December 2, 2012

Mixed-Dominance & Singing: Joan Sutherland

I have not forgotten the one time I heard Joan Sutherland sing live. It was a concert performance of Anna Bolena at Avery Fisher Hall here in New York. I sat way up in the back in the uppermost row of seats. There, Sutherland's voice hovered around my head, creating the impression that she was standing  right in front of me. Perhaps the most amazing acoustical phenomena I'd heard in my life, it was clear why the Italian's named her La Stupenda. However, though surrounded by astonishing tone, I hardly understood a word she sang. How could someone so preternaturally gifted be so deficient regarding diction? Was she lazy? Hardly. Even a cursory glance at her performance schedule revealed that she was a workhorse. Was it a technical matter? Was she just not putting her tongue in the right place? This doesn't seem plausible considering Sutherland's intelligence and work ethic. So what accounts for the matter? After studying Sutherland's singing, I believe it to be a matter of mixed-dominance.

If you've read my previous post (see here) that dealt with mixed-dominance and the Presidential candidates, you already know that our ears are not equal. That is, they do no actively process sound in the same way. The right ear actively processes higher frequencies faster than the left. This affects how we sing, speak and perceive information.

In my previous post, I showed how the area around the eyes tells the viewer how the person is listening, and if the ear is "open." If the eyes looked strained, it is a sign the person is straining to listen (btw: we listen to ourselves before we listen to others). I also discussed how the viewer can see the speaking's "leading ear," which is done by watching how the mouth "points." In the case of both candidates, it was observed that their mouth's pointed toward their right when they were animated, even though both men had more tonus on the left side of the face—which is an indication of their mixed dominance (most people are right-sided). Ok. What does this have to do with Sutherland? A careful analysis reveals that, like the candidates, she has more tonus on the left side of her face. However, unlike the candidates, who's mouths pointed towards their right ear when they were speaking, Sutherland points toward the left. This indicates that her left ear is her leading ear. Ok. What does this have to do with diction? 

Since the right ear actively processes higher frequencies faster than the left, a knowledge of acoustics gives us the answer. The simple fact is that sibilants - sounds like S, Z, SH, ST, TH and so forth—are high frequency sounds. When the left ear leads, these sounds are dulled. The voice may still have great presence, as Sutherland's singing certainly did, but diction is affected. And there are other consequences besides indistinct diction.

A left "leading" ear can indicate learning and language problems, as well as problems with memory. With that in mind, consider the following from Sutherland's biographical information.

Even as Sutherland entered her sixties, she was able to take on new roles because of her dedicaton and skill, even though learning new roles was hard for her because of a relatively poor memory. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004. 

One way to understand the matter is in terms of light. Higher frequencies are analogous to greater light. When there is more light in a room, everything makes a clearer impression. As such, the objects in the room come into focus in a way they do not when the room is darkened. Do you see where I am going here? It is the same with memory: when auditory information is processed via the right ear, it makes a clearer impression. It is better remembered. When the left ear leads, memory can be affected.

If you watch Sutherland closely in these clips, observing the direction of her mouth on every vowel, you will see that it occasionally points to the right when she is singing /i/ (don't forget: her right—visually speaking—is on your left!). This makes sense since /i/ has the greatest concentration of "ring," that is, higher frequencies. Speaking empirically, my own observation is that /i/ and /e/ naturally tend towards the right, while /o/ and /u/ tend towards the left. This makes sense based on Dr. Alfred A. Tomatis' work, from which I have made these observations. Since the Old School was emphatic regarding the student mastering /a/, one might conclude that /a/ is a "middle" vowel, that is, one that needs the qualities of both /i/ and /u/.  My own teacher taught that a "perfect vowel" was a combination of all three—/a/, /i/ and /u/.  

It's interesting to contemplate what might have transpired had Sutherland undergone a course of Listening Training, since it awakens the right ear from its slumber. I'm betting I would have understood her words. 

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