Friday, August 21, 2015

High but not lifted?

High but not lifted?

Singing is hard to teach and confusing to learn. I think a lot of this has to do with our need as singers to balance opposing elements. After all, we are trying to use highly contracted vocal cords within an expanded throat; a contraction within an expansion. I have often found myself in a lesson, wondering at how such contradictory advice can come out of my own mouth. “Up and over” I say, only to follow up a moment later with, “No, you’re lifting!”  Related to this is “lift the palate…. But don’t go up!”
This clearly needs a bit more unpacking to make sense. I think it comes down to imaginative work as opposed to physical work. Physically lifting the palate is less effective than feeling your palate is high: best of all may be to “see” the palate high as a kind of visualization of inner space. You want the singer to imagine that the voice is lifted and the palate is high, but not to physically lift anything to do it.
Cognitively speaking, muscularly lifting the palate would involve the sensorimotor strip of the prefrontal cortex, which initiates conscious action. Imagining a lifted palate may involve proprioception, or the felt sense of body, an activity involving the parietal lobes. The “beginning of the yawn”, a concept taught by the old Italian masters, involves imaginatively triggering the body feeling leading to the yawn without fully engaging the unconscious reflex. The only way you can hope to do this effectively is with the inner imagination, or mind’s eye.
I might just as well say, “Don’t do it, see it”! You can’t imagine a ham sandwich and have it appear, but if you imagine your palate is lifted, it is. Try it!


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Music Psychology at the movies

Music Psychology at the movies

One of the best movies I have seen recently was the animated feature, Inside Out. Actually, it brought me to tears more than once. The authors have created a cartoon that is based on modern cognitive psychology, in particular, modern theories of personality, memory formation and retrieval, cognitive development and emotional function. I was particularly touched to see how, in the control room of the mind of an 11 year old girl, musical memory has a privileged route to consciousness. No matter who you are, where you are, or what you are doing, a musical thought can find its way into your mind, imbued with all the emotional significance that has accrued to it through your experience.

I was touched to think what a delight and what a privilege it is to study music as a psychological phenomenon, and to attempt to add to our understanding of its’ unique function in human mental and emotional life. Oh, and by the way, birds do it too!

Help! My student is getting worse between lessons....

When the student gets worse between lessons

There are times when, with all the good will in the world, a motivated and hard-working student  just seems to get worse instead of better. What is going on?

In my experience, most singers fall into certain types, when it comes to practice. There are those who really know how to practice effectively, can take what the teacher gives them, and run with it. On the whole, these are students who know how to work imaginatively with the important concepts. Unfortunately, they are in the minority. Among the others, some practice too little, and some too much. Among the former are those students who treat voice lessons like a kind of massage therapy. They arrive for the lesson, have a good workout, and then don’t think about technique until they see the teacher again. This type of student will not progress much from one lesson to the next. They won’t actually get much worse; but any progress made at the last lesson has to be relearned, over and over.

Among the most challenging students to teach are those who work hard and get worse between lessons. When this happens, perhaps the first thing you should ask yourself as a teacher, is whether the student is being overly zealous in carrying out your teaching instructions. An overly physical approach to vocal technique is as bad (or worse) than no approach at all. Emphasize that all physical instructions must be carried out imaginatively. “Up and over” is not about lifting your eyebrows: “lifting the palate” is not about muscularly jamming the pharynx and tongue: “breathing from the back” does not mean grabbing the intercostals and employing a “squeezebox” technique on the inhalation.

One of my students last week came in sounding noticeably worse than at her previous lesson. Being somewhat aware of her issues, I know that she tends to overdo it, physically. Turns out she was focusing so hard on the “gesture of inhalation” and on the feeling of a lifted palate, and doing it in such a physical way, that she wasn’t feeling the voice in the front at all. “Singing is like calling” I said to her. “If you’re not calling to someone, you’re not really singing”. Without balancing the elements that cause the voice to emerge, beautiful and expressive singing just cannot happen.

Monday, August 6, 2012

When students have PTSD

--> Recently, a singer came to me so bruised from her previous vocal experiences, that she virtually had post-traumatic stress disorder. Her former teacher was an expert in the "blame the student"  style of teaching, which left her with no self-confidence, and unable to sing in tune.

Alice (not her real name) was in such a state over her voice, that she was unable to produce a sound without paranoia. The effect of constant worry about sound is that you can’t sing. The first thing I tried to do with this student was to emphasize that there was nothing wrong with her voice; in my opinion, she had to learn how to let it out, rather than judging the sound before she produced it. If you believe your sound is intrinsically bad, and has to be “fixed” before it can be acceptable, you are stuck. No amount of fixing is going to produce a voice that is free, balanced and flexible. The problem is first and foremost, in your thinking.

Far better to see your voice as a potentiality that needs to be released. Once you get your mind off “sound”, you can begin to do the things that allow the sound to be produced in a healthy, balanced way. Sound is the ultimate effect of certain causes: balanced breathing, support, placement, a loose throat, a comfortable domed shape to the resonators, a sense of drinking in as you ascend the scale, a rounding to the vowels. Oh, and always, the feeling of speaking as you sing, which brings lightness, clarity and a forward feeling to the voice. Devote yourself to the causes, and the effect, a beautiful singing voice, takes care of itself. No amount of paranoia about sound will produce a beautiful voice, if you forget to care of the causes. After all, if you are too worried about your sound to do these things, who’s going to take care of them for you?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Training tenor voices

--> I have two tenors who came to me recently for lessons. They share a similar problem: no approach to the passaggio area. Instead of rounding the voice, they blast their way up to the top. This means that neither of them have high notes.

The first tenor sings as a baritone; the second finesses everything above a “g” in a light head tone. Tenor 1 works as hard as he can to keep his larynx down, to no avail; inevitably, it goes higher as he ascends the scale. Tenor two “puts it forward” as a method: of course, his larynx is up around his eyeballs.

Is there any middle ground between trying to force the larynx down (don’t even try it, it  never works) and just letting it the larynx do what it wants, which is to lift as you ascend the scale? Mercifully, there is a natural function which releases the throat; it is called yawning. Unfortunately, no one ever taught us how to yawn and sing clearly at the same time.

If we examine the feeling of a yawn very carefully, we find that it consist of several aspects. The most obvious one is releasing the jaw; next to that, a feeling of width across the neck in front, around the collar bone. Finally comes the least obvious part; an internal tilt behind the tongue, at the level of the arytenoid cartilages. The throat seems to tilt back, and the root of the tongue releases around the hyoid bone. It is this backward tilt of the larynx which seems to release the whole apparatus into a yawn.

With a comfortable yawn as you phonate, make sure the voice is well forward, at the point of clear pronunciation. Do not let the voice fall back or be swallowed. Do not let the onset become glottal or airy. It is extremely useful to practice this forte, then piano, without taking a breath in between. Piano then becomes a matter of leaving the spaciousness in the throat as it is , but using gentle air instead of compressed breath to sing.

Singing higher becomes a matter of rounding the palate and using increased abdominal compression (support), while not tightening the throat below. It is imperative to keep the voice forward at the point of pronunciation as you sing.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Moving the breath… or not?

Lately I have had a number of singers come to me with similar problems; the voice is weak on the bottom, loud in the upper middle, and screamy on top. The sound is airy and without focus, frequently out of tune in the passagio area. The throat and jaw are tight, and the sound is uncomfortable to listen to.

This particular complex of problems is often associated with the student trying to “move the breath”. They send the breath forward, which lifts the larynx and puts air in the sound. To me, they are using a sound pedagogical principle the wrong way.

The easiest way to explain what I mean is to illustrate with “blowing air” and with “warming air”. Blowing air is only too easy to demonstrate; just make a loud whisper, like “hah”, and feel the air against your hand positioned in front of your face. You will see right away that the larynx is lifted and the throat contracted. Now try feeling warm air against your hand, positioned in front of your face without making a sound, as though you were trying to warm your hands with your breath on a cold day You should notice that the larynx is low, the pharynx is expanded, and the palate is high. This was all achieved without trying to lower the larynx, expand the pharynx or lift the palate.

The feeling of “come si parla” or singing like you speak, means there is a clear point of pronunciation in front of the face. Most people feel it either on the hard palate or just in front of it, between the nose and the skin of the nose, or at the bridge of the nose. Christa Ludwig described it as the "point" in the vowel. Because it is a resonance effect, and not an actual place of physical vibration, exactly where you feel it is unique to the singer. You find it by speaking clearly and directly, as in a “demonstration” of clear speech. You can also find it with a quick hum, and identifying where you feel the vibration.

By all means, move the breath when you sing; but use warming air, not blowing air to do it. Aim for a sound with frontal focus and a clarity related to speech. Whatever you do, don’t blow the air past the point of pronunciation!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Life-long learning III: The Young@Heart Chorus

Yesterday I watched the film "Young @Heart". I found it almost unbearably moving. These choristers, with an average age of 80, live to sing, quite literally: singing may actually be keeping them alive. Recent research tells us that the onset of Alzheimer's can be delayed through mental activity, especially by learning new skills.

There is something deeply touching about seeing this chorus convey the lyrics to rock-and-roll songs with such joy, such sincerity, such lack of artifice. Watching them perform to a jail-house audience who were enthralled and at times, deeply moved, was really something.

I wept a lot watching this film. I was so often reminded of my father, who had a deep and abiding love for music. He was listening to violin music on the walkman I bought him until the day before he died. For him, his research and his lab (he was a scientist) kept him fighting against lung cancer. He was absolutely determined to beat it so that he could go on with his work. Sadly, he didn't. He died at the age of 86.

I once gave a concert at a long term care facility here in Toronto. I heard later from my mother, who was in the audience, that when I started to sing, there was a visible stir in the crowd. She said that some of those people, who were terribly sick, seemed to come back from the dead when they heard the sound of my voice.

I don't think that my singing was so special; I do think the human voice has an extraordinary power to stimulate, move, entertain. I believe it can even bring, for a moment, life to those who are ready to leave it.