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Thursday, November 17, 2011

VOCAL PLACEMENT: The False Paradigm of "Singing in the Mask" PART I

I am writing about this topic in a series as there is so much to cover. This is the first article:

One of the *WORST* concepts ever to be used in singing is the concept of THE MASK otherwise known as VOCAL PLACEMENT. More destruction has been leveled on the singing world as a whole by these concepts than almost anything else. The idea of singing "in the mask" is that you control your voice by placing the sound in any number of places in your face, forehead, nose etc. That area is deemed the "mask" area. It is essential for singers, as well as singing teachers, to understand exactly what problems these concepts have caused, what they were trying to achieve, and how we can get better results if we understand their limitations.

The idea of "singing in the mask," and thus "vocal placement" was first used by Jean de Reszke. Jean de Reszke was a French tenor who lived from 1850 - 1925. When his voice declined he retired from performing and became a singing teacher. De Reszke came up with the phrase "singing in the mask" as a way to describe what he felt when he was singing well. He thought he could get his students to sing well by having them try to feel what he felt. What is clear is that all singers experience certain sensations when singing; and they also have a proprioceptive or kinesthetic awareness of the sound they are producing as well as how they are producing it. Some singers are better at this than others. That is usually a question of talent.

What is also clear is that an individual's experiences of sensations are very subjective. While they may experience similar "feelings" or sensations, they also will have many different feelings or different interpretations of those feelings. That makes the concept of "sensations" or "placement" very difficult to teach. If you think about it, we are all shaped differently. And the "sensations" a singer feels is due to the vocal folds making a sound that is then resonated in the singer's resonating cavities. The biggest resonator is the pharyngeal cavity which accounts for about 95%+ of total vocal resonance. Funnily enough the pharyngeal cavity is not "forward" or anywhere near the "mask" area even though it is the biggest resonator of the voice. There is also some mouth resonance as well as tracheal resonance. So the resonators cause the singer to feel sympathetic vibrations in different areas of their body - mainly in the facial area. However, everyone is shaped a bit differently so their experiences of vibration intensity in specific areas will differ. Also, some people are naturally more sensitive to certain vibrations. So to try and teach a singer to sing well by feeling sympathetic vibrations which are completely subjective is a shot in the dark. There are too many variables and things that can be misunderstood.

Furthermore, sensations are of no use if the sound isn't "correct". A singer could be feeling the exact sensations a teacher wants them to feel, but if the sound is wrong then there is no value to it. Instead, the sound should be right first, and then the sensations the singer feels are valid; and they are their sensations and feelings alone.

Moreover, there were many generations of fantastic singers before Jean de Reszke, during his life as a singer/teacher, as well as after he died that never used this phrase or idea of vocal placement. In fact, some of the greatest vocal pedagogues in history never used this idea at all, but they were definite about vocal registration; i.e., chest voice and falsetto/headvoice. Mancini writes about it clearly saying, ""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."

Also, if we just speak scientifically we know for a fact that it is impossible to grab a sound and place it anywhere. That is not how the laws of acoustics work. We also cannot "spin" it or send it through a specific spot in our head or body. It is outright impossible. So what actually happens when we try to apply these concepts to singing is that the singer has to manipulate their body/voice in some way to try and accommodate this "idea" which is a subjective interpretation of a scientific fallacy.

12 comments:

  1. We don't phisically place a sound, but we accomodate part of the tract so that different part of the harmonic spectrum of the sound, the voice, in this case, are enhanced or dampened. For example, the twang enhances the pharingeal resonance and the singer formant, part of it is necessary, while covering happens in the larynx and mouth resonators, in the mouth, in term of darker vowels more vertical mouth shape, in the larynx in term of lower larynx position, but I agree that the idea of "forward" placement as if we phisically send the sound anywhere can be of hindrance and useless.

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    1. The harmonics are dampened or enhanced mainly by the position of the tongue and lips in order to distinguish different vowel sounds; mainly the tongue. The core in the sound, the fullest of energy in the pitch, with also properly aligned overtones/formants give the "squillo" or ring to the sound; which has nothing to do with placement. I have no idea what you mean by "twang" (I assume you mean the squillo/singers formant), but that is the science of what happens. In covering what happens is actually in the pharyngeal cavity; which is the nasopharynx, oral cavity, esophagus and opening in the larynx by the way of the epiglottis. The larynx must stay in a low position so when covering the pharyngeal space needs to widen and deepen. The infrahyoid muscles come more into action; in particular the stylohyoid. When I talk about covering or vowels it is not in terms of "darkness" or "brightness" in and of themselves, but the combination which chiaroscuro. Vertical mouth shape etc. doesn't not determine the vowels, but it does typically affect the lips which when used correctly lengthen the vocal tract. This gives a deeper sound, darker sound as you put it, but it should never be a darker sound by dampening the core/squillo in the voice.

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    2. In fact, the lips can also do very negative things such as dampening the squillo completely.

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  2. Hello Mr Silver
    Could you introduce some Universities in the world that teach Opera in the right way?

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    1. I would love too, but they are a closed system where all the charlatans protect each other.

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    2. So you mean, there are no good teachers or universities in this great world?

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    3. Maybe there are, but none that I know of and I deal with students everyday from all over the world. Universities are not set up for great teaching.

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  4. In one of your YouTube videos you explained, after practicing singers should rest, but you didn't mention how much a singer should rest!!??

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  5. In one of your YouTube videos you explained, singers should rest after practicing, But you didn't mention how much should a singer rest after practicing?!!

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    1. Until it is completely back to normal.

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    2. Do you mean after practicing the voice should change??
      Or this change isn't exist for everyone??
      What kind of change do you mean??
      like hoarseness??
      Some of my friends in the choir take part in two consecutive classes.
      But l've never noticed any changes in their voices after classes.
      They speak as comfortable as before practice.
      And l always think they practice correct than others who thier voices change after practicing.

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