The Fundamentals of Singing –
The Causes of the Effects We Seek
Michael J. Mayer
As I observe the current state of singing, I notice that there is a lack of agreement among voice teachers regarding cause and effect in singing. Much of teaching is concerned with effects, the result of our singing, and not with the actions that cause those effects. For instance, it is almost a sin to speak of the larynx or the vocal cords. Granted, the Italian School said, “l’italiano non ha gola”. (The Italian singer has no throat) But this did not mean they ignored it. They had no throat because of the proper freedom of the throat and vocal cords. And they still made sure that the throat was functioning properly. Another example is the concept of placement. It is correct to feel sensations of sympathetic vibrations on the lips and in the nose and “mask” as a result of intense vibration and free and open head resonators. But these sensations do not originate in these places, they are illusions, albeit important, that tell us the voice is functioning correctly. The concept of placement originally referred to the placing of the larynx upon the breath and had more to do with the attack than resonance. It did not refer to some act of directing the tone into the face by “placing” it there. These are just two examples of misunderstood vocal concepts. I intend to examine as many as possible in this series of articles. The bottom-line is, a technique based on effects will end up causing more and more muscular interference forcing the vocal instrument to work harder than it is designed to, which then becomes unusable sooner than necessary.
The Italian Master Giovanni Battista Lamperti is quoted as saying that he never wrote a method because, “all that a singer need know could be written on the palm of my hand. Fundamentals are three: control of powerful breath energy, trueness and ease of all tones, and distinct, correct diction – after which a pupil unfolds according to his talent, his temperament, and his intelligence.” In other words, respiration, phonation, resonation/pronunciation. Natural functions that need to be skillfully economized and coordinated to create the result of singing. Compare this with the often heard statement, “there are as many methods as teachers,” and we can see the potential for confusion.
In the following articles I will discuss each of the fundamentals of singing that need to be mastered and coordinated to fulfill our potential as singing artists. I consider this process to be very much the same one an athlete goes through to become an elite player in their sport. Larry Bird, a legend in the basketball world, was known as not the most athletically gifted player, but is considered by many to be one of the best players ever. He would spend hours every day practicing dribbling and shooting and passing the basketball. Even after he had made it to the professional level he was still arriving at the gym an hour before the other players to dribble around the court and shoot extra shots to keep his fundamental skills sharp. Compare this to vocal students who, after one semester of voice lessons once a week, complain of not singing challenging enough repertoire when they can’t even sing a simple scale with even tone and a consistent vowel quality.
A big difference I see between singing and sports is in athletics there is very little disagreement over what the fundamentals of a particular sport are. Somewhere along the line there developed confusion over what constituted the fundamental principles of singing.
The reason I feel this is a serious issue is because every day I hear singers lacking a basic understanding of their instrument and how it functions. I have met teachers that do research into the formants of the voice and have equipment to look at the vocal folds, and yet cannot speak with a pleasant tonal quality or demonstrate a balanced sung tone. This is because scientific research has been valuable in evaluating RESULTS, but it has not been able to tell us the causal factors in the singing instrument when these results show up on the electronic equipment. For this reason, and because scientists often disagree, there has been confusion among teachers and students of singing. The fact is there are more people studying and teaching singing than ever before, and as a result there has been a dilution of vocal knowledge.
The people who really lose in the current situation are the students. The singers of today are not getting the opportunity to be as good as they could if they had a better understanding of their instrument. And it is not the fault of the singer, at least not intentionally. They hire a teacher to instruct them in the art of singing and naturally don’t know if they are getting everything they could be. Knowing no other possibilities they assume they are receiving good instruction. The result being a graduate of a University/Conservatory with an unsatisfactory technique to withstand the rigors of a singing career. To a certain extant we cannot blame the voice teachers either. They were students in the same situation at one time. So we can’t blame anyone in particular, nor should we. But we do need to acknowledge that things are slipping and take steps to remedy the situation. If we fail in this, then we are the generation of teachers to blame.
I don’t mean to sound too harsh, but I am speaking from my own experience as well as of people I know. Alan Lindquest once said that it was almost impossible to really learn how to sing in a University setting because of the lack of sufficient time to carefully build a good technique and repertoire. I would have to agree with him. I didn’t learn how to really sing until after I completed my Master’s Degree in Vocal Performance. The same holds true for just about everyone I know. I hope there are exceptions to this, and these students should consider themselves fortunate, because many people I know came out of school with more problems vocally than when they started. They have just applied layer after layer of tension upon the voice trying to make it sound a particular way. It is for this reason I feel it is imperative that more teachers of singing become well versed in the fundamental principles of singing.
Good singing, from the singer’s standpoint, is an act of correctly functioning neuro-muscularly coordinated athletic activity. So, as is required in any athletic activity, singers must train for and achieve “good form” through the “feel” of it. As Lamperti said, we should feel ourselves sing not listen to ourselves sing. Unfortunately, this is an uncommon idea. Most teaching is so focused on making a particular type of “sound”, the singer can’t help but be completely occupied with listening. This is a difficult skill, but since we can’t hear ourselves as others do we shouldn’t pay attention to what we hear. The reason being we are then tempted to improve the sound by “placing it” – “brightening it” – “covering it”, thus setting up interfering laryngeal, pharyngeal, or tongue tensions. Once the vocal folds have produced the primary vibrations there is no use to our attempts to change the tone. We are much better served if we keep our focus on the feel of the proper sensations of posture, which releases the involuntary nervous system for free muscular functioning. This then allows reflex breath action, proper involuntary resistant action of the vocal folds, producing free vibrations amplified in the resonators of the pharynx, mouth, and most importantly the head.
We can say that singing is basically a gentle athletic activity combined with an emotional state, an uplifted and inspired feeling stemming from our urge to express. Just as in athletics, good singing requires good form. Successful athletes do their best when they combine correct form of body use with a feeling of confidence and enjoyment of competition. So just as a good golfer, tennis player, runner, or basketball player learns good form through the “feel” of it – so should a singer learn to recognize different sensations of tension and release of tensions in the different parts of the body, particularly in the posture and breathing mechanisms. The singer should also learn the feel of correct attack of tone and the sensation of head, pharynx, mouth and chest resonance. All of this tied together with an attitude of repose and confidence instead of anxiety and fear which cause interfering tensions and malfunctioning of the instrument. This attitude should be strengthened with actual emotional exercises stimulating the imagination into states of the wonder of a beautiful sunset, or the awe of the Grand Canyon, or the joy of surprise in unexpectedly meeting an old friend. The importance of this exercising will be found in feeling the proper actions of the body becoming easier and more automatic. This results from the influence our emotional state has on our nervous system and its functioning.
I believe that the involuntary nervous system’s role in the singing process is generally overlooked in modern pedagogy. With the advancement of voice science, we are learning more about the intricacies of the vocal mechanism. Unfortunately that knowledge is causing us to forget about the instinctive and emotional stimuli that set the voice in motion. A technique that includes thinking the vowel and pitch clearly, combined with an uplifted and joyful emotional state should not be dismissed because of its simplicity. When combined with a clear understanding of the proper physiological functioning, the effect of this technique provides exactly the results that are lacking in today’s singers. This is what the Old Italian School of singing was based on, a combination of the mind, body and emotions. Intentional stimulation of the emotional personality would elicit ideal physical responses in the act of singing. At first hearing this seems like an extremely old fashioned idea. But after experiencing the results it cannot be ignored. For example, the old adage of “smelling a rose” was intended to stimulate the emotional personality into a state of pleasure, with the corresponding physical characteristics of a not-too-full inhalation, lifted cheeks and pleasant expression opening the facial resonators, comfortably high and buoyant chest, and an open pharyngeal chamber, including a stretched soft palate and slightly lowered larynx. All of these physical characteristics being positive ones in the singing act. This allows the singer to be well prepared to start the phrase cleanly and easily while holding in the mind a very clear concept of the vowel and pitch to be sung.
Mr. Lindquest stated these concepts as an Axiom for Vocal Pedagogy that I would like to conclude with.
BASED UPON A PSYCHO-PHYSICAL MENTAL STATE OF CALMNESS, REPOSE, PATIENCE AND CONFIDENCE, AND MOTIVATED BY THE URGE TO SING, THE TRAINING OF THE VOICE IS THE DEVELOPMENT OF A CORPORAL MUSICAL INSTRUMENT WHICH MUST BE TRAINED INTO CORRECT FORM AND FUNCTIONING GUIDED BY SENSORY AWARENESS OF:
The feeling of correct posture.
The feeling of correct breathing reflexes.
The feeling of repose in the swallowing complex.
The feeling of the opened resonators.
The feeling of correct action of the pronouncing mechanism.
Any teacher or singer should find this simple, yet informed view very enlightening. I hope it stimulates as much thought in the reader as it has in me.