[Intro currently missing.]
But then what is the truth about our voice? If it's not me in the shower on an up day, then neither is it me on a somber day trying to sing in a hall that has plush carpets and drapes.
You may have noticed that in the last paragraph I was talking about the voice in the first sentence and switched to talking about the self in the second. If you missed this fact you will better understand what I am about to say: The close linkage of the voice with our very being, who we are and how we are perceived -
Let's go back to the initial problem, that of wanting to improve some aspects of our voice. And let's say for now that you're going to seek out a teacher. There is considerable knowledge you can gain from this book which will be helpful in choosing and working with this collaborator.
To what are we trying to change our voice? What is our model? And the effect? And when we depend on an objective ear, a friend or voice teacher, their words are themselves subjective. Until we have learned their vocabulary, we can become even further confused.
And our habits of usage so hard to change for a variety of reasons: When we do have an opinion and it's counter to that of our teacher, we're then faced with the issue of trust. Why have we chosen them to help us if we don't take their word.
When we're not getting through to each other clearly, my wife and I will posit that the listener is a five year old, forcing the other to clarify and simplify. "Pretend I'm five. Come on! I want to learn. Tell me in words that a can grasp simply?" I wished for this same adjustment when I was training and, in fact, voiced my request. But it was not to be. I thought it was me. And certainly to a great extent it was. But a further truth emerged slowly but clearly over a period of many years: the voice was not a simple mechanism and not well understood to boot!
I assume you are either a student, prospective student, or teacher. If a student, prospective or otherwise, I want to say that I understand how frustrating it can be to even want to improve the voice. Where does one get started? Should one get started? Who says? Is it reasonable to want to? Will it really help? Aren't we dealt our vocal cards at birth? Will I be laughed at? Where do I turn for advice? What is a likely payoff? How difficult the journey? Will I be glad/sorry I tried? And so on. And so on. Further complicating matters, the answers we get can change by the hour with changes in the way we perceive the sound of our voice. Different acoustics easily alter these answers; changes of mood more so. Our perception of our own voice is so tricky. We have times in the shower when we think our vocal talent bankable. Then comes a dark day and we're thankful we still have our day jobs. But we'll never know unless we try will we? Will we? Will we?
Uh oh! What was that frenzy all about? How did the topic of talent enter the picture anyway? Having a good voice to begin with wasn't our original argument for improving it. We wanted to correct one or two perceived problems. Go to a teacher and admit we sometimes sounded awful and ask straightforwardly for a little professional help. Why were we suddenly daydreaming about showers and concert halls? Did we become a bit insecure while running that set of questions through the ole cabeza? Okay, I guess we did at that. We let things get ahead of themselves. So let's bring the questions back down to earth.
We're not necessarily talking about career moves here where return on the dollar and likelihood of material success are good choice criteria. For personal growth we know it makes sense to choose something that may not come naturally, something contrary that will take us into the realm of the unknown, something where the payoff may complement the practical direction our careers have necessarily taken us. And if we are looking to nudge our careers, can a lawyer learn to use the voice better in the courtroom, the lecturer in the lecture hall, without having a formidable talent to begin with? Yes of course. The answer is obvious once we remove the ego from the equation.
So from here on lets keep things in perspective. Our use of our voice is a coordinate effort like walking or riding a bicycle. As such it is learned and can be improved. And this is as true for a bad voice as for a good voice. And some of the payoff may be in your professional lives. And some of the payoff will undoubtedly be in terms of personal satisfaction. And, should you want one, there are voice teachers who will work comfortably with your abilities and goals and will tailor their approach to fit your style. Now let's move on.
Should you seek a voice teacher? Or go it on your own? My answer can be straightforward on this one. By all means collaborate with a teacher. While I agree there are arenas where self teaching is worth the sport, learning to use the voice is not one of them. What about this book, you say? This book is intended to aid your understanding of what you will learn from a good voice teacher, objectify terms you will be hearing, help you pick out the right teacher. But that's it. There are pitfalls and paradoxes that will bungle most, if not all, attempts to go it alone. Only so much about sound can be learned from the medium of sight.
For a beginner to choose a voice teacher wisely, it will be helpful to know something about the voice. That something will also be helpful in working with the teacher on a continuing basis as it will undoubtedly compliment what is taught in some ways. If you have been studying for some time, or if you are a voice teacher, I trust the complex and slippery nature of the subject will have long ago persuaded you to have an open mind about what's to come.
SCIENCE AND THE VOICE
For centuries voice teachers and students have had to struggle without help from the scientific community. There has been comparatively little study of the voice, and what there has been, hampered by the illusive nature of the beast. The voice has perversely resisted efforts to investigate it. Instruments used to record data can't be put inside the body without interfering with the entire vocal process that they are studying.
For this reason studies have focused on isolated static aspects of the voice such as the musculature in the larynx or the fabrication of the vocal cords themselves. While these topics are certainly relevant to the surgeon and ear, nose and throat doctor, the voice teacher deals with an entire system of which the vocal cords themselves are but one element. This complicated system includes in addition to the vocal cords, breath, posture, pronunciation, and resonance.
A scientific model of this total system would be invaluable to the dedicated teacher/student. It's absence has been sorely missed, in fact. Having this aid would be a great help in sorting out the relationships between the many variables involved. It would lead to a clearer understanding of how changes in one aspect of the voice can affect all of the others.
Let's now venture into the world of Newtonian physics. Let's begin by looking at the piano, an instrument somewhat familiar to all of us. The strings of the piano are tuned to pitch at the factory by choosing a specific length, thickness, and tension for each. The law relating these variables for any vibrating string is:
Pitch = C x Tension / (thickness2 * length)
From this we see that higher pitches can be made by raising the tension in the string, by lowering the thickness of the string, by lessening the length of the string, or by a combination of the three. The greatest change in pitch comes as a result of changing all three variables by their maximum amount.
Looking under the hood of a grand piano we see that the strings graduate from thick and long in the bass section to thin and short in the treble section. Changing tension, thickness and length in the piano enable the highest pitch to be 161* times the lowest pitch. This gives the piano its range of 7.3 octaves, each octave representing a doubling of pitch.
If the designer of the piano were for some reason unable to vary the length of the strings at all, the piano range would be only 4.5 octaves. Instead of tickling the 88, the pianist would be tickling the 54. Similarly, if the designer were unable to vary the string's thickness at all, the piano would have a range of 2.7 octaves, a mere 32 notes! The presence of all three variables is what makes possible the wide range of the piano. Let's consider if it's true, as well, that the singer/speaker will lose range if s/he too is unable to fully vary one of these variables.
The vocal cords have the ability to change pitch in the same way as piano strings, by adjusting thickness, length, and tension. And just like the piano, all three must be fully used in order for the voice to accrue its maximum range. They are surrounded with 16 pair of muscles whose task this is. When the muscles change all three variables the maximum amount the voice achieves its maximum range of pitches which, in the case of the highest soprano voice, can approach 4 octaves. In the lowest bass voices this range is a little over 2 octaves.
Since virtually all students that come to voice teachers have less than their full range, we can conclude that they are unable to alter one or more of the three variables fully. The range that we had access to at birth becomes diminished in the process of growing up. Helping students to find these new co-
Let's talk about Chester, a tenor with a possible range of 3 octaves. To obtain this range, Chester must be able to alter all three variables fully. If he has lost the ability to change thickness at all, for example, his range would be limited to 1.7 octaves. If he could only change thickness by 50% of his potential, his range would be limited to 2.2 octaves. These are extreme examples for the purpose of comparison. In fact, Chester still has 2.6 of his 3 octave potential. The remaining .4 octaves have been lost to a diminished control over both thickness and length of some ten percent each. (We'll meet with Chester again shortly).
The vocal cords are pulled tight by matched pairs of muscles. These muscles don't become stronger with training or extended use. That's the conclusion of studies which featured the dissection of dead opera singers. The vocal cords of dead opera singers are no different, and the muscles that control them no stronger, than the vocal cords of dead regular people. We can probable deduce from this that the vocal muscles of live opera singers are no stronger than the vocal muscles of live regular people. (This is good design if you think about it. If vocal muscles could be bulked in the Mr. America fashion, the larynx would get crammed like an overstuffed sausage).
This means that during training students don't change their ability to increase vocal tension. One of our three variables has been eliminated. Thus we can now assume that during training people regain their full ranges by regaining full control over the thickness and length of their vocal cords. Let's now return to the piano to see what more we can learn about the design of our voice. This time let's peek under the hood of a Steinway
Here we see 88 sets of strings stretched across a metal frame (known as a harp). These strings graduate from long and thick in the bass section to short and thin in the treble section. So we know right away that Steinway is using both length and thickness to achieve its 7.3 octave range. We also see this decrease happening in a very gradual fashion with every string only slightly different from the preceding string. Never are there two strings side by side with markedly different length and thickness. We need to look at strings well apart from each other before differences become apparent.
At this point we've learned that the Steinways design their pianos with strings of, from bass to treble, evenly decreasing length and thickness. We know also that our creator provided us with vocal cords capable of following the same pattern.
Could it be that when we do follow this pattern, raising pitch by gradually diminishing their length and thickness, we are using our instruments in an optimum fashion? There is compelling evidence that this is true. And that, being true, this knowledge will guide us as teacher and student.
The physics of sound tells us that when we change either the length or thickness of our vibrating instrument, not only do we alter the pitch of the instrument, but we alter its basic sound as well. For example, consider the guitar. If you fret the fifth string at the mid-
Why do the makers of guitars and pianos design their instruments with strings that don't quite match in sound? Couldn't this be considered a design flaw? Why not use strings of equal thickness and length? Instead of using thickness and length to change pitch, why not use tension instead?
The main answer to this is practicality, what engineers like to call a "real world constraint". It reflects the difference between theoreticians and people who live in the real world. If Steinway made their pianos with all thick long strings like the ones in the bass section this would be the result: The highest strings would have to be pulled, as we saw earlier, on the order of 157 times as tight as the lowest notes. The middle strings would have to be pulled some 11.3* times as tight. The poor piano would fold under the combined force of all 88 strings. If the structure that holds the strings, the harp, were made strong enough, a piano would weigh many tons! *[11.3 = 2 to the 3.5 power]
So we see that using strings of different length and diameter is a real world compromise that enables the piano to have its exceptionally wide range of 7.3 octaves. Come to think of it, how many string instruments do avoid this compromise? The wash tub bass comes to mind. It hasn't the "design flaw" we're talking about because it has but one string. Neither does it have much of a range. [It's range is.... ]
It's clearer to us now that our ability to alter the thickness and length of our vocal cords, like the piano and guitar, is what gives us our wide vocal range. In addition, unlike the piano and guitar, (but like the washtub bass), we can alter tension of the vocal cords. Thus we have a truly marvelous instrument that has an exceptionally wide range, especially considering it only has one "string".
Having so much control over this one string, our vocal cord(s), is what gives us our astonishing vocal abilities. It enables us to hit any pitch within our range, and then instantaneously change three variables to hit a second, a third, and a fourth pitch, all within a second. Furthermore we can alter any of the three variables instantaneously in order to change our basic sound. Add to this the fact that we can, simultaneously, change the use of our resonators, (more on this later), and you have the world's greatest mimic, the human voice.
Our having all this amazing vocal potential has one drawback, however. We can misuse it. We come pre-
Situations where the voice is intended to carry, at ball games or parties or giving a speech, for instance, our voices can become painfully harsh or give out entirely to laryngitis. In contrast, think of the newborn. What newborn has ever suffered from laryngitis?
What have we learned so far about voice training? First, training recovers the full range of co-
We have seen that the best design for a piano is one where the strings are stretched to a relatively constant tightness and vary gradually in thickness and length. For all the arguments that decided this design for the piano, we can say there will be a counterpart in the proper use of the voice.
We will want to use a relatively constant tension, one that can be maintained comfortably. That being given, we turn to the problem of "designing" on a habitual basis a voice that, like the Steinway, varies the length and thickness of the vocal cords. THIS IS THE CRUX OF VOCAL TRAINING.
We must learn not to push in order to make all the higher pitches but to produce them with as little effort as the low notes we use in everyday speech. Training is therefore largely learning, or should we say relearning, to change pitch by changing vocal cord length and thickness gradually. (Babies use their voices instinctively in the correct matter.)
Conversely, training is largely learning not to pull the vocal cords tighter to make higher pitches. Either way you look at it this entire process is called "registration" by many teachers and will be covered in detail.
The end product is referred to by some voice teachers as a ‟string of pearls”. If looked at in its entirety, a string of pearls has a large pendant pearl at the center and a delicate pearl at the clasp. If, however, you conceal from sight all but a neighboring pair of pearls, it will be hard to discern any difference between them.
Similarly the voice has its ample full sounding low note at the bottom of its range, and its small exciting high note at the top of its range. Clearly the sound of the instrument changes in moving from the bottom to the top. And yet two notes next to each other will sound identical in every way except for pitch.
The process of retraining the vocal cords to this ‟string of pearls” is called registration. When the process is complete the voice is said to be registered. The sound of the voice in different parts of its range is called the voice’s registers, the same term used to refer to the different sized sets of pipes in the pipe organ from which this term derives.
Confusion abounds in the use of this term and will be discussed at greater length further on in the book.) I like to refer to the properly registered voice as aligned. Much as one’s back, or the front end of a car need to be realigned, so too for the voice.
After we have learned to move correctly from pitch to pitch on a constant and habitual basis, then we can "redesign" an octave or a note here and there on a stylistic moment-
These departures from the norm or standard, if you will, will also happen naturally as vocal colors. They will transpire as the speaker/singer connects to the meaning of the words. The aligned or registered voice has the most possible colors. The misused voice has fewer.
It’s as if aligning the voice were the same as finding one’s center of gravity. When poised and balanced, the body can be moved quickly and in the most possible ways. When aligned the voice can move to all possible colors. Judy Collins singing “Danny Boy” is a good example.
An obvious major benefit of singing/speaking with this properly registered voice is that of having a voice with power in all ranges and smooth transitions. This voice will also be capable of great beauty. An additional major benefit is the fact that all pitches will be equally easy to sing/speak. Pitches will be either in range or out of range. If in, they’ll be easy to make. If out, they’ll be unattainable. There will be no gray area where notes are difficult.
As the speaker moves from a pitch in one range of the voice to a pitch in another range, breath leaving the lungs will encounter vocal cords pulled to the same tension and therefor providing the same resistance. Therefor no change in effort on behalf of the speaker/singer will be necessary. This is certainly vocal nirvana and the secret to a singer’s magic, making it all look so easy.
MORE COMPARISONS WITH THE PIANO
The vocal cords are set in motion by breath passing between them en route from the lungs. The piano strings are set in motion by being struck by a felt hammer. These "forcing functions", as an engineer would term it, these initial sources of energy which are then converted to sound, are distinctly different. The hammer strikes the strings with an instantaneous percussive blow, while the air travels through the vocal cords in a gentle and continuous fashion. Once vibration begins, however, we have greater similarity.
Under the piano strings lies a thin wood sounding board vibrating sympathetically with the strings above it and providing most of the volume of the instrument. It transmits most of its energy directly to the surrounding air as sound. It transmits the remainder indirectly, channeling it through physical supports to the piano body, cover, and keys, which in then turn radiate sound directly to the concert hall.
Immediately above and below the vocal cords lie columns of air leading up to the mouth and sinus, and down the bronchi to the lung cavities. Most of these cavities are like closed rooms which allow the energy in them no direct escape. But their walls are made to vibrate and this in turn transfers energy to the skeletal features of the head and chest. It then passes to the surface of the body. From here the skin then radiates this energy directly into the surrounding air as sound.
Only a small percent of the total energy is transmitted directly from the mouth to the surrounding air as sound. This is much the same as an acoustic guitar or violin. It is the wood bodies of these instrument and not the holes that radiates most of the sound into the surrounding air.
The sum total of these resonators provide most of the sound which passes from the speaker/singer to the lecture/concert hall. These are the systems by which the voice and piano multiply the relatively weak initial sound produced by their respective sources. The vocal cords provide less than a twentieth of the total volume of the voice. The strings of the piano are comparable.
So we see the piano and the voice have relatively different physical configurations for amplifying their original sound. The systems are alike functionally, however, in that they both serve to strengthen a sound weak in their absence. They are further alike in that they are both "givens", provided at birth to change in their lifetimes due only to the effects of maturing (often good) and accident (usually bad).
They have a conspicuous and considerable difference in one crucial aspect: While the piano resonators are fixed in relation to one another, those of the singer are greatly affected by the state of the singer's throat. More about this in a later chapter.
BASIC VOCAL COORDINATIONS
2. Pronunciation (mouth, throat, jaw, and soft palate tensions)
There are three basics sets of co-
The second basic set of vocal co-
There is a secondary aspect of this process of concern to the voice teacher. Residual tensions from learning to speak vowels and consonants affect the distribution of the basic sound to the resonators causing such problems as throatiness or nasality. It will be this aspect to which I will be referring in the rest of the book. Thus, when a speech therapist speaks of mispronunciation they will be talking of, for instance, a lisp. When we speak here of mispronunciation we will be using the term interchangeably with mouth/throat tensions that interfere with resonance.
The third basic set of vocal co-
PRIMARY APPROACH TO THE VOICE
Knowing how these co-
The opposite is not true. Improper breathing does not cause improper registration per se. There are many examples of professional singers, for example, that exhibit bad breathing habits and good voices. Improper pronunciation, (mouth/throat tensions, remember), will not necessarily affect registration either. There are singers with access to their full range, Sting for example, whose tensions cause their voice to be muffled or nasal.
At this point we can see registration emerging as our candidate of main consideration. We know now that fixing 1. will improve 2. and 3. We also know that fixing 2. and 3. will not necessarily fix 1.
There is a second argument for concerning ourselves mainly with registration and not breathing or pronunciation. Breathing involves muscles and posture which we can see or feel. Likewise, tensions in the mouth/throat area can both be felt and, often, seen. These problems are more easily approached than the problems of registration.
On the other hand registration involves a vocal mechanism that is very small and densely packed with minute muscles. The muscles can’t be seen and almost nothing of what they do can be felt. For these reasons, registration takes (much) longer to fix. Therefore...
It is the coordinations of the vocal muscles that should be the main focus for teacher and student. Registration should be the primary concern. That's not to say other problems should not be dealt with as they come up; they should be brought into the picture. But the registration problem should always be kept paramount.
REGISTRATION VS. PRONUNCIATION
Let delve further into the relationship between registration and pronunciation problems. If a student has a tight jaw, for instance, and his jaw is tight throughout his vocal range, it would be reasonable to assume that he might well have a problem with, well, general tension in his jaw. However, if s/he has jaw tension only in a specific pitch range of the voice, and if this is the same range in which the voice is being pushed, it's a sure bet the tensions are caused by the over-
When the vocal cords are pulled too tightly, strain will be transmitted outside of the larynx. This is the body's relief mechanism. When this happens the jaw will become rigid and held open farther than is normal for the vowel being sounded. The head will tilt upwards as well.
It would be wrong here to let the student believe they had a problem with mouth/throat tensions per se. The tension evident in their pronunciation is a symptom of pushing and not the primary cause of the improper sound. Rather, it would be beneficial for the student to understand that this phenomenon is a result of forcing the voice. This is good. They now have a visible demonstration of the results of pushing the voice. While there are many other indicators of pushing, they can be subtle and hard for the student to discern, especially in the beginning. Here is a simple and straight-
If the student demonstrates mouth/throat tensions and they appear throughout the person's range, then they are habitual and tied into learned pronunciation. They can no longer be a clear indicator to the student that he/she is pushing since they will also appear when the student is not pushing. This problem does exist in and of itself.
In this situation it does make sense to have a two pronged approach to the student's vocal problems. This will give you both a second focus. But you must keep coming back to the issue of registration. Reregistering the voice is more difficult for the student and takes more time, sometimes much more so, than correcting other coordinations.
Mispronunciation is more external and lends itself to quicker repair. Furthermore, the mispronunciation problem can never be fully corrected until the registration problem is and vice versa. They must both be constantly adjusted until neither is affecting the other.
REGISTRATION VS. THE BREATH
Breathing or breath coordination may be an alternate second focus for the student. Breathing, like pronunciation, presents fewer innate problems for the teacher and student. The muscles involved in breathing are large and can be readily felt. And once again these problems are easier to solve than those of registration. In fact, there is only one overall breath problem that affects the voice! I know I am being branded heretic by many voice teacher at this point, many excellent teachers in fact. But teachers will admit candidly that what is termed "breath support" is the single greatest source of confusion among them. And I am prepared to back this dictum.
The number of different breath theories is legion. Most teaches, during training, have been exposed to many such theories from both their teacher(s) and colleagues. The fact that they later succeed in producing our outstanding singers and speakers does not mean that the theories are correct, only that teachers have succeeded in spite of this source of confusion.
Imagining yourself a vocal cord, you "see" air below you at a given pressure. You don't know, nor do you have any way of knowing, anything about the mechanism that sent it to you. As long as that supply of air keeps coming at the same pressure, you will have no choice but to continue to respond to it according to the laws of physics. Whether the torso above you is missing a rib, strapped in a straight jacket, or hanging up side down will make no difference. The laws of physics say your voice will respond to the pressure and density of the gas below you and that's it. Unless we're having a party and the gas is laughing gas, the only real variable here is the pressure. The voice responds to one external parameter and that is air pressure, period!
(At high altitudes the density of air is lower than at sea level. Even so, it remains substantially constant at whatever altitude we’re talking about with the vocal cords responding to changes in pressure only. The lower density of air will enable, however, higher pitches. At Alta Mitla in Mexico, while singing for a Thanksgiving Festival, I began my song in too high a key. I expected that I would have to change the high notes in the climax of the song because these notes would be just above my range. And yet, when I got there I was able to sing them easily. The altitude of 5,000 feet above sea level enabled me to hit notes I had never hit before.)
The physical law that describes the breath pressure at the vocal cords when they are phonating is Bernoulli’s theorem:
Pressure = Constant x 1/2R x V(squared)
where R is the density of air.
[Therefore the pressure ratio at Alta Mitla
compared to sea level is:
(R at Alta Mitla)/(R at sea level).]
From this we see that the task of providing the vocal cords with a constant pressure while singing vowels is the same task as exhaling at a constant velocity. Equal velocity means equal pressure. A steady stream of air leaving the lungs will provide the vocal cords with a steady pressure.
Some ways of providing a steady supply of air at a steady pressure are easier than others and we will cover them in detail. But we must be clear on the fact that a student can breathe high in the chest and still provide the correct pressure to the vocal cords, have bad posture and still not push the voice, tighten their abdomen after breathing and still provide air at the proper velocity. These breath problems we will refer to as secondary breath problems.
Again we can reassure the student that their vocal problems are not a result of any problems with details of their breathing, per se. It's not that they push and therefor the voice is wronged, it's that they choose the wrong voice and therefore have to push. Their problems are a result of mis-
Secondary breathing habits can now also be put on the back burner and brought up periodically for a change in pace. These problems are fixed in a far shorter time than any registration problem and therefore don't need to be in the spotlight constantly. The main breathing problem, that of providing too great a pressure, will come up regularly as the student is taught not to push in the mis-
This approach has the added benefit that the student is less likely to get tied up in knots trying to make (relatively) unimportant corrections when a much larger problem is at hand. Nothing can render a student a basket case faster than concentrating on the details of breathing. It has been my experience that everyone has good breathing habits under most circumstances. This is largely because breathing is not something the average person feels self-
Furthermore, the act of breathing returns to the coordination of the unconscious whenever not being performed consciously. For this reason, voice students come to their teacher with instinctive co-
Studying the breathing mechanism in detail can now be done on an interim basis while keeping the main spotlight on the registration. Understanding the details of breathing will give the student the confidence of having the ability to do in a tense situation what otherwise is done naturally. It well also enhance the student’s ability to handle those difficult sections that will come up from time to time in the body of the material. But this will take less time to do than the registration and can therefor be folded into lessons as an added ingredient.
SOLVING BILL’S BREATH PROBLEM
How this works in practice may be illustrated by an example. Bill comes to me and self-
Near the end of the period nothing will have been said about the breath but a lot will have been corrected in terms of getting, say, the voice to be more resonant in an easy part of the voice. Bill will often realize by this time that the breath problem has lessened appreciatively or disappeared; that the breathing problem is a result of a vocal problem and not the other way around.
The voice itself is, however, a lalapalooza. Most people have a concept of what they want to sound like and have made conscious or unconscious alterations to please their perception of themselves. The collaborative quest to find the student's natural sound can be difficult, however rewarding.
The direct approach is to concentrate directly on the alterations the person has incorrectly installed as habit. But tackling the problem directly can run into resistance. The student quite naturally does want the voice they themselves have designed. They just want it without the problems they've encountered and don’t understand that the two factors are incompatible.
Once they grasp that the two phenomenon are linked, they will then need consider changes to their basic perceptions of themselves. Here the teacher enters the student's world and becomes a spiritual leader and empathetic companion as well as technician. The student will begin to trust the teacher and only then begin to make substantial changes to the voice. But this was not what they were considering when they first came to you and can easily prove a sticky wicket.
Here is an example. A student named Kim was learning to sing in my studio. Kim spoke in a natural though never loud manner. Her singing was diminutive however, not just in volume but in substance as well. Her lower notes were "floaty", lacking power, breathy. Her upper notes were just pretty, no more, having no carry. Everything, in short, was small. Not making a great deal of progress over several months of lessons by dealing just with her technique, I encouraged her to look for possible social reasons for the small voice.
To my regret I pushed her too hard. There were stern parental admonitions to her as a child to "always be a lady", to "always be demure". Kim had had this warning drummed into her. When this surfaced her vocal breakthrough was very dramatic. But she felt a great deal of pain and shed a lot of tears. After a few more lessons she stopped coming. I had moved too fast and was unable to give her enough support to enable her to continue.
THE PITCH IMPERATIVE -
Before we consider specific categories of students, it seems a good time for a word to the voice student interested not in singing but in developing the speaking voice. While I've made an effort to include you in all that has preceded, you may by now feel somehow that the singer has been the main target. At least you hope so. All that talk of pitch sounds to you like singer's talk and while you feel, perhaps, a bit left out, you do expect your road to be an easier one, one free of pitch that is. Not so.
All voices are coordinated as previously described. And all speakers need a decent range for expressivity. Range means pitches or notes or frequencies. No matter what you call them, you will be using them and using most of those your voice is capable of. A man will want to have available to him all his pitches as they all carry words well. (Sir Laurence Olivier, who often expressed envy toward opera singers, had his total range available to him and used pitches around g below high C in the entrance to Act 3 of Richard III, and pitches just above and below high C when near death on the stairs in Sleuth.)
A woman will want all of her range less the top third or so depending upon the voice type. (Having a wider total range to begin with than a man, the woman will end up with approximately the same total speaking range as the man.) A woman's highest notes don't have enough information within their overtones to transmit the vowels clearly. These are the laws of acoustic physics. They relate to what are known to the linguist as "formants". More on this later.
As a consequence a speaker/orator, when finished training, will have the ability to sing. The greatest resistance to this comes from the student who "has a tin ear", can't "carry a tune in a basket", or knows himself to be "tone deaf". If true, this would be a convincing argument. Being tone deaf, however, is a very rare condition, medically speaking. While I'm sure there is someone somewhere with a true inability to hear pitch, this person has yet to enter my studio. This is fortunate because there is no practical way around the inclusion of pitch in the study of the voice. The speaker as well as the singer must enter this territory.
THE TONE DEAF
To improve fundamental speech, and I'm talking about its basic formation before words are added, means to improve it throughout its range. Johnny One Note is by definition monotonous. Don't despair, however, if you can't match pitch to begin with. This is the easiest vocal problem to conquer and rarely will remain the main focus for more then a few lessons.
In a class I was teaching at the Jean Shelton Acting School, San Francisco, were a dozen singing students of varying ability, all beginners. Among them was one fellow who had trouble staying on pitch. I had a very different take on him than did the others. To them he was most welcome; as long as Doug was willing to sing, none of them had great cause for embarrassment. The sour notes he hit were painful and let the others have the comfort of knowing that there was someone in the class worse than they.
I recognized, however, that his problems were less than anyone else’s and that, in all probability, he would make the most rapid porgies. He had no pronunciation tensions in his speech, neither did he in his singing, problems far more tenacious than matching pitch. Furthermore, he had no registration problems in his speech, and none in his singing either. Of the three possible problems he had but one, and that the easiest to overcome.
Doug remained the caboose of the train through a full eight lessons, a comfort to all others in the class. However, at the ninth class, he sang his song with no pitch error. And as I’ve said, no other error, not even a blemish. Doug was suddenly the locomotive and no longer the caboose. He seemed to the others to have miraculously transplanted himself from last in line to first. Even he hadn’t seen it coming and was surprised at both his reversal of fate and the response from the class that accompanied it.
Let's now consider one of the two broad categories of mis-
However, when he is making a speech and he "builds" to a climax, entering a range of higher pitches, he uses too much breath pressure to get through it. He is now pushing the voice steadily upwards. Again, he handles his singing in the same exact fashion. Now, the extra push he makes on each successive note is slight. So nothing sounds suddenly "bad". But the effect of the strain is cumulative and his voice loses some beauty of tone with every successive higher note. Let's look at what happens using a visual metaphor.
Imagine his voice to be a cedar tree, (figure 1.), tall and straight with limbs that are very long and travel upward quite close to the trunk. The trunk represents the correct route to the very top. A third way up his tree trunk Chester's gone out on one of these limbs. As he climbs higher he becomes incrementally farther from the trunk. When he reaches the topmost point of the limb he will not be as high as he could have gone if he had kept to the trunk.
Chester has carried his pushed voice as far as it will go toward his top note and lost a few high notes in the process. His voice is of one piece from bottom to top. This mis-
Not a big deal you may say. He's only lost a few notes of his innate range. And he doesn't sound bad; he sounds, well, alright. And didn't he win the county speech award anyway?
WHO CAN BENEFIT
Everybody assumes that this is Chester's true voice and given range and that his success as a speaker can be improved only through crafting better speeches. Not so. Generally speaking, there is more room for improvement in the use of your voice than in any other body coordination. This may well be because the subtlety and sophistication of speech/singing is such a Johnny-
Speech hasn't been around for millennia as has, for example, walking. We seem to be pre-
Muffled or nasal voices are routinely accepted as just "what is". "That's the way Karen sounds", people will say. Or, "Grampa's voice has always been muffled". There isn't the general awareness that a squeaky or a throaty voice is to the person's true sound as being pigeon-
In general, people think the of voice as something pretty basic like shoe size or hair color. Or else they think of the voice in terms of the magic spells the Svengali's of the world cast over breathless ingenue sopranos. There is no middle ground in the public's perception of voice. So much could be gained by so many in this largely undeveloped social skill. This is true of teachers, lawyers, counselors, ministers and politicians, to name a few whose benefit would be obvious.
BACK TO CHESTER
Once Chester leaves the trunk of that tree he begins to loose the ability to nuance his words. By the time he's at the big climax of his speech, at the "top" of the limb he's climbed out on, he will no longer be able to convey his emotional connection to what he's saying and his points will be sounding forced. Because he hasn't exactly lost his audience and gets encouragement to continue, he may only sense something vague is missing and decide to just "try harder". Maybe get a professional speechwriter to help him.
Fortunately his best friend has had voice training and believes that Chester needs the same. Chester gives it a try and finds that something he was completely unaware of makes the difference he was looking for. Having gotten the training, he's gone on to a successful career as a politician, winning support everywhere he carries his message. The good in his heart hasn't changed but he is now perceived as the man he's always felt himself to be. His speeches are more exciting at the same time that they convey more warmth. Are we what we feel ourselves to be inside? Or are we as we are perceived by others? Fortunately for him, Chester no longer has to ponder this dilemma.
Training Chester goes smoothly. A key point about his voice is that he uses it correctly in the lowest third of its range. This is where we begin work. He comes quickly to the understanding that his voice problem, his only voice problem in fact, happens in a given range of pitches. And that I have had my best success in similar students by working in the area where the coordinations begin to verge from the "straight and narrow". Then I further explain that his willingness to sing will give us a repeatable phenomenon, one where we can scrutinize any given phrase as often as we please, secure in the knowledge that all parameters will remain constant but one, that one being his coordination.
I realize by this time, however, that I'm preaching to the newly converted. Chester is so open to trying new things, and so trusting of people in general, that he was ready to start ten minutes ago. His training will go relatively fast, I feel sure. Chester is aware of who he is and willing to take chances, the two main ingredients for superb speech pie. And his specific registration problem, that of the "Cyprus", is not especially difficult in that he has normal speech at the bottom and not a whole lot of push at the top.
CAROL LITTLEPITCH HAS NO REGISTRATION PROBLEM
When Chester began to study Carol had been a regular at the studio for several months. While Chester has a moderate vocal problem and a confident ‟can do” attitude, Carol had a minor problem but a precarious attitude. Carol’s ‟problem” was her choir teacher in high school. In her own words: "I was in choir in high school. The teacher begged me to not make a sound. He promised he'd pass me if only I would mouth the words as if I were singing." "I knew I wasn't much good. But I was so hoping to be able to learn!" Carol’s situation reminds us of Doug.
We find Carol’s speech to be free of registration problems; in all ranges her voice sounds natural and free of strain. If she wanted to work only on her speech we would be in great shape because the problems she does have are, by definition, independent of pitch. Without concerning ourselves with pitch, we could deal directly with some mouth/throat tensions that are causing a slight nasality and she would have finished her study in short order.
However, Carol still wants to sing. Despite the pain associated with her experiences of singing, despite her discouragement, her spirit has brought her to the studio door. In a straightforward manner she asks if there's any hope for her, or will the attempt bankrupt her and cause her more grief.
Teachers now reading this are no doubt grinding their teeth. Carol’s voice was so cavalierly disregarded in high school. We would like to promise her the moon at this point. Using our best judgment, instead, we answer the question methodically and thoroughly.
What would be good to say under the circumstances is this: "More than any other vocal problem, singing off pitch is the one vocal problem that will cause people to leave the room in a hurry. While people tolerate a throaty singer for awhile, and a nasal singer a bit longer, they have no tolerance for someone singing flat. To some it is actually physically painful. That's why your choir teacher did what he did. He wanted to keep his job and he had no idea how to help you. While other problems tend to average themselves out in a choir, someone singing off pitch will stand out, and the teach knew this."
"What you need to be very clear about, however, is this: There is no relation between how difficult this problem is to listen to and how difficult this problem is to solve. In fact, it can be one of the easiest vocal problem to tackle. It usually improves markedly in the first four lessons. What I suggest is that we work together for a month of weekly lessons and then reassess. If there is any improvement whatsoever we'll at least know that you aren't truly tone deaf. And there might be enough improvement to give you the confidence that you can overcome this stigma in a reasonable (affordable) amount of time.
"Meanwhile, I'll be listening to those things about your voice which I can't well assess today since they are related to pitch. At the end of this time I can give you a better answer to your question."
Now I don't expect any great problems to show up in that time, simply because Carol's speech coordination is so good. But the answer is honest and doesn't make false promises. And while the problem is in fact often downright easy to fix, we've avoided saying so; Kim doesn't need to be put under any additional pressure in this regard. Nor does she need you to be enthusiastic and cheering her on. As contrary as this may sound, put yourself in her shoes.
Carol has been told that she can't do what comes easily to others. In fact she's been complicit in this. She agreed to the pact of silence. Furthermore it's taken her ten years to get to your door. Enthusiasm at this point, in light of her experience, can be misinterpreted and lead her to think you disingenuous. What she does need you have given her: a professional opinion given in a thoughtful manner. The approach suggested has taken the focus off her long term aspiration which for her is saddled with great emotional weight. It has replaced it with a short term venture and modest expectations.
We talk briefly about her infant years. I ask her if there was music in her house and she doesn't recall. I tell her I've got a little hypothesis I'm testing: Most students with pitch problems, I theorize, have not had music in the house the first year or two. Now Carol is curious and vows to ask her parents. There does seem to be a correlation to me and I am honestly curious about this. More important though is that Carol now knows she's not alone. She keeps company with others that have had pitch problems and that have overcome them.
There is now in Carol's mind a "probable cause". Any diagnosis is comforting to the patient. Until it's named it can't be fixed. Carol was in a bit of a state when she arrived. But now the nerves of meeting are gone and we waste no time getting to the piano. I know she must pass this hurdle before she will be able to relax completely and have found it best to get to it early in the lesson. It becomes clear immediately that Carol does indeed have trouble matching pitches with the piano.
It is immediately just as clear that she is not tone deaf. She does get the pitch sometimes. And she clearly senses when the pitch has moved higher and when lower. I share this with her right away. I will even quantify the data. I tell her that of the twenty pitches we tried she was close on six. And that when I moved the pitches she moved her voice in the same direction. And on two pitches she actually hit the nail right on the head.
While Carol's response is a self-
Carol then argues in mock defiance that the two pitches she hit accurately could, in fact, have been a result of something other than luck. I then am pleased to agree with her. Carol is coming around.
I tell her I'll be singing some notes rather than playing them on the piano and she's to match as best she can as before. When we do this her percentage of hits rises. I tell her that matching to the piano is not exactly the easiest task for a beginner. The piano has a very different sound or timbre than the human voice, a vastly different set of overtones. Much easier to match to another human.
She gets to the next point quickly by herself and suggests that perhaps it would be even easier to for her to match to the female voice. Voila! I feign incredulity at the logic of this and we both laugh. The ice now fully broken, Carol is ready to go to work, work being more of the same -
By modulating my voice I can maximize her chance of success and I do so, choosing the range and type of sound that seems to work for her. Carol has the best luck in the middle range. When I sound a nasal and ugly sound she has better accuracy than when I give her a pure "pretty" tone. She does worst when I give her a throaty tone. None of this is surprising or terribly significant, just idiosyncratic. But it does continue to show her that "tone deaf" isn't for her a blanket pronouncement. In fact, she is clear now that her "hits" are not just by chance but have a logic to them.
Time for a break in which we rejoin our earlier casual conversation. While the conversation may seem random, I find from her that she babysits for extra cash. I ask her if I can give her name to another student, Agatha, who is married and has a young child. She says yes by all means. That night I call "Agie" who I knew to be in need of a babysitter, and tell her about Carol. The two talk on the phone and end up trading babysitting for pitch lessons. Agie is thrilled to help, glad to be able to make the trade, and they each do their thing once over the weekend.
At her second lesson Carol does far better with me and is now confident that she will be able to overcome her "problem". We work on "Mary Had a Little Lamb" in different keys with me doing different voices again. She does well except that she keeps apologizing for the fact I must go through misery for her sake. She evidently doesn't know how very satisfying this is for me.
Later on we'll check back in with Carol to see what happened at the end of the month when we reevaluated. And we'll also cover other strategies for dealing with pitch and the problems it presents, both real and perceived. But for now my break is over. We're going to switch from "Mary Had a Little Lamb" to "Visi d'Arte", a Tosca aria; Corinna is coming up the steps.
THE MISREGISTRATION OF CORINNA BREAKFUL
Corinna is excited about "Visi d'Arte". This aria is her introduction to singing opera, as it is for many opera students. Of only modest difficulty, many teachers choose this for the student to first tackle. All other things being equal, I would not have assigned this song to her yet. I feel it will slow her progress somewhat. But because it will not preclude progress entirely or, heaven forbid, reverse it, I acquiesce. I bow in the classic conflict between "to early to tackle", and "lack of challenge". Let’s see what this path means in terms of her vocal problems.
Corinna’s voice has a broken registration. It’s an extreme version of the forced registration that was characteristic of
Mr. Cedar’s voice. Let’s compare the registration of Corinna's lower singing voice to that of Chester using our vocal tree analogy. Her lowest voice is on dead center, like Chester’s, but only for a few notes. Unlike Chester, who’s voice is aligned for almost an octave, Corinna goes out on a limb after only a half octave.
And Corinna pushes a lot more than Chester. After Chester deviated from the trunk of his voice, he added the same small extra force to all notes. Consequently he never got far away from the trunk, the center of his voice if you will. On the other hand, Corinna adds successive force to every succeeding pitch. After deviating from the trunk, her limb continues to sharply diverge from the trunk, more in the manner of an Oak than of a Cypress (figure 2.). By the time she's pushed her way to the limit of the limb, she hasn't gained that many higher pitches. At this point the strain in her voice is evident to her. She’s also aware that she can’t sing these pitches softly, or in fact modulate the sound in any way. In layman terms what she is doing is shouting.
HOW THE BREAK HAPPENS
At this point she can no longer go to higher pitches with the vocal tension she's using. And she can’t increase the vocal tension because she’s maxed out. Her vocal cords can't be pulled any tighter. Alas, the song does go to higher pitches. And pitch is the imperative in a song. In order to reach the pitches now out of reach, the body must find a way. And find it it does. And never in terms of the true voice the student would have found had they traveled directly up the trunk. The body overcompensates for the great vocal tension in the larynx. By radically changing the parameters of thickness and length, the next higher pitches can be made. And made with a great relief of the tension to which the cords were pulled.
The unfortunate consequence of this drastic compensation is a "change" of voice which is distracting to the audience and disturbing to the person involved. One moment the person’s voice was loud and assertive. The next moment it becomes flabby and weak. This is called a break in the voice and has the paradoxical nature of being what the person was trying to avoid in the first place. And yet it is the person that created it. There was no break in the voice when this person was a child. It was learned somewhere and for some reason.
WHY THE BREAK HAPPENS
Let me explain by comparing the voice to hearing. We are born with ears, timpani, eardrums, etc. hooked up and wired to go. Nothing need be added. Nothing need be learned. We hear and that's that. Up to a point the voice works in the same fashion. We are born with vocal cords, larynx, diaphragm, etc. And it all works miraculously moments after birth. For years the child has perfect instinctual coordination. It can yell for hours and not get hoarse, it has a wide range, its voice isn't caught in its throat, neither is the voice nasal -
Two things then happen. First, we learn language and in doing so coordinate the lips, mouth, tongue, teeth and breath with the voice itself. In the process the vocal coordinations we were born with become overlaid. When we emulate our parents and others around us we begin to take on the vocal characteristics of our society. I'm not talking here of the way the words and grammar sound but of the very basic sound itself, the basic clay that gets sculpted into words. As mimicry progresses our basic sound gets altered by new coordinations that make, say, a Chinese child sound different from a French or Japanese child.
Each country, indeed sometimes each county, can have different a basic sound even though speaking the same language. (Remember that Henry Higgins bragged that he could tell the very street someone was born on.) The throaty sound of Cockney English is as different from the sound of BBC English as the nasal twang of the Bronx is from the throaty sound of Brooklyn. All have one thing in common however. They all, in varying amounts, rob the child of a degree of vocal freedom. Mother Nature's coordinations were the best as far as the basic use of the vocal cords is concerned. The price of learning language is a certain deterioration in this department.
A contrastive language such as Mandarin will cause the least deterioration in a child’s basic voice. Contrastive languages depend on melody in conjunction with vowels and consonants to provide the meaning of a given word. Thus, two words spelled the same can have widely different meanings. Because this type of language depends upon melody, the voice must remain free to do so. A language that is not contrastive will use changes of pitch in a limited range, or inflections, for non-
Second, as we grow older we become more self-
These attempts can go awry as some things about the voice are counter-
As Corinna travels up the trunk of her first half octave, she is correctly modulating the thickness and length of the vocal cords. Going higher, why does she not continue this coordination rather than switch to one in which tension is increased? We can only guess at possible scenarios. Suffice to say that our relearning process will almost always have some blemish from a designer no match for Mother Nature. And this problem is common. More women have a break in their voice than do men and this is a clue to some conjecture that I’ll make shortly.
THE VOCAL PARADOX
The lower the voice the less volume it is capable of. When we need to be louder we are said to ‟raise our voice”. It’s not by chance that the metaphor of altitude is used. The higher we go in pitch, up to a point, a point some 3/4 of the way from our lowest to our uppermost pitch, the louder the voice gets. This happens naturally in children. (See figure __ )
When Corinna needs to be louder, when she’s calling the dog for instance, or when she’s at a political rally and is driving home a point from the crowd, she leaves her comfort zone and begins to use higher pitches. So far so good. If she continued to use her good lower coordinations she would alter all the vocal variables. If she neglects to alter thickness and length of the cords, however, and instead pulls the vocal cords ever and ever tighter, there will come a point beyond which she can’t pass. The vocal muscles are of a given strength and so is the larynx to which they attach. Pulling the vocal cords tighter for higher pitches succeeds only up to a point. Then it shows its ass.
While what has happened is perfectly understandable, the only truly successful way for the voice to remain the same throughout its range is for it to be allowed to change gradually. This is a fundamental axiom of the voice just as it is for all musical instruments. Trying to keep her voice the same by not adjusting it incrementally, Corinna caused her voice to change instead in an abrupt fashion or ‟break”.
Just as we are all successful in designing the speaking voice in its casual range, a break in this range is rare. On higher pitches we can all learn to use our voices correctly. But the secret does involve the paradox that the more we allow it to change the more it stays identifiably ours. Voices naturally change in quality as they move from bottom to top. If this change is thwarted the result will be a loss of range like that of Chester Cedar, or a break in the voice like that of Corinna.
Leontyne Price's voice sounds very different at the top than it does at the bottom, but both sound like the voice of the same person, Leontyne Price. As Leontyne leaves her lower notes and moves toward her top notes, her voice blends gradually. Every successive note sounds very much like the pitch that preceeded it; only after several notes is a change in timbre obvious. In Leontyne’s case this coordination is the result of training.
The same is true of all but a few natural singers who have managed to retain the coordinations they were born with. Birgit Nilson took lessons with one teacher and quit shortly after beginning, never to take another lesson in her long and distinguished career. However, Birgit is a anomoly. Corinna and the rest of us need training to do what came naturally to Ms. Nilson. But the result, at its best, sounds truly exciting as only a naturally made sound can.
CORINNA AND I MAKE A PLAN OF ATTACK
I have explained to Corinna that we can work on the registration problem in one of many ways: We can work in the lowest part of her voice where she already has good coordination and gradually correct the coordinations that lead upward. The greatest advantage here is that Corinna already uses her voice correctly in this region -
Or we can work in the pushed region but this is rarely fruitful: this voice is not easily altered. Take a belt voice for instance. A belt voice is a voice with a mammoth break high in the midrange which the singer stays below. (See figure__). The singer known for belting may cause a stir in the audience, but it's not because they are able to convey emotional nuance. They have one sound and they use it for what it gets them, maximum impact.
Thirdly, we can work directly in the area of the break. This approach can be very exciting for the student up to it. The voice is unstable here and the student may be uncomfortable being so out of control. Or lastly we can work in the second voice, the upper voice.
In general, working from the bottom is a very strong approach. It's the one I use most often. Having the person's true voice is a boon and gives this method the distinct advantage of having a model. However, if the student is comfortable taking great chances, working right in the break can be, as I said, exciting. Under these circumstances it can produce the most rapid changes of all. But only if the student will fully "embrace the break", both allowing the voice to crack all over the place and accepting the resulting sounds without judgment.
The last approach is the one that Corinna and I have agreed on. We decide to work within her upper voice, bringing new coordinations to the way she travels from this region to her lowest notes while making changes to the voice itself. This approach has some disadvantages and yet is the best way to teach Corinna who is a devoted choir member.
Singing in the choir gives Corinna a great deal of satisfaction, and she doesn’t want to quit while she’s studying. Furthermore she's excited by the fact that she is ready to work on an opera aria. She has the range for both these endeavors at present in her upper voice. For these reasons we’ll work in this region to improve her choir singing and the opera aria. Her lower notes near the break will become stronger and extend her range downward. To work in her lower voice would move the break upward and it would then emerge in her choir and aria singing.
WORKING IN THE UPPER VOICE
As the lower voice travels throughout the break into the upper, it compensates for the fact that it can't be pulled any tighter. It doesn't correct itself as we have seen. It overcorrects. It becomes weak and flabby. It is no where near the trunk of the vocal tree. As it travels yet higher it gathers strength as it is pulled tighter in turn. Eventually it may find its true self or something close to it in a given region.
The student will have no model in this region and be more dependent on communication with the teacher. If lucky, their teacher will be blessed with a golden ear, or, having trained many similar students, will have a clear model inside their head, in their "mind's ear". Otherwise, the teacher will model the whole voice to the best sound in this region, perhaps realizing along the way that this itself could be improved. The best in this region can be quite impressive and the result quite good. But never can this sound be smoothly joined to a the students speaking voice unless it is the natural extension of this voice.
The great advantage to training the entire voice working from the top is one of practicality and satisfaction. This upper range will usually be wider in compass than that of the lower voice. This is fortunate because very often the students for whom this approach is appropriate will be more interested in singing choral or operatic music with its inherently wide range. Unless this voice is eventually joined to the lower, however, this singer will never be able to cross over to pop music where sounding real is the imperative. Beauty of tone is the imperative in the operatic world but not in pop music. There is no reason that one person can't do both exceedingly well. But it rarely happens. There have been too few Eileen Farrells and Florence Hendersons.
Back to Corinna who sounds like one person for her lowest octave and a second person in her higher range. Let's give the names to these two voices that I've come to use almost exclusively. I call the lower voice by the functional title, pushed voice. It is, after all, characterized by having to much breath pressure behind it and pushed voice conveys this fact. The upper voice, right after the break, is weak and characterized by too little breath pressure. This I call the held voice.
These two sides of the same coin, pushing and holding, and the way the body feels doing them will both disappear when the voice is realigned. When this happens the pushed voice and held voice will no longer exist. Now it will sound like the voice of one person singing/speaking. And we can call the way this realigned voice sounds in opposite ends of its range simply as "your low voice" and "your high voice".
THE TYRANNY OF PEDAGOGY
Teachers will recognize that we have neatly finessed the use of chest voice and head voice. These are terms that have caused teachers all to pull out our hair in frustration at one time or another. They've been handed down to us from earlier centuries and we've continued to use them either out of loyalty or because they're all we've got. But they are very confusing because they are used to describe the upper and lower sounds of a person's voice both before training and after training.
Some teachers have corrected this problem in their studios by using chest voice and head voice for the incorrect registers, and substituted other terms for the way the joined voice sounds at bottom and top. I honor their efforts and commend them. I do feel, however, because of the confusion the student feels from hearing these same terms used by their peers in a different manner, that it is best to send these terms to the vocal junkyard. It is indeed respectful to put the student and the process before tradition.
A GENERAL APPROACH
Because we’ve decided to make registration our main focus for study, we can divide new students into four basic categories, each with its own agenda. These categories are:
1. Students with no registration problems.
2. Students with forced registration, (those who push the voice to some degree).
3. Students with broken registration, (those who push the voice beyond its limit and have two voices).
4. Students with held registration.
There is a special category -
At this point we’ve met Chester and Corinna, two students who exemplifly the second and third categories. For Chester, who falls in the second group, we can work anywhere in his range
WHY WE PUSH -
Since a culprit in the case of the misaligned voice has been identified, and since that culprit is the push applied to get above the range of casual speech, it would seem reasonable that if we fix the push we solve the registration problem. To a certain extent this is true and can be the one successful approach for any given individual. But it’s also true that if we solve the registration problem the student will no longer be pushing. In general, far better is this latter approach.
The relationship between pushing and mis-
There is no benefit to a person to push just for the sake of pushing since the push itself is a hidden quality. Instead the push is often, though not always, provided in the attempt to keep the voice the same, to keep it from getting high sounding, however disastrous this attempt may be in the long run.
There are added incentives to push if you’re a woman. The female voice differs from the male in a few regards. While the woman’s voice is generally far rangier that the male voice, the top part of it doesn’t carry words. This is a fact of physics. For this reason it can never be used by the female speaker to convey literal meaning, and only in specific situations by the female singer.
The reason for this is the basic physics of verbal communication. Any given vocal sound we make is mostly made up overtones. In fact the fundamental tone made by the vocal cords accounts for only about 5% of the total sound, the other 95% being overtones produced by parts of the body and body cavities vibrating sympathetically. While the fundamental is a given, we can alter the overtones to a certain extent. By changing the shape of the mouth area we can encourage the overtones produced in this region. Or discourage them. Or encourage some and discourage others. This is exactly what we do when we speak or sing. The two bands of overtones either encouraged or discouraged, linguists call formants. The basic vowel in all languages, linguists call the "schwa". This is the sound made when the mouth and tongue are at neutral, i.e. when there is no pronunciation. By the way in which the formants are altered from this basic sound, the listener will hear different vowels. (We’ll come back to this when we talk about voice placement and resonance.)
The higher the voice travels into the top part of the female range the fewer are the overtones found in the mouth region. So few in fact at the very top, that pitches above high C in the female voice are referred to cumulatively as the pinwhistle register, unable to differentiate vowels altogether. And the half octave immediately below high C aren’t a whole lot better. This is the region properly abandoned by the female speaker. It is the same region in which the female singer will swap verbal communication for emotional communication. In other words, this where Aretha Franklin and Patti la Belle begin to wail.
A second incentive given women to push up their lower sound and sacrifice some of the upper has happened in the realm of pop music. When rock music came in in the sixties, allied closely with the free speech movement and the drug culture, an important component of this culture was its androgyny. Say what you will about free speech and drugs, rock and roll has endured, and along with it, unisex. Men now sing high and women low, using greatly the ranges of their voices that overlap. The previous standard, one in which women were prized for their feminine sound, their pitches above the male voice, and men were prized for their masculine sound, their pitches below the female voice, was out and would not, may never, return. The day of the baritones, the Frank Sinatra’s, Frankie Laine’s and Bing Crosby’s, and the sopranos, the Patti Page’s, the Connie Francis’s had ended. In came tenors, the Beach Boys, the Eagles and Michael Jackson, and the mezzos (or soprano’s imitating mezzos).
HOW MEN DIFFER
Given these three desires, to maintain the basic sound of the natural speaking voice in regions of the voice little used, to maximize energy in the formants, and to sound like a tenor, women have three strong incentives to design their voices with a break. Given the same three factors, men are affected differently.
The parallel desires on the part of the man will have very different effects. The reward for men who don’t push is access to their highest notes. Not pushing is the open sesame to this range. This is the range where their pitches and those of a woman overlap. The desire to maximize information content will have no effect on registration, there being no shortage of formant overtones anywhere in the male voice. (At the most, this factor in the man’s voice may affect placement, a topic for later in the book.)
So we have a situation in which there is great incentive for the woman to push her voice and little incentive for the man to do the same. This being the case we would expect that far more women would appear on the teacher’s doorstep with a break problem than men. And this is indeed the case. Most often a male student will be similar to Chester Cyprus, pushing gradually to the top on a branch at least moderately close to the vocal trunk, losing total access to the uppermost, say, half octave. More often than not a female student will begin pushing hard almost immediately and break into a second voice somewhere early in the middle octave of their approximate three octave range.
WHAT TO EXPECT
With training the male student will be able to improve his speech/singing to the extent it is pushed. In other words, the higher his voice, the more the room for improvement. His lowest notes will not change appreciably. His total range will increase by the compass of those notes at the top he hasn’t been able to access.
With training the female student will improve most greatly those notes within and just above the break (b. to c.). As the upper voice travels even higher it will, like Chester’s, improve more the higher it gets. Furthermore, if the student pushes her very bottom notes, these will of course improve in sound quality but there may actually be a loss of one, two, or possibly three of these notes in training. Nobody has ever complained about this. The rewards in the rest of the voice in terms of ease, fullness and range, make this of no consequence.
WHAT ABOUT BREATHING
Just as we found that cause and effect are easily confused when dealing with a student’s pushed voice, there is a parallel when we deal with the breathing mechanism itself. We found that when dealing with a student’s pushed voice, cause and effect are easily confused. Because push is always present it is often assumed to be the direct cause of the incorrect sound produced. Instead it is an indirect cause. We found that push is the tail and the dog that’s wagging it is the student self-
We acknowledged that because the two cannot be separated, some good results can be achieved by fixing the symptom, much as in the approach of Western medicine to illness. And that for some students this can be the golden key. But that dealing with the sound of the voice more directly was the preferred path to take, concerning the student with the breath only as an adjunct to this approach. This may sound radical at first blush, but in fact will not be a drastic shift in the approach of most teachers.
SOME OF THE WAYS WE PUSH
Let’s now detail just what these changes will be by contrasting Dan and Denny, identical twins. Dan pushes his voice throughout his range. He also has visible breathing problems. Brother Denny pushes his voice throughout his range also. But Denny exhibits no visible breath problems whatsoever, zero, zilch.
At some point we help Dan correct his breathing. We coax him to relax the thoracic and stomach muscles, let the breath go deep, and keep the shoulders still. Dan's voice still sounds pushed, however. Dan is managing to push the same net amount after learning to breathe deeper.
At another time we encourage Dan to not tighten his stomach muscles after be breathes in. We explain that, all else being equal, contracting the stomach muscles will increase the air pressure at the larynx. Dan is able to relax his stomach muscles. However, once again there is no change in the resulting sound. Dan has balanced the resulting decrease in air pressure with an equal increase from other sources. (More about this later).
At a third time Dan is encouraged to not tighten his buttocks after breathing in. (I did attribute to Dan all the external breathing problems and this one is not as uncommon as I wish it were.) The buttock muscles, we explain to Dan, although not technically part of the breathing mechanism, can affect the breath pressure: Any time a large set of muscles is contracted, adjoining muscles will likely contract as well to a certain extent. That means that when Dan tightens his buttocks he is surely tightening some abdominal muscles as well.
Dancers learn to isolate muscle groups throughout years of rigorous training. So do yogis. Most of the rest of us do not. If tightening his butt causes a concomitant tightening of his lateral abdominals, we may have here the source of the push. Again the result is negative however. Either these muscles were isolated in Dan’s case, or else he has once again compensated.
In all three of these situations we explain to Dan that the examples we’ve presented can be kept in the back of his head. Ultimately they will model for him the more relaxed person he can become. But that we will be concentrating on other, for him more direct, parameters. Hopefully, for his total ease, he will want to change these habits. But if he becomes a fine speaker/singer who keeps his stomach tucked in at all times, he won’t be the first. A multitude of others, will have preceded him.
From this point on we we’ll teach Dan in much the same manner as Denny. When we do talk about pushing it will be in terms of the lack of tension in the diaphram that is allowing too much air pressure at the larynx.
HOW WE LEARN NOT TO PUSH
The teacher’s time honored approach in this regard has been to bring student attention to the amount of air leaving the body. The prominent voice teacher Kathy de Haven of Walnut Creek uses the phrase “speaking /singing on the breath”, the term she learned as a protégé of the great Met baritone Robert Weede. Other teachers use similar terms: “singing over the breath”, “singing with the breath”, “dropping the words gently onto the airstream”, etc. The salient point conveyed to the student is the necessity of a continuous flow of air. And that this flow be of a certain minimum amount; to use less than this amount will always result in the voice becoming caught in the throat. An explanation is in order here.
To the non-
The crux of this paradox is this: When we blow out the candle we aren’t making a vocal sound. When we speak or sing the vocal cords are operating or phonating. And this reverses the equation. You see,the vocal cords are inherently recalcitrant rascals. The more push one provides the tighter they jam together and the less air they allow to pass.
That’s because they serve two radically different purposes. Made delicate they are the source of the basic sound we then modulate to form speech. In their basic and cruder mode they keep water out of our lungs when underwater. Think trans-
AN ANTHROPOLOGIST’S VIEW OF THE VOICE
The cruder adaptation occurred millennia ago. Animals that left the sea developed delicate air-
When we think of animals in the sea communicating vocally, the dolphin, the hunchback whale and the seal come immediately to mind. These are a few of the animal that returned to the sea and developed these protective valves. As for the animals that subsequently returned (rereturned?) to land, the human animal evolved from some of them. And the further development of our valve has been exquisite.
Our ability to mimic other animals or sounds in unsurpassed in its latitude. Think of primitive man luring animals to within range of a spear, modern man luring ducks to a blind, and an impersonator imitating Bill Clinton imitating Frank Sinatra. Think of how Bobbie McFerrin sings along with an orchestra comprised solely of his imitation of instruments. Similarly outstanding is the latitude of the original sounds we can produce, sounds never heard before. How Pavarotti creates the sound of the gods with vocal cords whose length is that of 2 pencil erasers. At the other end of the spectrum think of the sounds that Tiny Tim or Ross Perot produce with the same basic apparatus.
WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE LARYNX
Back to the problem at hand. It's now clearer what we mean by "speaking on the breath." By emphasizing the passage of air we encourage the vocal cords to "lighten up" and release the pressure below them. In fact a bit of hyperbole that can break the logjam of pressure is asking the student to speak in a breathy manner. Agreed this is not what we're ultimately after. Nevertheless this injunction can work in a hurry. It frees the student to produce something other than what they think they're after, another sound altogether from what they consider to represent themselves. In doing so they almost always go to the "speaking on the breath" that we've been emphasizing, rarely actually producing the breathy tone asked for.
Another trick that works, and works in a similar way, is to ask the student to sing with an accent. If they are able to do this easily, the resulting sound can then be compared to their regular production. If better in regards to push, a discussion should follow. Often, the student will express that they feel freer to change their voice when acting another person. Again, if they feel they are no longer representing themselves, they feel freer to change what they do. An interesting paradox since the sound we are searching for is the real them. And this fact may be dawning on them by this point.
Of course, the student is limited to her repertoire of accents. If she is a bit uncomfortable with the experiment, it may be because she can't do any accent well. If this is the case, by all means repeat a sentence for her to model. The results can be well worth pushing through resistance or frustration. Especially if you can get a French accent which so often gives good results; any language as soft as French is bound to offer improvement. Again we see the affect of a student's self-
WHAT’S HAPPENING ELSEWHERE
A nasal voice, for instance, is not nasal because it has too much resonance in the nose, but rather because it has too little resonance elsewhere: the resonances normal to the mouth area have been shut down by closing off the rear entrance to the mouth. By raising the back of the tongue and lowering the soft palate, the person has closed the door on proper mouth resonance. By releasing these tensions balance is restored. The sound is no longer nasal, even though resonance in the nose may not have lessened at all! In a similar manner, the person will reduce other problems with their voice by dropping body tensions, "body armor" if you will.
The teacher talking to the student about "placement", where the voice is produced in the body, has two basic options in talking to this student about his nasality. One is the "stop doing this negative thing"; the other is "do this positive thing". They will translate here to, roughly, "get the voice out of the nose", and "get more resonance in the mouth". We’ve talked about lessening push by singing/speaking on the breath and by imitating an accent. These admonitions, when they work, work over wide ranges of pitch and vowels. When changes happen the student will be aware of a changed sound or changed feelings or both. These changed sounds and feelings are the physical feedback the student works with and can best be understood if divided into three basic categories.
THE TOOLS OF CHANGE -
Sound of the Sound[changes radically with acoustics -
The sound of the sound is the vocal quality we are all the most aware of. When we listen we hear the words and literal meaning of course. But at the same time we hear qualities of warmth, sympathy, anger, anxiety, pain, pleading. Emotional content is conveyed largely by the voice. And when others listen, we are interpreted in this way. Thus enters the element of self-
We create the voice we use to convey to the listener not only these emotions, but who we basically are. Few are the people who don’t care a bit what they sound like. Most of us succeed to the extent that we produce a basic sound that others can abide.
Because the acoustics of the studio remain constant, within the studio student and teacher have a consistent parameter with which to work. And changes in the student’s basic sound in the studio can bring about habitual changes in coordination that are carried outside.
It is beneficial to bring the student’s focus toward a second class of feedback that the student may well be less aware of. This feedback consists of where the sound is felt in the body. Where the sound is felt to vibrate is called “placement”.
Placement is the term used widely by teachers to refer to the areas of the body which vibrate while the person is speaking or singing. The student’s awareness that parts of the body are vibrating often needs to be awakened. That’s because these perceptions, unnecessary to daily life, have been buried since early childhood.
A child experiments with the sound and feel of their own voice early on and presumably is aware of the vibration sensation produced when vocalizing. But this awareness doesn’t remain. The way the voice feels, the perceptions of vibration, having no seeming value in the person’s ability to navigate through life, recedes to a subconscious level. While some students reconnect with these sensations immediately, others take longer.
Placement is such a powerful tool for the teacher and student, however, that it is worth the patience necessary for this process. While both types of feedback are a constant in the studio, the feeling of the sound changes far less with acoustics than the sound of the sound. The bathroom walls can make us seem instant Carusos but will have only marginal effect on what vibrates in the body. Thus placement feedback learned in the studio has more validity away from the studio than does sound feedback.
Furthermore, the feeling of the sound is a far more objective parameter for the student; as a teacher you will usually meet less resistance working with this element than with dealing with the sound directly. Look at this from the student’s point of view.
S/he comes to you with perceived problems. S/he doesn’t understand at first that you need to fix other related problems at the same time because they are interdependent. You seem to them to be monkeying with something they hadn’t bargained for, which is true; changing their basic sound where it was perceived by them to be okay. In the back of their heads they may make the mental adjustment that they will fix this but not that, and thus slow progress. Because working with the sensations of vibration is a step removed from their self-
A third feedback available to the student is awareness of the activity of the diaphragm, that it is tensioned enough to keep the air in the lungs from pushing against the vocal chords, and the way it feels remains constant despite change of vowels, pitch, or volume.
…................. ..................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................[tuning fork, singing to student, singing vs. speaking]When the student has become aware of placement, s/he will notice that it changes along with volume, pitch and vowel. For clarity’s sake it is a good idea to isolate these variables in exercises so that the student can feel their variation individually, and to do it in the following way: Spend most of the time keeping pitch and volume constant and varying the vowel. Keeping volume constant was agreed to earlier. [Keeping pitch and vowel constant while changing volume, since it also can involve the additional variable of push, should be reserved for later study. In fact, the mesa di voce exercise, where the singer swells a tone from very soft to very loud, all on one pitch, while keeping placement constant, has always been considered the mark of an advanced student and a measure of consummate vocal ability. Variations in volume will be covered later in the book.] At low volume the resonances of the chest, for instance, may be below the threshold at which the student can be aware of them. This student, when increasing volume at a given pitch and vowel in a correct manner, will feel the chest resonances cut in one by one in an apparent move, usually downward. Simultaneously, and for the same reason, s/he will feel resonance move higher on preventing the forehead and further back to the ears and back of the neck. It’s important to emphasis at this time that the center of the tone remains the same even as it is spreading peripherally. And that no vibration already established ever decreases during this process; that in fact the balance of the vibrations remains the same.
That leaves vowel and pitch. Keeping pitch constant was also agreed to earlier. Pitch, we said, would only be varied in exercises involving registration. Keeping the vowel and volume constant and changing pitch is our basic registration exercise. On a given vowel the student travels through ever wider ranges of pitches. Learning how the feel of the sound changes with pitch can be very useful here in guiding the student. But it should play a supporting role in this situation with the focus on the pushing/holding. Therefore, by default, the time spent focusing on placement in an isolated fashion will be at a given volume and pitch with the student moving between the vowels. As we have seen different vowels emphasize (and/or simultaneously de-
For instance, in the area about G above middle C, the oo vowel (as in moo) will be felt to have a tight concentration of sensation around the lower and upper front teeth. Moving to ee (see), this concentration will loosen a bit and move to the roots of the front four teeth, forming an arch of sensation in the upper front of the mouth. Continuing the move to ih (imp) will cause the sensation to shift to an even larger arch about 1/3 the way back on the palate. When the student reaches the eh sound (edible) the sensation will have widened to encompass the arch of the back of the hard palate and to the entire soft palate as well. The sensate area will then move to the back of the mouth and soft palate on the AH (father) vowel.. It will then include the back of the throat and the lower jaw on aw, shifting to the complete lower jaw on the oh (boat) vowel. And finally it will return to the lower front jaw and two front upper teeth on the oo vowel, having come full circle. Thus the sensations that change during this exercise will be felt to move in an elliptical path, traveling the high road along the hard palate from the front teeth to the back of the mouth, returning the low road of the jaw. The intensity of vibration transmitted to the forehead and the back of the neck will increase rapidly on the move from oo to ee, then decrease gradually on the trip back. The elliptical path will lie somewhat higher for higher pitches and lower for lower pitches. This exercise should be set at a pitch where the student can best execute it so that concentration can be on the sensations being felt, and for the important reason that this is not an exercise to improve registration! This exercise is not even directly related to registration. Remember that registration aims for the smooth and gradual transition between pitches. Because this exercise is done on one pitch, registration per se is not involved. It should always be done in a range of the voice where the registration is good, in order to prevent the reinforcement of bad habits.
While we’re at this point let’s further clarify the difference between the lateral coordinations that change placement, and the vertical coordinations that change pitch. The sticking point at which the two become confused is the fact that the two do affect one another considerably: Tensions in the mouth and tongue that cause throatiness, for instance, simultaneously cause the student to push; the loss of resonance involved in a throaty placement necessitates more breath pressure or push than if the voice has it’s full complement. Correspondingly the tensions involved in pushing the voice spill over to the tongue and jaw, thus altering the placement and causing it to be throaty. But the two can and need to be separated.
The signals that indicate a registration problem are twofold. Predominate is the fact that it’s affecting all the vowels. The tensions of push, the mouth opening while the head tilts back, cause all the vowels to deteriorate. And they deteriorate by losing depth and height and moving back toward the throat. The voice begins to sound shouty . A clear signal that the problem is caused by mouth/tongue tension is the observation that vowels are not effected uniformly, some vowels being worse than others. Another good signal is placement becoming nasal, moving away from the throat. The most confusion comes in the case of the student placing all of his voice in the throat to achieve what, more often he than she on this one, believes to be a rich sound. This will affect all the vowels and cause a lifeless sound, so may appear at first to be a registration question but in actuality be due to the altered pronunciation.
Once established that tongue/throat tensions are at fault, there are many tacks that teacher’s take. They all involve increasing the student’s self-
First the student must be encouraged to feel sensations perhaps long dormant. Few are the students that are in touch with the parts of the body that are vibrating when they talk or sing. Their awareness can best be focused, not during speech, not during singing, but while they are holding one vowel at one volume on one note. The principle of clarity is the same here as before. The changes in vowels and pitches, that occur during speech and singing, and even thoughts themselves make the exercise too confusing otherwise.
Once the student becomes familiar with the sensations of vocal placement, they can be used as feedback to guide the student toward more relaxed pronunciations on all the trouble vowels. Once learned they can also be used as a guide toward better registration; [the better registered sound will always have better placement. This useful tool is thus a good guide for both the major vocal problems -
The same is true of course of the sound of the sound, our primary feedback, although it has the subjective pitfall of self-
Improvements in the voice achieved with either feedback may be unappreciated when related to the sound, and should be related to the measurable improvements in the voice, the better breath control, the sense of freedom, the increase in range, etc. In doing this we introduce our third area of feedback, our principal companion and guide for after training is through and the student is on their own.
Both feedbacks which we have discussed serve as yardsticks in their own right. Unvarying in the studio, they can be used effectively by the student and teacher to set better habits. They can also be useful as an introduction to the third type of feedback, what is felt in the body (other than sound).
FEELINGS IN THE BODY
What is felt in the body (other than sound) can be more elusive than the sensations of the sound. And far more so than the immediate feedback provided by the sound of the sound itself. In spite of this these are the sensations which are ultimately the most powerful tool. Because they are independent of acoustics, remaining unchanged when the student leaves the studio, they are the Rock of Gibraltar that provides accurate feedback regardless of surroundings. They even come through when a singer performs in a loud band, a situation that can wipe out the other two yardsticks completely. Or when a speaker speaks in a very noisy situation, say when the train is coming in, or when cattle futures are being traded furiously.
Singing in a loud band or speaking on the commodities floor are similar situations in that many more sounds reach the person other than the voice. The sound may be completely buried and the vibrations felt totally masked. In this situation a person can still monitor what s/he’s doing if s/he has developed a sensitivity to the third feedback, sensations in the body. And this can be accomplished if, every time improvement is made in the first two feedbacks, attention is called to these factors: 1. Sensation of vibrations at the larynx itself. 2. Sensation of resistance at the larynx. 3. Sensation of overall "push" of the breath. 4. Freedom from jaw tension; freedom from tongue tension; freedom from neck tension. 5. Sense of the mask being a screen rather than a barrier.
The proper sensation felt at the larynx could be more aptly described as no sensation whatever at the larynx. Oddly, the source of the sound, the larynx, should not be felt to vibrate at all. This is a cardinal rule of teachers. Vibrations felt at the larynx are a sign that the vocal cords are exceeding design specifications and their energy is being transferred improperly to the structure that houses them. This is as if the supports of a suspension bridge were swaying and not just the bridge itself. If your voice teacher has an explicit term for this situation, other than the push that causes it, it would be the time honored "singing on the cords" or "oversinging". The vocal cords are being called upon to make their share of the sound and then some; to make the fundamental and then do some of the work of the resonators as well.
The only exception to this is... The sensation of there being no resistance to the air flow at the larynx may be highlighted by doing the opposite, asking the student to produce the sound of "vocal fry" which occurs when we are using the vocal cords as a valve. Because we have no exoskeleton, and because our internal skeleton is so flexible, humans need a system to firm up the body when some exertions call for it. This is done so that our larger muscle systems have something to leverage against. That's why we take a breath and hold it before lifting the groceries out of the car. If while lifting we emit a sound of exertion, letting some air through this valve, this is what is called "vocal fry". When we do this, the pressure in the lungs is felt to be stopped at the larynx. In contrast, the absence of vocal push is characterized by the feeling that there is no resistance to the flow of the breath in the throat, that the larynx isn't even present, just a hollow tube. Because of the twin facts that phonating can involve no sensation of either sound or resistance at the voice box itself, there was even a theory proposed by the French years ago that was entertained for some time. It was the theory that the vocal cords as we know them actually vibrated in sympathy with the true vocal cords. They didn't produce the sound but instead merely reacted to it. They held that the true vocal cords hadn't been seen as yet. But they were certain to be found in the vicinity of the seeming source of the sound, just behind the eyes in the sinus cavities! So convincing is the sensory evidence that it is no less valuable today to ask the student to begin the sound behind the eyes.
If while covering proper breathing for the student we let slide some bad habits because we found they weren't directly accountable for the vocal push, the one factor of the breath that we never ceased to harp on would be the overall breath pressure, the push itself. This is one of the body's "propriocentric" sensations. As an individual we have a certain body awareness. Even with our eyes closed we know the position of our limbs for instance. In this same fashion we are aware of the amount of pressure in the lungs. The correct breath pressure is a very slight fraction of what the lungs are capable of holding. In fact, the correct breath pressure is so very close to no breath pressure at all, that Bernard Turgeon, the Canadian baritone, would tell his students to "sing as if you are actually breathing in".
For this feedback to be useful, the sensation must be honed to a great deal of accuracy. In a way it is a lot like measuring the efforts of a Caterpillar tractor with a micrometer. The vocal cords can withstand incredible pressures. But those associated with speech are so very small. Used in conjunction with the lack of resistance to the air at the larynx, these feelings are invaluable, however. When the voice has been freed from push, and pronunciation has been freed from tensions not directly associated with forming the sounds, the jaw and neck will be completely relaxed, not held either open or closed, in a position determined solely by the vowel and the facial expression. And the facial expression will be a result of emotion and not fixed in place by convention or vocal technique. Both singers and speakers can be equally faulted for problems of push and tense pronunciation. It is more often the singer, however, that will have to overcome the problem of setting the face in a fixed position for any given vowel and not letting that position vary naturally with facial expression. The sounds of a smiling ee and a stern ee should result from the artist's inner connection with the words, and not from a set mask. To do differently robs the artist of true emotional expression. Nothing of this sort can ever be set. Any technique that advocates fixed positions for the vowels should set off alarm bells.
In fact, if you look at a chorus of singers while covering your ears, and then pick from it those singers who look as though they are speaking, you will end up with 90 percent of the best singers and very few of the worst.
Having said this I now need to backpedal a wee bit. On vowels in the region of high C and above in the female voice, it seems that a preponderance of resonance comes from regions of the mouth and head. Those formed in the mouth can be amplified by forming the mouth in ways specific to these high pitches. Because this region of the voice is above vowels, as we have said, this advice is for singers only. Helmholz, the father of the study of acoustics, investigated what has been come to be known as a Helmholz resonator. This is a sphere with a round opening. He found that the larger the size of the opening in proportion to the size of the sphere itself, the higher would be the resulting resonant frequency of the vessel. This is why you will see coloratura sopranos singing the high notes of Lakme's "Bell" aria while opening their mouths distinctly wider with higher pitches. You can even test this yourself by holding an electric razor against your cheek and opening your mouth different degrees. As you open up you will hear a series of ever higher harmonics formed in the mouth.
[sound doesn't come out of the mouth, air does][difference btwn air coming out of the nose and not][Actors as well have to sometimes be reminded to think of what they are saying and not how they are saying it. Speakers have the least stylized form of expression and]Lastly, the trained voice will seem to the person possessing it, to pass through the face as if it were a screen. Like the larynx, the face will not seem to offer any resistance to the sound. Even though the air will be necessarily passing through the mouth, it will feel as though a considerable stream of air is passing freely through the face and scalp, and, depending upon the individual, even through the chest.[nasal sound, more air passes through the nose]As the derogatory terms of push and self-
Most often our intent is a matter of not knowing any better. However, that hubris can be involved at some level I am convinced. Nature gives us clear signals. We’re straining; we feel tension. Yet, in the face of these we continue to try and achieve some desired effect. In the worst case there is a complete disregard for the body. We all know people who have shouted themselves hoarse as a form of vocal preparation. As their voice became raspy they increase their efforts so that the voice would learn to take it. As if the voice were iron that needed tempering and not a half a gram of delicate tissue vulnerable to swelling and broken capillaries. The voice is not a muscle. We can’t drink something to clear our throat.
But the disregard isn’t always as obviously wrong-
For example, even when end results come suddenly in the studio, they do not stay. And this may well be because of a protective mechanism of the psyche. A few times I've had students, during an early lesson, make the miraculous leap to the final product, changes that I expected to take years. This is physically possible; changes made in training are to coordinations -
MORE ABOUT PLACEMENT AND VOWELS
Linguists have categorized vowels according to the tongue position used to form them. The vowels formed with the blade of the tongue arched in the back of the mouth are referred to, appropriately enough as back vowels; those with the blade arched near the front are referred to as front vowels. Thus ee is a front vowel, oo a back vowel. These terms are constant, fixed in stone.
Voice teachers refer to the vowels as back and front as well, but for a different reason. Vowels are called front and back according to their placement. These terms are not constant but shift like the sands. This can causes confusion for the student. That the terms often coincide doesn’t help the student sort out what is what. [clarify]
All else being equal, here is the reason the terms often coincide: The tongue shunts the sound different places as it moves in the mouth. Placement of the vowels tend to move in conjunction with this tongue movement. Thus the back vowel oo with the blade of the tongue high in back, (linguistic definition), because it encourages formant resonance in the back of the mouth, will consequently be called back by the voice teacher. And the front vowel ee with the blade of the tongue high in front, (linguistic definition), because it encourages formant resonance up near the front teeth, will be called front or forward by the voice teacher. [clarify]
But alas, once more, all else is not always equal. Let’s say Jim’s voice is caught, for whatever reason, in the back of his throat. In this case the vocal coach will refer to both the oo vowel and the ee vowel as back . Nevermind that the oo is slightly further back than the ee. Now they are both back.
I grant that context is everything here. And that the two usages can be kept clear to the student. But only if the teacher is careful and aware that the student will hear these terms used differently outside the studio.
The teacher will be looking for balance in the voice. When achieved, she will hear all the resonators working all the time with a certain proportion among them particular to the individual’s voice, and the vowel and pitch on which they’re singing. When that proportion is not there, the student will be told to place the voice higher , lower , more in the mask , etc. in order to achieve the balance. The way in which they will err, in general, as a function of the vowel, can be described if we introduce two more terms from the linguist.
In the same way that linguists categorize vowels according to tongue position, they will also classify according to the shape of the mouth. Thus, ee and oo, because they are spoken with the mouth fairly closed, are called closed vowels. And ah and aw, spoken with the mouth in its most open position, are called open vowels. (Pragmatic, no? -
The vowel most closed and farthest forward is the ee vowel and it suffers the greatest from this phenomenon. (For this reason, and because of an associated fact, ee is particularly useful. More on this later.)Open back vowels will overshoot the mark in the reverse way. They will usually resonate too far back, having lost more of the front resonances than dictated by clear communication. They will have a tendency to sound muffled, dull, lifeless. The tension in the tongue necessary to raise the blade of the tongue in the back of the mouth is more than it need be and should be relaxed several notches.
One vowel will precede the others in terms of its developing quality / correct placement. From that vowel the student will work neighbors into the fold. What that vowel is will vary with the individual. But more often that not it will be either the schwah or a more closed, more forward neighbor. The schwah is the one vowel common to all languages and is the vowel in the word the. It is the sound made with the mouth and tongue in neutral. All other vowels are made with some effort of the mouth and tongue. The schwah is made with no such effort. Not surprising that it often leads the others in terms of quality.
For any given individual, however, a vowel neighboring the schwah may the leader of the pact. In the United States our speech has the national characteristic of being placed somewhat back. For this reason many students in this country will find their best vowel to be above and/or in front of the schwah on the vowel chart. I've found the best results coming first on the ih sound (as in fin) above the schwah on the chart, or on the eh sound (as in elephant) which lies in front of the schwah.
WHY STAY WITH THE VOWELS
I think what I'm about to say will be particularly helpful to the student. Every teacher I ever worked with encouraged me to keep my speech on the vowels and learn to make the consonants in the shortest possible time. Teachers have known intuitively how very important is this counsel. Let me give you a few scientific reasons for working hard on this one.
First is the fact that the vowels produce most of the sound for the voice. While some consonants have volume in their own right, most consonants convey themselves by the way they interrupt the vowels. An example of this is the consonant "T". T has no sound of its own. You can't say a T without sounding a vowel at the same time. Since the T is the way the vowel is heard to be interrupted, making the vowels more resonant makes the T more audible as well! Even the vowels that have sound in their own right are no match for the vowels. "L" and "R" have dull sounds compared to vowel sounds. And "M" ,"N", and "S" aren't a lot better. More on this when we talk about style.
Second is the ease and vocal size this practice brings. This is the key to building a big sound, this combined with not pushing. Resonance is like inertia -
The vowel sounds made by our vocal cords find immediate and sympathetic friends in our resonators who begin immediately to howl in harmony. When the vocal cords stop their effort, the resonators continue for some time thereafter. They are as disinclined to stop vibrating as they were eager to begin. (For a rough feel of natural resonance, hold a playing card between finger and thumb. Then deflect it and let it go with the other hand. It will take several seconds to stop vibrating. Or try a tuning fork which will continue for much longer.)The upshot of this never ceases to be amazing to me. Once your resonances are free of to do what they like to do best in the world, you can stop the vowel, make a consonant, and restart the same vowel, without there being any break in the vowel sound. I repeat, there will be NO interruption in the vowel sound while the consonant is being spoken. The resonators take over for the vocal cords for the interim.
Done swiftly, in fact, the resonators will scarcely notice. They'll just barely begin to diminish and then pick right up again. If the consonant is made short enough the dip will be inaudible. It will be measurable only with instruments, inaudible to the human ear. The result is the amazing ability our best singers and speakers have of making two sounds at the same time! The vowel before the consonant is audibly joined to the vowel after the consonant. And yet the consonant has been pronounced in the middle. A paradox of nature.
This trick we all do to some extent when we speak. And to a lesser extent when we begin to sing. It is called "singing (speaking) on the vowels" and "dropping the consonants on the vowel sounds" and a number of similar expressions. It is easily practiced and brings fast results. Because it is not pitch specific, it can be practiced during speech or singing with equal success.
Before suggesting a good exercise for improving this coordination, let's see what else this ability gets us in addition to the seemingly magical. Other benefits will be based on the fact that vowels are made with less breath pressure than any consonant, with the solitary exception of the "H". Not only is breath pressure greater on the consonants, but it increases rapidly if the consonant is anything but very short, increasing exponentially, in fact, on the vowels that stop the breath such as "T". Increased pressure on every consonant means higher pressure during the vowels as well during speech or fast singing. That’s because the large sets of muscles involved in breathing can’t readjust breath pressure at the same rate that the vowels and consonants alternate during rapid speech or singing. In a given sentence, spoken aloud, you will often sound a total of sixty vowels and consonants within four or five seconds. In this sentence, for instance, if spoken in ten seconds, you will have navigated some 50 vowel sounds and 95 consonant sounds at a rate of over 14 different sounds per second.
As a result, the air pressure at the vocal cords during the vowels will be higher than is optimum. And we saw what happens to the vocal folds when met with pressure: They become thicker in order to match this pressure and stop it. That's what they do. Counter this with what happens when the consonants can be made very quickly. No or little build up of pressure during the consonant. And the continuous vibration of the resonators we talked about above. Both combine to make things just dandy for the little vocal cords. They can remain thin and delicate. Perhaps become even more efficient. They continue to operate as a fine instrument and even improve.
When they improve, so do their sympathetic frequencies* (*natural frequencies are actually called sympathetic frequencies in some engineering texts). What's more, what hasn't been mentioned and completes the picture, the vocal cords react to the resonators in the same way that the resonators initially reacted to them. It becomes one happy party, in other words, with neither host or guests at the least inclined to call it a night. Neither has any internal resistance whatever to continuing to dance. The party will only end when it runs out of (beer?, champagne?) breath.
Now we have a picture of the wonder that happens when we succeed with the above training. How the vocal cords are made free from the heavy labor of their atavistic service, that of damming up pressure behind them, and are able to take on the life of an artist. This training overcomes the factor imposed on us by the laws of physics: Consonants are made with greater pressure than vowels and greater pressure is to the detriment of the vowels. No matter how you make the vowels, you will always make the consonants with more effort. This is nature's law and it applies to all pitches.
Earlier we talked about the same phenomenon, the vocal cords thickening to stop the pressure under them, when we talked about registration. The culprit providing the push was not nature's requirement for making vowels on all pitches. The culprit was instead our providing the push on some pitches, either to make us sound a certain way, or because we didn't know how not to. This was the vertical coordination of registration.
With the vertical coordination of registration, and the lateral coordinations of incorrect vowel and consonant pronunciations, we have the Gordian knot which we must untie. But we can isolate all three coordinations and master them one at a time. The results are similar to what an athlete does. Or what an aerodynamicist does. A full knowledge of one's self applied, not in opposition to nature, but with an understanding of nature's requirements, produces a harmony between man and nature that enables humans to pole vault great heights or gain enough support from thin air to fly jumbo jets across continents. It enables us to stir others through the use of the voice.
It's interesting, albeit academic, to see how these lateral and pitch related coordinations affect each other. Suppose Nancy is concentrating on not pushing the breath by focusing on the work being done by her diaphragm. (We have yet to cover this topic fully but it's coming. All in due time said the librarian to Alice). She's sustaining an ah vowel and her efforts are paying off, the sound is becoming fuller and less caught in the throat.
Now let's imagine Nancy is singing the Lord's Prayer and she comes to the word "father" at the very beginning. When she comes to the "a" vowel she's worked on her coordination is perfect. It sounds great! But then comes the "th". She hasn't learned to make consonants quickly. Consequently there is a considerable build up of pressure and she is unable to fully recover on the "e" vowel. Thus the "e" sound is not what it could be. Plus, it is followed by the dreaded "r" sound, notorious as a consonant with powers to deteriorate BOTH preceding and following vowels. ("r" and "l" are the rascals of the consonant world). She now is somewhat pushing the voice and the sound has deteriorated a bit. The muscles pulling the vocal cords are a little tighter than they should be but are far from tired. She's gone from an excellent sound to a good sound and no one is the wiser.
Next comes a breath before the third word, "which". This gives the muscles a chance to rest. And she knows the "wh" sound gives her no trouble. Plus the "i" sound is her best vowel. She would be fast out of the gate on this one but for one thing. The word is four notes higher in pitch and well into a range where her registration is off. No matter how good her vowel and the consonant that launches it, she has not freed this whole region of push. In this region it's the tail wagging the dog and even her best vowel comes out forced and loud.
Unable to do well on her best consonant she hopes to do damage control as the next few pitches of the melody descend to an easier range. The odds are stacked against her, however. The words are "which art in heaven". On the "ch" the pressure builds considerably. Now she comes to the vowel in the word "art", the "ah" she was singing so well in the exercise. But she's brought extra pressure from the "ch" sound and is still in a misregistered region. Plus, the "ah" is now is followed by the dread "r" and so becomes throaty in addition. A throaty sound shuts off a lot of facial resonance and the vocal cords no longer have these resonances to help them. All three of these factors add together and Nancy is now struggling to finish the phrase. She's now gone from bad to worse.
Then, oh my god, a "T". It stops the air altogether. And then the "i" in the word in. It's nasalized because the habit American's have of nasalizing words with "n" in them. This jams the placement in the nose and her vocal cords have now lost the help they need from the throat and back mouth resonances. Even though she's gone to lower pitches where she's picked up some recovery on the registration problem, the lateral problems are socking it to her in rapid succession.
There is some improvement on the word "heaven". And then a chance to breath before starting the blessed lower pitches for the phrase "hallowed by thy name". Here she enables a full recovery. Again she sounds great. Lower pitches are more forgiving for everybody and Nancy is no exception. She even has time here to think about what's coming later on in the song. She offers a parallel prayer -
And so it goes, with cause and effect in a relentless torrent. Only good habits on all these coordination will enable her to do better next time.
HOW TO BEST LEARN CONSONANT COORDINATION
The exercise I find most useful with regard to consonant coordination, done on one pitch of course, is to have the student slowly sing/speak a four syllable word. The speech is elongated by holding onto each of the four vowel sounds as they come, and making the consonants as short as possible. If a piano accompanies, playing the chords I-
The exercise is done on a pitch where the student has little registration difficulty, initially with an even rhythm and the instruction to make the consonants both as short and as relaxed as possible. When the student is comfortable doing the exercise in this fashion, the rhythm can then be altered in an unpredictable fashion.
The purpose of this is to prevent the student from anticipating consonants -
The student is instructed to not move off a vowel until a predetermined signal is given, either a change in chord or a nod or similar. And the instructor gives no go ahead until it’s clear the student is not anticipating. Once the student appears truly committed to the vowel at hand, the signal can be given sharply. The student will make the intervening consonant as short as possible and recommit to the next vowel. The process is continued through three consonant sounds to the fourth vowel.
At first the student may not get beyond the second vowel. Once they get the feel of the exercise at this level, and consistently do all four vowels, the ante is again upped. The added level of difficulty is now to replace the word with one that presents greater difficulty. One that contains more vowel sounds that give the student trouble. Or one that has more consonant clusters with their multiple consonant sounds.
For example, words such as catatonic are good at the beginning. All the consonant sounds are simple. A more difficult word (two actually here) would be San Francisco . Only the first consonant is a single sound in this example. Getting to the second vowel involves passing through three consonant sounds: the n , f and the r . The third and fourth consonant clusters involve two consonant sounds.
The student will feel their breathing mechanism constantly return to the state it was in on the first vowel. Once they become aware of this constant feeling, they can be told that both good speech’ and good singing’ feel this way. (I will contradict myself later on when we talk about style. For now this is the golden rule, however).
Not only will they feel a repetitive return to the one feeling, the feeling of being on the vowel, but they will realized that by making the consonant correctly that they need never leave that same feeling by very much. The measure of success on this exercise, in fact, is the extent to which it can be done with the body in one energy state. Later on they may experience the extension of this when performing; a feeling of great stability as if the body were anchored to the earth.
THE MICROCOSMIC EXERCISE
Once mastered it is possible to extend this exercise to include changes in pitch, at first planned and later random. At this point the exercise will have improvement many different coordinations. Initially the exercise concerns itself with vowel placement, then with keeping the vowels free of the effects of the consonants, then with making the consonants themselves both short and relaxed, then with executing consonant clusters in the same way, then extending all the coordinations to changes in pitch. What starts as a simple exercise gradually takes on more of the complexity of speech and singing.
With practice this exercise becomes easy. Like riding a bike, surfing a wave. Preparing for your known dangers, the white water of a particular consonant cluster on a given pitch jump for instance. On the lookout for situations that can make you crash beyond recovery.
Support is the breath coordination that sustains speech. It’s a near universal term used by voice teachers. It involves an effort by the diaphragm. And it is a term often misused.
I can remember singing with many choruses where the conductor would turn in exasperation to the section singing their highest notes
flat, and say, C’mon, you can hit those high notes. Use more support! With the admonishment would came a movement like that made by a weight lifter doing the clean and jerk. The message was clear. Push Dammit!
Legitimate support is the effort made to not push and is made by a large platter-
stomach, spleen, etc. In the steer it’s called flank steak, in the human it’s called the diaphragm.
Muscles work in only one direction. They contract along their length. When a domed shape contracts in this way, it flattens. When the diaphragm flattens it pushes downward, pressing the viscera further into the abdominal cavity. The lungs, thus expanded, draw in air. The diaphragm is by far the main muscular breathing mechanism. Only one other group of muscles, a set of intercostal muscles that lift the ribs, can serve to expand the lungs. But they run a distant second in terms of efficiency.
Most of the time breathing is under automatic control. It isn’t something you need think about and will be handled very well, thank you, even while you snooze. And it will be handled by the diaphragm and nothing else. (The unconscious won’t bother with the intercostals.) Once the diaphragm has brought air into the lungs, everything else conspires in a natural way to get the air back out so that the diaphragm can repeat the performance.
The air coming into the abdomen will extend it past its natural profile. All this time the elasticity of its walls will be pushing back in continual opposition to the diaphragm. Thus, when the diaphragm stops its efforts, the walls will begin to return to their starting place and air will begin leave the lungs.
The rib cage will resist its expansion in exactly the same way. After the breath comes in, the torso’s inherent elasticity will return its shape to its balance point. In addition to elasticity, gravity acting upon the ribs will help the return process in all body positions except upside down.
This is breathing the way the unconscious handles it. It involves one muscle contracting for some one-
cycle, drawing air into the lungs. And relaxation of this same muscle during the second part, allowing gravity and body elasticity to usher air back out of the body. It is an example of nature’s economy and simplicity.
SUPPORT IN DETAIL
When we take over control of the breath in support of speech or singing, it behooves us to follow this example as closely as possible when we can which is most all of the time. We have seen that the breath mechanism cycles in two distinct sections, that of tension and relaxation of the diaphragm. During the relaxed second phase air leaves the lungs, rapidly at first, then less so, and finally slowly. Think of a balloon deflating.
The natural progression of this second phase translates at the larynx as moderate pressure declining to zero. At only one point in this decline will the pressure be right for the vocal demands of the speaker. Thus, when we speak, we transfer control of the breathing in order to correct this situation. The autonomic nervous system relinquishes control to the conscious.
When we speak or sing, we change the two phases of the breath cycle. In the first phase we may inhale more than normal in order to speak a long phrase. In the second phase we will not relax the diaphragm. Instead, we will keep it at partial tension in order to provide the right breath pressure for the immediate demands of the voice. We will then allow it to relax progressively as the air leaves the lungs.
Near the end of the exhalation, at the point at which the elastic exhalation pressure is exactly what is called for by the singer, the diaphragm will not have to compensate and will have reached complete relaxation. At this point what the voice needs is precisely what nature provides; the work of the diaphragm isn’t needed, and speech/singing are a snap. Whereas before the diaphragm was relaxed for about two thirds of the breath cycle, it now gets this short interlude.
If for some reason the singer (this will happen to singers more often than speakers) needs to pass this comfort point, nature will be of no help. The elastic pressure, as we saw, is now less than is needed. This is where the person doubles over and squeezes out the last drop of breath to finish a phrase. It has been known to happen to singers. It also happens in the cornier sit/coms at least once per episode.
The breath is squeezed out at first by exhorting more of the exhalation muscles to greater and greater exertion, and finally by doubling over to collapse the rib cage. This is not good form is it. Damaging to both performance and pride. Plus it’s hard to get a relaxed breath at the end of this. Better to leave the reserve of breath, the last tenth or so, as a reserve.
SPEAKING WITHOUT SUPPORT
When a person is sick and weak, and speaking with the most economy possible, they don’t alter their breathing but use what’s available. Thus there is little or no support for the voice. Lacking the effort needed by the diaphragm to blow up the balloon, when the weak speak they will find just enough air for but a few words at low volume. They will speak these in a breathy fashion, once again to save the energy necessary to engage that large pie platter called the diaphragm. Speech will be a series of short breathy phrases dropped on the breath as it passes by.
In contrast to this are the energy levels needed for an exciting speech to a large crowd in an outdoor auditorium at high volume or to sing a difficult aria over a full orchestra in a big house. In the latter case, Verdi (for example) often asks the singer to maintain a phrase for one more measure than is humanly possible. Wagner always does. They’re rascals, every one. (Mozart wrote the Queen of the Night aria in such a way as to provide employment for his sister in law. She was one of only two performers at the time that could meet the difficult demands of this ditty.)
SUPPORT FOR LONG PHRASES
The visceral feel of the longest phrases of opera, (or the similar demands of cantata solos), can be approximated by the beginner by taking an enormous breath and then letting it out at an even rate for some fifteen or twenty seconds. Don’t stop the air at the larynx, but keep the diaphragm at its job. When you’re out of air, immediately repeat for the second and third phrases. On top of this imagine piling the acting and musical requirements, as well as the technical -
Opera and classical singers have to hold these long phrases. These art forms leave little latitude for breathing on impulse. This is in marked contrast to, say, Aretha Franklin singing ______ and taking a breath between the vowels of the word _____. However, when Aretha sings a phrase of the same length as one sung by Domingo, I guarantee you they feel the same feelings in their bodies as they are both world class singers technically.
Support is the work done by the singer. When done properly it’s entirely internal. No heaving of the chest, no facial grotesqueries, nothing superficial. Audience attention becomes focused on the words and action, none on the singer themselves. The singer/actor/speaker, becomes a vessel or conduit through which their art flows. The art itself is revealed rather than presented. The focus is on the art itself and not on the performer.
The diaphragm must resist the natural forces of exhalation, gravity and elasticity. If saddled with extra tasks it can still manage the job. But it’s a lot of extra work and what’s the point. When Shirley Verrett tightened her belly after taking a breath while singing in Aida, San Francisco Opera, 1973, she gave her diaphragm more work to do. Trying to push the air out while holding it has no secret benefit but is just what it appears, a self-
Students are taught to keep their rib cages expanded, to tighten their ass, to breathe into their backs, to push the piano with their bellies as they sing, and to tighten their stomach after taking the breath. All sorts of misunderstandings have clouded this important issue. Teachers in the vocal field have benefited little from the marvels of science of the twentieth century. It’s not their fault.
SCIENCE STUDIES THE VOICE
Not the priority of nations, research on the voice is little. The vocal mechanism itself has thwarted the few attempts made. Like sleep where it’s difficult to ask the person what he’s experiencing while asleep, it’s difficult for the camera to record what would happen in the larynx if the camera weren’t there.
We know what the voice can do. We know the obstacles. Let’s conjecture on some vocal history. For instance, is it purely by chance that opera began in Italy?
WHAT’S SPECIAL ABOUT ITALY
Italian is a language known for its melodious quality. Specifics of its structure are what make it so. Its vowel sounds are pure in that each vowel sound is made with the mouth and tongue in one position. This is unlike American English where the mouth and tongue position change during the pronunciation of vowels as if we were chewing at the same time.
In addition, Italian words end with vowels, not consonants. Therefore, there are no final consonants back-
(The Germans and Italians are well aware of how different their languages sound. Earlier in the century there was a widely voiced German explanation for the superiority of their language. It held that Italian was the language of an infantile culture, consisting mainly of vowels and sounded the way babies talk. It maintained that consonants provided the specifics of meaning. German had lots more consonants and this made it the language of science and advanced civilization.)
Pure vowels combined with final consonants make the Italy an ideal candidate for the birth of opera. Plus, national placement is neither nasal like French nor throaty like its other neighbors to the north. Additionally, it has the rolled r that frees this sound from the confines of the throat where it lies in most other languages.
Knowing what we know about the benefits of staying on the vowels, having good placement, and overcoming consonant restrictions, we can only feign surprise that opera was born to the Italians.
SINGING THE DIPHTHONGS
American opera singers are among the best trained in the world. One thing they learn to do is sing those pure vowels. Not only when singing Italian but when singing English as well. I love the way American diphthongs are handled in pop music, and wish for a more American treatment in opera as well. Pure vowel sounds seem an inappropriate carry-
The treatment of diphthongs when singing in English, and when speaking for that matter, is very reflective of style. Take the sung I vowel for instance, the personal pronoun. It begins with the sound ah and ends with the sound ee , en route traversing all sounds that lie between. As the first word in Cole Porter’s, I Love Paris , it could be sung in at least three basically different ways.
As a standard in the pop repertoire Gary would most likely give this tune a pop treatment. He would move from ah to ee in a steady progression, the mouth closing and high point of the tongue’s blade moving forward the entire time. He would time the traverse so that ee was reached just before the l sound of the word love .
It’s also a classic of the pop repertoire and Bob is singing it in a show. His character is a retired opera singer slumming in a cabaret. Bob might give it a classic rendition by treating all the vowels in a different way. Here he would hold the ah sound for almost the entire duration of the word I . At the last moment he would then lightly and quickly pronounce the ee sound and move immediately to the l . This rendition will sound exactly as intended, a classically trained singer trying to switch to pop.
The third approach involves moving away from the ah sound and to the ee sound quickly, then holding the ee for the duration of the word. Betsy uses this approach in her one woman show for the Tennessee hills gal visiting the Louvre. This will sound very Country and Western.
Thus, so much of the difference between broad categories of singing depends on the way diphthongs are handled. The way you are perceived as a speaker also depends on this use of the vowels as well. The broad changes are done easily by the trained actor and singer. They are learned during training in detail that becomes automatic.
Other diphthongs that get similar treatment are: The a vowel as in the word made which begins sounding like eh and ends also in the ee sound; the o vowel as in the word oh which moves to a final oo sound.
A singular sound is that of ew in the word dew . If pronounced as the diphthong in the word do it is an open form of oo moving to a slightly more closed oo . If you do pronounce this way, sentences such as The dew is on the grass can conjure pictures of dogs having been on the lawn. This sound is best treated as what is call the liquid oo . It has a short ee sound preceding the oo as in the word few . If overdone you might sound stuffy. If not done you might sound like a hick. The choice is yours.
SINGING ON THE CONSONANTS
Chalk screeching on a blackboard! The crash of mother’s teapot! Aposty! That’s what this is to voice teachers. Beauty of tone, power, and ease, long the standards of voice teachers, are no longer the only game in town. With technology comes opportunity, if only you can look at it that way. Photography never did replace painting, but it’s recognition as an art form did change what artists did with their oils.
Electronic amplification changed speech and song. Artists could now dispense with some talents and concentrate on others. Like all things new it was resisted by vested interests and welcomed by others.
Before amplification there was an art form known as oratory. Not that amplification was fully responsible for it’s decline. Oratory involved the communication of speech without electronic help to large groups in large auditoriums. Or outdoors. To do it Caesar had to use the upper registers of his voice so that it would carry. This meant staying on the vowels and keeping the support constant. In those days, I imagine, you had to be a natural. A good voice well used was an asset you didn’t want to be without if you were going to rule a nation.
Nowadays the playing field has been leveled. Somewhat. You still can’t sound like a gargling chicken and get elected. Almost. So while the quality of the sound you make remains a factor in how you will be received, the power of your voice probably does not.
Amplification of the lower registers of our voice makes it possible to be easily heard on our lowest notes and at intimately low volumes. For this reason, techniques of voice-
In certain circumstances it is possible and even desirable to stay on some consonants as well as the vowels. Out of the question is any consonant that stops the breath. You can’t stay on a t , only the vowel that follows it. Other consonants, in amplified situation however, act much in the same way as vowels.
The consonants m and n are classified by linguists as quasi-
[KD Laing has a big break in Moonglow duet.]
In certain circumstances it is possible and even desirable to stay on some consonants as well as the vowels. Out of the question is any consonant that stops the breath. You can’t stay on a t , only the vowel that follows it. Other consonants however, in amplified situations, act much in the same way as vowels.
The consonants "m" and "n" are classified by linguists as quasi-
The only time "m" and "n" require the breath to push (n more than m) is on high volumes at high pitches. In these same circumstances m and n are also much lower in volume than the true vowels. For both these reasons, the technical and aesthetic, don't extend these sounds in these circumstances.
When singing at low volume with intimate pitches, these "quasi's" are every bit as loud as the "reals" and equally easy to sing. Extending them has the effect of adding several more colors to the vowel palate. I doubt that Frank Sinatra was taught to sing extend them but he sure did.
The sound of "sh" as in share is sometimes a good choice to extend slightly for emphasis; extend but not hold. "Sh" increases push considerably and drops way down in volume on all but the lowest notes. If you're on higher pitches and volumes, singing a "sh" will sound like the voice has dropped out. The discrepancy in volumes is just too great.
At low pitches it is easy to recover from push. And at low pitches and volumes, "sh" compares favorably in volume to the vowels. Here it can be used for emphasis by extending it. The voice-
The "l" consonant can be held much longer than this. It's even better than the "m" and "n". With practice "l" can sound vibrant, more so than the "m' and "n". And it causes less tightening. It can be used on relatively high notes and volumes; even, perhaps, on the word "lover" in Rodgers and Hart's song by the same name, depending on the key it's set in.
The sound of "s" as in hiss should still be short. But even here there is some room for experiment.
Again we find ourselves talking about placement and push, this time in the lowest register. The quasis m and n dull the sound just a little, cause the placement to fall back just a bit. The n causes the belly to tighten only a hair; the m less even less. The quasi l is even better than the m and n on all counts. These are excellent candidates for extension.
The unvoiced fricative sh does not dull the sound but will cause considerable tightening. Recovery is easy in this range, however, and so the sh is a good candidate for extension.
The unvoiced fricative f drop a great deal in volume and causes very great tightening. It is not a good candidate for extension.
The voiced fricative v, ( f with the vocal cords working at the same time), is a slightly better candidate than the f. Use discretion on this one.
The voiced fricative zh (as in judge ) is better than its unvoiced cousin by both criteria. It is a very good candidate technically speaking but rarely precedes the accented syllable in a word.
The voiced fricative z is a good candidate. It’s very resonant and causes only slightly more tension than the quasis. At the beginning of words like zing it would be criminal not to emphasize it. Think of the lyrics, “Zing went the strings of my heart”!
The sibilant s causes students trouble when they have a whistle in it. If you’ve got a good s you might consider using it. Don’t say I ever said so though.
The plosives can’t be held. So there’s no need to talk about p, b, d, t, k, etc. in this context. (You can say however, that I discourage their use.)
This whole area of singing consonants presents new possibilities. And new pitfalls. This use of consonants, especially those other than the quasis, can call attention to the speaker/singer and break the illusion of the character being created. Songs and monologues presented in a natural fashion can suffer when the pronunciation appears contrived.
On the other hand, poetry has historically emphasized the sounds of the words themselves in addition to their meanings. Consonants are chosen especially carefully by the poet and often get special treatment in poetry readings. (For instance, alliteration might be emphasized this way.) Therefore, in songs where the lyrics beg poetic treatment, this approach is a welcome new ability for the performer with a microphone.
Elongation of some consonants in the service of the poetry would seem a good marriage with the art song, (in Germany, das Lied , in French, Medodie), which is usually written around poetry. [Goete/Schubert] However, the accepted parameters of art song don’t include microphones in live performance, heaven forbid. That does limit the extent to which the technique can be used.
I expect the classic training of lieder singers would also be an obstacle to the technique. And yet, if you listen to the recordings of the legendary song interpreter Dietrich Fisher-
The technique is a natural for use in Rock and Roll if for no other reason than its inherent irreverence. Its use goes so against the grain of the centuries of classic training that preceded the microphone. Additionally, R&R always uses a mic. Plus, the sound of pushed voices, an occupational hazard of this technique, is of no particular consequence.
[learn by imitation, word surface ]
Gone will be the sense of grounding that came with perfection of classical technique. Instead of one steady feeling, the speaker’s belly will feel more like it does when a worn taxi drives over cobblestone. That’s a loss of one sort, it’s true.
It’s a great feeling, that of having perfect support in the classic sense. The body is as stable as a rock and the words feel like they’re coming from deep inside oneself. And they are perceived that way by the listener. Other than the small vocal muscles, the only muscle working is the diaphragm, that connection with our inner selves. When words come from that deep place, they seem to be egoless.
A consonant technique, nevertheless, has its own joys in that it brings both the performer and the audience new experiences. And it has its defenders who would say that extending consonants is no more "unnatural" than extending consonants. We need to remember that technique is inherently self-
In any case, the singer/preacher who uses the consonants will need to gradually switch to a more classic technique at climaxes. The higher in pitch and the higher in volume, the more "classic" needs to be the production. High notes and volumes can quickly shred the voice if done with pressure.
MORE ABOUT PLACEMENT
Having stressed the need to center the tone in the mask, I would add that it’s very desirable to feel resonance in the hard palate. When there is balance in the voice between the nasal resonators and those of the mouth, the palate, like the mask, will feel like a breeze is passing through it. It will feel surrounded by sound but not a barrier to sound; something like a mesh or a screen.
It the sound is placed too low, the palate will feel like it’s being pushed upward by sound in the mouth. If the sound is placed too high, the palate will feel like a barrier with sound above it, sound that can’t get through it to the mouth. Again, when the sound is right, the palate will not feel like any sort of barrier or wall. Instead it will feel like a screen door with sound above the palate, sound below the palate, and sound passing freely between.
The physical explanation for this is logical. Let’s back up first and look at the operation of the vocal cords themselves. On a sustained vowel sound the breath is doing two things. First, it is passing gradually out of the lungs. Secondly, it is vibrating in a "standing wave" pattern at one particular frequency. The standing wave pattern is a series of compressions and rarefactions in the air -
At the same time the breath is doing these two things, the vocal cords will be opening and closing at the same rate as the standing wave. When a high pressure wave reaches the vocal cords, they have just closed and are about to open. The high pressure wave helps them. They don't need much help because they are vibrating at their natural frequency and have little internal resistance to this motion. The very little encouragement they do need is provided at just the right moment by this arriving high pressure wave.
Thus the vocal cords spring open. As they do they allow a "puff" of breath to pass on its way exiting the lungs. The elasticity of the vocal cords slows their opening and then causes them to begin closing. As they are closing they are now met with a low pressure wave (rarefaction wave) which arrives next from below the vocal cords. This slight suction "encourages" them to finish closing, which they do just in time to start the process over again. The vocal cords and pressure waves from below are in perfect harmony. But it doesn't stop there.
Every time the opening vocal cords are helped up by the pressure wave from below, a rarefaction wave from above aids the process. It too has perfect timing. Similarly, when the vocal cords are closing, a pressure wave comes from above to work in tandem with the low pressure wave below. Yet, there's more. Lot's more.
In the same way that the vibrating vocal cords set up the standing wave pattern in the breath, the standing wave pattern in which their operation flourishes, the standing wave pattern reaches the mouth and sinus cavities above, and the far reaches of every pocket in the lungs. The alternating pressure waves in these cavities causes the rib cage, the forehead, the face, in short everything surrounding the cavities to vibrate at the same rate (and multiples thereof.) These vibrations are transmitted to the body surface where the skin sends the vibrations out into the room where they can be detected by listeners whose eardrums will also vibrate.
The sound, (once it's in the room it's fair to call it sound, that being the listener's subjective interpretation of vibrations), then reaches the walls. The walls may bounce much of it back to encourage the vibration in the speaker/singer's body. Or it may absorb the sound in deep plush curtains and not return a helping hand. Thus a "live" room joins in the dance. A "dead" room or outdoors offers no help and the circle is broken.
The timing between the vocal cords and the pressure waves is what is perfected by the speaker/singer. It's done by choosing a vocal configuration that is sympathetic to the air leaving the body. The process can be thought of poetically as the dance of harmony that all molecules do in similar resonant situations. It comes very close to perpetual motion, as close in fact as nature ever gets.
The air leaving the body feels no resistance imposed by the vocal cords. They are opening and closing in the interstiches, as it were, between pressure waves. When open they allow out an amount of air equal to the amount that wants to get out. Like a flag in a steady wind, they let the air pass. Unlike the sail on the boat, they offer no opposition.
In a similar way, the hard palate will move in harmony with the pressure waves above and below it, the bones of the face with the pressure waves inside and those returning from the walls of the room
[learn by imitation, word surface ]
[KD Laing has a big break in Moonglow duet.]
28,541 / 250 = 110.2
Let us now look at the evidence, again with the help of Steinway. What would be the consequence of formatting two neighbor strings in a fashion different from that we've previously described. It would be easy to do. Let's say we double the tension of the second string and halve its (effective*) thickness to perfectly compensate. The laws of physics say the string will sound the same pitch as before. But we have changed the basic instrument! It may sound the same pitch but that's it. It will have a different set of overtones and will therefor transmit, through the intervening air, a different sound for the resonators to amplify. Furthermore, the transmission of sound that takes place through the physical supports, will happen in an altogether different fashion. In short this new string will sound a different sound!
Thus this piano will have one peculiar sounding note and not get shipped. The trick in a piano, since strings of different thickness and length sound different, is just what we've observed Steinway doing all along, that of changing each string gradually so that the shift in sound between any two notes is minimized as you travel from low bass to high treble. Voice teacher have alluded to this design in the voice referring to successive pitches as a "string of pearls", each virtually indistinguishable from its neighbor but changing noticeably over their entire range.
Now let's look at a second scenario. At some point Steinway decides to design an octave and, knowing that strings of different thickness and length sound different, chooses strings of identical thickness and length. Now they will have to pull each string to a greater tension to produce consecutively higher pitches. Fine so far. It works. Not only does each higher pitch sound like the same instrument, rather then changing slightly as in our real model, but each has available to it a greater loud to soft capability, a greater dynamic range. This seems fab until we realize that Peter has been robbed to pay Paul. Now when the pianist moves from the top note of this range to the next higher note by the old design, we again have what we didn't like in our prior example, a humongous change in the basic sound of the instrument. We're back to square one: A constantly changing set of strings pulled to equal tension.
We seemed to have something good going in the previous example. How about we do for the full 88 notes of the piano what we had previously done for only one octave? That way there would be no shift in sound quality going from the "new" octave to a second of the "old" design. Seems plausible in theory. Let's try it. We start with the lowest note, string 87 other notes with identical strings but pull each tighter. Other than the esthetic result of a square piano, we would find that this square piano folded over the piano tuner like a Venus Flytrap long before he was halfway. Unless of course he left in time to put in a claim for workman's comp dragging his stretched arm on the ground behind him.
Similarly we could start at the top, use all short thin strings, and make the lower pitches by progressively reducing tension. This piano would sound normal at the highest pitches and for a while traveling south toward the bass, but soon would become inaudible. Tiny flaccid bass strings just won't cut it. We alluded to this phenomenon earlier when we doubled a string and pulled it twice as tight. Again, we no longer have the same instrument. Engineers would say we no longer had a good acoustic impedance match.
We should cover a fifth scenario here to be complete. Here we would pick a string in the middle and use 87 identical set identical to it. Pull them tighter to get our treble and let them progressively slacken to make the base. I'm sure you're ahead of me by now realizing that the highest notes would be exhilarating with an unheard of dynamic range, but that the bass notes would be sorry companions unable to produce any volume whatsoever.
[In the break region the tail is wagging the dog. Pitch is important but there are great exceptions. Elvis and Johnny Mathis both sing under pitch on some of their recordings. Galli-
[registered voice of Mamma Cass of The Mammas and the Pappas]
30,906 / 250 = 123.6
Treatise on the Human Voice