February 27, 2013

Regular Vibration

As auditory sensations go, listening to the head ring with tone is perhaps the oldest one in the book. In point of fact, the idea comprises the very heart of the Lamperti School as presented by William Earl Brown, who recorded the teaching of Giovanni Battista Lamperti  in Vocal Wisdom (1931). Here are the relevant excerpts.  

After the voice is developed, stop thinking of the growing years, and sing from the head down. The presence of resonance in head, mouth and chest (overtones) is proof that your voice is full-grown, full-fleshed. Thereafter you get ready to sing from your head downward, because your head is the instrument.
No matter what the character of the voice be (bass, tenor, contralto, soprano) it should feel high placed and sound high focused. 
The slightest escapement of compressed breath must arouse the pitch of the desired tone, vibrating intensely enough to be felt in the skull. 
Your voice is focussed only when in its entire range it is intense enough to feel started and stopped in the same spot- the center of the skull. 
Your voice will continue focused in your skull so long as you sing with regular vibration in the throat, fed by compressed breath controlled in the pelvis. 
Vibration of the voice is like the string. Breath is the bow. What is this added help? Regular vibration. Like resin, it prevents slipping. Energy can play on it, but not by push or pull. It is not heard by the audience. But it is felt by the singer, in his head. It is sometimes mistaken for hoarseness of phlegm. When it appears in the voice it re-educates the entire process of singing because it becomes master. It is this that makes the voice feel like one register, one mechanism from top to bottom. 
The feeling of perpendicular vibration from the focus in the middle of the skull to the pelvic control is a sign that the right and left vocal-cords and sides of the body are concertedly functioning, "synchronizing." 
Though the start of the tone seems hum-like, and felt at a certain spot in the bony structure of the head, it is useless to insist on the sensation of a focus, until the body instinctively compresses and pelvicly controls breath. The spot where tone seems to start, is the place where the vibration of "ng" (as pronounced in the word "England") is located. Because all tones high or low seem to start in the same place, the voice is said to have one register but three resonances. 
When this composite sound is focused in the middle of the skull, it can be moulded by the lips into any form or shaded to any color, changed from one vowel to another and made to open or close at will. It is the "dark-light" tone, which unites all registers, that can be sung with mouth open or shut. It demands control of all muscles from top of head to middle of waist. Keeping such a tone focused in the head depends on the connected energies from waist to pelvis. 
The focused start of all tones must be so powerfully charged with energy that it needs a guiding, restraining "hand" (diaphragm). Only when this self acting "attack" is full of controlled energy can it be felt in the skull. 
Focus of tone consciously starts and remains in the bony structure of the skull. The sense of touch realizes it. 
A "focus" is the spot in the skull where the concentrated rays of vibration (made in the throat) impinge. 
The sympathetic reverberation of the middle sinus in the skull- an enclosed cavity in the head directly above the pharynx. In fact, the bony structure of the skull reports all that happens in the throat. 

Curiously, one student of the elder Lamperti called the 'spot' in the head the "throne of the pharynx."  An interesting phrase, it calls to mind thoughts of ownership and sovereignty, which is exactly what Lamperti suggests. Of course, voice science considers this imagery, but I beg to differ. I am not suggesting that the middle of the head actually resonants like the glottis and vocal tract. Even Lamperti knew that it did not, noting that sensation of tone in the head is an illusion, albeit a very necessary one.

When you realize that nothing leaves the throat (which only sets up vibrations) you will stop pushing and pulling to make your voice "carry." The "carrying power" depends on the regularity and intensity of the vibrations, and not on your efforts. 

Lamperti is right. You can't find 'regular vibration' by pushing air through your throat. Nor will it appear via visualization. When brings it forth? Calling. Calling with the strong desire to communicate. Closed vowels like /i/ and /e/ aid it. 

"/eeeeeeeeeeeee/ Giovanni!" The Italian street vendor cries across the piazza. The desire to be heard allows the voice to come forth clear as a bell, not some complicated pushing and pulling of muscles.

The regular vibration that Lamperti is talking about? /e/ and /i/ have it when called clearly, /e/ often being more successful in the beginning. Transfer this 'vibration' to /a/ and you are half way there. Obtain it on /o/ and /u/ and you have really learned something, since they are least likely to have it. The next step is exercising your voice on all five vowels within a two octave range. This is what is needed for an operatic role or a pop song with range. 

The singer who experiences regular vibration feels all the muscles between pelvis and crown of head lift. In fact, they lift on the inhalation before any tone comes forth. Again, the strong desire to communicate makes this happen.

What is regular vibration? Heightened bone conduction. It leads the voice. He who masters it has a voice. 

February 18, 2013

To what you said

Walt Whitman

I heard Walt Whitman on the radio the other night, cradled within Leonard Bernstein's haunting music from Songfest, his words sad and beautiful, reaching across time.

To what you said, passionately clasping my hand, this is my answer: 
Though you have strayed hither, for my sake, you can never belong to me, 
Nor I to you, 
Behold the customary loves and friendships the cold guards 
I am that rough and simple person
I am he who kisses his comrade lightly on the lips at parting,
And I am one who is kissed in return,
I introduce the new American salute
Behold love choked, correct, polite, alway suspicious
Behold the received models of the parlors - 
What are they to me? 
What to these men that travel with me? 

Walt Whitman c. 1870's 

Getting up the next morning, I pulled out my piano-vocal score and sang through Bernstein's song, remembering lost love, the sixty-five members of New York City Opera drawn under the waves by AIDS, my undergraduate years at an Assembly of God liberal arts college in the midwest, what it means to stand in one's truth, and paths not taken. 

Since Thomas Hampson has rather eloquent words to say about this piece (which you can find here), there is no need to add my own. However, I would simply add that singing a work such as this means going to a place that makes you feel vulnerable: all the doors and windows of the soul are opened.

Listen to my colleague Robert Osborne sing Whitman's words below. I had the great pleasure of singing with him some years ago.  A really good man, artist and singer. 

February 17, 2013


Shameless self-promotion. That's what it is. But I figure I am in good company, since Mathilde Marchesi was one of the first voice teachers to advertise in the American press in a big way (an interesting article on Marchesi's methods can be found here). Shocking at the time, she also made prospective students plunk down three to four year's worth of fees on the table before they began lessons. If you dropped out? Well, that was your problem, not hers. 

What am I yammering about? The revamping of my presence on about.me, the social media site where you can organize all your info, from your personal website to your blog and everything in between. Click here to see what I mean.  

Why do I like about.me? Aside from the fact that one can create an attractive presence to the world, about.me shows up on the first page of a google search, an essential thing for the private voice teacher or singer.  It's good to have a means for people to find you, even if 'word of mouth' is still the best avenue. The downside? I haven't encountered one yet. Oh yeah. I did order 50 free business cards which cost me 5 bucks postage. 

It's perverse, but I keep hearing that simple song "This little light of mine" on a loop at the back of my head. What is it intoning?  If you don't promote yourself, no one will. 

I grew up in a time when the idea was that if you sang really well, people would notice and life would happen: you'd make your way into a career just by being wonderful. While that can be true for the few, it is a bubble waiting to burst for everyone else. You can sing like a god, and the gods won't give you the time of day for one reason or another. That's the hard truth regarding the singing profession. It rewards those with the goods, which can consist of looks, being the right height and weight, and having the right voice part or knowing the part. I've known good singers who have auditioned over and over, banging their heads against a wall. Sometimes they make it, and sometimes they don't. It would be easy to say that those who do have a metaphysical advantage, as if believing makes it so. But the matter doesn't seem that clear. What does seem clear, however, is that those who have been successful have one thing in common: they have to sing. 

You have to put it out there for the universe to respond.  Great vocal technique? It's part of the package. 

February 16, 2013

Held From Heaven

So wrote Manuel García in Hints on Singing in 1894 (which you can find in the right hand column).  It's true of course. But good luck telling this to a student and their being about to demonstrate the difference. Kinesthetic awareness is a funny thing. More often than not, the student feels what isn't working long before they can identify what is. Ask them what they feel and hear when everything is going well, and they will tell you the voice is free. Well, of course it is. But detailed information? What are the physiological conditions leading to freedom, to different sounds, to clear and sombre timbre? Not on their radar. Not really. That usually takes a while to sink in. This is why I assert 'singing' is a language. You learn to 'speak' singing by hearing it, afterwards learning its grammar - the physiological stuff. Some never really get a handle on it. And you know what? Not everyone has the wherewithall to be the vocal equivalent of a wordsmith. I've quoted her before, but García's student Anna. E. Schoen-René is worth remembering on this point.

Scientific explanations can only be grasped by singers already educated in the principals of their art- from America's Musical Inheritance (1941) by Anna E. Schoen-René

What were the principals taught by Schoen-René? Pure vowels for one thing, though it's not a term you are likely to hear much since it's considered obsolete, 'formant-speak' being all the rage.  Students were taught to 'call' on /a/, which 'opened' the throat. My contention is: if you can't hear what this means, you won't be able to feel it either. In that sense, Schoen-René is talking about the education of the singer's listening faculty, one that is active rather than passive.

I find myself telling students to 1) listen first,  2) feel later, which turns the mechanical approach on its ear. Why do I do this? Because instruction to 'move the parts' all too often leads the student's attention away from listening to mechanically manipulating the tone - which results in bungling.

But here's the thing. Get a student to experiment with sound? To imitate clear vowels and then guttural and nasal ones? Then observe the body while doing it again while listening intently? The most extraordinary thing can happen, which is awareness of something happening (or not) in the vocal tract.

We learn by contrast, by listening, not by trying to mechanically make something happen we can't do in the first place.

Back to /a/. The English language has the tendency to gutturalize it, which is far from what García is writing about. Whether the vowel is clear or sombre, it's 'pureness' depends on the vowel being 'rounded'. How can this rounding be experienced? By practicing a very clear /o/ vowel.  How it this done? By being a kid again and exclaiming:  Oh boy! 

Say this really meaning it, eyes wide, totally gleeful (not easy for the oh so serious adult), paying attention to clarity of vowel, that is, turning on the ears. Then 'feel' what happens inside the mouth.

/o/ is a very high vowel.  It embodies, demands and invokes awe and wonder. The spine extends, its muscles gently yet firmly rounding. The naso-pharynx arches in response, rising even higher for /u/.

/a/? It is held from heaven.  

Photo: The Cloisters, Norwich Cathedral 

February 12, 2013


Shortly after I began researching the world of Manuel García and Pauline Viardot-García, I learned that  their student Anna E. Schoen-René (who taught Margaret Harshaw and many other successful students) was very much against the idea of yawning in the voice studio. Her observation was that yawning - in any denomination - stiffened the larynx. That's interesting, I thought.

Tucking this nugget of information away, I didn't think much about it, perhaps, because I never really warmed to the idea of yawning in the first place. There are many who do however, often taking pains to point out that it is the beginning of a yawn that is beneficial. They believe it opens the throat. 

But what about the ear? Is it open during a yawn? This is what I started thinking about when I found myself yawning and - momentarily - going deaf. Of course, you've undoubtedly experienced this, but probably weren't aware of it since the moment passes quickly. But it really does happen. We go deaf when we yawn big.  Here's why. 

  • The ear drum can only vibrate freely when the pressure on either side of it is similar. 
  • The eustachian tube regulates the pressure of the middle ear. 
  • During a yawn, the eustachian tube opens which stretches the muscle of the eardrum - the tensor tympani. This stretching prevents the eardrum from vibrating freely.
  • Between the slight change in air pressure and the tensor tympani muscle being stretched, vibration is not able to enter the middle and inner ear. 
  • Voila! The yawning person is deaf! 

In light of this information, I posit that yawning while singing is like driving a car with the brakes on, which compromises the singer's audio-vocal control. Perhaps Madam Schoen-René was on to something after all, since the larynx is neurologically connected to the ear via the vagus nerve. Now, ain't that something? 

February 9, 2013

Letter to the Reader

Dear Reader, 

Enclosed please find new changes to VoiceTalk, among them 1) links to my articles written for VOICEPrints- the Official Journal of the New York Singing Teachers Association, 2) important links relevant to the work of Dr. Alfred A. Tomatis- the Christopher Columbus of the ear, and 3) a new headshot contained in my Blogger Profile by Joshua South - a talented photographer. These additions can be found in the right hand column. Why all the upgrading - as it were? Well, in terms of the Tomatis links, I decided to include them after being pleasantly surprised by the number of 'hits' on my post about Susan Hurley's dissertation (see here). It seems that you, dear reader, want to know more. The headshot is another matter. My old one was five years old, a century in our image conscious world. Even though my head may be busy looking into the world of Garcia and Lamperti, it's good to keep up with the times.  

Thank you for visiting VoiceTalk! 

February 6, 2013


Charlie Chaplin
Smile was written by Charlie Chaplin for the 1936 movie Modern Times. In 1954, John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons gave Chaplin's tune its title and lyrics. Everyone has sung it, which is why it's considered a Standard. As the name implies, a Standard is a song that enters popular consciousness, touching the heart and mind of many listeners.

To use the word in a different way, one might say that the 'smile' was the Standard during the 18th and 19th centuries- at least in pedagogical terms. It's mentioned in all the important singing manuals, the 'biggie', of course, being Manuel García's A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing (1847), who noted that the opening of the mouth should be "towards a smile." 

From a Tomatis point of view, if the eyes aren't smiling, you aren't smiling at all. For that to happen, your face has to light up like you have just seen a long lost love, found the dog that ran off, or learned you won the lottery. Is that so hard to do? Yes. For many people it is, especially in the voice studio when someone is suggesting you do just that. Singers can be so self-conscious, yet they also want to be seen and heard. To hear yourself? That involves turning your ear on and listening to yourself. It means smiling to yourself. That plastered grin that you see on people's faces with the eyes looking concerned, worried, dead? Not a smile. 

Why is smiling so important? True smiling indicates that the ear is listening to the whole gamut of frequencies, from high to low. How? The facial nerve inserts into the inner ear via a tiny muscle called the Stapedius, which is connected to the Stirrup - a tiny bone in the inner ear. Tomatis' theory, which is based on  observation, has real consequences for the voice studio. The environment has to be such that the student is enabled to 'open' the ear. This means it can be hard slogging when the teacher or student is critical and unforgiving. It's damn hard to smile to yourself when someone is yelling at you, either internally or externally. This is important because, as Tomatis noted: "The ear is the voice." If the ear isn't open, the voice won't be either. 

Sherry Zannoth
Smile, though your heart is aching
Smile, even though it's breaking
When there are clouds in the sky
You'll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile, and maybe tomorrow
You'll see the sun come shining through 
for you

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear maybe every so near
That's the time you must keep on trying
Smile what's the use of crying
You'll find that life is still worthwhile
If you'll just

Listen to Tony Bennett's version here and Judy Garland's here

How does one smile and stay - auditorially-speaking -  open in the face of life's vicissitudes, when everything is going wrong, whether it is in the studio or in life? That's a good question, one I will answer by remembering a colleague of mine who recently died of cancer. A glorious dramatic soprano, Sherry Zannoth had a very successful career in Germany, that is, until the Berlin wall came down, and opera houses began changing the way they did business. Sherry found herself on a plane back to New York and began picking up the pieces of her life. She sang everywhere and anywhere (we met singing Turandot in Connecticut), was beloved by her synagogue and church choir, and became a really good voice teacher. 

The last time I saw Sherry was at the deli counter at Whole Foods at Columbus Circle, dressed to the nines, as she always was, sporting a flame-colored wig that matched her scarf and pants. We stood and talked for a good twenty minutes, Sherry bringing me up to speed regarding her treatments and latest happenings. She was thinner, but her face was expressive and open. She told me that despite everything she had been through, her voice had never left her.  I could see why. 

Sherry sang every day while in the hospital, even after learning her condition was terminal when a nurse chided her for singing, saying: "You are too weak for that! You aren't going to get better!" What a way to find out, huh? Sherry reacted as she did to everything, that is, by applying a liberal dose of humor to the situation, telling a visiting friend: "Well...If I can't get out of bed, at least I can be a hooker!"  

I heard Sherry sing Verdi's Requiem at her own funeral, and her voice gave me chills. Every inch the first class artist, with radiant top notes, beauty of tone and line, her performance was recorded only six months before her death. Though her legs had weakened and she had to sing from a chair, her ear had not. To know Sherry was to know why.

February 2, 2013


Old School teachings. No. I haven't forgotten them in spite of my recent posts about the world of Tomatis. Far from it. In fact, there is hardly anything I think about more, Tomatis' perspective informing my understanding of the Old School in a way I did not think possible when I was a student.

Case in point. My teacher with the vaunted lineage told me certain things that made little sense when I began lessons with her during my Westminster College Choir days, things that I now understand from a different perspective. One of those things was her pointed instruction to feel and hear the voice as though one had blinders on, the kind you see horses wearing in Central Park.

Those blinders were to be felt from  temple to jaw line. You sang into the 'shell' of the face: buzzy tone behind the blinders and clear tone out in front. I now understand this to encompass the two ways in which we hear ourselves, that is, through bone and air conduction. That buzzy tone? She also told me that it would take some getting used too. I have found her to be right, since this 'buzzy business' is hard for many to accept. Most unwittingly believe the sound inside their head should match what they hear others do. But this isn't -and can never be - the case. To really know what another person sounds like, you have to hear what they hear inside their head!

It doesn't matter what kind of singer you are. Without the /i/ - like buzz of tone, you won't have much tone to do anything with. This includes the intentionally breathy jazz singer (who, consequently, doesn't have much range). If you don't have adequate awareness of bone conduction, you are driving, flying, singing blind.

There is another way to understand this teaching of putting blinders on. And it is this: to put blinders on means that the whole facial mask is innervated. Tomatis called this the Listening Posture.  When the   Listening Posture is attained, the ear is ready to process  the whole gamut of frequencies from high to low.

What accompanies the audition of bone conduction during singing? The sensation of 'drinking'. Francesco Lamperti, who taught this, also told his students that the tone should be well-oiled. It's much the same thing really. We're talking about a felt experience, a matter of proprioception, which is also a matter of bone conduction. My teacher taught me these two concepts as well (her teacher spent some time in Lamperti's studio).

Are you following me here? Are you listening?  I'm giving you the García School's description of an open ear.

Photo credit,  Flickr, viennacafe photostream