Subject of the day: Why fear vocal science?

There is a definite fear of science-based vocal pedagogy and several factors feed this fear. First, modern vocal science is a young discipline. The pioneers of this unique field are still alive and continue important research. Names like Johann Sunddberg and Minoru Hirano were first introduced to the wide singing community through William Vennard’s seminal book: Singing: The Mechanism and the Technique. While Vennard and Richard Miller after him contributed greatly to educating the general vocal community through their books, the science kept growing as the very books were being written. In other words, while some voice teachers were trying to understand basic vocal anatomy, great discoveries in vocal acoustics were occurring and new understandings about the nature of laryngeal function were developing. Many teachers felt that perhaps it were better to wait until vocal science has its act together before embracing it. Others thought that it might be useless to spend time keeping up with science when voice can be taught with traditional techniques without anatomical knowledge. Others simply found it difficult to understand some of the basic mathematical principles on which acoustics are founded and the paradoxical nature of muscular antagonism. Others imagined that the process of science-based teaching would involve explanation of difficult mathematical principles and that a singer in performance would have to concentrate on mathematical formulas rather than expression of music and text. All of these assumptions are at least ill-conceived and at worst based on a complacent attachment to the “tried and not altogether true.”

Traditional vocal teaching is hailed when a student succeeds and condemned when one fails. Teachers of opposing principles experienced success and failure. The polemics between teachers and their disciples concerning opposing techniques produce as lively a debate in our times as it did in 19th century Milan at the height of operatic hysteria. There has not been any consensus on vocal technique until the development of vocal science. There could not be. Objective understanding of the singing voice is not possible without the seeing eye of the laryngoscope and the sensitive microphones attached to the spectrographic analyzer. Yet vocal pedagogy is not an objective discipline. Therefore, empirical data should represent a foundation upon which any subjective method is built. The often used axiom “there is more than one way to skin a cat” has always been applicable to vocal pedagogy and must remain so. There should be as many methods as there are voice teachers, but the facts upon which those methods are built should be the same: the cutting edge of vocal science discovery.

Another argument is equally represented by a well used axiom, “the proof is in the pudding.” Has vocal science produced palpable results? Loaded simplistic questions such as this cannot have satisfying results. The fact is that most successful teachers of our time use the most basic facts produced by discoveries in vocal science. Few teachers in our time will claim that the vocal folds are in the mask or that they lay vertically in our throats. Even thirty years ago, many respected teachers would make such claims without anyone there to challenge their obvious error. Many successful teachers I know who would not call themselves science-based teachers have a strong basic understanding of the facts and develop their methods in keeping with such facts. However to call oneself a science-based teacher carries a stigma, which many mainstream teachers might consider unmarketable.

The more damaging influences to the reputation of science-based teaching are unfortunately science-based teachers themselves. It is important to have a grasp of the politics of academic vocal pedagogy to understand this. The safest vocal job in academia may very well be the vocal pedagogy teacher. The vocal pedagogy teacher comes with the apparent authority of a formation in vocal science up to the most recent discoveries. Such a teacher usually has a vocal pedagogy degree, which supposedly includes extensive studies in anatomy and acoustics, and is usually the go-to person for issues of vocal malfunction and disorder. The appeal of the vocal pedagogy person is that he has the capacity to produce scholarship in the form of science-based papers, which in turns command certain research funds to a music department that is often excluded from any such moneys. These moneys can translate into better recording equipment and computers in the studios of all the voice teachers. Such a teacher can authoritatively back up his methods with a science that his colleagues do not understand and simply accept at face value. A single success in the studio is enough to validate his method. But often, the colleagues secretly have little respect for his method and speak ill of science-based teaching because of the dismal results emanating from the studio.

The reason is simply that not all vocal pedagogy programs are rigorous enough to produce teachers that are either completely trained in terms of the equipments available for vocal study or deeply studied in the principles of science and anatomy that would yield methods that are effective. Conversely, some very scientifically minded teachers develop direct relationships with vocal scientists in the vocal disorder side of vocal study and become very comfortable with the science to the point of developing strategies to affect very specific vocal results. Some of the most adept science-based teachers do not have a degree in vocal pedagogy, but develop their knowledge from private study and interactions with those at the forefront of the science.

Consequently there are many types of so-called science-based vocal pedagogues. The more obtuse of them think that science is the final word in voice and may spend countless hours repeating superficial scientific terminology that may or may not have any effect on method. The more effective science-base teacher has a profound knowledge of the science being discussed among the vocal scientists and keeps up with developments that have a direct impact on vocal function. Such a teacher acknowledges science as a beginning, a foundation upon which a method may be developed. Such a teacher has the humility to recognize that despite the information that he has mastered that he is not a scientist. Furthermore, such a teacher will be the first to say that science is not the final word.

The ability to effect change in a student’s manner of singing is an art in itself, which has its roots in the mysterious traditions of teaching, not science. Effective teaching requires many skills of which one is thorough knowledge of his field. That is one of the virtues of the science-based teacher. The original axiom, “the proof is in the pudding” begs an answer. Why is the best science-based teacher more effective? The best among science-based teachers realizes a fundamental paradox: that the complex knowledge that he develops with regards to vocal function must translate to absolute simplicity during the voice lesson. It is unimportant for a student to master the science behind the principles of formant tuning. However it is crucial that the student understands sensations in the vocal tract that are directly effected by formant tuning. When the traditional teacher says: “lift the soft palate,” it could be very confusing to a soprano who is singing G5 on the [a] vowel when 1) she cannot sense the lifting of the palate and 2) even though she thinks she feels the difference, the resulting tone is not improved. The science-based teacher might tell the singer to release the jaw and feel how the beginning of a yawn will help settle the larynx to its natural released position which has a direct effect on the G5 on [a] because that note-vowel combination depends on the tuning of the first formant space between the base of the tongue and the glottis. The well-informed science-based teacher also knows that the traditional teacher’s suggestion “lift the soft palate” is not unimportant because the function of the non-active (passive) formant space is important, because its variations may affect competition between the active formant and the passive one. The scientific teacher might suggest that the student become conscious of sensations in the area of the soft palate in the middle range of the same soprano because he knows that the second formant which dominates that range has its energy focused in the space between the surface of the tongue and the soft palate. That science-based teacher also knows that all of this formant theory means nothing unless the process of phonation is at its most natural: that the adduction of the vocal folds occurs as nature meant for the specific singer in question. To know this, the teacher must develop an acute ear, for he must be able to tell the difference between well-adducted folds constituted by balanced function between all the muscles involved, and equally well-adducted folds that result from unbalanced muscular activity in the larynx.

At the end of the day, the goal is to bring the student to balanced function that produces an exciting performance level sound. The student must experience this balanced sensation often enough to distinguish it as the goal. An excellent traditional teacher will have better results than the kind of obtuse, limited so-called science-based teacher mentioned above. But a gifted teacher who is also well-studied in the available science will be able to bring the student to that experience with less trial and error. The ideal teacher has all the inventive qualities of a great traditional teacher and fully conscious of all the pertinent scientific facts available. Traditional teachers who have been teaching successfully before vocal science became practicable cannot be expected to take time midstream to be educated in vocal science. Those that do should be applauded. However, it is unconscionable that a young teacher would not avail himself of the available science. Vocal science has pertinent information for vocal pedagogy. No other field would accept that a practitioner or a teacher not avail himself of information pertinent to it.

Most important is that the voice lesson conducted by an effective science-based teacher is not different from that of a traditional teacher. The science-based teacher might avoid such language as “put it in the mask” because mask sensation is not a function in and of itself but rather a by-product of certain functional adjustments. But a science-based teacher might use the term “back, up and over” because this suggestion has a functional basis, namely that the “back and up” implies variations in velar function (soft palate), which relates directly to second formant resonance. In other words, “back and up” may affect second formant tuning positively and the result might be sensations in the mask, “over.”

To summarize, like with traditional teachers, not all science-based teachers are competent. The really gifted science-based teachers are amazingly effective, but not enough of them have connections to the upper echelons of the operatic world. While they may be doing remarkable work in academia or in private, their students ultimately make their careers after having attracted the attention of well-connected teachers who are credited for the development of the student. With time and information, the really gifted science-based teachers will become prominent because their work will not be able to be ignored. The fate of science-based vocal pedagogy is currently experiencing its own “Scopes Monkey Trial” in the court of operatic politics. Just as Evolution and Natural Selection continue to meet with controversy even in the face of discernible proof in modern ecological studies, there is a fear that vocal science may deny the mysteries of singing and the existence of the God that gave us our voices. © 01/11/2008

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