Sunday, May 4, 2014

My Evaluation of the Problems with Swedish/Italian Vocal Technique

I have recently come across some recordings of voice lessons being taught by some of the most prominent teachers of today. David Jones in particular. After listening to these lessons, and also reading some technical information that these teachers have written about, I feel that the technical instructions given by these teachers should be addressed. Many exercises and concepts are completely misguided. Not only do these methods adversely effect a student's singing ability, but they also distort the singer's idea of the right sound; the sound which gives the most efficient use of the voice. This efficiency is paramount to having a full, free, beautiful instrument.

Now, I will not post the recordings of those lessons here, but I certainly would like to. They are lessons of David Jones teaching. I would rather that these teachers post some examples of the results of their teaching to back up their claims. I would also be open to a joint master class where several pedagogues work on the same singers in the master class in order to show the results of their approach. We could all present our ideas on technique and singing and then proceed to demonstrate those ideas. Perhaps we could learn something?

Many of these methods have become popular through very smart business men who market themselves and their technique in a very clever and eloquent way. It is most baffling to me that they are able to dupe some of the seemingly most talented professionals in the business. As I have stated in previous blog posts, the only way to validate the effectiveness of a teacher's method is by hearing their before and after results. Additionally, I find it very difficult to comprehend how these teachers, who cannot sing well or at all themselves, think they are able to teach on a high level. A teacher, whether they are famous or not, must be able to sing well in order to demonstrate the sounds a student should be making. This is how the old masters taught voice. It is the only way one can achieve a high level of results. If you are going to a teacher who cannot demonstrate the right sounds and/or cannot sing well then you should simply look elsewhere; no matter how nice the teacher seems to be or how regarded they are. Being held in high regard in a period of the worst singing in history is hardly an endorsement. I was very disappointed when I heard the teacher of this Swedish/Italian school demonstrate. He could not sing and what little bit he tried to demonstrate were completely wrong sounds. At one point telling a tenor to make and UHL sound instead of a nice OH sound he was making. Completely driving the center of the tongue onto the hyoid bone.

Now let us look at some of these methods:

The Swedish/Italian Method

The alleged and highly promoted "Swedish/Italian" method of singing by David Jones. I must say when I hear that title I immediately question the validity of this schooling. The "Italian School" is one thing. It was established by the teaching of an Italian lineage of great pedagogues. The "Swedish School", I would assume, is a teaching based on a lineage of Swedish/Nordic pedagogues. The two, therefore, cannot be combined. Additionally, the referenced singers developed by this Swedish/Italian method are non Italians; i.e. Flagstad, Bjoerling etc.

Mentioning Enrico Caruso in conjunction with this method is invalid. Caruso did not study with any Swedish/Nordic/Germanic teacher. I must also add that I am not quite sure that the teacher of this method studied with any great Italian pedagogues. Again, I could be wrong, but from what I have read the main tenets of the teaching are from the non Italian pedagogues. Also, a student does not necessarily understand the technique of a teacher enough to be able to teach it themselves. I know student's of my teacher who admit they could not teach the technique. They only sing. And when things are passed down over several generations there are so many distortions that the original teaching is all, but lost.

Also, there is the claim that his teacher, who he only studied with for a summer, was taught by Manuel Garcia's (who was Spanish) students - not by Garcia.. A summer of training is nowhere near enough time to develop your voice much less learn a technique. And then his teacher, Lindquest, also observed ONE coaching with Caruso. One coaching when you are a young singer would tell you nothing about technique. I assume the coaching was with Romani. So, having heard some lessons given by the teacher(s)of this Swedish/Italian approach, and having heard him teach in a room next to the room I was teaching in, I feel compelled to address specific things I heard being taught in those lessons. We can also look at the writings of Manuel Garcia and he does not talk about the NG or any of the things I heard being taught in the recorded lessons. So mentioning Garcia is also irrelevant to me.

I also find it interesting that this Swedish/Italian school teacher brings up Birgit Nilsson as someone who was "coached" by his teacher. Birgit Nilsson said several times that she did not like any of the teachers that she studied with. In a discussion with Jerome Hine's in his book, "Great Singers on Great Singing", Birgit Nilsson also does not say anything about this NG when asked about the tongue. Additionally, Nilsson says that she does not hold the tip of the tongue behind the bottom teeth. This is strange since Mr. Jones teaches this as part of the schooling.

1) The use of the "NG" exercise. It seems one of the main claims about the validity of this exercise is that it was used by the teacher of Kirsten Flagstad. I have never read anything written by her which verifies that she used this exercise. Nor have I ever heard an interview where she does. Now, I could be wrong here, but I don't believe there is any writing of her teacher which verifies that he used this exercise either. So I find presenting Flagstad as an endorsement for using this exercise questionable.

Additionally, there are physiological problems with the use of this exercise. I will start with the fact that no one sings in the position created by the "NG". The mouth is closed and the front third of the tongue is shoved up to the front of the mouth behind the bottom teeth. The tongue should never be used in this position. I will not go on at length about this now, but you can get an idea of how the tongue should function properly by reading my blog article on it:

This "NG" position also causes extra tension on the muscles that pull the larynx up. The suprahyoid muscles. This lifts the hyoid bone up and consequently the larynx also. Since proper singing, and in particular operatic singing, requires a lowered larynx, the exercising of the muscles which pull the larynx up is not desirable. Not only that, but this up pull also exacerbates constrictive tension which closes the throat while making the sound nasal. The last thing I will mention, and I could go on further, is that in this "NG" position, which pulls the larynx up, it is very difficult to produce a chest/lower register sound. The the lower register is one of the foundations of all great singing and this exercise decreases its function.

2) The raising of the solar plexis. The solar plexus, also known as the celiac plexus, is in the abdomen behind the stomach. Some people describe this as the "pit of the stomach". Engaging this area for singing is not really useful. It sounds good when someone gives the technical jargon, but it does not address the fundamental aspects of correct breathing. I have written about that here:

Also, the idea of "lifting" in breathing tends to cause the student to bring in tension from the upper chest. This exacerbates constrictive tension which closes the throat. The upper chest region should be completely relaxed. Ideally, there should be no lifting of the chest. Lifting tends to also creep up into using shoulder tension. Many of these tensions are connected and one induces the other.

3) The use of the back ribs for breathing. I already posted one of my blog articles on breathing which should help to address this issue as well. However, I will add that focusing the the back ribs takes attention away from where the real focus should be. The proper coordination of the breathing muscles is the hold of the inspiratory muscles against the expiratory muscles. Since the expiratory muscles are the abdominal muscles, and they are located in the abdomen, then the concentration must be holding against them with the inspiratory muscles that expand the abdomen out. The use of the diaphragm and the expansion of the ribs happens automatically when this coordination is established.

4) The use of the bottom lip over the bottom teeth in order to get a pharyngeal stretch/opening. Well, I will start by saying that referring to a term such as pharyngeal opening - and the resonance achieved by that opening - and recognizing the correct sound that is generated by that are two different things. I listening as the teacher using this exercise with basically no change in the singer's resonance. Oddly enough, the teacher expressed how great the change was. It made me wonder if this person had ever heard the old singers and what that sound was really like? And if he did how he can possibly think the results he is getting is even in the ball park of the sound of the old singers. The sounds are diametrically opposed.

Moreover, the use of the bottom lip over the bottom teeth causes a substantial increase in jaw tension. In particular the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). It goes without saying that this tension is not wanted in singing. There are proper ways to get pharyngeal opening which including the lowering the larynx, inspiratory tension - which deals with the opening of that space - as well as the tongue position which directly effects it. Again, the NG also effects this negatively by shifting the tongue forward and pulling the hyoid bone and larynx up which narrows the pharyngeal space. These things create small, nasal voices which lack lower register development. They often have vibrato issues, issues getting voce squillante and nasal qualities.

5) The "meow" exercise. This exercise was completely useless. It addressed absolutely nothing and did nothing for the student's voice, but cause nasality.

6) Some exercise on dibby dibby, repeated quickly over a rapid succession of notes. Supposedly to loosen up the tongue. It does nothing for the tongue whatsoever. Someone could do this exercise all day long and as soon as they go to sing immediately tense the tongue. These are exercises given to seem like the teacher is doing something, but in all actuality they are doing nothing, but tricks. And those don't even work.

7) A faletto type "Swedish" EE. First, this sound caused tongue girding. And by that I mean that it stiffens the tongue. Ironically the same tension that exercise 6 was trying to get rid of. This tongue stiffening made the sound thick and also make the EE distorted with an incipient "R" to the sound. As if you are saying the word "ear" and you combine the EE and R. Not only did this exercise cause the tongue issues it also did not address how to go into the covered notes for the high voice. The teacher was completely unaware of this voice and how to get it. And the cover is vitally important for a man to develop. It is a muscular switch that starts in the passaggio. None of that was addressed as the tenor repeatedly failed to go through the passaggio and up. Over and over the tenor made sounds that were blowing the cords open, causing a static sound, and the teacher just kept telling him it was mucous. No, it was his cords blasting apart. Not only that, but the sounds the tenor was making that were not right this teacher kept saying were good. This is a huge problem. To not even know the right sounds. It doesn't matter what you know of physiology or exercises if you do not know the right sounds.

I would also be very, very leary of anyone selling CD's and products which give you exercises that are supposed to improve your voice. This is highly irresponsible. A teacher MUST guide a student through any exercises. Any student can do an exercise wrong without this guidance. Most students has do not know what the right sounds are. And attempting exercises on their own can cause them to exercise the wrong muscles, creating the wrong sounds. Also, not all exercises are appropriate for all students. An exercise which might be good for one student could be disastrous for another student. For example, if a student comes to me with a depressed larynx; meaning that their larynx is shoved down with improper tension, then it would be a disaster for me to have them use an exercise such as lifting the soft palette. That exercise lowers the larynx more. So this idea that you can sell exercises to people without supervision is corrupt.

In conclusion, I believe this Swedish/Italian school is vocally limiting for singers. Something which sounds good on paper might not be so good in all practicality. The exercises and instructions used in this method cause inefficiency which leads to many vocal problems. And again, I must stress the importance of hearing the results of a teacher. No matter how well they write, no matter what they claim their results to be. In particular, before and after results. If they cannot provide such results then there must be a reason why. If they refuse to provide results be very cautious.

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