What Lives in Your Breathing?

This may be THE most important thing a singer and a voice teacher needs to understand!

And if you haven’t subscribed to Justin Peterson’s History Vocal Pedagogy blog, do it! It is for singers and teachers of Popular and Americana Music as well as Classical Music. Justin invited me to be a guest contributor to his blog and this is a repost. I’ve taken a look at a passage from the writings of Cornelius Reid, who has deeply influenced many functional voice trainers of all kinds of musical genres.

“The willingness with which a singer responds to the energy charge when the throat opens will determine his ultimate potential for mastering a vocal technique that is functionally free.

This means facing up to the fear and anxiety that are ever present throughout the formative stages of training. No other phase of the learning process is quite as important as this. How the singer meets this challenge will determine whether or not his artistic ambitions will be realized…Since anxiety is so intimately bound up with physical contraction and fear of movement, one of the major problems during training is to break down the student’s innate dread of inner expression…”

Cornelius Reid (1911-2008)

I first discovered Cornelius Reid’s trilogy (The Free Voice, Bel Canto in Principle and Practice and Voice: Psyche and Soma) in graduate school. I resonated deeply with each of these books.  Reid’s work, and the work of those who’ve developed his concepts in registration and the role of the psyche in singing since then have formed a basis for the unusual variety and depth of my life’s work.

All teachers of singing need to viscerally understand that histories of vocal pedagogy and of oral musical traditions don’t just change with time. They both have an eternal quality of circling back to embrace roots and then burst forward again in new growth. One feeds the other and around they go, like a wagon wheel moving along the singing trail. They weed out, add to and hold fast – not so much by specific exercises – but by underlying principles, overarching concepts and use of language.  

Recently, the above Reid paragraph struck me in a new way.  He wrote: “The willingness with which the singer responds to the energy charge when the throat opens….”

What?? What does Reid mean by “willingness to respond to the energy charge when the throat opens?” First of all, he refers to the throat opening as a response to the energy charge. The energy charge comes first! Singing doesn’t even start with the breath or “inhalation.” The throat doesn’t initially open by “creating space,” “placement” or even by getting into character or poetic understanding.  It isn’t shaped by “lifting the soft palate,” or “lowering,” “raising,” “tilting” (or whatever-ing) the larynx, or by supporting with the intercostals or transverse abdominals or skilled use of the articulators. 

Reid suggests that the initiation of  things ‘happening’ is dependent upon how much a person is willing to respond  to “The Charge.”

One of my primary voice teachers, Elizabeth Daniels, spoke about “the thing” that happens before you even breathe to sing, and how, if anyone identifies “the thing” they’ll win a Nobel Prize. Daniels’ teacher was Todd Duncan, George Gershwin’s hand-picked Porgy for the premier of Porgy and Bess. Duncan evidently used to say that the way the throat is responding before the breath is taken will determine the freedom of the singing afterwards. And my father, a brilliant and loving full-time church musician, used to say “Cultivate a belly of fire, an open heart and a mind of ice.”  And maybe one of the most unique things a teacher can do in our current day and age is help clear a singer’s charge and free it from static so that functional training can take root.

The “energy charge,” to which Reid refers has not been measured by science, but is the result of the urge to sound, or express, as part of our natural makeup up as bioelectric beings. There are many kinds of energy, or electrical phenomena produced within living organisms and within the earth itself.  

The late Dr. Meribeth Dayme wrote in the third edition of her book Dynamics of the Singing Voice:

J. Diamond (1983) has defined “life energy” as being a vital force that is physical, mental and spiritual in nature: the physical being reflected in the muscular activity and the functioning of the skeletal system: the mental including thoughts and the ability to be centered; and the spiritual that begins as spirit which is signified by the love and humanity within each person. He has also noted that everything in the environment, both physical and psychic–thoughts, feelings, desires affects life energy. 

(Diamond’s trilogy examines this life energy in The Life Energy in Music, vol. I, II, and III. New York: Archaeus Press)

I believe that this is all part of the unencumbered charge to which Reid refers. Or to put it another way, what is The Charge free of? Reid gives us an answer: it is free of anxiety. 

Voice and acting teachers, actors, dancers, singers, and healers have been weaving together somatic re-education, movement, mindfulness, nutrition and wellness, bodywork, rehabilitative tools, and intention for over forty-five years now. These ways of uniting the mind-body split in our culture help to heal and repair our willingness and ability to respond to The Charge. It’s that initial thing that has to be allowed before we release and engage our body’s pressure systems to breathe. Yes, the “charge” is our response to life, music, our mission, our joy, our motivation. But it also must be free enough to allow all the ‘things’ that we observe in voice science (including whatever  latest research has been reported!) and continually define and redefine in vocal pedagogy to work.

The emotions we feel aren’t the same thing as the energy charge that Reid mentions. It seems to me that many singers are vocally reflecting the angst of the times, rather than establishing how to deliver expression of angst without having the throat shaped by anxiety. Teachers, mentors, coaches, producers, conductors and directors should help to create an environment that supports The Charge. But since that is not always the case, part of a singer’s training must develop a willingness to respond with their own charge, within themselves. Each singer, as they mature throughout their lives, carries the responsibility of protecting their own Charge so that functional training can take root over time and release a naturally musical and expressive soul.

Reid’s next sentence is,

This means facing up to the fear and anxiety that are ever present throughout the formative stages of training. No other phase of the learning process is quite as important as this. How the singer meets this challenge will determine whether or not his artistic ambitions will be realized.

This is where we do get a bit of historical pedagogy root rot, because it’s not only in the formative stages of training that this may occur, but can occur at regular intervals throughout our artistic adult lives as we grow, change and navigate life. We can become disconnected from our spirits and learning to listen to our bodies as the Ultimate Wisdom. Sometimes what our bodies are telling us is in direct conflict with what we’ve built in our careers and private lives, and in direct conflict with our motivations. This conflict, by itself, will warp “the charge.” 

His final words of the paragraph are:

“Since anxiety is so intimately bound up with physical contraction and fear of movement, one of the major problems during training is to break down the student’s innate dread of inner expression…”

We’re brought back to the rise of somatic tools, dance, all kinds of advances in healing, to aid release of physical contraction and fear of movement. We cannot solve the student’s anxiety—that is their journey. 

We can only journey through our own limitations, freeing ourselves in huge and tiny ways as we go. And that is how we free the charge in the students and groups with which we work.

I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul….

-Walt Whitman, American poet

So, what does this all mean for you?

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