How I teach

Good singing is a coordination of opposing elements.  I often say  to my students that whatever you say about singing, the opposite is also true.  The vocal ideal, after all, is the chiaroscuro, or “light/dark” sound, a concept borrowed from the visual arts. The tone must have height as well as depth, ring and mellowness. The inhaling muscles work against the exhaling muscles to control the breath stream.

On the most basic level, we singers strive to achieve highly contracted vocal cords within a highly expanded pharynx, a contraction within an expansion. The throat  must be dilated effortlessly, in order to create space for resonance. After all, unlike other instruments, the resonance cavities for the voice  are not built ahead of time; the space required is created by the singer.  The natural resonance of the singing voice is a result of a learned response; the ability to dilate the pharynx, lower the larynx and lift the soft palate, in a flexible and elegant manner. The trick of it is that it must feel almost like nothing to do it.

The Italians have for centuries called this “singing on the beginning of the yawn”; they achieved it by “smelling the rose”, or by singing on the gesture of inhalation, or by taking air through releasing the bottom of the throat, or by loosening the neck.  All these metaphors achieve the same physiological effect; enhancing the resonance cavities of the throat for maximum power, ring and quality in the singing voice.

Unfortunately, this principle of expansion is not the end of the story. There is a counterbalancing principle of contraction that is equally important; the contraction of the vocal cords. A good singer has learnt to contract the cords in the lightest possible way while explanding all the necessary cavities of the the throat. Picture it; it is a contraction within an expansion.

As a singer, you have to achieve a perfect balance between the highly expanded pharynx and the highly contracted vocal cords. The chief tool for teaching an effortless and elegant contraction of the vocal cords has always been the italian, “canta come si parla”, or sing like you speak. Of course, if good singing were only about good speaking, anyone who spoke well would be a great singer; and we know that that is certainly not the case.

OK, so we have a contraction within an expansion. To further complicate the issue, the cords themselves function through a coordination of different muscles. To simplify, we will consider only the muscles that close the cords, and the muscles that stretch the cords. These two groups of muscles must be in perfect balance on every pitch, and it is a balance that must effortlessly and flexibly change, depending on the pitch, volume, and quality required by the singer at any moment.

Generally speaking, high notes require long, thin vocal cords, low notes compact, thicker cords.  Loud sounds require more resistance from the cords than soft.  Transitioning from soft to loud and back to soft means bringing more energy into the vocal cords, and then relaxing  the resistance of the cords without releasing the stretch required to maintain a particular pitch.

Keeping the cords firmly closed (without undue pressure!) while stretching them, thinning them, bulking them up, and singing legato or stacatto at any conceivable volume, is also a matter of coordinating certain muscles of the body with the muscles of the voice and the expansion of the pharynx.

The coordination of the vocal apparatus with the body is the realm of support.  It is the support, or compression of the abdominal muscles that allows the singer to sing long legato lines without pressure on the throat, while maintaining both quality and ring in the sound.  It is the support  which is often the missing link that allows the transition notes to the upper register to be sung in the correct way, neither too open or too covered.

Most mid career crises in the life of an opera singer are crises of support, usually where a perfectly functioning, but largely unconscious support has ceased to function. Most really gifted young singers have a balanced vocal apparatus that  they do not understand; by mid-career, however, if they are to continue, they must learn to understand that coordination. Under the pressure of difficult roles, jet travel, exhausting schedules, too many performances, or even, as in Jürgen’s case, a new teacher, “natural” artists come unglued.

Artists with long careers are those who have had to struggle to understand and develop their vocal  instrument.  Singing perfectly without knowing why is an invitation to disaster.