Balance in the Extremes

Weekly Teaching Tip – July 24, 2017
by Camiah Mingorance

My husband was diagnosed a few years ago with chronic acute kidney failure and last October he began dialysis treatment. Although there are two different types of dialysis treatment, I learned a very important lesson from my husband’s peritoneal dialysis (PD) specifically. Allow me to explain. When kidneys fail, toxins and fluid build up in the blood and organs of the body and if not removed will eventually cause multiple organ failure and death. Thank goodness for modern medicine! Here is a very basic description of what happens during PD, in my woefully inadequate layman’s terms. The human abdominal cavity is lined by a membrane sack called the peritoneum. The peritoneum protects the major organs and because of it’s cellular structure it allows metabolites (oversimplified, that means toxins) and water to pass through it. PD removes toxins by injecting a sterile, sugar solution into the abdomen around the peritoneum. The solution is allowed to remain (or “dwell”) in the abdomen for a long period of time, between 1-2 hours. Because there are toxins built up in the blood and organs and the PD solution is pure or, in other words, it is void of toxins, the body senses this imbalance. However, THE BODY IS ALWAYS SEARCHING FOR BALANCE, so the body allows toxins and extra fluid to be released from the organs and blood and into the PD solution. Once balance has been achieved the now toxin-filled PD solution is emptied out of the abdominal cavity. This process is repeated four times throughout the night while the patient sleeps and in the morning a significant amount of toxins and extra fluid have been removed from the patient. Balance is achieved!

Ok, now jump with me to a wonderful article in the NATS Journal of Singing in the Nov/Dec issue of 2007. The piece was written by Robert Edwin, Associate Editor of the NATS Journal, and he titled it “Belt Is Legit”. Coming from a musical theatre background, my curiosity was piqued by this title. Mr. Edwin discussed a very important concept which I had personally felt committed to for years, but which he explained so much better than I ever could. He said, “All vocal training, whether classical or CCM, should include the development of the entire vocal mechanism from the lowest TA-dominant sound to the highest CT dominant sound, as well as the multitude of resonance options, so that the entire musculature gains strength, flexibility, coordination, and endurance… in light of the research, developing only one vocal fold source or limiting resonance options is simply bad voice pedagogy.” Those vocal fold source options include squared, pressed vocal folds to an edge, ligament, less closed quotient vocal folds. Those resonance options include a lower first formant and a boosted first harmonic to a higher first formant and a boost second harmonic. It includes every coordination, every shade in between. This approach is also used by Mary Saunders-Barton, Head of Voice Instruction for the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theater at Penn State and Head of the MFA in Vocal Pedagogy for Musical Theatre. “Saunders-Barton advocates that a balance of both vocal qualities and muscle group activity (thyroaryntenoid and cricothryroid) results in a balanced middle voice with the ability to increase intensity without vocal strain.” (Leborgne and Rosenberg, The Vocal Athlete, p.224-225) You can read more about her approach, humorously called Bel Canto Can Belto on her website

One more jump ahead and then I promise to get to my point. I was in a class taught by Dr. Ingo Titze years ago where he explained that the human voice is not designed for efficient speech, it is designed for “calling” similar to other mammal larynges. Speech puts the TA muscles into a chronic shortened coordination and is most effective in a low frequency, so the shortening becomes more pronounced. However, “calling” requires lengthening of the vocal folds and CT muscles to contract. Even though we can speak, it is “calling” that makes our speaking more efficient.

Here’s my point. The body is always looking for balance and in fact functions at it’s highest efficiency when it is in balance. However, to find balance, extremes must be experienced. Ying vs. Yang. Toxins vs. PD Solution. Air vs. Muscle. TA vs. CT. Belt vs. Legit. High Larynx vs. Low Larynx. These opposites work together to help us find our center, our most efficient state or what as voice teachers, we call “mix”. Karin Titze Cox put it this way during a recent conversation we had, “You never know when you are in the middle if you never go to the extremes.”

Sometimes as teachers, especially as teachers that prize and value “mix”, we may become so overly focused on finding the middle that we never explore the extremes with the human voice standing in front of us. Living in a world where nearly every singer who walks through the door wants more vocal power means we have to find ways to explore the singer’s extremes so they can experience the middle or “mix” of their voice and therefore tap into power. In fact, in balancing the extremes (practicing multiple differing coordinations) those extremes begin to compliment each other. I tell singers that if they want to learn how to belt, they are also going to learn to sing legit, because belt and legit are two sides of the same coin and by learning one they strengthen the other. With the exploration of extremes (I’m only mentioning belt and legit coordinations here, but we could discuss the thousands of coordination possibilities available to singers), I also try to impart a little knowledge and judgment to the singer. One of my favorite quotes is from Eliza R. Snow and, while she was discussing religious and moral issues, I believe her statement has validity in multiple areas. She said, “Let them seek for wisdom instead of power and they will have all the power they have wisdom to exercise.” Wisdom, to me, means knowledge + judgment in using that knowledge. I want singers to have a knowledge of the extreme coordinations in their voice and then help them exercise their judgment in using those coordinations. Bam! Vocal wisdom! No coordination is inherently bad or good. Coordination just is. Some coordinations are more taxing to the voice then others, but those taxing coordinations also allow us to express emotions that are not as believable in less taxing postures. The only thing that is “bad” or “good” is our judgment in using these extremes. Once a singer is comfortable with a multitude of coordinations (for example, a singer that can move between “mix”, belt and legit coordinations with significant control), we switch from talking about “coordination” to talking about emotions of a song. I say something along the lines of, “Your mix coordination can express a lot of different emotions, but some emotions are going to drive you out of that mix and that is okay! When the emotion compels you to move out of that place, you move; but always realize that when those emotions ebb you return to mix – it’s your home base.” This gives the singer the POWER to be expressive and tell the story. With knowledge of their extremes and judgment in using those extremes (wisdom), they feel empowered to be artistically authentic instead of focusing on technical accuracy. Afterall, even Bertol Coffin said in Coffin’s Sounds of Singing (p.103), “Even too much perfect singing is vocal abuse.”

What do you take away from all of this? I have no idea. I can tell you what it boils down to for me when I’m sitting at my piano and a singer is waiting for my help…
1. Always search for balance
2. Balance is achieved by experiencing the extremes
3. Knowing the extremes and judgment in using those extremes empowers singers (wisdom activates power)
4. The human voice is ABSOLUTELY THRILLING!

Related Articles