Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Amateur Vocal Scientist

Alongside my passion (obsession?) for learning how to sing well, I have developed along the way a connected interest and pursuit, and that is a passion for understanding vocal science.

I have always been so fascinated and enthralled with everything about the human voice. When I took my first voice lessons, over 25 years ago, I was expecting voice lessons to include information about how the apparatus worked. I had these expectations, but never voiced them. So, my lessons went on and on and we never talked about the physiology of the muscles and parts used in singing. You see, there was an interest, curiosity, and set of expectations present of which I was then not fully aware. It is only in looking back that I remember this curiosity, but like a good little girl who does not speak until spoken to, I was expecting people to read my mind, or provide the information when the time was right. In those days I didn't speak up to find things out, because I wasn't even sure of what my questions were.

The years passed, and it eventually came about that I started with a second teacher, and I got excited because I saw anatomical posters on her walls: pictures of the "voice box" or larynx, anatomical drawings of the diaphragm, and pictures of a human head from the side showing the spaces and places where the air flowed and showing the tongue in different positions for vowels.

I thought this new teacher was going to talk about all the mechanisms and muscles, and explain what we are doing when we breathe and when we support. But she never got around to it, and, again, I did not ask. One day she mentioned something about what some muscle was doing but interrupted herself in the middle of the explanation saying, "oh, but you don't have to know about these things."

Why didn't I just blurt out, "I want to know! I find it interesting! Please keep explaining!"?

Well, as the years wore on, I was studying and studying singing, but still couldn't do simple things, like sing high notes, and get through even simple short phrases without "running out of breath." I was willing to accept that it was a gradual process, and have patience. But at a certain point I began to wonder, well, just when is this going to happen? Seems like it's taking a little too long.

This led me to the decision that once and for all I was going to find out how it all worked. I thought I might find some answers there.

So, I bought books, studied some anatomy, talked to my then med-student husband, watched simulated graphic animations of breathing (breathing animation), sought out youtube videos of vocal cords in action (video stroboscopy of the vocal cords), and went searching all over the Internet for vocal science information, thinking that it would help me find the answers to why I was not learning to sing.

And thus it happened that I stumbled upon and developed a new hobby: Amateur (very amateur) Vocal Scientist.

What I long for, are realistic simulated animations of a professionally trained singer, so I can "see" what everything is doing. So I can "see" this miracle of voice production. I have been able to watch parts of the process in action, but to strip away all that is blocking my view and to SEE singing as well as hear it, to witness and study a simulated animation with the different muscles and parts in different colors and transparent so you can see the ones behind them, and watch them all working together. This is a dream of mine.

At first, I thought I might find it. I thought someone might have done it. After all, there are all kinds of curious scientists out there measuring and studying all kinds of things.

Alas, however, there seem to be no living inside pictures of singers, such as the ones I long to see, making visible the employment of action from the mechanisms and muscles used in really fine singing. The methods of obtaining information from the muscles are so intrusive and uncomfortable that it would be difficult to sing naturally, or for lots of singers to want to do it for enough time to really make good models.

So, until science comes up with a less invasive and painless way of gathering the information from the muscles, I will have to wait to see inside a singer's body this way.

In the meantime, I have to use my imagination. One of my favorite things to do, as I'm going about my household chores, is take the bits and pieces of information I have about the bodily system that produces a singing voice and work on constructing a living model such as the one I wish for in my mind's eye. I cannot convey to you all here what a miracle I think the human voice is, and how spending time imagining it this way gives me such pleasure.

Some singers get annoyed, "oh, just sing, for goodness sake! You don't need to know all that." Well, in a way, they, like that teacher who said it, are right. A singer does not need to know all that. Singing is a kinetic experience, athletic, visceral, and finding out what it feels like is an incredible journey of exploration and self-discovery. But I experience pleasure in learning about it from the scientific point of view as well. Almost as much pleasure as in singing itself. I take nothing for granted. I want to know everything about it, like when you meet the love of your life and you find them endlessly curious and want to know everything about them. I want to know what singing is from the inside out, backwards and forwards, upside down, and every dimension.

Well, so! That brings us to today. Today I find myself continuing to work on the puzzle of the muscles of support. On this Avocational Singer blog site, I speak generally my ideas about singing and being the specific singer that I am in the specific life that I lead. On my Posterous site, Frescamari's Practice Studio, I show my work. My process. So, for anyone who might find it interesting, I will show my mental work on breathing support for today. I just want to always remind anyone who is taking a look, that my knowledge is so incomplete, very amateur, and definitely works in progress. My thinking about vocal science is just as much a work in progress as any of the songs I am learning. Take it for what it is. Not answers. Just questions, and my own attempt to answer the questions for the betterment of my own understanding.


For thoughts on abdominal engagement in application of breath pressure, click here: Breath Pressure

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