Sunday, August 16, 2009

Relaxing at full speed

Now that Usain Bolt has broken the 9.60 barrier and astounded everyone again with his laid-back style and nearly super-human powers, I thought I'd make an observation about relaxation.

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 seldom 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

Pontifications of a hobby singer

I don't get out much... a singer, that is. One of the problems of having singing as a hobby and pulling 10-12 hour workdays doing something else, is that you really have to limit your engagements. Luckily for me, this is no hard task - it's not like I have to turn down any offers. This year, I've received exactly two offers to sing professionally, and that about fills my quota, considering that there is also the traditional Christmas recital.

This time, it was a Summer recital at Ödeby Church outside Örebro in Sweden. 'Öde' means 'desolate' in Swedish, and while the village isn't desolate per se, it is at least remote. You drive until the road seems to end, and suddenly there's a nice little Church. This being Örebro, it means that you'll be driving for about as long as it would take you to go to IKEA from Downtown Stockholm. In Örebro, the far country isn't that far away.

The first weeks of my vacation reminded me that in order to sing at the level I aspire to, you really do have to sing every day. I don't really have time for that, so I cheat. I invent small exercises that I can do on the subway, in the office, in the bathroom. They seem to keep my muscles reasonably fit, but don't help much with timing, expression, and the micro-adjustments needed when singing for real. There simply isn't any substitute for doing the real thing.

We had a rehearsal the week before with wonderful accompanist Jan-Erik Sandvik. It felt great, and I was convinced that a daily regimen of rehearsals for the final week would more or less guarantee that I would be at the top of my current capacity.

Only I wasn't going to get that chance. A trip to London, management meetings, representation with important partners, talking to the rest of the staff... I was back to my cheating again.

I returned home on Thursday. The concert was on Saturday. One day to wake up the voice, one half day to go through the program and memorize it all once more.

"The only thing you have to fear is fear itself", maestro Bengt keeps telling me. Time to dust off that old saying and put stock in it. I have three things going for me:
  • 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.
Not all amateurs are so lucky.

Things went well. The church was full, taking into account that one-third of it was occupied by scaffolding due to refurbishment. The weather was perfect, and the audience seemed to be of the same disposition.

I always try to shoot video and record the audio with 'good' mics. For me, it serves a pedagogical purpose. I need to get on stage to hone my instincts and harden my courage. Publishing the result is part of that mental process. Also, feeling that the concert was a success is one thing. Seeing yourself on video afterwards is another. A lot of things you thought would work really don't, and if you remove the video and listen to audio only, it's even worse. Every reduction step cuts away some of the magic, and emphasizes the flaws.

If you're up for it, it's a great learning experience. For me the keyword is 'more': more energy, more legato, better diction. My goal should be to sit down in front of a recording and observe that 'that was really too much'. Then I can start scaling back. But if you've never been there, you can't trust your instincts, and when you're on stage, that's pretty much what you're left with.

Being my own sound technician adds to the challenge, of course, especially when I'm not well prepared. This time, the good mics were set up but not plugged in. The backup - the little Zoom H2 on the balcony - would have to suffice, and it wasn't the first time either, I might add.

Katarina always gets to start. She is the star - I'm the sidekick - and it always calms me down when she gets the ball rolling.

We sang Swedish and Finnish 'romances' - Rangström, Stenhammar, Alfvén, Körling, Sibelius... and then some Puccini at the end.

Sibelius is difficult. Most difficult for me was 'Säf, säf susa', but I really wanted to do that one. Working with it was a great learning experience, especially singing in the original (high) key. Jussi sings it one full step higher, which is really more comfortable, but I like it in the original. I think it adds to the atmosphere. The dramatic middle part is very difficult to sing without pushing. It helps me to think 'g' - the onset of a resonant 'g' gives a nice low position.

After the romances, there was a short break, and then the Rodolfo/Mimi scene from La Bohème. Getting up for Che gelida manina, I had lost my position. None of my exercises for finding it again were appropriate on stage, so I just had to get on with it. The beginning was a struggle, and I tried not to think about the high C that was drawing closer. Oh, well... The only thing to do was to just go for it, and it worked! After that, I had my voice back.

The encore was Summertime for Katarina, and Torna a Surriento for me. I thought she would start, and sat down with a glass of water. She waved me on, and I took a gulp of water - too quickly, and nearly choked on it. Jan-Erik started playing immediately, so I had a few bars to quit coughing. Maybe I should learn to signal that I'm ready, and not before...

All in all, I couldn't wish for a better hobby, and to share this with my wonderful wife is just perfect.