Kashudo (歌手道):Top-down and Bottom-up Approaches. The Necessity of an "and" Approach

It is crucial in pedagogy to tailor the technical approach to the specific student. In my current work with a 19-year old soprano, much is learned. It is remarkable how “unspoiled” her voice is. Indeed the voice was not very strong in the beginning, but there was no major imbalance. This soprano is lucky enough to have had good speaking habits from the start, which prevented imbalances. Her middle range was already gaining in strength, but the top was weaker. We were able to isolate the “fluty” but correct phonation mode of the top voice and with gentle crescendos challenge the muscles to withstand more breath pressure without losing the efficient closure. At the end of our month of work, the voice was homogenized and she could sing an even 3 octaves (F3-F6)in a balanced modal coordination. It was important to realize that the “fluty” voice was a weak modal voice and not a vocalis-deficient coordination. In fact the “fluty” top voice was slightly better coordinated than her middle. In this case, a top-down approach was the better choice. A weak sound is not always vocalis-deficient. To have this young singer increase chest voice to make more sound would have been disastrous. In this case, the problem was systemic. The entire vocal mechanism had been unchallenged. Increasing volume gently and maintaining the natural balance of her voice (though weak) was the way to induce strength-building in all the intrinsic musculature. In short, it is normal for a 19-year old singer to have a voice that is incapable of great volume. Some are certainly capable of great volume, but that is more the exception than the rule. It is also important to know that this soprano’s ability to access F6 does not mean she is a coloratura. In fact I think she is a young lyric. The natural strength of the voice is more in that tessitura than in the stratosphere.

It is a different story dealing with more mature voices. As I have often said here, the most common problem with female voices is what I call “register polarization” (i.e. the over-development of the extremes at the expense of the middle voice). Developing a strong, coordinated, flexible middle voice should be primary in the minds of any singer and his/her teacher. A well-coordinated middle voice guarantees that the two primary muscle groups (CT and TA) are developed in antagonism with each other. Only this antagonism can guarantee true strength of both muscle groups. Developing a loose chest voice, devoid of CT participation (also called vocal fry) or a thin high voice lacking in TA (vocalis) participation is easier to accomplish but a recipe for all kinds of functional problems. Yet dare I ask: how many female singers we know with a big chest voice and a stretched-up top voice with a pronounced weakness in the middle? I say too many!

Correcting this is in great part what I do. And this is no easy job. In such cases, the recruitment of motor units within each muscle group had been trained wrongly. Training the muscles to recruit correctly for a given middle voice note takes time. A perfect sound will not be accomplished immediately in such cases. Or better said, a well-produced, loud sound is not possible right away. If the student has patience, the better approach is to begin quietly in the middle and strengthen the weak area. It would also require not singing very high nor very low for while, until there was enough strength in the middle to induce a less “polarized” coordination at the extremes. This we could call a “middle-out” approach.

However in the case of active professionals I have had to adopt a more aggressive approach which includes combining a bottom-up “and” a top-down approach, thereby inducing gradually increased mass where it lacks and ultimately better closure afterwards. In such cases the top-down alone does not work because the voice is already pressed (a weak middle voice is tantamount to extremely pressed voice, which by its nature constitutes a lack of adequate fold depth [mass]). Before adequate closure can be achieved, appropriate mass must be induced. In this case a bottom-up approach is a good beginning, but of course the singer will get to a point where it feels that she cannot take the chest voice further. This limit is because the CT is not strong enough to handle increased opposition from the TA at that point in time, not because it is impossible to take a fuller voice up. This is where patience comes in. After having induced as much mass as the middle voice can handle in the bottom-up exercise, it is crucial to follow it up by a top-down approach to see if a combination of increased mass and a good closure from the top voice would combine in a balanced posture.

Additionally, the breath must be used effectively to reduce medial pressure. When the voice is pressed,inducing greater flow is an excellent way to encourage a more balanced posture. However, it is important to distinguish between increased airflow through fully adducted folds and breathy singing resulting from a sudden posterior gap. For that reason I do not recommend using an “h” at onset because it often results in a posterior gap releasing free air. I recommend occluded continuants like gentle m, n, v, z and rolled r. Lip trills achieve the same thing but are often too extreme at first when the middle voice had been pressed extremely.

In the beginning of the process, the singer will feel very uncoordinated. In point of fact, the singer is indeed uncoordinated even though she was getting adulation for an extreme low and high voice. The new low voice will feel weak and the new high will feel “heavy”–heavy in the sense of effortful because the new top voice is experiencing greater opposition from TA. The singer will also lose stamina for a time. That is why many singers who have uncoordinated voices and have gotten praise for the polarized extremes often do not do this work but instead gradually decay until the middle voice is absolutely non-viable.

If however the singer has the patience to make these changes, as the new balance is strengthened, the entire voice will become fuller and the true balanced, homogenized nature of the voice will be uncovered.

This is also the case with tenors in particular among male voices. many tenors develop their careers with a thickened lower voice that yields to a high voice that is pressed, lacking in adequate mass. The passaggio in such cases becomes a real source of frustration. In such cases, reducing volume in the lower and middle voice to attempt to achieve better closure is a good start. When an excellent middle voice has been achieved, then the tenor should attempt to bring that quality up. That too will require patience, but in some ways, it is an easier process than experienced by the female voice, because the pressed middle range can span an entire octave, whereas with a male voice, the muscular passaggio is usual about a fifth at the extreme.

In both cases, I would recommend first a middle-out approach if the singer has the patience to start again with a quiet sound. In the case of active singers who cannot take the time off, I would recommend a two-prong approach consisting of bottom-up followed by top-down. Over time a balance will be achieved and the singer will be able to see gradual improvement. In any case, an either (top-down) or (bottom-up) approach will yield frustration and ultimate disrepair.

© 1/11/2009

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