Why do science-based teachers have a tendency of shooting themselves in the foot?

Ever since I can remember, I have heard teachers say: “You can’t have it both ways!” or “You are straddling the fence!” or “Chose one or the other!” In an attempt to reduce the art of singing to digestible bits, it seems to be a disease of both sides of the teaching spectrum, whether science-based or traditional proprioceptive techniques, to deny the existence or viability of the other.

If I have learned anything about singing in the past 25 years, it is the paradoxical nature of this pursuit. Science and tradition, chiaro “e” scuro (as my teacher Ada Finelli used to say), head voice and chest voice, low resonance and high resonance, music and words, technique and expression, et.
At the end, it is a fusion of “apparent” opposites that makes the whole of the singing experience.
It is indeed incumbent upon the the modern science-based teacher to find relevance in traditional methods, indeed defend them through objective means. Teachers who follow the traditional methods have history on their side and are for reasons of habit and precedence unwilling to embrace new information that require them to look at singing from a different point of view. But those of us who have embraced the objective information that is being revealed can only claim it, when we are able to explain why traditional methods can work as well as when they are truly ill-advised.
The major disconnect between the vocal science community and singers is that vocal scientists miss the boat completely in not understanding that the way singers feel the voice is quite different from the way scientists think they feel the voice. For example, when an advance singer speaks of “chest voice” they speak of a feeling of vocal substance that can coexist with the concept of “head voice’ which has more to do with a sense of fluidity (breath movement) than it has to do with a feeling associated with crico-thyroid dominance.
One top dramatic soprano once put it to me in this way: “I feel there is some chest voice in every note!” And a performing lyric tenor friend of mine said” “I feel the head voice active throughout the voice!” They are both correct. One speaks of the feeling of substance that comes from a note that is properly balanced between CT and vocalis. Whether the note is CT dominant (light mechanism according to science) or vocalis dominant (heavy mechanism according to the same), it does not matter. The dramatic soprano is aware of the proper subglottic pressure that results because of adequate opposition to the breath stream, whether at the bottom or the top of the voice. This is a question of longitudinal tension and vertical mass which determines pitch and by definition, breath movement. The tenor is aware of adequate breath flow, an issue of medial pressure. He is aware of a balanced sensation whereby, regardless of range, the breath is able to move fluidely, even with adequate impedance (whether from glottal obstruction or supraglottal inertia or both). This he identifies as headvoice.
In this sense, the science types get it wrong. Every science article I read about phonation, speaks in “accepted terms” of chest voice being vocalis dominant with greater fold mass, etc and head voice being associated with greather fold length and thinness, etc. They are not wrong in substance, but wrong by not understanding the proprioceptive reality for the performing singer.
When I ask a singer for adequate chest voice, I am not asking them for greater vocalis activity necessarily, but rather for a sense of vocal substance that does not violate the necessity for fluidity. In other words, I recognize the necessary coexistence of what the singer experiences as chest voice and head voice. In truth, they are two different functions, the former being based on adequate interaction between vocalis and CT, the latter having to do with muscles of adduction principly inter-arytenoid (when crico-arytenoids are functioning properly).
Of course balance in adduction depends in great part upon the balanced relationship between CT and vocalis. Only when adequate fold length/depth are achieved can medial approximation be balanced. I have already discussed here that folds that are too shallow for a given pitch will induce pressed phonation to make up for the faster vibration cycle, and vice versa for thicker folds.
The same principle applies for the interaction between F1 and F2 dominance, particularly in the female voice. F1 dominance is often associated with sensations of vibration in the chest while F2 is associated with vibrations in the head and mask areas. Those sensations are only true in men’s voices that are slightly or very unbalanced. This is where tradition has instructed science. Scientists have tried to equate F1 dominance with lower voice and F2 dominance with upper voice. Any physicist (Martin Berggren has often corrected me on this blog in that regard) will tell you that formants do not work so predictably. Indeed the singers experience validates this.
Even though acoustic science logically shows that the female low voice below F4 and high voice above F5 are F1 dominant and that the octave in between is F2 dominant. This proves true in acoustic , but the experience of the singer is different. Most women tell me that they sense the upper voice high in the head, even though it is F1 dominant. Some others will tell me that they sense the middle voice low, some others high. Neither is wrong! (More on this in a moment)
Men by contrast in general are pretty clear about the low voice being felt in the chest and the high voice in the head. Men have the additional experience of having the Formant dominance change in the high voice where they also often sense a muscular balance shift. High and low is more clear for men on both a muscular and an acoustic count.
For woment it is more complicated. Because of the octave differential, women experience an acoustic shift where there is little muscular change around F4. Then they have an acoustic shift around F5 near the place where the muscular shift occurs. A woman has three acoustic areas to deal with, which are experienced in a variety of ways depending upon how the muscular balance is dealt with.
What is more crucial is that a man or woman who sing a true balanced tone, whether high or low speak about a unifying sensation that included both low and high vibratory sensations. I believe this is much closer to what is happening scientifically. It is in fact inappropriate to think of any note as being a function of a single formant influence. Whether a note is F1 dominant or F2 dominant, the so-called “passive formant” (an idea brought up by myself in a recent acoustic symposium, but coined by Donald Miller, inventor of Voce Vista) is of undeniable importance. By this understanding of interdependent formant influences, achieving the “cover” in the male voice, for instance(i.e. the acoustic shift), depends not on accessing F2 dominance alone but rather F2 dominance with a specific F1 passive activity. I have proposed that the frequency of the passive formant is just as crucial as that of the dominant one. This would also explain why a singer would be aware of low sensations on a note that is F2 dominant or high sensations on a note that is F1 dominant. I would venture to think that a singer becomes particularly aware of the formant, whether passive or dominant, that is not precisely adjusted.
Pavarotti often referred to the operatic voice as a controlled “scream”! There is no doubt about the presence of the singer’s formant in the crying of babies. The relation is obvious. The primal “cry” or “scream” is fundamental to the polished operatic sound. The baby’s cry is perfectly coordinated and contains the very elements we opera singers seek, yet we voice teachers will be the first to caution someone not to scream. Why? For my part, I feel that not every one is ready to produce a primal scream healthily. Social conditioning teaches us as civilized people to avoid all things that are extreme or primal, whether shouting in public or flatulence, for that matter. Can we find a high level of operatic success among cultures that preserve a higher level of primal vocal expression, whether the spirited expression found in the black or Southern Baptist or Pentacostal churches in the United States or the extroverted vocal expression among Italians, Spaniards and Koreans, considered more emotional when compared with their Japanese or Chinese counterparts? In fact it is my contention that teaching a singer to create a viable operatic sound is tantamount to helping them return to a more primal mode of vocal expression. This often means returning the CT-vocalis balance to a mode akin to the baby’s cry. The cry cannot be produced until the muscular balanced has been found a new.
In short, vocal science gives us clear understanding of vocal function to such a level as would help the voice teacher target dysfunction quite quickly. It is however crucial that when the teacher does an exercise to increase vocalis activity, for instance, that it has a basis in the singer’s personal experience. That experience could be consistent among singers, yet depending on personal experience, one singer may concentrate on one particular proprioceptive sensation while another on a totally different one. This does not take away from the objectivity of the singer’s experience IF we consider the experience of both singers as essential parts of a synthesis that is experienced only partially by each. By considering both experiences as valid, we can begin to build a sense of the total experience of balanced singing and of dysfunctions.
In any case, I had often thought of writing a book called “The AND of Singing”. But I am not the only one who has had the instinct about the necessity of AND. The singer know as NaC on NFCS, a friend and colleague of mine, has made the concept of AND central to her own process. Hence I could not claim this as a personal discovery. Indeed a great singing teacher could develop totally spontaneously without empirical scientific knowledge. We all know that. However conditions that made this possible (availability of time for trial and error mainly) do not exist anymore. Vocal Science gives us the means to fill the gap created by a faster moving world. The science-based voice teacher must not forget what it “feels like” to sing.
© 08/25/2009

7 thoughts on “Why do science-based teachers have a tendency of shooting themselves in the foot?

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  1. Great article. The scientists do indeed shoot themselves in the foot as they are usually not interested in what the singer says or feels in relation to what they are observing.

    As a tenor and teacher, I read a lot of material about singing, much of it from the “voice science” perspective. I think it is good to know what is happening and how it may be described. But the huge disconnect between merely having that knowledge and how to teach a person (and oneself) to sing is always a problem. Just as you refer to the synthesis of multiple singers' experience as contributing to patterns of understanding, I think (since we have obviously lost our way pedagogically over the years) it is very important to synthesize what folks like you, the Millers, Reid, W. S. Smith, Coffin, Vennard, et al propose as principles useful for vocal instruction. The fact that we are in a scientifically-oriented age and know so much more about the science does not mean we are any closer to recreating (or improving on!) the golden age of vocalism of yore as represented by Lampert, Garcia, adn Marchesi.


  2. I do not think this is a problem that is unique to singing. As I think the synthesis of left brained (science) and artistic thought is always problematic.

    The thing about being good at most arts is that you have to know first but then learn to feel without knowing. You are trying to inter knowledge to the point it is meaningless.

    I work in the software field and when I started everything was rules and science and now that I have been doing this for a number of years, everything is very zen. People ask me what the right thing is to do in a situation and I discuss the problem but ultimately tell them that there is no right answer though some answers are better than others. I think the problem we get into is that the artistic point of view can be every bit as frustrating to a journeyman as the scientific view. Synthesis is difficult because people need different balances and there is no right solution. I face people who are trying to fit everything to rules and patterns and I don't think that way and often the number of names I know a pattern by (as it's name has changed over time) is just plain confusing if I try to go there. I look at a problem and I kind of feel the way I want a solution to look and I chip away at it with the techniques I have amassed over the years (often unconsciously applying patterns) until great complexity is reduced to something that looks and feels beautiful and simple. That is my art. I try to make difficult problems seem easy and I often look at problems that a beginner would think is hard and no longer remember that they once were difficult.

    As the penultimate nerd, I often hate tech publications because scientists and technicians often can't write. I do not mean that they do not understand language but that they lack the human touch which fosters connection. It is important to remember that writing is both a grammatical framework for structuring our thoughts and making them understandable to others and a conduit for allowing someone to interface with the emotions and substance of the writer. If either end is dropped in communication (and people tend to be lopsided to one extreme or the other just as in science vs. art), communication is not really acheived.

    Ideally, good science is art and at the highest levels there should always be some blending of both schools of thought. We all have our predispositions. I am an artist and not a technician so I am very zen and can be overly generic to the point of being hard to understand. I have trouble organizing things, my desk is always a mess, and my nature is to be very much controlled by my emotions and intuition. However, I live in a world where that is a poor adaptation and I often go far into appearing to be Mr. Spock in order to make life easier for others. I like science but I am definitely on the art side.

    The thing I like about this blog is that it has a good balance of different brain hemisphere activity (very technical and nerdy but precise). The communication is technical but rich and that makes it a real pleasure to read.


  3. Excellent post, as always! The teacher I studied with for my Masters has a PhD. in Vocology, but is the first to tell you that he had to learn to teach like everyone else. He says that science merely helps him understand what the voice is doing, but has never substituted for experience and research in classic pedagogy. In fact, he often points to the rise of voice science (and particularly the practice of medical doctors trying to teach voice in the mid-20th Century) as the source of much of the bad teaching still present today. I recall a pedagogy class in which a student presented an idea for “directing the voice” to different places depending on where a note sat in the singer's range. He calmly pointed out that the idea was scientifically false, but incredibly valid as a teaching tool for singers. This is the type of open-mindedness that exists in great teachers.


  4. This is interesting, but I think there is always a disconnect between scientific knowledge and subjective experience. How is this situation different, for example, from the fact that learning Newtonian mechanics thoroughly and completely does not guarantee that a person will be a good driver, pilot, or baseball pitcher?


  5. Thank you all for the wonderful commentary. They really enrich the blog. I am in France with a student at an international competition and do not have much time to reply. The student is doing well and is in the semi finals of one category and sings the first round of the other tomorrow.

    I will say this. I agree with all of you. What does not work is to think that we are left-brained or right-brained. Whoever came up with that concept just halved every human being. We have the capacity to use both hemispheres of our brain and even to integrate them. We need both cognitive information and intuition for good teaching. Jacob, I am particularly happy to hear about your teacher. Would love to know him. We need all teachers who understand the synthesis that is necessary to make sense of singing.

    Best to all of you!


  6. Thank you all for the wonderful commentary. They really enrich the blog. I am in France with a student at an international competition and do not have much time to reply. The student is doing well and is in the semi finals of one category and sings the first round of the other tomorrow.I will say this. I agree with all of you. What does not work is to think that we are left-brained or right-brained. Whoever came up with that concept just halved every human being. We have the capacity to use both hemispheres of our brain and even to integrate them. We need both cognitive information and intuition for good teaching. Jacob, I am particularly happy to hear about your teacher. Would love to know him. We need all teachers who understand the synthesis that is necessary to make sense of singing.Best to all of you!


  7. I have to agree fully with you when you say that not everyone is ready to produce a “primal scream” at any moment. I was always hyperactive and “too loud” as a child, and when told to lower my voice, I didn't have the self control to lower the volume in a healthy way. The only way I knew of to get my voice not to be so loud was to make it breathy so that my phonation was less efficient.

    Now, my body has become habitually accustomed to breathy phonation. When I talk loudly, such as at a party, my phonation becomes simultaneously breathy and forced. My singing teacher had me try the “call” as if I were trying to get the attention of someone far away. It didn't really work because it got louder but also breathier.

    So, achieving a muscular balance (through something akin to your vocal warmup regimen) is essential to students such as myself. Telling someone like me to yell would immediately remove any vocal balance. So, as you have found out, discrimination is useful in determining who will respond well to something like the primal scream.



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