In my post Towards a Gold Standard in Singing, I stated that in addition to evaluating a singer’s sound, we must also evaluate the quality of their instrument, the quality of their coordination, and the quality of mind/body integration that enables them to simultaneously be artist and instrument. I would argue that mastery of singing requires not only a fine instrument, exemplary coordination, and strong mind/body integration but also the development of a strong relationship between these three categories of achievement.
As I expressed in The Master Singer, Part 1, we can learn a great deal from instrumental pedagogical strategies. However, where instrument quality, coordination, and mind/body integration are concerned, there are some critical differences between instrumentalists and singers. I believe there is also a great deal to be learned from the ways in which the similarities are analogous, informative, or actually misleading.
Before examining the distinctive way in which singers experience the relationship between instrument, coordination and integration, let’s consider the instrumental paradigm.
A master instrumentalist chooses and customizes their instrument, develops and maintains the coordination to manipulate it with virtuosic precision, and channels their expressive and musical impulses through it. There is a clear distinction between instrument, skill, and message, as well as established practices for optimizing each and then integrating them. Should their performance fall short, it is relatively easy to determine which of these components is in need of attention.
A serious instrumentalist conducts exhaustive research and test-drives as many fine models as they can get their hands on before choosing their instrument. They will then keep it in excellent repair, stay current with research and innovations that affect instrument design, and upgrade their equipment whenever possible.
Instrument craftsmanship is an evolving tradition. While standard-bearers emerge from time to time, instrument builders continually seek to understand what accounts for the exceptional construction of a Stradivarius violin or a Hiniker oboe. Instrument builders concern themselves with subjective qualities such as beauty of sound or the overall “personality” of each individual specimen, but they also continually seek to improve objective qualities such as responsiveness, intonation, and mechanistic efficiency.
Modern advances in our understanding of acoustics and physics have yielded valuable information for instrument builders. I’m inspired by the work of trumpet maker David Monette and wrote about some of his innovations in a previous post. Monette noted inconsistencies in timbre, pitch and resistance characteristic of trumpets – inconsistencies for which players must continually compensate while performing – and asked whether these could be resolved by engineering a better mouthpiece. His mouthpieces have greatly eliminated the effortful adjustments players have traditionally had to make to their alignment and embouchure in order to play in tune with a consistent sound.
Playing an instrument is a process of manipulating an object with tremendous precision and skill. The way you hear the sounds you are producing is fairly closely aligned with the way they sound to fellow performers and your audience. You also have some degree of tactile and visual awareness of what you’re doing and how the instrument is responding. An instrument may have moving parts or components that must be replaced from time to time, but it is by nature a highly stable structure. Every time you play it, you will find it in the same state in which you last left it.
To a virtuoso, the instrument comes to feel like an extension of their body. They can translate feelings and creative impulses into sound with astonishing immediacy. However, it takes many years’ worth of regular, repetitive practice to achieve that level of integration, and if an instrumentalist goes a few weeks without playing, it may take as many weeks to restore it.
A master singer makes music with the unique body and voice with which they were born – a highly malleable instrument that can be optimized for performance in a variety of ways. They also must develop precise coordination, but rather than learning to manipulate an external object, their process of developing coordination consists entirely of training movements, some of which are externally visible but most of which are essentially internal and are difficult or impossible to feel, let alone see. Having cultivated this coordination, they must learn to allow their expressive and musical impulses to catalyze these movements – rather than manipulating an object, they play their instrument primarily with their imagination. Instrument, skill and message are organically integrated by default. But unless a singer understands the distinction and relationship between these three components, it can be extremely difficult to sort out which one to work on should their performance fall short.
Some components of a singer’s instrument are determined by their DNA. Genes govern features such as height, the dimensions of most skeletal structures, and body fat distribution. However, many of the other parameters of the singer’s instrument are the product of nurture rather than nature. While a comprehensive understanding of the way genetics may impact one’s individual potential for strength and flexibility awaits conclusive research, these are qualities that can be improved through exercise and behavioral adaptations regardless of inborn potential. Alignment, breathing, articulation and resonance all largely depend upon balanced development of strength and flexibility, not only with regard to the large muscles governing overall movement and stabilization but also the small ones responsible for fine motor control of the jaw, tongue, and other articulators. While a singer’s lowest viable pitch is more or less set by the resting length of the vocal folds, the high range can be cultivated and expanded, as can resonance space. The instrument a singer is born with can be optimized through the development of a well-balanced musculature and expanded range of motion for the larynx, articulators and resonators.
Singers must develop the physical coordination needed to activate each individual component of their instrument – breathing, phonation, articulation and resonance. They must coordinate the workings of these components with one another. They must develop the coordination to activate the whole to respond to musical and dramatic intent. They must achieve internally the same level of intricate control and power a great gymnast demonstrates in a complex floor routine.
Have a look at Simone Biles’s floor routine performance at the 2015 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow.
It takes extraordinary strength, flexibility, coordination and pacing to perform these long tumbling sequences across the floor, and while executing them Biles is fueled by intent, momentum, and muscle memory. She is not deliberately engaging one body part after another or manipulating any part of herself with any other part. However, when she was learning the individual moves that comprise this routine she did have to engage in deliberate, mechanistic procedures requiring her to focus on and possibly manipulate individual body parts. Along the way, she and her coaches may have discovered that executing these movements in this particular order would require the development of greater strength or flexibility in specific muscles. Only after this groundwork had been laid could she begin to practice the kind of coordination that would allow her to continuously flow from movement to movement and build the requisite momentum to pull off those soaring aerial flips.
Similarly, developing the coordination to sing well means both kinds of preparation. Here is Diana Damrau performing the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor at the Bayerische Staatsoper last February. I invite you to enjoy the whole clip, but if you wish, skip to the cadenza, which begins at around 11:50.
Like Biles, Damrau’s performance draws on exceptional strength, flexibility, coordination and pacing; however, her ability to execute these virtuoso phrases with apparent effortlessness was cultivated piece by piece in the studio so that in performance she could allow her expressive intent to take the driver’s seat. As far as I can discern, Damrau is also not deliberately engaging individual components of her voice or manipulating any part of her body with any other part – she is simply directing a flow of thought, feeling and music through her highly responsive instrument.
For a singer, instrument, skill and message are organically integrated by default.
In one sense, this is just the state of affairs, rather than something one must cultivate. As I wrote in a previous post, the voice never lies – whatever is in your mind and your heart when you perform will come through in your voice. If the instrument and coordination you have developed are commensurate with the demands of a given song or aria, that will be evident to the listener; if they are lacking such that your performance entails a series of effortful compensations, that will also be evident.
In another sense, integration is something that you do have to cultivate. But perhaps not in the way you might think. If you agree with my assertion that whatever is in your mind and your heart when you perform will come through in your voice, then it follows that the only way you can integrate intent with coordination is to master your intentions.
While Simone Biles performs her floor routine, she is not consciously intending the placement of a foot or the angle of an elbow. She is intent upon the sequence of movements she is performing, in real time.
When Diana Damrau performs the Mad Scene she is not intending the placement of individual notes or the engagement of her pelvic floor. She is wholly intent on embodying Lucia and reacting to her situation.
This does not mean that master singers (or gymnasts) must achieve a level of focus and concentration such that peripheral thoughts entirely cease to arise during performance. It means that they must achieve a level of focus and concentration such that they are able to continually direct their intentions to the task at hand and turn down the volume on unhelpful thoughts.
Like instrumentalists, singers must optimize the quality of their instrument. The body is infinitely malleable and there exist tools for evoking desirable adaptations for its structure and function. But while we agree on the importance of good alignment, breathing, articulation and resonance, I believe we lack an agreed-upon definition of what that would mean for the structure of a singer’s instrument and how to achieve it.
The way singers hear their own voices is markedly different from the way they are perceived by others because they are listening from inside the instrument they are playing; therefore, they cannot evaluate their own sound the way instrumentalists do because their perceptions will likely be misleading. Singers therefore need a different set of criteria for real-time evaluation of their own performance.
Like instrumentalists, singers must develop exceptional coordination. But rather than learning to manipulate an external object, they must elicit movement from their own bodies in a way that is more practically comparable to that of an athlete than, say, a clarinetist. If you develop a vocal technique that involves manipulating your own body rather than eliciting movements and sounds through your imagination, not only does the intention to self-manipulate come through in your sound but you also cannot enjoy the creative and expressive freedom that, for me, is at the very heart of what it means to be a singer.
Unlike instrumentalists, who can expect to find their axe in more or less the same state in which they last left it, a singer plays a new instrument every day because their instrument embodies the sum of all their life’s experiences: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.
Unlike instrumentalists, singers are simultaneously performer and instrument – integrated by default. This is, and should be regarded as, a great advantage.
Unfortunately, it has led to singers and teachers believing that the instrument a singer is born with is the instrument that they must bring to the studio and that its assets and limitations are a given when, in my view, most of them are not. As I pointed out in Part 1, voice teachers too often regard their students’ deficiencies as built-in features for which they must be trained to compensate with real-time self-manipulation, such as baring their incisors to ensure the clarity of certain vowels or thrusting with their breath to keep the notes at the top of their passaggio in tune.
The way the features of our instruments are inherently integrated can also lead voice teachers and singers to prioritize mechanics over artistry, believing that the kind of hands-on coordination and mental focus needed to optimize the activities of the various components of the voice is also necessary for real-time operation of the instrument in performance, leaving very little head space for creative expression.
Our best performances will always be those motivated by expressive intent rather than a necessity to produce a good sound and deliver an accurate performance. A gymnast who tries to compensate for technical limitations in the middle of a tumbling sequence will probably fall flat on their face. A singer whose technique is built around such compensations may not crash and burn in quite so spectacular a fashion; however, they will not only fail to access the full range of pitches, colors and dynamics of which they are capable but will also never feel fully free to express themselves in performance with whatever range they are able to cultivate.
In my three most recent posts, I have enumerated the skills and qualities that define an elite singer and have taken inventory of the areas where current pedagogical and curricula sometimes fall short:
- We need a means to objectively evaluate progress and skill;
- We need training programs that can transform demonstrated potential into professional quality mastery;
- We need a procedure informed by both instrumental and athletic paradigms to help us delineate instrument quality, coordination, and intent to ensure both that expressive concerns become the primary motivator during performance and that we are training essential skills in the studio rather than assisting students to compensate for perceived limitations.
My next posts will propose means to achieve these ends.