What would you consider to be the main focus of your career, or your “specialty”?
My teaching career was spent at an excellent undergraduate-only conservatory of music within a liberal arts college (Lawrence University) in Wisconsin. Our focus was primarily classical music, during that time though there is a very strong jazz program. More recently Lawrence has added a wider range of vocal styles, though a majority of its clientele remains primarily classical. I am therefore most experienced in classical repertoire (opera, oratorio, art song), but also venture into the musical theater repertoire. My special interest in voice acoustics can be applied to all vocalism.
How did you discover your calling for your specialty? How did it start?
I sang from very early in life, at first within a church music program. I studied piano from age nine and though I sang roles in three high school musicals, only began taking singing lessons in college. As a young tenor, I very soon thereafter fell in love with classical singing as exemplified by tenors such as Jussi Bjoerling and Fritz Wunderlich, and wanted desperately to understand how they were singing so beautifully and movingly. That began a life-long interest in how voice works.
What do you love the most about your work?
Voice is done in response to the soul’s impulse to express feelings in order to induce empathy in and connect with others. I love helping souls express themselves more fully. When a voice begins to respond more completely and intuitively to what the singer wants to say, the person is at ease and freer to express their unique perspective. In a sense, they become more truly themselves. Assisting that process is very satisfying.
In your opinion, what qualities do you feel make an “excellent” Vocal Pedagogue?
There are many. Here are some I recommend:
- Know what excellent singing and function sounds and feels like per genre—this takes both attentive listening and mastering one’s own singing to a relatively high level.
- Commitment to life-long learning. There is always more to learn. Stay open to all credible sources, even those with which you think you might disagree.
- Be science-informed, but not science-limited. There is great benefit in taking advantage of the ever-growing wealth of information emerging from voice science. Teachers need to explore it for possible efficiencies in their teaching. But, great teaching predates voice science, and teachers will always need to use intuitive, creative solutions that have not been fully vetted by scientific studies. And yet, that creativity is best if grounded in a thorough knowledge of basic function.
- Be fully present, open, and attentive to what the student is presenting in the moment. Strategies can be creatively fashioned if grounded in sufficient background knowledge and experience, and adapted to what the student is doing in the moment.
- Have sufficient knowledge of the literature and style of the genre the singer is preparing. Failing that, know coaches who are expert in those genres to whom you can refer the student.
Can you speak to the importance of having mentors? How have mentors influenced your life/career? Can you tell us about some of your mentors?
We all learn from those who came before us, either directly (from our own teachers) or indirectly from resources prepared by acknowledged pedagogues. While our own teachers will have a central mentoring role, I encourage colleagues to seek out resources and individual experts in areas that they have identified as needing more attention. In our current world of internet connectivity, there are many resources available through which one can be mentored. It may serve well to participate in organizations that are devoted to teacher training and knowledge sharing.
The mentors from whom I had direct mentorship include Dan Pratt, Eugene Conley, Bruce Lunkley, Richard Miller, and Donald Miller. I have also benefited greatly though indirectly from the writing and presentations of a variety of others (Johan Sundberg, Ingo Titze, Thomas Hixon, Sten Ternstrom, Kitty Verdolini) and continue to learn from many current colleagues, too many to list. My present curricular partnership with Ian Howell and Chadley Ballantyne has been very helpful to my continued journey, as I learn from these younger, well-established colleagues.
Building Blocks – Questions About Ten Key Areas of Voice
When it comes to breathing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
I have been very influenced by the work of Thomas Hixon and Peter Watson. Their work measuring the respiratory function of speakers and singers led to some key findings:
- Contraction of the thorax (chest) moves three times as much air as contraction of the abdomen. That means that chest compression has three times more leverage for generating breath pressure than abdominal compression. If there is too much pressure, it is almost certainly from chest compression, as well as from too much glottal resistance.
- Passive elastic recoil generates exhalatory force above resting level and inhalatory force below resting level. Singing is exhalatory. Singing from lung volumes below resting level requires overcoming inhalatory passive elastic recoil with greater exhalatory effort. Therefore, singers prefer to sing from well above resting level to just below resting level, and avoid, if possible, singing far below resting level.
In addition to Hixon, I am very influenced by the knowledge that singing is done “in the wild” in response to the impulse to express feelings. Expressively motivated voicing* tends to activate the transverse abdominal muscles—the only abdominal muscles that do not depress the chest—as well as set the level of glottal resistance offered by the vocal folds. Expression tends to coordinate these too muscle activations (low abdominal activation and vocal fold closure) in an efficient manner, resulting in flow phonation—one in which pressure, flow, and glottal resistance are in a comfortable balance. You can experience this with a simple “mmm, mmm, good” response to a favorite food. You will feel light low abdominal activation and easy, clean vocal fold vibration.
*Expressive motivations should be moderate and pleasurable, not extreme.
When it comes to the larynx, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
The job of the larynx for classical genre is to produce a clean, balanced flow phonation across all pitches, dynamic levels, and expressions of the range. This is best motivated via a moderate expressional intent. Laryngeal function usually presents in untrained singers with a binary vibrational modality that has historically been called chest and head voice (there are newer terms and descriptions). Most genres and techniques train singers to smooth the transition between these two vibrational modes to reduce or eliminate their polar binarity. A key factor in accomplishing this is to allow necessary, gradual migrations of vowel, timbre, and sensation across range, rather than trying to keep things exactly the same. A second key factor is to accomplish this with a comfortable trans-glottal pressure difference: when the phonation is balanced, the difference in pressure from below the glottis to above the glottis stays comfortably narrow. Vocal fold resistance to pressure from below is determined by this transglottal pressure difference—it is the load the vocal folds must bear. Keeping it sufficiently light is key.
When it comes to the vocal folds, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
The discussion immediately above covered most of what I have to say about this. The vocal folds generally need to close completely in each vibratory cycle for a clean signal (unless the genre uses a noisy signal), but gently enough not to irritate its cover. This is accomplished by a flow phonation, which has a wide enough opening swing for a strong fundamental frequency but a sufficiently rapid closure for strong higher harmonics. And this must be done across all pitches of the range (with some qualifications). But it is done by feel and sound and motivated by expression, not by consciously micro-managing the underlying physiology. It is useful to know—and intuitively obvious—that efficient function is pleasurable. It feels good, and, though energetic, it is basically easier than expected.
When it comes to acoustics/resonance, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Voice is interactive. Resonance feeds back on the vocal folds either assisting or inhibiting their best function. Learning how best to manage resonance tuning (vocal tract shaping) will significantly help your vocal folds achieve flow phonation across range. There is much detail that could be addressed here, but for starters, use genuine expression to coordinate matters, and orient/express yourself from your center, not out front. The pharynx is the center of acoustic operation, not the mouth, though both play important roles in articulation. Your center of personal agency (the perceptual place from which you interact with the world) is closer to the naso-pharynx, just in front of your ears.
A second key concept is to reverse the innate percept that bright is forward and dark is back. Think of the pharyngeal component of your sound as bright and pleasurably ringing rather than dull or yawny. Yawning does not open the throat—it backs the tongue into the pharynx narrowing the throat. Resonance will be more helpful to the vocal fold vibration if the tongue dorsum (hump) is as high as the vowel and pitch will allow.
When it comes to registration, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
While efficient laryngeal function across range is essential (the above mentioned balanced, flow phonation), most changes of register are actually acoustic in origin. This is not yet fully appreciated within the pedagogic community. A change of register requires a change of timbre, and the voice source (larynx), though essential, is limited in what it can actually contribute to timbral change. Noticeable timbral changes across range are due to acoustic relationships—basically changes in the relationship between source harmonics and the first resonance of the vocal tract. Every time a harmonic rises through the first resonance of the vocal tract a timbral and somatosensory change can be noticed.
My advice: learn the migrations of timbre, vowel, and sensation that are necessary across range, and then allow or facilitate them. This will enable the larynx to achieve a flow phonation across range. There will still be timbral transitions of register, but they will all be primarily due to acoustic relationships, not to the necessary changes of the larynx.
When it comes to vocal health, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Efficient focal function is pleasurable. If it doesn’t feel good, and surprisingly easy in terms of effort and perceived subglottal pressure, it isn’t good function. Playful, comfortable, grounded, generous but unforced expression tends to generate efficient, healthy function. A comfortably low transglottal pressure difference is crucial. There are acoustic strategies that can raise the air pressure above the glottis to keep the transglottal pressure difference narrow. These involve beneficial narrowings (convergences) somewhere downstream of the vocal folds—usually at the tongue dorsum or mouth opening. Unforced, clean vibration soothes the vocal folds. Forced, friction-laden vibration (collision) irritates them.
When it comes to style, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Style is learned primarily from extensive listening to great performances of the genre in question. We are vocal learners—creatures (like song birds) that learn by imitation of models, such as parents, elders, or experts. Immerse yourself in the very best examples, and listen attentively to details of their performance. An excellent teacher or vocal coach can speed up this learning process considerably. You then incorporate the stylistic details of the genre with considerable playful exploration to make them your own.
When it comes to posture, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
A favorite quote of mine is from the dancer La Meri: “The only reason to master technique is to make sure the body does not prevent the soul from expressing itself.” We should be able to phonate with good function from a variety of postural positions, and with relative freedom of movement. However, certain postures challenge function more than others. Raising the larynx enables stronger glottal closure force, putting the voice at higher risk for pressed phonation, unless skillfully managed. Genres that require a higher larynx (shorter tube) must manage this risk. A centered, balanced, flexible organization of the body will facilitate best function. Best function originates from your center and seems grounded, not effortfully reached for. Training regimens such as body mapping, Alexander technique, Feldenkreis, etc., can assist in establishing a balanced, responsive organization and alignment of the body. When the vocal tract is well set up for efficient resonance, it feels comfortably short from front to back (lips to back throat wall).
When it comes to teaching methods or communicating complex ideas about singing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Always remember the basic origin of voice—it arises as a response to the soul’s impulse to express feelings. All training approaches should build on that basic, innate programming. Singing is a very complex response, the details of which cannot be physically effectively micromanaged. We need to use target outcomes to organize the process:
- Expressional intent
- Auditory and somatosensory targets (this timbre, vowel, sensation)
- Pleasurable, satisfying sensations
Teaching directives need to be simple enough to be executable as motor intentions.
Final Thoughts (Words of Wisdom, Books, Resources)?
Aristotle defined voice as “a sound caused by the soul by means of the repercussions of the air, made in the throat, with the intention of signifying something.” Alfred Wolfsohn, a Jewish stretcher bearer in WWI, was so moved and traumatized by the cries of wounded and dying men, that he lost his own voice for a while. He came to the conviction that “voice is the muscle of the soul.” As I stated above, voice occurs in response to the impulse to express feelings. Finding your voice is a process of self-realization, even of self-formation. In our technical work as voice teachers, we are in fact attempting to help fellow souls find and express themselves more fully. It is important work.
Motivated by this conviction, I gave a talk on the role of voice in human identity and relationship entitled, “Voice, the Muscle of the Soul: Finding Yourself Through Finding Your Voice” at Lawrence University for its Honors Day Convocation on May 22, 2018.
I have written a number of articles and two books on acoustic vocal pedagogy:
Practical Vocal Acoustics: Pedagogic Applications for Teachers and Singers
Kinesthetic Voice Pedagogy 2: Motivating Acoustic Efficiency
and I continue to give interviews and presentations, several of which can be found at the bottom of this link under Interviews and Presentations on Acoustic Pedagogy.
Being retired now from my university position, my ongoing professional mission is to share this information within the voice community via those singers and teachers interested in exploring it.