Kashu-do (歌手道): Pavarotti: “We Are Athletes!”

My battles with jetlag have never been more difficult than this time.  I have felt progressively tired as I gradually acclimate to the GMT+1 time zone.  I had decided to take a couple of days off of practice because I did not like the feeling of thickness that came with inadequate R.E.M. sleep.  Without enough R.E.M. sleep, the cells of the body do not regenerate adequately.  So suddenly feeling like a baritone again did not sit well with me.  I have been happy with the consistency I have experienced of late and was in no mood for a step backwards. 

This is however where information helps.  Normally I would have invested energy into the feeling of taking yet another step backwards with every two forward.  But knowing about cell regeneration and R.E.M. sleep banished my fears that I might be slipping back. And so, aware that my fold tissues might be a little swollen from a slight systemic dehydration due to sleep depravation, I concluded that my muscular balance was strong enough to make up for the sluggishness.  To make a long story short, I sang my best ever B4 today and a very satisfying rendition of Edgardo’s “Fra poco a me ricovero” from Lucia.  So the superficial fold tissue was a little rough, so I had a bit of mucous build-up during my warm-up, but the muscular strength was there to approximate the folds appropriately. 

That same basic strength and set-up meant that when I took a breath, the phonational balance of my warm-up gradually normalized my laryngeal depth. Each new breath resulted in a naturally low laryngeal position. By natural, I mean that the default laryngeal position has become optimal. A good intake of breath was enough to accomplish the low larynx without any extra effort and this position was totally conducive to the clearest vowel production (and therefore appropriate glottal closure).

Having gotten this far, I know that it simply takes further strengthening and practice to achieve a consistent high C and the sopracuti.  Pavarotti was correct of course. We are athletes! The vocal athlete must not only have strong core muscles that help to maintain consistent breath pressure by providing a floor for the diaphragm, flexible breathing muscles for both optimum inhalation and exhalation, but also very strong laryngeal (intrinsic and extrinsic) musculature to create a strong valve against the sub-glottal pressure.

As my passaggio notes begin to match my middle and high in quality (a rather advanced step), I am beginning to be able to have greater dynamic (volume) range throughout the range. Indeed to sing softly in the high range and maintain a balanced full-voice posture requires greater strength than full-voice singing. Full voice singing encourages greater pressure/flow and induces greater vocalis activity to maintain a full enough sound. When breath pressure is reduced, often fold depth decreases and medial pressure increases, unless the folds have been trained to maintain posture. 

I have seen teachers attempt to pull out their hair out of frustration when the student is unable to follow the directive: “Open your throat!” The truth is that the naturally open throat, lowered larynx, released sound (however you wish to call it) cannot happen until the student has (consciously or unconsciously) done the work of balancing the laryngeal muscles to establish a flow phonation posture.  It is nice to have a continuum of laryngeal postures in my studio–from the young singer who sings a thin top and darkens it in an attempt to correct the shrillness, to the fully developed dramatic singer who has an appropriately full fold posture throughout the range to the experience of my former self singing very heavy and loose low notes–it gives great clarity to the nature of the elements that lead to vocal balance.

It is also of great solace to me to hear the pronouncements of my yoga teacher come true: “Flexibility is Strength!” Anyone who has been to a gym knows that building muscular strength is hard work and takes time.  The results however are almost addictive.  Since starting Kung Fu anew a few months ago, I no longer suffer from back aches, I have a great deal more energy in the morning and throughout the day and in a moment of vanity, I am proud that my long-retreated 6-pack has presented itself again (no doubt about my tenor-dom now I suppose. Lord help me)! 

In a sense, the greatest lie about vocal pedagogy is that singing should be easy! At best the statement is (as always) paradoxical.  When the singer has built adequate strength (whether through unconscious good vocal habits in daily life or very hard vocalises that build strength), singing does indeed feel relatively easy. But until such strength has been trained, the singer will have difficulties and correct posture will feel like hard, physical work.  I like it when a singer says: “I am worn out in my body, but my voice still feels fresh!” But even that is a little incomplete.  When one begins to achieve true coordination of the laryngeal muscles, there may actually be muscular soreness in the laryngeal musculature.  That is totally different from the lack of viscocity that occurs when the vocal folds have experienced excessive friction from pressed phonation or irritation from loose air.  This does not mean that a singer should aim to practice until they are worn out muscularly, but it should not be alarming when the singer feels that s/he has done muscular work throughout the body and in the throat.  In good singing all the muscles of the throat are active either in an isometric or isotonic fashion. Every muscle should be appropriately active. If one muscle is underperforming, others will compensate and that is imbalance. It does not take a genius to know that in sports, longevity is directly proportional to fitness. Is it a wonder that a great majority of professional classical singers do not last 10 years when their predecessors could last 30 or 40 years? While a lot of attention is given to body fitness including my proud 6-pack, little attention is given to laryngeal fitness. 

When we listen to the great singers, the commonality between them is a strong throat that produces very powerful and steady notes.  In order to see the quality of opera singing improve overall, we must forego the myth that a strong throat is a gift of the divine.  I am a very spiritual man and believe that the desire to sing has been placed in my spirit, but the voice must be physically developed.  If the strength of the throat was a divine present, it would not go away with abuse and illness.  But it goes away under such conditions. When a student walks into my studio, I question them about their vocal history (perhaps a question or two every week as part of the normal conversation). Over a few months, I have a clear idea how their instrument was trained and why certain aspects are strong and others not. From that point I can workout a practice regimen that corrects what imbalances may exist.  For those who come with strong, powerful voices throughout their range, I query them just the same to find out how they came to their vocal strength.  There is always a training, conscious or unconscious!

© 09/20/2010

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