January 31, 2014

listening vs feeling

Don't listen to yourself! Feel yourself! That's what the voice teacher is often heard telling a student, my own teacher being among them at one time or another. Of course, she would also say that singing was like a coin, with feeling on one side and tone on the other, which is just about the most comprehensive teaching I've ever encountered, if only because it describes the two avenues by which we process sound, that being bone and air conduction. 

Here's the thing really. Too few voice teachers and singers understand that bone and air conduction are indivisible. You can no more stop listening to one than you can the other, that is, if you know what is good for you. Some, of course, do not, and maintain that feelings are illusory and you can't really hear yourself, so why bother? With that view, one is left to hoard all kinds of neat facts about the voice, and then yammer on about singing without actually doing it. If you think I am kidding, you should go to a voice symposium and try to extrapolate the information that is heard into something useful in the studio.

Several years ago, I spoke with a leading scientist at just such a voice symposium, who noted that, during his training, it was common for those across the hall, that is, the audiologists and hearing specialists, to be involved in research with the guys trying to unravel the mysteries of the vocal tract. But those days are long gone. Now, everyone trains and focuses on their own field, the result being—as far as I can see—a peculiar kind of intellectual myopia. The majority of research on the voice has very little to do with the actual means by which the singer monitors what he/she does, which involves auditory, rather than visual, processing of information. The ear and the larynx aren't separate after all. But you wouldn't know that from current research which confines itself to investigating the vocal tract. Don't get me wrong. It's incredibly valuable research. But knowing the physiology of the vocal tract doesn't teach the singer to sing any more than knowing the grammar of English teaches a Korean immigrant to speak with a Brooklyn accent!

So let's get practical for a minute.

The singer who stops listening to what he/she is doing, and has no awareness of bone conduction is yelling, which is dangerous and damaging to the voice. The Old School, of course, made a big deal of voice placement, which has everything to do with bone conduction. It is felt, being one half of the "coin" that my teacher often talked about. The more bone conducted activity involved, the clearer one's perception of tone.

What does bone conduction sound/feel like? To quote my teacher: "It's the buzzy business that never turns off!" Once clearly apprehended, its application is put to use in exercises which entail a high degree of skill in processing auditory information. As an example, let's take an Old Italian School exercise.

Sing /i/, /e/, /a/, /o/, /u/ in succession, without loosing the gleam of gold inherent in the first vowel, /i/ being the buzziest of them all. You will have to keep your mind's eye on the buzz of /i/ to do this, your ear guiding you through to the end. Will a knowledge of the muscles of the larynx help you?


January 30, 2014

The Sound of Elitism

So a famous opera star will be singing at the Super Bowl this weekend, and the guardians of culture—both high and low—are putting in their oar. The discussion so far has centered around the elitism of opera (as if that is a bad thing), and the supposed supremacy of the common man and his "real' voice—opera being somehow artificial, beyond the pale, not of the people. 

My colleague Jennifer Rivera has written a defense that addresses the matter, insofar as it discusses the athleticism and training involved in opera. Rivera is spot-on of course. Having worked in an opera house for more than two-decades, I can tell you that it takes a hell of a lot of training to get to the stage, much less stay on the stage for a long career. 

But I want to address another matter here, one that is poorly understood, if at all. And that is the nature of sound, and the effect that different frequencies have on the body and psyche. I take the work of Tomatis as my point of reference since he, more than anyone, observed the effect different frequencies have on the body and mind of the listener. What did he observe? 

Higher frequencies stimulate higher thought, while lower ones bring to mind the body. 

The violin carries high frequencies to the ear, while the sound of a drum carries lower ones. Therein lies the difference in simple terms, which can be extended to the difference in classical and popular styles of music—musical styles, of course, being a complex matter, along with the cultural associations that company them.  To extend further, Tomatis observered that drumming can induce an altered state of consciousness as can the sound of high frequencies (something I wrote about here). However, drumming does this through the introduction of a hypnotic state via the deadening of the senses, while the audition of higher frequencies can take one out of the body and into an experience of Samadhi via the refinement of the senses. Are they the same kind of experience? No. But I'm not ready to say that one is better than the other any more than I am willing to say that classical music is better than pop. It's all a matter of where one is going and the road taken, even yogic thought recognizing that there are two paths to enlightenment. 

My own experience with coming down the "mountain of sound" after listening to higher frequencies at the Listening Centre in Toronto was instructive. As the process unfolded over the space of a few hours, I felt the tickle of vibration lower and lower in my body, starting from above my head and ending in my pelvis and legs. The sensation was one of becoming earthbound, and accompanied by the queer sensation that I was being weaned off precious nectar—the bottle being pulled straight from my mouth. "No. You can't have any more of that now! You'll have to sit on the meditation cushion until the next time!" Really. That's how it felt. 

To sing, the singer has to be open to higher frequencies. That's what makes singing happen after all. For the teacher, this means giving students exercises which allow this to happen. My teacher said it another way: 

When you sing, you are like a house with all the doors and windows open. Yes, It's like that. 

January 22, 2014

listening, singing and audio-vocal control

I went to the Listening Centre in Toronto in the Fall of 1999, then again in the Spring of 2000, spending a total of 60 hours receiving Tomatis' listening training which changed my voice and life, and ultimately led me to look at the teachings of the Old Italian School in a new way. Subsequent visits only deepened my experience. 

When I went to the Listening Centre, I was a decade into my career at New York City Opera, and felt like I was losing my grip on my technique. No wonder. Sustained exposure to loud sound environments doesn't just lead to hearing loss, it can also affect the singer's audio-vocal control. That's what was happening to me, most likely as a result of already having minor hearing loss. 

Singer's often experience loss of audio-vocal control, if only from having had a colleague sing right into the ear at close range. This momentary deafness is quickly forgotten. What is more annoying however, is the incipient hoarseness which often follows—a sure sign that the ear has shut down to protect itself. Normal  singing sensations then seem dim and far away. In fact, the singer's audio-vocal control has effectively crashed, but this is usually passed off as nerves or a sudden attack of allergies. But it is neither. 

Much has been written about the effects of air travel on the singing voice; lack of sleep and repeated upset of biorhythm being the culprit in the singer's vocal decline.  However, no one seems to think about the effect a noisy airplane cabin can have on the voice. Even with hearing protection, bone conducted sound can cause the ear to close, the two small muscles relaxing, leading to a loss of audio-vocal control. Regaining audio-vocal control usually entails a good night's sleep—even several. But what does the singer usually think? That he/she hasn't had enough water while in flight, or drank too much (alcohol also affects audio-vocal control). 

Experiencing Tomatis' listening training in Toronto made me aware of how the voice is a dynamic system in a sea of sound. There really is a huge difference between hearing and listening, the latter being the means by which the singer does his/her thing. Old Italian School teachers seemed to have understood this matter intuitively with their insistence that students sing scales and exercises for a protracted period, which was nothing more than a mechanism for learning to listen. This took time, usually more time that the singer was willing to give. Now all bets are off, since the university system does not allow for it. 

Once the listening faculty is fully open, all kinds of sensations can arise. I've not forgotten the day at the Centre when I could feel my pelvis respond to my own speaking/singing voice in a way that I had never felt before. That was something. Down there was really down there! With it came a much stronger sensation of voice placement. What does science have to say about all this? Not much, if anything. 

For more information on listening and singing from a Tomatis perspective, I encourage you to read Dr. Alfred A, Tomatis' The Ear and Voice and Paul Madaule's When Listening Comes Alive. You can find both in the  Tomatis resource section in the right hand corner of this blog. 

January 21, 2014


Anna E. Schoen-René
Mittlestimme was a term used by Anna E. Schoen-René, one of the most famous voice teachers in America in the 20th century, who's own teachers were Pauline Viardot-García and Manuel García. The word, of course, is German. No surprise there, since Schoen-René was German.

No, you won't find the term Mittlestimme or middle voice in García's writings. Yes, he did write about the middle register, calling it the falsetto register (many confuse it with falsetto production unfortunately), which is a woman's middle voice and a man's upper register. However, that's not what Schoen-René meant by Mittlestimme. To understand her teaching, you have to go back to an earlier era, when the singing voice was viewed through the ear (now that's a curious turn of phrase), rather than the laryngoscope or the spectrograph. 

Ear-oriented teachers heard three voices in each individual, the lowest notes bringing to mind thoughts of the chest, middle notes thoughts of the throat area, and high notes thoughts of the head. It is a perceptual tool that's been ignored now that the action of the vocal folds (in conjunction with the pharynx) have been thoroughly explored. Yes, the source of the voice is in the larynx, not the head or the chest. However, knowing the "facts of function" doesn't teach the singer or voice teacher to listen anymore than knowing the birds and bees teaches one how to make love. Hello!

Schoen-René used the term Mittlestimme to denote the "voice" between head and chest, that is, open-throated, full voice vocal production that is placed in the mask. Herman Klein, another García exponent, wrote about it in my recently published Hidden In Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based Upon The Famous School Of Manuel Garcia, calling it "Singing Position." Practically speaking, this means that women, when acquiring the correct "Singing Position," should avoid blatant chest voice, chest resonance, however, being another matter. Aren't they the same thing, you ask? No! (Schoen-René understood Mittlestimme as involving "undertone" and "overtone.")

You can't learn to drive a car by knowing what's under the hood. For that, you have to get behind the wheel.

To sing, or to teach singing, you have to learn how to listen. 

January 20, 2014

Old School Terminology

Manuel García
Open throat, voice placement, singing-on-the-breath, pure vowels; these are just a few of the Old School terms readers have encountered on this blog. Not only have they fallen into disfavor, they are actively discouraged by many voice teachers, especially younger ones who have no real connection to the teachings and methods of legendary voice teachers, and who's studies been taken place in the voice lab. 

What a strange time we live in. We have great access to all kinds of information through all kinds of mediums, yet students of the voice don't seem to be very curious about pedagogical history and thought. How do I know this? Via the conversations I've had over the years about the teaching of singing and Old School teachers. 

I find myself asking students and teachers if they have read García's works, and they usually blink and look sheepish. Sure, they know the guy invented the laryngoscope, but they haven't read his works, or know what he actually taught. More people seem to know about the Lamperti School  and to have read Vocal Wisdom, which is representative of the School, but this isn't saying much, since the modern scientific school considers it rather suspect, to put it mildly. Oh, and did I mention that the García School used the terms mentioned above in the studio? They were common parlance during the 19th and early 20th century.  

While García's great contribution was to assign physiological causes to tone—a very muscle-this, cartilage-that kind of approach, it did not stop him from conducting himself like an empiricist as far as terminology was concerned. In fact, he steered clear of all physiological terms because he thought they would confuse the student! Instead of blathering about larynx and pharynx, crio-this and arytenoid-that, he concerned himself with real-time vocal behaviors, which is what the terms above describe. They are based on what is heard, not what is measured on a graph.

January 14, 2014

long distance learning

The student walks into the studio as though visiting the doctor; wanting the pill that will make things right and bring them back to vocal health, even make them famous overnight. You think I jest? I do not. I see that look in their eyes from time to time, and it always gives me pause. What this kind of student doesn't know, and doesn't want to hear, is that learning to sing takes time—more time than they are willing to give to the art form.

If you can get them to stay, to work on their voice (which amounts to working on the Self—which you are smart never to articulate out loud), they experience the change they desire, but it comes when they aren't looking, over the span of weeks and months, which is exactly how language is learned. The Old School maintained that it took at least 3 years to learn to sing, a ball-park figure which experience has confirmed. Of course, no one wants to hear this in our "I must have it now" world. Click and drag, and the world is ours, at least on the computer screen. The world of singing operates differently.

I've been working with a young man for about two and a half years now, and hadn't seen him over the holidays, and during his lesson today, he mentioned that he'd been practicing as I had taught him, in ten minute intervals 4-5 times a day, a stratagem that has served him well with sustained and steady progress—progress that is evidenced in observable gains that haven't melted in the face of challenges. That's the thing, really. The brain doesn't care what you know, or think you know. The stacks of facts you've acquired along the way can't do you much good if they aren't of practical use. Neither are the gadgets that are becoming popular in the voice studio. (Do we need mechanical aids in order to speak? Then why is it that we think we need them in order to sing?) The brain only responds to what you do, over and over again, ad nauseam. It's really that simple, though this is hard for many to accept. The trick is to know what to practice, and how to practice it. For that, one needs specific, tailor-made instruction. 

Singers who seem to have had the goods from the get-go don't appear out of nowhere. Their development has only been out of sight, gestating from a young age. Some call it talent. I call it great listening, which bides its time until it meets a catalyst, often in the form of another artist or an aesthetic event.  Then the training begins, and involves more long distance learning, spanning umpteen musical environments and disciplines. 

Want to be a singer? Learn an instrument. Lean to read music. Learn foreign languages. Inculcate everything your eyes see and your ears hear. It's only then that you can sing your Self.  

January 4, 2014

Flexion & Extension

You'd think the world was coming to an end, that is, if you believed all that's been written about women's voices and the production of musicals on TV the past few weeks. No more legit singing allowed. That's what I've been reading from colleagues and friends on social media and blogs. Instead, producers want real voices. Not those cultivated hot-house conservatory ones with an ample amount of head voice. Nope. It's all about throwing grind and grit into the stratosphere. Of course, it ain't pretty. But then, it's not supposed to be, is it? It's all about keeping the vocal folds dense, shortened and thick, and producing mind-numbing amounts of vocal intensity. Super-belt even. This, my friends, is flexion at its finest. 

The other avenue is extension, which is all about obtaining "loft" in the voice, ethereal vocal tone where the vocal folds are stretched taut, rigid even—a must for the early music singer (don't get me started on its supposed historicity). It's production is considered real too. But in a very different way than that of the Broadway super-belter. Closer to heaven, it is considered Platonic—an echo of the Real. 

Of course, both of these approaches can be seen as being diametrically opposed, which they are, when viewed from a functional perspective.

Alfred A.Tomatis is the only person I know who made clinical observations about the singing voice in terms of how the two muscles of the ear integrate with the body. One of his observations was that the audition of high frequencies initiates the extension of the spine, while the audition of lower ones causes it to contract (stapedius vs tensor tympani). Another is that the voice can only produce the frequencies that the ear can hear. What does this have to do with the production of super-belt and straight-tone? Good question. 

In straight-tone singing, there is the tendency towards stiffened extension of the muscles of the body, while in super-belting, there is a tendency towards stiffened contraction. For many vocal pedagogues, this stiffness is often addressed by having the student "relax." But this mental maneuver cannot bring the singer's audio-vocal loop into balance. For that, the singer has to change their  conception of tone. 

Tomatis also observed that, when the singer's ear is open towards higher frequencies, depth and warmth are present in the voice. However, he was talking about "legit" vocal production, be it that of the monk who sings his prayers, or the secular artist who sings on stage—the latter having more body in the tone. This is the Middle Way, which is reflected in balanced muscle tonus of the body. It steers clear of extremes, where present day American culture seems to find itself, whether is it in the division of political parties in Congress, or the musical values beamed across the airwaves.