The Meaning of Effort

Brigit Nilsson was famous for saying that what one really needed for the role of Isolde was a comfortable pair of shoes. Of course, anyone who has a dedicated yoga practice, or has sung a major role in a musical or opera knows the meaning of "effort." There is that moment when the body meets the mat or stage, breath is taken, and one does what one does—or  has learned to do—as a result of long practice. What gives the yogi or singer a sense of ease in performing their chosen tasks? The balance of two great forces: extension and flexion.

"Effort," for many voice students, is a matter of flexion, of a tensing and shortening of muscles of the body. It  also conjures the word "support," which is quite the catch-all term. However, flexion is only half of the equation, extension being the necessary prerequisite for balanced movement.

The analytical mind closes the ear and face, pulls the head down, shortens the spine—which is the very opposite of extension, and dampens the sights and sounds of one's environment. This is a good thing if you are trying to parse the grammar of a sentence, write computer code, or figure out the plot to an Agatha Christie novel. As such, the mind is engaged in a closed-system response, one that crowds out a great deal of stimuli. Why is this? Analysis isn't intent on communication. To sing while analyzing? Deadly. It's like driving with the brakes on.

Singing requires an open-system response, one that involves both auditory and physical extension. Calling, psychologically speaking, is about connecting to another human being, which is why "call" and "response" is an ancient method used by vocal pedagogues. To extend physically? This involves the spinal erector muscles, which is less a forcing of the body into a vertical position—i.e. imposing military posture—than it is a by-product of an open ear. What causes the ear to open? The desire to communicate clearly. Awe and wonder enable it, which is reflected in the vowel /o/.

  1. Put your hand on the back of your neck.
  2. 'Call' /o/ as though having seen the most amazing sight or person. 
  3. Sustain your /o/ for at least 6 seconds. If done with utmost and sincere attention, you will feel the spine extend both up and down, and the ribcage open. If you are watching in a mirror, you will see the area around the eyes and upper lip widen. This is evidence of an open ear. 
  4. The higher the vocalization, the greater the extension of the spine in both directions. 

Instead of experiencing extension, the singer who experiences effort feels the constriction of contraction. Relaxation, however, doesn't help him, since relaxation has little to do with extension. Extension involves innervation, not relaxation. Of course, the mind can do curious things. It can suppose that effort is a sign of progress, a heroic journey, and something to be cultivated. It can even suppose that effort is a sign of real meaning.

The Old School taught that singing should not entail more "effort" than what is needed to speak (speaking resonantly is its own teaching, it should be noted). Why the need to make it more complicated that that?

Tomatis observed that the muscles of the ear have everything to do with the activity of extension and flexion in the body (stapedius & tensor tympani). The more I teach singing, the more I see that he was correct. Both yogi and singer seek extension, if only to lift and spread their wings.

If you practice yoga, and are familiar with the chanting of 'aum,' you will probably realize that it starts with /o/. Do it with extension, clarity and devotion.


Marcellina said…
Very interesting blog. Thank your wonderful posts on experiencing tinnitus and hearing loss. I wish I could have read something this reassuring in 2006 when I first experienced mine.
Thank you for your kind words, Marcellina. As well, thank you for referencing this blog in your recent post on your beautiful blog. I am sorry you'd had to deal with tinnitus. It can be a trip, though it sounds like you are doing well. Wishing you all good things. Daniel