Mar 28 2011

Discussion of Nasality - Part 2

E: Michael, You are a superb analyst. I’ve been meaning to write about your piece in the recent JBS newsletter. It is brilliant. I just haven’t found the time … but I will … after I get back from NYC (I leave domani). One correction: I was also talking about the “cause of how the voice is working”. When a person produces a nasal sound, the air goes straight to the nose (Peerce and to a lesser extent, Calleja). In a nasal sounding voice, the air does not go to the front of the forehead, it remains centered in the nose. Jussi kept the voice forward in the mask (the nose plus the head), and as well had great chest support.

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“E”, your correction is noted. Your concept is basically correct. But there is a widespread misunderstanding that shows up in your description.

What you describe is the same scenario that I was talking about with the constriction of the resonators. What we want is a feeling of the whole head being open, ala Jussi. This openness allows the sound vibrations to reflect through the open spaces and the bones of the skull and face. This gives the impression of the tone being in the mask.

If the throat is constricted in some way the sound vibrations can be restricted in their radiance and get trapped in just the nose. This is noticeably unnatural. This often happens with singers that are trying to make “nasal resonance”. Hence my explanation for why I avoid that term.

Singers that try to avoid nasality fall into the trap of avoiding healthy resonance through the head. This causes the resonance to be trapped in the throat or exposed out of the mouth. These result in singing that is either overly-dark and heavy (like the majority of modern classical singing) or white and spread (like modern pop singing).

The key misunderstanding I mentioned is so common it has become an accepted part of modern technique in the concept of how the air behaves. It is the basis of the “breath-flow” concept. You mentioned that the air travels to these different places. To a certain extent it may feel like that, but it just is not so.

As I stated in my description above, the sound vibrations travel through the skull, and through the air, but the air doesn’t travel. Sound is energy that passes through the air. The air itself does not travel. Sound vibrations can also travel through material, like bone. Air cannot.

The nature of this is complex, but it can be simplified to some degree. Consider water. In general we observe water in two basic states: moving, like a river and not moving, like a lake.

If the lake is calm and the water is still you can drop a rock into it and cause a disturbance. This disturbance will create waves. Waves are not actually the water moving, they are energy moving through the water. It is motion but not movement. Meaning the water doesn’t travel anywhere. If you fish you might have noticed that a bobber goes up and down with the waves but doesn’t really travel.

In a river the water is moving. If you drop a rock into it the moving water consumes the energy and it creates very little to no waves. Moving water is a poor cunducer of energy. The waves will be more regular the more calm the water is. In the same manner the more still the air in the resonator the more effective it is in having energy travel through it.

This is the principle that determines resonance. If we move the air by breathing out while singing we decrease the effectiveness of the resonator. Imagine the resonator of a violin or guitar. They don’t have air flowing through them. They contain still air that is excited into sympathetic vibration with the vibration of the strings.

With the voice this is a big challenge. But critical in order to realize the full potential of the instrument. The voice has the additional issue of the fact that our breathing goes through the vibrator. When we breath the vocal cords open to allow the air to pass through in and out of the lungs. This diminishes the effectiveness of the cords ability to vibrate, which is maximized when in a closed position.

This is the reason for the importance of breath control. Not, as many believe, to let it out so there is enough to reach the end of the phrase. It is because if we let the breath out it will destroy the balance of the vibrating mechanism.

  1. Brian Blum

    This was simply phenomenal, Michael. Just awesome. It was a summary of a few of our past sessions together, and I’ll be reading it more than once. Gotta run, but thanks for posting!

  2. Awesome description and water majestic a great example. This is one of my favorite discussions about technique and it is awesome when a student understands and “feels” everything coordinating and easy and happy (for lack of a better word)!

  3. Olga Silva

    Hi Michael. This is a fascinating discussion with several implications that maybe we don’t think about as we should. We are indeed taught that it is the breath that makes the sound, because we think of ourselves as a wind instrument. But even with wind instruments, it is not the air thar makes the sound – I mean, air can’t even move by itself, it needs some sort of strenght or impulse to be applied to it for the movement to exist (in this case, the muscles in the rib cage that applie pressure to the lungs). Sound is not air. Sound is movement – represented by a wave. It is a physical property, and we often forget that.

    I am reading a book (that has absolutely nothing to do with singing) that also presents that discussion. It is not air itself that passes through physical matter, like the body of an instrument, but it is the wave, or rather, moving energy, that travels through air, and passes through physical matter, changing it slightly and leaving its imprint. Physical matter vibrates, and that results in sound.

    About singing. I like your analogy of the voice as a reed instrument, where one applies pressure to the “embocadura”? (“embouchure”?, no idea how you say it in English) and the resulting pressure causes the body of the instrument to vibrate. The air pressure applied to the vocal folds turns into energy, and this energy reverberates through the bones of our skull, resulting in sound. However – I was just thinking – we are not like a flute player or a saxophone player, whose body is the extension of their instruments. Our body is our own instrument. So, in a way, it is not only the bones of the skull that are vibrating with energy and sound, but our whole bodies. We are making music not just with our voice, but our whole physical bodies. Of course, the intensity of vibration one feels from the chest up is not the same as one feels in the toes of their feet – the latter is imperceptible, I’d say. But still, it is something we don’t often stop and think about. How physically involved our body is in the act of producing a sound, and how it reacts to it.

  4. Absolutely, Olga. Your points are exactly what I am hoping people realize. Regarding the breath – What you are saying is the point that people misinterpret. It isn’t the breath that causes things to happen, but the energy that we get from the pressure of the breath. That energy transfers to the vocal cords, setting them into vibration. The vibration of the vocal cords transfers energy to the air in the air-way, setting that into sympathetic vibration – which is also a transfer of energy. That energy goes through the whole body, as you point out. It also travels through the air of the hall where the listeners receive the energy through their ear drum. Any escape of breath (as breath) will weaken this energy transfer and reduce the efficiency of our sound production. There is a slight release of pressure in the action of the vibration of the vocal cords, but not enough to feel like breath escaping.

  5. SPOT ON! That is the whole issue, and why so many singers and students get so wrapped up in breathing. It is treated like some mystical magic potion that when perfected will result in a perfect voice and instant fame. The energy of the breath sets the vocal vibrations in motion.

    what confuses so many students, I think, is that they are made to do so many breathing exercises, all kinds of them, and think that they are learning how to use air to “float a tone.” That confusion comes about because of what they are told.

    You once said in an article you wrote about breathing that it is overly stressed. I fully agreed with you, and at the same time disagreed. The disagreement is only because unless the muscles that manage the breath energy are strengthened, they will not support the tone. So many read things that say breathing is not important and then conclude they don’t need to learn to use those muscles or strengthen them so they can do the work. That is my only disagreement with the idea that breathing is not important or it will happen of itself.

    It is like exercises that require we fill up the lungs and involve all the support muscles, pause and hold that position, then release slowly the breath maintaining the same position while exhaling we had while pausing. So many say the pausing part of the exercise is not needed, and in truth it isn’t used while singing. In singing, breathing in and out is a single motion (or it works best when throught of like that; like instantly doing at once Breathe, support, sing). But people who denounce this exercise don’t understand that the pausing is only done to help a singer realize the position they must keep as they exhale and to strengthen those muscles by keeping them in that position. One is certainly not learning an exercise that translates into actual singing as we are not to “hold the breath back” like that when singing.

    But again, these are muscle that are used so we can control the speed of the outflow of breath. They are used to relieve the vocal folds from the strain of too much breath pressure. And they do energize the entire body.

    And all this is done so we don’t allow too much breath to pass through the vocal folds at once, for if too much passes through the energy of sound is lost (or what is called a breathy tone results).

    It is dead on: one is tranferring the energy of the breath to create sound. It is that energy that allows it to pass through all the resonating chambers of the body.

    In my view, all those descriptions of singing like the sound is floating on the breath were created to help people understand that they should not be using the breath to create the sound, but rather the energy created by the breath. But for most people, that may sound too complex. I feel that results because they do feel some air leave the body, and if air is leaving, how can they be using only the energy from the air? That is what I think causes the confusion. (but if doing old exercises, they will not even feel breath leaving the mouth; remember with those old exercises one sang with a candle close to the mouth and the flame could not flicker, or one sang with a mirror next to the mouth and no clouding could occur; without knowing it, or maybe they did know it instinctively, old masters were helping their students learn to sing with the energy of breath and not the flow of breath, which in my view, is lost now days)

    Your explanation is exactly why one spends so much time learning support: so we can produce a vibrant an energetic sound relying on the energy of breath and not the flow of air. Being able to sing long passages on a single breath is simply a wonderful bi-product. In fact, one of the first indicators of something really wrong (unability to sing long phrases that were once easy to do, etc.) is the inability to regulate the breath. When that happens, usually something is causing the vocal folds to allow too much breath to pass through (some times that is swelling from misused, some times it is nodes). It can also be a sign we are striving to keep too much breath trapped inside and not allowing it to flow evenly and create breath energy. It can also mean we haven’t yet developed the muscle strength in our support muscles. The whole goal is a transference of energy, not an outward flow of breath. Michael, you have explained this so clearly (and this is not the first time either), but people cannot seem to let go of the need to think that breathing is all about breath/air flow, and directing air flow to different parts of the body. Nor can they undestand that good breath control is not being able to sing a fully minute without a breath, but rather the correct use of the breath to allow maximum function of the vocal folds and create the greatest amount of energy to produce the tone. When done correctly, long phrases are only natural, as one is not wasting breath or allowing it to be exhaled too quickly. Breathing exercises are only there so we can learn to strengthen the muscles we will use for support, and that is their only real function. When the muscles are strong enough to do the work, the energy of breath is there, and the restrictions of the throat are gone. Perhaps that is stating it too simply, but basically that is what happens.

  6. Thanks Bea. Yes, I understand your disagreement. Maybe to clarify, I mean that breathing is over-stressed in the sense of exercising it to use the breath as if it is the tone. But the correct manner of breathing is not only under-stressed, it isn’t even known. Proper breathing for singing isn’t really breathing in the sense of respiration. The system transforms into a mechanism of compression instead of a unit of air exchange for the purpose of bringing in oxygen and expelling toxins.

    This requires skill and strength that is developed through a combination of intentional acts of suspension and reflexive acts of compression. As soon as someone allows themselves to breath in a normal way this reflexive compression system disappears.

    Thanks for sharing your professional view.

  7. You are spot on again. I fully understood what you meant by breathing being over-stressed. It is how some people interpret the idea of not over-stressing, misunderstanding what is meant. I have to tell you something super sad, which I am sure you fully understand, and that is just how few singers really have a clue about support, breathing, or even the idea of compressed air, of anything related to that topic. Repeatedly I attend competitions and master’s classes only to hear singers who have no clue whatever about support. They really do think that breathing for singing is exactly the same as when talking. They misunderstand the statement by Caruso that it takes the same amount of breath to sing as it takes to talk. The mount of breath used my be the same, but how it is used certainly is not.

    In fact, I am shocked at how many teachers don’t even talk about support or any such thing at all with their students. I have worked in classes with students who don’t even know what I am talking about, and when things are explained are completely lost.

    And when I do run across a student who has learned breathing and support, I get interesting statements like “I can sing a note for 2 minutes” or “watch me push out the piano with my diaphragm.” In both cases the entire purpose of breathing and support is completely misunderstood. I hate to even admit how common this is. Nor can I tell you how often singing teachers will actually argue the point completely unwilling to listen to a thing. And they really stress to students that they MUST feel the air rushing out of their bodies.

    I also won’t get into how often I have watched teachers argue violently that breath and tone are the same thing.

    I look at how I was taught to sing, and how so many of my now retired (and dying) colleagues sang, and I am left mystified. How can those teachers, or those students for that matter, really imagine they are producing the same sort of sounds? As Sutherland put it: “there are only mosquitoes singing on the stage, where have all the real voices gone?”

    That is my question as well. Where have all the voices gone. There are pretty voices aplenty, but hardly a great voice out there.

    Your explanation so hits it on the head, it so speaks to the problems out there. I just wish it were possible to bash it into the thinking minds of academia. The public is being cheated, for it is being robbed of the incredible experience one receives, but only when they listen to an authentic voice.

    But on a positive note; I believe those who comment on your blog are seeing the light, and they are understanding. And I am sure for many of them, all this is so new, so amazing, so incredible to learn. At least someone is talking sense. If they listen, they will learn.
    Thank you once again for your time.

  8. Exactly. Hopefully readers of this blog are gradually getting a better understanding of how things actually are, independent of the beliefs of voice teachers. The voice actually exists in nature, not in the textbooks and journals of Vocal Scientists and Pedagogues.

  9. While we are still on the discussion of “normal breathing” versus “breathing for the purpose of singing,” I should bring up something that has puzzled me for a while now.
    One popular method of breathing and supporting nowadays seems to be “belly breathing,” where the singer is told to keep the chest down, let the belly inflate with the breath, and hold the expansion. I see where these people are coming from, as the pushing out of the abdominal muscles is meant to keep the breath from being expelled too quickly, but it seems to go against what people like Mr. Mayer and Maestro Jones have said (which involves keeping the ribs in an uplifted position and letting the abdominal muscles go into the body while the side muscles expand).
    Just so I put it out there, the Swedish/Italian concept of breathing makes the most sense to me. However, many people seem to disagree. Even William Vennard, who seems to be like an idol in the world of classical technique, seems to support belly breathing. From what I’ve read in the Breathing chapter of Singing, the Mechanism and the Technic, he preaches against clavicular breathing (lifting the collarbone and shoulders while breathing) and intercostal breathing (letting the ribcage expand) and instead advocates breathing into the belly. Or at least, that’s what I got from it when I read it. Would you say that this is one of the downfalls of an otherwise-great pedagogue, or did I misinterpret what he said?
    Also, it seems that belly breathing seems to be what is supported by experts when it comes to everyday life and athletics.
    http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-238-267–12989-0,00.html
    http://optimumsportsperformance.com/blog/?p=988
    What’s your take on this? Should we belly-breath in everyday life and then revert to another form while singing?

  10. Sorry your comment was delayed, Joseph. When you post links it automatically waits for my approval to avoid spam.

    Your question is an important one. My quick answer is the old saying, “if you say something loud enough and long enough, eventually people will believe it to be true.” That is what has happened with the concept of “belly breathing”. But no matter how many people believe the theory it still doesn’t make it true. It just takes a little experimentation and logic to see how wrong it is. Maybe I will write more in a new post about it. Thanks.

  11. Chris Byrne

    I have found that as my posture has improved and my diaphragm and rib cage have become more flexible and supple, I naturally breathe by expanding my entire rib cage outwards. It seems to me that the lungs want to expand outwards as the diaphragm lowers, so encouraging the diaphragm downwards without rib expansion is sort of like forcing half of the staff to do all of the work. I have observed animals breathing and phonating (I know, I am nuts – but they are very useful in their natural functioning) and they seem to unconciously prepare themselves before phonation with slight rib cage expansion and elevation and perfect spinal alignment. When I try the same, the diaphragm automatically energises and lowers as it is supposed to, without needing to be directed by any other interfering muscles. I certainly don’t consider myself expert or knowledgable (although I happen to know a physiotherapist who assures me that breathing involves three synergistic outward movements, not one diaphragmatic downward movement), but I fail to see how correct & natural breathing can be achieved without first creating a stable yet flexible musculoskeletal foundation in the rib cage and spine. Directing the viscera outwards in order to encourage the diaphragm to lower seems to me to be mediocre advice and akin to building a car with a V12 engine but a cardboard chassis, and then expecting it to handle well.

  12. Thanks for your input, Chris. Your descriptions are right on. Observing animals is actually a great thing to do. People seem to forget that we ARE an animal. So there is a way to behave that is natural, meaning “as it would occur in nature”. Many think natural means what happens without us trying to do it in a certain way. But in general we are so far from nature that we don’t behave naturally, we behave normally or habitually. Which is usually nowhere near natural.

    What Joseph is referring to regarding what so many are teaching is really a belief. Nature is a fact.

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