January 31, 2013

Bottled Up Boy

Colin Firth in The King's Speech
I went to sleep last night having read my friend Susan Hurley's dissertation on Tomatis' listening training for singers for the 4th time, and remembered my own experience in 1999-2000.  I had gone to the Listening Centre in Toronto in November, and then returned in May of the next year, and had very interesting experiences during both trips. 

I keenly remember not singing a note during my first sojourn, then returning home, putting down my suitcase, running to the piano and vocalizing, only to find that I had gained two notes on either side of my range and an overall sense of ease that astonished me. Something had changed, of course. What was it? The way in which I heard myself. 

Something entirely different happened during my second visit, which brings me to the subject of this post: I stammered as a child starting in 4th grade. Not as bad as Colin Firth in The King's Speech, but enough so that my parents sent me to a speech therapist, who taught me to breath, and slow things down. For the self-conscious chap that I was, this made me even more self-conscious. "There's something wrong with you. Please slow down and pay attention to it."  That's the message I got. Was  it the message my kind speech therapist intended? I doubt it. What she taught me, however, did help. 

Jump to my May 2000 trip to the Listening Centre in Toronto. What happened? I started to stammer as I had when a kid. When a friend invited me to a party on lake Ontario that was attended by many highly regarded educators, I found myself stammering up a storm, and thought it funny. Really. There I was, the accomplished opera singer from New York with all these smart people, and I couldn't say a sentence without stumbling all over myself! That I could laugh was because I found the experience intensely fascinating as well as liberating. I remarked to Paul Madaule, the director of the Listening Centre (and the author of When Listening Comes Alive), that it was a curious thing to experience stammering without the anxiety that accompanied it, since I knew what it felt like to be in the midst of uncontrollable vocalization. However, my stammering in Toronto was not like that. Even though I heard myself hacking out words, there was a sense of calm inside. There was something else too: I remembered what happened when I started stammering many years before. Something I tried to put out of my mind. 

I was different from other boys. I was gay and in love with my 4th grade homeroom teacher - a tall, handsome blond-haired man by the name of Mr. Casper. I also knew this was totally unacceptable. Boys didn't fall in love with other boys. And I couldn't tell anyone about it. Nor did I until many years later. But by that time, I was better skilled at hiding my anxiety, stammer and feelings. But my ability to cope didn't change the knot in my brain. I could feel it waiting for the perfect moment to show itself, usually when I was bottled-up, under-the-gun, fearful of the very thing I wanted. 

Tomatis' listening training untied that old knot, something self-talk and therapy could not -and didn't- do. It reset the dial in my head back to zero, enabling me hear my voice anew. If that sounds fantastic, I can only reply that it felt fantastic.  

The unremitting stammer that surfaced during my listening training quickly abated. Now, I hardly ever experience it, even when I think of Mr. Casper.  

January 26, 2013

Singers and Sound: An Introduction to Tomatis-Based Listening Training for Singers by Susan Hurley

Those who have been reading VoiceTalk for awhile now know my keen interest in the work of Dr. Alfred A. Tomatis -the Christopher Columbus of the ear, my having gone to  the Listening Centre in Toronto 14 years ago and experiencing the 'Tomatis Effect' firsthand. This changed my life, making me an advocate for Tomatis' work and perspective.

Not all are so enthusiastic, of course. I once spoke about Tomatis' work to a gathering of singing teachers and was met with adversary and interruption. You see, among a certain segment of scientifically-oriented persons, if you don't have fifteen studies to prove your point, you should not be making it, much less talking about it. The Old School is passé to these self-appointed gatekeepers. Voce Vista? Scopes down the throat? That's where it's at. You can see what's happening on the graph or through the camera eye. Tomatis? Too subjective. Too ephemeral. Not enough data. Seeing is believing after all! 

Do you see my point? The eye thinks itself more important than the ear, if only because it sits in front of its neighbor. Sight comes before sound in our expression and order of importance. It even comes first in scripture: But the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped (Isaiah 35:5). Yet we fool ourselves with this view since the faculty of hearing develops long before that of sight in the womb, and is the last to go before death. We also fool ourselves if we believe listening to ourselves as singers isn't important. We must feel ourselves, the important teacher says. Does said teacher know that 'feeling' is a vestibular aspect of listening and related to bone-conduction? That listening is an active rather than a passive matter? So Tomatis thought more than 50 years ago. 

Since sight comes before sound in our thoughts, is it any wonder that Tomatis' world has been so unexplored and under-researched? That is starting to change, I am happy to report. My friend and colleague, Dr. Susan Hurley, has written a must-read dissertation on the subject, being the first person to pull together the many strands of information relevant to the matter of 'proof', these same strands being known for decades, but overlooked, dismissed or forgotten.  As Dr. Hurley notes in her text...

According to Tomatis, the ear’s role in controlling the voice can hardly be overestimated: “Vocal emission is controlled by the ear.” The theories, which were confirmed in scientific investigation as early as the 1950s, are still generally perceived as being outside the mainstream. Tomatis and his pioneering work have engendered an aura of controversy since the middle of the twentieth century. Certain criticisms of Tomatis’s work appear regularly, according to Brosch: 1) a relative lack of thorough scientific studies, 2) use of listening training for too extensive a range of purposes, and 3) the fact that the preponderance of literature on listening training, rather than being published in the critical scientific arena, is addressed to a lay audience. 
Yet, documentation generated over a period of decades suggests not only that the theories are valid, but also that listening training may produce real and measurable effects on the speaking and singing voice. Tomatis-based listening training has generated more favorable evidence than the controversy surrounding it might lead one to expect.

Really? There's favorable evidence? If you are like me, I could not wait to read more. Of course, I am biased.  But then, I have reason to be having heard what Tomatis' methods have achieved in the studio and my own voice.

Find the rest of Dr. Hurley's fascinating text here. And get ready for this information to enter the main & mindstream.   

January 16, 2013

Nefertiti's Hat

This morning in the studio, a young soprano student finally hit her stride, and when I asked her what it sounded and felt like, she said that that her voice felt free and full: that she heard it very much out in front. When I asked if there was anything else, she said I would think her mad. Try me! I said. She then proceeded to raise her hands to her temples, and then lift them back and up.

"It's like singing into a cone."

"Really? You're a cone head?  I said, waiting a beat to get my timing right, my face breaking out into a grin, and both of us laughing. But I knew what she meant, this not being the first time I had heard such a thing.

Does it sound like stereo?" I asked. "Yes!" She nodded, a look of recognition on her face. 

I'd heard what my student described with her hands in various ways, perhaps the most elegant representation being introduced at a Tomatis workshop some years ago at Westminster Choir College. There, in a packet of materials, was an image of the bust of Nefertiti, with a line drawn from the front of her mouth, which then went up and out the back of her head. I immediately recognized the similarities between this image and Lilli Lehmann's chart of tones, which was published in her book How to Sing (see diagram below). How does one understand what seems so fantastical? It's very simple really; both are a visual representation of heightened bone conduction as it pertains to the singer's awareness of the gamut of frequencies, from low to high. 


If you've ever had a bone conduction test taken by an audiologist, you may have gotten a feel for this matter. Let's say your right ear is being tested, the transducer touching your skull is on the right side. Pitches are played, and if you pay close attention,  you my find that not all of them are perceived on the right. In fact, some may sound as though they are on the left. Hello! As well, they may seem to be in different places, that is, in the head as well as outside of it. A very curious thing, no?

Our two cochleae locate - that is- triangulate sound in space all the time for us, which is something we take for granted, this perception being mainly external sounds. Nefertiti's hat and Lehmann's chart, however,  refer to internal sounds, i.e. bone conduction.

Singers need heightened bone conduction. It makes the voice work. Without out it, the voice is like a boat without a sail. It can't go anywhere. What does the sailor have to do? Raise the sail! What does the singer have to do? Inhale, get inspired and feel what the extensor muscles do, which is lift (inhalare la voce). This lifting - from pelvis to top of head - is a sign that the ear is opening to high frequencies, which will be reflected in the openness of the face as well as the extension of the spine, both up and down. 

Very high frequencies are perceived as small and far away, out the back of the head, into infinity. Of course, the paradox is that the singer still hears the clear vowel out in front, regardless of the pitch: bone and air conduction meeting at the front of the mouth with /i/ like clarity. For this to happen, the head must ring with tone,  no matter what pitch, dynamic, or quality of tone is chosen. This is enabled by the right use of /a/.  

January 8, 2013

Listening vs Doing

I don't have enough support, right?" The soprano asks, in a self-questioning tone. "I really should be supporting more, shouldn't I?"

I take a breath before I answer. 

"What does the word 'support' mean to you?I ask. 

She opens her mouth, but nothing comes out. 

"Do you mean pushing and pulling on the muscles of your abdomen?" I ask, like an attorney at a deposition, trying to get at the truth of the matter in a dispassionate manner.   

"You know....support!"  She says, hands flailing away in the air. 

No, I don't know.

I'm not a fan or this word "support", which on the face of it sounds like something needs propping up. Does it really?  I want to ask. 

She stands there, her face all shadow and darkness, worried that she will never enter the promised land. I don't talk to her about support. Instead, I ask her to intone the words of her song, to pretend that she is calling to someone across the road, that she needs and wants to be heard. It's important! She really needs to be heard! This takes some coaxing since she tries to do this mechanically, making more effort than necessary. 

I show her what I mean by calling myself. 

Hey there! I have something I really need to tell you! Hey!  Yes, you! I am talking to you, sir! 

I don't breath a word about pure vowels. Instead, I show her what I mean by example. She calls after me, her voice growing to twice its size, its resonance penetrating without being harsh. It's the real deal, baby. We go back and forth like this for about 3 minutes, not saying a word, just calling back and forth. And then I ask: "Were you thinking about support?" 

She blinks. "No."

"What where you 'doing'?"  I ask.  Teasing things out just to be see what she is going to say.  

"Just...just...just doing what you were doing." 

"And what was that?"

"It feels big." She says, in a wonderful re-direct, a quizzical look on her face. "Really big!"

Now she is on to something. 

"Does the word 'stereo' have anything to do with 'big'?  

"Yes...I hear it all around me."  

"Were you 'doing' anything physical to make it happen?" 

"Not exactly." She says.  

Not exactly. That's the rub. 

We live in such a mechanical age, one that seduces us into thinking that 'doing' something overtly is going to give us what we want.  However, the opposite is far more true. The student who can wrap her ear around a sound will 'feel' the result in her body, which is altogether different than trying to make something happen in the body to make a sound. 

Wrapping the ear around a sound, a vowel, a phrase of Bellini, isn't something that one does by force of will, by the push and pull of muscle. It takes time, an educated ear, patience and inner stillness, which should not be confused with passivity. It entails a moment of suspension. 

Those who meditate deeply have an understanding of this matter; that is, the deeper one goes, the more the breath seems to be suspended. This is because the meditator is listening, which has everything to do with an awareness that eschews discursive thought. Singers, likewise, live in the sound of the vowel, not thoughts about the vowel; the vowel itself coming into being because the singer must bridge the gulf between two seemingly separate selves, vocal folds, ways of hearing, sides of the body: making everything one. 

January 5, 2013

Choose your chair

The great tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, asked his father if he should study to be a singer or to be a teacher. 

‘Luciano,’ my father replied, ‘if you try to sit on two chairs, you will fall between them. For life, you must choose one chair.’ “I chose one. It took seven years of study and frustration before I made my first professional appearance. It took another seven to reach the Metropolitan Opera. And now I think whether it’s laying bricks, writing a book–whatever we choose–we should give ourselves to it. Commitment, that’s the key. Choose one chair.

You have to chose to be a singer, even in the face of opposition.  How well I remember singing for a highly regarded voice teacher in Philadelphia just before I went to graduate school. She suggested that I would make a better conductor than singer, and while there may have been some truth in her words, my daemon thought otherwise. I kept pursuing my goal of learning everything I could about the voice, eventually finding my way to Manhattan and its musical life, New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, a wonderful training ground for my present life as a teacher of voice.

While I was in school, I met and sang for the doyenne of voice teachers, Margaret Harshaw, who pushed me forward. She quizzed me as to my career aspirations, and when I said that I wanted to teach singing, her eyebrows shot up, and then she looked at me quizzically with eyes narrowed and said: "You have to be able to sing really well to do that!" She thought I had a good voice, and then proceeded to show me how to use it, letting me ask lots of questions, which—I realized later—wasn't exactly her usual modus operandi. Was I special? No. But she respected curiosity and commitment. If you worked hard, she was right there with you. 

Choosing your chair means more than dabbling, more than kinda, sorta trying something out to see if you like it or not. I can tell within 15 seconds whether the person calling me for voice lessons has a passion for singing or not. How? I can hear it in the sound of their voice. What is the dead give-a-way? A hint of fear. We fear what we really want,  resistance building in direct proportion to our desire. Really good actors say that they won't take a role unless something about it scares them. I felt it myself when I met my teacher: excitement and fear mixed together. It means you are where you are meant to be.

Find your fear and choose your chair. Life will conspire to help you find your way. 

January 4, 2013

Conducting a Breath

I never sang with him unfortunately, but have many colleagues who did, and have been told that Leonard Bernstein 'got' voices. Why? He breathed with you. You'd think every conductor worth his salt would do this as a matter of course, but I am sorry to report that this is not the case. 

What does 'breathing with the singer' mean? It means that the conductor isn't stuck in his head. It means that you, as as singer, can feel what he is going to do even before you see what he or she is going to do. If this sounds strange, well... all I can say is: spend a lot of time in an opera house and you will know what I mean. What are some of the things you learn in the process? 

  1. The conductor that doesn't breathe with you doesn't connect with you. He usually thinks this is your fault.
  2. The conductor who doesn't breathe with you demands to be figured out. You stand there looking at her movements, trying to figure out what to look at so you can stay with her beat. Where it is? Her wrist? Elbow? Eyebrow? Trouble is: having to figure it out is the problem. If she would simply breath, the issue would likely correct itself. 
  3. Breathing = Feeling. The conductor who doesn't breathe is sending his brain the wrong message, one which is telegraphed to you. 
  4. When the conductor doesn't breathe, you don't breathe, even though you know you should. You stand there stiff, waiting to see what is going to happen. Your logical mind doesn't help you since we are born imitators. We copy what we see. This doesn't make for a lot of fun music making.
  5. The conductor who doesn't breathe moves ever faster, mistaking more action for greater meaning. He doesn't leave you any room to breathe.
  6. The conductor who breathes with you may not have the greatest stick technique, but you make beautiful music together. It's a veritable love fest. He may have wacky musical ideas, but you'll be game because the musical pheromones are swimming between you.
  7. The conductor who breathes is often observed singing, even if there isn't a 'voice' there.
  8. The conductor who breathes with you doesn't have to talk very much. Instead, he just shows you how he wants the music to go. Phrasing happens as a matter of course.
  9. The conductor who breathes with you thinks with you. Your minds are joined as one. The extraordinary happens. You can be a mile away at the back of the stage, and you'll be in sync. 
  10. You trust the conductor who breathes. You can relax. You feel safe. You can sing. 

January 1, 2013

Auld Lang Syne c. 1907

Robert Burns

Funny how the mind knits things together. Yesterday, I read Keryln Klinkenborg's article in the NYTimes, So Many Snapshots, So Few Voices Saved, which recounts the removal of a papilloma from her vocal folds that restored her voice to its former sound after 20 years. Though she had many pictures of herself and family, she had few audio recordings, and only one of her former voice. This resulted in a thought-provoking article, one which notes the time lag that separates visual technology from its aural counterpart. (Go to the opera today and you find much the same thing: visual goodies outweigh the auditory experience. Was it ever thus? No. Read reviews from the 1940's in the NYTimes and you will find singers being compared to those who appeared in the role before them, which seldom, if ever, happens today. The focus was on singing, not production values. Now? Most reviewers spend 80 precent of their time writing about what the see, rather than what they hear.)

A subsequent conversation about New Year's Eve traditions had me researching the Scottish tune Auld Lang Syne. These two events melded together as I listened to the song's first recording by Edison in 1907, which captured the bass-baritone voice of Frank C. Stanley. How curious, I thought. I watched New Year's Eve fireworks in Central Park at midnight, and a statue of Robert Burns, the author of the poem Auld Lang Syne, was a few paces away. I also thought of having found two forgotten recordings of my voice in my mother's basement a little less than a year ago (you can find them in the right hand column, and my original post here). Know what? I'm glad I got to know that young man again.

Here's one thing you can do in the New Year: record your singing for the people you love. You'll be giving them something quite unique, precious even. Think you aren't ready? Give yourself a deadline, study with a good teacher, practice with a mirror, and a digital recorder with a high quality microphone. Capture the singer you are and want to be. You'll thank yourself in 20 years.