Salt

His use of the language was surely better taken in by native German speakers. For me, it was not easy to understand much of the Sunday morning sermon in Vienna’s spectacular Augustiner-Kirche. The priest spoke considerably faster than those who had delivered sermons on previous Sundays. Come to think of it, even if he had spoken in English, I think the pace was a bit too quick. But that’s not the point.

The point is that I “got” a few essentials, largely because the woman who read the Gospel spoke more slowly. It also didn’t hurt that I already know the words of Matthew 5:13-16,  the lectionary assignment for that day. “You are the salt of the earth…”

The scripture speaks to what I believe is the chief reason we are here–to spice things up! But salt is more than a flavor enhancer. At least two other vital characteristics were highlighted in the sermon. Here’s where my thoughts began to turn towards singing…

Salt is a preservative. Before easy access to refrigerators and freezers, it was much more common for meats to be salted in order to keep them edible for months, not merely days.

Salt also melts ice. To melt ice and snow is essentially to destroy them. True, they actually only change form, but think about that the next time you want to build a snowman!

So, salt has the power both to preserve and to destroy–two dramatically different actions, yet both essential. Salt is less likely to destroy foods, and it certainly does not preserve the ice on your driveway.

Breath support/appoggio is a lot like salt. (Here it comes…you knew we would get around to vocal technique.) The basic nature of salt does not change, however it is used. The determining factor is how, when, where and in what measure it is applied. Likewise, the singer’s use of breath energy must be appropriate to the needs of each moment.

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Active Passivity

Just as the performing artist must not confuse relaxed with collapsed/disconnected–or engaged with tense/effortful–do not think for a moment that activity is always about obvious motion. Technique and imagination are able to empower each other when the artist confidently “gets out of the way” and allows them to coordinate. Key to that relationship is that the artist know what degree of control to exercise.

I often write in this blog about imagination and choices that the artist makes, based on technical ability and good preparation. There is certainly more to performing effectively than good intentions or positive thinking. Yet, too often we performers don’t trust our preparation or our skills; we try to exercise a level of conscious control that actually weakens–even sabotages–performance. Speaking from personal experience, this is a major challenge for all of us who teach and perform.

As essential as technical fundamentals are (choose your own ideal here: low larynx, high palate, legato, mastery of breath control, etc.), there are vital benefits to what I call active passivity. One who learns what it feels like to allow or bring about desired activities will find efficiency (therefore, less fatigue) and concentration that lead to more expressive, consistent and powerful performances.

My students quickly learn that I love the game of golf (readers of this blog can figure that one out!). There is much common ground among sports–golf, in particular–and good singing. The golfer may have frequent lessons (it is not unusual that tour professionals’ coaches travel with them) but he/she knows the difference between the practice tee and a competitive round of golf. No doubt, a comprehensive understanding of the mechanics of the swing should be helpful, but an excellent swing is not brought about through conscious thought of when to shift the weight, cock the wrists, square the clubface, pronate/supinate, etc. Things happen too quickly for that level of conscious control. However, it is typical that  a golfer chooses one, possibly two, swing thoughts as he/she stands over the ball. This is not unlike positive imaging, whereby one sees the track of the ball’s flight before launching the swing, or imagines success with that difficult phrase or challenging aria prior to taking the stage.

Years ago, it was a revelation to me–the good Southern boy who tries hard to do the right thing–when a wonderful dramatic coach urged me to take it for granted that a certain dramatic choice was intact in my performance. I began to realize, this is how learning and growth work. “Big Brother” left brain has little responsibility when it comes to the moment of performance. Once skills and choices have become secure, second nature reality, the performer must take for granted that it all comes together.  A plus B will always (OK…usually) equal C.

To be more specific, efforts to establish the low laryngeal position that most of us seek too easily lead to a depressed larynx. In this case, tongue/jaw tension is a problem; the neck tends to lock down, and mobility is lost. The ability to articulate pitches and text rapidly and effectively is hampered. One of the fundamentals that I was taught long ago is that a good, natural, deep inhalation releases the larynx down; it is not necessary to place or manipulate the larynx down, but we must commit to not moving it up. I now define low larynx as “the larynx that is not pushed or pulled up.”  This balancing act is a prime application of active passivity.

One more fundamental that I will address here only briefly (arguably, the most basic element in singing) is breath support/control, appoggio, etc. We often worship at the Shrine of the Low Breath, and “the breath” becomes an object of mystery. I say we must demystify the whole process to master the specifics of breath management for singing. After all, as my favorite Alexander Technique colleague (my own teacher) often points out, it is toddlers who have mastered body management. They make a lot of sound, for a long time, without hoarseness, etc. In fact, the healthy baby makes a conspicuous entrance onto the world stage by breathing very deeply, then crying out with great power!

Through refining talent/instinct into an effective technique, the athlete–whether engaged in golf, another sport, or singing–discovers that mind, body and spirit must be in sync to perform at a high level. Learning to access technique fluidly and imaginatively is vital.