Friday, March 06, 2009

Actual research

I haven't posted in a while, partly because I want to have something to write about, but also because I've been busy transitioning (see my other blog).

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.