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!