Sunday, July 31, 2011

When the solution becomes the problem

I saw my first voice teacher, a brilliant man and an excellent pedagogue, when I was 15. I had a strong voice, and no idea how to sing. I didn’t practice. I used to breathe by heaving up my shoulders and chest. Quite rightly, I was told at my first lesson, “don’t breathe so high”!

Fateful words. At a yoga class some thirty years later, we were directed to take a full “yogic” breath, all the way up to the top of the chest. My first response was annoyance; then, trying to be a good sport, I gave it a try, To my amazement, a kink I had been carrying around my diaphragm my entire adult life, began to let go. I realized that since hearing those words from my first teacher, I had fixed my chest in a high position, and simply not breathed into the upper chest. The effect was to make my formidable tension problems even worse.

As voice teachers, we have a huge responsibility. It is not enough to say the right thing; you have to see exactly how your student is carrying out your directions. A motivated student will take the easiest and most direct route available to give you what you ask for. The usual result is forcing. The new solution has become the problem.

Recently, a young student of mine went to a coach to prepare for an audition. When she came to her lesson a few days later, I could hear there was pressure on the root of her tongue. The sound was breathy and lacking in focus. I asked what she had been working on in her coaching. “Legato”, she said. I understood that she had taken the most direct route available to her to give the legato she was asked for; she was pressing on the tongue in her effort to produce a seamless legato.

Legato is the result of correct formant frequency tuning which in turn may be related to a released jaw, long vowels, quick, clear consonants, and a constant motion in the breath. The mouth is mostly open. The solution for my student was to come back to the feeling of healthy speech, “canta come si parla”, while moving the breath and thinking through the phrase. It is the feeling of healthy speech which helps to tune the formant frequency of the vowels.

Be careful what you say; your student may actually do it.
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