In one of these insomniac nights, as I walked home from a midnight walk on the beach, I was reminded of something my tennis coach said to me back around 1981:
“You understand the techniques of the serve so clearly! But your body is not yet in the shape it needs to be to execute what your brain has already figured out! Give it time! “
I had my first tennis lesson a few hours before I had my very first voice lesson in the summer of 1991. Towards the end of the summer, I had developed a very fast and elegant serve but it was inconsistent. When I was in the zone, I defeated the top player at the club. When I was not, I lost to a very weak and defensive player in the finals of our youth tournament that same summer.
Coach was so right! And I see singers struggling with:
“Why can’t I get this consistently?”
The disconnect is the following:
- Your brain is faster than your body. When you think you understand a concept, most likely you really do! But the fact that you understand what you want does not mean your body is ready to execute consistently.
- Because your brain has figured it out, your body is trying everything it can to catch up. Every repetition is building the engram (the mental pathway) that constitutes a new memory, a new muscle memory, a new habit! Hundreds, if not thousands of conscious repetitions are needed to build a permanent mental pathway for a given physical activity.
Therefore, it is necessary to repeat with trust even when the results do not happen. Permanent habits take time! The body needs many repetition to build true coordination and muscular strength in balance.
Unfortunately, students stuck in a need for immediate gratification do not give their bodies time to catch up with their brain. Babies get frustrated too. I watched my son cry as an infant when he got frustrated because he could not pick up his cup to drink from. But I watched him laugh when he tried to walk as a toddler and fell on his ass. Frustration and excitement for a new skill are the emotional Ying-Yang of physical development. The key is not to abandon the vision!
What does success look like?
My Kung Fu teacher often asks us that question! “Eyes on the prize!” He often says. Vision! Imagination! That is the key to success! You have to imagine it before it becomes a reality. The way the mind-body relationship works confounds human beings who lack vision. We are so powerful, yet so impatient to allow our visions to manifest into reality. Our need for magic, the genie in the bottle, the magic wand, the immediate gratification, leads us to abandon our vision and seek some momentary tangible short-term solution.
A pianist practiced since childhood many hours a day and developed great skills only to forget how s/he developed those skills. That same pianist in adulthood has no patience for a student who appears not to have achieved those skills because perhaps s/he began later.
The acquisition of skill is not only a brain-body relationship. The fundamental relationship is indeed so simple but the obstacles are emotional and they are engrams too. The anger, frustration, and self-deprecation that comes, when the result is not immediate, cannot be ignored. In the process of training anyone, we come face to face with their raw psyche, their open wounds!
The singer’s psychic awareness plays a great part in whether they succeed or not. We must be conscious of our psychic wounds, acknowledge them and then say:
“Get out of my way! I have a job to do!”
Or as my Kung Fu teacher often says: “Talk to the fear! Tell it ‘Thank you for sharing Then focus on the job at hand!” What brings true and lasting results is vision and a commitment to the same. In tennis, the facts of technique are the facts! And as my coach said, I understood a lot very quickly. But my body needed to figure it out and my psychic baggage needed to be processed, whether fear, lack of confidence, etc.
The “facts” are not enough, because they change with time!
Almost a decade ago, we discovered that the Crico-Arytenoid muscle, the lengthening muscle, also called The Pitch Muscle, in some cases is synergistic (resistant to TA activity as opposed to actively contracting). It maintains a stasis while the Thyro-Arytenoid contract to create longitudinal tension. Thus the idea that the head voice is CT- dominant is a fallacy, but the jargon persists in vocal pedagogy circles because the concept is easier to grasp.
And we should consider the Bel Canto in this way. The easy jargon does not represent the complexity of the philosophy!
Fold tautness increase F0 (raises the pitch) not necessarily fold length. One of my favorite voice scientists, Dr. Zhang Zhaoyan (featured on this blog before) gives us this piece of research, which I will address in a near future blog. He also refers to this other piece of research by Doellinger, based on an in vivo canine larynx that confirms that outside of fry-voice, (also called pulse phonation) where the TA is unopposed by CT, the interaction between the two muscles (modal phonation) is fundamentally TA-dominant. Other studies also show that the best coordination for higher F0’s in modal production (which what we do in classical singing) is fundamentally TA dominant.
It is the tautness of the folds that increase pitch levels, not increased length. In a TA-CT dynamic, shorter and tauter folds yield higher pitches with deeper fold contact contact and lower sub-glottal pressure.
Dr. Zhang’s paper puts us in a philosophical quandary. But a welcome quandary! Scientific study makes our understanding of vocal function more and more complete and complicated. But the traditional experience of singing remains in a way simpler.
Head and Chest are still very relevant!
The fundamental experience of the singing voice in classical singing is even today based on the definitions of Head voice and Chest voice. But science gives us a way to define the complexity in the simplicity. Phonation involves three closure mechanisms (also called flesh points) as we discussed, regarding the paper by Ingo Titze that we analyzed recently. Mechanisms A, B, and C represent the three closure flesh points. Chest voice is made up of A and B (see future blog) and Head voice is made up of B and C. B is the dynamic mechanism that is often not considered in a binary model. A coupled tertiary model is a lot more accurate although the singer can experiences the voice in a binary fashion.
Yet A+B and B+C are simplistic ways of explaining proprioceptive experiences. A well-produced tone (the so-called rectangular posture) includes closure at all three flesh points but the way we might experience chest voice might be localized.
Is it possible that the inferior aspect of the vocal folds comes to slightly firmer contact in chest voice? The logic based on the science reflects that. Is this function felt through bone conduction in the chest? Also logical. Where is posterior closure felt? And is the mask sensation related to closure on the anterior-superior quadrant?
These are important questions to answer and perhaps we will have answers through measurements of fold contact that do not require painful electromyography that requires inserting needle electrodes into the intrinsic laryngeal muscles (ILMs).
In essence, the facts explain more and more accurately the possible completeness of our proprioceptive experiences. But because the facts expand as we learn more, it would be a mistake to adhere to what we imagine are “finite” facts!
The trap we fall into (I am guilty of this too) is to imagine that we can figure out a method that covers everything.
The facts we know are crucial and the more sophisticated the scientific discoveries the better. They will serve not only to explain our proprioceptive experiences but also guide us to understand what we have ignored proprioceptively. Yet, we may have sensory experiences that are so clear that science has not yet made sense of. Are they worth exploring? Of course!
Singing technique is as incomplete as life itself. We come to this life with an incomplete map! Those were the words of my college philosophy teacher, Dr. Bob!
In singing, there will always be theories in an effort to make sense of the uncharted regions. To ignore them is to be lost without knowing it!
Trust and confidence are essential to performance! Thus we must decide what pieces of information we will value above others. Those constitute our methods!
But absolute certainty is the opposite of living and just another way of hiding from the uncertainty that is the true nature of being human.
Our subconscious, as soprano Laura Aiken suggests, holds many answers that are not accessible on the conscious level. We are only beginning to study this in Western science in a way that does not have to do with psychological disorder.
And so I close as I began. My tennis coach spoke a great wisdom! The concept of time itself, which is being pondered by scientists, plays a crucial part in the harmony to be found between vision (imagination, inspiration) and physical manifestation of the desired skill. Will be become conscious of the non-linear nature of time, as scientists are suggesting? If so, will we find the answer to the immediate understanding if time indeed is non-linear? Lots to ponder!
In the end, the experience of development is the greatest adventure in life and in singing. Apparent shortcuts only prevent us from becoming truly trained, truly wise, truly artistic.
© 11 June 2020