October 30, 2012

Tea with Gaetano Nava

I took this photo yesterday afternoon while awaiting the arrival of hurricane Sandy, having already cancelled the day's lessons, and not feeling up to writing a promised post (it will come- have no fear). What did I do instead? Have a cup of Darjeeling and reacquaint myself with an old friend. (As it turned out, the power flickered in our neck of the woods on the Upper West Side, but never failed when the huge storm slammed into the coast of New Jersey, causing power outages in lower Manhattan and flooding the subway system.)

The two texts next to the antique transferware tea cup and Sheffield tea pot were written by Gaetano Nava, a once-famous singing master who is now largely forgotten. Nava first came to my attention via Herman Klein (a student of Manuel García), the latter having included Nava in a small group of vocal pedagogy gods in his must-read, The Bel Canto (1923), which you can find nestled within the dizzyingly fascinating Herman Klein and the Grammophone (1990).

This method was the one being taught by such Mozarteans of the second generation as Garcia, Lamperti, Sangiovanni, and Nava (the teacher of Santley). 

Ha! With such provocative inclusion, I had to hunt down Nava's texts, eventually acquiring two via Abebooks after a long and patient search. The one on top is his Method of Instruction for a Baritone, Edited by Charles Santley (1872), while the larger volume underneath is Nava's Practical Method of Vocalization for Bass and Baritone Voice, Newly Edited by Henry Blower (1899). Clicking on the titles will take you to the University of Rochester digital library, where you can download both books. Pretty nifty, huh? No musty libraries to haunt, no waiting for Interlibrary loan for weeks and weeks. None of that. Distilled wisdom right at your fingers as you experience more effects of global warming.

Nava's student, the Victorian Baritone Charles Santley, wrote about meeting his master in Student and Singing: reminiscences of Charles Santley (1892). You can find it here. Below is the little biographical information I have been able to find.

NAVA, Gaetano, a distinguished Italian teacher of singing, and writer of vocal exercises, born at Milan, May 16, 1802. His father, Antonio, taught and composed for the French guitar, then a favourite instrument, but the son received a college education previous to entering the Milan Conservatoire under Federici. Here in 1837 Nava was appointed professor, retaining his connection with the institution—where he gave instruction both in harmony and in singing —for thirty-eight years, that is, up to the time of his death, March 31, 1875. His skill as a vocal teacher, enhanced by his cultivated intelligence and uncommon earnestness and honesty of purpose, brought him a large clientele of private pupils. Distinguished among these stands our own countryman, Charles Santley. None of Nava's scholars have achieved a more brilliant reputation than that eminent baritone; nor could a better exemplification be desired of the master's method of careful vocal development, as opposed to the forcing system. Nava's works, published at Milan, by the firms Ricordi, Lucca, and Conti, comprise numerous books of solfeggio and vocalizzi, several masses and separate pieces of vocal church music, and a Method of Singing that has appeared also in London and at Leipzig. B. T - Groves Dictionary of Music, 1922

Over tea, Nava reminded me how to open the mouth. Oh yes, I thought. Simple, elegant and timeless instruction, worth its weight in gold.  I told him we should talk more often.

The rule prescribed by the good school of singing is, to keep the mouth open in such a way that the upper teeth should be vertically over the lower, and that without the least discomfort, almost smiling, it should preserve in that position a natural fitness and grace. This general rule is more exclusively applicable to vocalization, since in singing (properly so-called) one must naturally adapt one's self to various modifications, without, however, preventing the sound of the voice from being correct, pure and agreeable.
Not to dwell too long on this subject by analyzing all the faulty positions of the mouth, I will only recommend young students be satisfied with the above rule, advising them at the same time to avoid wrinkling of the forehead, contortions of the eyes, twisting of the neck, and all those faults and tricks which are offensive and unpleasant to the spectators, and no less inimical to perfection in singing. - Gaetano Nava, Practical Method of Vocalization for Bass and Baritone Voice, Newly Edited by Henry Blower (1899)

October 27, 2012

Presidential Ear: mixed-dominance and singing

No. I am not going to delve into politics on this page, rest assured of that. However, I would like to address a fascinating yet utterly ignored similarity between the two Presidential candidates. And it's this: both men appear to be mixed-dominant. How can we tell this? By watching how they talk and sing; specifically, by watching their mouths, facial expressions and bodily attitude. To understand what this means, let's look at a few photographs. I have chosen them to represent what I've observed over the past year.

The majority of the population is right-handed and left-brain dominant. This configuration results in greater tonicity in the right side of the face. Why? Because the person who is right-handed and left-brained dominant - more often than not - leads with the right ear. This 'leading' can be observed in the innervation of the facial muscles on the right side of the face and a mouth that 'points' to the right ear. However, it can be seen in the photograph of the President above that his left side has more tonus, the left corner of the mouth being higher than the left. This makes perfect sense since the President is left-handed. Does this mean the current President has a dominant left ear? Not exactly. But before I delve deeper into that question (and I will), let's take a look at the Governor. 

It is clear from the first three photographs of the Governor on this page that he also engages the left side of his face. Greater tonicity of the left cheek and the appearance of the 'groove' between the upper lip and the left cheek make this apparent. The public record indicates, however, that unlike the President, he is right-handed

Ok, you say: both guys can be observed to engage the left side of the face. One of them uses his right hand, while the other uses his left. What's going on with that? To answer this question - and our earlier one of the President's ear dominance - we need to understand more about the audio-vocal loop and its connection to the ear and brain. The work of Dr. Alfred A. Tomatis brings clarity to these questions simply because he's perhaps the only person to date to shed some light on the matter.

What does Tomatis have to say about the difference between the left and right ear? If you've been reading previous posts about his work, you will recall that Tomatis observed that the right ear - actively speaking- processes higher frequencies faster than the left ear. (This is expressed in how the piano is laid out btw: low notes are on the left while high ones are on the right side of the keyboard.) Tomatis also observed that the two little muscles in the ear integrate the muscles of the body. And this is where things get very interesting.

According to Tomatis, the facial nerve inserts into the inner ear and is connected to the Stapedius muscle associated with stirrup. When the Stapedius is innervated - that is - enlivened, the face is observed to be 'open' and the ear is able to easily process - ie analyze- all the frequencies from top to bottom, from high to low. Mechanically speaking, this means that the envelope of the ear is open. What does this look like to the casual observer? The muscles around the eyes and mouth are 'open'. What is one expression of this configuration? Unadulterated joy.

Now let's get back to the candidates and think about how they express themselves in light of this information. The President is observed to engage his right side more than the Governor even though  his left handedness is expressed in greater tonicity in his left cheek. How can we tell this? By looking at the opening of the mouth as well as the expression of the eyes. Let's deal with the mouth first. If you draw a vertical line down through the middle of the face in your mind's eye, separating the face in two parts, then drawn a horizontal line across the mouth - observing where the two lines intersect, you can see where the mouth 'points.' Why is this important? Because the direction to which the mouth 'points' tells the viewer something important about the speaker/singer's audio-vocal control. 

Even though the President expresses mixed-dominance by virtue of greater tonicity on the left side of his face because he is left-handed, his mouth points 'right' a great deal of the time, especially when he is animated. His right ear is observed to be 'on.' Now what about the Governor? His mouth also points 'right' when he is animated, but close observation over time reveals a habitual tension in the muscles around the eyes and the upper lip. His mouth often veers 'left'. Even when he is excited and his mouth is pointing  to the right, there seems to be unease present. His right ear is not as 'on' as the President's.

When he's with people he doesn't know, he gets more formal. And if it's a political thing where he doesn't know anybody, he has a mask. - Vanity Fair

The reason for this unease? While a complex matter of psychoacoustics, the answer might be as simple as the Governor being made to write with his right hand as a child, when, in fact, he was naturally left-handed. The additional clues to this hypothesis are his vocal expression which is halting, even stuttering at times, and his stiff posture. These are classic signs of difficulties with auditory processing. (It should be remembered that difficulties with auditory processing have nothing to do with intelligence.)

Bright eyes, bright voice. It's that simple. Do you see the difference between the photo of the President above and the Governor below? The President's mouth is angling towards his right ear as is the Governor's, but if you look at the expression of their eyes there is a clear difference. 

Can you hear and see the difference between the two candidates in the video below?

Canny voice teachers since the dawn of the Old Italian School have insisted on an unforced and pleasant expression of the face. I've encountered this in my reading of historical vocal pedagogy many times. Manuel García insisted on it as did his student Jenny Lind when she taught at the  Royal College of Music. I could name many others as well. However, the teacher should keep in that the ear cannot be 'opened' externally, that is, by fixing a smile on the face, squeezing the cheeks or raising the eyebrows. It has be opened indirectly and from within. 

A student who has been studying with me for a while finally 'got it' this past week. She habitually tenses her eyes as she goes up the scale, and I was able to cajoled her into watching herself with a hand mirror while vocalizing up the scale with glee. The higher the note, the more glee. I also showed her what this looked and sounded like, since I believe that the teacher must lead by example (the Garcías taught this too). While this may sound simple: isn't not. It takes a great deal of trust on the part of the student to 'open up' enough to do this. And guess what? If the teacher criticizes and demeans the student and says, no, no no, the negative impact, that is to say - the aural and psychological impact on the student's audio-vocal control - will be significant. The fastest way to get your student's ear to shut down? Yell at them. Their eyes will darken, the mouth will fix and the jaw will set. What effect do you think this will have on their singing? 

Of course, students can't fake happiness. But they can pretend. And this can go a long way. The brain will accept an image more than a fact. Did I mention that my student had a breakthrough, singing up the scale into her head voice with great beauty? To emphasize my point: she 'got' what it looked and sounded like when she wasn't tense around the eyes. Now. Will she be able to keep it? That's another matter. Changes in audio-vocal control have to carefully nurtured until they become integrated. 

Back to the candidates. I see myself in both of them. Why? I am left-handed and left-eyed. The left side of my face can be observed to have more tonicity. However, when I sing, it is clear to the astute observer that my right ear is very much activated. I can tell you from personal experience having worked this issue out over a long period of time: activating the right ear makes everything clear. More on that in my next post. 

October 24, 2012

Petrucci Music Library

If you haven't discovered the Petrucci Music Library yet, now is the time. I was at the site recently and found quite a few 'new' historical vocal pedagogy texts in the public domain for download- free of course. Ever one to encourage students of singing to read historical vocal pedagogy, I've created a Petrucci Music Library area in the right hand corner of this blog. In short, I've made it easy for you! You'll find Manuel García's texts there as well those of Francesco Lamperti and his son Giovanni Battista Lamperti. I've even thrown in Lilli Lehmann's idiosyncratic How to Sing, Pauline Viardot-García's An Hour of Study and Domenico Corri's The Singers Preceptor - the latter a student of the legendary Nicola Porpora. And if that isn't interesting enough, I encourage you to go the Petrucci Music Library main page and enter 'singing' as a search term. You'll be amazed at what comes up. Do it! It's fascinating stuff. 

October 11, 2012

iron face

The face feels ironed.

It's a curious statement to make, isn't it? A famous vocal pedagogue said these exact words it to me. They came to mind recently as I reread Paul Madaule's excellent book When Listening Comes Alive. He reminds the reader that listening is - in part- a vestibular activity, one that is felt. Speaking of which: snakes don't have outer ears, but they do listen. How? By sensing sounds via bone conduction (see here), a vestibular activity. Quite literally, they have a feel for sound. Singers do the same thing, of course, even if they aren't aware of how bone conduction works, though they are keenly aware, usually, when things don't feel right. The important thing to know is that it is just this aspect that is heightened during singing. In fact, it makes singing possible.

Hearing and feeling are two sides of the same coin.

So said the same famous pedagogue. This is a deft way of describing the two avenues for listening to tone, that is, through air conduction and bone conduction. To those who insist that the singer should not listen to what they are doing, I say: you are partially correct. That is, if you only listen to air-conduction you are indeed doing yourself a great disservice. Do this vigorously and you are yelling. Only a fool stops their ears and thinks they can sing! But oh...wait a minute. If you stop your ears and sing, you give yourself a perfect example of bone conduction. Try it on a slack /a/. Then on a vibrant /i/. What's the difference?

I submit to you that a vibrant /i/ feels and sounds different than a slack /a/. Is it so surprising then, since the facial muscles are neurologically connected to the inner ear via the Stapedius muscle, that their innervation should have an affect on vocal tone and be reflected in empiric teachings as evidenced in the quote above? As another pedagogue succinctly said: You will never get a bright tone with a dull face

Older pedagogues insisted - despite scientific evident that the nasal passages were not resonators - that the student listen to the tone at level of the eyes. This is nothing more than listening to bone conduction, what I call the 'buzz' of the sound, which is not to be confused with nasal singing, and is readily accessed via /i/. If anything, experience has shown me that singers do not listen to this 'buzz' enough. It takes some practice to listen to heightened bone and air conduction together. A good image for this is a bow and arrow; the backward pull on the bow being the 'buzz' and the forward pointing arrow vowel clarity. The latter always seems to be 'out there'. Of course, everyone has their way of describing this, and I had to laugh when a young student recently said it sounded like 'WiFi.' God love him, I thought. He's right. There is no WiFi without a modem inside your head. Click on the 'buzz' network and go.

October 7, 2012

Stephanie Blythe & Art Song

A big thank you to Laura Brooks-Rice for making me aware of this video of Stephanie Blythe speaking about the importance of Art Song. Blythe is accurate when she says that opera is where the money is at, that is hard to make a go of it as a recitalist. When I was in school in the 1980's, you could do it. But that was before Real Estate became Real Estate, concert spaces disappeared, rent went through the roof and presenting organizations and audience members gave up the ghost. However, Art Song is still with us, and it is heartening to have an artist of the stature of Ms. Blythe be its champion. Heck. I've been singing Hugo Wolf songs all week. Opera it ain't. And I can't tell you the joy singing his music gives me. There are no words for it. Which is why singers sing. A paradox? Yes. 

October 4, 2012

Lamperti Axioms

Francesco Lamperti

The art of singing may be reduced to the following axioms: Freedom about the neck and voice above the neck.

If you can sing one (aria), you can sing all, provided that once your voice is placed in purity of tone.

The singer should almost be able to feel as if the breath were coming in instead of going out.

Until you can say the word on the pitch you cannot sing the pitch. 

As the small tone is, so will the large one be. 

Tone is the result of breath and vowels. 

Quality, quality, quality! 

Drink, you goose! 

Olio, olio, olio! 

Do it now!