The voice lives in a black box

800px-Blackbox.svgWhen we learn how to play the guitar or the piano or the clarinet, we have direct control of virtually all elements of sound-making and body use. We can feel and direct the actions of our hands, fingers, tongue, and lips. We can watch them in the mirror. We can feel and see muscles contracting and causing movements. We can see directly how the movements affect the music-making. This is not true in singing. The vocal folds lie deep in our necks at the base of the larynx behind a wall of cartilage. The muscles inside and near the folds are not visible and mostly cannot be manipulated directly and easily.

Although it is challenging in a mechanical way that we have so little direct sensory control over the vocal apparatus, human beings are blessed with the ability to make sounds in an intentional way. Developing new intentions that work with the way voices develop, as established centuries ago in the empirical methods of the old Italian singing masters, will lead to changes in the way the sound is made due to direct connections between the brain and the larynx. The path to freedom is not based on making it sound “good”, it’s based on making singing “easy”. Many singers chase endlessly after their version of “good” and never get to freedom – ease – rightness – cooperating with Nature – to make the most of what they have.

People sometimes try to reverse engineer technique from sensations they feel in their bodies when they think they are sounding good, which too often fails. We can achieve much finer control by learning how to listen functionally, and learning what kind of sound-making will make a voice work better. With practice, you can hear sounds that move more easily, resonate more easily, begin and end clearly, and also feel good to make. When the voice becomes more agile and easy, we must go with that path and accept the resulting sound as our own, if health, ease, and longevity are valuable to us.

Some singers cannot accept these ideas. Some are attached to a particular kind of “opera sound” or “rock sound” or “jazz sound” and will do anything to get those. Others are sold on the idea of controlling everything with various tensions that can be proven to be unnecessary. Less often, a student identifies with their familiar but flawed story of how to sing so strongly, that a newer, easier way feels terribly wrong and alien, and they run away.

Easier singing can feel like better control with less control, more sound with less air, a concentrated, projecting sound that feels small in one’s head, and on and on. The perceived paradoxes are many, and some teachers rely on them heavily as teaching points, thoroughly confusing things. “Think down to go up”, “The loud is built on the soft”, “Engage the abs more to sustain a phrase, then even more to sing high, then even more to sing soft, then even more…” until the student is bound up in tension, stiffness, and confusion. The poor teacher is trying to convey what is right for them in their own bodies as they live it, and the poor student is trying to understand from the point of view of someone who has not yet achieved what the teacher has achieved.

All of this confusion is because of the Black Box nature of singing. All the “voice science” in the world, all the imaginative ways of conveying sensations, all the mimicry you can muster, can’t take you all the way to your own vocal freedom. You must find out ways of working with Nature, to elicit easier and more athletic vocal responses, so that you can develop a healthy voice that responds to your musical and lyrical thoughts.

We can make the Black Box work for us by working with the natural direct wiring that we all have between brain and larynx – between concept and vocalization. A correct concept (input) leads to correct vocal function (output) in a way that seems magical, but it’s not. It’s cause and effect, worked out by singing masters long before the Industrial Age – not tactile or visible, but delightfully real.

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