Kashu-do (歌手道): Language, a Point of Pedagogy

An extremely accomplished young coloratura soprano came for a lesson yesterday, having specified when we talked on the phone the day before that she wanted to work specifically on breath support. I told her that breath support, as such, cannot be addressed without phonation.  I am not sure she completly grasped my meaning but I assured her I would be clear about my explanation at the lesson.

When I meet a singer for the first time, I will have him/her sing something immediately to see what the habits and instincts are.  She sang “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio…”  from Verdi’s Falstaff with notable musicality, and a fresh, supple voice of remarkable flexibility.  From the piano, I kept checking in the mirror to see how she breathed.  Her intake of air was always full and relaxed. Her legato was flawless and there was no hint of register breaks of any kind. Yet I felt that (as is often the case with coloraturas who are high-note conscious) that she was not singing her fullest sound. And here was the answer to the support problem.  And I am glad I had told her the day before that it is not good to talk about support without phonation in the mix.

When working with singers who have a sound technical foundation, cause and effect is immediate. And so it was in this case, but it was necessary (and is often the case with singers who already sing well) to be crystal-clear about what the problem is.  A singer who already sings really well is naturally protective of his/her vocal technique.

Among other things, she had mentioned feeling tense, getting tired easily and not feeling the type of vocal ease she observed in her vocal idols.  I had determined that the problem stemmed from too “thin” an approach and explained to her that she probably expected her sound to remain the same as it was when she was a few years younger and that her voice had matured and she needed to allow her adult sound to emerge. I further explained the mechanics of fold vibration  using my hands as models of the vocal folds, and explained further that pitch depends fundamentally upon the amount of time it takes for one vibration cycle to be completed and that the length of the vibration cycle depended upon contact area and closure. By watching my hand simulate the vibration she understood the logic of it. She understood that there were three options: pressed and thin, loose and thick, or balanced and full.

Now it was time to correct the problem and give her sensations that she can associate with the new balance.  I recommended lip trills. Her instinct was to do them “lightly”.  I recommended fuller lip trills on a chromatic scale and then repeated the scale of [za]. The lip trill induced easier airflow and a more appropriate fold mass.   The [za] scale kept the occlusive influence of the lip trill by means of the [z] and the resultant sound on the vowel was fuller and freer.  This did not feel like a big change to her.  But when she sang a very easy sustained F, she knew something was different. She concluded the fuller sound included a slightly greater chest component. She was correct.

After having addressed the fold posture issue, the breath coordination part of support had to be addressed as well.  We spoke about the necessity of maintaining constant air pressure, that it does not require a lot of air to sing, but that the lungs had to be full of air in order to geerate adequate and unbroken air pressure. The first part of good breath management therefore is to take a full breath.  (I will go on record as against the idea of taking a small amount of air because the phrase is short.  One takes a full breath not because one needs a lot of air to sing a phrase, but rather to generate constant air pressure).  The we spoke about maintaining a solid tower of core muscles on the inside and maintaining elasticity in the abs on the outside. During phonation, the inner tower is generated by a sensation of resisting the need to “go to the bathroom” (the resulting support can be felt subtly at the epigastrium directly below the sternum) but the lower abdominals continue their elastic inward and upward movement. During inhalation, complete relaxation of the external abdominals and inner core mucles must be achieved in order for intake to be complete.  We worked on a pattern of

1) Deep relaxed intake (I prefer nose breathing when possible)
 2) engage the core muscles but slightly resisting the need to go to the bathrrom
3 and 4) Onset with a balanced sensation between chest engagement (fold depth) and clear brilliance (closure)
5) the expectation of a clear, intelligible vowel sound, not artificially colored (when all elements are balance, vowel modification occurs spontaeously. Certainly the case here with such an advanced singer)

We then went back to the aria working on maintaining a full sound and doing the required diminuendi without losing fullness (i.e. the feeling of support, connection to the body, etc).  In some cases we sang the note louder and then doing a diminuendo without losing quality.  At this juncture it became clear that it is possible to sing a full sound quietly and that full is not necessarily loud and quiet is not necessarily thin. Indeed, a coloratura voice does not have to be a thin voice. It should be appropriately full.

What made me particularly proud about this lesson is that this very advanced singer came with a specific need in mind. We addressed it and also made it clear that no one aspect of singing is independent of the rest. Indeed we addressed phonation and resonance on the way to the support, the task fo the day.  More importantly is that we used language that was logical and clear.  Talking about fold contact area in the abstract could be off-putting.  I sensed that this was not a singer who had been taught with scientific language. But talking about fold vibration concretely, using my hands as a visual aid, gave the singer a sense of understanding of how her instrument functions and then a clear idea of the process I was about to use to get results.  After she sang easy high Es and Fs, she understood the relationship between what she had just changed and the results. Cause and Effect.  She was then open to a language that was logical and immediately understood.  It was not necessary that she learned my abstract language over months before understanding what I wish her to accomplish.  The sensations I helped her feel are anatomically direct.  We spoke about brilliance and fullness.  That she felt a connection with the chest and a sense of forwardness simultaneously are also direct. There is a direct sensation in the chest when there is a balance between pressure and flow, and a direct sensation in the front of the face of complete fold closure via bone conduction.

So when we use words like support, appoggio, focus, light, bright, open throat, etc, what do we mean exactly? Teachers with a great ear for the correct sound are often obstructed by a vocabulary without definitions that they inherited from their own teachers.  In no discipline is language accepted so abstractly as in singing! This is the cause of great misunderstanding and frustrations for students who on the one hand are perplexed when they are expected to make sense of terminology without context: “You need to support better!”  What exactly does that mean?  Whatever the language, the teacher must have clear definitions.
I sometimes use imagery because certain students are visual lerners.  But if I speak about “a ping-pong ball on a fountain,” what is the ping-pong ball and what is the fountain? What keeps the water pressure of the fountain  such that the ball keeps floating on top of the stream? At some point one has to explain what is actually happening.  I think my personal growth was stunted, so to speak, because I was taught early to dislike the word, pressure. I was made to understand that subglottal pressure was evil.  What I understood later is that subglottal pressure is the driving force behind vocal function.  Too much pressure is a problem. Not enough pressure is a problem. But pressure  in and of itself is not a problem.

I am not one to insist that everyone should use scientific language when they teach, but if one is going to use a jargon, let it be one based on the true function of the instrument and not on beloved terms without context.  In studying Kung Fu, I have observed how jargon could be dangerous if not understood.  Kung Fu is based on poetic language as well. When Sifu was teaching me “parting the horse’s” mane, he explained specifically the movement associated with that term.  The phrase guides my practice. I have a notebook full of Chinese descriptions and their English translations and an explanation of what movement is associated with them.  That jargon works because it has exact meaning and application.  I can perform “playing the lute” much better because I also know its application.  My teacher is gifted because he understands how important it is to be clear. He gives general principles and then specific details over time.  The same is necessary of any pedagogy.

In short, successful teaching happens when there is clarity of language.  Whatever language you use, let it be in context of a system that the student can follow without too much effort.  The challenge for the student should be in attempting to perform the task well, not in trying to figure out what the task is.

© 11/17/2010

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