Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Historic Bel Canto Method

What exactly is the Historic Bel Canto Method?

The term "bel canto" has been so misused that it has almost lost all meaning nowadays. You can have voice instructors who teach their students entirely contrasting things while both claiming to teach "bel canto". Who is right and who is wrong? Well, we have to go back to the original teachers of bel canto and see what they taught in order to answer that question. My teacher's teacher studied with Manuel Garcia who is considered one of the great vocal teachers of all time.

One of the earliest teachers of bel canto was Giovanni Battista Mancini who wrote in his book Practical Reflections on the Figurative Art of Singing (1777), "The voice in its natural state is ordinarily divided into two registers, one of which is called the chest, the other the head or falsetto. I am speaking only of the voice in general divided into two registers, as commonly happens." Additionally, and not by any coincidence, the great Rosa Ponselle also wrote in her autobiography, "Although there is some disagreement about the number and kinds of registers in the singing voice, I have always found it accurate, as I've said elsewhere here, to dissect the voice into "chest" and "head" components. In various segments of a voice's overall range, either the head or chest sound can be emphasized, for any number of reasons." Likewise the old bel canto teachers Tosi, Bernacchi, and Pistocchi also discuss the vocal registers being naturally chest voice and falsetto or headvoice. Subsequently, this training developed the greatest singers in history, but is all but lost today. And that is a shame. One of the greatest singers of bel canto was Farinelli. There once was a contest held in Rome where the greatest trumpet virtuoso was put up against Farinelli to see which instrument, the voice or the trumpet, had more expressive capabilities. Farinelli was able to out sing the trumpet in every way. He had more power, more range, faster movement (fioratura) and better ability to diminish and swell a tone. And this was all possible for Farinelli because of his bel canto training of developing the two vocal registers.

The bel canto teachers greatly focused on developing each of the vocal registers so that they could be properly balanced and coordinated together. And there is a good reason for this as there are only two muscle groups in the larynx which produce sound. These muscle groups directly correlate to the two registers. So if one of the muscle groups is out of balance with the other one there will be varying vocal issues from vibrato problems, lack of range, constriction, and distortion. If you notice, most of the greatest singers in history - in any genre - have very good chest and falsetto/headvoice registers. From Enrico Caruso to Whitney Houston to Mahalia Jackson to Maria Callas. So it is vitally important that each register is fully developed for maximum ease, range, beauty and skill. So if a teacher claims to teach bel canto, but fails to work on the two registers, they are *NOT* really teaching bel canto.

I will be discussing exactly what constitutes falsetto/headvoice and chest voice in future posts. There is an exact physiology explanation for each.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Importance of Developing the Falsetto Register

The importance of training the falsetto register has been vastly misunderstood by many singers and teachers. One of the greatest problems with discussing the falsetto register is having a proper example of what the falsetto actually sounds like. I have had many singers come into the studio who make completely different sounds when attempting to sing in falsetto. From an airy, woolly sound to a constricted mixed chest sound. The following is an accurate example of pure falsetto, sung on an OO or "U" vowel. Notice that it is dark, without many overtones, and it is also not airy.

Now, it is important to remember that the falsetto register is used as a training tool. It is not meant to be sung on stage except for comedic effect. There are many important reasons for developing the falsetto register. Before we discuss these reasons let me first give the definition of the falsetto register. The falsetto is engaged when only the edges of the vocal folds vibrate while the main body of the vocal folds- made up of the thyroarytenoid muscles - are not engaged. The thyroaretenoid muscles are the muscles responsible for the lower register or "chest voice" sound. So they are totally inactive in falsetto register.

The fact that the lower register does not participate in the falsetto register results in several significant characteristics. First, since the thyroarytenoids (lower register) are responsible for supplying the acoustical energy heard as overtones, the falsetto - lacking lower register - has a very limited number of overtones. There can only be one or two overtones present in pure falsetto. As a result, the falsetto register lacks the amount of overtones needed to sing the vowels EH,OH or AH because all of these vowels require more than two overtones to be clearly distinguished. Therefore, pure falsetto can only be sung on the vowel's OO or EE as those vowels only need two overtones to be understood. Why is this important? It is important for the training of the falsetto register. The best way to train a group of muscles, such as the falsetto muscles, is to isolate them and develop them in their pure state. So if a teacher or student is trying to develop the falsetto register by singing on the vowels "OH", "AH" or "EH" they are doing it incorrectly as those vowels must bring in some lower register to be distinguished. They would only be truly strengthening and purifying the falsetto register if singing it on OO or EE.

Once the falsetto register has been isolated it is important to strengthen it for the following reasons. First and foremost, falsetto gives the fullest lengthening to the vocal folds. Lower register uses the thyroarytenoids which, when tensed, shorten the vocal folds. The falsetto register does the opposite in that it lengthens the vocal folds allowing for the changes in pitch to be accomplished by the use of the cricothyroid muscles. As we all know, a longer string playing the same pitch as a shorter string produces more sound because it has more surface area and moves more air. Not only that, but the falsetto lengthening of the vocal folds also allows for the glottal space to be more open due to this lengthening of the vocal folds without the shortening affect of the thyroarytenoid. This greatly helps to alleviate excess constriction in the voice.

Secondly, the falsetto register supports the correct setup of the vocal cartilages for the proper stringing and adduction - approximation - of the vocal folds. The vocal folds are attached to the arytenoid cartilages - two triangular shaped cartilages - in the back of the glottal space and also to the thyroid cartilage (Adam's apple) in the front of the glottal space. So, if you are looking through the top of your head down through your windpipe, the vocal folds sit on top of the windpipe and can close over it. Also, the whole glottis can close over the windpipe like when you swallow.

Where the vocal folds come together is where your Adam's apple is and where they go back and apart is where they attach to the arytenoid cartilages. The arytenoid cartilages must be stabilized so that the vocal folds can be stretched at the front (where they come together) for the changing of the pitch. If you can imagine trying to stretch the vocal folds to change pitch while the arytenoid cartilages - which they are attached to in the back - are not holding, it doesn't make for a very good setup. And many vocal issues stem from this very problem. So the falsetto is a very good tool to get the proper holding of the arytenoid cartilages. Additionally, the arytenoid cartilages are brought together by the transverse arytenoid muscle and the oblique arytenoids. These muscles adduct the vocal folds in a proper technique. Many schools of vocal technique today teach that the Lateral Crico-arytenoids adduct the folds, and while it is true that they can bring the vocal folds together, it is far from ideal. The lateral cricoarytneoids are attached to the arytenoid cartilages. Likewise the posterior cricoarytenoids are also attached to the arytenoid cartilages. However, the lateral cricoarytneoids and posterior cricoarytenoids are antagonistic to each other. So they hold against each other in order to stabilize the arytenoid cartilages for the stringing of the vocal folds. If one uses the lateral cricoarytenoids to adduct the folds they have destroyed this vital balance. This can lead from anything from constriction to aspirated singing.

In reference to the above explanation, there is an additional benefit to developing the falsetto. When you stabilize the arytneoid cartilages it correctly causes the singer to have to use the ideal muscles of approximation to keep the vocal folds closed. Thus, the falsetto - when sung firmly and clearly - works these muscles of approximation. If falsetto is sung with an airy tone it does not work these muscles. That is why it is incorrect to sing falsetto airy. So with the lower register out of the way, the proper stringing and adduction of the vocal folds is allowed to take place while the cricothyroid muscles stretch the vocal folds.

Lastly, the cricothyroids are also important as they come more and more into play as the singer goes higher in their range. If they are weak, the high notes are nearly impossible to sing. When the proper setup of the falsetto is established, and the cricothyroids are strong, proper lower register can then be added to this setup. And that gives the most ease, beauty, power and range. Dynamic singing is all but impossible without a greatly developed falsetto as the singer will tend to constrict the glottal space to lessen the sound. Instead, in a good technique, the singer lessens the participation of lower register (the thyroarytenoid) while keeping the glottal space open. This brings the sound more towards the falsetto, while just keeping enough lower register participation for clarity. If the falsetto is not strong then, this maneuver is impossible to perform correctly.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Valsalva Maneuver

Many voice teachers to sing, "on the breath", "forward", "spinning" and so on. At the crux of the issue that all of these subjective ideas are trying to address is the Valsalva maneuver. The discovery of the Valsalva maneuver's negative effects on singing was by my teacher Dr. Tom LoMonaco. This subject is a big part of his book as well.

The Valsalva maneuver is a medical term. There are two kinds of Valsalva maneuvers. The first is commonly referred to as the bucco-nasal Valsalva. A good example of this is when your ears feel plugged and so you hold your nose closed with your hand and your mouth closed while trying to blow air out. The other Valsalva - the culprit in constricted singing - is the laryngeal Valsalva. This maneuver happens when we lift something heavy, cough, laugh, sneeze, when women give birth, or - excuse the crudeness - when we go to the bathroom. It is the closing of the glottis while forcing air out against it. While this may be good to help us lift a heavy rock, it does not work in singing. In fact, it greatly inhibits the free vibrating ability of the vocal folds.

So, as singers we must find a way to completely circumvent this maneuver. That is done through the proper coordination of the breathing muscles. This refers back to the the ideas used by many teachers to sing "on the breath" or "spinning" the sound. Also, the attempts for the teacher to stop the student from "pushing" or singing "in the throat" or "too far back". These are all attempts to address the Valsalva maneuver. But they do not directly address it and therefore the results are usually poor. Many teachers today bypass fully engaged, big singing because it tends to cause a student to "constrict" or go into the Valsalva maneuver. Since we can understand what causes the Valsalva and how to disengage it, there is absolutely no reason why a singer cannot sing completely engaged, big and free. That is historically what all the great singers did. They all had very little constriction in the sound while keeping the voice fully engaged and free. Therefore, I will be also blogging about the proper engagement of the breathing muscles and the proper development and use of the vocal registers. This is another crucial part of great singing.