Can you learn singing from a book? Early in my studies I read quite a bit on vocal technique and I became convinced that you could not. Books can accompany your training when you have a real teacher that can always get you back on track. I still believe this to be true.
However, recently I got curious about literature on voice, since the times are changing and new approaches and methods arise. It is never a waste of time to expand your vocal bag of tools!
I went and checked out the shelves at San Francisco Public Library.
I started with the oldest one, Vocal Development through Organic Imagery by William D. Leyerle. It grabbed my attention since I also use “organic imagery” in my own method, although I call it visualization.
I both hate and love this book.
I hate it because on page 2 it has one of the most harmful pieces of misinformation. After discovering Esther Gokhale’s method and her insight into natural posture I just cannot stomach seeing images of anatomically wrong “flat back” being taught as useful for singers. The same piece of advice I got during my voice lessons at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. We had to assume the “supine position” flattening the small of the back on the floor, which made the pelvis go into posterior tilt. It looks ugly, it is uncomfortable and it makes singing harder. How did people come up with this idea and held on to it for so long, since I still see this diagram in countless versions in books and all over the internet?
I cannot say that posture a. is any better, both are totally artificial.
Look at the real singers, how they stand, and try to fit a wall to them!
So, a lot to think about at just page two. Luckily, the rest of the book is much better and some diagrams and concepts are useful. I can imagine someone studying with this script and getting more clarity on resonance and registers. For me the most revolutionary info was about the “middle passaggio”. “Passaggio” is the transition point between lower and higher parts of the voice, a few notes which can be difficult. I knew about the “break” around E and F (top of the staff) and also about the upper limit of the chest voice around E (first line of the staff). But Leyerle talks also about another transition, around C:
For years I had trouble navigating this spot, even while my higher notes soared with complete ease. Now I know why.
Of course knowing about problem spots doesn’t necessarily help to overcome them. On the daily basis I chose – and this is a legitimate approach according to Leyerle – to just ignore the registers and think of one, smooth quality of tone across the whole vocal range. When you believe in it, hear other singers do it just fine, you can do it too.
The most unusual think about this book are the “funny pictures”.
They look like secret symbols or as cartoon characters from an avant-garde animation. They say “don’t judge the book by its cover” but in this case you could teach the whole Leyerle method from the cover of his work. I can see how these can make people find their sound and look for the right sensations in unexpected places, sometimes seemingly outside the body. They are in a way more practical that the usual cross-sections of the head and throat. I like how the author uses the term “focus” instead of placement. All these pointy triangles are directing the attention of the singer to the “focal” spot, as if behind the neck. Such focus achieves two goals: 1) the singer imaging the voice coming from outside the body does not tense the body 2) stops the urge to “project” which for most people means the attempt to push the air outwards.
Another good point is Leyerle’s take on “raising the soft palate” – another opportunity for students to get stuck for years trying to lift something up their throats. For him this is rather the expansion into the back of the throat, a much better image and direction of energy.
I have a bone to pick with him as far as his understanding of “support”. I feel that his images are better than his words. He speaks of breath support but means “back support” – visualized in the shape of a dark cone – going around the back of the rib cage, around the diaphragm. This is ok. Any teacher that does not tell the students to “push with their diaphragm” has my respect!