Kashu-do (歌手道): Simplifiying the Technique

My dear friend and fellow blogger, Claudia Friedlander recently wrote the following: 

  I think styles of vocal technique fall into two main categories: an outcome-oriented, “hands-on” approach of controlling and manipulating the various components of your instrument to produce a desired sound; and a process-oriented approach where you essentially coordinate everything so that it responds more passively to your expressive and musical intentions. 

Claudia is certainly correct and I think we both fall in the latter category.  Unfortunately, it takes a certain amount of life experiencing (not always directly proportional with age) to understand why a process-oriented approach, based on a set of principles that yield results, is the way to go.  The kind of singing we all hope for is one that feels simple to produce:  That the body responds to the desires of the mind! 

Why does the body not respond to the desires of the mind to begin with?

It does.  This is precisely the way the human person is designed.  This explains those we call “natural singers”!  However, most of us have not kept the body trained in the ways necessary for it to respond to the desires of the mind.  Certainly our vocal habits vary by culture, by environmental experience, etc.  I submit still that the baby’s modes of expression, especially the cry, is pretty much the coordination we need as opera singers.  I heard a little boy yesterday practicing a tune from a Broadway show with a pianist-coach.  I imagined they were actually working on a production.  The little boy came out for a moment. He could not have been more than 11 years old and was belting out the tune with a very powerful voice, and they kept repeating the piece for close to an hour.  The boy did not show any sign of fatigue and the voice was clear and easy.  How many young children are allowed to belt out a tune these days before someone say, they will kill their voices? Yes there is the Annie Syndrome, of young girls killing their voices singing a tune they are not able to sing because someone is trying to get them cast in a production.  What is the difference between those and this boy?

I suppose this boy had been belting tunes for fun and probably singing around the house without anyone deciding it was time to package him.  He was probably Belting It Like Björling long before anyone thought he should be singing in a show.  In short, he was unconsciously training his throat muscles at a time when no one thought he should be making a perfect sound.  He was left to sing for fun and developed a strong voice the same way he learned to walk.  He probably cracked trying to sing some pop tune on the radio, and his parents probably chuckled quietly because they thought it was cute.  No one was thinking: “Hey be careful or you will hurt your voice!”  Just like his parents probably chuckled when he wobbled and fell as he learned to walk.  He himself probably laughed (as babies do) when they fall on their paddings while learning to walk.

The girls of the Annie Syndrome are not all in peril. Some of them learned to sing just like that little boy and developed no vocal problems.  Many others are taught to sing that difficult song because someone thought they should try to get them on stage, rather than hearing a well developed voice and say: “She could probably sing Annie”!

In essence, voices are either brought out because they are ready or they are pushed out before their time. But that is another issue already covered here.  The point of the the little boy is that he has been training his vocal musculature unconsciously for a long time before he could sing so musically and so effortlessly.  The process-oriented approach works to develop muscles throughout the body such that the process of singing becomes possible without having to think about it too much.    The result-oriented approach seeks to acquire immediate results by attempting to coordinate the voice for a specific task.  Because muscular readiness is not taken into account, this approach will use any means to acquire the desired sound, and this means compensatory muscular tension and alternative neural pathways, both very difficult to un-train later.

Muscular training is not easy.  Anyone who goes to the gym once knows that.  A student who visited me recently for a consultation told me she opened a Snapple bottle on that day that read: Did you know that 72 sets of muscles are necessary to produce the singing voice (Not an exact quote)?  If so many muscles are necessary to produce the voice, why would anyone think they can produce a sound without having developed those muscles?  Can someone run a marathon just because they can run?  Can someone immediately learn to serve a tennis ball because they can swing a racket?  But people keep thinking despite the obvious that a great vocal sound can be produced without first developing the appropriate musculature.

When one does a full-voiced lip-trill, the entire body is involved and if they do it correctly for the first time, they will realize that they cannot do this exercise throughout their usable range.  Personally, when I began my training as a tenor, I could only do this exercise up to F4#.  It makes sense, does it not?  As a baritone I did not have to sing much higher than an F4#.  This means that notes above that were not yet developed.  Now I can do this exercise up to C5# and my comfortable warm-up range is commensurate with this ability.  A full-voiced lip trill induces the muscular activity to bring the folds into balanced and exciting phonation

What is important to understand is that just like boxing is not about rope jumping, neither is singing about lip-trills.  I mean, a boxer does not jump rope in the ring, but the rope-jumping technique builds flexibility and stamina in the legs, crucial to a boxer’s readiness.  Likewise, we do not do lip-trills on stage, but that training builds the immediacy of the muscular part of the process.

Although the full voiced lip-trill feels like developing the chest voice (and it is–at least what we physically sense as chest involvement), it is also about breath flow.  When this is trained, the next step is coordinating the isolated vibration of the fold cover, the sensation we refer to as the clear, released head-tone.  In my approach, to attempt to produce a head-tone before the fold posture has been trained (via lip-trills for instance) is tantamount to starting a car without oil in the engine.  You will experience the scary sounds of viscosity breakdown.  If a proper lip-trill is not possible, the fold posture will be thin, the fold closure will be too tight and the voice will lack in necessary low harmonics.  The loss of lower harmonics also means that the larynx has risen, which means that excessive sub-glottal pressure is driving the instrument to fatigue and even the higher harmonics are not as strong as they should be.  In short the phonation will be tense and unresonant.

Conversely when the fold posture has been trained, coordinating a head-tone throughout the range is very simple, because the voice is set up to produce it.  The breath mechanism has been trained and coordinated with the voice and therefore the question of support has been addressed.  The lip-trills train those muscles as well and they automatically respond in tone production.  Then the core muscles do not have to be actively engaged when it is time to sing.  They should simply respond automatically when they have been developed and toned.  Holding this muscle contraction and that muscle contraction cannot be part of the process.  But indeed most singers, myself included, have spent a lot of time in our lives trying to control this muscle and that muscle, rather than simply desiring a beautiful head-tone and producing one

The process-oriented approach is in fact goal-oriented.   The difference is that the process-oriented teacher understands when the final results are not possible in a healthy way.  The goal is not a product at all cost, but rather a final product devoid of extraneous muscular activity.  If an exciting sound means compensatory muscular tension, I am not interested in it, for all muscular activity that is not naturally a part of the desired function will increasingly become a hindrance to efficient tone production.  The easy, released, clear and intense head voice is only possible when the laryngeal muscles have been trained to do it.

© 05/09/2011

One thought on “Kashu-do (歌手道): Simplifiying the Technique

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  1. I agree with your idea of singing without muscular tension. Your comment about boxing could go one step further,in that although the great boxers have well defined,powerful,physiques,when he is truly operating at maximum efficiency in the ring,those muscles(which reflect the relaxed mental state of the boxer)are actually relaxed. In this state the muscles(voice)shine(s)fulfilling their full potential.


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