Jul 11 2011

Q&A - Swedish/Italian Concepts - Are David Jones and I saying the same thing?

Hello Michael. There’s something I’ve wondered about for a while, and it stems from me having been an eager reader of both your blog and David Jones’ online articles for a long while.

I’ve read through all of Mr. Jones’ articles at least once, and I’ve gone through much of your blog – all the time absorbing ideas about the voice and trying to put the pieces together in my head in order to form a coherent overall picture. And of course, I have gleaned much information from both places and it has greatly helped my understanding.

But then there are some places where I cannot help but wonder if there are discrepancies. I’ve managed to “reconcile” many of your ideas and Jones’ ideas in my head when I take on the viewpoint of “they are using different words to say the same thing,” but there are some times where it seems that the two sides disagree. I am not, in the slightest, saying one side is more valid than another, or that one of you is right while the other is wrong. I am merely curious as to whether I am interpreting things the wrong way. There might be something I haven’t considered.

I think the biggest example of this is the emphasis each of you seems to put on the functioning of the throat mechanisms. From what I’ve read in David Jones’ articles, he stresses the importance of lifting the soft palate with the cheek muscles and opening the throat, stating that the “open throat” is the “shock absorber” for the vocal cords. Also, he gives the impression that breath support is necessary to hold back breath pressure (so that the cords don’t get overblown) while pressing a small, steady breath stream through the larynx. He also states that the glottis isn’t strong enough to hold back breath pressure, which is why the lower-body muscles must accomplish this task. This all sounds reasonable.

But then on your website, your emphasis seems to be more on the larynx and the vocal folds themselves. Mr. Jones states how important it is for the throat and the support system to be working properly to protect the voice box. On the other hand, you seem to state almost the opposite – stimulate the larynx according to your intention, and everything else will adjust itself. Set the glottal adjustment into motion, and the breath will follow, and the throat space will adjust in response to whether you are singing loudly, softly, etc. There is less worry about overblowing the vocal cords as long as you condition the throat and the breathing system to go along with the glottal adjustment. Also, you seem to emphasize the glottis “holding back breath pressure” whereas Mr. Jones says that the glottis can’t do that safely (hence, the breath support). And on an added note, you put less emphasis on the soft palate and instead say that the “lifting of the cheek muscles” stretches the lining of the nasal cavity rather than lifting the palate. Unless I misread what you’ve said, which is very possible.

Personally, I think I identify more with your way of explaining the whole process, as it gives me the idea that a well-trained singer can “just sing” instead of having to worry about every little piece of the overall mechanism staying in place (that just seems like a balancing act instead of being free to express the actual music). But of course, as I said, I’m not trying to imply that one side is wrong or one way of stating things is better. I’m just wondering if there is some way to “reconcile” these two sides or if this is an area where you and Mr. Jones “respectfully disagree.”

Your insight is greatly appreciated. Thanks.

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Yes, I can see how someone might make this observation. There are definitely differences in what is emphasized. But there isn’t any disagreement in the overall picture. I think it is more of a difference in what we each have found to be of primary importance. And even more than that, what each of us has chosen to write about.

Really, the things I emphasize are no different that what David emphasizes. It is just that I have a slightly different perspective than he does. Also, I suspect that he is a little more Politically Correct because he has a bigger reputation to protect than I do. And there is nothing wrong with that.

As I have said many times, we can’t really learn to sing from what we read. The things I emphasize can get misinterpreted more easily than the things he emphasizes in his writing. But in person, when he is there with a singer and can ensure they don’t misapply the concept, he practices the same concepts.

This is especially true when talking about the glottis and the vocal cords. As soon as we become conscious of the glottis we are in danger of creating unwanted interference. This is a very true danger, and is why so many teachers and singers not only refuse to talk about the cords, but refuse to even think about them.

In many cases this is probably a good thing. Because without thorough understanding of the negative tendencies that go along with exploring glottal adjustment and how to avoid them, which only comes through the experience of making those mistakes, real problems can be created. It is these problems that have throughout history caused people to condemn this approach. Even though it is what the greatest singers in history have done.

So I suspect (and this is only my assumption, I don’t know) that he is protecting himself from the very real possibility of people misunderstanding what he is saying by emphasizing the surrounding aspects. Which are things I emphasize as well. The concepts that you cite that are the main points of emphasis for me are only possible when done with the body in a productive condition. They won’t work if they are done in a normal state.

For example, the point about supporting to hold back the air pressure so as to not overblow the cords. That is the same thing as when I say we need to hold the inhalation and not exhale when we phonate so we don’t release loose breath and blow open the glottis. This allows us to “think” with the voice directly. It can’t happen without this breath control. Which is really not controlling the breath so much as it is controlling the breathing or respiration.

As long as we don’t breath out while we are phonating the vibration of the glottis does hold back the air. But again, only if we don’t allow an uncontrolled flood of wild air to over-power it. That is what is meant by the glottis can’t hold back the pressure. And this is done through the suspension that comes from stretching the body from a feeling of the heightened emotion of inspiration.

Regarding the “lift of the soft palate”, in practice that is the same thing as the stretching of the nasal passages and lift of the cheeks/face that I talk about. That is how we access the soft palate. Because like the diaphragm, we can’t control the soft palate without creating interference. This is heard when we hear singers that are lifting their soft palate. Much of the time it sounds distorted or unnatural.

In addition to that, what seems like a lifting of the soft palate is really an opening of the resonators. Which is more of a stretch than a lift. And David has told me himself that it is more important to stretch than to lift the soft palate. Because by stretching it the right kind of lift happens. But just lifting doesn’t do the job.

But for me the idea of lifting the soft palate stems from the belief that we need to make the pharynx bigger in order to resonate fully. This is a misconception. If we successfully lift the soft palate the resonance gets trapped in the oro-pharynx which sounds throaty or yawney, and eliminates any possibility of head, “ng” or nasal resonance (naso-pharynx) which is the basis of ring and ease through the range, but especially in the high voice.

And David is a serious proponent of nasal resonance. That is the purpose of exercises that involve humming consonants, but especially the “ng” consonant. So when he talks about “lifting and stretching the soft palate” it is for this purpose. But my experience is that we achieve this not by lifting the soft palate, but but stretching it as part of an overall stretch of the mouth and throat, especially the naso-pharynx.

So really there is not any disagreement. We need to do all of these things. He might leave out the issue of the vocal cords to some degree. It might seem like I don’t speak on these other issues to the same degree. But I think I do speak on these issues a great deal.

Everything about preparation addresses the issues of the breathing and stretching of the resonators. There are two parts of the whole act of singing. First the preparation of the body. Then the vocal action. In other words creating the instrument and then playing the instrument.

If we successfully create the instrument every time we sing then all we have to do is play it. So we don’t have to focus on many of these things while we’re singing, we just keep things going by keeping the condition we set up in the preparation.

But if we don’t prepare correctly then we won’t be able to play the instrument as effectively, and this might make it seem like what I say doesn’t work. And then we will feel like we need to support with the breath and lift the soft palate in order to get the result we would if we prepared effectively.

(Then there is the issue of preconceiving our tone. This discussion has been from the assumption of a classical oriented singer. But what if someone is a non-classical singer? They aren’t going to want the quality that comes from “lifting the soft palate”. If they are focused on the condition of their body they can create a productive state that protects the voice and utilizes resonance without creating an artificial “classical” sound.

And this is an important observation for people to make. Is your technique fixing you into only one style? Free functioning of the voice should be flexible to respond to different degrees depending on the intention of the singer. If you are consciously lifting the soft palate there is a strong likelihood that the result will sound out of place for a non-classical singer.

The demands of operatic singing will create a stronger demand from the body which, if it is prepared effectively, will cause it to stretch and respond to a greater degree resulting in an operatic sound. But if that is not the intended objective then there will be a lesser demand and the body will respond appropriately. The airway will still be open so there is no unhealthy interference and a natural resonance. The glottis will still be creating a complete vibration, although at a lower intensity, creating clear pronunciation. And the breathing system will still be suspended and stretched but free to respond as needed for whatever is sung.)

The bottom-line is the body needs to be in a heightened emotional state, which these things we’re talking about are conditions of. So just doing what is described will not likely result in good coordination. They are descriptions of what we’re doing but not the actual way of doing them. Because they can be done in either of two (or more) ways.

They can be done in a normal state, and the singer will say “I’m doing what he said but nothing’s happening”. Or they can do what happens when we are in a heightened emotional state and get much different results but not feel like they are doing any of those things. So really, what makes the difference isn’t so much that we do these things (lifting the soft palate, support, etc.) but that we are in a physical state where these things happen in response to our desire to sing. They happen in both situations, but there is a difference in how they come about. And there is a difference in the nature of how they exist.

That is why I try to emphasize playing the instrument (which is not much more than pronouncing completely with the larynx) while in the productive condition of a heightened emotional state. (The feeling of which is basically being stretched in every direction at the same time) The condition of the body is completely different between the two scenarios. And as a result so is the coordination of the singing.

  1. Thank you for your response. Your insight on this matter is certainly invaluable, as you can speak from your experience as a student of David Jones. I had a feeling that your writing and Mr. Jones’ writings differed only in the emphases, not in the principles. It makes perfect sense that Swedish/Italian teachers in general would work on proper use of the larynx in the actual studio without necessarily writing about it. On an added note, I do recall that in Mr. Jones’ article about the “perfect attack,” he mentions how Allan Lindquest said to ‘let the cords speak the vowel,’ or something along those lines.

  2. Thank you Michael, this was really helpful. To much information often causes more harm than good. It can be very disheartening if one thinks they cannot sing until they open their throat, tense the diaphragm, stand this way, look that way…

    For myself, I just basically sing. I don’t “try” to sound a certain way, I don’t push myself past my limits, and I make sure that everything is comfortable. And then it is fun, and I can express more into the music.

  3. You’re welcome, Joseph and Colin. Yes, letting the cords speak the vowel is an idea I speak often. The main point I want to make regarding the difference in emphasis is singers all over are opening the throat, lifting the palate, supporting with the body, but there is not a corresponding level of good singing. The reason is because without the larynx doing the correct thing none of these things matter. But the reverse does have some benefit. Even if a singer doesn’t support, open the throat or lift the soft palate but does have good larynx action there will be a more positive result. That’s not to say that it couldn’t be even better with good coordination in the other parts. But it will be better than without.

    This is a very good place to start, Colin. Keep everything you do within the context of joy and enthusiasm. The way the body behaves in these types of emotional states is significantly more productive to our singing that trying to do all of the things we are “supposed” to do.

  4. VIDYADHAR PANDIT

    I am a toddler in the field of voice culture as developed in the West. Michael Mayor’s approach seems to me to be very balanced one.Having known the techniques these should be internalised and then sing with natural instinct.That will naturally bring about the coordination of all the required processes.Let the techniques not be the ends in themselves.If the singing is a natural urge, all other things will naturally follow.
    Secondly,your approach combines the above thinking of Frederic Hussler,with the tecniques suggested by Late Prof.Stanley Douglous,who was followed by Prof. Scrinzy who taught the same to my Guru Late Prof. B R Deodhar way back in Sixties while my Guru spent two years in America specially to learn the western concepts of voice culture.Accordingly the A E I O U vowelling should take place in the throat itself allowing the resonance to take place at the root of the tounge in the throat itself. I think you are following Prof. Stanley in this respect.If so then the we should make use of the tounge instrument to contract and straighten the tounge at its root as suggested him.

  5. Thanks for your comment. I am familiar with Stanley and his use of a tongue instrument. But I am not familiar with his teaching concepts. I know there have been some criticisms of them. But there have been criticisms of what I propose. So that in itself is not a reason to dismiss. But I do disagree with the use of any kind of tool to manipulate the tongue. Especially since the healthy position of the tongue is the opposite of what a tool would be used for.

    You mention the resonance. I recommend the pronouncing of the vowels be at the larynx, and as such there is resonance there as well. But it should not be contained there. The resonance must be allowed to exist through the full length of the resonating tract and not restricted to any single part. We tend to experience the resonance at the highest level it reaches. So if it is only allowed to reach the oro-pharynx because of a yawning posture that is where it is experienced. If it only reaches the lower throat because of the root of the tongue blocking it, that is where it is experienced. And if it is allowed to radiate through the full length it is experienced at the top of the vocal tract in the head space of the naso-pharynx.

    But because it is experienced high does not necessarily mean it is only high. It can be restricted there, which sounds like a thinner tone lacking in depth. But a full tone that is resonating through the full length sounds bright and dark at the same time and is felt in the head. This can only happen when the vibration is complete and pure, there is no constriction in the air-way and the tongue is out of the way. And using a tongue manipulator can only create interference, in my experience.

  6. Concerning the original topic, another bit that I would like to throw in is how Mr. Jones also emphasizes actions such as keeping the jaw back while pronouncing, keeping a rounded mouth shape, not letting the neck jut forward, and some others that are meant to keep the throat from closing and prevent undue strain. I was confused about this after reading around on this website, because the publisher speaks of the glottal adjustment determining the openness of the throat space. However, now I think I get it. Some of the things that Mr. Jones emphasizes – such as an open resonating chamber, lowered larynx, etc. – are indicators or results everything working properly and of an optimal glottal adjustment. Meanwhile, the other actions – such as lifting the cheeks under the eyes, keeping an open posture, maintaining jaw and neck posture, etc. are there to help optimize the overall action of singing. The glottal vibration sets the process into motion, and the deliberate actions I mentioned above aid the process and make it easier/better.
    Am I getting it right so far?

  7. You are getting closer, Joseph. What you keep leaving out is the preparation. There are two phases that we must be concerned with. The set-up of the instrument (or preparation) and the playing of the instrument (the actual singing). Posture, alignment, breathing, suspension, open resonators, lowered larynx, facial lift, mouth form. These and others are all parts of the set-up. They are created by the physical expression of a positive emotional state and are not things we overtly “do”. Stimulating the larynx and glottal action is the playing of the instrument. Something we do by thinking of saying what we desire to say with the larynx. A lack of the first group will decrease the quality of the result. A lack of the second makes the whole situation moot. If we have both parts well-coordinated we get our best results. If we do the simple act of pronouncing with a well-coordinated larynx combined with the physical condition of an inspired emotional state these mechanical things will be accomplished. This is because these mechanical issues happen when the body is expressing a positive, inspired emotional state. Trying to just get glottal action without being in a productive state will usually result in poor coordination.

    I describe what we are after as instead of trying to improve our singing in our normal state, improve the state we are in and then we can sing normally.

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