"In the case of literature, which is the only areawhere I have no knowledge and no transparency, ..."
Saturday, May 22, 2010
Saturday, March 20, 2010
Having a management position in a growing IT company, wife and kids, and an exciting hobby, sometimes leaves little time for blogging. :)
Here is a short update, though.
I'm getting plenty of chances to practice proper singing at the weirdest places: airports, subways, walking down the streets of London, ... With a busy schedule, the alternative is usually not singing at all. You have to carefully note the sensations in your body, even while singing almost inaudibly in a crowd; it should be at least as intense as singing loudly.
One particular sensation I've been exploring lately is one where you achieve the "long and narrow mouth" by trying to shape it not at the mouth itself, but rather as far back towards the jaw joints as you can (this is a hypothesis I stitched together myself, from pieces here and there). Just trying to shape the lips "long and narrow" does fairly little, and is very difficult if your overall position is not correct. Instead, try to invoke a "Frankenstein's monster" image, if you will, and try to narrow right where he has the screws. You should feel the jaw joints spreading...
What does this do? When I do this, it seems to activate the "pillar" muscles of the palate, raising the soft palate, spread the jaw joints and lower the larynx, all in one motion. All these things are conducive to a low-larynx, open-throat sound. Once in this position, narrowing the mouth is trivial. The sensation of pushing in against your jaw joints, spreading the joints is also fairly distinct, which always helps. Practice in front of a mirror and observe what happens.
I don't worry too much about tension. I think it can be counter-intuitive to worry about tension too soon. When trying to shape the mouth and pharynx in ways you never have before, you will invariably become tense in the beginning. Practice will strengthen your muscles and fine muscle coordination. I wrote about this in my "Relaxing at full speed" blogpost.
Mario del Monaco illustrates the "long and narrow mouth" pretty well in the above clip. Notice how he breaks out of it only a few times, and each time for effect - the mad laughter, for example.This technique is of course not a panacea. It is one detail, and I believe it has helped me. The test is of course whether Maestro Bengt agrees. There has to be an ongoing dialogue between teacher and student about analogies and sensations; what the student experiences and what the teacher hears. What works for me might be counter-productive to someone else.
On a different note, Katarina's Master's thesis on Chiaroscuro is finally available in the Swedish publication database (why it took so long is another story...). We translated it to English, and owe tremendous gratitude to Dorothy Irving for spending significant time helping us with proofreading.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Bolt actually pushed all the way to the finish line this time, but more than once, experts have had reason to note that he really doesn't lose as much speed as you'd think when he relaxes and just floats the last bit.
Most people have tried sprinting. It's hard work, and looking at the runners in the WC final, you can tell that they didn't relax their way to the top. Still, relaxation is a vital part of sprinting. How?
Muscles can only either contract or relax. Many muscles (not all) attach to the skeleton at either side of a joint. When e.g. bending your arm, the 'biceps' muscle contracts. When straightening it, the 'triceps' on the opposite side contracts. In each case, the 'antagonist' muscle needs to relax in order not to interfere with the work. A world-class sprinter takes ca 4.5-5 strides per second, where each stride is more than 2 meters (Bolt's strides are 2.40 m). This requires both incredible power and rapid alternation between tension and relaxation in a great number of muscles. The trick is to pull off this fine coordination while staying as close as possible to maximum output.
On to singing, I hear many singers and teachers talk about the importance of relaxation. What is seldomly pointed out is that good singing is hard work. Relaxation in itself is not enough. You need to work to build strength as well. If you were lucky enough to find an excellent teacher when you were very young, you may have been able to develop the necessary strength and coordination organically. I started singing for real at the age of 36, and had to work systematically to learn how to engage muscles that had largely been passive until then.
I'm an ex-athlete (as you may have guessed), so I approached the whole thing as an athletic event. I spent several months figuring out how to raise the soft palate on demand, learned how to keep the diaphragm down while exhaling, worked on isolating the action of pulling down the larynx, etc.
Franco Corelli said in Jerome Hines' book Great Singers on Great Singing (pg 60) that you need young muscles to learn how to sing with a low larynx. A person who's around 40 or 50 probably won't be able to do it.
(The above clip is, I believe, the last of a long line of encores after a full concert with orchestra. I do believe even Mr Corelli started showing signs of strain here... Still, magnificent singing).
Perhaps he is right, but there is likely a continuum here, and even if you pick it up late, I believe that you can get far with proper training. But the older you are, the greater the need might be for specific exercises to discover and strengthen the diaphragm and muscles around the larynx.
BTW, my father started taking some lessons with Bengt at the age of 65, and showed great progress even in the first lesson. Bengt's teaching is quite physical, and Dad's been into Track & Field all his life. I don't know how much that has to do with it...
Development of fine motor skills progresses from rough to finer coordination, as is evident when watching a small child learn how to use their hands and fingers. For the sprinter as well as for the singer, the objective is to learn fine motor control at high intensity. This requires both development of strength and work on motor skill, alternating and in parallel. During the first years of my training, I was well aware of the fact that I was tensing too much. It was only after 5 years or so that I started to feel that I could rid myself of unnecessary tension. Before that, if I tried to relax while singing, I would invariably lose my position.
Better to sing reasonably well and be a bit tense, than to be relaxed and sing badly.
Giovanni Battista Lamperti, one of the great singing teachers of the 19th Century, said "Because of co-ordinate action, which intrigues the whole personality, muscular effort and will-power seem in abeyance. This gives rise to a feeling of ease so insiduous that a singer begins to rely on relaxation of mind and muscle - a quicksand that brings disaster [...] Do not become rigid, but never relax." (Vocal Wisdom, pg 116, chapter "Do not relax").
In his wonderful book Singing and Imagination, Thomas Hemsley wrote, "Tension is the result of lack of balance or poise. The cure for tension is not simply relaxation, but the recovery of poise. Misguided attempts to relax while singing (a very energetic activity) are probably, in the end, responsible for many more vocal problems, more unhealthy tension, than any other source" (pg 78).
Hemsley also writes, "Watch an athletics race on your television screen, and observe how the very best runners move. Their legs and arms are moving quite freely, and their heads and bodies appear to be quite still, moving forward as if on wheels. Singers can learn much from watching top-class athletes in action" (pg 37).
Now, he was talking about posture then, but I believe that there are lessons to be learned also regarding the relationship between power and relaxation.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
- I believe I have really found a good position for my voice. I know how to quickly get to that place where the voice 'ignites' (vocal ring), and I've gotten pretty comfortable maintaining it. Once I'm in that position, all I should focus on is diction, legato and interpretation (...and tons of minor things, but these three will go far).
- My wife Katarina would be singing with me. When we're on, she will be a rock, as always.
- Jan-Erik has accompanied just about every singer in Sweden. There is nothing I can do that will throw him off-balance. He will notice if I falter, and lead me through it.
Monday, May 25, 2009
- Technique vs Overall Grade: 0.59
- Expression vs Overall Grade: 0.48
- Technique vs Expression: 0.13
This research raises questions regarding the students’ experience of learning. They described their learning process as vague and quite incidental. However, the process of skill acquisition as learning for artistic development so far has not attracted researchers, possibly due to a conservative notion about talent. This notion of emphasising the influence of talent instead of learning on skill acquisition might also be prevalent in the artistic context and among educators. In this way, this notion contributes indirectly to a student’s difficulty to grasp the learning process. (page 62-63)
I am constantly disturbed by the current tendency to separate what is called 'technique' from what is called 'interpretation'. This is a concept which comes from the instrumental branch of music. In the case of singing these two things cannot be separated, for the simple reason that the only thing that stimulates the voice to action is the urge to express something; in particular, to give expression to thoughts and feelings through music. The whole object of learning to sing is to improve the connection between the emotional, poetic and musical impulses, and the body, which responds by producing appropriate sound. It is a process demanding patience and total dedication, in which a good teacher can be of the greatest help, and the wrong teacher can do untold damage. (pg 6-7)
Friday, March 06, 2009
In fact, quite a lot is happening on the singing front as well. My wife Katarina is working on her Master's Thesis in Music Science, writing about her experiences converting from (for lack of a better term) "no-effort singing" to Chiaroscuro. The interesting thing about voice science is that you can find support for all kinds of ideas about singing technique, and our preconceptions color what we absorb from books like Stark's "Bel Canto - A history of vocal pedagogy". Katarina tries to account for her own experience from singing, clarifying with quotes from historical and scientific sources.
In one sense, this is a selective quoting of scientific sources, based on the author's intuition. While this can be criticized as un-scientific, one may counter that other researchers quote "too much", including theories that actually conflict with each other, without apparently noticing this. Most scientific studies on singers mainly separate trained professionals from untrained singers, or possibly separating singers by (apparent) style - a group of listeners get to rate whether a sample can be described as "classical singing", for example. Then the sample is analyzed and held up as a description of some aspect of classical singing. Much of this research is done on students, and precious little on great singers (most likely because they are expensive, busy, and perhaps not interested in getting an "objective" opinion on their vocal technique.) There are good reasons for doing this, and the approach is of course always documented as part of the research.
British barytone and teacher Thomas Hemsley wrote in his book "Singing and imagination" wrote (page 10):
Some years ago I attended an international congress of voice experts in New York. Learned scientists read papers about all manner of aspects of anatomy, physiology, and acoustics. Frequently they played recordings of the voices which had been analysed in the course of the research. In every single case, my reaction was: 'But that is not singing'. I formed the impression that a high proportion of research into the human voice has been undertaken to analyse the vocal activity of people who could not sing; certainly who could not sing in what is generally recognized as the European classical tradition.James Stark, in this interesting keynote speech, makes a similar claim:
Part of my task as a keynote speaker was to suggest ways in which voice science might advance. In my view, there are two principal things that we should strive for. First, we should encourage world-class singers to act as subjects in our experiments. To compare amateur singers to so-called trained singers in experimental protocols is not particularly helpful, since the word "trained" can mean so many things.Hopefully, Katarina's essay can be of some help to some, singers, researchers and pedagogues. The process of researching and writing it has certainly been helpful to her, even if sometimes frustrating.
There was actually a "no-effort school of singing", pioneered by Dr. Henry Holbrook Curtis in the early 20th century. Stark mentions it in his keynote, and from what I can tell, the no-effort school of singing is very much alive today, even though it is not referred to as such. In an era where much of the singing takes place with microphones, it seems a perfectly reasonable way to sing, and much of the pedagogy I've come across today seems to have as a top priority not to do any damage. Interestingly, many of the great singers sang well into their 70s and 80s, while rather few of today's singers do. Manuel Garcia Jr seemed to be in pretty good voice even past the age of 90, yet Curtis et al paraded singers who were supposedly damaged by Garcia's "Coup de la glotte".
Oh, well, read Stark's keynote, or his book, if you want to know more. Highly recommended. I also recommend Joseph Shore's collection of essays. Shore's writing can serve as a valuable guide when reading works by Miller, Vennard, Titze et al.