While my approach to teaching vocal technique continues to evolve, it's now mostly a process of expanding on essential principles that I've been working with for about a decade. What most interests me now is finding a more effective and robust structure for learning and practicing technique.
In my previous post, I suggested mining martial arts and meditation practices for ideas about how to incorporate physical coordination, kinesthetic awareness, mental focus, mind/body integration, and detailed assessment into our process. I've also long suspected that Western singers may have a lot to learn from Eastern musical traditions where these skills are concerned. With the help and insight of Indian singer Falu, I've begun to test this theory.
In addition to my studio teaching, I work as a Teaching Artist for The Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall. I first had the opportunity to hear Falu perform about a year ago when she participated in a concert at Zankel Hall as part of WMI's Global Encounters curriculum. I was frankly blown away by the power, beauty, and flexibility of her singing, as well as the palpable serenity and joy she exuded while phrases of incredible virtuosity and nuance effortlessly poured out of her. As part of her presentation, Falu also talked about her rigorous early studies that often included days where she would train her voice for up to 16 hours, as well as the importance of continued daily practice. Since then, I have been very curious to learn more about her training. She was kind enough to meet with me yesterday to begin sharing some aspects of her work in greater detail.
It's going to take some time to fathom the essentials of Indian classical singing and discover how aspects of this rich tradition can potentially augment the way we study singing in the West. However, I was immediately struck by several fascinating differences between our methods that I would like to describe for you now:
Emphasis on breath training and practice. In Indian classical singing, everything begins with and continually refers back to the role of the breath. All traditions of singing obviously rely on good breath management, but here the primacy of breath training is highly significant. Daily practice begins with at least a full half hour devoted to breathing exercises before undertaking any actual vocal work, and it serves to focus the mind as well as to expand specific breathing skills.
Full integration of ear training with singing technique. In the West, we think of these as distinct areas of study, but in Indian singing they are inseparable. Indian music is melody-based and requires mastery of a great number of scales that incorporate precise intervals at times narrower, at others wider, than the major and minor seconds of the equal temperament used in most Western music. As singers practice these scales, they simultaneously develop their technique and their ear. It is crucial for all singers to learn how to let the ear tune the voice rather than manipulate the larynx to find the "right position" for a desired pitch, and much time is devoted to this in my studio. But as Falu demonstrated her scales for me, it seemed like it would be out of the question for her to ever need to "reach" for a pitch. I do not know whether this is something that can be completely adapted for Western singing, but if you've ever found yourself getting vocally tied up in knots in an ear training class or had difficulty singing a highly chromatic passage without tightening up, you will appreciate my reasons for wanting to explore the possibility.
A highly structured practice regimen. Indian singers spend far more time in daily practice than Western singers. While I do not yet understand why their practice facilitates the stamina for sessions that can last up to 16 hours, it is certainly very helpful to have clearly delineated tasks designed to be undertaken in order and at specific times of day, as well as a system for keeping track of and assessing their progress. Falu showed me the notebook where she continues to record the details of her practice sessions. Her notes include the number of seconds she is able to sustain specific breath exercises and the particular raga she has practiced on a given day.
Focus on spirituality and self-realization. Indian music is deeply valued for its ability to transform and elevate both practitioner and audience, far more so than for its ability to impress and entertain. While in the West we most assuredly do appreciate the power of the voice to create transcendent experiences for performer and listener, there is a way that this aspect is manifest in all aspects of Indian musical practice such that it is essentially a means of self-realization rather than an end unto itself.
I was also struck by the utter absence of any tension or entanglement in Falu's articulation. Her lips, tongue and jaw coordinate with remarkably relaxed efficiency. Certainly professional singers of all traditions need to be capable of this as well, but there was something notable about the fluidity of her coordination that seemed to go beyond anything I've observed among the best of opera singers.
There are some particulars of Indian classical singing technique that are at odds with the priorities of Western technique. Indian music requires an absence of vibrato. The fluctuations of vibrato would be heard as actual different pitches, making the precise microtonal tuning of many of their scales and ornaments impossible to execute. With the importance of intricate melody and absence of harmonies, Indian singing technique emphasizes line and agility over projection and resonance, so I do not yet know whether the things we need to do to fill a large hall without amplification are compatible with their technique. Indian music is a highly improvisational oral tradition taught without notation of any kind, so there are significant differences in the way the technique is applied to learning and performing repertoire.
However, there are without question some things they teach exceptionally well that can easily be adapted to Western technique. I will continue to explore them and share the results with you.
I would also love to hear from readers who have experience with singing techniques of other world cultures and thoughts about how they compare with our own.