Does Practice Make Perfect?
By David Sabella
Welcome to the inaugural post of The Voice Box, my blog relating to all things vocal. This first post will attempt to explain a very specific physiological benefit of technical vocal study, as opposed to (but not limited to) other types of training found in the cabaret/small venue solo vocal performance genre. ENJOY!
The cabaret industry is populated by singers of every skill set and level. Legendary performances throughout the history of this genre have included those given by singers who were known less for their vocal ability and more for their interpretive skill. Mabel Mercer and Julie Wilson come to mind, just to name a couple. However, legendary performances notwithstanding, the authentic interpretation of the lyric, coupled with the technical facility of a beautiful voice, is still considered the pinnacle of this art form. And yet, formalized training within this genre attends almost exclusively to the interpretation of the lyric, rather than the technical facility of voice. This leads one to wonder what kind of subliminal messaging this sends to the singer, experienced or new, who wants to make cabaret their artistic home.
In cabaret, does honing one’s technical vocal ability really matter? Does practice make perfect?
The answer to that is – it depends on how one practices. To make sense of this riddle let’s take a look at what happens when one practices the technical skill of singing, as opposed to rehearsing the interpretive performance of the song. Practicing technical vocalizes (units and patterns of scale passages) habituates the vocal mechanism to the environment of the vocal requirement.
Once more in English – The way you use your voice TEACHES your voice how to function.
The statement above is as true for the speaking voice as it is for the singing voice, and in fact, how one uses their speaking voice has great consequence on the use and production of the singing voice. Every one of us knows that one aunt, or friend of the family, who sounds like a cross between Fran Drescher and Harvey Fierstein. The sound of her voice is very often pressed and nasal, almost to the point of disfunction, and is often exacerbated by smoking or some other unhealthy “habit.” She may be of a certain age, now in her 40s or 50s, but chances are she did not have that voice in her teens and 20s, and maybe not even in her 30s. So, what happened? The way she used her voice, treated her voice, over time, created a habit pattern of use, that actually taught her voice how to function, and now her voice has so completely accepted this “habituation” that she cannot break free of it, and may not even notice it.
“Habituation” is a pretty great three dollar word that deserves a little unpacking. “Habituation” and its important counterpart “rehabituation” are words often used by both physical and voice training professionals in place of words like “habilitation” (which simply means training) or “rehabilitation” (which more specifically means retraining after injury, surgery or illness) for one very specific reason, licensure.
Physical and occupational therapists, as well as voice therapists (speech language pathologists), are licensed professionals. Your voice teacher, and your trainer at the gym, however, may not be. They may be very knowledgeable and very good at what they do. But if they are not licensed by the state, they cannot legally use the word “rehabilitation.” As it pertains to voice, only a licensed medical professional or speech language pathologist can legally use the word “rehabilitation” when talking about a course of treatment or plan of recovery for your voice.
You voice teacher, however, can and certainly does “habituate” and “rehabituate” your voice, which simply means “to train (or retrain) the voice to become accustomed to use,” and helps to create a habit pattern of use, as determined by the scale passages (vocalizes) which are employed. Some voice teacher’s, myself included, may also be known as a Singing Voice Specialist, which is a designation given to a the voice teaching community, by the medical/therapeutic community, and indicates that the teacher has had training in both anatomy and physiology of voice, and has shadowed or interned with a medical professional, or speech language pathologist in care of the professional voice in order to work in tandem with the medical/therapeutic team after the patient’s insurance requirements have been met.
Speech language pathologists generally work on the rehabilitation of the speaking voice after injury, surgery or illness for a certain amount of time as prescribed by the phono-surgeon/ENT/otolaryngologist, and in accordance with the patient’s insurance company. In the case of a professional singer however, additional “rehabituation” may be required to meet the demands of the career in singing. In this case, the ENT/otolaryngologist, or speech language pathologist will refer the singer to a “Singing Voice Specialist” whom they trust can carry on the protocols of treatment in a setting not covered by medical insurance.
ARE YOU STILL WITH ME?
And so, on a very quantifiable, physiological level, the way one uses the muscles of the voice, as determined by the style and patterns of the vocalizes (and the quality of one’s practice) really does determine the use and ability (and flexibility) of one’s voice, just like the muscles of the body increase in strength, efficiency and even aesthetic when one regularly, and consistently works out at the gym.
Training the singer includes not only the mechanics of the voice, but also the efficiency of the respiratory system. Singing is a “myeoelastic-aerodynamic” event. That’s another great three dollar word which simply means that singing involves both the flexibility of the vocal muscle and the presence of breath to vibrate the skins cells on top of the muscle.
DON’T FREAK OUT! Let’s dig a little deeper now to understand exactly what this means.
The anatomy and physiology of the vocal mechanism is wondrous! With our voices we can make almost an infinite number of sounds, creating the many different languages heard around the world, and styles of vocal output heard in classical, popular and indigenous music.
Vocal physiology consists of skeletal, muscular, and mucosal components. Although the skeletal anatomy of the voice is not our main concern in this article, I will include here that it consists of the Thyroarytenoid and cricothyroid cartilages (together affectionately known as the larynx or Voice Box – hence the name of my blog), and the Arytenoid cartilages, which open and close the vocalis muscle for the onset, and offset, of tone.
The muscles of the voice, although equally fascinating to any voice geek, like me, are also not our main concern at this time. However, I will mention that this set of muscles consists of the thyroarytenoid muscle, the cricothyroid muscle, and several lateral and inter-aryteniod muscles. For more detail on the functioning of these muscles simply email me or stop me on the street. I am happy to talk about this at length and in detail.
It is the mucosal layer of this structure that is most important to us when discussing the habituation and re-habituation of the voice and for that we need to go into even more detail about this multi-layered structure.
The layers of skin cell that surround the vocalis muscle include both the epithelium top layer, and the deeper lamina propria (see the featured image above). The layers of the lamina propria each have varying viscosities/thicknesses. To envision this, think about your grandmother’s “Jell-O surprise“ that may have had layers of cottage cheese, or shredded carrots running through it, topped off with whip cream. (Not your grandmother? Well, it certainly was mine). The layers of the lamina propria resemble the Jell-O surprise, with the thicker or denser layers closer to the muscular structure and the looser “whip cream” layer at the top.
The layers of this structure allow it to vibrate in many different ways. And, the entire structure is only very loosely coupled to the muscle that is underneath it. Envision this by looking at the back of your hand. Now, pinch the skin and pull it away from the back of your hand. The skin on the back of your hand is loosely coupled to the bone of your hand, which allows it to be picked up and moved. Now, turn your hand over and try to pinch the palm of your hand. In most cases you’ll be unsuccessful because the skin at the palm of your hand is more tightly coupled to the muscle underneath it. This loose coupling of the skin cell to the vocalis muscle is what allows the mucosa to vibrate aerodynamically with the presence of breath, thereby acting like the reed of a clarinet and making the fundamental tone that is your voice.
Whew! That was a lot! So, how does all of this relate to the patterning of your voice through the use of vocalizes and your practicing?
Another wonderful and quite unexplained phenomenon of this mucosal structure is the fact that this layer of skin cells has, within its DNA, a quality similar to that of “memory foam.” The way you practice the use of your voice literally teaches your voice how to function in the future. Your voice, over time, will adopt the desired pattern, (remember that aunt) much like a memory foam mattress adopts the contours of your body for optimum support. Of course this statement includes the other components of voice training, the respiratory, postural, aural and even musical, components. All these components work in tandem to create a reliable habit pattern, but one must not underestimate the very specific role of the vocal folds, and their unique anatomy, within this process.
Perhaps, in the course of your vocal study, you’ve noticed that your new technique functions much better in songs that you have learned since using the new technique? However, when you return to songs that you learned before your new technical ability, those songs tend to revert back to the old habit patterns you previously held. You must diligently apply your new technique to these older songs as if you were learning them anew.
During my tenure with the Broadway musical CHICAGO, there were a few nights when I felt under the weather, not at my best, and unsure of whether or not I could actually make the desired sound. But “the show must go on” and without fail my voice returned to its habit patterns within the requirements of the show. I even learned that I could sing my solo number “A Little Bit of Good” with 102 fever, a fact that was regretfully proven one night when my understudy was not available. Although I certainly DON’T recommend singing while ill, in that case it was unavoidable. Luckily, my years of training, and the weeks, months, and ultimately years, of doing that show taught my voice exactly how to function to get through that show. Many Broadway performer’s in many other shows experience the same “habituation” phenomenon, and this phenomenon speaks to the greater need for cross training of the entire voice while one is in the long run of a show. If you’re singing in a contemporary “belt” show, you had better warm up your “legit” voice. (Stay tuned to future blog posts about that).
In closing, let me be very clear that practicing the technical vocal skill of singing is something that is wholly different than rehearsing the artistic interpretation or performance of a song, and MUST be done in the voice studio, with a qualified teacher, with diligence and consistency, in order to set up a healthy and appropriate habit pattern within the voice. This habituation, like all other habits, must ultimately become something that you don’t need to think about while you are in the act of doing it. Consequently, the look of “tech-head” (worrying about a technical consideration which removes you [and your audience] from the story you are telling) must never flash behind your eyes, nor must your technical deficits or necessities be brought onto stage. It is said that “The amateur practices until they get it right. The professional practices until they cannot get it wrong.”
Your use of voice must become an unconscious “habit“ determined by your technical vocal practice. The scales one chooses to practice set up the voice for success and reliance within any given vocal environment. The question then becomes, “What environment are you training yourself into, and does it match the genre of music you intend to sing?” We’ll explore this question in my next blog “Determining the Appropriate Use of Voice.”
Until then…. Keep practicing. It really does matter!
Yours in Art,
David Sabella, SVS, DVP
Your comments are welcomed on the blog post at www.cabarethotspot.com
References: Your Voice: An Inside View, Dr. Scott McCoy, DMA (Inside View Press)