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/.  

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