A Technical Guide to Great Singing
The Posture Method
from the Preface by Michael Trimble
Scientific knowledge does not help us sing better. It is useless for us to think scientifically while singing or while learning to sing. Enrico Caruso and his colleagues had never heard of a style of singing based on the scientific names of throat parts. Before Manuel Garcia II invented the laryngoscope in 1854, everyone thought the voice came from the stomach, because eating a big meal would interfere with the production of the tone. How was it possible for the greatest singers in history to learn to sing the way they did without knowing an arytenoid from a hemorrhoid?
The truth is the knowledge we call scientific and the knowledge great singers put into practice to produce great singing are two separate kinds of knowledge. One kind lies in the cognitive part of the brain and the other lies in the psychomotor system. The psychomotor system is programmed through desire and repetition, like learning to play golf or tennis or a musical instrument. The intellect, or cognitive side of the mind, is applied to learning languages and music and, in the case of instrumentalists, where to place the fingers. The psychomotor system is then programmed through repetition to learn to execute the coordinated functions necessary to master the instrument or to learn to speak a language fluently. Singers need to practice the biomechanical processes that create breath control, phonation, and all the many criteria of singing. The vocal scientists can neither learn to sing themselves nor teach anyone else to sing by informing the cognitive mind of the correct names of the various parts of the throat that act/react when great singers sing. The greatest singers did not know the names of their throat parts, but they had acquired the knowledge of how to use them.
How do we use our talents for singing to our best advantage? Sitting in judgment of the sounds we make is a hopeless business. It utilizes the cognitive side of the mind. We need to avail ourselves of the miraculous powers of the psychomotor system in order to sing well. Imagine the mind is made up of many different chambers, each dedicated to its own primary function. In a house, we cook in the kitchen and sleep in the bedroom. We should not cook in the bedroom or sleep in the kitchen. The cognitive mind decides it wants to sing. This message is sent to the psychomotor corner of the mind. It is there that the actual singing is organized. We must coordinate the proper commands and the proper activity with the appropriate, designated space in the mind. The tone will find itself through correct cognitive commands to the psychomotor system.
The opinions and/or interference of others who constantly give us advice can be completely wrong, although they may mean well. The most famous teachers can be wrong, especially if the advice is general and not specific to the problems of the individual student. We need a secure method that separates ease from strain, freedom from constriction, cognitive command from psychomotor response, and neutralization of non-essential actions in the entire body while singing.
But what is good and what is bad? The only criterion that is foolproof is to identify resistance in the throat while singing, either through the sense of touch or through the sense of sight, as described above. Resistance always has to do with muscular action/reaction. It can be identified by the responses of the nerves in the throat, either through sensation or through visual recognition. According to Dame Eva Turner, one should never feel the throat at all! When asked what she did in her throat when she sang, she answered, "I don't know. I never felt anything in my throat when I sang"! She had been taught the vocal philosophy of the 'invisible throat', 'the invisible tongue', the 'invisible jaw', and the 'invisible muscles under the jaw and under the chin'. Her warnings to young singers had to do with minute actions in the throat being unacceptable in singing. She expressed it by saying..."Even the weight of one grain of salt or sugar would still be too much action in the throat". You can imagine how horrified she was when she heard that young singers were being taught to open their mouths vertically, spreading the tone with the jaw pressing downward. Other young singers would dip their heads down, with the chin held against the chest, creating tracheal resonance. (Caruso warned against this specifically in his book. It has long been considered one of the most dangerous vocal techniques, because it seems to be successful for a period of time, and then eventually it can cause irreparable damage to the vocal cords). Dame Eva thought that the vertical pulling down of the jaw was the worst technique she had seen in a lifetime of being internationally associated with the highest artistic level of great singing. The other action she hated was to see any movement in the middle or back of the tongue. She believed that only the front of the tongue should move vertically to articulate the dental consonants against the upper front teeth. Otherwise, the tongue was left absolutely flat in a 'dead' state, as if invisible, and on every vowel.
One summer, during my 27 years on the voice faculty of the Aspen Musical Festival, a 19-year-old soprano came to audition for me. She sang an Italian song and asked for my opinion of her voice. I explained to her that before I would offer any opinion, I would like for her to breathe deeply into her lower back, try to relax her jaw and tongue, and sing some easy scales. She agreed to give it a try. We proceeded in this manner and she did very well, finding that she could sing very high into the soprano range without effort. Suddenly she stopped with a quizzical look on her face, and began to rub her throat. I asked her what was happening. She said: "I don't understand. I have no pain in my throat. I always have pain in my throat when I sing. My teacher in California said it is normal for the throat to hurt when we try to sing classical music." As a member of the voice faculty in Aspen, I listened to students from all parts of the U.S. This was the first and only time I had ever heard that pain in the throat was acceptable when singing classical music!
This young lady was a perfect candidate for the posture system that I have been teaching to professional singers for many years. If she had been doing the following series of postures described below, the same ones I use with professional singers, she would have recognized immediately that tension (resistance) was causing conflict in her throat. Her attempts to 'focus' the sound in her sinus cavities, after breathing into the front of her body and swelling her belly outward, was causing the Pillars of the Fauces to partially close, narrowing the throat and causing a whole series of action/reaction responses in her throat, forcing the voice into the nasal cavity. The faulty method of breathing (the sleeping baby who is silent, not crying or making sound), and focusing the resonance in the nasal cavity, set off a chain reaction of tension in the muscles under the jaw, causing first a tugging upward of the larynx, followed by muscular reactions in the trachea and spasms in the epiglottis. She had been able to relieve the effects of the contraction of the muscles under the jaw by pulling the jaw extremely downward, which made her look grotesque and eliminated any possibility of smiling or making any expression except the one in the famous painting by Munch called The Scream. The pain went away immediately, along with the unnecessary ' Scream' expression, as soon as she breathed deeply into her lower back while drawing the abdomen inward and released the belly outward while singing (the natural crying/laughing baby breathing), thus releasing the muscular tension in her throat that was causing the pain. This was not exactly rocket science or any kind of miracle, although it seemed miraculous to her! The muscles in the throat want to relax when we breathe into the lower rear quadrant of the lungs, exactly as recommended by Luisa Tetrazzini in her book. Lilli Lehmann recommended the same and added the condition of the 'breath jerk'. The 'breath jerk' required a sudden jerking in of the abdomen the instant before beginning the inhalation into the lower back. Caruso described the action of the lower back while breathing as being like a bellows..."the lower ribs in the back open like a bellows when inhaling and squeeze together when singing".
The best way to gain control and awareness of incorrect resistance in the body and throat is to do a routine of postures and breathing exercises that vanquish all muscular action not necessary to the free production of tone.
Copyright 2010/Michael Trimble