particular 'look' to the fully opened ear? I learned this—among many other things—from Paul Madaule, the director of the Listening Centre in Toronto. And what is a fully opened ear? An ear that is listening to a wide range of frequencies—from top to bottom.

The first time I met Paul was at a workshop at Westminster Choir College a little more than a decade ago. At lunch, after his morning lecture, I asked him what great listening looked like, and I've never forgotten his answer. He said that an open ear was mirrored by an open face, and was clearly expressed in images of the Buddha, with his half smile and facial muscles drawn towards the crown of the head—this expression indicating a particular orientation of the stapedius muscle towards high frequencies. I 'got it' in a flash and remembered—no lie—Manuel García's treatise as well as that of earlier pedagogues. To a man (Emma Seiler may be the first woman to write a treatise on singing), they note the opening of the mouth as being towards a smile.

Hold the body straight, quiet, upright on the two legs, removed from any point of support; open the mouth, not in the form of the oval O, but by letting the lower jaw fall away from the upper by its own weight, the corners of the mouth drawn back slightly, not quite to the point of a smile. (Let us not confuse the more or less open position of the mouth with the smiling face [physionomie riante]) - Manuel García, A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing, 1841/1872, translated by Donald V. Paschke, 1982

Is it possible to obtain this position of the mouth and for the ear to be closed?  Of course. You know this look well. You see it when you meet someone and they 'smile' at you but their eyes are saying something else. This goes back to what I wrote about the facial muscles of the ear having a connection to the inner ear. The whole face—nay the whole body—participates.

Here are some of the indications that the ear is open in terms of singing.

  1. The upper lip widens and becomes active. If rigid, pulled down or inflexible, this indicates that the muscles of the ear (there is another one—the tensor tympanum—behind the eardrum) are not working optimally. 
  2. The grooves between the upper lip and the cheeks become prominent. The cheeks - even the entire face- appear to be sculpted. This is prevented if the risorius muscles are engaged. And if they are, the singer is - effectively- driving with the brakes on. 
  3. The spine elongates. The ribcage expands.
  4. Eye contact. The eyes show real interest, not only with others, but with the self. Is it any wonder that the accomplished singer is one that can practice effectively with a mirror? The beginner, however, looks but does not see. The eyes and ears, it should be noted, are connected via the cranial nerves. And the ear, like the eye, can focus. The singer begins to sing when he/she is able to see the movements of the face and listen at the same time. Visible strain around the eyes indicates 'straining to hear.' 
  5. The forehead is calm and wide. A wrinkled forehead also indicates 'straining to hear.'
  6. The lower jaw opens and retracts without grimacing.
  7. The breath is full, calm and unlabored. 
  8. The ears lift. The greater the intensity of vowel, the more they move. 
  9. The tongue lies down, and may be seen to groove on [a].
  10. The lips extend forward on closed vowels and various sibilants. 

Did you also know that the canny voice teacher is able to see what the singer is going to sound like the moment he/she takes a breath? However, that same teacher is kidding himself if he thinks he can impose 'correct' movements mechanically, and in doing so, open the student's ear. Better to provide an excellent model in exploring the nature of sounds and train the student's listening faculty until they appear. 

In sum: my conversation with Paul got me wandering if—in essence—García was describing an essential characteristic of the open ear. 

October 3, 2011

Straw Poll

Bill Clinton

Remember Bill Clinton? The two-term President who left office with a surplus? What you may not know is that when he was campaigning for President he experienced vocal problems. All those hours talking, reflux and low placement? I wouldn't be surprised if those were some of the particulars. A student at the time, I knew the voice teacher who was brought in to work with him. Not privy to the specifics regarding Clinton's treatment, the advances that had been made in treating vocal dysfunction since that time have resulted in one curiously simple exercise that probably would have helped him. And what is that? Blowing and vocalizing through a straw. Ingo Titze, the esteemed voice scientist, explains how to do it below. Not just for campaigning Presidents, singers, actors and voice teachers who talk too much will benefit from using this technique.

October 1, 2011

The Incredible Voice of Robert Merrill

I never heard him live. Wish I'd had. A baritone colleague tells me that no one- simply no one- had a more beautiful voice. And that's the point of bel canto, isn't it, singing beautifully? Merrill would have been 90 this week.

Merrill studied with Samuel Margolis, who also taught Jerome Hines, the great American bass. And who did Margolis study with? While that's been harder to ascertain, and despite the lack of sources, I do remember Margaret Harshaw remarking that he was "a good teacher," a thumbs-up from one of the 20th century's greatest voice teachers.

As for the particulars regarding Margolis' technique, Hines gave a fascinating interview that appeared in the NATS Journal which you can read here. In it, Hines gives the reader a clear picture of Margolis' technique, from singing in the 'dome' to keeping the voice young by singing fast scales with a full voice. It's the kind of technique that has a lot of gusto factor in it and is quite simple really, that is, if you can wrap your ears around it. You just do it. And Merrill certainly did if the Youtube clip below is any indication.

What a great voice!