I do not remember when exactly I first discovered the unorthodox use of the human voice in music, but it was the same feeling as when I first listened to Mozart’s Queen of the Night. I found a different kind of beauty in the “ugly” and distorted sound.
Reasonably, while listening to contemporary singers, the first question was “How do they not destroy their vocal folds?”. The biggest fear of singers is always the damage of the voice, caused most of the times by an unhealthy manner of singing. In the case of the extended vocal techniques someone would wonder “Are they healthy at all?”.
I was wondering and questioning until I met and studied with Natalia Pschenitschnikova. She is a Russian vocalist, flutist and composer based in Berlin, dedicated to contemporary vocal practices. A woman who spent a whole year without any singing, only screaming, in order to explore and learn the mechanisms of the body and the vocal folds during the act of screaming. Pschenitschnikova has a particular method of teaching described as “How to sing contemporary music without ruining your voice”.
Besides the great importance of teachers and guides, mastering the art of singing, like any kind of art, is a continuous process and personal journey.
Basic ingredients: awareness, curiosity and understanding.
As in every kind of art, one needs to be aware of the artist he/she wants to be. I have to be aware of who I am in life and art, of my capabilities, my body and its limitations. Physical awareness or as-called “kinaesthetic intelligence”1 describes our connection with the body and how its different mechanisms function. Most importantly aims to achieve a conscious sense of it. “The body of a performer is thus not any human body but a cultural body with particular physical skills and a heightened awareness of corporeality”2 .
Curiosity gives all the motivation for a conscious exploration. How can I scream in a healthy manner? How do the vocal folds function? Where and how does the air travels through the system in order to not damage the folds? How loud inhale sounds are produced? How much can I control and what can I control? What needs to remain relaxed? Questioning helps kinaesthesia and awakens the senses.
And last, understanding. Continuous awareness and exploration give - both important, consciously or unconsciously - conclusions regarding the use of each technique. These conclusions help the vocalist to embody and use them in the performance practice.
“As a cultural body, the human body always assumes, and is able to transmit, more knowledge than that which the person is able to know consciously, and with this embodied or “tacit” knowledge the […] bodies of trained performers can indeed sometimes lead them to discoveries that they might not have reached through conscious , analytical thinking”3 .
Important words in this path are “listen”, “trust” and “let go”. To learn to listen and trust the body, to always remember that the production of sound is an act of freedom and truthful expression. The goal is to reach a point where this physical and spiritual freedom are achieved. Then the focus on art begins.
Technical aspects of extended vocal techniques
The following exploration of these techniques does not constitute or replace the live guidance of an experienced vocal coach or a phoniatrist. It introduces a combination of personal experience and study, scientific conclusions and audiovisual documentation regarding the healthy production and artistic practice of extended vocal techniques.
1) Total air control - Relaxed Muscles:
Healthy singing is achieved with the gentle contact and vibration of the vocal folds. “Efficient vocal fold vibration is a dynamic blend of proper muscular contraction and balanced respiratory support”4 . Humans are able to voluntary control these two interdependent mechanisms, described also as muscle tension and air pressure.
Like in conventional singing, a vocalist should avoid exerting greater air pressure than needed, as this amount of air exercises unreleased pressure on the vocal folds - also called subglottal pressure5.
A tension on the muscles, especially of the upper half of the body, leads to a tight larynx (which consists the vocal folds and all the muscles and cartilages that support them). In both interacting situations, unnecessary pressure causes a “violent” contact of the folds and a “violent” use of the larynx, something that in long-term use can be traumatic.
In the case of extended techniques, the same syllogisms prevails. The thought of air’s direction is important: in order for the air to not be interfered by a tight larynx that tries to scream, the vocalist should always feels that air travels from the lungs to the highest end of the head. It is sent and released up.
While producing extended vocal techniques, the main goal is to not feel any pressure on the folds or the larynx, almost as if they do not exist. To feel the right amount of air traveling smoothly through the vocal folds and getting released above. In this way, sounds and techniques are produced in a healthy environment and do not cause any hurt or damage.
Total control of air and relaxed larynx can be achieved with different exercises regarding extended vocal techniques. It needs time and constant careful practice. In the case of any uncomfortable sense in the area, the vocalist should stop immediately.
2) Falsetto or "head voice" placement:
The "chamber" of the vocal instrument is the upper part of the body (starting from the diaphragm)6. The terms “head voice” and “chest voice” were created for mapping simpler the areas where resonance is more noticeable. Both areas are resonating while singing, but depending on the register (high or low) one of them is felt and vibrates more.
The placement should be on the "head voice" while producing vocal extended techniques such as the three following examples (screaming, vocal fry, inhalation phonation). The area is where singers feel the voice while singing falsetto (nasopharynx).
Such as the air control, "head voice" awareness is essential in order to avoid any trouble regarding pressure on the vocal folds. It also affects the harmonics of the produced sound.
3) Disassociation from emotions:
In practice and performance, keeping distance from emotions is crucial. A possible dominance of emotions most of the times brings tension to the muscles while driving away the physical control which is necessary.
The vocalist should learn how to imitate emotions with the eyes, facial expressions, physical movements, but simultaneously keep the calmness, self-control and presence of mind.
For instance, while performing SHE...NEN that required not only extreme use of the voice but also an intense performance, all the emotions had to be externalized while keeping internal physical and emotional control. The physical movements helped the performance itself and me as a vocalist to remain in control.
In the next pages, there is a description of the physical aspects of timbral contrasts and specifically the techniques of vocal fry, scream and inhalation phonation.
Two main elements that must be taken seriously into consideration are, first, that a vocalist should be completely warmed-up before exercising any vocal extended technique and, second, that the individuality of each vocalist is utmost importance.
“Individuality in the singing instrument stems from structural differences and from the uniqueness of the individual artistic imagination, not from mysteries regarding the functional aspects of the singing instrument.”7