The artistic relationship to vocal technique.
Combining Vocal Technique with the Emotional Connection in singing.
A singer hopes that when a composer writes it is because he wishes to communicate, and that the notes on the page are not an end in themselves but are art concealing art, a blue print or map for the feeling that lies behind them. Pace those for whom music is an intellectual exercise only. Singers pick up a piece of music to sing it, they might look at the words, the timing, the context of the piece and the character they are portraying and get to know something about the composer. Then comes the part when they are going to sing and work the vocal line into the voice. It seems logical that a singer’s natural and confident ability to totally respond to the work they are interpreting, without the fear of the technical demands of the score dominating their performance, will make a difference to the eventual performance.
Technique should not be an end in itself. I do not think any artist wants to think like that, it is unhelpful. Rather it is a tool to allow the possibilities of the art form through which we can express ourselves; to allow the unknowable, the unconscious ability, to happen easily and also to safeguard that ability and nurture it. I remember having a conversation with a fellow singer about this. She had sung Sophie in Rosenkavalier earlier in her career. She said that she had a natural ability to sing it until someone described to her how difficult they thought the trio was at the end, one bar of it particularly . At the next performance, instead of the usual ease, she felt uncomfortable and vocally unsure. Her conscious mind was interfering and getting in the way. There is a saying often said ‘getting out of the way of the music’. It implies that the music and the talent of the artist are an entity in themselves. There are those times when the muses take over completely in a performance and unfurl exquisite inevitability in performers. Everyone feels it, the audience and the artists. These times are wonderful. How does a singer consistently find authentic balance between the physical and emotional that connects them to their inner most self, the music they are singing, and the audience?
We cannot consciously, directly control the voice. Yes I can pitch a note but I do not control my vocal cords directly. It is too complicated and difficult to control the many vibrations of two vocal folds to give me a note, completely impossible in fact! It is a reflex action. The stretch of the singer’s palate is reflexive; the breath needs to work reflexively to sing well. Any attempt at taking direct control of these things gets in the way of the singer’s artistic freedom. How can a singer let these things happen at optimum efficiency, expressively, through the endlessly diverse emotional patterns of classical music?
Technique should show you, by exercises designed specially to do so, what direct action you can take to stimulate these reflexes to happen easily. The artist can then feel the coordination and trust their ability to allow the voice to sing in the body; to sing itself, without judgment and without listening to it. It is the means to give a singer a conscious working understanding of the physicality required to keep balanced vocally with the emotion in motion as they move through a piece.
In general conversation as soon as you have taken the breath the sentence and the action for that phrase is done and you form the next phrase in your mind even as you are saying the phrase before. We are composing the next sentence as we are speaking. If we laboured over each word as we spoke there would be gaps between sentences and talking would be stilted and strange. Caruso said that taking a breath to sing should be as simple as in conversation. The quality of your thoughtful creation of each phrase and the inspiration of those ideas as you breathe determines the quality of the performance. It is what you do with the breath over the phrase that follows it that determines how the next breath and phrase with be
When a breath is taken it is better if, in that moment it can be inspired in a spontaneous way with the alchemy of the musical thought allied to the imagination on an open throat and body. To do this there must be a disciplined sense, especially in demanding music, of how to set this up and keep a consistent coordination so the body’s mental and physical muscular reflexes kick in simply and take the impetuous and energy appropriately and spontaneously for each phrase. You could liken this to the tensions on a sail or the general ability to balance and sail the ship where you want to go with the right amount of air to give you the energy to move through the water. Some singers take too much air consistently, for instance, and do not use up what they have in a way which frees them mentally and physically to take just the right amount for the next phrase.
There is a cross over here between technique and emotion in how to find what to concentrate the mind on, how to inspire as you breathe the nature of what you intend to do. How to provide the physical means to let this happen through you as you sing is the artist at work. Without this mental space, characterisation is generalized and clumsy. When you know the physical and mental triggers that you can use and realise you can trust absolutely, a whole other world of artistic truth habitually reveals itself. The Indian poet Tagore put it something like this. When ‘this becomes THE this, it is no longer itself’. I think he meant that as soon as you try to grab, or make the unknowable into a direct object of your desire the unknowable eludes you. Its that same old problem which is that we can never directly control how we sing. The control of the vibration of the vocal folds for starters is unknowable. How we control the breath directly is unknowable. The open throat is unknowable. However we can know accurately what physical butons to press in the non reflexive muscles so that the reflexive actions needed to sing these things happen uninhibited. This gives the artist freedom of expression.
If a performer can become more intimately familiar with the strings and pulleys of their responses, then the performer acquires a greater artistic personality. This strong mental and physical thread of concentration on the chain of events unfolding is an altered state of consciousness. This is the most effective, safest and simplest place for a singer to be on stage. A practical understanding of technique should give a performer confidence and shorten the time it takes for them to assimilate a new score into the voice and body. It should show the way through so that the mind cannot create obstacles that get in the way. The musical score gives up its emotional secrets and style to you, showing itself in the timbre of the voice and expression in body and face.
The training may make the singer conscious of a group of muscles that they have never thought of coordinating in that way. Various feelings are experienced. On the one hand a sense of freedom, and on the other a loss of control of the vocal line with the listening ear. It is a good thing to lose this control but it can only come with knowing what to do instead. Through intelligent vocal work the relationship to the throat and vocal line deepens into the body in such a way that an ease comes in the most difficult music. Good reflexive exercises are a language, a tool - a way to communicate feelings and sensations you cannot point to or say with words. Singing is reflexive. It is necessary to find the best way to occupy the self in a way which stimulates these reflexes to happen in the best way possible way. After that the artist’s unique sound is in the air beyond their remit so the singer must trust themselves and let it be, thus declining the open invitation to try to control the sound with the ear. When an artist understands how the mechanisms work and coordinate, they reach a point where ability has shifted to a place of greater ease. Old problems are left far behind and a new professional attitude takes over.
If a singer finds themselves listening to and judging their own singing and running an internal commentary on it, then they have lost attention and mentally checked out with their physical/emotional connection not far behind. The relationship between the voice and inner artistic world is obscured. There can be many causes for this. Here are a few:
- Listening and trying to manufacture a certain sound with the ear in judgement in an attempt to fulfil the singers or someone else’s expectation of how they should sound.
- Insufficient understanding of how to keep an easy relationship with the voice and the physical/mental relationship to it. ie Inaccurate technical work
- Trying to copy a recording of a favourite singer
- Lack of spontaneous imaginative inner response to the feeling behind the music because of technical problems or personal emotional stress
- A lack of knowledge as to what to concentrate the mind on even before the singer opens their mouth at the beginning of the piece
- An artist being unhappy in their skin and nervous in a particular environment ie an audition
- Lack of preparation
- Lack of understanding of what it is they are supposed to achieve
- A natural talent that is confused and frustrated and does not understand why it is not moving forward
The bottom line is, either the singer finds a way to drop through the fear of release of inappropriate mental and physical tight musculature, or the same sort of problems will be experienced over and over again and it will not be possible to compete adequately in the market place.
One dramatic soprano recently told me she felt she was being ‘vocally sabotaged’ all the time by people who did not give her the complete information. Her voice was threadbare in the middle which was ridiculous in such a fantastic instrument. She had been squeezing her throat to push the voice up through phrases. These heavier vocal instruments are tough and strong and will take a lot of maltreatment but her instrument had just about tolerated enough. In one lesson it was quite a simple matter to show her how to close the cords by allowing her jaw to go back and show her how to use her body more easily. She was a pleasure to teach, intelligent and open once she realized that this was not another blind alley. Why did she not know this fundamental physiological information much earlier in her career to build on? This sort of thing is happening too much.
Singers who decide to work on interpretation using some acting techniques will find these techniques useful while others will disconnect from their bodies and lose vocal proficiency and frustrate themselves. In this case the emotional blue print that lies behind the physical sensations of the technique needs to be skilfully and comprehensively explained in a way which shows them very clearly how they can keep their unique physical and technical connection onboard.
Artists are all so different and each one learns differently but here I thought I would give an example of two extremes. At one extreme, singing on pitch carefully trying to place each note and listen and check every moment we then make a boring performance and tighten the larynx and body. At the opposite extreme we are emotional with no discipline which in itself compromises the freedom of the vocal instrument and musical performance. Neither of these extremes makes for any consistency in a performer! Of course it is true to say that none of us are perfect! Each singer will approach all these things differently but very broadly speaking some singers have more natural extrovert histrionic abilities and it is harder for them to think of the discipline through which their emotion needs to shine, and indeed are suspicious of anything which may clip their wings. Indeed technique inaccurately taught will do just that. Others think too much, analysing everything and tense up.
A Natural talent is the most wonderful thing and this natural ability should be preserved at all costs. Good instincts often carry a protection of their own. If life’s stresses have a habit of making it hard for a performer to keep their talent intact, and if the singers gypsy life moving from one venue is a difficult one then it is better for them to get to understand their talent and protect it. Stress which blocks the energy flow is not useful. Inaccurate vocal knowledge does harm.
Voices gradually mature and go through various stages as the years go by, and of course women have the menopause to cope with. Men have the andropause - an often underrated phenomenon. These shifts demand the singer find rite of passage through onto the next phase. It is important to assimilate into the body the deeper connections needed as the voice matures and to keep raising the standard that you do not fall below. No performer likes to stagnate or feel vocally tight or stuck in any resister, it is very uncomfortable. If abilities as an actress keep pace with the evolving demands of the voice in a balanced way one can inform and enhance the other.
Can you specify ways in which technique enhances emotional expression in a performance?
Isolating the parts of the conscious mechanism singers need to engage so that they are known, and then showing how to coordinate them is part of the process. In doing so the whole mechanism must be addressed and coordinated in ways that each individual can relate too. The best body of work I have found to use to this is the Swedish Italian School. (Perhaps the name is a little off-putting, look at the footnote ii) Information about this school is on this website and www.voiceteacher.com. This comprehensive catalogue of knowledge is based on the old Italian exercises. They work because by the act of doing them, with good guidance and accurate information, the reflexes needed to sing well are shown in a way that can be understood easily. It makes it easy to put the reflexive jigsaw puzzle of true coordination together. Great composers, who wrote for the voice, make great demands on these reflexes. The singer is guided to do good technical work and feels a clearer relationship to a physical/mental coordination. The following is a brief example of this:
This expression, the Appoggio, refers to the lean of the upper body connection to the sound at the chest/sternum/pectoral area. It is part of the coordinating network of voice/body connections in the chest, abdomen and back (this also has to be coordinated also with good management of the jaw, tongue and neck, and palatal stretches). The singer should have the feeling of slightly leaning against the chest with a slight and slow pulling down at the sternum. This involves the pectoral muscles and sternum and incorporates use of the belly and back. Understanding the body working of the Appoggio is a necessary part of keeping the throat open and allowing the breath to drop deeply in the body. When we feel things deeply we are connected to our stomach. When we really roar with laughter or anger it is visceral. It is clear that technique is the science of emotion - the physical expression for thought made more conscious.
This is one way to find the Appoggio. Stand against a wall. Your head should not be on the wall the neck can drop forward relaxed. Gently press your waist back on to the wall as you make a slow hissing sound. You will find you need to employ your abdomen muscles. Your lower abdominal muscles should go up and your sternum will lean forward and tug down slowly. You will probably feel a stretch across your back. There should always be these antagonist stretches in singing so that no movement becomes obsessive and is pulled out of relationship with the whole. When the coordination is felt the ease is such a relief to the singer. The chest should not move up at the front with the intake of the breath or with the onset of the sound.
If you moan or cry or laugh doing this, it will have the same effect, you will feel the connection. The throat should feel wide and open at the base from east to west. (The Squillo – the cry – is an Old Italian Technique attempt at describing the reflexive feelings for cord closure in the open throat from the body which allows the voice to produce the ring in the voice.) There should be nothing held rigid to block the sensations. If the neck becomes tense and tight then it is habitually interfering with voice. This is one of hardest things to get used to for actors or singers. The neck usually tenses when we are emotional and tense in everyday life, to try to put a lid on our emotions. it must remain released when we are singing. Being on stage and singing in public are rather tense situations for most.
The singer will wonder how they can do this exercise standing up without being hunched over. The spine must always lengthen and not collapse. The ribs work against the growing spine. There is always a resistance there This means that no movement goes to any extreme but they work well together.
If the chest tips up, and the back crushes down tightly, the lower ribs will pull in and up at the front. The body is closed. The buoyant and subtle mental/physical connections are blocked. The singer may well not realize what is happening to them. There should be a steady slow tug forward and a little down at the sternum through a legato line. With this work this mechanism becomes flexible and buoyant in its connection to vowels and consonants and the thread of voice between the notes. It is important that a singer understand which muscles to instruct the whole upper body and lower body so that it does not lose height when exhaling. In order to achieve this, the body needs the correct stimuli to manage the vocal/physical connection throughout all the moments in the cycle of breath and phonation.
It can be helpful to try lying down on your back. Press the back of the waist into the floor. There can be a light gap between the floor and the back of your waist but not much of a gap. Then when you inhale check that your chest does not lift up much at all in the front, yet stretch your spine long on the floor. This will mean the breath is low you will feel it in the lower back too as you inhale. Relax your abdomen. Make sure the jaw is released back and down. You can check this by making as if to stifle a yawn and then take you hand away.
- 1 3 1
Basically what the singer is exploring here is a steady stream of air to the vocal cords. When the body is occupied in the right way allowing a steady stream of air and a consistent throat space then supple closure of the cords along the thin edges is the result. This makes for great sound. Feeling the sensations of how to do this is important.
A soprano with the most fabulous dramatic coloratura voice was unable to really connect with the emotional line because she had never been helped to understand how to manage herself physically. This had been a huge barrier in her career and made her auditions and her voice very inconsistent. This was one of those robust long voices that could sing the notes of any piece on squeeze but never really released to find the correct fach. It took time to release the tension in the neck and tongue and jaw. The whole body mechanism was extremely tight. Indeed, some physical exercises needed to be done to persuade the muscles of the body to gain flexibility and subtlety, and take the emotional and physical load from the small muscles of the neck and jaw. At first it felt very odd to her to make sound by a different coordination but she could feel the benefit so that was enough to energise her to move forward.
Exercises to help achieve this:
Ng to o (as in hoot) to e (as in tent) to i (as in seat) with the jaw back, tip of tongue on the gum line or just above.
The singer will almost certainly need to put fingers on the jaw to help encourage it to release back. (Note. the jaw goes back not the head with it) If the singer feels the jaw go forward then the throat is squeezing, and the steady stream of breath is arrested. The singer is searching for pharyngeal vowels and a steady stream of breathe (see other articles on these subjects on the website)
- kio kio kio kio kio kio kio kio kio kiu.....
- 1 2 3 2 1 2 3 2 1 87654321
This exercise insists that the jaw go back that the percussive K be on the body and that the body feel the change from the i to the o. Again it is helpful if the singer puts the fingers on the jaw to help it stay back and monitor it. It is helpful to self monitor by first by putting you hand up as if stifling a yawn and then taking it away
Footnote i - How to ‘warm up’
We singers don’t always just bounce out of bed every morning of every day with total inbuilt perfection because at the end of the day we are human beings with all that that includes! If a singer needs to have a singing posture on stage, it is perhaps a good idea to cultivate this off stage. When I say this I mean that a classical singer is always learning and sensing a physical discipline that sits as background awareness. It is a good idea to keep good body/mind and muscular balance, and buoyancy in everyday life. But included in this should be a cultivation of release of breath and relaxation. A professional singer certainly needs to feel confident enough to be able to relax in a busy schedule.
A warm up should be in part something of a pre flight aircraft check both mentally and physically to suit each singer individually. The reflexes that work the voice, imagination and concentration, should be flexed and warmed and ready to go. An understanding of how to do this should become more sophisticated, and mature with the individual artist’s progression. During my career I have heard singers wear themselves out warming up. It is handy if you can do just enough to be able to get yourself in the right state. If you can get the middle voice working and balanced everything else will follow
Kirstin Flagstad talked quite openly about the techniques that helped her and the school from which it came. It produced a wealth of great singers over several generations including Birgit Nielson. It is possible that this technique was left unacknowledged as the cult of celebrity took over and any connection to what trained these stars was smothered by it. Perhaps when the provenance of information and know how is not readily available it becomes more difficult for the next generation to follow and an awful lot of energy and time is lost trying to find the way.