Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Section II: The Singing Stance --

1. Every art, labor, and athleticism has a technique best served from a stance, a position, or a posture designed to initiate the technique with as little friction as possible—a technique designed as all techniques are designed: to develop maximum output (product) with minimum input (energy/effort). We sense the significance of stance when watching a Major League Baseball player step daintily into the batter’s box—one toe at a time—and position himself before the ball is pitched; or when an Olympic diver steps onto a three-meter board and positions himself before he begins his approach; or when a sprinter steps into the starting blocks and positions himself before the gun fires.

2. Stance is the position that launches the technique that launches the performer: ballerina, boxer, violinist, and carpenter if he pounds sixteen-penny nails eight hours a day. Yet ask a singer the stance he assumes to work his voice and, for the most part, we are met with a “fish-eye”—non-comprehension. Singing is a physical act—athleticism first. Forget art, forget song. Develop the voice; develop the muscles that operate it. Stance is as fundamental to singing as stance is to any art or athleticism. Our contention is that stance, in general, has no true meaning for the singer, because the stance all most universally taught for developing the voice is the opposite of what stance is, or what stance should be and, therefore, stance does not register as such.

Figure 1 -- Enrico Caruso is entertaining the [a] vowel in infr[a]nto on high A in “Vesti la giubba,” from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.*

3. From boy soprano on the author was taught to sing with his head down, or chin tucked-in to relax the vocal cords. We have read this position advocated in book after book. But in viewing the following images of some of the greatest singers (vocal athletes) that have ever lived, there is a contradiction. And who is right? The self-anointed vocal gurus that teach and publish the head-down position, or what we see in these vocal paragons caught in action? When stance is right the head is raised, the chest is raised, the mouth appears to be hanging open, and there is never any lip tension. No consideration is given to the small of the back, as it is in some pedagogies. (We have read the singer, for correct posture, is to "press" the small of the back flat up against the wall to straighten the spine, which movement, we are told, necessitates "tucking the buttocks under," under referring to the pelvic bone—brilliant!)

4. Note: In observing vertebrates of other species—wolf, elephant, lion, nightingale—not one makes its sound or sings its song with the head down. Of course they want to be heard (there's an idea). But does a coyote howl at the moon because he wants to be heard, or because he cannot get his sound out if he howls at the ground? It happens in Nature that one is contingent on the other; it couldn’t be any other way. Yet this vertebrate, our species, is taught to sing with the head down, or eyes straight and chin neatly tucked in? Remember back to your childhood: How you would call your pals across the school-yard, or prairie, or down the street. What did we know then when we raised our head, which pulled the torso up (the singer’s stance), before we cupped our hands around our mouth to call out? Was that conscious? Did we “know” sound travels a trajectory, something like a golf-ball? If a singer is to drape the entire house in song, he must sing to the gallery. We know not how the Alexander Technique affects other disciplines; for singing, it would just be stupid and ludicrous, if it wasn't so debilitating—in deed, disastrous.

5. Observe how our neuro-linguistic programming models of vocal perfection (Section III: Stance/Structure Continued), Joan Sutherland, Kirsten Flagstadt, Beniamino Gigli, and Enrico Caruso address their art. We want to learn from them. Get acquainted with the over-all structure—stance and jaw position—of Caruso; he is a vocal truth.

6. Caruso's stance in Figure 1 positions his head balanced on and over his center of gravity. Neither muscle used nor energy wasted here to keep his head up. Let gravity do it. This frees up the all-important strap (elevator and depressor) muscles that anchor the larynx and allows them to do their work—pull their strings, as it were. (Section: Anatomy to be added.) If the head is not in this position the throat is not opened, and the strap muscles can not fully engage to do the necessary work. Note, also, that Caruso could not open his mouth the way he does if his chin were neatly tucked-in, or in that so-called "noble position."* That is tantamount to a kink (jack-knife) in the pharyngeal conduit. We want that tube straight, deep, and dilated. We want an open throat.

7. If Mr. Caruso were to take two full octaves, middle C to high C on an [a] vowel, the position in Figure 1—which we underscore as the athletic stance for a singer—is set to embrace the high C before he begins the ascent. And then he runs the scale. In the spirit of neuro-linguistic programming that is exactly what we intend to check out when the time comes. How Caruso feels about singing with his head up is self-evident. We apply his words to support the depiction in Figure 1, and for insights the figure may not reveal.

Excerpted from Enrico Caruso and Luisa Tetrazzini, Caruso and Tetrazzini on The Art of Singing (New York: Dover Publication, Inc, 1975), p.53.

8. “It is necessary to open the sides of the mouth, at the same time dropping the chin well, to obtain good throat opening. In taking higher notes, of course, one must open the mouth a little wider, but for the most part the position of the mouth is that assumed when smiling.” That is, the sides of the mouth will open automatically, if the mouth is opened with a smile.

9. This sends the wrong message—a toothy grin—with no reason as to why "the mouth is that assumed when smiling." But since these words come from such a great singer, and referring to how he takes the high notes, they dictate a closer inspection. His statements: “. . . open the sides of the mouth.“ and “ . . . for the most part the position of the mouth is that assumed when smiling” give us a clue. He is referring to what we view in Figure 1: the jaw brought back by the smile is the major sensation of support offered there, buttressed, as the jaw is, because the jaw can go back no more. That is the major sensation we would have our reader secure; it allows the throat to open.

10. The smile also draws our attention to the joint that connects the jaw (mandible) to the head (temporal), the hinge on which the jaw operates: the Temporomandibular Joint or TMJ. How the TMJ releases and the mouth opens, for all vowels as pitch ascends, requires a thorough understanding of how the joint works, period. And it is the smile that directs us to the easiest, smoothest, TMJ operation and understanding. In the figure one can sense the smile in Caruso's [a]; but his smile is more about the position of the jaw than the smile. Caruso’s throat, the muscles that line it, is very well developed. His lips can just hang there, loose, with absolutely no involvement/tension, no participation whatsoever with vowel product. But his throat was developed supported by the structure he advocates, and depicts in the figure.

11. Mr. Caruso also states: (all Italics are the author's) "It is a good idea to practice opening the throat before a mirror and try to see your palate, as when you show your throat to a doctor." He is referring to the little puff of air one takes with the mouth open. What the palate does is a consequence thereof. On page fifty-five, Caruso adds: "Beginning in the lower register and attacking the ascending scale notes well back, a balance must be maintained all the way up, so that the highest note receives the benefit and support of the original position." And that is what this work is all about: the original position. All we have to do is find the position that Caruso is referring to, and the place to do that is the first octave.

12. We hear a lot of talk about the depressor muscles, the ones that anchor the voice box to the torso (breast bone, collar bone, and shoulder blade) and, hopefully, keep the voice box there, where it sits for a low note, when the pitch hits the roof. But they can not begin to do their work, or develop to do their work, if they have to fight with a faulty jaw position. Structure, one could say, does ninety percent of the work. Does Caruso say the structure he advocates is the first consideration for developing the voice? No. But he should have. It is, however, what he infers. Let us read what the greatest female singer in recorded history, Luisa Tetrazzini, has to say about structure and the head up.

13. Ibid., p. 23. “The jaw is attached to the skull right beneath the temples in front of the ears [she of course is referring to the TMJ]. By placing your two fingers there and dropping the jaw you will find that a space between the skull and jaw grows as the jaw drops." (For some, this space, this indentation in the jaw-joint as the jaw drops, is obvious; for others the action is not so obvious. But it is important that all become familiar with the most comfortable working of this hinge. It is the only moving part involved with singing that the singer must move himself and, therefore, needs to be understood and conscious.)

14. She continues: "In singing this space [hole in the joint] must be as wide as possible for that indicates that the jaw is dropped down, giving its aid to the opening at the back of the throat. It will help the beginner sometimes to do simple relaxing exercises, feeling the jaw drop [from the position of a raised head, as only it can] with the fingers [in the joint opening]. It must drop down, and it is not necessary to open the mouth wide, because the jaw is relaxed to its utmost. However, for a beginner it is as well to practice opening the mouth wide, being sure to lower the jaw at the back. Do this many times a day without emitting any sound merely to get the feeling of what an open throat is really like. You will presently begin to yawn after you have done the exercise a couple of times.”

15. (Note: We included her words not for their teaching value in first read. When this singer first read her words, he knew their intrinsic value--understood what she was driving at, because what she is describing is what our teacher, Mme Sharnova, demonstrated in our first lesson. Lessons started there: how to open the mouth. But Tetrazzini's words, which we will return to, have everything to do with Tetrazzini being the great singer she was.)

16. She does not say opening the mouth as described above is the first consideration for developing the voice, either. But she should have. This is what she infers, nonetheless, in her statements: “In singing this space must be as wide as possible [referring to the hole in the joint],” and “for a beginner it is as well to practice opening the mouth wide, being sure to lower the jaw at the back. Do this many times a day without emitting any sound merely to get the feeling of what an open throat is really like." That is stretching out.

17. (Note: We stretch out not as an athlete stretches out; we stretch out to introduce ourselves to how we work: Physiology 101. We are to become acquainted with a new physicality, a new sensation, and a new jaw position (if it is new) so that when we open our mouth to sing, it will not feel as a stretch and it will not feel foreign. Once structure is oriented, the stretching exercises are no longer necessary. But if how one opens the mouth is the singer’s most important consideration for his life as a singer, there is no technical principle to be applied before, or in front of, that procedure, that structure. With it, we have a possibility, slim though it may be through the printed word, to develop our full voice; without it, we haven’t a prayer, and why so few singers today, beautiful voices though they have, truly sing. Thus, we repeat Tetrazzini’s words: “Do this many times a day without emitting any sound merely to get the feeling of what an open throat is really like." We say do this many times a day, each one a duplicate of the other, to learn how it works--our most significant ally. .

18. A word of caution: be gentle with the TMJ. This joint for some can be very touchy. (We address it in another Section.) For now, get acquainted with it on a smile and, to this end, by pulling the lower lip up and over the lower teeth. (See Joan Sutherland, Figure 2, Section III: Stance/Structure Continued.) That is the best way to learn How to Open the Mouth and investigate (come to know) this Path of Least Resistance from a mouth closed to a mouth opened on an [a] vowel. With the head up, find the bottom—where the jaw can go back and down comfortably no more. That sensation acts as a brace and anchors the throat open. It is here we work the voice. It may take weeks or months of vocalizing in structure before structure feels true, but we contend one will enjoy the process.

19. Although no two jaws release and mouths open alike, all jaws have a path on which to open that has less interference and less resistance than any other possible path. This is the path of the smile, and what Tetrazzini and Caruso would have us locate and identify. We term it the Path of Least Resistance (PLR), and it is relative to the individual; we each have our own dictated by one's physiology. We want to know how we work.

20. No matter how different the individual Path may be for our vocal models (if there is any difference at all), they all end up in the same place. They are all where they belong and we are here to see where that is. They do have a number of things in common, however: their center of gravity is one; their state of relaxation is one; their stance, or position, or structure is one; their lips are flexible (no inappropriate tension) and if their voice/resonance, the harmonic structure, were graphed, we contend the arrangement of overtones is one, also.**

21. On page 38 Tetrazzini states: “One should always stand in such a position as to inhale comfortably . . . with the head sufficiently raised to let the inflowing [of] air . . .” That is not the best reason to take breath or to sing with the head up, but that is not important. That she sings with her head up is important. She, too, stresses (P. 29): "The young singer should practice constantly in front of a mirror . . . a singer can never allow the facial expression to alter the position of the jaw or mouth." (Here she is referring to the singing of songs, but that begins with scale work.) "The mouth in singing should always smile lightly. This slight smile at once relaxes the lips. . . ." Thank you, Ms. Tetrazzini.

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* The Figure of Caruso is taken from Enrico Caruso—Voice of the Century, produced by A & E Home Entertainment: Biography: Cat. No. AAE-14368. Marketed and distributed by New Video Group, New York, NY. One may also find Figure 1 in The Art of Singing – Golden Voices of the Century, NVC ARTS, 1996—a Warner Music Co. This clip also aired on Great Performances (PBS): The Vocal Cords, March, 1998, with host, Thomas Hampson.