December 31, 2012

Callas & Tomatis

I was listening to Mad About Music on New York City's local classical station WQXR on Sunday evening, and heard the subject of the program, Renée Fleming, remark that she once spent a year asking people why Maria Callas lost her voice. Fleming's conclusion at the end of that year? That Callas' weight loss affected her "core muscles," and ultimately, her voice. Fleming made this observation since she felt changes in "support" in her own voice when she was pregnant- the conclusion being that weight plus muscle makes for support. Without delving into the merits of Fleming's argument, I remembered a curious story told to me by my friend and colleague Roberta Prada, who translated Tomatis' work The Ear and the Voice from French into English with the good doctor's permission. Roberta obtained a letter regarding Callas' audio-vocal training (you can find Roberta Prada's full site here and more context on the letter here) which reveals one very curious thing: Callas, who knew little of Tomatis' method when she consulted him in 1955, was self-aware enough to know that there was something wrong with her right ear. 

I am coming because my right ear is unable to control my tune.  - Maria Callas 

Callas consulted with Tomatis three times, and underwent audio-vocal training twice - the first time in 1955. The first two times, Callas only needed two weeks of audio-vocal training to regain full function. The third time, however, her voice was in such disarray that Tomatis recommended she stay in Paris for three months. Because she was unwilling to change the rhythm of her life and her travel with  Onassis, she never underwent further audio-vocal training. 

What is one to make of this? If Tomatis is to believed, weight loss had little to do with the matter. Rather, the 'core muscles' that needed work were those of the ear. How curious it is that singers and singing teachers take these two muscles for granted. Unseen and unfelt, their inner workings are unknown but to the curious and observant. 

I have my own 10 cent theory of why Callas experienced vocal difficulties. It's a simple observation, one based on Tomatis' theories and my work in the studio. And it is this: emotion affects the ear and the voice.

A neighbor's mother loses her husband and experiences a sudden loss of hearing. A student arrives for his lesson after an intense week of stress at work, ring and high range seemingly unavailable, that is, until he is reminded what awe and wonder feel and look like. Another student finds that the 'editor' goes away when resonance is stereophonic and buzzy at the same time. What do I observe? Strong negative emotion closes the face, which limits the student's access to the right ear and its innate ability to process higher frequencies. This affects the singer's audio-vocal control and the ability of the right ear to 'lead.'

Our ears aren't merely passive agents. So, I wonder: what undercurrent compromised Callas right ear? Did the demands she placed on her artistry lead her astray? Repertoire choices? Did she go too far emotionally? Was it her personal life? The tentacles of a tortured childhood? Was her inner voice at odds with her much admired outer one? Was it none of these things, but rather a matter of genetics? Ear infections? Age related hearing loss? Something robbed her of audio-vocal control. Something more than weight loss. That alone would not account for Callas' self-observation. 

The question to ask is not why Callas lost her voice, but rather, but why she lost her ear. 

December 30, 2012

Nasality: the wrong idea of voice placement

Gotham is overtaken with nasal production; it's heard on Broadway, onstage at the Opera, and in a certain musical at the cinema around the corner. Old School voice teachers ridiculed it, considering it one of two chief defects, the other being guttural timbre. Of course, they are often heard together; like the characters in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, they argue and fight with each other, the nasal voice thinking he's better than his lowly, throatier partner. However, each constrict the path towards clear tone.

Tenors are often the worst offenders. Sure. The voice may penetrate, but it's never beautiful, and incapable of soft-toned mezza voce singing. Whining away, all bang and no buck, its purveyor is often stuck with comprimario roles and lesser fees. Baritones and basses do it too; snarling away at full volume, they sound particularly hollow when nuance is needed since nasality typically functions in an all or nothing fashion. High notes? Forget it. They are muffled and the voice effectively muzzled.

What brings this kind of production about? Mechanically speaking: the soft palate is lowered, while the 'singing position' is compromised. The 'singing position' itself entails a rounding of the vocal tube, which the audition of a clear, deep and resonant vowel achieves without a lot of hoo-ha. The clear vowel has to be present in the mind's ear, and the teacher who can demonstrate it gives the student a great deal of information. Exaggeration can work wonders, especially if the student is encouraged to play with tone and feel the result. Making the voice really, really nasal and then clear? This often elicits useful realizations. goes up back there! 

It opens up! 


The clear vowel has lots of /i/ like buzz, which can be confused with nasality. As such, the nasal singer has the wrong idea of voice placement. The different is between singing in the nose and singing through the face; between the voice feeling nasal and sounding nasal. You are on the right tack when the voice feels buzzy, yet sounds very, very clear.

Where does one hear a clear vowel? At the upper lip, the so-called Center of Singing, where bone (buzz) and air (clear) conduction meet.

Illustration from Lilli Lehmann's "How to Sing."  

December 27, 2012

Pauline Viardot's Salon

EARLY in the nineteenth century, there was a famous Spanish tenor, named Garcia, a man of great ability and of a brutal temperament, artist to the tips of his fingers, and incomparable as a teacher. He had a son, who became a celebrated singing master in London, where his one hundredth birthday, was fittingly celebrated in March, 1905, and where he died on July 2, 1906. Among his numerous other children, Garcia had two daughters, one twenty years younger than the other, whom he fashioned and bullied and beat into rare artists. The elder was Malibran; the younger became Madame Viardot. Legouve, in his "Soixante ans de Souvenirs," gives us a very living portrait of Malibran, whom he first heard at a charity concert. Her reputation had preceded her, and the young artist, wife of an American merchant, was already looked upon as a possible rival to Mme. Pasta. She seemed a mere girl, and wore her hair very simply, in bandeaux. The mouth was large, the nose a little short, but the oval of the face was perfect and the eyes—wonderful eyes "that had an atmosphere"— reflected passion, or melancholy, or revery. Before she had finished the song of the willow in "Othello," the audience was wild with enthusiasm.

Malibran's voice was not naturally sweet or pliable. It was made of hard metal that had to be forged with great labor. Her terrible father was a master blacksmith in such matters. Once, in New York, where Garcia and his daughter were engaged in the same opera company, Malibran saw that  "Othello" was announced. She vowed that she was not prepared to sing the part of Desdemona, and that nothing would induce her to attempt it. Garcia replied: "You shall. And if you disgrace me, I will kill you in the last act."

She did sing the part, and magnificently. But at the last scene she bit Othello's hand so cruelly that he cried out with pain. The audience, seeing in this an added touch of tragedy, applauded more frantically than ever.

Such a father, such a daughter, could not long remain on very friendly terms. They separated, and for years saw nothing of each other. Toward the end of her life, however, Malibran sang once more with her father, at a representation of " Othello " given for the benefit of the old singer. He surpassed himself. Desdemona, at the close, embraced the smutty-faced Othello and bowed to the public, her cheeks smeared with black—and no one laughed.

She was a woman of many moods, reckless and charming, fierce and gentle by turns. She fell madly in love with the Belgian violinist de Beriot, and obtained with great difficulty the annulment of her first marriage. To celebrate the second union, a party had assembled at a friend's house. Thalberg was among the guests. She asked him to play; he refused to do so before hearing her sing. She was not in the mood, and her voice sounded harsh and displeasing. As her mother reproached her for it, she exclaimed: "I can't help it, Mother—marriage only comes once in a lifetime!" She had quite forgotten her first matrimonial venture. Then, Thalberg sat down and played divinely. She pulled him off the stool, exclaiming, "Now I can sing!" and she put so much feeling, so much passion, in her singing that the guests were electrified. An odd marriage day, all the same!

In all things Malibran was excessive, violent, imprudent, delightful. Her love of horses amounted to a passion, and really caused her premature death. Some months after she became Mme. de Beriot she went to London, insisted on riding a vicious horse, was thrown and badly hurt. She continued her engagement, however, and fainted at a concert. That was the beginning of the end.

Alfred de Musset immortalized her in his "Stances a la Malibran." They are engraved on her tombstone:

Ne savais-tu pas, comedienne imprudente, 
Que ces cris insenses qui te sortaient du cocur  
De ta joue amaigrie augmentaient la paleur? 
Ta main, de jour en jour, se portait plus tremblante, 
Et que e'est tenter Dieu que d'aimer la doulcur?

One day, Legouvd met Malibran in the street and stopped for a moment's chat. A carriage went by and a gypsy-looking child, leaning half out of the window, threw kisses and waved her hand to the singer.

"Who is that?" asked Legouve. "Some one who will be a greater artist than any one of us. My little sister, Pauline."

When Malibran died, in 1836, Pauline was still a very young girl. She verified the prediction inasmuch as she became a great artist, even if she did not surpass her sister. She did not long remain on the stage. She married a very distinguished man, M. Louis Viardot, writer, critic, amateur, who made of his house a very museum of rare pictures and beautiful objects. His admiration for his gifted wife, his adoration of her, never wavered. He could never speak of her without a softening of the voice, a gleam of the eyes.

When I became acquainted with Madame Viardot, she was close upon sixty years of age; to all intents and purposes she was still a young woman. The extraordinary vitality, the energy, the genius of this great artist showed in everything she did, in everything she said. It is not only in works of art, in music, in eloquence that genius reveals itself; it permeates all things, even trifles.

Mme. Viardot could never have been handsome. The characteristic face, with its fine, rather near-sighted eyes, under heavy brows, the large mouth and somewhat cumbrous jaw, were strong, but not at all beautiful. After the first few minutes, no one felt this. The luminous expression, the intelligence of the woman, sufficed to fascinate, to carry away, to subjugate.

To my thinking, the one word most fitted to Mme. Viardot is intelligence. She was not only a great singer, a great artist, she was extraordinarily cultivated. Mistress of five or six languages, speaking each one almost without accent, she was conversant with the literature of many countries. One evening I remember that in her salon, which was a very cosmopolitan one, she turned, within five minutes, to several guests, speaking to all in their own language, Spanish, Russian, English, Italian, with perfect ease and fluency.

The Viardot salon, however interesting, in no way recalled those of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which in France so influenced the thought of the nation. Modern salons are as unlike these as the leading members of society differ from Mme. de SeVigne or Mme. du Deffand.

Material conditions of life are entirely changed. The aristocratic hotels of olden times —solemn and quiet—showed large and lofty rooms, difficult to heat, with nooks sheltered by screens, and deep window recesses well fitted for confidential talks. The guests were chosen with care, they were not very numerous, and were always the same. A conversation begun one week around the supper table, or at the fireside, could be leisurely continued eight days later. Like a homogeneous company of good actors, each one knew the "manner" of his fellows and adapted his own to it. All did not seek to shine at the same time, each knowing that his turn would come, according to the sweet will of the all-powerful hostess. Not that Mme. du Deffand or her predecessors, like a lady whom I knew, distributed "subjects" to her guests, and assigned so many minutes to each for the discussing of them. On one occasion, Renan having opened his mouth to speak, his hostess lifted her hand: "Presently, cher Maitre, your turn comes next." Then, when his turn did come, the great man said modestly: "I merely wished to observe that the peas were very good, and that I should have liked more. It is too late now."

Now let us picture to ourselves the modern French apartment or even house. Comfort, unknown to former ages, reigns supreme. Well heated, brilliantly lighted, dainty in its decoration, beautifully furnished (often a little encumbered), with light-toned pictures on the walls and a statuette on the mantel piece, where the oldfashioned clock used to tick, the modern lodging is too small to hold the number of guests convened to reception or ball. Society has enlarged in proportion as the salons have, materially, dwindled. Every one aspires to belong to the monde. Crowds invade the suite of small rooms. The women are provided with seats, huddled together, forming a compact and formidable mass of gay silks, bare shoulders, glittering jewels and fluttering fans. The men go where they can, stand by the doors, against the walls, in far-off libraries or even bedrooms opened for the occasion; most willingly do they take refuge in the host's smoking den, where they sit at ease, drink beer and discuss politics—or women.

What "conversation" of any interest can result from this absolute separation of the sexes? How can a hostess dissipate the ennui of the few hours which are supposed to be devoted to pleasure? The women hide their yawns behind their fans, or try a little small talk with chance neighbors, often quite unknown. Almost inevitably the reception changes its character: becomes a concert; sometimes a little play or some monologues take the place of the music. The actors are not always of the best, and they are seen from too near to admit of any illusion. Such mild pleasures scarcely compensate for the tedious waiting and the cramped position.

And this is the outcome of that wonderful society celebrated for its wit, with whom conversation was an art, where madrigals or epigrams were chiselled like jewels!

Of course, there are exceptions. But the only reunions, perhaps, where wit still holds its own, are the dinner parties, where the hostess is careful not to pit one great man against another, to have one planet only, surrounded by discreetly twinkling satellites.

Mme. Viardot's salon was essentially musical.

The house an old-fashioned one— stood in the Rue de Douai, at a corner which, by the position of the cross street, formed a rather sharp angle: here a few shrubs were planted. M. Viardot had added to the original building a picture-gallery, a delightful room, a step or two lower than the salon. Here, many of the musiclovers, the men especially, congregated. The drawing-room was not very large, and the piano took up a great deal of space. Once ensconced in a chair, there was not much chance of moving before the end of the evening. But here there was plenty to amuse one. The aspect of the assemblage was interesting. Mme. Viardot did her best to dispose her guests so that they might find themselves in congenial surroundings.

Huddled in a corner behind the piano were her favored pupils, who were to sing, or merely to listen. In the central armchair, always placed in exactly the- same corner, was enthroned an odd-looking woman, to whom all seemed to pay homage. This was the Comtesse d'Haussonville, mother of the present Academician. In her youth she had been painted by Ingres, in the stiff costume of the time and the inevitable scarf. She still wore her hair (or was it a wig?) in bandeaux and her gown kept the rigid folds of 1830, or thereabouts. Mme. d'Haussonville had been a power in her day, very intelligent, very domineering and very fond of music. In her old age she never missed a Viardot reception, and, though she invariably slept after the first piece or two, her nods, of the Olympian kind, passed for signs of approbation.

Renan was another faithful guest. His love of music amounted to a passion. Probably it accompanied fitly his philosophical dreams, which had nothing in common with those of Mme. d'Haussonville. His subtle, wavering, far-reaching thoughts, like music itself, went beyond the domain of mere words. He was, however, not a particularly poetic-looking person. His broad, shaven face, so like that of a good cur6 de campagne, is too well known to need description. What is less known is his beatified expression when a beautiful voice or the exquisite strains of a violin filled the air. His big, fleshy, sensuous nose, his overhanging cheeks, his half-closed eyes revealed the inner joy and transfigured the man. Deeply sunk in his armchair, usually placed in the picture gallery, his episcopal-looking hands crossed on his bulging person, he could have sat as the very image of fat content. Renan was exquisitely courteous, with something of priestly unction in his manner. He greeted his daughter's partners at a ball with as much elaborate politeness as the distinguished strangers, or his fellow Academicians, who crowded about him. To tell the truth, from the heights he had attained, as from some great mountain-top, all men seemed to him about on the same level. The differences were so small!

In her salon, M. de Beriot could always be seen near his aunt. He seemed at least as old as she, dried up, gray, dusty-looking. M. de Beriot, professor at the Conservatoire, was an impeccable pianist, who gave but little pleasure. His interminable sonatas were somewhat dreaded. One could but wonder that Malibran, that marvel, that creature of fire, of passion, of tenderness, could have been mother to so correct, so impassive a being.

There was another man who hovered about the genial hostess, a very tall man, very handsome, whitehaired, white-bearded: this was Tourguéneff. He was the intimate friend of the family; he lived in the house, having his set of rooms on the third floor; he spoiled the children, helped M.Viardot to ferret out hidden treasures, and listened in wrapt delight when Mme. Viardot sang.

Tourguéneff, though not exactly an exile from Russia, was looked upon with much disfavor by the authorities of his country, and lived in France, loving it, pitying it after its disasters, speaking its language with perfect purity, only a little more slowly perhaps than the glib-tongued natives. He did not attempt to translate his books himself, which he might have done with perfect ease. One of his most intelligent and devoted translators was a woman, then quite unknown, who had spent a great part of her youth in Russia, and who, somewhere about 1875, became famous under the name of Henri Greville.

The Russian's books scarcely reached the great mass of French readers, but they were greatly admired by men of letters. Alphonse Daudet, little versed in foreign literatures, yet delighted in Tourguéneff's stories and sketches. In a paper written for the Century Magazine, in 1880, he painted a very vivid portrait of Tourguéneff. The two novelists met in Flaubert's pretty apartment overlooking the Pare Monceau; they became friends almost at once. At Flaubert's little dinners, Tourguéneff's place was always set: the guests were almost invariably Zola, Daudet and the Russian. Each in turn would bring his latest work, read a chapter, listen to friendly but frank criticisms. The dinner began at seven o'clock, and ended somewhere in the small hours. After the death of Flaubert these dinners no longer took place; no one had the heart to play host when the bigvoiced, big-hearted man was laid in his Normandy grave. But Daudet went to see the "good giant" at the house in the rue de Douai, or at Bougival; and, when he was well enough, Tourguéneff was a frequent and most welcome guest at the home of Alphonse Daudet. Then the visits became fewer; the Russian suffered great agonies before death came as a relief. He and his friend Viardot passed away during the same sunny, summer days.

Doing the honors of their mother's salon, in those far-off days, were two charming daughters, one Mme. Chamerot, the other, who has since become Mme. Alphonse Duvernoy, still a young girl. They were handsome, sweet-mannered, and had been trained by their mother. Neither possessed an exceptional voice; both sang delightfully, and a duet by "les petites Viardot," as they were then called, was a real treat—the method was so admirable, and the two pretty voices blended sp perfectly!

All the foreign musicians who went to Paris were sure to be welcomed to this hospitable house, and much native talent was there first manifested. To be proclaimed an artist by Mme. Viardot was already a title to fame. It was there that I first heard M. Hasselmans, the most wonderful of harpists. He was then young, with light brown hair and beard, remarkably good-looking. In spite of his unusual height, he handled his instrument with perfect ease and grace. To hear a prelude of Chopin played by him was a revelation.

But it was when Mme. Viardot herself consented to sing, which did not often happen, that her guests were really content. To use the artistic jargon, there were "holes in her voice," and no one knew it better than she—but who thought of any flaw in the instrument? The great artist carried her hearers away with her in a whirlwind of passion, of sentiment, of horror, or pity. Music with her, as it had been with her sister, was alive, vibrating, all conquering. One evening she sang "The Erl-King." At the end, there was a moment of absolute silence before the frenzied applause broke out.

After the music, when the chairs were pushed aside and sympathetic groups were formed in corners or around the tea-table, Mme. Viardot's powerful personality still pervaded the assembly; her cordiality, her genuine pleasure at seeing so many friends about her, made us all feel at home; in her presence, all seemed more cordial, more human than elsewhere. And so her salon was a real centre, a social as well as intellectual and musical centre.

On one occasion, some years after we had made her acquaintance, Mme. Viardot invited us to dine at her country place. Toward the end of a lovely summer afternoon we went to Bougival, and sat with our hostess on the terrace. The garden sloped down rather abruptly to the road, on the other side of which flowed the beautiful Seine. Behind the house, climbing up to the hill-top was a park, a real wood, left a little wild. At the edge of it stood a chalet, occupied by Tourguéneff.

We talked of many things, of many lands. She seemed peacefully happy and content, as simple as truly great people always are. She amused us with the tricks of a big white poodle, that went through his varied exercises for our benefit: he spelled out my name; then, his mistress giving him the pitch, he howled in tune and in measure.

In the course of conversation the artistic temperament was discussed, that peculiar double nature which can, while subjected to strong emotions, yet analyze its best—or worst— impulses. On one occasion, a favorite brother of Mme. Viardot's broke his arm; the setting of it was horribly painful. At one moment a terrible cry shook the listening sister to the very depths of her nature— yet she caught herself thinking: "If only, on the stage, I could utter such a cry!"

The evening was delightful; the men came in, and the daughters, with their husbands, were of the party. I noticed that at the Russian's place at table a huge drinking goblet was set, as though everything belonging to him had to be unusual and very big. He told us of his life in Russia, of his long tramps through woods and fields, from which came the inspiration of his hunter's stories. Once his vanity had been sorely hurt. He had grown gray, then white, when still quite young. After a long hunting expedition, he had thrown himself on the ground and had gone to sleep. A peasant going by roughly shook him, saying: "Are you not ashamed of yourself— an old man like you—to lie there, drunk?" He added: "I was not drunk, and I was not old; but I meekly got up and went my way." 

M. Viardot, who had taken a great fancy to my husband, not infrequently came to our house, and the discussions between the two men were long and interesting. When M. Viardot died, his widow, with a touching note, sent us a pretty bronze that used to stand on the dead man's desk; she said, "He was very fond of you."

Mme. Viardot is now a very old woman, but she still teaches, she still composes, and with real talent; she still assembles friends about her. Her eyes are dimmed, her hearing no longer good, but the ardent soul is still bright within her and her affections very keen and warm. Her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren surround her with love and care. But she lives alone, except for the faithful company of a lady friend who from time immemorial has been her factotum. The old house, Rue de Douai, was torn down many years ago. Mme. Viardot now occupies a beautiful apartment with a rounded balcony at the corner of the Boulevard Saint Germain, overlooking the Seine, the Place de la Concorde and the Tuileries gardens. The most lovely part of Paris is at her feet, as was the world, in the days of her triumph.

MADAME PAULINE VIARDOT, NEE GARCIA, Who sang at the entombment of Napoleon in Paris, in 1840, and is still living. REMINISCENCES OF A FRANCO - AMERICAN, No. III, MADAME PAULINE VIARDOT, Nee GARCIA, By Madam Jeanne Mairet (Mme. Charles Bigôt) 

From Putnam's & The Reader, Volume 4, 1908, page 305-310 

December 26, 2012

Original Madness

I recently heard Handel's Messiah performed with 'original instruments' here in Manhattan. Well, not actually. The instruments were modern while the strings were made of gut rather than steel. What annoyed the hell out of me, however, was not the manner in which the orchestra played, but rather, the manner in which the  soloists sang; all of them it seems, were instructed to start with straight tone, and then let the voice vibrate. Here's why this approach is misinformed and wrong when applied to the music of Handel. 

Handel wrote for singers trained in bel canto: that being a freely vibrating voice from start to finish. To straighten the tone and then let it vibrate - say - at the start of the tenor's aria Comfort Ye, betrays a lack of knowledge in how messa di voce is done. The bel canto singer is trained to keep the same timbre when going from mezza voce to mezzo forte singing, not hold the larynx as straight tone is imposed, which fixes the vocal tube and destroys the twin sensations of open throat and placement. 

Bel canto tone is agile, free and full: three essential requirements, no matter what dynamic is sung. To fix the larynx when singing quietly, then let it go when volume is increased is jarring to the ear, and anything but free and full (no, I did not write dark and wobbly). More than one singer did this when launching into a flourish of fioritura after strangling the tone. Not beautiful! 

Why is this so hard for conductors to understand? Do they not listen? No. They do not, since, by-and-large, they cannot trill or execute a fine messa di voce, both of which require an ear for pure vowels. Many conductors today, unfortunately,  have little idea of what this means. They think rather than do. 

If you are going to tell a singer to drive a car a certain way, you had better have a pretty good idea of how to drive yourself, not just a quaint theory about it. Having a grasp of historically accurate 18th century performance practice? That means having an understanding of the principals of bel canto, which aren't an affectation. The historical record is very clear. We know what the bel canto singer has to be able to do.  

Either you can sing a real trill or you can't. Either you can sing messa di voce, or you can't. Either the tone is beautiful, the embodiment of chiaroscuro, or it isn't. Either you can sing a smooth crescendo and decrescendo without messing with the timbre of the tone, or you can't. Either you can speak, and then sing, the five vowels- /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/ in a pure manner, or you can't (no American accent, thank you very much). How about let's start things off with one simple five tone scale? Better yet, how about a single tone, with no fancy funny business? 

Real accomplishment leads to real knowledge. To the conductor learning his or her craft; if you won't learn to do these things, then at least have the grace and courage to listen to those who can. 

December 22, 2012

Surviving Tinnitus

I woke this morning from the year's longest night and thought about my own journey through the dark. If that sounds a bit over the top. Well. It was. On March 6th, 2007, I woke around 3 AM and heard bells clanging, banging and crashing together. There was a roar too, a torrent of sound, and the whine of jet engines. Disoriented, I thought a plane had crashed into the building, and the bells were some kind of alarm. A second later, I realised what was happening: the ringing, crashing and whining was inside my head. 

I can sit here and write about it calmly now, but that night my face was ripped off. I went into a downward spiral that lasted for a little more than a year. It was hell. Sheer hell. Being a smart fellow who knows how to research, I immediately jumped into action and went to my GP, who sent me to a leading ENT who specialises in tinnitus management, taking the text book for Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT) with me (Abebooks & Fedex can do wonders). He was surprised, of course, when I pulled out the book after he had examined me, telling me that he wished all his patients were so informed.

What did the good doc tell me? That my family history of hearing loss—my grandfather, father and four siblings all being affected—was an indication that my condition was genetic: he'd seen sudden onset of tinnitus in men in their late 40's with family histories like mine. My own hearing loss? Minor in the big scheme of things; in a use-it-or-lose-it scenario, singing helped preserve my hearing—as did the Tomatis Listening Training—even if the occupational hazard of singing in an opera house was a concern.

Tinnitus: from the Latin word tinnitus meaning "ringing", is the perception of sound within the human ear in the absence of corresponding external sound. 

What about the loud tenor I had taught the day before my middle-of-the-night onset? The guy who stood in my living room and screamed Puccini, not eight feet from my head? Would that do it, I asked? The good doc blinked and pursed his lips. I could see that he didn't want to say yes, but couldn't exactly say no either. It is hard to pinpoint cause and effect. Usually, the patient goes to a rock concert and leaves with ears ringing: clear cause and effect. But this wasn't like that. This was a stealth attack in the middle of the night.

Auditory fatigue? Possibly. I hadn't taken an antibiotic or a cold medicine which can sometimes induce tinnitus, so that was ruled out. Studying my case,  he didn't think I needed to have an MRI to rule out neuroma on the auditory nerve. Sure. I could have it if I wanted it for peace of mind,  but a neuroma wasn't likely since I heard ringing in both ears, not just one—which would be the tell-tale sign of neuropathic pathology. Ok. So no neuroma. He wouldn't have to carve out my ear, perhaps leaving me deaf. That was a good thing, right?

So what next? I expected some kind of treatment, some "go-to" thing to happen. But all that did happen was that he stood up, shook my hand and said (as said before) that he wished everyone was as informed as I.

Six months later I was sitting at the breakfast table, telling Mr. Husband that I was going to kill myself, not having slept more than a few hours each night. And I meant it. All that research? All that "knowing"? It didn't do me a damn bit of good. I was stuck in my initial highly charged emotional reaction, my world filled with ringing. It was louder than the traffic on Columbus Avenue, which registers more than ninety decibels. I knew that the tinnitus signal itself was—measurably speaking—only about fifteen decibels and that my mind was ramping it up so that it filled the universe. But that knowledge didn't help me. I was hit broadside and left reeling. I thought I wouldn't be able to sing; I thought I wouldn't be able to teach; I thought my life was going to end.

But it didn't. I didn't stop singing or teaching. I kept going, even though I planned on throwing myself off the George Washington Bridge. Mr. Husband made me go straight to my GP a few blocks away—the latter being the first person I saw after my onset, the same guy who sent me to the ENT. Back I went, not braving it out anymore—telling him I was suicidal, going out of my mind, didn't know what to do, but was certain I didn't want to take a drug. "Sometimes drugs are the only game in town" came his reply.

He put me on 2 mg's of Klonopin to take before sleep—so that I could sleep. This hefty dose saved my life, I can say without exaggeration. I stayed on the drug for a good six months until I got used to it. For it to keep working, I would have had to increase the dosage. But my GP didn't think this was a good idea since the medication, which was designed to stop seizures, would very likely cause them if I stayed on it and climbed the ladder toward 6 mg's—the maximum dosage. So I got off it, biting my pills in half, and then in quarters, experiencing stomach cramps and headache for a short while.

Six months of drug-induced sleep did me a world of good. So did listening to music. The classical radio station was on constantly when I was in the apartment—my own version of Tinnitus Retraining Therapy. My ENT? He didn't think much of the latter, believing—as I did—that simply listening to music would have the same effect. We were right. It took more than a year, the sound of my ringing finally going from universe filling to half a whisper.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy helped too, as did a stint of auto-suggestion. In the latter, I sat quietly in a meditative state of mind, taking myself back to the night of my onset, over and over again, until I got bored with my reaction. It helped. I also began practising a Buddhist meditative technique called Tonglen which enabled me to sleep after I stopped taking Klonopin.

I could write a lot about Tonglen, since it's been a very powerful tool in my recovery. The practice creates "space" around thoughts and reactions which seem concrete, a very necessary thing for someone like me who felt caught with no way out. If Klonopin was the doorway, Tonglen helped me walk into a new life, one which I didn't think possible (you can find more detailed information on the practice here).

There was one other thing that aided me. A year after my onset, even though my ENT didn't think I needed them, I obtained digital hearing aids. They made a huge difference, not in the ringing per se (a lucky 50 percent experience a cancelling out of their tinnitus signal), but in how I experienced the world. They gave back a fabulous sense of stereo, the juiciness of being, which my onset had ripped away.

The photo above is my grateful survivor look. It was taken a year and a half after that terrible night. For the first time in a long time, I was happy. While my survival is difficult to fully account for in a couple hundred words on this page, the relief of being able to cope and to thrive is immeasurable. I am thankful for the help I received, especially from my husband. Without him, things would have been much more difficult.

I tell my doctor all this, and he tells me I need to write a book. What I know is this: the mind is plastic. It can change. You can change.

If you are experiencing invasive tinnitus, there are things you can do to help yourself. Whatever you do, don't give up. Scream, cry, pound your fists on the sofa and decide you are going to live. That's what I did. You have to start somewhere. 

December 21, 2012

Hyperextension & Singing

Balanced extension & flexion

hyperextension  [-exten′shən]
Etymology: Gk, hyper + L, extendere, to stretch out movement at a joint to a position beyond the joint's normal maximum extension.

The student arrives and seemingly has great posture, the head floating above it all. Work with him for awhile, and you observe that the cervical vertebrae are much too straightened. Not only that, he seems braced for impact. Now. What's that all about?

Hyperextension indicates that the Stapedius in the inner ear - an extensor - is not in balance with the muscle of the hammer - a flexor- behind the eardrum. It's engaging far too much. This results in the loss of awareness of high frequencies, which are dampened in the student's audio-vocal control (this excerpt from The Ear and the Voice is enlightening on the matter), the voice often lacking resonance, depth and fullness. Sometimes it sounds like it is coming from another room. Sure. The student may think he is singing correctly. But that's the problem. It's all too corrected! Too managed and manipulated.

I know something of which I write, since I exhibited this kind of posture when I went to the Listening Centre in Toronto in November of 1999. Yes. I was singing professionally, and my voice had fullness and ring, but I wasn't experiencing real ease. To regain that, I had to learn to hear the buzz of bone conduction. What vowel gave me the clearest sense of that? A vibrant /i/. Interestingly, it is also the vowel that has the most 'bite'. As such, it engages the hammer behind the eardrum and the tensor muscles of the body, which counteract the over-reaching of the body. Yes. My teacher taught me this vowel and how to listen to it, but it took the listening training for her words to make full sense to me, that is, for me to actually feel what she meant.

Even more interestingly, it was during my first week at the Centre that I began to experience true extension- an experience that I have not forgotten. I had been listening to filtered Mozart for about a week when I became aware of an ache in the root of my tongue, as though someone was pulling it apart, stretching it. This ache traveled to my sternum, and then, within a day, up the back of my neck to the crown of my head. It was as though an invisible person pulled my head up and back - strongly!

There is a great difference between stiffening to lengthen the spine, and true extension, which is accompanied by great freedom of movement. What did I feel when my neck and tongue tension released?  A great deal of soreness.

I can tell you from experience that hyperextension reflects a psychological disposition of defense. One really is braced for impact. How does this condition arise? Somewhere in the past, the student has gone through some degree of repeated trauma - auditory or otherwise. Be it at home or school, it doesn't matter: the effect of this trauma takes its toll. It becomes habitual, and only an intervention - an overriding stimulus - can change matters. This is what Tomatis' listening training did for me. Did it set things right (there's a pun for long time readers of this blog) right away? No. I had to practice for a long time to experience sustained and permanent change. It didn't come overnight, even if I did experience an immediate release of the musculature of my throat and neck.  I still had to teach myself how to listen. And that took time. However, all the information was there in my brain. My teacher and my own curiosity saw to that.

Knowing intellectually is not enough. That is the problem of the hyperextended student. He believes that he 'knows' better than anyone. And in fact he does, insofar as his listening ability is habitually yanked up to red alert status all the time. This outward looking disposition - this defensive posture -means that he has a deficit of inner listening. He can't quite hear what he is doing since his own inner voice has been compromised by fear, which stiffens the spine and distorts his audio-vocal control. This is why a clear and sustained experience of bone conduction is of vital necessity. It gives him back his voice.

December 20, 2012

The Yoga of Singing

The ear of the body is reflected in the attitude of the spine. Do we think of it in this way? Usually not. We don't typically think of how we move through space, much less how the ear is involved in singing, unless we experience a problem like Ménière's diseasewhich lays one flat on the floor, the world spinning around. Otherwise, we seem to take the whole matter for granted. And this begs the question, if not a full paragraph of tangent.

Did you know that hearing loss is only detected when thirty percent of the cells in any part of the ear are toast? Yep. You heard right. You can be at a very loud concert, having the time of your life, and your hearing will be worn away little by little, but you won't know it until thirty percent is gone. That's when the loss becomes measurable. Think about that the next you go to a club and can't hear yourself talk. Oh. No matter, you say. I'm bound to lose it anyway. If you smashed your hand with a hammer over and over again, you would feel it right? So why smash your ears with loud noise and think it's not going to hurt? But you think, since you can't exactly feel it, that it doesn't matter? What a foolish thought. And I haven't even gotten to the ringing (tinnitus) that can ensue in such a situation. Want to risk that and the consequences? Not a pretty picture, believe me. But let's get back to this matter of the muscles of the ear. That's what concerns us here.

Dr. Alred A. Tomatis had a very curious theory about how the two muscles of the ear integrate with  the muscles of the body, which I have written about a few times already. One muscle is located behind the eardrum, while the other is buried in the inner ear and attached to a tiny bone called the stirrup. This muscle is called the Stapedius and is neurologically connected with the face. So, you ask. What does this have to do with singing? Well. Hear's the deal. According to Tomatis, the muscle next to the eardrum—the tensor tympanum—is neurologically connected to the muscles of the body which experience flexion. The Stapedius in the inner ear, on the other hand, is neurologically connected to the muscles of the body which experience extension. 

Think about it. What happens when a person is observed to be feeling happy, joyous and full of life? Do they look at the floor? Do they look slumped? Nope. Not on you life. In fact, they look quite vertical— noble even; head level, face open, and the eyes sparkling. Extension dominates flexion, which, if it dominates, pulls one into a fetal position.

Think about it. Go look at really fine solo singers standing in front of an average chorus. What do you see? The solo singers have much better posture, while the chorus looks like their heads are disconnected from their bodies. And so is the vocal tone. The truth is: really good singers have better than average audio-vocal control. Their spines experience greater extension. (Hyper-extension? That is something else. In that case, the singer is braced for impact, the higher frequencies being dampened in awareness, which can result in a loss of resonance and depth.)

The Yoga of Singing is about getting the two muscles of the ear to function at their optimum capacity. This training opens the envelope of the ear,  keeping it open throughout the entire range. This isn't hard to do if you have a teacher who can teach you how to listen yourself—to feel yourself—in a particular way. What is the dominant physical sensation? One of extension—a lifting that is felt throughout the body. What is the dominant auditory sensation? The /i/ - like buzz of bone conduction that results in stereophonic clarity of tone - air conduction. It is heard in the head, the facial mask, throat and upper chest, and as though surrounding the body. 

The yoga practitioner trains in the same way as the singer, playing his own asanas. With adequate and repeated practice, his body becomes supple and extends greatly, the muscles of flexion balancing the muscles of extension, resulting in ease. In fact, the muscles of extension, when fully engaged, enable the muscles of flexion to act more strongly. This is how true power and strength are achieved. The singer experiences the same thing singing his scales, extending his range and beauty of tone, and in doing so, finding his voice. Both singer and yogi work the two little muscles of the ear, the latter dealing with auditory phenomena in the surrounding space, while the former creates beauty within actual space. Both experience a high level of extension—a reaching towards heaven and a lifting of the heart. 

December 19, 2012

Mezza Voce

Mezza Voce
adv. & adj. Music 
With moderate volume or in a subdued tone. Used chiefly as a direction.

[Italian : mezzahalf + vocevoice.]

Francesco Lamperti was famous for making his students sing in a mezza voce manner, that is, in half voice, saying that if the student could sing correctly in this way, then forte singing would present no difficulties. 

Mezza voce isn't really complicated. You just have to follow a few "rules." What are they? You first need a keen understanding of three things: Breath, Singing Forward and Singing Position.  Ok. You're lost, right? Let me try to explain things simply. 

The Old School maintained that before the student could sing mezza voce correctly, singing con la fronte was necessary. In other words, the student had to be able to sustain a full ringing tone easily. Some time ago, I wrote about a student of García's who called this the frontale tone (see here). Mezza voce? That was the centrale voice, or head voice.

Here's the big secret: to sing mezza voce, all you have to do is maintain the feeling of breath you have in your body when you are singing with full ringing tone, and not mess around with your singing position (see here for more information). You don't compromise the feeling of the breath when you sing mezza voce. But what does the young student typically do? He or she tries to sing mezza voce and the breath is diminished greatly and the singing position lost. While some say that mezza voce needs more support, I find this term limiting, since the feeling of the breath is more than how muscles are pushed and pulled, and how much air is in the lungs. Breath is a whole body feeling. Properly speaking, it is the body/ear connection that is felt from the top of the head to the pelvis. It's what is felt when the singer is truly inspired.

Theatre and Contemporary Commercial Music singers need to learn to sing mezza voce just as much as classical singers do. In fact, it is their bread and butter if they are any good. The only difference is that the vocal tube is not as rounded for the CCM singer as it is for the classical singer. However, the sensation of breath in the body is identical for everyone, as is the sense of placement. And what is the correct sensation of placement for mezza voice singing? The center of the head. The tone is also very clear at the front of the mouth (bone and air conduction). 

To go from a mezza voce production to full ringing tone and back again to mezza voce is something else. That's called messa di voce. To do this, the singer feels the throat area as a speaker that is turned on gradually, getting louder and louder along with the awareness of forward placement, and then diminished. In doing so, as mentioned above, the Singing Position is not messed with in any way, nor is the Breath, since both make mezza voce, fulling ringing tone (con la fronte), and messa di voce possible. 

Lastly, to get even more detailed, there are two ways in which to sing mezza voce. The first is the head tone already described, while the second is where the vocal tube is much rounded (thinking of /u/ is what is typically done), the resulting tone being quite dark. This is what the classical tenor does when singing Una furtiva lagrima

December 18, 2012

Voice Placement

Manuel García


Open Throat 

Voice Placement 

Three headings. Three ways of perceiving the voice. Three terms which, together, confound the modern voice teacher. Why? They say too little and mean too much. 

Let's take the last one. What is 'placement' after all? The voice doesn't go to a place, the scientifically-oriented teacher cries. Of course it doesn't. The vocal tract is the only resonator. But try telling that to the student who has been taught to obtain a ringing tone and is asked 'where' that tone is heard. "I hear it here," they say, as the hand rises to the level of the face. "I hear it out there." The hand is still at the level of the eyes, and gestures about eighteen inches away from the face. "I hear it here," as the hand points to the middle of the head. Should this information be ignored because the facial cavities do not resonate? Oh, that would be smart. So smart as to confuse facts with actual auditory sensation. And the latter is a reality even if little understood. It's also the chief means by which the student 'knows' what he/she is doing. 

How to understand it? Science helps us here, ironically enough. But let's keep in mind that explaining the science to the student doesn't help them listen to the sensation. They need to keep the awareness of it in their mind regardless. Here's one study that was published in 2003 by Vurma & Ross, members of the Estonian Academy of Music.

Singing teachers sometimes characterize voice quality in terms of 'forward' and 'backward placement'. In view of traditional knowledge about voice production, it is hard to explain any possible acoustic or articulatory differences between the voices so 'placed'. We have synthesized a number of three-tone melodic excerpts performed by the singing voice. Formant frequencies, and the level and frequency of the singer's formant were varied across the stimuli. Results of a listening test show that the stimuli which were perceived as 'placed forward', correlated not only with higher frequencies of the first and second formants, but also with the higher frequency and level of the singer's formant.

What does this mean practically speaking? It means that the Old School teaching of taking all vowels from a highly resonant /i/ vowel—which is the most resonant vowel—results in the sensation of forward placement. How does one obtain a highly resonant /i/? Well, the vocal tract has to be lengthened for one thing. How is this best achieved? By the teacher modeling a deep, resonant, clear tone, one that isn't too loud—from god's mouth to the student's ear—which is how singing has been taught since the 18th century. Sure, the teacher can tell the student to lower their larynx manually, but this doesn't achieve the desired tone because mere physical manipulation doesn't engage the students ear—a very necessary thing. However, get the student to make the desired tone by engaging their ear and then ask how it feels? That's a very different matter. The kinesthetically aware student will report a slightly lowered larynx. Yes, the soft palate will be felt to rise too, but this isn't always so easily noticed by the beginning student, who needs to drive the car around the block awhile before matters become clear.

Voice placement. Call it an auditory sensation, a combination of bone and air conduction, the singer's formant, ring, ping, point, chiaroscuro tone etc. Whatever the terminology, it's the teacher's job to help the student obtain it. To do it, the teacher has to engage the student's ear. (Did you catch the line in the quote above? "Results of a listening test...") The student has to be taught how to listen and what to listen for, which is altogether different than thinking about scientific facts while singing. The latter doesn't help the student one iota.

Manuel García - the father of modern voice science - didn't teach singing using scientific terminology because he didn't want to confuse his students, leaving that knowledge for the curious and those who intended to become teachers themselves. He did teach, however, his students to be aware of voice placement (click on the 'voice placement' label and find my post on Herman Klein & The Bel Canto for more information). The modern voice teacher who doesn't understand what this means will insist that the student not listen to what they are doing. And what will be the result? That teacher will rob that student of his/her audio-vocal control. Now. What's so smart about that?

December 16, 2012

Come sing with me in Italy!

Todi, Italy

My friend and colleague Paulo Faustini has put together a wonderful video about Umbrian Serenades that I wanted to share with you. Yes- I plan on being a participant this coming year! I can't wait to arrive in bella Italia to sing with Maestro Flummerfelt again. It is an extraordinary experience. Professionals and amateur singers, making beautiful a-cappella music together in amazing spaces, along with fabulous food and wine.  It really is a cultural & choral experience par excellence. 

The photo above was taken in Todi, Italy, where we had a wonderful dinner after a concert. It was a magical evening with wonderful friends. And you can be part of it. The deadline for application is zooming up fast. Check the website for details, and meet me in Italy! 

December 12, 2012

seventh heaven

The painting above? It depicts the biblical tale of Mary visiting Elizabeth, and the child carried in Elizabeth's womb leaping for joy. As painted by many masters during the Renaissance, this represents perhaps the earliest account an unborn child's response to auditory stimulation. 

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished! - Luke 1:39-45

Tomatis was the first to write about it in the 50's, and of course, people thought he was nuts. However, science eventually caught up with him and confirmed that—yes—the child can hear its mother's voice in the womb. Tomatis also theorized that the sound of the mother's voice would sound highly filtered since it would be heard via bone conduction. This is what I was listening to at the Listening Centre one day when I had a highly unusual experience.

I was listening to the sound of a woman's voice speaking poetry, and was repeating back what I heard—not unlike as related in my last post. However, this time, there was no 'happy mistake' with my headphones.  So there I was, repeating what I heard for about 5 minutes, and then - all of sudden - my body started to tingle and vibrate oddly. The next thing I knew, the top of my head 'blew off'. There I was, sitting in a room in Toronto, repeating poetry, experiencing the most blissful state of mind you can imagine. And it seemed the most ordinary thing. 

You see, I'd been a meditator for many years, and had experienced altered states of consciousness  many times. But those states were only experienced when my eyes were closed and after an extended period of meditation. This was nothing like that. This happened suddenly and with my eyes wide open. The experience itself lasted about six hours. Colors seemed richer, and the my depth perception was subtly changed too. This too seemed quite ordinary. And I could not help thinking: is this how the child experiences the world of the womb? It is like this? It is seventh heaven?

December 11, 2012

listening to bone conduction

Bone conduction isn't pretty, especially when isolated and amplified. How do I know this? From a happy accident. I was at the Listening Centre in Toronto having my ears tuned up, wearing earphones that gave me air and bone conducted sound—the latter stimulating my cochlea through a electromechanical transducer embedded in the earphone. I had just started my session for the day which consisted of repeating poetry that was spoken by a woman. The sound of my voice was filtered at a high level, that is, the lower frequencies were attenuated, as was the woman's voice. But when I started repeating what I heard, I became aware that something was wrong. I didn't feel right. After a minute or so, I figured out that I didn't have my headphones on correctly: the transducer wasn't touching my skull, so I wasn't getting bone-conducted sound. So I adjusted my headphones—and bam! The difference between having it, and not having it, was very clear. You can't hear what I experienced on this page, but in visual terms, it was like going from two dimensions to three. The tickle of tone in my ear had a distinct feeling to it. Without it—without the transducer touching my head—there was no depth of tone, no ring, no center of the tone. Just a hollowness. Being deprived of bone conduction stimulation left me feeling cut off, both auditorially and psychologically (the latter  deserves a separate post). 

So I proceeded to do what any curious guy in my situation would do. I experimented with shifting the headphones, removing the transducer from my head and then putting it back in place—all the while watching my face with hand mirror and listening to the difference between having and not having bone conduction. What did I learn in the process?  

  1. Bone conduction is the feeling of the sound. It leads the voice. 
  2. Without heightened bone conduction, the face will not 'open.'  
  3. Bone conduction is buzzy and associated with the vowel /i/. 
  4. Bone conduction is hum-like. 
  5. Bone conduction makes the bones sing. 
  6. The phonemes 'm', 'n' and 'ng' aid it. 
  7. When highly developed, bone conduction is 'heard' in the center of the head, towards the front of the face,  as well as downward through the throat to the sternum and pelvis.  
  8. Bone conduction 'meets' with air conduction at the front of the mouth. 
  9. Highly concentrated bone conduction results in clarity of vowel.
  10. The voice is heard 'stereophonically' when bone conduction is highly concentrated and the vowels are clear.

December 7, 2012

NYCO auctions off its sets and costumes

In an expected move, New York City Opera announced on Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal that it is auctioning off its sets and costumes. Daniel J.Wakin also reported on the story for the New York Times. Of course, those who have followed the company for many years will remember Beverly Sills raising funds for sets and costumes when there was a fire at the warehouse. Her company, which was located at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, was a repertory house, so it was in NYCO's interest to replace what had been destroyed. Current management, however, is going in a completely different direction with 16 performances each year instead of the previous 150. Those interested in an accounting of NYCO's history can find it here

New York City Opera to Hold Online Auction By DANIEL J. WAKIN 
New York City Opera, seeking to shed decades’ worth of old sets, costumes and props, has decided to auction off most of the material next month, the company’s general manager and artistic director, George Steel, said on Wednesday. An online auction will begin in mid-January and run through Jan. 24. 
About 90 percent of the contents of its New Jersey warehouse will be put up for auction, with the company saving generic props and costume items: weaponry, top hats and shoes, for example. Several dozen historic costumes, some associated with the former City Opera diva Beverly Sills, will also remain with the company, Mr. Steel said. The warehouse costs more than $500,000 a year to rent, he said. “It costs us way more to store that stuff than we save by using it,” he explained. 
Mr. Steel said there was no way to estimate how much could be earned by the auction, but he added that some 10 other opera companies had expressed interest. A spokeswoman said a “couple of thousand” lots would be put up for auction, and the sale would include 60 complete sets and 38 shows’ worth of costumes. Bidders will be allowed to visit the warehouse to preview the items. The auction was reported on Wednesday by The Wall Street Journal.

Sixty years of history.  Gone. Done. Over.

December 6, 2012

The Importance of Empiricism in Vocal Pedagogy

empiricismin philosophy, the view that all concepts originate in experience, that all concepts are about or applicable to things that can be experienced, or that all rationally acceptable beliefs or propositions are justifiable or knowable only through experience. This broad definition accords with the derivation of the term empiricism from the ancient Greek word empeiria, “experience.”

My colleague Jeannette LoVetri at The Voice Workshop recently wrote a forward-looking post on her blog titled The Importance of Science in Vocal Pedagogy. After reading it, and agreeing to everything she wrote, I thought to myself, half in jest: What about the other side? What about empiricism?

There are lots of dead singing teachers represented on this blog who were considered scientists during their day, Manuel García, perhaps, being the most illustrious. I mean, after you are credited with inventing the laryngoscope, your stock kinda goes up, doesn't it? His science—as primitive as it was—has stood the test of time. Others, of course, like his friend Charles Lunn, weren't so lucky. His theory of the false folds turned out to be a crack-pot idea. And then there are those like the Lampertis, father and son, who were empiricists. Read Giovanni Battista Lamperti's book of maxims, Vocal Wisdom (1931), as divulged by his student William Earl Brown, and you'll understand what I mean. Their 'knowing' is of a different sort. It's 'procedural' rather than 'declarative' (read my post on Dr. Katherine Verdolini Abbott a few days back and listen to her talk given to NATS for more context.) And this gets to my point: It's the job of the voice teacher to know scientific stuff, not the student. And while it can be fun to explain the science of singing to the student, if they have questions and are interested in that sort of thing: the information doesn't help them sing. This is where empiricism comes in.

The teaching of singing, at least, from the student's perspective, is an empirical art. Why? They have two avenues of perception at their disposal: listening and feeling. I don't agree with those that tell the student not to listen to themselves. Rather, I believe in teaching the student how to listen and what to listen for. Of course, you have to know what you are doing to in order to teach this. You have to be able to sing for one thing: you have to know yourself. And you have to know yourself pretty darn well.

Now, of course, we get into a matter of semantics. "Don't listen to yourself" can also refer to the student who is "judging" everything that comes out of their mouth, which is kinda like never being able to get the plane off the ground. Guess what? The student who is doing this has "closed" ears. They will not be "open" to the full range of frequencies. And if you look very closely as a teacher, you will most likely observe a "closed" face. The look of concern around the eyes is a dead give-a-way. And a closed ear and face doth not a singer make. However, if the teacher can stimulate the student and give them exercises and instruction that help the ear open? Well then, that is a totally different matter. What does the student hear and feel then? That is essential knowledge: knowledge that is empirically-based. 

December 3, 2012

The Mirror Crack'd

You have to live in my mind, of course, to follow where it goes. And sometimes, it goes strange places. Witness the place it went today after reading a conversation about wagging jaws on Facebook with a group of like-minded vocally-obsessed folks.  

Did you have students with jaws that move for every note? 

Well, yeah. The comments came one after another, finally ending with the observation that student's eyes have a funny way of looking away - when they are supposed to be looking at themselves- just at the moment when they start to sing.  Well. Liz didn't do that in The Mirror Crack'd, the movie version of the Agatha Christie novel. Ok, you say. She wasn't singing.  In fact, she wasn't even looking at a mirror, but rather, staring at a painting on a wall when she realized that she'd been infected with German measles by a mad fan years before. That's why she murdered said fan a little while later with a laced cocktail.  Oh, but I do go on. It's the movie title that came to mind, you see.

But let's get back to singing, shall we? 

Why do student's avert their eyes at the last moment? I think I know why since I see it all the time. They do it, not because they can't accept what they see (though that is often a problem), but rather, because they haven't learned how to hear themselves yet. When they do? Well. They have no problem looking. And that is because they are able to look and listen at the same time. 

Inner listening is just that. Inner. Hearing the buzz in your head (better found using an /i/ or /e/ vowel) is what gets it going. The vibration - for lack of a better word- that it creates has to be spread over every vowel. To find it? The student discovers it when both energized and calm.  

My teacher once said that: "The eyes look but don't see."  Strange to say, but that's what it's like. It can be done while looking straight at one's self while looking in a mirror. I guess that's what Liz's picture reminds me of. That looking within and remembering. Of course, she's remembering something horrible, while the singer has to be remembering- nay- hearing/feeling the tickle of tone in the head.