Chapter II - Technique
Take away the word, the meaning, and what is the voice? Where there is no understanding, there is only a meaningless sound. The voice without the word strikes the ear, but does not build up the heart.
Augustine of Hippo
Sound is not to be preferred to sense, but sound combined with sense.
Aelred, 12th century Cistercian abbot
Oxford English Dictionary defines technique as a "manner of artistic execution or performance". It
also calls it the "mechanical or formal part of an art, and also the skill or ability in this department in one's art". Webster's dictionary gives a particularly interesting definition of the word "technique." At the end of the definition it says, "a method of accomplishing a desired aim". The operative word is "desired". If the music as expressed in notation is bound up with the emotions, technique then becomes related to notation in particular and definable ways.
Technique musically can be defined as the capacity to make the required pitches easy for one's instrument, whether vocal or mechanical, so that musical expression is free to move both performer and listener.
For instrumentalists, life is somewhat easier than for singers in that the instrument is already manufactured and at hand. They also can begin their practice at a very young age and actually benefit as musicians from work at an early age because much of what children do is imitative (of adults and peers) and they are generally fearless in their explorations.
Unfortunately singers cannot start work on their adult voices until a certain point of maturation, and then they spend years building their instruments. Even so, from day to day the instrument will have variable assets; illness such as allergies, colds, etc. will affect it, and even such things as the weather will have an effect upon it as much as they do on many mechanical instruments.
However, in building their instruments, it is not always apparent of what the instrument consists. All instruments have an articulative factor (something physical) and resonance (to produce a musical tone with amplitude, timbre and its unique quality). The articulative factor is not identifiable with the resonance; they are two separate things. For mechanical instruments that is never a problem. For example, in pianos the strings and hammers are the articulator, and the soundboard is the resonator. For string instruments, the bow drawn across the string is the articulator and the soundpost and the belly are the resonator. This is a simplistic view of instruments, but in the interest of brevity, let it be.
Singers, however, need to be aware of the distinction between articulator and resonator at all stages of their development and careers. The articulative factor is the vowel phonated by the vocal chords and articulated into its particularity (a e i o u) by the tongue. The resonance consists of space and bones. The human voice is analogous to an organ pipe, i.e. the speech (that is the exact technical term used by organ builders) of the pipe is separate from the resonator. The function of the breath will be discussed below.
The voice is not the instrument just as the voicing of the pipe is not the organ. The voice is merely that, the result of speech and resonance. The musical tone is not the same thing, for pitch is the property of the resonances, which, as stated above, consist of space and bone whose vibrations produce the timbre, amplitude and personal quality necessary for musical communication.
That the voice both speaks and resonates simultaneously is very important. In singing, the voice speaks "low" and resonates "high". If the singer concentrates on speaking low without reference to resonances, there will be pressure on the vocal cords. If the singer resonates without speaking, the tone will be forced and the vowel will be impure, which usually means spread.
For both singers and instrumentalists alike, the instrument becomes one with the emotional potential of the performer (i.e. musicality). This is called technique, again, the means by which pitches in all the registers of the instrument become easy.
Given the principles propounded in Chapter 1, sensitive emotional phrasing is the key to technique, i.e. the technique shows up by being relied upon. Technique will never result in sensitive emotional phrasing; it merely makes it easy. Technique may neither superimpose upon nor supersede the primacy of feeling the music. Indeed a good technique thrives upon emotional awareness. The practice of scales and arpeggios gives us the skill to discriminate between appropriate and inappropriate feelings of and for the instrument. When we practice music, the expertise acquired from that practice serves the emotional expression but does not become a substitute for that expression in performance. The modern approach seems to be to acquire the technique and keep the musical expression disciplined and subordinate to it. An examination of the specific influences upon this contemporary misunderstanding of the proper relationship between technique and musical expression is in order.
In the fifties of the twentieth century, the long playing record made music available to a degree previously unknown. Simultaneously the Baroque revival revolutionized musical performance. Previously, American musicians were trained using published editions which lacked scholarly intent, mostly the musical offerings of a now-defunct American publisher known by the purists as the yellow peril. These editions were the culmination of a century and more of tampering by editors who thought they knew better than composers and whom Berlioz scornfully attacked from the beginning. George Bernard Shaw was vitriolic in his scorn of Carl Tausig’s editions, calling them vulgar vandalism.
In the fifties, students started to learn from editions that were free of editorial accretions because publishers began to limit and carefully identify anything not in the manuscripts of the composers. Ornamentation became a subject of furious battles and all kinds of performance practice, such as notes inégales, proclaimed that the music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (in concert and on records) must not sound like nineteenth century music. These are undeniably a plus on many levels.
However, there were drawbacks, one of which is that for students and professionals there arrived a mind-set of mental comparison and analysis that spilled into practice. Tenors who try to sound like a composite of every recording of every tenor they have ever heard are the best example. Admittedly, tenors do not usually do this for scholarly purposes. Nonetheless, any kind of imitation is a dangerous practice for anyone trying to find one's own musical expression. It takes the singer off the voice and the instrumentalist off his instrument because the mind is now distracted by controlling sound instead of activating emotional speech or playing.
Virgil Thomson wrote that music performance reinvents itself about every twenty five years. Right on time in the mid-seventies appeared the flowering of the revival of early instruments, from the healthy seed planted by Arnold Dolmetsch almost one hundred years before, distorted by the peculiar and false idea that what we hear today is what the music sounded like in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Besides the fact that a more intellectual and manipulative approach was added to the cultural mix of imitating recordings, no one noticed that modern techniques of muscular control used on early instruments and modern vocal techniques (among which the suppression of the vibrato is the most heinous) must invalidate the claim to authentic sound reproduction. Gimmickry then became supreme. The music didn't matter; the sound was more important. The different approaches to the music of the Baroque period by so many well known experts justifies these assertions.
Also in the last half of the twentieth century enormous amounts of time, energy, and money have been spent on the analysis of what the human body and the brain do when producing music. The proliferation of technological devices that examine anatomical responses has contributed vastly to these analyses. But what the instruments measure are results, and too many teachers confuse these results with the means of achieving them. (It is even arguable that what the instruments are measuring are bodily reactions to sensations caused by intrusive foreign objects while someone tries to achieve a musical or athletic end). Thus students are taught to use their will to energize a concept by going directly to the musculature. This was discussed in Chapter 1 but it is important to emphasize that music is an emotional art, and bypassing feelings to muscle one's way to a sound has a distinct disadvantage: it leads to tension. It cannot be stated often enough that a large part of this poor approach lies in removing oneself from one's proper emotional involvement, a direct result of actively adding pressure while going up the staff. This is the most common cause of tension which, as we have seen, fetters free expression.
Nonetheless, the study of physiological processes of singing is useful. Indeed the more we know of such matters, the more easily we can find a proper emotional response for the vocal or instrumental activity which will result in a musical experience. But, as Shaw pointed out over a hundred years ago, we do not perform music physiologically. We must allow knowledge to serve our emotional needs, not drive our musculature.
In a pernicious methodology built on physical response, confusion results when a performer produces music by muscular response and then insists on relaxation. An orthopedic principle says that when an involuntary1 muscular response becomes voluntary, tension is introduced into the body. The alignment of the body relates to the requirements of one's instrument, whether vocal or mechanical. The function of the emotions here is to arrive at a state of "feeling like singing or playing", and the body responds without the active volition of the mind. These feelings relate to well-being, the letting go of the self that is related to relaxation, but is more than relaxation.
Relaxation is an introverted experience, while letting go of the self allows for extra-self communication. Relaxation is a body function induced by mental effort. As such it is extraneous to the musical process. Releasing the self is that and a psycho-spiritual function, making one available to share emotional experiences, both those that inform us (the score) and those that make audiences happy. This picky distinction is one worth making, given the artistic purposes of musical performance. Letting go of the self is the root of nourishment of the technical apparatus or instrument which allows free musical communication with emotional expression.
Jacques Barzun quotes James Agate as saying that the difference between a professional and an amateur is that the professional does his job even if he doesn't feel like it. What the professional very precisely does is get himself into the state of feeling like it by means of realizing the requisite feelings which he has learned to distinguish and which he had practiced for years while becoming a professional.
The letting go of the self (which results in re-experiencing the feelings needed for making music) allows the resonance of the instrument to stay in peak efficiency, prevents the resonance from moving within the instrument, and facilitates the operation of technical resources. Moving any body resonances will take the performer off the speech of the instrument and force the performer to use physical means to get through the piece. The best way to describe the operation is to say that we do not move, but that we let go not to move; we never hold or make ourselves rigid not to move. This technical principle allows for linear musical expression discussed in Chapter I.
Actually the release of the self is what we practice, not notes and rhythms. Yes, we have to learn notes and rhythms, but they are best learned emotionally through a process by which we search for the depth of the composer's emotions in his musical ideas by letting go of the self for that purpose.
In other words, in the release of the self fullness of linear musical expression arrives. The operative word is expression. When someone performs either as a singer or instrumentalist, the interest for both the performer and the listener lies in the emotional communication of musical ideas.
Having discovered the release of the self for musical and bodily purposes, the performer must realize that these functions derive from bodily alignment. If a human wishes to sing (or do almost anything, for that matter) the head sits squarely on the shoulders and the upper chest bones are high. When the back of the shoulders is dropped or released to gravity to counterbalance the chest and when the head is sitting correctly, then the singer or player feels the chest stay high without having to hold it up voluntarily. There is an automatic release of the jaw hinge and the oral cavity opens. Further, if the performer releases all tension at the hairline under the back of the skull (i.e. releases the suboccipital muscles), there is a further release of the jaw hinge. This postural achievement is further proof that the body can be set free to do its work by emotional awareness of well-being. This approach to posture is not to be confused with military posture rooted in muscular control (stick out your chest, pull those shoulders back, suck in that gut! -- all muscular commands) and predicated on anger (for the purpose of fighting). Paradoxically, the chest, shoulders and gut do all that when the body alignment is arrived at through feeling. The difference is that when experienced emotionally (and with the knees flexed and the body weight on the arches of the feet) the body is not rigid and is able to communicate ideas emotionally.
The release of the muscles at the back of the skull produces an important series of further releases. First the jaw hinges release. Then the lower jaw drops more, a drop experienced in the lower back teeth. Next the jaw moves slightly to the rear, removing any unnatural jutting. Subsequently, the costal muscles of the upper chest begin to open. Finally the lower ribs open and the stomach muscles under the navel release, creating a feeling of being connected to the hips. This sequence of feelings integrates the body into the performer's instrument. Whatever the anatomical explanation, these releases rooted at the base of the skull provide an emotional base for "making the notes easy."
In singing, this series of releases is the source of the resonances and also the breath (see below). It is also the source of the release of the self (see above). The release of the self results in the avoidance of fright, which causes clutching to protect the self in the upper part of the staff. Thus we come full circle to the idea that notes high on the staff are not high notes but rather symbols of linear process whereby music is more expressive and also easier.2
The love we feel for the art of music, or for any particular piece of music, is not the issue here. That particular love has to do with the state of musicality (talent) which gift is beyond the definition of musical expression being pursued in this treatise. We are searching for what we must feel to realize a piece of music.
Considering again that the neutral emotions of the performer (the sense of well-being or feeling like singing or playing) are what make musical responses possible, it does not mean that the musculature does nothing. Indeed, if release of the self is to be means to musical expression, then we specifically do something, i.e. singers speak and instrumentalists play their instruments with awareness of the music's expressive need. The emotional trigger activates the musculature to the correct degree for the musical impulse, and it is true of all physical human endeavor. Athletes arrive at the "zone" in the same way that musicians reach heights of expression that lead to elation and ecstasy. However, they don't feel as if they are doing anything and that is what scares too many of today's performers, especially in our manic society that insists so paradoxically upon control. Emotions trigger physical response and guarantee the proper physical response to keep the wear and tear on the body at bay. To think these responses are controllable by intellectual judgement is problematical because the frailty of human nature, especially among perfectionists and controllers, causes us to overdo or not do enough.
This leads directly to the question of style. Simply put, style is a result of the composer's compositional processes which, when the performer feels the poise and stature necessary to project the music to the listener, engage that stature and induces it to the musical expression inherent in the knowledge of the score. It is very difficult to undo the inappropriate teaching (so common today) of interpretation to achieve the desired result, but it must be undone. As stated above, only egotistical nonsense asserts that a score is a bare outline to be filled in by the performer. True interpretation is a result of the humble reading of the composer's intentions, not an intellectual exercise, for the music will then be free and unfettered.
Under no circumstances can emotional depth result when the musculature comes first. For singers and wind players, that means goosing the breath to get the higher pitch. For string players, it means grabbing the inside of the upper arm and the bottom of the forearm to give more bow pressure. For keyboardists and percussionists, it means pulling the arms and raising the shoulders to control the intensity of the instrumental response. In all cases except percussionists on non pitched instruments, this muscularity is a result of and serves the erroneous concept that one must add pressure to play notes that are higher on the staff. Though free of tensions up and down the staff, percussionists today are too often encouraged to play rhythm instead of line with no regard to the weight of the particular moment of the phrase. For several years, the third trumpeter and the timpanist of the author's Bach orchestra worked together as chamber musicians during rehearsals and performances to give free support to the first and second trumpets.
What is today applauded as emotion in music is merely shaded gradations of volume that are no substitute for real emotion. Indeed that approach to performance is more related to ham showiness and theatrical showmanship. The giveaway to recognize it is the phrase "dynamic shaping of phrases" in the next day's review in the newspaper.
Furthermore, as stated above, since feelings induce the body to provide the correct pressure and muscular reaction to produce the activity, there is no need to do anything voluntarily physical to cause a particular result. In this way musical performance becomes remarkably free of physical tension. The process can cause fear in performers, because they feel they are not doing anything, and our culture has brainwashed them to believe that singing and playing are supposed to be hard physical work. Actually, the hard work is the intense concentration and focus on the musical expression in relationship to the instrumental and bodily alignment. Eileen Farrell said this precisely when she said that singing is easy; it's the concentration that's hard. Most important is the concentration on the things that produce results; performers must never concentrate on the results. It takes years to accomplish the effortlessness of musical results that used to be so admired, but that effortlessness is rooted in the awareness of what causes the results. The effortlessness which is a result of releasing the self makes the performer someone who is sharing feelings, rather than being a spectacle. But this distinction requires that we further differentiate art and entertainment. This will be clarified in Chapter V.
An astonishing scene in the gospel of Matthew tells of Peter asking as proof of the reality of Christ that he let him (Peter) walk on the water during a storm. The story is very specific about why Peter was actually walking on the water and then sinking. Peter noticed the wind. In other words he lost concentration on the object of his desire because his mind noticed something else -- the wind. When he was focused on his desire, he walked on the water, when he lost his proper focus, he sank. Musicians and singers can benefit from meditation on this story, whatever their belief system. (In an age of fantasy, we don’t tell enough allegories.)
When singers and instrumentalists use voluntary pressure by muscling their way to make music, their focus is now on technique, not music. The mindset that makes music this way does not notice that music must now become a victim of quality control and that beautiful sound, not music, is now the intention of the performer. In other words, sound is manipulated for its own sake instead of being both the springboard and result of the communicative power of the musical experience. The performance becomes a matter of accomplishment instead of expression, and the musical line is sacrificed to momentary perfectionistic control. In more modern terms, music becomes digital instead of analog. That is not to say that digital recordings are not superior. But notice that it is recordings that are digital; voices and instruments are not.3
But it is a matter of logic that beautiful sound is at the service of great music. Too often performers think that great music is a vehicle for the exhibition of beautiful sound produced by prodigious (or not) technique. But beautiful sound is just that, sound without meaning.
Furthermore, performers who rely on technique to deliver a performance soon discover that the very technique they rely on will abandon them long before they get to the end of a piece. The exception to this is the superstars who have the capacity to muscle their way through. They pay for it over the years as they have to work harder and harder to get through a performance. They blame the ensuing problems on aging.
Also, too many young singers and musicians, having been trained muscularly, achieve early fame and then disappear from the scene quickly. Youth enables an endurance that time will gradually and inevitably erode. Young people can do just about anything they want. They simply lack the maturity to recognize that they cannot squander their talent through an immature judgment about their physical nature as their teachers encourage them, because they (the teachers) are judging and fixing the sound instead of aligning the voice or the instrument (not to mention hoping to be the teacher of the next famous star). The real pity is that so many young people who love making music go away discouraged when all their muscular efforts come to naught, and they think that they were not "good enough" to make it. Observing this, perhaps we can arrive at a deeper understanding of Rollo May's assertion that perfectionistic thinking is a bastardized borrowing from technology which depersonalizes the individual. It certainly is a logical consequence of training with brain and muscle in what is essentially and quintessentially an emotional art. Lauritz Melchior used to say, "Regard your voice as capital in the bank. When you sing, do not draw on your bank account. Sing on your interest, and your voice will last."
Learning is a process, not a series of isolated achievements. If the emotional aspect of musical notation is incorporated into the teaching method from the beginning, the performer can validate his efforts at every level of his progress instead of constantly feeling inferior through a specious thought process of self-indulgent perfectionism resulting from comparison with superstars or whomever.
- "Involuntary" is used in the sense that, while the mind is engaged with the emotional impulses to the intended end, the musculature is free to operate freely to serve that same end. Precisely the body is free to do its job, which is to accomplish the activity of the desired end with as little interference as possible. The word is not used in an anatomical sense of the heart, for example, operating involuntarily.
- String players and pianists in the latter half of the twentieth century began to suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. The author suffered from it twenty years ago, and when diagnosed, started paying attention to the basics of piano playing as taught by his first piano teacher. The pain disappeared and has never returned. The only conclusion to be drawn is that players are not playing too much, they are playing too much with poor technique based on muscular control rather than the principles set forth in this treatise. We have seen that adding pressure to notes results in tension, hence physical distress from too much repetition of tense playing should not be a surprise. The development of common practice notation came about from the practical knowledge of how instruments, both vocal and instrumental, work. Until there is a return to the basic principles of letting the self go and becoming aware of the process of healthy music making, there will be job-related stress injuries.
- The author cannot remember where he read the story of two world famous musicians who were listening to the final edit of a recording of a violin and a piano sonata about to be released. One said to the other, "Don't you wish we could play that well?" This anecdote is presented for its meditative values to lead the thinker into seemingly endless related paths.