Teaching By The Numbers

Did you know that every vocal sound we make can be reduced to five numbers? Surprising, but true.

The human vocal tract has five specific “vibrating peaks” based on the length and diameter of the open tube between your vocal cords and your lips. As you sustain a vowel it interacts with that tube and, depending on the pitch and the volume, you get an interaction between the vowel and the tube that produces boosts in the sound. The boosts are called formants and when they align with certain harmonics of the pitch, you get a special configuration — one which seems like there is “more sound” or resonance.

Currently, in voice science, it is the hot topic everywhere that the first and second formants  and the first and second harmonic must “talk to each other” in order to help get a good sound. That interaction, coupled with the first and second harmonics, are about the differences between belting and singing classically. When you get the specific alignment that “hits the target” you win the prize, sort of.

How do you know you are aligning these ingredients? You have to have the equipment that measures them. There are software programs that can do that, even freeware. You just sing into a microphone and watch what shows up, sort of.

If you have to squeeze, contort or generally manipulate your throat into doing these maneuvers, well, too bad. Just get the right numbers, then you have it. It is this scary fact that has allowed some teachers of singing who don’t belt, have never belted, and will never belt, (in a song in front of an audience) to assume they can teach belting because they understand the acoustic science and read the info revealed by the software. They can tell you that you have the right harmonic/formant (H/F) alignment or not. Great.

This is not moving us forward. The only positive aspect of this development is that suddenly belting has gained credibility in certain classical circles. Since the teachers who have only classical training and classical experience have no idea what “good” belting versus “bad” belting sounds like, unless they have really developed  ears and perceptive eyes they might miss that difference. And, if the belting is deemed to be “bad” because the person is straining, even though they match the harmonic/formant partnership, whether or not the teacher has the means to get the singer to the correct response as well as keep the H/F configuration is completely unknown.

This “teaching by the numbers” is supposedly credible because it is based on objective measurements. So much for vocal pedagogy. It is the new version of “vibrate your eyebrows” instead of “vibrate your cheekbones”. More or less a waste of time, potentially harmful. Certainly disconnected from any kind of authentic communication.

I say again, this is NOT progress. It doesn’t even make sense in any professional universe. You do not audition by showing off your H/F ratio in a song.

Many of the proponents of this approach are middle-aged white males with classical backgrounds who do not belt. I can’t think of any women in this category. There is a popular speaking voice therapy that rests on “resonance” created by an older white female speech pathologist. I do not know about the details of her work so I can’t say whether it is related or not.

Most of the thousands of people who have sung CCM repertoire down through the ages and survived vocal problems did not know voice science. They did not have it to use as a tool of learning. They went by how things sounded and how they felt. Those are still the best two tools. Understanding the phenomenon from an intellectual place and knowing what things are is important. I need to know that I have an engine in my car and that it runs on fuel. It won’t help me drive or give me a good sense of direction.

Be very careful about people who have quick solutions to any singing issue. Elite singing doesn’t happen in anyone “right away” and attempting to get it to do that is a big fat mistake.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching By The Numbers”

  1. Wonderful Jeanie! If one takes a listen to the singers demonstrating this scientific approach to producing resonance (taught by the experts) it is very revealing. I, for one, am not a fan!

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