Kashu-do (歌手道): Beyond Throat Strength: The Beginning of Breath Power and Art

After writing the last post and after a rather long teaching day in Stockholm I decided to practice a bit even though I felt a little tired physically. I feel wrong if I don’t practice, unless I am vocally tired. Something occurred that I have been awaiting for the last three years: the feeling of a totally passive throat. What was even more fun is that it was on a hig B that I felt I could sustain forever. Of course, my next question was (like any tenor would ask): var i helvete finns min höga C (Sorry, in a Swedish train from Stockholm to Gothenburg and I absolutely love this language)–Or where the hell is my high C.  That silly little half step should have been a cinch, but it did not want to come in the same way, so a little voice whispered: “patience!” I listened and enjoyed several high Bs and the joy of Pollione’s aria from Norma.

Now with such experience one would think I was ready for prime time, right? No, not even close.  At 44 years old, I will not give anyone a reason to say: “Well it’s pretty good but you don’t have any experience as a tenor!” It is just beginning to be fun and it requires strength of a different kind. That is to say, it taken me three years to change the muscular balance of my throat from the vocalis-hyperactive bass-baritone to a balanced tenor (I know, seems like an oxymoron). This new laryngeal balance (we can also call it strength) yields a balanced pressure flow that makes the propogation of the tone more dependent upon management of the breath pressure at the level of the body (i.e. core muscles and volume of air in the lungs).

In a way, it is crucial when learning to sing, to understand that priorities change as we change. I felt that my strength had improved quite a bit in recent months and that I was beginning to be ready for an important next step. I did not know what.  I have talked about the importance of engaging the core musculature here a few times.  Support in singing is a question of continuous and appropriate breath pressure. This involves:

1) a steady foundation from the core musculature. Like the foundation of a house, the conditioning of these muscles contribute in steadying the air pressure and when pressure is already established, contracting them can increase pressure.

2) Standing lung pressure:  The amount of air at the beginning of any phonation should be substantial. Full lungs make for much better pressure control than partially empty lungs. Some teachers feel that when one needs to sing a short phrase or softly, they should have less air in the lungs, as if increased capacity means increased pressure. It does not!  Pressure depends on A) Diaphragmatic pressure B) medial pressure of the vocal folds C) fatty tissue in the case of substantial obesity. (That is why singers who lose a lot of weight suddenly, particularly through gastric bypass, will have support issue [i.e. medial pressure compensates for the loss of pressure that was provided by the fatty tissues]). I edit here to add that it is conceivable that the idea of less air in the lungs mean less air pressure would be logical if the singer indeed is obese.  When an obese singer takes a big breath, the lungs are pressurized a great deal from excessive fat.  This is great for big singing but not so good for softer singing.  Where the average singer needs to generate subglottic pressure, the obese singer usually has more than s/he needs.

3) Diaphragmatic movement:  The diaphragm, the most innervated muscle in the body, provides the greatest change in subglottic pressure. It is a muscle capable of both gross changes and extremely fine ones.

4) Vocal fold posture:  The valve (glottis) is the final and most important element of breath pressure.  Subglottic pressure, which drives phonation, depends primarily on how the glottis processes the air. A balanced posture provides complete closure during the close phase of oscillation (Caveat: defining full closure must take into consideration the contribution of supraglottal inertia) and an long enough open phase to allow for strong sound pressure.

Therefore, having worked on fold posture over the last three years, I got to a point whereby, lung volume as well core musculature have a palpable effect on the quality of the sound.  At this stage, the quality of my sound depends greatly on how I regulate the amount of air in my lungs and the participation of the core muscles during phonation.  The relative passivity of the throat (for me) depends on stronger core contraction and more consistent air volume in the lungs.  Some singers have powerful core muscles and do not need to think about them very much. In my case, actively contracting them provided just the amount of additional pressure necessary for the vocal folds to release the extra medial pressure that tends to happen in the upper range. The new freedom in the top does not guarantee the same in the lower range. I must lean out the lower range more consistently in order to experience the same benefit.  The tendency for the top is to be thin and that was true of my voice until recent balance has been achieved, whereas the tendency for the bottom is to be thick (loose) as would certainly be the case given my baritone past. This gets a little complex.  That is why the registers must be considered specifically in each singer depending on history.

What I aim to share here is yet another example of why correct pedagogy sometimes does not work.  A teacher might have heard some of the tension in my sound and recommend that I work on flow phonation and get the sound more “on the breath”.  But it would not have worked with me until such time as the muscular balance had been achieved.

The limitation of many excellent teachers with wonderful ears is that they can easily get singers through the refinement phase but do not understand why a singer in the formative phases might not be able to accomplish their directives right away.  Sometimes they think the singer is simply uncoordinated or simply untalented. I personally begin with what I believe to be a principle based on fact.  Every voice at its most efficient, applied to the appropriate music can sound quite extraordinary.  But first the voice must be made efficient and the right repertoire must be applied.  Then of course we must find out whether the singer has real talent, which in my mind is musical sensitivity and poetic sensitivity.  But in the absence of vocal efficiency, a talented musician is not a singer. And so many different combinations make for success. A great vocal balance with basic musicality, a passable vocal balance with extraordinary musical/dramatic sensitivity, or any combination that is sellable when we includ looks and personal charisma.

© 09/21/2010

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