Monday, November 21, 2011

PUSHING THE VOICE: What exactly does that mean? Part I

It seems to be the in vogue thing today in pedagogical circles, music schools, vocal coaching lessons, singing lessons, and in rehearsals to tell singers they are "pushing" or "forcing" when they sing. Especially if the singer has a big voice. Actually it is virtually impossible to have a big voice and to not hear those words aimed at you by teachers, coaches, colleagues, conductors and/or directors. But what exactly does the term "pushing" or "forcing" mean? Do they even know what they mean when they say it? Chances are probably not.

It should be pointed out that to be able to "push" something, one would have to have something to push against. In singing there is really only one thing that a singer can be pushing or forcing against and that is constriction. So what exactly is constriction? Constriction is precisely the Valsalva maneuver. I wrote about it in a previous article and it behooves any reader to take the time to read it in reference to the topic of pushing:

Basically, in order for a singer to push they have to be closing their throat while trying to get air out. This happens when we grunt, lift something heavy etc. It also happens in shorter spurts when we laugh and cough. The throat closes too much and the air that the person is trying to get out is trapped. Then they have to push against the throat closure. In singing this has to be minimized otherwise there will be excessive force that the singer must use in order to try and overcome this blockage. It also limits the free vibrating ability of the vocal folds.

Ironically, limiting the vibrating ability of the vocal folds actually produces *LESS* sound than if they were to vibrate freely. So if we take the constriction out of the way, the singer will produce more sound and the singing will actually be even easier than when the constriction was there. This is a most important point: The singers of the Golden Age of opera had bigger voices because they had less constriction blocking them; and therefore they had more ease to their sound.

Unfortunately, now days the young singers are being taught the opposite; i.e., that the singers of the Golden Age of opera were "forcing" and singing "too big". These young students are taught that chest voice is bad - in particular for women - and that singers like Del Monaco or Tebaldi were "forcing" their sound. Nothing could be further from the TRUTH!! It is utterly the opposite. But when you are taught differently from a young age and you are corrupted into thinking that the right sound is wrong and that the wrong sound is right....there is little hope.

That being said, I think those who are truly talented see through this misinformation for a couple of reasons. Number one, they can hear, clearly, that the old singers are far superior to modern singers - no matter how much they are told differently by "singing teachers". Secondly, if someone has the talent for singing they also have a kinesthetic awareness of their body when singing. It is patently obvious that something is not right with the modern singing approaches taught in schools and private studios.

Now, to sing "big" and "free" the singer must have proper vocal training. This training must include developing the muscles that are to be used in singing in order to create and sustain a variety of sounds. This includes the breathing muscles, muscles of the larynx etc. Additionally, this training must also include developing the singer's aural image to what the right sound is or is not. This is particularly difficult as a singer hears their own voice differently from inside their head than how they hear things from outside themselves. Clearly, if the muscles aren't developed, no amount of correct "aural imaging" is going to make a bit of difference because the singer physically will be incapable of making the sounds.

This brings us to another part of the problem for singing teachers today and students today; and in particular the teachers at prestigious institutions: How do we train the singers in a way to develop the muscles they need to produce a fully engaged, efficiently produced, free sound? Well, this isn't going to happen with a half hour lesson once a week for a couple of years. Or even 4 years. It takes years of lessons, preferably at least 2 - 3 times a week. A person cannot get physically fit going to the gym 30 minutes once a week and anyone who thinks they can get vocally fit that way is completely misguided.

So the Universities and music institutions are not set up to produce "big", free singing - or in other words "OPERA SINGING". It is not possible. So instead they have teachers that basically just "coach" the students on diction, interpretation, rhythm etc. And what is worse is that these teachers must also convince the students that what they are teaching has merit. And in order to do that they have to point out that the old, great singers were "forcing" and "pushing" so they can justify why they cannot get the students to sound the same way. Additionally, these teachers also terrify the students into thinking that if they sing too loudly they will ruin their voice. That is completely wrong as well. Certainly if someone sings loudly with a "blasty", unclear voice then they will damage it. But great singing requires a clean approximation of the vocal folds. This is not damaging, but it is something that takes time to achieve. In part II of this article I will explain how to achieve it.

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