Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Language of Vocal Pedagogy -- or - Why is it so Hard to Talk About Singing?

It has been really hard for me to figure out exactly what direction I wanted to take with this post.  In the end, what I want to talk about is a little complex, so this may end up being a long post.

At first, I thought I might give my opinions of the book Head First: The Language of the Head Voice: A Concise Study of Learning to Sing in the Head Voice by Denes Striny.  But that was proving to be a bit difficult for reasons I'll explain below. So next I thought maybe I would like to talk about what is meant by "head voice" and "chest voice."  However, for some of the same reasons I was finding it difficult to talk about the Head First book, I changed my mind again and decided that maybe it would be better write about how hard it is to talk about singing because of how vague the language can be, and how studying vocal science might help us come up with more objective descriptions of what is happening so we can communicate better about it.  Still, another thought was to lay Mr. Striny's book alongside another one I have been reading, Resonance in Singing: Voice Building through Acoustic Feedback, by Donald Gray Miller, PhD, and compare the different ways in which each author uses language to express pedagogical concepts.

In the end, I have settled on writing something about how hard it is to understand what different people are saying about voice, for different reasons.

Giving an opinion of  Mr. Striny's book has proved to be a much more difficult and complex task than I ever thought it would be.  One of the reasons it was hard for me was because I wasn't sure I understood exactly what he was talking about, nor -- even after reading the entire book -- exactly what he meant by the term "head voice." In order to be fair, before I could give my opinion, I felt I owed it to the author to work hard to really understand what he was truly trying to say.  Since it wasn't clear to me what he was trying to say the first time I read the book,  I decided to read it a second time -- this time studying it slowly and carefully -- making a full effort to figure out what he meant when he used certain terms and tried to describe different vocal experiences.

After the second reading, it still wasn't 100% clear to me what he meant by "head voice," even though the appealing title of the book seemed to promise that this was going to be explained to me.

Next, at the recommendation of a singer on the New Forum for Classical Singing (NFCS) message board, I purchased a book, Resonance in Singing, by Donald Gray Miller, PhD, and thought that this book might help me decipher and explain the experiences Mr. Striny was trying to describe in his book.  Perhaps if I knew a little more about the physiological reality behind the singing concepts he was trying to describe, I could match up Mr. Striny's language with the science.

Well, reading Mr. Miller's book and figuring out what he was talking about was as difficult and complex as Mr. Striny's but for very different reasons.  I will have to study Mr. Miller's book slowly and carefully as well, in order to understand what he means.

These two different books represent two very different approaches to talk about singing.  One approach is to make up a language in which to describe the experience of singing and what it feels like.  The other approach is to understand the science behind what is happening and describe with accurate language objective observations about singing.

It is obvious that Mr. Striny has had revelatory personal vocal experiences that have led to his being able to sing in a way that is giving him much joy.  It is clear that he is very excited about this and would like to share his revelations with other singers so that they also, may have this joy.  The problem is that he does not exactly have a language with which to speak of these experiences, so he kind of makes up his own way of describing what he knows.  To a certain extent, this works, but in other ways it can be confusing if you can't figure out exactly what he means.

Mr. Miller comes from the angle of using technological equipment to measure and study the properties of voices that are producing this wonderful sound we love.  The patterns of the harmonics are broken down and measured with equipment that can graph what is happening and be studied.  EGGs measure the resistance in the vocal muscles to give objective information about what is happening during phonation. This information and these measurements can help the singer understand how a better sound can be produced. Terminology is defined and given more precise meaning, pointing to measurable muscular and acoustic actualities.

Yet, whichever terminology is used, the singer who wants to learn to sing better is still left in a state of confusion and still left to wondering: "How?"

Both Striny and Miller preface their books with admissions of this difficulty.

Miller says that singing is "a complex coordination that words cannot adequately capture, even for the simplest manifestation of voice."

Striny says, "In discussing this topic, we have a terminology problem.  The words mean different things to people who have not had the experience."

Miller says: "key concepts of singers' language ... do not capture a widely shared experience, but rather comprise a set of privately understood terms for processes that are felt to be important, even crucial, but which refuse to be laid out for all to see."

Striny says that when singers finally find their "Total Vocal Potential" they will "own it ... understand it .. but unfortunately, they will not be able to converse on any real level with others who do not sing in this way."

However, whereas Striny does not seem to think there is a need to study the phenomena behind these vocal experiences, Miller advocates using the science of what is occurring to help make clear what these terms really mean. While Striny gropes for a language in which to describe his discoveries, Miller makes an effort to specifically define terms and recommends the vocal community come together and  make an effort to clarify what the pedagogical words point to physiologically.

There are so many vocal terms that cause confusion, such as "appoggio," "cover," "placement," "open throat," etc, but because I purchased Striny's book in the hopes of understanding merely one term, "head voice" more deeply, I will mostly stick to that term, along with the corresponding "chest voice" and "registers" to explore why these terms are confusing.  It took me a few hours to gather quotes and compare a little from these two books.  To speak on a broad scope and in depth, as opposed to giving a bit of a sample, would be extremely time consuming and end up being a dissertation of sorts.

So, from my point of view, Denes Striny is an example of someone who comes from the experience of voice. He mentions in his book that he thinks the attempts to understand the science behind how the voice works has harmed people's ability to learn how to sing.  So, he prefers not to try to explain the phenomena behind the experience that he calls "head voice" in his book.

Mr. Striny, the one I say comes from the realm of personal experience, as opposed to objective science,  decides to use the word "texture" to describe the experience of "head voice" and "chest voice."  He says that there are two different vocal "textures" that can be felt, and that one of these "textures" is more suited to opera singing.  He uses the word "texture" over and over again, as if he is, indeed, groping for a word to describe what he wants to say. Perhaps by repeating this word enough he thought it might just cause the reader to catch on to what he was trying to say about these two different modes in the singing voice.

Mr. Miller, on the other hand, describes "head voice" and "chest voice" as two different "modes of vibration" of the vocal cords, and by describing what is happening physically when producing each.  "Chest voice" is produced by vibrating thicker, shorter cords in deep contact with each other, and "head voice" is produced by vibrating longer, thinner cords that are in shallower contact with each other.

What Mr. Striny might call "Texture A and Texture B," Miller might call "Vibratory Mode A or Vibratory Mode B"

Whichever language and description a singer reads, they still don't know how to do it after reading the language.  As a beginning singer I had always been aware of two different sensations I could feel when singing -- a heavier kind of strong feeling and sound I had when I sang low notes, and a lighter, breathy, weaker feeling  I had when when I sang high.  If I had read Mr. Striny's book when I was young, I might have nodded my head when he presented the idea of two different "textures" based on my experience and figured out what he was talking about and started calling my strong low voice my "chest" voice and my higher, weaker voice my "head voice."  On the other hand, I might have gotten confused and thought he was talking about some experience altogether different than the one I had and one I must strive yet to discover.  It wouldn't be completely clear.

But if I had read Mr. Miller's book, I might have said, "Oh, that's what's happening when I feel those two different feelings.  My cords are thicker and shorter and touching in more places when I sing low, and they are longer and thinner and making less surface contact when I sing higher."  Or, I might have said to myself, "I'm not sure I'm doing that.  How can I tell the difference between the two modes of vibration?  What do they feel like?"  Still confused.

Throughout Mr. Striny's book, Head First, I wondered if he was talking about this vibratory pattern of the vocal cords when he spoke of "head voice."

Yet, in other places in the book he talks about the "language of the head voice" and how certain vowels were part of the "language of the head voice" and I then think maybe he's not discussing phonation at all, but describing, rather, the acoustic properties of the head voice.

In the Miller book, Resonance in Singing, these phenomena are described in such language as "formant tuning," and "harmonics," and "tracking."

So, is Mr. Striny talking about formant tuning when he talks about "head voice."  Or is it both?

I personally prefer the more scientific explanations.  It bothers me to have someone make up a word to describe what is happening.  I would like to know exactly what is happening. What does "texture" mean??? But this may be a matter of temperament.  I have read very good reviews of Mr. Striny's book on and in those reviews the singers claim to be singing much better from having read his book.  Perhaps these singers are of another temperament than mine.

In my all time favorite (so far) vocal book, Discover Your Voice, by Oren Brown, he includes a chapter with the science in it for "the kind of teacher and student who want to have scientific explanation."  I feel very validated that he acknowledges that there is this kind of person, and that it's not "wrong" to want to know what is happening physically when people use ambiguous vocal language.

I wanted to dismiss Denes Striny's book after the first reading because it didn't use the language that I am trying to become conversant with, the language of science.  But later -- and this is due to the fact that I am studying with a voice teacher who uses a lot of her own personal language to get these concepts across to me and it is working well -- I thought again that perhaps there is a need for a person to stand between the two worlds of scientific terminology and experiential terminology and find a way to bridge the gap.  When she says "zip up the cords" does she mean "medial compression?"  Or something else?  Is it worth the effort to try to figure out what it all means?

It takes a lot of time and effort, to study and learn what is happening physically when we sing.  To bother to take the time to study these things is a lot of work.  Learning to sing is enough work as it is, especially when you are an avocational singer, picking up tidbits of it here and there as you can squeeze in between tasks of taking care of a family.  And yet, doing the work of learning some objective language to describe singing can help the whole vocal world be able to talk about it with each other by defining terms everyone can understand.  Learning a new language does take time and effort, but it can bring people to more of an agreement about what is healthy, and perhaps aid in developing some great voices for us all to hear.


  1. Is it any wonder that when you get singing teachers together they can't agree on things? And is it any wonder why a teacher can have world-class results with one singer and little success with another?

    I think it is totally within reason to want to know "why"...and generally speaking a teacher that can't give you an answer hasn't had the same desire or just hasn't integrated it into their own teaching and in some cases, really doesn't know.

    I don't think we need to teach using only scientific terminology but I definitely believe that we need to have access to ALL the different ways of explaining something so that we can serve all styles of learners in our studios.

  2. I appreciate your comments, Elizabeth, and they make me think further about the matter.

    A lot of people do not respond to the scientific terminology. Even I -- one who enjoys and loves learning about the science -- am responding really wonderfully right now to a teacher who uses other language to get me to sing. Her language clicks with me, but it gives me a sense of security to know that what she is telling me squares with the science and I can find explanations for what she is describing in the science. It all squares, so it makes sense to me. Since my teacher also knows the science, she knows I like to know that part of it too, so she throws it in there for me. But as often as not, it is non-scientific language she uses that gets me to do the trick, and not the scientific language.

    In the past, it has not been so. Before I even knew there was such a thing as vocal science, I studied with teachers who used imagery and their own way of explaining what to do, but it wouldn't make sense to me. I would get very confused. It seemed so abstract and subjective and I just didn't know what they were trying to tell me.

    Now knowing some basics about what is happening, I can trust better in a lesson: "Oh, she says to think of a 'test tube.' That must be how she's getting me to the right acoustical space. Oh, that's a good image!"

    Like you said, an ideal for a teacher is to have access to ALL the different ways of explaining something. And I really wish that people who want to hang up a shingle and teach voice would bother to study the actual physical realities that are happening in the body. This would mean a bit of work on the side. That way they can choose to use their language, instead of it being the only way they have to explain it.

  3. Thanks for all the great book pointers. Sometimes I think that reading vocal ped books is like dating. Some books really stick with you, others make you want to run away screaming. Also, the descriptions in the books never make much sense to me until I actually experience it personally. Maybe I'm just fitting my own mental model to the author's words, even though they could be talking something entirely different!

    Personally I love the science part, especially the acoustical science, since I'm an engineer at heart and by training. When I'm in the practice room or at rehearsal singing some note and I have a thought like, "I am boosting the overtones in my acoustical spectrum", why, that makes my geeky little self feel all warm and fuzzy inside!

  4. LOL, Blue Yonder, about pedagogical books and dating.

    After my voice lesson yesterday, where yet again my teacher was successfully getting concepts across to me while using her own language of imagery, I realized that when someone wants to talk about it in a book, he would want to go deeper than that and define the terms according to science. A teacher who aspires to get his pedagogical ideas across in writing might be well served to spend some time studying what his imagery corresponds to in order to develop some objective language. "By 'circumference' I mean 'x,' by 'space' I mean 'y'"

    Oh, but there I go again, saying what I blogged about again in another set of words. I guess you get that.

  5. Hello, Avocational Singer. I'm so glad people are talking about Striny's book, Head First. I bought it two years ago and it changed my singing life and my life in general. On first read, I threw it on the floor, exasperated in its simplicity. But something said to re-read it, because I had begun to experiment with using much less air and no pressure whatsoever, to get back my high pianissimos. His book confirmed I was on the right path. But he did not go far enough in stressing how very much we must relax our tongues, our jaws, our bellies, our shoulders, etc., to allow the tone to soar into the mask. When we are perfectly relaxed, everywhere, and when we focus the voice in the mask, the tone is nearly perfect - IT sings. I applied myself to learning what he was after, and my accompanist husband was thrilled. I've gone even deeper than the book at this point, and am teaching total amateurs to find their lyric voices in a single weekend workshop. They think it is a miracle. The book changed my life and my singing, and now things look golden for me, my work, and my students. Head First was a great contributor to my happiness, so do yourself a favor and listen to the voices he cites, understand the wonderful window behind our eyes and nose, and put all your effort there, not in the throat or anywhere else. I no longer teach breath support or other mechanisms - they come naturally when the body is perfectly relaxed and the voice is 100% in the mask, slim, yet full of velvety sound and power. All the best, Robin Hendrix, mezzo-soprano

  6. Hello, Robin! I want to thank you for taking the time to write out this great and detailed comment about your experience with the book.

    Since the time I wrote the blog post about the Head Fist book, I have begun to study with a new teacher, and the things I am learning now have caused me to want to revisit the Head First book again. Some of the vocal work I'm presently doing has made me think back to the book and said to myself, "Oh!! This must be what Mr. Striny was trying to get at!

    When I initially read the Head First book, it wasn't that I didn't think there was any valuable information there. I just was not able to apply what I was reading by myself. In fact, I concluded after reading it that probably the best way to find out what Mr. Striny was trying to convey was to go have a lesson with him. Sometimes the combo of the teacher AND the book would be the optimal way to experience a teacher's ideas. That way, a singer would be able to connect the physical aspects with the language of the teacher.

    I did not want to do any author any disservice by sharing my own experience of a first reading of his book. People who read should know who exactly has read the book -- in my case, an amateur singer who is also an amateur book reviewer -- and at one point in the person's training and development as a singer the reviewer is when she has come across the material. I do think it's valid to read about how the book comes across to different kinds of singers, because that is some kind of measure of its ability to communicate it's message.

    Now you have provided an example of how the book has come across to another singer, you, who have obviously experienced the ideas and connected with them in a very beneficial way. It is exciting to hear about it.

    I will take your suggestion and delve into the book again. Thanks for sharing your experiences.