“If I’m not mistaken, you have mentioned several times that, based in your experience, you consider vocal function to be physiological and to a certain degree innate. Or at least inherent to the physiological reality of the phonating organs. You have also mentioned a couple of times – when explaining about the connection between singing and “emotion” – that prehistoric man would have expressed himself pretty much in the same manner you describe. I have a problem with that statement. When talking about music in prehistory, we inevitably fall in the realm of opinion and supposition (quoting a teacher of mine, you look at a bone with some holes in it and you wonder whether it’s some sort of primitive flute or just a chicken with osteoporosis). There is no ACTUAL way of knowing what prehistoric music or musical instruments sounded like (most scholars believe man would imitate the sounds of nature and animals around them) and, although we assume that the vocal mechanism was pretty much the same it is today, there is also no way of knowing how they ACTUALLY used it. The origins of language, music, dance and religious ceremonies are tied together in this one question to which, in my humble opinion, we can’t give a decisive answer: “How did man begin to communicate?”. We can assume, however, that music played a significant role in the development of primitive man’s communication. It is scientifically proved that the area in the brain which is connected to music is a very primal system (shared by humans with animals as primitive as lizards, for instance) responsible for fear and survival instincts. Therefore, there is a deep connection between music and the immediate urge to communicate, as if life itself depended on it. And we can also assume that, before inventing musical instruments, primitive man used his own body as a musical instrument and a tool for communication (at that point it was probably the same thing). But, I restate, there is NO WAY of knowing HOW primitive man used his voice as an instrument.
I know it seems like I’m just being picky about one of your statements, but that’s not it. You see, although I research mainly cultural and music history from the XIXth and XXth centuries, I have done some reading in ethnomusicology and I realized that, although differences in instrument use are an object of research for other instruments (flutes, lutes, percussion, etc.) differences in vocal “style” (let’s call it style although it’s not a good term) are never mentioned. However, when you actually listen, the difference between how African, Asian, Arabic, East European and Amerindian musical cultures make use of the voice as an instrument is HUGE! Alright, I remember you have also stated that “style” oriented use of the voice can lead to someone imitating a particular sound instead of actually using their voice but this is not my point. Based on what you said, about the effective use of the voice being “innate” or at least potentially innate, I am guessing you use the example of prehistoric man only to reinforce your point that effective vocal function is not determined by “style”. I agree with you when it comes to Western music… But then why is it that singers in Folkloric/religious/ethnic manifestations – which are based in oral traditions, not influenced by Western notions of “musical style”, “musical taste” etc etc etc (I’m talking about in loco recordings for research which I have had access to, and not commercial Folk music, of course) – do NOT make use of the voice effectively? You have scream-like vocalizing, spoken-like vocalizing, crying-like vocalizing, even vocalizing that imitates a particular sound (using vocal distortion to imitate the sound of an animal, for instance)… Which comes to my point: Does culture play a key role in how people use their voice as an instrument?
OK, let me talk about something in which I have some experience. I live in a region that is somewhat of a cultural melting pot, where Amerindian, African and Iberic cultures mix, so we have a considerable amount of folkloric/religious manifestations that include singing and dancing. Every one of them employs that “scream-like” vocalizing – sometimes it is even hard to perceive a melody. Since none of them is worried about sounding like an opera singer, or like a music theater singer (and some of them aren’t even worried about the artistic or aesthetic quality of their music, since the function of the music is to serve a religious purpose of some sort), why is it that their vocal function is so far from the “ideal” or “optimal” condition?
Which inevitably comes to my other point: How long has there been a notion of an “ideal” or “optimal” use of the voice as an instrument? As far as music theory goes, we are talking about bel canto (about which you obviously know a whole lot more than me). I think it is safe to say that bel canto is basically an oral tradition, transmitted from teacher to pupil, and there aren’t many documents about it before Garcia’s writings in the XIXth century. The first document I remember that mentions something similar is Giulio Caccini’s preface to the edition of his songs (can’t remember which specifically). This was right in the beginning of the XVIIth century, and it is a document with great historical value, in which he explains how he and the gentleman of the Camerata Bardi “invented” a new style of music drama (which by the time was still not called “opera”), he shows some interesting examples of vocal embellishment, and claims that “the way he taught his pupils how to sing was most excellent”. Although Caccini was very full of himself, I imagine he is actually talking about a different way of singing, something closer to an “optimal” condition. This is the first written document which I remember (other than testimonials from audience members) that mentions something resembling bel canto… Am I incorrect?
What I mean is that, although I find the notion of an “optimal” use of the voice comforting (at least for me, who hope to benefit from it), I still think that your claim of it being “style-free” is very close saying that it is “the same throughout history and the same in different cultures”. And that is something I have a hard time accepting. Perhaps I’m wrong, but that was the impression I was left with.”
You make many good points. But regarding the statement I have made you are going beyond what I’m referring to. When I say that we want to find the instinctive utterance, that similar response that we would find in nature, I’m referring just to the initial stimulus/response relationship in the nervous system and vocal organs. It is a condition
where the sound produced is a spontaneous response to an emotional feeling.
I’m not referring to the quality of the sound, or what we do with that sound. Those things are dependent on our intention of what we want to express and how. That is a matter of our imagination, intellect, conditioning, and choices. That is the music we choose to make. The result of our vocalization. But before that comes into existence we
have the stimulus, which originates in the brain but not the conscious/thinking part.
The stimulus for the voice is rooted in the animal part of our brain/nervous system. The part that contains our automatic responses. Like pain reactions to heat, when we pull our hand away from a flame without thinking of doing it. Reflex action. That is what we need to discover vocally. We all tend to behave as if we directly control the singing act through deliberate thought. Like you have stated, there is a tendency to think intellectually to produce our singing.
Now, what we want to do with our singing does depend on our intellect to some degree. But that is what I’m describing as what we do with our singing. This automatic action of the physical instrument realizes our intentions that originate in our imagination. We create the music in our mind and the body is stimulated into an automatic/reflex response to bring that imagined expression to life. What I often refer to as thinking out loud.
So to answer your questions about different cultural/historical manners of musical expression. That just is how they conceived of their expression. It was what they chose to do with their singing. That has little to do with what we are trying to accomplish.
Your questions come from a perspective of “how to sound” vs. “how to function”. If I said my statement in reference to how we should sound then your argument would be true and I would have a disagreement with my statement as well. But my statement refers to how we should function to create our intended result.
It only refers to the initial stimulus, not the result that comes from it. The result completely depends on what we want. So each person will have their own expression, even in the same style. We can have the intention to use that stimulus/response to create a balanced function or to create a shrieking tone. But the stimulus is the same. The
result depends on what we want.
So there are several layers of skill that we are talking about and need to learn and develop. The first is the instinctive automatic response of the vocal organs. The second is coordinating these to function in a balanced manner. Then finally is the musical result that includes style.
In order to accomplish all three of these most successfully we need to kind of work backwards. First we mentally picture what we want to accomplish in our imagination. Then (which is really simultaneously) we set up our physical structure to ensure balanced functioning of our vocal instrument and prepare it for activity. And finally we stimulate
the act with the instinctive spark that causes the voice to respond automatically just like any other emotional expression.
If we have done these things well we can expect the result we were intending. But this only happens after we have conditioned this behavior through repetition. We then get to the point where we know our result before we act. Which is ultimately the goal of training.
But we can only express what we have in our mind. So we have to develop our musical imagination. And just the opposite is true. We can only be as musical as our physical equipment will allow through good function. This is why we develop and train our physical responses.
Singing is the ultimate combination of mental/physical/emotional behavior. And the reason I emphasize the physical behavior is because without coordinating it well we can’t reveal completely our mental and emotional musicality. But maybe even more important is over the long term we can completely lose our ability to express ourselves vocally
because of the deterioration of the vocal equipment from wearing out. And I can’t think of a more depressing thing than someone who wants to express themselves through singing and can’t because the voice is gone.
I hope this gives more clarity to the meaning of my statements. Thanks for asking.