Kashu-do (歌手道) and Once More With Feeling: Three Intersecting Axes of Vocal Technique

In a very satisfying studio class yesterday (I should make a habit of videotaping those classes), I had a young tenor (18 years old) who occasionally visits my studio when he is in town.  He just finished his first year of college and wanted my input on his progress, which I found very satisfying (not a given in conservatory life these days–and so bravo to him and his teacher).  He sang a Verdi song, which challenges the passaggio in the climatic passages.  Although his sound had improved, there was a tendency still for the voice to be a little squeezed, a little throaty.  But improvement is a gradual thing and I want to reiterate that he is on the right direction.  Since I do not work with this young man regularly, I wanted to give him a complete idea of the technical issues he faces so as not to take anything too far.  My work with him inspired me to write this post.

It was interesting when I woke up this morning that the first email I got was the abstract of my colleague, Jack Livigni’s most recent post on registration and the approach he believes to be the correct one.  In terms of empirical scientific data, it is important to make some clarification when it comes to fold vibration:

1) A balanced fold posture on any given modal note depends on a specific antagonism between fold thickness and fold length, not one or the other.  Efficiency in vibration relative to accessing higher pitches depends on the longitudinal tension (tautness like a guitar string) of the vocal folds, not length alone.  Of course the folds get vertically thinner as pitch rises, but vocalis activity does not simply disappear as one gets in the higher voice.

2) An important distinction must be made between vertical contact area, which depends on vocalis activity and depth of fold layers that participate in the vibration, which depends on inter-arytenoid activity (This is explained in detail in a previous post).  Adequate contact area along the mucosal edge gives a tone of substance, as opposed to a pressed tone that requires excessive interarytenoidal activity.  The interarytenoids must close the folds completely but not excessively.  With due respect to my excellent colleague, Livigni, the idea of “…finding brightness by thickening the chords through shortening them excessively in the passaggio” is not even possible.  Thickening the folds by shortening them excessively will create at best a mildly hooty, unfocused tone. Excessively vocalis activity which thicken the folds on the vertical axis also reduces the activity of the external thyro-arytenoid (which would normally help in lengthening the folds and draw them together).  Finding brightness through chest voice (which is what I believe Jack is arguing against) interestingly enough is a function of the Inter-arytenoids.  Excessive inter-arytenoid function causes a glottal squeeze that makes for the deep layers of the folds to participate in the vibration rather than the superficial mucosal layer.

The balanced function of the vocal folds is governed by paradoxical actions at many levels.  The greatest danger in vocal technique is to define it by an either/or strategy.  Efficiency in the top voice is not accomplished by inter-arytenoid function instead of vocalis participation, but rather by a paradoxical action requiring both.  The appropriate tautness that produces the most efficient vocal fold oscillation depends on a dynamic, antagonistic relationship between CT and vocalis.  But the fold oscillation is only one part of the equation.  The pitch depends not only the relative efficiency of the oscillation but how the length of each cycle is affected by the closure quotient (the percentage of the cycle length that the folds are closed), and this is where the inter-arytenoids come in.  They need to be active to the degree that they bring the folds together along the outer edge.  Too much will produce a pressed tone and force an excessive squeeze and excessive lengthening of the folds.  Too little will cause a breathy tone requiring a deeper vertical phase to keep pitch.  Neither is desirable.

Finally, the consistency of breath pressure or lack thereof has a direct effect on inter-arytenoid activity.  If the breath pressure falls, the brain will seek to make up for it by squeezing the folds together (like putting your thumb at the mouth of a garden hose when the water pressure is to low in order to water the plants from a distance).  There must be a full tank of air in the lungs, not because we use so much air to produce the tone, but because the air is necessary to maintain pressure.

In short, we have three intersecting axes (the plural of axis, not the plural of ax):

A) The fold posture axis: Dynamic and changeable relationship between CT and Vocalis to create adequate longitudinal tension (tautness) for the most efficient oscillation based on vertical contact area, balanced by the closure mechanism of the inter-arytenoids.  The vertical contact area of the superficial layer of the folds combined the with closure of the folds have a direct relationship to the length of the vibration cycle.  In this I agree with my colleague Livigni that if one is thinking only about CT and Vocalis, you only have 2/3 of the equation.

B) The pressure/flow axis:  Adequate pressure and flow is determined paradoxically by how much breath pressure is being produced by the rise of the diaphragm while the ribcage maintains volume and how much air the glottis allows to flow during the open phase of the cycle.  In this sense, inter-arytenoid function depends in part on breath function

C) The vowel or resonance axis:  Vowel quality as perceived by the listener has many aspects. For simplicity’s sake, the vowel is defined by scientists by the frequency of the 5 vowel formants.  Since most of vocal science derives from the study of speech and vocal disorders, it has been expedient to define vowel distinction (rather than vowel quality) as primarily dependent upon the 1st and 2nd formants.  Indeed vowel recognition depends mainly on those and to a certain degree the 3rd (vocal pedagogy does not discuss the third formant in vowel recognition as much).  The upper three formants are discussed mainly relative to their impact on the sensitive range of the human ear between (roughly 2000-3000 Hz).

I prefer to conceive of vowels in a more complete sense. That recognition and quality are bound together in singing.  The acoustic effects of a narrowing epi-larynx and widening pharynx have been proven beneficial in many scientific papers.  The paradox of the the vowel axis is that one should keep in mind both the pure concept of the vowel and the necessity for modification as opposing forces that are active at all times.  Finding the adequate acoustic adjustment between the singer’s pure conception of the vowel and the acoustic realities of modification is where the artist comes in.  Vowel charts and the like (and I have created a very helpful one) are only a beginning to promote the idea that certain vowel shapes are better suited to certain notes than others, but exact vocal tract adjustment goes far beyond vowel recognition.

Furthermore, vowel quality depends completely on glottal function.  A loose phonation will produce a dull vowel, whereas a pressed phonation will produce an equally undesirable shrill vowel. Balancing all 5 formants in a way that takes into account an equilibrium between low and high partials is crucial.  There is great diversity in taste.  But great voices do not diverge two much from a sense of balance.  Pavarotti was often on the bright side of balance, but never too far.  Del Monaco was at times in his career a little dark and heavy in his production but never so far.  At the end he was often thin trying to compensate for earlier heavy singing, still he sang remarkably for 25 grueling years.

Having sung as a baritone for years and now singing tenor, I have a keen proprioceptive understanding of the extremes and the difficulty of achieving true, lasting balance.  I am now lucky enough to have found that gluten was my biggest enemy.  As a result I can begin to trust my voice to create the sounds I want to create. As a result of stopping gluten I have a clearer idea of my vocal strengths and weaknesses.
In that studio class, yesterday I saw the product of the hard work of 7 students who have been working with me between three months and three years and I was happy to see that there was a definite path to exciting, solid and healthy singing that was easily understood by those who had been practicing it and immediately by the young tenor who visited and made beautiful changes before our eyes and ears.

Yet, after 25 years of teaching (I taught my first group of high school students and adult amateurs at age 20, when my pedagogy teacher told me I had a particular gift for teaching), I have as many questions as I have answers.  I consider fundamental issues and apply fundamental principles that sustain the student through all changes. Balance is a changing thing, but the elements of balance are the same.  I often thought I would write a book one day called The “and” of Singing.  An either/or mentality is most poisonous and creates an atmosphere of negative antagonism between pedagogues who find it easy to demonize each other to promote themselves.  I have been exceedingly happy that as the voice blogosphere developed at the heals of this blog, that the strongest voices have been those of colleagues who respect each other, like Susan Eichorn Young, Claudia Friedlander and Jack Livigni.  I do not always agree with everything they write (that is normal), nor they always with what I write, but because we respect each other, our contributions become complimentary for our common readers, which are many.

Wishing all my American friends a happy and exciting Fourth of July as I embark on yet another excursion across the Atlantic where I will embark in interesting vocal adventures with the Berlin Studio.

© 07/04/2011

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