Some Can and Some Can’t

A woman used to advertise in Back Stage with an ad that read: “If you can’t sing, no one can teach you. If you can sing, you don’t need lessons. If you are somewhere in between, I can make you a singer.”

This ad always made me laugh, then sigh. She wasn’t alone in those beliefs. There are other ideas about singing along the same lines like, “kids don’t need lessons, cause kids just sing naturally” (wrong). “Some people just don’t have a good ear” and the old favorite, “if you can sing like I do, then you’re great. If not, you have no talent”.

Put these alongside the ones like “if you study classically you can sing everything” and “all singing is the same” (that one really gets me), and you have quite a stew. Is it any wonder that singing training is a jumble?

Let’s say that it would be better to put things in a different light.

The LARYNX can or it can’t.

The larynx, and the vocal folds within the larynx, is the boss of the system. It is a scientific fact that the vocal folds control the airflow, and NOT the other way around, even though every singer in the world has been taught that the air controls the sound. If the vocal folds don’t do what vocal folds do easily, efficiently, correctly and continuously, no amount of breath support, resonance adjustment, “placement”, or any other maneuver is going to make up for that.

Anyone who works with injured vocal folds, or ones recently recovered from injury, in a singer, finds out soon enough that the folds decide what kind of a sound the person is going to produce. All the other things that affect the sound are important but they won’t make up for the folds themselves. Singing teachers and singers, as well as anyone else who works with the voice professionally, need to understand that, as not to comprehend this is to confuse the forest for the trees.

That’s why, as long as you treat the symptom as the cause, you are doomed to failure. If you don’t understand that the person is singing flat because the folds aren’t able to properly adjust, because the larynx is somehow stuck, you will think the singer “isn’t listening to the pitch”, has a “bad” ear, or that she isn’t using enough “breath support”. If you don’t understand that a persistent register “break” is caused by lack of flexibility in the folds and in the laryngeal musculature, and not by poor “breath support” (only) or lack of “forward resonance”, you will never get anywhere. If someone is singing with an unsteady tone, and that person is a relatively decent singer, and the person cannot get the tone to be steady no matter what they do, something is wrong INSIDE. If the voice is hoarse, rough, or raspy, no amount of “nasal resonance” or “forward placement” or abdominal strength is going to make that hoarseness go away all by itself.

The larynx is the source. THE SOURCE. It is the Godfather. All the other ingredients that go into voiced sound are the CAPOS (sorry, my grandfather was born in Sicily). The lungs are the CAPO di tutti CAPI, but they are not the Godfather….remember you can live without making sound, so the lungs cannot override the vocal folds and insist that sound come out on their own.

What direct influence do we have over the vocal folds, over the larynx? NONE. It’s nice if you think “my larynx is down” but you cannot make that happen on purpose, and if you do, you will not sing well. It works the same if you think “my larynx is up” (just as incorrect). What we can do, very deliberately, is make a specific kind of sound. We can learn to repeat that sound consistently. We can label it. If we are lucky, we will be able to replicate it with more and more accuracy, and also to vary it with greater subtlety. That’s it. We should be paying a lot of attention to sound for its own sake, but what most singers are told is “don’t listen to yourself” or “you are listening to yourself” (as a negative judgement). Without the ability to hear yourself, how can you possibly learn to control what you are doing? Deaf people don’t sing, right?

So, remember what we can and cannot do and don’t confuse them. Remember what happens indirectly, as a response, and what we do to cause those responses is MAKE CERTAIN TYPES OF SOUNDS. All else follows. Cause first, effect second. Don’t lose that, ever!

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