Friday, July 10, 2009

third lesson

Third lesson with Reid-student and I got an earful. I was able to observe (and record bits) lessons his other students had: tenor, mezzo, soprano, all working singers in one way or another. It was incredibly instructive to watch other singers and compare/contrast their singing with mine -- and more importantly to watch how he handled the lesson as contrasted with the phantom voices in my head saying "now lift your palate" or whatever it natters on about sometimes, drawing from all of that mechanistic stuff I've been taught.

Instead it was all about concept, expectation, and reflex: think the pitch, the vowel, and how it's going to sound, expect the stupid thing to show up, and then go.

And the way he goes about taking you through the voice is based on what he hears come out of your mouth. It isn't a "let's do this exercise until you get it right" they're also useful as diagnostic tools. I haven't sung any exercise pattern for him consecutively more than like 6 or 7 times. It's always switch to something else -- and then we'll come back. The closest thing I can think of is a mechanic fiddling with an engine that just won't start. You mess with something, then try and start it. Observe what it does, and then go back to fiddling. By the way, here is a fantastic piece describing why the manual trades are not short on intellectual demands. It's also a little bit like self-adjusting systems where scientists hook up a bunch of circuits and then tell them whether their output is good or not and over time and repetition they just adjust to being more able to perform a task.

Some very good things gleaned:
  • Reflex vs. duplication. What normal teachers call "letting go" or "being relaxed" this teacher instead describes as seeking reflexive response. Like the hammer to the knee reflex exam at your physical -- you can only duplicate that by seeking a reflexive response, because that's exactly what it is. If you try and just move your knee like you observe it while it's moving reflexively, you're not going to get it; it uses different muscle groups. The idea is that singing correctly is also a reflexive action -- the only thing you can do is expect it to show up. Futzing with the palate and the support and the resonance or whatever is just like trying to recreate that reflexive action based on what you see -- they don't get to the original cause of the action so it seems reasonable that they won't be able to produce the action either.

  • The other way he tried to explain this was by asking how you pick up a pencil on a desk and move it to another place on the desk. The thought process isn't "ok and now I open my hand and move my forearm to this location and then lower my shoulder and close my forefinger and... etc." It's "pick up the pencil; move the pencil; put down the pencil."

  • The last explanation sort of crystallized in my head as I was driving home -- it's not unlike learning how to pronounce sounds that one isn't used to hearing. Like teaching an east-asian to properly pronounce american r's and l's or learning, as an english speaker, all of the weird french and german vowels or to recognize the tones in tonal languages -- you can make some progress just by having someone tell you physically how to make them, e.g., pucker your lips and then say "eeee". But that only gets you so far. Whenever you see that, you'll have to think "ok now pucker my lips and say eeeee" but ultimately, you're just going to have to figure out how that locks into your head. So when you see ΓΌ or what have you, you have a concept of what that sounds like, rather than a process.

Yeah, I guess that's the biggest difference. This kind of learning is goal-based rather than process-based. My teacher goes searching for the free sounds lurking in my singing and we make more of that. Other teachers just want to futz with my palate with the assumption that it'll result in free sounds. I'm beginning to think more and more that that's kind of a load of poppycock. There are plenty of other sounds I could make with a lifted palate.

Edit: Another nugget. Teach sez: if you feel a "resonance sensation", this means that the sound is stopping there. And if you don't feel something, e.g., in the throat, that doesn't mean it isn't active.


Betsy said...

OK, I get bullet points 2 and 3. I'm still stuck on number 1. This process sounds so foreign! So you're working towards a reflexive response? But if reflexive response is like a knee reflex, then isn't it unachievable by "trying"? I'm attempting to wrap my head around how you achieve consistency. Even if a technically brilliant singer gives a "rehearsed" performance lacking in emotional connection in the moment, you can count on the sound that's going to come out. I mean, that's why we train the way we do, yes? So duplication is the attempt to achieve the reflex?

Also, isn't there always going to be some resonance sensation? Sometimes more than others, depending on the register. Is the teacher saying you *shouldn't* feel anything because that's like your head getting in the way of the sound? I think there's a difference from "holding" the sound, singing to much in the throat or whatever, and just feeling the vibrations of vocal production.

alex said...

Hm, in reverse order, this is my understanding.

There will always be some sort of resonance sensation -- the key is that it's going to be different for everyone. I think his big point (and was a big point of confusion for me for a long time) was addressing the common principal of "not feeling anything in your throat." He said, if you're "feeling" something there, that means the sound is stopping there -- hence how people tell you to "get it out of the throat." But the reverse-side is that you can't literally feel nothing because then you aren't doing anything (what I was doing). Resonance sensation outside of the throat != inactive throat. Throat's gotta be engaged.

As for point 1 -- my experience of how lessons go and my reading lead me to think that it's unachievable by trying to duplicate the muscle actions you feel/observe. If you videotaped yourself and your vocal chords and your palate and your abdomen and emitted a free, easy, expressive sound and then sat back down to watch yourself...what would you see?

You probably would see a lifted palate, lack of constriction in the throat, and an easy breathing. What I think teacher is getting at is none of these is what "causes" the free and easy sound. What causes the free and easy sound is whatever was in your head when it happened. These other physical things? They showed up because your body reflexively put them that way to produce whatever it was that your brain wanted. So you're seeking to duplicate the conditions that allow your body to reflexively do what it knows how to do.

That isn't to say that everybody is a perfectly coordinated person and the secret to voice teaching is to find whatever concept calls forth a free sound -- everything involved has to be "in shape" and you have to practice the coordination of a whole mess of moving parts.

Teacher describes it like working out, but working out like a singer. A ballet singer is going to hit the gym differently than a weightlifter is, or a swimmer, or a rockclimber, because a big component of each of these activities requires both different muscle groups in different combinations.

It's like when I did gymnastics briefly and we were going over the F-ing pommel horse. Pommel horses suck because it requires immense upper-body and core strength and this ridiculous coordination to swing your fat ass around a lifted block of padded wood.

But you have to break it down into parts and condition and coordinate. Comparatively rarely do you actually get up on a mock horse to do your ass-swinging (but you do have to do it). But when you do, you just have to trust what you've been trained to do and just go, because there is no f-ing time to do anything else.

alex said...

Or maybe less opaquely --

If you're looking to have your knee react as if it's been struck by a medical hammer, you're going to have to go get a medical hammer and strike it.

Duplicate the originating cause, not the things that respond to it.

Betsy said...

Does this mean you can't sing "correctly" on auto-pilot because your head won't be in the right place to cause the necessary reflexive action in your folds, abdomen, chest, palate, tongue, etc.? Or is it possible to get to the point where, whenever you open your mouth to sing, your body simply knows what to do? I have sort of built up my confidence based on this kind of thinking. Not that I plan to perform on auto-pilot, but that when, say, nerves or illness strike, my body will still know what to do and I can produce a good sound.

alex said...

Oh, I think that you can, except I wouldn't say "auto-pilot."

First and foremost, teacher says that expression and musical attention are the bedrocks of technique. They give you the concept of the kind of effect and phrases you want, and in doing so, prep you for that reflex. So in a lot of ways, simply by paying attention to these things, it can't be auto-pilot.

I think that's the big issue with this way of teaching, actually. I hesitate to speak for you, but at least in my case, I was told to pay attention to the palate, to the tongue, to the throat, to the abdomen, to the head position, to the placement, to my eyeballs, to my forehead, etc. ad nauseum. If you think in this line of training, when all of that becomes invisible, it does feel like "auto-pilot."

Instead, what teacher says is, think about the rhythm you want to sing. Make it vital. Go directly to the top of the arpeggio. Loud! now soft! Think about what you do to signal an arpeggio down after a held note; you swell a bit and demonstrate a downbeat before coming down, right? Right.

And the exercises he takes me through means that the voice is trained to come together and my job is to first, hold on to the music -- but just to pay attention to what sorts of concepts I am using to produce this sound. And it's hard to get away from the "oh, I'm doing this by putting my tongue here and breathing deeply" instead of "I'm thinking of this kind of sound" and I'm not sure I'm doing it 100% correctly, but it's so much more organic.

So I wouldn't say that you go auto-pilot. I think it's just a totally different way of thinking how singing happens.