Hard to Swallow

When thinking about my voice, I’m more comfortable with metaphor than physiology

Music

Since I’m on a point-to-point tour in the US at the moment – zigzagging around the East Coast from New York to New Hampshire via Savannah, Boston, Baltimore and Princeton, New Jersey – my assembled thoughts may take on an even more rambling character than usual. Writing a column can induce a vertiginous sort of legitimation crisis – one’s words, sentences and paragraphs are self-certifying, since the columnist can write pretty much whatever he or she fancies – and occasionally the terrifying spectre of block rears up. What shall I write about? Or, more often perhaps, what shall I not write about? For the professional writer, of course, it’s much worse, the daily encounter with the blank sheet or screen. I’ve been reading a lot of Updike on the road or in the air – he’s recently deceased and I’m in his neck of the woods – and have relished the following exchange between the fictional author Henry Bech and his current squeeze:

“You should get out of these dreary rooms, Henry. They’re half the reason you’re blocked.”

“Am I blocked? I’d just thought of myself as a slow typist.”

“What do you do, hit the space bar once a day?”

“Ouch.”

So, to resume where I left off last month – singing teachers. After a gap of a few years – and some internal resistance – I have gone to a new teacher and it’s been a revelation. Some of the discoveries have been matters of small physical adjustments, things which have a palpable effect on the ease or placing of a voice but which, once discovered, have to be worked on over weeks and months before they can become second nature. In the end, technique has to be subordinate to the music itself and its transmission, but achieving that is, of course, the hardest technical task of all.

My resistance may have been down to laziness or perhaps fear of the unfamiliar. One never wants to change what has been, or is still, working. But the problem is that it will not work indefinitely. Singers can have long careers and there are famous examples of those who performed well into old age. I remember hearing Alfredo Kraus sing a beautiful, believable Nemorino (essentially, a young man’s role) in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore in his late sixties. Hugues Cuénod, the Swiss tenor, 107 next month, was singing in public well into his eighties. Plácido Domingo is a marvel of longevity. But as we age, the body changes and the smart singer has to be ever alert to the physical adjustments needed to cope with minute shifts in stance, bearing or a host of other bodily biases.

More generally, though, I’ve never been easy with thinking about the voice as a physiological phenomenon. By which I mean that while recognising the voice as physical, I’ve always preferred to approach it through a veil of metaphor, the well-worn images of most vocal pedagogy: balls floating on jets of water; domes on the sound; spaces made in all sorts of places which exist only in the imagination. “Support” is the thing all singing teachers agree on as the basis of sound technique, but no one seems to agree on where it is located or exactly what it is. The images are epiphenomena achieving real physical effects, which I am at a loss to understand physiologically, while realising all along that there must be a physiological explanation.

There’s a vague parallel in philosophy of mind. Materialists – 99 per cent of the philosophical community, I would guess – are condemned in the bulk of their lives to using the mental categories of what they (disparagingly, it would seem) call “folk psychology”, while at the same time remaining convinced that there must be an, as yet unreachable, purely physical description.

A closer parallel exists in what one might call the philosophy of pianism, and one which raises a lot of hackles. Charles Rosen, the pianist and peerless writer about music, strenuously maintains that the engineering of the piano precludes a whole host of things that pianists are taught to believe in, and centrally, the notion that a pianist can have such a thing as a “touch”. As Rosen himself has put it, “You push a piano key down, and it is louder and softer, and longer and shorter. There is nothing else you can do to an individual note that makes the slightest difference to the music. It is the way the notes are combined by the pianist that makes a beautiful tone.” Yet, talking to pianists with whom I work, they are, regardless of Rosen’s reasoning, absolutely committed to what must be, from a purely physical and mechanical point of view, a metaphorical way of thinking. Somehow, it helps to pretend that something is happening that can’t be.

I’ve always realised that there is a physiological basis to vocal production, of course, while at the same time finding it too confusing an idea to handle in detail. Intellectually curious as I like to think I am, books about vocal physiology – rather like books about personal finance – have tended to confuse me and make me blurry-eyed. But now I’m going to a singing teacher who (and this is a rarity) works closely with a laryngologist and a physiotherapist, who can tell me things about the relationship between the various parts of the vocal mechanism without sending me into a Weberian tailspin. I think it was Max Weber who said that if you think about how to walk, you fall over.

My teacher’s most interesting general point about the vocal mechanism is that, unlike the piano, it is not designed for the purpose with which we most associate it. The primary function of the vocal tract is as one of several lines of defence against choking, that elemental confusion of the trachea and the oesophagus, the windpipe and the foodpipe, a nasty consequence of the evolutionary economy of the human animal. If I’ve understood him properly, much of what we do as singers, particularly in achieving the high notes which technique facilitates, is actually about persuading the body that one is not about to swallow as one reaches for the skies. And with that rather excrutiating physical image I leave you.