Kashu-do (歌手道): Every-day Fundamentals For All Levels

Some places influence clarity of thought and my times in Sweden have been very special in that regard. Gothenburg holds a special place in my heart. It is the first place I visited in Sweden. Klädesholmen on Tjörn was very special indeed as I shared in the last post. My first visit to Stockholm continues my love affair with the land of song. Sweden has enough singers of high quality to populate most of the professional opera houses in the world. It is not by accident that this land of roughly 9 millions inhabitants has a disproportionate number of high level singers at the upper rungs of the operatic ladder. My pedagogical trips to Sweden have been arranged by two of my students in particular. Their excellent planing have made it possible for me to work with singers of many levels from college age to some of the highest level singers on the international stage. It is this aspect that has given me particular clarity about my own pedagogy. By alternating between a young singer and a top professional I became keenly aware that it is the fundamentals that remain constant between a beginner and the most accomplished professional. The difference between them, on a purely technical level, can be reduced thus: the degree to which the professional has mastered the fundamentals and the beginner not.

1) Meditative or pendular breathing to clear the mind: I begin my day with meditative breathing. I first came across this in yoga and then again in Kung Fu. We experience deep breathing in our sleep, but often miss out on this wonderful tool in our daily existence. It has become instinct for me in moments of tension, nervousness and even in problem-solving to begin my taking a slow, deep breath through the nose, through a relaxed throat (such that the breath is not noisy), allowing the lower abdomen to expand unobstructed and then release the breath through the nose again, just as gently as it was taken in. I am almost unaware when intake begins, when it ends and exhalation takes over and when inhalation begins again. It feels like a pendulum. The reversal is almost imperceptible.

 The soft concentration it takes for this has the effect of really clearing the mind.  Each breath becomes a renewal, and this eventually becomes a part of the singing process.

2) Fold posture or the little voice: When I was in my late teens and took singing seriously for the first time, I remember being very proud of being able to take what I then called my falsetto all the way through my range (Indeed, if I have a pedagogical advantage, it might be because I have very clear and detailed memories of how I used to sing and what I used to think). I also remember this to have been a confirmation that my voice was in good shape on a given day.

I have since determined that the little voice is not falsetto at all but a quiet, efficient modal posture. Even in the days when I thought this was falsetto, a coach who lived in the same building I did some years ago told me she could hear me clearly two floors above and thought that should be the foundation for my full voice. I told her then that I agreed but did not know how to grow this voice to full without a break. In fact there was a big break beyond mezzo piano. Additionally, I had heard some years before that one cannot grow from falsetto to full voice, but could grow from a quiet head voice to full voice. I have determined that a singer with the right kind of muscular strength can do either or both or neither.

However to be able to grow the quiet clear voice to full volume without a break or wiggle (muscular instability) is the ultimate goal.  This ability to grow from pianissimo to fortissimo and back is the first exercise in Rossini’s technique book called Gorgheggi e solfeggi.

My first recommendation is therefore to find the child voice! The clear, effortless sound. As we hear here from the legendary Nicolai Gedda in Magische Töne:

It would be a terrible mistake to think of this voice as falsetto. Indeed Gedda was able to crescendo to full at anytime from this sound. The inability to grow this sound to full is not proof of a poor set-up but rather a confirmation that the correct muscular set-up has not been developed. The light high C I posted here a month or so ago is no longer so light, but it maintains its lyrical quality. I have now let go totally of the heavier approach to my voice.  The fullest sound I make must come from this lyrical set-up.  I will post a fuller high C in the next couple of days. In the meantime, how full a voice can get from building the little sound is demonstrated wonderfully here by this dramatic soprano, who confirms that a large voice does not have to lose its lyric quality, nor lose flexibility in the top range. Her corrected approach to D6 shows how she grows from the little voice. The Eb6 is quite exciting!


3) Building strength with occluded consonants: I have written extensively here about the benefits of using occlusion as in the consonants [v,z, m, n, etc], lip trills and rolled r.  Our scientist friends have shown without a doubt that supra-glottal inertia produces an acoustical environment that assists in the efficient transformation of sub-glottal pressure into trans-glottal flow. In simple language, these consonants help maintain a healthy balance between necessary air pressure below the vocal folds and the flow through the same, resulting a sustainable equlibrium. Our excellent soprano above followed her little voice warm-up with chromatic scales on [z]. She began with the softest, clearest tone on [z], crescendoed to full on the first note and continued chromatically to the upper octave and back.

This is a healthy way of challenging the healthy set-up of the little voice to see how much breath pressure it can sustain without over-pressurizing. The [z] when wel-coordinated prevents extreme build-up of sub-glottal pressure.

4) The [z] exercise is followed by chromatic scales on [zi] and then chromatic scales beginnng on [zi] then switching to [a], a difficult vowel to keep balanced.

This guarantees that the vowels will always have adequate breath pressure, which prevents too much medial pressure so that the fluid pressure/balance is maintained.

This basic sequence identifies a balanced posture at a soft dynamic, coordinates proper breath support through increasing pressure with [z], which in turn assures that there will be adequate breath support when the vowels are opened. The simple breathing exercise, not only prepares the body by elastic breath coordination, but serves as a tool to clear the singer’s mind in case of nerves or distractions.

How far a singer takes these exercises depends on his/her level of coordination and strength. The inability to perform the clear little voice is a sign of systemic imbalance that must be addressed before true vocal coordination can be achieved.  In my late baritone phase, I had lost the ability to produce this little sound except for the very high range. Now it has returned and gets more and more vibrant at the softest dynamics as my total laryngeal strength has improved.

As in all disciplines, the basics must be revisited every day to avoid progressive degeneration of the process.

© 08/03/2010

3 thoughts on “Kashu-do (歌手道): Every-day Fundamentals For All Levels

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  1. Excellent post! I remember reading I think it was Lili Lehmann in her book saying that the life and health of a voice was the “head voice.” And of course it is too clear hearing voices like Gigli and Gedda that the soundest technique is built upon the small voice. Clearly this is the path to reaching our highest potential.

    I found the clip of the soprano stunning! For a minute I wondered if you were teaching Birgit Nilsson! Is this amazing vocal production with it's leanness, focus, and release in the extreme top something that has taken long for her to develop or did it happen “naturally” for her?


  2. So right George. Nothing new here that the great masters have not said before! We need in these times to be reminded of this.

    As for the soprano you hear here, I have worked with her for a little more than a year and she is a very special singer indeed. The extension above C# we have been working on for the past year. I hope she will chose to reply to your query herself. I don't want to out her on the blog, but she may want to share her insights. She has sung as high as F6, but I think those notes need even more time to match the rest of her voice fully.

    There was another dramatic soprano at the course in Klädesholmen who also sings high F. Her I have been teaching for about 9 months. They both could warm up comfortably to C6. I think they simply had not experimented with those notes too much. They both already had well coordinated voices. Happily, they both have also developed a smooth transition in the lower voice down to D3 at least.


  3. What a wonderful post! During my lesson with you two days ago, I also got reminded of my child singing voice during the “little voice” exercices. It was a soothing experience.

    I've been practicing the “little voice” exercices everyday since then, with crescendi and decrescendi, and I find a capital difference between a “little voice” onset on a lowered larynx and an onset on a higher larynx.

    For me, until recently, the sensation of a “little voice” was always tied to the sensation of a high larynx.
    So the body understood it thus: the little voice is produced with a high larynx.

    The trick is to get the “little voice” and its natural muscle coordination on a lowered larynx. Then we get the full sound spectrum, like you demonstrated so well in our lesson!


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