Voice Culture – An indepth look.

27 Nov 2015

Voice Culture – What it all means? 
– Part 1

Voice Culture is a common term heard these days. Pavarotti knew its secrets as did MS Subbulaxmi. For us lesser mortals, what does it mean?Fundamentally voice culture refers to the methodology adopted to train or control the voice to sing effectively. In Carnatic music we also call this ‘sadhaka’.

Voice culture is very important for all aspiring vocalists, from beginners to advanced practitioners. A beginner would face challenges very different from those faced by an advanced student. For example, a beginner would be more focused on singing in tune, understanding the pitch variance of various notes, and being able to hold a note steadily amongst other things. An advanced student faces issues such as voice fatigue, hoarseness, lack of clarity in singing and reduction in vocal range. To avoid or mitigate such issues a vocalist needs both a proper understanding of good voice techniques and an in-depth understanding of his/ her own unique voice.

I will discuss the perceptions of voice culture in Carnatic music today, then move onto the fundamental aspects of mechanics of the voice. Let’s alsodiscuss some techniques advocated by various Western voice experts. I’ve includedlinks to relevant material – just click and see! We round off the topic with video interviews with leading vocalists today and hear what they have to share about this topic. Please share your comments as well, especially if you are a vocal student, I’m interested to get a dialogue, trialogue or log of higher order going on this blog.

Let’s take a student of Carnatic music. A bare minimum of the following is required.
  • Ability to sing in tune with the sruti – A fundamental requirement.
  • Ability to sustain a note without wavering as long as possible. Good rounded tonal production throughout the range.
  • Ability to render gamakas and nuances with control and mastery at any speed.
  • Ability to traverse at least 2 1/2 octaves comfortably.
  • Proper articulation of lyrics.
Since voice is the medium that translates the ideas from the brain into music, the actual flow of ideas needs to happen effectively and could also be considered to be an essential aspect of voice training. Listening could therefore be included in voice training as well.

In fact, the aspects of Voice Culture have been discussed in ancient texts of music such as the Naradi Siksha.(excerpt from The Teaching of Music by Prof P. Sambhamurthy) As you can see below, the ‘Don’ts’ far outweigh the ‘Dos’. The million dollar question is, are there techniques to help us achieve the ‘Dos’ and avoid the ‘Don’ts’. The answer is ‘Yes’ but we will discuss that in the following threads.
The ten excellences of ‘gana’ or music are:
  • Rakta – melodic harmony
  • Purna – fullness in utterance.
  • Alankrta – decorated
  • Prasanna – shining, radiant
  • Vyakta , clearness in pronunciation
  • Vikrshta – purity
  • Slakshnam – rendering in apt tempo
  • Samam – uniform melodious
  • Sukumaram – delightfully soft
  • Madhuram – sweetness in rendering
Gayaka Doshas or Defects are:
These points are definitely not to be taken lightly but some humor is added to diffuse the gravity.
  • Singing with a wide gaping mouth (Think fish out of water- bad- fish in water- good)
  • Singing with shrill and trembling voice
  • Singing in a hesitant, jerky or faltering manner.
  • Singing in absent minded manner
  • Noisy singing and breathy singing
  • singing with clenched teeth (Leave your anger off stage please)
  • singing with shyness (Once again- no Bashful)
  • singing with fear (Unless a wild animal happens to be in the vicinity or you are bunking class and the headmistress has spotted you)
  • lifting the eyebrows while singing (Its not Kathakali Folks!)
  • Frequently clearing the throat (We would hope you took care of that during morning ablutions)
  • Singing with bad intonation
  • Singing with faulty rhythm
  • Habitually counting the tala in a vishama/misleading style (no swishing folks)
  • Making violent/unseemly gestures while singing (I don’t even want to imagine!)
  • Singing with too much shake of the head
  • Strained and screechy singing.
  • Presence of nasality (Nose should be seen but not heard)
  • Singing with closed eyes. (Don’t you want to observe the audience?)
  • Singing with closed mouth (If we wanted a ventriloquist, we’d ask for one)
  • Singing like a crow. (Is this really possible?)
  • Singing faulty sahithyas (No adlibbing on Stage please- the composers would prefer to keep it *their* way.)
  • Separating the syllables of words at wrong places.
  • Swallowing or indistinctly pronouncing some syllables and words while singing. (E-NUN-CIATION)
  • Not making eye contact with the audience. (They’re here for a reason- you. Might as well make them feel wanted)
  • Protruding the neck like a camel. (While appropriate in Break dancing, in Carnatic music – not so much)
  • Repeating a phrase many times during alapana or neraval.
  • Keeping the mouth in a crooked or oblique manner while singing. (Narrow and straight, folks)
  • Flat lifeless singing (If you’re bored to sing, just imagine HOW bored we must be, as the audience!)
  • No plan in the development of alapana or kalpana swara. (Melody favours the prepared voice)
  • Singing with false voice (Be true to your voice and you shall be false to no ear)
  • Singing with doubt or indifference
  • Possession of a feeble,unmusical, repulsive , stammering or lamenting voice (Not much you can do about this)
  • Ugly mannerism while singing (If *you* wouldn’t like watching it in a mirror, neither would we…)
  • Sitting in an ungraceful and uncomfortable posture.
to be continued...
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