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. 


I welcome your comments.