Kashu-do (歌手道): Bing Crosby In the Throat and Willy Nelson in the Mask: Why Traditional Imagery Takes Training For Granted

I was having a Skype session with one of my wonderful students from the Southern part of the United States and we started to laugh with the imagery I was using.  This very gifted dramatic soprano is pure South and she speaks with a wonderfully charming Southern drawl, full of vibrant high overtones.  Unfortunately we do not see each other as much as I would like and so we do what we can with Skype sessions.  Over the past two or three years we addressed the fact that her Southern heritage made her particularly prone to press the voice forward.  the tendency is to disengage from low overtones and as a result force the vocal folds into a posture that fits this reduced resonance adjustment.  Her tendency was to press the voice slightly to achieve a one-sided tone.  However, after a long period of working on “substance”, and reengaging the full tone, we were able to address her issues from a resonance standpoint.  And so I said to her laughing:

Imagine Bing Crosby in the throat and Willy Nelson in the mask!

Her dramatic soprano exploded into a laughter reminiscent of Birgit Nilsson on a silly day.  Her tendency was to give up one side each time she thought of the other, to which I prescribed:

Imagine Willy singing in Bing’s house!  

Code for: Maintain the lower space while allowing the high overtones to dominate!

In the end, the concepts became clear and we ended the lesson with a lot of laughter and clarity.

But the truth is I could not have talked in this way with my wonderfully disciplined and hardworking student if we had not spent the past years working on a muscular structure that allowed resonance adjustments to be so immediately available.  As I listened to her speak throughout the lesson, he Southern “brilliance” froth with high overtones was riding above a tone of great substance.  That is not the young dramatic soprano I met a few years ago.

Now the voice has substance through many hours of lip-trilling.  Once the structure was built, it was easy to deal with the voice in terms of high and low overtones, in terms of chiaro and scuro, in terms of head and chest resonance…This was not possible while the voice was one-sided.
This post originally included a video of a famous singer of the past making pronouncements about resonance that are at best questionable. Commenting on that video infuriated one of my former colleagues and the video was taken down.  Nevertheless the point will be made without that prop.

The point to be made is complimentary to the story of teaching my student above.  When a teacher refers to the chest, the neck and the skull as resonating cavities, it does not take more than one semester of basic vocal acoustics to refute such pronouncements.  Yet the sensory feedback is real!

What I find infuriating are the many master-classes I attend given by famous singers where they will pronounce a student to be untalented because they cannot sense these vibrations in these so-called resonators.  The situation is a simple one to understand:

Singer 1 is told to feel high notes on the top of the head and responds wonderfully.
Singer 2 is told the same thing and looks like a deer caught in a headlight and has no idea what is meant.

In an atmosphere led by the famous teacher in question, Singer 2 seems like an idiot.

Yet Singer 2 is not an idiot at all.  This is a very easy situation to understand.  Singer 2 simply has not trained the mechanism well enough to be able to have the sensory feedback that said famous teacher takes for granted.  Singer 1 already has a vocal structure that makes it possible to have the feedback that the teacher speaks of.  Calling Singer 2 untalented is tantamount to not understanding the fact that a laryngeal structure as well as certain resonant adjustments are necessary to produce such feedback.  Rather than pronounce the young singer as untalented, a teacher whose pedagogy goes beyond personal experiences would consider what Singer 2 would need to begin to experience such feedback and work on that foundation work!

During my time in academia, I watched young students come with magnificent voices trained by a very specific teacher in North Carolina only to be modified and diminished by college level teachers who thought they understood more than a local teacher who had a certifiable genius for training young voices.

The disconnect in the world of Opera is the following:  Famous people know better!  

In truth, famous people have the ability to get themselves famous!  It does not mean they always have skills in teaching commensurate with their fame.  Like this not famous teacher in North Carolina whose name escapes me, the most gifted people are more interested in the work at hand and not in making themselves known.

Is it possible to be famous and truly competent.  Yes!  That unfortunately is a rarity in current vocal pedagogy!

© 10/15/2013

3 thoughts on “Kashu-do (歌手道): Bing Crosby In the Throat and Willy Nelson in the Mask: Why Traditional Imagery Takes Training For Granted

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  1. Jean-Ronald:
    A very interesting post. Especially the cleaver use combining sound concept for the singer the led her in the direction of using both low harmonic with her natural high harmonics.

    You mention the use of lip-trills as an exercise to increase the ability of the student to develop resonance of low harmonics.

    The low harmonics are resonated mostly by a natural lowering of the larynx. Yet, my experience with lip-trills is that it encourages a raising of the larynx. How do you overcome this problem?


  2. Dear Lloyd, thank you for your comment. I went back and forth with lip-trills for years until it became my primary exercise. I am working on a video site which will begin with my first 14 fundamental exercises, which will demonstrate how to do the lip trill. Any exercise can be done poorly and can easily exacerbate problems. Certain parameters are important: 1) There must be a feeling of “being grounded”, “anchored”, I believe this has to do with appropriate fold mass (i.e. TA activity). It is a sensation that the mass of the tone is at the level of the sternum or solar plexus. I equate this sensation to that of a comfortably low larynx. 2) The lip trill guarantees a certain amount of trans-glottal flow, without which the vibration of the lips would not be possible. It also guarantees enough consistency in air pressure obviously. 3) The resultant tone must be clear not dull, this guarantees a glottal posture that suggests that the glottis is fully closing during each close phase. 4) The back pressure of the occlusive adds a certain amount of inertial loading that helps against pressed voice. 5) When going up in pitch, it is important to maintain the sensation that the tone originates from the sternum/solar plexus area while allowing a certain sensation of stretch, elongation, the tone becoming leaner.

    One way of experiencing this leaning it to do a wide leap, engaging the full modal voice with a lip trill and allowing the top note to be in falsetto/flute mode. The next step is to allow that sensation in the direction of falsetto without losing neither deeply rooted sensation at the solar plexus (guaranteeing both fold mass and laryngeal depth) nor the modal set-up. The sensation goes towards the falsetto but always maintains a modal quality. Theoretically (and I have had great success with this) the singer eventually achieves an appropriate balance between mass and longitudinal tension, both necessary for the kind of “tautness” that yields a vibration along the “cover” of the folds. This cover vibration supports easier flow, allowing the larynx to float down as opposed to being pushed down with the base of the tongue. Other exercises combine with the lip trill to guarantee other aspects of resonance adjustment, whether the proper release of the jaw or appropriate tongue migration relative to vowel production.


  3. I have replaced lip trills with a permeable lip hum wherein the singer first blows a gentle stream of air through the softly closed lips such that as the air escapes through the lips the lips and cheeks gently puff out. It take a few tries because most singer will first assume a trumpet players firmness of the lips and that won't do.

    Once the correct puffy lip/cheek status ia achieved I then then have them phonate through this “permeable lip hum”. A siren from low to high can be almost immediately achieved with little or no noticeable change in registers. There is no tendency to raise the larynx because the back pressure of the semi-occluded lips discourages such practices.

    There is, in addition, a natural tendency to feel the low breath pulse that is so desirable. I do not remember ever having a student raise or lower shoulders when doing this exercise.

    And the buzzing in the lips adds a sense of forward resonance in addition to the space felt in the widened pharynx.


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