How many times have you expressed something, only to have it misunderstood? If you’re like most people, your answer is most likely: ‘frequently’! One of the advantages of language is that it’s flexible and multi-dimensional. One of the disadvantages of language is that it’s flexible and multi-dimensional. What I mean is that of all the advantages that language has given us, many words are filled with linguistic ambiguity. They can be understood this way or that. There are many examples of this. One of the most amusing and sobering actually happened to me.
Driving with my wife through the countryside, I was dozing lightly in the passenger seat. She came to a crossing where there were trees blocking her view to the right and asked me to lean forward to look. I said “OK”. As she began to make her left turn I screamed “SOMEONE’S COMING”. I meant “OK, I’ll look”, and she heard “OK, you can make the turn.” A simple enough yet potentially deadly misunderstanding.
Another good example is the “Bel Canto” term “La Lutte Vocale”. It literally means The Vocal Battle or The Vocal Struggle. It’s attributed to the great teacher Francesco Lamperti from his “Treatise on the Art of Singing.” I say ‘attributed’ because Bel Canto is an oral tradition. In other words, it has its origin by word-of-mouth from teacher to student and the term may have been originated by a colleague and/or teacher and written later by him. These were master teachers and master singers from the golden age. “La Lutte Vocale” describes a very specific balance in breath control. But as you’ve surely already noticed, “Lutte” or struggle, lends itself to profound misunderstanding. Is there really a struggle going on while we’re singing well? If not, what is really meant?
Lutte, as a metaphor for balanced breath control, is best understood by considering the word “Antagonist”. When we refer to someone as antagonistic, we generally mean that person is being hostile, engaging in enemy action or ‘struggling’ with us. But consider muscles. The bicep and the tricep are considered antagonists. I doubt if you would say that these two muscles are fighting or struggling with each other. Every muscle has its antagonist or flowing movement would be impossible. Just so with breath control. This is much easier to demonstrate than to describe, but singing, especially opera singing is obviously more than breathing in and breathing out. Because of the nature of efficient phonation, the M. Vocalis, M. Cricothyroideus and surrounding muscles, muscle chains, fascia and so much else, simple, high-pressure exhalation will not only damage the vocal lips over time, but also produce a less than aesthetic vocal tone. That means that the exhalatory impulse is regulated to a large degree by the inhalatory impulse. This is necessary to ensure optimal air flow and subglottal air pressure to the vocal lips. This balance is REGULATED by the vocal lips and NOT the lungs, rib cage or diaphragm. This cannot be emphasized to greatly. In a closed, or half-closed, pressure system, the regulator is the valve and not the motor. Those who misunderstand the breath function in singing often try to regulate the voice with the breath. A dangerous mistake. When the sense of phonation through the vocal lips is optimal, there is automatically a balance between the inhalatory impulse and the exhalatory impulse. The “Bel Canto” masters called this ‘inhalare la voce’. This inhalatory/exhalatory balance also changes within any given sung phrase according to lung volume and lung capacity. Exactly which pressure centers are activated or felt vary, of course, also according to the myriad factors of physical structure. In other words, the ectomorph, mesomorph and endomorph (with so much in between) are going to develop different strategies for managing breath. Many claim that endomorphs have distinct advantages in singing opera. But there are enough counter examples that show clearly that any body type can develop effective strategies.
The implications for pedagogy are profound. If you, as a teacher, are long and thin and understand “La Lutte Vocale” only from your own experience and standpoint and you’re confronted by a student singer shaped like a refrigerator, you need to stretch your experience to match your students’ body type. If you don’t, you’re not teaching, you’re filtering. What I mean is, you’re sorting your potential students with a filter called: ‘who is most like me?’ I’ve seen enough of this to know that the bigger a ‘star’ you are (or think you are), the stronger the tendency for this filter and the more effort it requires to become aware of it.
“La Lutte Vocale” belongs to a whole class of vocal pedagogy terms, forged in the golden age of Bel Canto, which by their very nature are easily misunderstood. When you first hear “La Lutte Vocale”, “Coup de Glotte”, Vocal Attack or assorted others, you’d think singing was a form of martial arts! When accompanied by a true, accomplished teacher, demonstrated, heard in all its subtlety and integrated, these terms become linguistic anchors for masterful singing. Read about, bandied about or used superficially and without good singers’ instincts, they become an invitation to vocal abuse!
Not only can we learn about singing through the understanding of the essence of linguistic ambiguity and the principle of the ‘antagonist’, there are powerful lessons for coaching as well. I’ll give you a brief example. In a seminar I gave a few years ago, there was a young participant with a typical problem. One the one hand, he loved the idea of being super fit. One the other, he was something of a gourmand. Each and every meal needed to be not only scrumptious, but also excessive. To be sure, these are “antagonistic” and very human needs. To make both these important needs clear, I evoked a typical coaching complexity reducer and asked him to isolate in his consciousness the personality part which desires fitness. Admittedly, there are clients who find this kind of inner dialogue (inner child, inner warrior, inner archetype) somewhat silly. Not him, though. He isolated this inner ‘part’ with ease and carried on a lively dialogue. Then I asked him to isolate his “Inner Epicurus”, the gourmand. Here too, he enthusiastically made intimate contact. Then I asked him if these two parts knew each other. They didn’t. After he introduced them, I asked them both what it is they wanted. I kept asking until it was clear that they both worked in the direction of health, vitality and joie de vivre. Before the coaching it seemed to the client as if these needs were working against each other. After the coaching it became clear that these two needs and these two ‘inner parts’ were actually a team, working towards the same thing in differing ways.
Now imagine for a moment that any and all conflicts you yourself experience are nothing more than a simple misunderstanding. The moment that you realize that these inner ‘antagonisms’ were actually misunderstood ‘teams’, doing something vital and important for you, you’ve understood something profound about yourself and about life.
So “La Lutte Vocale” can be thought of as a metaphor for life and maturity. In actuality, it is not a struggle. It is the e-string on the violin of our life, pulled in two directions for the purpose of making beautiful music!
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