Vocal Technique: An Organizing Principle for Singers, Part 1

He is totally thinking about his soft palate right now...

He is totally thinking about his soft palate right now…

What is the optimal approach to training the singing voice?

Right at the root of it, what are the ideal conditions for optimal tone production and what thought patterns best exploit the physiological strengths of the voice while de-emphasizing (or at least respecting) the inherent limitations?

Your Bandwidth is Too Narrow and Other Issues

Branches of the vagus nerve innervate the larynx. I am far from an expert in neurology, however, I feel comfortable pointing out that this nerve originates in the brain stem. This is an older part of the brain (evolutionarily speaking) responsible for a number of subconscious motor and sensory functions throughout the body (in the heart, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract, for example), in addition to controlling and providing sensory feedback from the pharynx and larynx. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that vocal function falls below the level of conscious thought. Animals with no (or little) neocortical brain structures (think an alligator or similar reptile that exhibits little capacity to ‘think’ in the human sense) are able to make sounds that serve to warn, encourage, define territory, etc. This ability to communicate without physical touch (I like to think of sound as ‘touch at a distance’) was a valuable tool of survival. Even more highly-evolved creatures, with cognitive capabilities, would have been better served in fight or flight situations by a body that could produce a loud, clear sound instinctively and instantly. I like to imagine that my ancestors were the ones able to warn each other – across a large clearing – of the approaching saber tooth tiger. Those whose voices carried, reproduced (and likely dined on tiger meat more often!) The primary functions of the vocal folds, to act as a final protective valve against foreign objects gaining entry to the trachea and to help increase thoracic pressure in moments of exertion (when lifting heavy object or defecating), are similarly subconscious actions.

I believe the challenge of training the voice lies in dumbing down our technical approach to respect the established neural pathways connecting the brain to the larynx. In essence, the part of the brain that directly controls the voice is ‘stupid;’ the bandwidth is just too narrow to accommodate complex commands. I think that historically, pedagogies based on indirect thoughts (metaphors, sensations, etc.) try to respect this fact by side-stepping the issue of direct control of the larynx. What if, however, there were a way to send commands from the brain to the larynx in a manner that respected the limitations of the neural pathways and produced a clean and consistent result regardless of external conditions?

I would like to suggest that while various parts of the body (the brain, the lungs and supporting muscles, the larynx, resonators, articulators, etc.) must act in a complex and coordinated manner to produce what we consider to be a healthy classical singing voice, the ability to coordinate these systems optimally is already part of who we are. It is, in a sense, our birthright, won for us through eons of natural selection, red in tooth and claw. As listeners, we react in a primal way to singers who tap into this efficiency. We say, ‘It sounds so easy, natural, effortless, or real’ when in the presence of an artist whose voice is truly coordinated. We have a similar reaction to any great athlete, be they a sprinter who appears to effortlessly glide along, or a dancer whose supreme physical coordination, strength, and efficiency allows us to forget that they are a body, and only see the intention they bring to their motion.

Dr. Moché Feldenkrais, a seminal 20th century figure in the field of body awareness, posits in his book, Awareness through movement, that any physical motion passes through three distinct societal phases. In the first phase, the motion is entirely instinctive; in the second, the motion is studied and systematized by experts; and in the third, individuals only attempt the motion by studying the systematized approach. Walking and running, he points out, are just now reaching the second phase, as body awareness and sports science specialists study the most efficient way to execute these basic movements. Ballet dancing has been in phase three for a long time. Singing has a toe in each phase, depending on the style and social context. The rarified air of the academy encourages the study of wonderful music, but often with an over-complicated, perfection-centric approach to technique. Those who sing in gospel choirs and churches may find the opposite true: The music is simple and clear, and technique only matters insomuch as one is able to sing the faith they feel (a generalization, I know, but one with some truth to it). Pedagogues and voice scientists are able to provide an ever more reductionist approach to singing technique, which is fascinating! However, how this information is integrated into one’s technique is crucial, as over-thinking the singing act runs in direct conflict to an evolved neurophysiology in which efficient vocal production is treated as a lower brain function.

Another of Feldenkrais’ insights is relevant to this discussion. His philosophy of movement-based somatic therapy is based on the idea that it is through movement that the brain learns what motions the body is capable of. The brain keeps a sort of ‘constantly updated map’ of the body and the possible range of motion of each muscle. The only way to update this map is to move in a new way, allow the brain to observe the movement, and assimilate the information. This seems quite paradoxical, but think about how you align your spine, hold your head, and hold your shoulders on a daily basis (what we call ‘posture’). Do you do any of these things in the most optimal manner possible, and have you ever improved without the help of a body therapist, yoga instructor, external cues, or another person who helped to show you what your body was capable of? Think of babies and the manner in which they gain motor coordination. They flail their limbs about endlessly as their growing brains observe potential movements, create neural pathways capable of reproducing those movements, and prune away the neurons that are not a part of the new pathways. A baby does not think and analyze first and move second.

What We Know and When We Know It

Another fact that influences a logical approach to training the singing voice is that our self-monitoring systems do not always send reliable information to the brain.

  1. The larynx itself provides little to no sensory feedback. This too is an evolutionary advantage, as the clear sensation of such high-frequency vibrations would likely be unpleasant, creating a disincentive to the act of phonation. No phonation = death by saber tooth tiger.
  2. A singer conducts much of their own sound through the medium of their own bone and soft tissue, while the listener conducts that sound only through a gas (air). The differences in the vibrating properties of these media lead to the paradox that a well-produced voice often sounds squawky or harsh to the singer.
  3. One’s own perception of the singing act can be drastically affected by environmental conditions (acoustics, humidity, etc.)
  4. There are a number of ways of producing the same physical sensation while singing – not all of which are optimal actions. Those trapped in over-pressurized ‘hook and push’ techniques may relate to this.
  5. By the time indirect feedback from the tissue surrounding the larynx reaches the brain, the issue that the singer perceives – and would like to correct – is no longer taking place.

Let’s briefly unpack that last point. If a singer is orienting their thinking towards active observation and self-correction, in any given moment their active mind is actually focused on the past and actions that cannot be corrected; they have already happened. Singing is a real-time event; if the mind is fixated on the past, what thought is creating each clearly intended muscular action in the present moment? This is to say nothing of intending the singing action that is about to happen. Before anyone jumps on me for suggesting that our own sensations while singing are useless, I do recognize that self-observation can be a powerful tool, especially when breaking down a problematic part of the voice and addressing a specific issue under the guidance of a good teacher. What I caution against is training the voice in a way that is dependent on constant self-observation.

Obviously the world has produced great singers who focused on self-observation and sensation. However, I think that the approach suggested here has value not only for professional level artists, but also for the vast number of singers who lack innate coordination, those without ‘talent,’ and those who are plagued by tension, funny vowels, and a list of other vocal flaws.

So… I should just quit then?

I know, this is a bleak picture; the voice functions below the level of conscious thought, we have no direct feedback to tell us whether we are singing correctly, and the feedback that we do receive is not only distorted, but out of date. The mind is exceptionally good at thinking and scanning, which is exactly what I am asking you to give up while singing. Running away screaming would be a completely rational response! It is this reality of temporal and neurophysiological limitations that pushes me to teach students of singing to work on an Organizing Principle, a manner of organized thought that elicits a dependably optimal vocal response in the present moment while respecting the inherent limitations of the neurophysiology of the singing mechanism.

Vowels

All singing is done on vowels. Try to cultivate your legato tone on a ‘t’ or ‘p.’ Some of our favorite consonants (w, m, n, z, l, v, an American r, etc.) are actually vowels sung through the distortion of a manipulated articulator. Try singing a sustained [l] while changing the sung vowel from [ə] to [i] to [ɛ] and you will notice how the consonant’s characteristic sound is tied to the sung vowel.

But what is a vowel? We tend to describe vowels by their measurable results: the specific frequencies that are emphasized (formants), or the shape of the resonators and articulators as they form a space that best emphasizes those frequencies. The sound wave produced by the larynx does passes through selectively amplifying structures (the aryepiglottic fold, pharynx, nasopharynx, mouth), and is profoundly affected and distorted by voluntarily controlled articulators (notably the tongue, soft palate, and lips). With the exception of sympathetic vibrations in the chest when singing lower frequency pitches, and vague visceral sensations due to deep breathing, our sensory experience of singing occurs in the resonating spaces above the vocal folds, and we are clearly able to manipulate the sound by manipulating these resonators. This does not necessarily mean, however, that the shape of the resonators is completely responsible for producing the characteristic sound of each vowel.

Vowel as Intended Action

A former teacher of mine, the late Lynne Vardaman, taught me to simply ask my voice to clearly produce a vowel (her method will be unpacked in part two of this article next month). As simple as that sounds, when compared to the other options (and in the light of what we know about our evolved neurophysiology) it begins to look very attractive. Vowels, she suggested, (especially a sustained vowel through a changing series of pitches) are more than the active manipulation of a neutral sound by one’s resonators. Vowels are the synergistic result of a clear mental impulse, the action of the larynx, and the response of the resonators. The way that one’s resonators take shape to reinforce the sonic characteristics of a vowel is an automatic reaction to the primary impulse to clearly sing the vowel, in the same manner that the complex series of movements required to catch a ball are a reaction to the mental impulse “CATCH!” No one would suggest that moving your arm up causes you to catch the ball, even if moving it a little higher or to the left would more perfectly execute the catch. Your brain sends a clear thought, and your previously coordinated body executes the specifics. Thinking of singing as an intended action, rather than something neutral that requires ‘constant results monitoring’ not only works empirically, but respects the hard-wiring of our neurophysiology.

The following excerpts from the vocal pedagogy literature at least point to the possibility that vowels are not entirely the result of resonance manipulation:

  1. William Vennard makes only brief mention of the possibility that vowels are more than resonance events, lists experiments that are somewhat related, and moves on acknowledging that he cannot be completely sure (emphasis added): “with this much acknowledgement of one more secret hidden in the larynx, we proceed to our study of the vowels, on theassumption that much more is to be learned by thinking of them as a resonance phenomenon.” (Vennard, 125)
  2. Barbara Doscher hints at the possibility that the vocal folds are capable of nuanced changes in timbre (although I doubt this is exactly what she meant to imply) when she wrote, “It certainly is possible that inefficient vocal fold action can generate a damping effect in the glottis during phonation. The resultant sound wave will then lack crucial partials or certain partials in the wave will not have sufficient amplitude to be adequately reinforced.” (Doscher, 100)
  3. Stephen Smith, in discussing how to best sing [i] in the upper part of his voice wrote, “I discovered that if I held on to the same [i] position that I use in everyday speech, my voice tightened and I couldn’t sing a pure [i] up high. However, if I relaxed and dropped my jaw as if to say [a] and then, without moving my jaw, sang a pure [i], I still got the sound of [i].” (Smith, 111) Smith’s perspective is that we can pare down our articulators to only those that are necessary to clearly create the vowel. I read that and wonder if there is something deeper at work; that there is a fundamental mental impulse that is the [i] vowel regardless of the position of any articulator.

If the larynx, which functions below the level of conscious thought, is responsible for, responsible for in part, or merely a bystander in the process of creating the characteristic sound of a vowel, the larynx is still the part of the singing body that receives the initial thought command to sing. The resonators do not cause the larynx to approximate, neither does the inhalation of breath. The brain sends a command to make a sound through the vagus nerve. That impulse is received by the larynx first, which (in a coordinated singer) then causes a complex series of automatic reactions in the muscles of inspiration, expiration, and the resonators and articulators. Just because we can actively control the latter (and this, according to Dr. Feldenkrais, can be helpful in programming the brain’s map of the body) does not mean that the most optimal singing process depends on active control. Sending a clear and simple intention is how the brain coordinates every other complex motion accomplished by the body; why would singing be any different?

As Smith points out, “Because we can change the shape and size of our primary resonators [the mouth and pharynx], it might seem as though we could manufacture resonance. However, resonance is always passive. It is a response to another vibration – it is something that just happens, not something we do. We seem to be able to make resonance happen in a specific place and are therefore lulled into thinking that it is active rather than passive. This concept is often referred to as placement, meaning we are putting resonance in a specific place. However, the nature of resonance is passive response and can’t really be placed anywhere. Once we understand that resonance is passive, we must focus our attention on the two active ingredients in singing: phonation and airflow.” (Smith, 16-17)

Any thought that interrupts the impulse to phonate optimally will likely interrupt the flow of air and the continual and efficient vibration of the folds through a phrase of music. I believe that when training the voice, the most efficient impulse to send is the clear intention to sing a vowel, rather than the desire to bring about a specific sensation or hold a specific shape. This is for a number of reasons:

  1. Evolutionarily speaking, the ability to make a loud, clear sound is hard-wired into our bodies. Every sustained sound we make is a vowel, so it stands to reason that a simple approach (one that predates any sort of analytical study of the voice) should be able to produce a coordinated action. The vowel functions as an efficient mental impulse, no more complex, yet every bit as clear as “CATCH!” If you clearly intend a specific vowel, your body will regulate airflow, resonance, etc. in service of that goal.
  2. The goal of any vocal pedagogy should be to produce a balanced, healthy, flexible, and expressive instrument, while over time coordinating the singing act so as to decrease the number of things the student must actively think while singing. The student’s process must include a method for organizing complex actions into animpulse = result paradigm, as this does not automatically take place. (See my article How to best Practice Practicing Singing, rule #1: You become what you practice.) Exercises must specifically build overall coordination into the voice, freeing the singer to think about communicating ideas when actually singing music.
  3. The brain is very good at managing complex tasks in a changing environment over time – think of the regulation of your heart rate and blood pressure, for example. Singing the same vowel through a range of frequencies, an act requiring a number of paired muscles to dynamically change their balance of antagonism simply to create the impression of a continuous and balanced result, is just such a task. If the student believes that a specific vowel has a static shape, or must feel a specific way, their conceptual model will fail as soon as the pitch changes.
  4. Building on the above, the impulse to simply sing a vowel and let the brain organize the details, without the need to attach meaning to the resulting sensation, respects the dynamic nature of the internal singing environment. We receive distorted feedback that describes an event that is no longer happening. Looking backwards at all times, while holding on to the idea of a shape or feeling, can easily take focus away from the present moment intention that is creating the sound, and engender counterproductive tension.

Conclusion

I introduced the work of Dr. Feldenkrais earlier to contextualize the vowel and intention-centric philosophy I just laid out. Students must be taught what their tongue, pharynx, soft palate, etc. are capable of; we cannot ignore the fact that they experience sensation in these locations when singing, and I do not want to suggest that we stop helping them to experience the most optimal manner in which to use the muscles of their resonators and articulators. I simply want to encourage teachers to go a step further and incorporate those experiences into an approach that gives over to the subconscious brain those tasks that it is already good at managing. It is okay to feel something when you sing, so long as you do not train yourself to sing for the sensation. I will pick up on this idea next month and present a specific method for implementing these ideas within a practice routine.

Bibliography (Parts 1 & 2)

  1. Doscher, B.The functional unity of the singing voice. Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press, 1994.
  2. Feldenkrais, M.Awareness through movement: health exercises for personal growth. London: Arkana, 1990.
  3. Miller, R.The structure of singing : system and art in vocal technique. New York London: Schirmer Books Prentice Hall International, 1996.
  4. Smith, W.The naked voice : a wholistic approach to singing. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  5. Vennard, W.Singing: the mechanism and the technic. New York: C. Fischer, 1967.
ianhowelltcv@outlook.com'

About Ian Howell

Ian Howell is a countertenor based in Boston, Massachusetts. He regularly performs as a concert and operatic soloist all across North America and writes from time to time. He was educated at Yale and Capital Universities, sang with Chanticleer from 2000-04, and is currently a Doctor of Musical Arts student at the New England Conservatory of Music. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.   http://www.ianhowellcountertenor.com