Fundamental Vocal Structure 1: Why We Singers Remain Common

It’s taken a long time to come up with this reductive picture of what we deal with as singers.  How many pieces are there to balance? How do we “control” these pieces?  Is there any brain power left for music making and acting and interpretation?

In the final analysis, what it takes is a clear mental/physical picture of what it feels like to sing! Knowing the pieces does not mean we have solved the puzzle.  Knowing what each component feels like when it is functioning appropriately is the first part.  The second part often evades singers.  We often think that we must reduce one function to achieve the rest. Just as we do not cut off our triceps to allow the biceps to function, we do not take away one vocal function in order for its opposite to function.  Opposing musculature in the body are meant to work as balancing structural pairs. One can function while the other remains active.  A sense of appropriate balance is achieved when both sides feel satisfying.  One of my teachers, Ada Finelli, memorably said: 

Chiaro e scuro non chiaro o scuro! 

Bright and dark not bright or dark!

This principle perhaps more than any other thought has guided me in my own pedagogy over the years.  If you must sacrifice one side to accomplish the other, neither is yet strong enough in its function.   Elasticity, which I relate to crico-thyroid function, means that one can change pitch without difficulty. From the lowest note to the highest, there is a feeling of ease.  However, the ability of the crico-thyroid muscle to stretch the vocal folds easily must not take away the thyro-arytenoid function, which brings the folds to the best possible vertical thickness for the given note.  Best possible vertical thickness refers to the appropriate contact area that is most conducive to the length of the vibration cycle for the given note.  Too thin (vertical contact area), would make the work of the crico-thyroid easier because there would be less opposition to the stretch. However, this would have the folds set up for a higher pitch, which would then require the singer to compensate by slowing down the vibration cycle.  The only way to do that is pressing (keeping the folds closed longer than in appropriate closure quotient).  Therefore true elasticity requires the crico-thyroid group to be strong enough to stretch the vocal folds easily without necessitating a reduction in appropriate thyro-arytenoid function.  Therefore balance phonation function depends on the tension between opposing muscles that thicken and lengthen the folds.  What we call longitudinal tension.  

Appropriate longitudinal tension can only be maintained for a given note if fold oscillation and breath compression are also appropriately coordinated, such that sub-glottal pressure does not rise inappropriately.  Greater compression becomes greater flow when fold oscillation is balanced for the given pitch–that it, there is no forced closure that would restrict the needed trans-glottal flow.  The folds must closed fully during the close phase of vibration but not so tightly as to produce unnecessary pressure beneath the closed folds (controlled together by lateral crico-arytenoids, inter-arytenoids and possibly a secondary function of the thyro-muscularis).  All of this happens at incredible speed. Faster than the wings of a hummingbird even in the lower voice of a male singer.  This balance is called flow phonation.

Flow phonation requires appropriate opening of the ribcage at the time that breath is being compressed. Should the ribcage collapse, there will be increased breath compression beyond the activity of the muscles of exhalation (i.e. rise of the diaphragm, contraction of pelvic-abdominal musculature, etc).  A balanced compression requires the exterior intercostals to maintain activity (maintaining the ribcage suspended/opened) while the interior intercostals and pelvic-abdominal muscles compress the air in the lungs by reducing the space around it.  Yet another muscular antagonism, this process of “breath support” is often called pan-costal breathing.  

If these three related complex functions occur appropriately, there would be little external influence on the stability of the laryngeal position, as long as the laryngeal stabilizers are balanced in their function and the migration of the tongue to articulate vowels is not impeded by the hyo-glossus muscle which is the muscle that connects the larynx, via the hyoid bone to the root of the tongue.  Flexibity in that muscle and appropriate balance between laryngeal stabilizers would permit the tongue to rise and lower as necessary for vowels changes.  Again, this presupposes that pan-costal breathing, flow phonation and longitudinal tension are appropriately maintained.

Beyond these four complex interrelated functions, we require a sense of resonating space that require only minor variations in tongue migration, laryngeal depth and buccal cavity (jaw release) for adjustments relating to vowel and pitch.  From the best jaw release and laryngeal depth, the tongue lips, velar area and sometimes jaw (for consonants that require it) will articulate to form vowels and consonants in ways that cause the least change in the volume of the resonance space, which has a direct influence on the production of the Singer’s Formant (or ring in the voice).  This we can refer to as efficient articulation.

All of this is done with a muscular-skeletal system that is ideally aligned for these various functions to occur efficiently and simultaneously, providing that the general musculature fitness of the body is such that would support  optimal alignment.

In this article I have touched upon the basic structural system of the voice.  In subsequent posts, I will deal with background and training as well as mental image and aural/physical expectations, as well as external influences such as the score, the character, the text and most significantly, emotions.

After we have discussed all of these things, it will become clear how it is appropriate to call ourselves athletes (besides artists).  In truth it will become clear why the field of singing (regardless of genre) has not improved in terms of the vocal product, and perhaps in a sense not so much artistically as we would like to think.  A figure skater or a ballet dancer (close to us in many ways) or even a pianist, cannot separate their physical fitness/technical proficiencies from their artistry (at least not so significantly).  It takes many hours of scales to develop speed and coordination to play the notes on the piano, before one even begins to address the musical form.

The fact that we singers have text is at once a great advantage and disadvantage in music.  Those that relate the text to the music and the music to technical competence are organic artists of which we have too few.  When we looked at Callas at her best, the delivery of the text depended on a profound understanding of phrasal architecture (melody, harmony, rhythm, form, global architecture), which in turn instructed the technical competence one should have in order for the voice to respond immediately to the expressive needs.  Today, we separate the artists who understand the text from those who work with the music from those who have vocal fortitude. At every level we are left partially dissatisfied and for different reasons in every case.

All professional tennis players must develop the same skills.  Their individuality has more to do with individual strengths in certain areas without major weakness in others.  A player who has a great serve but no ground strokes will not advance beyond local tournaments.  Yet in singing, we are happy enough with a singer who has only high notes and a pretty face for posters, or an ability to analyze poetry without deference to the written score (and a pretty face) or a voice that sounds pretty on records (and a pretty face) but inaudible in a large hall.  Why? Because it is commercially expedient.  For expediency’s sake we give up the values that make our art great. 

Gesamtkunstwerk! Richard Wagner understood this! Our inability to appreciate the colossal scope of what it is to sing opera leaves our art form in shambles. While athletes in every sport can quantify advances in their field, we cannot.  The football player, Christian Rinaldo is at such a level of physical conditioning and skill in ball-handling and precision in shooting that his legendary predecessor, the great Pélé, who is still very much alive, were he at his youthful best, would not be able to compete today.  The great Gigli could out-sing every tenor singing today and might lose only if the judgment criteria were a pretty face and a six-pack!  While every other field aspires to do better than their predecessors, we singers and perhaps by extension, all classical musicians, look back in nostalgia to a time of godlike singers! Godlike because like athletes of all times, they aspired to go beyond their limits, achieving apotheosis, a state that transforms the mere man to a godlike status–so achieved, like an olympic athlete, by developing the body and mind to levels never before imagined.
 If we are to excite audiences today, we will need to go back to values that require us to go beyond our limits.  We must achieve Apotheosis!

© 01/05/2016

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: