Tuesday, 6 September 2011

warming up

Another September, another season for the choir I sing in, another series of weekly rehearsals.

We have just appointed a new Deputy Musical Director. His first duty was to conduct the warm-up with which we start each session. (I’m not clear why or how warm-ups help you sing better, but actors and singers all seem to believe in them. I can see that at least they fulfil the social function of getting everyone — about 160 people at last night's rehearsal — to start focussing on a joint activity carried out together.)

The DMD surprised us by choosing for the very first exercise a “fully rolled r” (a voiced alveolar trill). “If you can’t roll an r properly, do a lip roll instead.” (That is, ʙ.)He continued to get us to work on non-English sounds or sequences. The next exercise went ŋiː ŋiː ŋiː ŋiː ŋiː.

Then it was an easier mɑː mɑː mɑː mɑː mɑː. Intriguingly, he described ɑː as a ‘bright’ vowel. (I’d have thought it was comparatively dark, but then I’m no synaesthete; and perhaps he was referring to the voice quality he wanted rather than to vowel quality.)

And so it went on, with the tongue twister red ’n’ yellow lorry, red ’n’ yellow lorry, red ’n’ yellow lorry, red ’n’ yellow lorry… and then finally bumblebee, bumblebee, all on increasingly complicated practice riffs up and down a succession of scales.

Fortunately he did not give us too much of the pseudo-anatomical articulatory nonsense we often got from his predecessor. Nevertheless, when calling for hard attack to initial vowels in the lyrics of one song he did mention that he needed a ‘glottal’ (i.e. a glottal plosive, a glottal STOP, ʔ), which he described as being ‘when the vocal cords are coming together very quickly’. H’m.

Checking vocal warmup techniques on the web, I find plenty more of the same sort of thing. Perhaps you are better able than I am to understand what might be meant here (under Tongue Trills) by
The d is what will give you connection from chest to head voice. The d tends to hold your vocal cords together through your bridge….

Does anyone seriously believe that an alveolar plosive could “hold your vocal cords together”? Why do they say such things?

11 comments:

  1. No doubt justifications from drama types will now follow. It's all about visualisation and metaphor, of course. And if it gets the desired result, then it's justified.

    The misuse of linguistic and anatomical terms, however, makes it reek of charlatanry.

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  2. Charlatanry it is, tempered with insanity: one choirmaster we had, himself rhotic. tried to make other rhotics comply in singing 'Lord' as 'Lawd'.

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  3. I've been singing since I was five and I started studying phonetics some three years ago. Some of the things I realized about anatomy and physiology were shocking. I have a teacher who is convinced you can actually breathe into your lower abdomen and that the best way to make a rolled r is against the rim of your front teeth, that O is the most open vowel "to relax your throat" and so on...I guess it's best to separate singing from reality and well, let them talk.

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  4. If only such teachers could get into the habit of saying 'imagine that...' at the beginning of each fanciful instruction. Then they could project through their foreheads to their heart's content without exasperating the phoneticians.

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  5. I guess when you study music with a teacher like that, you don't stop to think it might be just a metaphor...

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  6. @ Zoe

    I don't think they really mean it as metaphor, but that is how some people try to defend such practices. The only alternative is to say that they are ignorant and seek to sound professional by using fancy words. Which isn't an admission anyone would like to make!

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  7. For the d issue, it's basically trying to get the singer to not go into falsetto in high notes and to realise that there should be some kind of lightening of timbre happening (thyroarytenoid muscle becoming dominant) as the pitch rises beyond the speaking range, by using a voiced consonant (there are also b's, gug's, nml's...). And many singers say that lighter-but-modal phonation, foreign at first to most of them, feels as though they are lightening while 'holding' something around the area their vocal cords. (some pedagogic circles which actually survey singers on their sensations use the term 'hold': "don't let go of that hold!") So with that imagery in mind, and also the fact that in falsetto the vocal cords are more apart on average than in modal register, comes the 'holding the vocal cords together'.

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  8. I’m not clear why or how warm-ups help you sing better, but actors and singers all seem to believe in them.

    I think it's quite useful to have singers exercise their vocal apparatus without the psychological associations (and possibly inhibitions) of performing or singing particular lyrics. (Am I too loud? too flat? am I pronouncing this wrong? etc.)

    For example, I love to warm up on a [ʙ] because it is such a ridiculous sound (to Anglophone ears at least): it's hard to be too self-conscious when making it.

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  9. John Wells: "I’m not clear why or how warm-ups help you sing better, but actors and singers all seem to believe in them."

    Celine Dion's doing it and that would probably be because she knows what she's doing.

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  10. Choral conductors are notorious for their lack of scholarship. Unsubstantiated anecdotes piled upon meaningless metaphors which are then combined with a general ignorance of phonetic basics and singing techniques.

    Richard Miller's book, The Structure of Singing, is now the standard summary; it is a thoughtful blending of current scientific understanding of the singing voice integrated with the language and techniques of the traditional Italian Bel Canto school. Of course it uses IPA for all of its vocal exercises.

    And there is only a little scientific evidence that short range vocal exercises do help prepare the voice for louder singing in the upper register. But singers do consistently report that warm-ups make it easier to sing in the high register and generally make the voice a more obedient instrument.

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  11. I wager that the collective experiences of professional singers who prove their talent each and every day will always trump dismissive know-it-all academics who lack passion in their own social activities.

    Why try to use faux-skepticism to sloth one's way out of one's own social commitments? Why not just try it and explore what you learn first? Y'know... out of proper scientific humility?

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