September 17, 2014

The Ear is the Spine 2

Manuel García (1805-1906)
I admit it. When I first started conducting historical vocal pedagogy research, I was mechanically minded. I mean, how could I not be after drinking the you-must-move-your-muscles-just-so kool-aid that has coursed through the teaching of singing for the last one hundred and fifty years or so? 

Ever since Manuel García looked down his throat and described the physiology of various timbres and the adduction of the vocal folds, voice teachers and their students have been seduced into thinking the voice can be controlled through some kind of manipulation. Mind you, he didn't teach in a mechanical fashion, refraining from inundating his students with anatomical terms and fistfuls of physiology, but that hasn't stopped modern meddling, has it?

It doesn't matter where you land on the pedagogical spectrum: dyed-in-the-wool empiricists (an increasingly rare species) and fact-based pedagogues have an insatiable desire to control the voice mechanically. 

"Her soft palate isn't high enough!" Intones the important pedagogue at jury. "There isn't enough AT activity!" Says another, as if the singer can somehow make these things happen at will.

We think, because we know more about anatomy, physiological and acoustics, that our knowing will give us more control, which strikes me as a rather Freudian approach; after all, how does knowledge of—say—the muscles of the larynx teach the student to change their vocal behavior anymore than delving into the dysfunction of childhood change destructive behavior patterns? Knowing "why" doesn't automatically translate into "how." Clearly, something more is required.

You can't control the voice: you can only control what it wants! - Margaret Harshaw

That's what the doyenne of voice teachers thought. Of course, there are many ways to define what the voice "wants," but if you were to ask an Old Italian School voice teacher to boil this statement down, you would probably be left with these terms: Breath, Open Throat, Placement. Interestingly, all three refer to an aspect of auditory function. 

For the Old Italian School voice teacher, breath was more than the air in the lungs. It was a feeling of buoyancy and lift throughout the body, and brought about through inhalation. Viewed through the perspective of Tomatis, feelings of bouncy and lift involve extension of the spine and an open ribcage, which are a clear expression of an open auditory system; one that is fully engaged—the muscles of the ear being poised to navigate the world of sound from the top down, that is, from high frequencies to low, these same feelings of extension arising through the ear's vestibular function. 

What does an open auditory system lead to? Simply put, it involves the exploration of closed and opened vowels, which bring about a multitude of vocal behaviors for those who know how to mine their gold. 

For their own part, the Old Italian School voice teachers insisted that /a/ was the vowel which had to be mastered since it enabled the singer to sing with an open throat—an auditory experience that was accompanied by the auditory awareness of placement. Again, from a Tomatis perspective, I believe this vowel is the hardest to master because it involves self-mastery of the forces of extension and flexion (see Tomatis' The Ear and the Voice for more detail regarding the integration of the muscles of the ear with those of the body). 

Breath, Open Throat, Placement. You can't separate one from the others. They exist like a stool with three legs. Take one away and your ass is in the grass. 

Either the spine elongates and the ribcage opens or it doesn't. Either the ear and face are open or they aren't. Mouthing, making faces, and pulling and pushing on this and that muscle won't make it happen. In the end, the canny and aware student, after long and patient practice, realizes the ear is the spine.

It's an odd thing really. A teacher can, through various means help the student's ear to open, which will immediately stimulate a response. And what does the student usually notice when this happens? The response rather than the stimulus, which they will then try to control. 

To know the difference is to know everything. 

Note: I wrote another post with this title on May 13th, 2013, which you can find here

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