Sunday, September 27, 2009

Questions, questions, questions about SUPPORT

They're at it again on my singer message board, the New Forum For Classical Singers (I call it "my" board because reading it every day is a part of my daily routine and it has been such a great link for me, a stay-at-home mom, to be connected to people talking about one of my favorite subjects, everything that has to do with singing.)

This week they're discussing "support." One person on the message board asked another particularly knowledgeable vocal pedagogue and teacher what his views on "support" were, and he responded with a post on his views, and then a big discussion broke out, some of it civilized and some of it not so civilized, due to the antipathy some people have when anyone has a viewpoint other than their own. Pretty dramatic and exciting! Especially when loves singing, and is home surrounded dishes and laundry. Definitely better than watching soap operas to liven one's day.

Anyway, what I, personally love, about a big discussion like this is more often than not it stimulates me to think, research more, and grow to a better place of knowledge than I had before. What follows here are some of my rambling thoughts about breath support/management as stimulated by thinking about the discussion on my message board.

I, like almost every singer, have an unending interest in figuring out what is the "best" way to "support" while I'm singing. Since support has to do with how we use our muscles in order to manage the airflow and pressure needed to sing, it is a very important part of a singer's technique. And having a better or lesser technique can mean the difference between being more free to express as an artist or more limited in one's expression.

First, I wonder what the word "best" means? Is it subjective? Does it mean what is best for me? Does it mean what is most efficient? If it does, why would we want to be more efficient? What benefit would there be in that? Is there an objective way to say what is "best?" Does science answer the question definitively? Is there a range of acceptable approaches, like in other sports? Is there a range of acceptable approaches that varies from individual to individual, and are there outliers from the standard set of acceptable approaches? If I am using a method that is working for me, even if it is not quantifiably "best," do I need to change it?

What I aspire to do, and what I think many singers want deep in their hearts, is to figure out how those really legendary singers made such beautiful sounds, and be able to make beautiful sounds like that. Those legendary singers look like they are so enjoying the freedom to express that they possess, and it looks like it would be so wonderful to experience that. The first thing the singer thinks is, "oh, I'll go take voice lessons and learn the techniques of how they're doing it."

This starts a very long journey, and it is a mystery why some find the way to get their voice to the highest level and others do not succeed.

As you know, I like to compare singing to running and I"m going to do that again here. Let's say a person likes to go out and jog is watching the Boston Marathon and is totally inspired and enthralled by watching the elite runners at the head of the pack winning the race. They admire their smooth running form, and are dazzled by their speed and endurance, and the way they look so strong at the finish.

So, the little jogger decides they want to run like that and win the Boston marathon one day. They want to be one of the best.

Hmmmm! That's a mighty goal, isn't it? And it is certainly not a goal that one shouldn't aspire to. I would never stop anyone from thinking that they could do that if they wanted to try.

Well, I think that's kind of what a singer might be like who listens to recordings of an operatic legend, such as Leontyne Price or Marylin Horne or something and decides she wants to be one of the best and make beautiful sounds like that and sing freely and expressively in a way that can move hearts.

So, the singer, or the jogger, sets out on the journey, and they do not foresee where it will lead. In the beginning there is inexperience, huge lack of knowledge, and many physical limitations to figure out. But the reality is, there are a huge number of runners/singers, who are running behind the top ones, a big gob of them in the middle-of-the-pack, and another group bringing up the rear. Some happy right where they are, some trying to move up in the pack. Not everyone trying to get to the front succeeds. They are stopped by physical limitations, lack of time and circumstance to train, injuries, etc...

What happened in my case, when I set out on this noble journey, is that I did not "succeed." It is when one does not succeed, or when one runs into injuries, or one hits a plateau in growth that one begins to look more deeply for answers (if one is not willing to give up.) All the years and all the money I shelled out to teachers, I never did understand how I was to be "supporting" my singing voice. I couldn't even begin to manage my airflow and air pressure because I wasn't even phonating properly, and good phonation is a prerequisite for gaining access to beginning of the development and coordination of the muscles of breathing regulation.

There seem to be some naturally coordinated singers out there who just "get it" and support, and to be honest, some of them can't even describe what they're doing but it's working. The fact that they couldn't describe what they were doing, however, wasn't helpful to me in finding the way to do it. If one of them stopped for a second to try to figure out what they were doing, their description of what their muscles are doing often wasn't helpful because it is hard to describe sensations in one's body. What feels like pushing out to one person may be actually pushing in, or may not be pushing in but feel like pushing in to another person

It gets very confusing.

I was not able to figure it out, and the first attempt to figure it out, asking knowledgeable people, led to varying opinions and varying descriptions, so I thought, okay, maybe there is an objective answer in science. This leads a singer such as myself into taking a look at anatomy, and reading some of the stuff vocal scientists have been trying to figure out.

But, even after that, one encounters many theories. One sees that there are different ways to achieve the airflow and breath pressure. I heard theories that sounded plausible, had been measured and tested somewhat, but when I tried them they didn't work for me at all!

This has led me the point where I have become interested in stdying the anatomy of respiration a little bit, and have tried to use some logic to conclude what I'm supposed to do. The approach that I currently use when I am deciding which action I will take next goes something like this: If A is true (something like the diaphragm descends at the intake of breath, for example), and B is true, (something like the ribcage expands, for example), and C is true, (something like we need to apply pressure to get the vocal cords vibrating, for example), and D is true (something like we recruit the ab muscles to apply the pressure at a certain point) then maybe E is true (something like perhaps toning my ab muscles will help me to have better control over my singing, for example).

So then based on my theory and conclusion, I embark on a plan of improving the condition of my abs (even though some singers say that helps and others say it doesn't).

In other words, the approach I use at this time in my life is to take some things that I know are true, or are somewhat proven to be true, draw some conclusions from that, develop a theory, and then test it out. If I get results, great! If not, then I have to go back to the drawing board.

I may have the luxury to do this because I am not a professional singer and the pressure to have my voice be in any kind of "ready" condition for performing at top levels is not present, so I can just sit here and take forever to figure it out. On the other hand, the reason I'm not a professional is because it has been taking me forever to figure it out and I'm just stubborn and won't just give up.

The limitation of my using this approach is that the subject matter is so complex and my knowledge is scant. I gather a few pieces of information and hope it's enough to get me a technique that works. A lot of times it's not enough, and I have to continue on studying the matter more and more deeply. Thank heavens I'm interested and inclined to this type of study, but I also have to balance it with my other duties and obligations.

My dream would be to find simulated graphic animations of what it looks like internally when great singers are singing. I have viewed some animations of what respiration looks like from the inside, such as this one: respiration animation. This one doesn't show how the muscles of respiration are behaving, but one my husband has, in a very expensive computer program he bought while he was studying anatomy in medical school, does show it well.

In my research and explorations and hunt to find similarly animated demonstrations of singers, I have eavesdropped (via papers presented at the International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques -- way to get sidetracked, huh?) and heard how "in animation, respiration and its deformation of the torso have remained stylistic and are often overly simple or ignored entirely." (Model and Control of Simulated Respiration for Animation, Victor B. Zordan, Bhrigu Celly, Bill Chiu, and Paul C. DiLorenzo¤
University of California Riverside

I guess that means that they are still trying to figure out how to portray ordinary respiration itself and we are a long way off from my being able to look inside a singer's body by this means. Will anyone ever take an interest in animating that?

Or some kind of MRI-like image taken in some new-fangled stand-up chamber where singers could be imaged as they did their thing, so you could see what the muscles were doing. I bet you'd have to watch way more than just one singer and I bet you'd see different things going on with each one of them and have to compare.

The latest thing I've found in my hunting and gathering of information is this book, The Biology of Musical Performance and Performance Related Injury (see, it takes a desire to figure out what causes injury for people to explore more deeply for answers sometimes) by Alan H.D. Watson. I have just skimmed what is on the google reader for this book, and what I've seen so far looks like it's good material, but don't have enough information on whether to actually recommend the book or not.

However, on page 118 of this book there is a chart on "The difference in respiratory patterns between individuals with different body types as proposed by Hoit and Hixon (1986)" that you might want to take a look at if you are someone interested in this subject. The chart has pictures of different body types, endomorph, ectomorph, and mesomorph, and describes different ways of breathing each body type employs.

The book itself costs $55.00 and how very much I would like to purchase it and dig into it. However, can I justify the cost when I am not even a professional, not a teacher, and merely have this hobby kind of interest? But I can't tell you how much I want to buy this book now. Oh how I wish I had deep deep knowledge, instead of this mish moshed mix of snippets of information!

For the time being, I will delve into the amount that has been provided by the google reader. That should be enough to feed me for a while, and I plan to dig into it right after I get dressed, empty the dishwasher, do my laundry and ironing, go to Whole Foods, get organized for the week, practice singing, go for a run, take the dog out, etc.....

I am very grateful for the lively discussion and debate on my singer message board. Because of it I have been stimulated to seek further knowledge and now have this new information about the different body types to explore.

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