I am going to way out on a limb tonight (who, me?) and say some things that I absolutely cannot verify at all. They are 100% from my own perceptions and you can take or leave what I am going to write. If you don’t believe it, that’s fine. If you are willing to take what I say here as being “the truth” understand that this is based on my own perceptions and only on that.
It is my experience that we can, after a period of time, when we have developed sufficient mechanical skills, begin to isolate the various muscles in the throat and tongue through exercise. How I know this is because I can feel the individual muscles as clearly as I can feel my finger wiggling. For those of you who follow this blog, you will remember that last year about this time I went to Dr. Peak Woo telling him “something is wrong with my left vocal fold. It’s not responding”. I was correct. He confirmed that this was so. How did I know that? I could feel it.
In working to restore some of the function on the left side I have had to pay quite a bit of attention to the interior musculature and the feedback I get is quite clear. I know what I am feeling. I back this up by saying that in 1988, when I was in Stockholm, doing research on my throat with Dr. Johan Sundberg, he told me then (and that was a long time ago) that I had more control over the muscles in my throat than anyone he had ever encountered up until that time. The tracings of separate examples were exact duplications. That means that in two different examples, the lines showing the acoustic behavior were exactly on top of each other, making it look like just one example. In a human being this kind of accuracy is almost unheard of…..and I have learned a great deal more since then.
These perceptions allow me to coax very specific behaviors from a student, using the exercises as a catalyst. It is always true that one basic pattern of vowel and pitches can call forth a wide variety of responses, depending on where in the pitch range it is done, and at what volume. It can also be the case that the exercise is done in various ways on the same vowel and that, too, will draw forth slightly different responses. If you do the exercise properly and then repeat it enough times it will produce a result, even if the student doesn’t know what the result will be. I have to know where to go, even when the student does not. After the student has done the exercise successfully for quite some time it is possible to ask, “What happens when you do that? What do you experience”? Sometimes the student can’t answer as he has not been able to track anything specific, but often, if you go back and do it again, the feedback will be quite good. It is only in this way that the perception of what the exercise is doing to the sound and the actual singing/doing of the exercise can be unified and therefore become useful.
Lest you become confused here, I am not an advocate of having a student sing while trying to feel or move the muscles of the throat or interior muscles of the tongue deliberately nor do I ask them to think about this. Rather, I guide them to do an exercise (on a pitch pattern and a vowel sound, in a particular part of the vocal range, at a specific volume) and then wait for the response I am seeking to show up as an auditory shift. At that point, the exercise is beginning to do its job. Over time, sometimes over a lot of time, depending on how foreign this behavior is to the student, the exercises will condition the response so the student can completely forget about it and the result will still be there.
If you have weak stomach muscles, and I ask you to “hold them in” you might not be able to do that, or perhaps only do it a little and for a short period of time. If you do sit-ups every day, however, it would get easier to hold them in and keep them in for longer at each attempt. If you did a lot of them for weeks, months or even years, your stomach would hold itself it, even when you were not thinking about it. Vocal exercises should work in exactly the same way. When they do not either they are not understood by the student and the student cannot execute them accurately because of that, or they are not being configured properly by the teacher who does not understand what to ask for or in what way to adjust the exercise. In the first case, the teacher should adjust the exercise until the student can do it successfully, and not all teachers know how to do that. In the second case, the teacher needs to study more about what exercises do what, functionally. Come to my Level II at Shenandoah. We will teach you.
All of the words that voice teachers have conjured up over the decades have been to call forth these responses in some mysterious manner. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Mostly, it is hit or miss and it depends on how fixed a teacher’s ideas are about what they think they want to hear as to what kind of exercise she chooses. If you are looking for a shift in functional behavior, it isn’t so much about what you want to hear as it is about what you are looking to change. There is a different intention for each of these situations and that is a key distinction.