Listening and Singing

Oh, I bet you are tired of seeing this graphic from Grays Anatomy, aren't you? But what can I say? It illustrates the area of the body that is the subject of this post. Unfortunately, it doesn't show you  the tiny muscles within the ear. However, if you've been reading this blog for a while, you know the muscle connected to the ear drum is the tensor tympanum, while the muscle connected to the stirrup is the stapedius. According to Tomatis, both have an active role in listening. 

If there is anything that drives me nuts, its the complete unawareness on the part of singing teachers that the muscles of the ear are involved in singing. No, I am not kidding. There is so much talk of function nowadays, but no awareness whatsoever of the role that the ear plays. Do you know when it becomes an issue? When singers or singing teachers experience hearing loss, tinnitus and other challenges. But up until then, everyone goes about their business as if the ears are simply going along for the ride. Excuse me people: but how clueless can you be? 

Let me tell you a story. One that illustrates the current state of affairs.

I once gave a presentation where I talked about my listening training experience to a group of my peers, thinking, naively perhaps, that I was making a worthy contribution. While a good number of the audience was quite receptive, another segment was not. In fact, it was quite hostile to what I had to present, even going so far as to repeatedly interrupt my talk mid-presentation. Afterwards, a noted member of the community took me to task, telling me that what I experienced was a sham; I was making it all up, and could have gotten a better result by becoming said person's student. Not lost on me, however, was that this same individual spoke with a lisp on three different phonemes—which was readily apparent to one who listened very closely. "So," I thought to myself. "You believe that what I have to contribute is a figment of my imagination, but you seem to have your own listening problem which no amount of physical intervention has helped. What's wrong with this picture?" 

Current vocal pedagogy is replete with voice teachers yammering about fact-based pedagogy, which, I believe in all honesty, is a good thing. I only wish it took into account the active participation of the ear, and not simply the quantifiable processes of the glottis and vocal tract. However, there seems to be precious little interest in the connection between the ear and voice. There are times when I think this has everything to do with the difference in structures. You can see the larynx after all, while the ear is hidden from view. Of course, scientists will assert that they can see what is on a spectrograph. But let's get real here. What do you think of when you think about voice science? What comes to mind? The ear? Of course not. You think of research pertaining to the larynx. In the overall scheme of things, the ear plays second fiddle, being the lowly viola to the violin, which steals every scene it's in (yes, I do mix my metaphors) because it squeaks a little higher. 

Let's get practical. What does the audition of the voice sound like to the singer? You'd think, from what's been written by vocal pedagogues, that the singer's auditory sensations are an individual matter, and not worthy of discussion. The Old School thought differently. While García went on record concerning "cause" rather than "effect," Lamperti was all about making the singer aware of the latter. However, just because García talked about the action of the larynx as being paramount doesn't means that he didn't observe "effect" for what it was. Rather, I believe his remarks simply indicate that he understood the difference between the two, a difference which the historical record supports (see my introduction to Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method Based Upon The Famous School of Manuel Garcia  for details). 

Being at the Listening Centre put into perspective what I had been taught by Margaret Harshaw, who's own teacher, Anna E. Schoen-René, was a student of Manuel García and his sister Pauline Viardot-García. What did I hear in my head during my listening training? A buzzy sound. What did my teacher talk about all the time? The buzzy business that never turns off. What vowel is associated with buzziness? The open-throated /i/ vowel. What is this buzzy sound in terms of the function of the ear? Bone conduction, which is heard ever more clearly in the center of the head as the envelope of the ear is opened, that is, when its capacity to analyze the full complement of frequencies from high to low is enabled by active listening and right ear laterality. I will even go so far as to observe that this sensation of voice placement is one of balanced registration, which is not experienced by the singer who yells either in chest or or hoots in falsetto. This is also why falsetto singing is not—and will never be—bel canto