Unleash the Voice

Loré Lixenberg

Acclaimed mezzo-soprano Loré Lixenberg, whose numerous performances of new music include works by Richard Thomas, Bent Sørensen, Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, among many others, recalls some defining moments from her early training and provides some workouts for the voice, body and emotions. In addition, improvisor, throat-singer and lead vocalist of the band Old-Time Relijun, Arrington de Dionyso shares his workshop techniques.

Learning to sing is unique amongst other instrumental studies because, concurrent to learning your instrument, you are also building it and finding out what your own particular instrument is made of, all at the same time. It’s a challenge made even more complex by the phenomenon of vocal development playing a large part in our socialisation. So, in order to really study your own voice you need to learn to take a holiday from the rules that bind our voices and make us socially acceptable, especially as one of the skills a singer needs to acquire is the art of being private in public and permitting themselves to transmit a wide range of emotions.

When I was studying with Nick Powell, most of the lessons were concentrated on stripping away layers of vocal mannerisms until one day it felt as though I was left naked and whimpering on the floor, clutching my embryonic voice like a newborn to my chest! “We have really brought out the animal in your sound,” he said – a slight understatement, I thought, considering my state of mental undress. Also, arguably, not a great comment for a budding opera singer to hear. But looking back, I could see that it was a point of arrival.

When I attended masterclasses with Graham Johnson, he didn't seem to like me, and he liked my singing even less. Each day I would crawl onto the concert platform like a piece of bog slime for my ritual humiliation and I wanted to cry. Why did he have that look of rank despair in his face when he looked at me; couldn't he disguise the rolling of his eyes and the defeated slump in his thorax every time I opened my mouth to sing? I felt so desperate, it is amazing that I could even speak my own name let alone sing.

Then one day I just gave up. I was studying Schumann’s Liederkreis op. 39, and on this particular day I was scheduled to sing the opening of the cycle. I was so fed up with everyone and everything that as an act of self preservation I just disappeared into the text. It felt as though I had a moving painting of the text in my mind’s eye, a bit like a Bill Viola installation that myself and the pianist were in. When the song finished I reluctantly tore myself away from Schumann’s magical Romantic world and came back into the room. “That’s more like it,” Graham Johnson said. “Now you are really singing. I could really picture what you were singing about.” From that day we began to work.

The question “how do you sing?” is almost impossible to answer, because there are myriad singing styles, each with their own physical and psychological approaches, from the architectural beauty and purity of  voices like Renee Fleming and singers from the Carnatic tradition, to the super-focused sound of Bulgarian singers and the swallowed razorblade sound of Tom Waits. One singer’s warm-up is another singer’s hangover. Additional to the concept of vocal style, there is also the highly subjective question of what makes a great voice in the first place. So is it possible, regardless of style and subjectivity and personal tastes, to find a commonality in all singing styles as to what could be considered good singing?

Is it as simple as intentionality supported by breath? Maybe it's the perfect balance between line, articulation and emotion. With this in mind, I decided to try and describe a couple of exercises in releasing the voice and body and then linking the voice to emotion.

Ensemble Intercontemporain and Loré Lixenberg perform Daï Fujikura’s As I Am

Exercise 1: The Mosh Pit

This first exercise is very playful. Start by gently jogging on the spot and when you have warmed up and got the blood moving, run about the room. Leap up and down and wave your arms around above your head and around your torso. Squeal like a pig, grunt like a rutting hippo, sing out as loud and as tunelessly as you like, pull faces, in short be as grotesque, harlequinesque and inelegant as you can. You are aiming at fast, frantic, intellect-circumventing lunacy. It helps to do this exercise to very loud music… Rudimentary Penii, Verdi or Xenakis, whatever takes your fancy.

Stop and breathe very fast, light and regularly for 20 seconds, deepen the breathing and slow it down, really connecting the breathing to your centre. Then repeat the exercise.

Exercise 2: Karaoke

Lying on the floor in a relaxed position, conjure up in your mind’s ear the song or vocalisation that you are working on. Imagine yourself singing it through. Imagine everything you can about the performance, where you are, what you ate just before singing, the temperature in the room and the quality of light. When this visualisation has finished, conjure up an emotion: it can be positive or negative but make it quite extreme. Start with the emotion from your centre and let it radiate in waves through your whole body. Really notice the effect of the emotion on your body.

Then imagine yourself singing the same song or vocalisation in this altered emotional state. See if you can physically join in with the visualised vocalisation. Repeat the exercise using different emotions.

You need to approach the exercise in two ways. Firstly, concentrate on the feeling in your body that this visualisation creates. How is your breathing altered? How does your larynx feel? What are the physical manifestations of singing with this particular emotion and does it help or hinder the production of sound. Secondly, do the exercise again and record it, then listen to the sound itself. What do you hear?

An aspect of study that is common to the practice of all vocal styles is that it’s really important to work on your body at the same time. Not in an idiotic gym bunny way, but by really getting to know it and how it communicates. Our society is obsessed by physicality to the point of psychosis and is yet so chronically unphysical: we aren't encouraged to really inhabit our bodies, yet spend much of the time criticising them. But to an extent the body is the vocal instrument.

So whenever you sing, whatever the style or circumstance, if it’s karoake or singing Birtwistle with Gergiev at the Royal Albert Hall, if you are a mountain goatherd or a schoolteacher, the most important thing you can do is invite your entire mind and body to the party.

Bent Sørensen’s O Magnum Myserium, with Lore Lixénberg

Good vibrations: a brief overtone workshop

Arrington de Dionyso

In the last five years since I've started teaching vocal improvisation workshops, I've found one of the most important things to emphasise to beginning students is that the voice is not just this thing that comes out of your mouth. Sound is not just something that tickles little tiny hairs inside your ear! Any sound perceived is actually a wave of energy, a motion that travels through the air – the sounds we hear are actually completely enveloping our bodies – and the same goes for the sounds we create with our bodies. It's not at all far-fetched to consider how making use of the micro-vibrations travelling through not just our lungs, throat, and diaphragm, but also fingers, toes, pelvis, spine, ribs, etc. will contribute to the quality of vocal sound and one's sense of being immersed in the waves of vibrating energy conducted through the act of singing.

Before trying to engage in full-throttle Siberian throatsinging, I want my students to spend some time first paying attention to these 'micro-vibrations' and really develop a physical perception of how even very small, quiet sounds resound throughout the entire body. We begin with a sigh. Then the sound made by the breath as it 'trickles' through the vocal chords as upon first waking up in the morning saying, 'Aaahhh'… Put your fingers on your throat and it's easy to feel the vibrations; also feel your chest, sternum, ribs and belly. You should also try moving your palms all around the cranium, neck, shoulders, down your back, hips, pelvis – even in your thighs or knees you may be able to find small traces of resonant vibration. Eventually, we may gain what might seem like a kind of extra-sensory" perception of our sounds travelling down our legs and into the floor, and up through the top of the head and echoing throughout the entire space, bouncing back and forth between one's self and other voices in the room.

Of course, there are many ways of using creative visualisation to image the sounds as colours, or branches of trees moving through the wind, but I often take a more austere approach, because dealing with what we have right in front of us is fascinating enough without requiring any kind of poetic flourish.

'Overtone' singing is a bit of a misnomer, because it is of course impossible to make any sound that doesn't have overtones; the overtones are what shape the sound and give it 'body', which enables us to distinguish one sound from another even if they are both 'playing' the same pitch. Come to think of it, 'throat' singing is an equally misleading term because first of all, there isn't any kind of singing that does not use the throat, and throat-singing depends just as much on the engagement of the diaphragm, sternum, tongue and lips as it does the throat. We can train ourselves to better project and manipulate certain types of overtone frequencies to achieve an expanded force to our vocal sound so that one may perceive the effect of 'two voices singing at once'. Much of this involves singing with tongue and lip placements which divide the space inside the mouth into two chambers. Extremely slight movement of the tongue (or lips) will create dramatic differences in the perceived pitch of the overtones in the voice, as will voicing various vowels or opening and closing the area behind the nasal passages and the back of the throat.

Creation of the rather extreme 'kargyraa' sound that I specialise in involves pushing an extreme amount of air pressure from the diaphragm through a tightly constricted throat. The back pressure created in the paradoxical alignment of muscles, which must be simultaneously rigidly tight and completely relaxed causing a stir of vibrations in the 'false vocal folds' contributing to the motor-like sound. I'm not singing at a pitch that is any deeper that my regular singing voice would normally allow – what you hear is actually the acoustic amplification of the sound being divided by the false vocal folds which resonate from the chest, creating sub-harmonics, so in this way I'm using overtones and undertones at the same time.

Smith River Improvisation

Voice resonating against snare drum

With dancer Malinda Ray Allen

Arrington de Dionyso is a Washington-based vocalist and multi-instrumentalist whose recordings and books are released on K Records.

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