A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Problem Solver... or at least Identifier.

RWCMD singers' Facebook and Twitter accounts went a bit mad yesterday, raving about Paul Farrington's lecture, which sadly I had to miss. It did pique my interest for my session with him today. I had heard him called a 'vocal trouble-shooter' with a highly scientific approach to singing, and that the one-to-ones were a bit quirky and involved various accessories. With this in mind I was almost ready to feel self-conscious this morning, as my session was a public one. Luckily he was very easy-going and once he had uttered the words What I'm about to insert between your bum-cheeks is just my hip bone, so don't worry, we were well on our way to a nice working atmosphere.

I'll put a list of Paul's thoughts, quotes, exercises and suggestions at the bottom of this post (as usual), but for now I'd just like to describe the incident that stuck out most in my mind, and I think it's fair to say that others who were there would agree that it was tantamount to a mini-miracle. Upon 'diagnosing' a colleague of mine with tension in the root of the tongue, after an attempt at releasing it through exercises, Paul proceeded to actual physical manipulation. It looked like a painful massage on the front of the neck and under the jaw, with a fair bit of force applied. I'm sure you're wondering, yes, he is trained in the methodology of manipulation and no, you can't try it at home. Did it work? The colleague in question opened his mouth and the voice was barely recognisable! Well, that may be going a bit far, but trust me, the difference was collosal.

So is Paul Farrington a miracle-worker with a voice-altering touch? Oh, if only it was that simple. The example I described was only a release of tension, a taste of what can be achieved in a world where all tongues are perfectly relaxed, but after a phrase or two the tension did start creeping back in. It was however a fascinating experience to see and work with someone who not only hears that something is wrong in the voice, or can be improved, but who can also describe what it is exactly, down to the names of the muscles involved, and also has ideas on how to fix it that even utilise elements of physiotherapy.

If you want to find out more about what Paul does, have a look at his website:

Here are the thoughts, quotes, etc, in no particular order:

When he thought I was pumping too much air into my voice, he had me hum and sing the aria into a CPR-mask. It also took away any element of self-listening.

The jaw should drop only as far as it can go forward. Quite a few of us had to give the audience our best Bruce Forsyth impressions. If the jaw goes down further it goes back, putting pressure on all sorts of things that should remain pressure-free. You can get a taste for when this happens by jamming your fingers between your ears and jaw (careful, it can hurt if you're tigt there, but if you get your jaw forward, two fingers should be able to fit).

A whiney voice with some badly acted crying and sobbing creates a great space for singing high and yet keeping a forward placement.

To check if you have tension in the root of the tongue, try performing your piece making a farting noise. You can only keep it going with a loose tongue.

If you have tension there, try singing with your jaw resting on a hard surface (we had a Steinway in the hall, you may have to make do with something less glamorous) to help isolate the problem.

If I draw the jaw forward then the soft palette goes 'come on then, bring it on!'.

You can't have that party for one in your mouth. On sound going too far back and sounding good to the singer, but dead to the audience.

The jaw and the tongue have become part of your support mechanism without you realising it. They do work as a double act. Taking them out (of the support) feels scary and out of control, but the support is actually supposed to come from somewhere else.

As an exercise in bringing the jaw forward, you can try singing with what Paul described as an unfortunate underbite (as seen on some breeds of dog).

You don't need to open your mouth any more, the space is already there. If you need more, do it on the inside. Again, not letting the jaw go back and introduce tension.

There was a bit of talk about stress, and one tip was to combat nerves by focussing on engaging a muscle group that makes you feel stronger, and doesn't impede singing. The f*ing muscle which gives you an active back and slightly aggressive stance '... and your family!'. Just imagine someone's pulling at your bra straps. Or alternatively (some of us feel silly in bras) get a theraband (elastic tape used for exercise and physiotherapy) and stand on the middle of it, feet at hip width, with your hands down by your sides holding the stretched ends of the tape. Relax the knees (we don't want to the legs working up tension) and feel your back engage.

On articulating coloratura: it should be like moments of joy in the pubic floor. Support in general starts from the pubic bone. The diaphragm can't give us the subtle movements needed for coloratura, but the pubic muscles can.

A potentially controversial one: Taking low breaths lowers the larynx, which is not good when attempting to sing high notes, because the larynx physiologically needs to be up for them. Higher breathing makes it easier to sing shorter phrases that start high. You don't need the Wagner suck.

On turning the voice: you don't need to take the sound back before turning it. Your voice is a car, not a bendy bus, you don't have to take the wider route around corners. Try to find the shortest way up, not the detour, turn the voice but keep it forward. Singers obsess about the idea of space, we get told that you need a huge space to sing high, but if you take that thought and it makes you search for space at the back and jam all your sound there, you risk losing the forward 'on the mask' placement.

It's a duck. A happy duck. A happy American duck... from Texas. A happy American duck with attitude. - On getting the voice forward by singing in a caricature ugly voice.

You should be able to hum what you sing, it makes sure your vocal folds are going long and thin (which is apparently what they love best).

If you open up and let me in, it'll be less painful. 

That last one was probably when doing the fingers between ear and jaw thing, and I think I'll leave it at that ;)

All thoughts, quotes, etc are based on my notes from the session, I reserve the right to get things wrong in my paraphrasing, feel free to disagree, it's all just food for thought and a way for me to process my thoughts, treat it as a curiosity, feel free to disagree, can't we all just get along? 

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