From the category archives:

Voice Lessons

In the last post, we looked at different examples of singing, in order to gain a clear idea of Ease in singing.  Here I will continue to outline how I work on singing, using the work of both FM Alexander and Manual Garcia, bringing the idea of Ease into the practice of Ease.

First off, what I do not do: I do not teach by imitation.  Telling a student to copy the teacher, or an accomplished performer is classic End-Gaining, and not a process of discovery whereby the student finds his true voice and ultimately becomes independent of the teacher.  This approach also presumes that the student is able to copy the teacher with freedom and ease.  Now if this were so, why is the pupil there taking a lesson in the first place?  The pupil could just get a record of say, Ivogun, listen and copy it.  Also, this approach does not ask the pupil to stop and think.  It treats the pupil like a trained seal and is insulting to even a limited intelligence.  What is learning if it tries to bypass thinking?

When I work with a singer, I must give him an actual, visceral feeling and the experience of Ease in singing by bombarding him with sensation until insight appears.  I see to it that the breath is not hurried, noisy or shallow, or that the face, hands, throat, entire spine, shoulders do
not betray any strain or tension whatsoever.  There is to be no forcing allowed into the process. We go very slowly in all of this. The rush and hurry in the study of everything is a big part of why we fail.

I use 4 mirrors and sometimes a DAT recorder and headphones so the pupil hears himself as we work.  Yes, it is very confrontational.

At this point I will ask the singer simply to intone of a series of legato vowels on one note (AH AE EE OH OO).  The note is one that the singer first chooses to hum, somewhere in the low to medium range; something he thinks is easy.  If I hear strain because the pitch is too low or a bit too high, then I will suggest another pitch.

The new coordination will feel very strange and unreliable to the pupil.  It will feel quite unusual and odd because it will feel like there is too small an effort for “singing as he knew it.”  It will be lighter and easier.  He may hear it and feel this sound is not “important” or “rich” enough. I help him STOP this thinking.  Meanwhile with my hands on, I constantly reinforce the directions for the new and more logical (FM says “reasoned out”) means whereby the breath, voice and thinking of the pupil can come together in a new and more efficient manner of use.  We may hear damage due to past “lessons” he has in his voice, for example, a wobble.  The student may have to accept this for awhile as the repair work is being done on his coordination.  Remember, the muscles have to learn a new way to interact as they stretch and contract.  It takes time.

Using a metronome to keep a nice, slow and steady tempo, I give very simple scales, ones that the pupil has not likely sung before.  I take great care to help the pupil set up positions of mechanical advantage from which to vocalize.  I will frequently bring him into “monkey” or have him put “hands on back of the chair.”  All of this helps direct the intention towards setting up the conditions for a new and improved way of singing.

We work in this slow, methodical way without singing any music more complicated than these simple, very slow short scales on easy vowels, until the pupil is able to stop any undue vocal efforts and of egoism, of wanting to be right and impressive.  This is where all of our strained efforts in life actually come from: ego and fear of failure.

Keep in mind, we get what we practice.  If we are not well directed in our thinking we will probably get a mess.  If we are lucid and clear headed as we work toward a goal, we have a great chance of success.

As a teacher, I am being paid to direct my pupil’s thinking and his studies towards efficiency, ease, and pleasure in achievement.  This leads him to experience greater satisfaction, self worth, and happiness.  It is amazing how quickly the progress is made, even though we are going slowly.  One will hear the notes improve within minutes as the vocal faults melt away.  One might think scales are boring.  They are not.  They help us make great progress almost immediately.  That is very, very exciting.

Part I

Part II

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In the last post, I outlined the 4 steps that F.M. Alexander developed and documented in Man’s Supreme Inheritance for applying conscious control to the learning or re-learning of a skill (in our example, the skill of singing).  Here I would like to example the first step as it relates to
singing.  The first step, you recall, is to get a “detailed and accurate idea (a concept in mind) of what movements we have to make.”  It means we must have a clear idea of what is not needed.  The idea is Ease in singing.

When I work with someone on singing, I am clear about what Ease in singing is and I seek to communicate that sense.  I give examples that compare the sound of strain to a free sound.  Listen for yourself.

Here are recordings of Cecilia Bartoli and Von Stade, two mezzo-sopranos singing the same aria.

Ease is what Cecilia Bartoli does not have, and Ease is what Frederica Von Stade does have.

And here, compare two sopranos, a modern singer Beverly Sills, trained in a forced way of singing, with Maria Ivogun, who used a very “old” approach.  They sing the same aria.

Again, Ease is what Beverly Sills does not have, and Ease is what Maria Ivogun does have.

These examples give you the idea, the concept of ease.

Cecilia Bartoli, Beverly Sills, and so many other modern singers produce a horrible, choppy, pushed, wobbly, ugly, and out of tune sound.  This is the model that most people have for what classical singing should sound like.  We need a different model!  For you cannot sing what you cannot imagine.

Ivogun and Von Stade studied the method of Manuel Garcia (1804 -1906).  Garcia discovered the laryngoscope and wrote his Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing in 1846.  He was the foremost voice teacher of his time and taught at the Royal Academy in London until his death in 1906.  His teaching method was the study of the means whereby the voice would become free of all extra efforts.

What you hear when you listen to a singer who studied his method are the 3 basic elements of great singing: steadiness of sound, beauty of timbre (tone), and irreproachable intonation.  Ivogun studied with Mathilde Marchesi, who herself was a pupil of Garcia.  Von Stade studied Garcia before she became well known.

Garcia’s approach, like Alexander’s, encourages the freedom of Use that leads to mastery.  I use the Garcia method when working with singers, and in the next post I will take you through the remaining steps outlined in Man’s Supreme Inheritance, moving from idea into practice, utilizing Garcia’s work.

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How do we go about becoming more consciously directed, not only in terms of general living, but in the acquisition of skill?  Let us select a skill as an example: singing.  We want to learn to sing or improve our singing and we have gone to a teacher for help.

In Part II of his first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, F.M. Alexander sets out a process very clearly and in great detail.  (If you have not read this book I urge you to do so. But go slowly and take much time.)  He gives us 4 steps to follow consecutively.

1.  We must have a detailed and accurate idea (a concept in mind) of what movements we have to make.

In singing this means that we have to know the simplicity and ease of singing as an idea.  This is a very tall order because if we had a clear and accurate idea of singing with ease and simplicity we would be already miles ahead of beginner status, which presumably we are not.  The teacher must know what ease in singing is and is not.  The teacher must know that ease in singing is singing with no unnecessary muscular movements.

2.  We must put a stop to any old subconscious habits we have built up that do not serve us.

This means we have to tell ourselves that we don’t know how to sing with total ease and simplicity.  If we knew we would do it.  So any ideas we have about singing and what is needed we must put entirely aside.  This means any idea we have of “taking a full breath” for example, or making a “beautiful sound” we must disregard.  We inhibit that thinking and we inhibit acting out on the idea of “make a beautiful sound” and “taking in the air.”  This step is even more important because if we are to get the right idea about singing, and make that idea whole and real for others to hear, we have to stop (inhibit) any wrong headedness we have held dearly in mind.

3.  We must continue inhibiting those old ideas while at the same time setting up improved conditions for new means-whereby.

These new and improved conditions will allow the breath to enter the body freely and provide space from the old clumsy forced habits that we
believed were absolutely necessary.  Improved conditions and means-whereby will let the muscles coordinate spontaneously for a new (and to us, novel) way of singing wherein the voice unites with the breath in a free manner.

4.  In the last step, under the skillful guidance of the teacher we must give consent to allow their muscles to contract and expand in this newly directed way.

This process must be repeated over and over again until new habits and new ideas have been formed.  It is only with repetition and time that we learn to trust these new sensations of freedom and ease.

This, my friends, is how FM first taught himself and then us “how thought becomes an activity.”  His genius was that he changed his frame of reference from one of “I know” to one of “I do not know.”  Nothing new happens if we keep on going about it in the same old (habitual) way!

Read the book.  He wrote if for you.

In the next entry we will explore in greater detail how these steps apply to the study of singing.

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