Back in the 1980’s when I first heard Richard Miller speak, he was talking about the misconceptions so many people had about vocal function that were caused by the figurative language that many teachers used when talking about the voice. Mr. Miller compared the common terminology to the anatomical reality with a great deal of humor, and those of us listening to him laughed until we cried. Those lectures became a series of articles in the 1994 volume of the Journal of Singing.
At that time most teachers talked to their students about how the experience of singing felt to them in the teachers’ own bodies. Since no two people feel everything exactly the same way, it is hard to communicate with clarity, and the creative language could get pretty flighty. Mr. Miller went to great lengths to describe in physical terms exactly what was actually happening during various vocal events. The comparisons with the commonly used descriptions were often really very funny. The idea that many choral singers have that their diaphragms are located in their abdomens comes from this kind of non-specific language.
One concept that Mr. Miller (he actually was Dr. Miller, but he preferred “Mr.”) dwelt on at some length was the idea that the soft palate should be pulled strongly upward as singers try to reach high notes. It was a very commonly held idea, and the imagery was that of a spacious dome formed at the top of the throat by the raising of the soft palate. I can understand why singers and teachers would speak of such a thing, because we are so intently aware of our singing mechanisms that we can feel a small motion as if it were a large one. A quarter-inch upward movement of the larynx can make one feel as if the larynx were up between one’s ears.
My own experience with trying to raise the soft palate to sing high notes came when I was singing Traurigkeit from Mozart’s Die Entfürung aus dem Serail. In that difficult aria Constanze has several phrases that begin on the second B-flat above middle C, and I was struggling with them. Inge had me purposely relax the soft palate and think of lowering it (who knows if I actually did lower it) before singing the high B-flat, and it worked like a charm – for me and later for my students. Not only was I able to nail the pitch perfectly every time, but the entire aria became much less tiring to sing. That experience has made me prefer the relaxed soft palate in most cases. I certainly don’t think of it as the one true technique, but I prefer it generally.
Observation of two famous sopranos of the 1970’s and 80’s further supported my view that a relaxed technique is generally better than a tense one for the soft palate. From what my teacher told me about being in the esteemed teacher Estelle Liebling’s studio, I believe that Liebling taught “the dome”, and I also believe that it was that technique, at least in part, that caused Inge’s mother Dorothée Manski to pull Inge out of the Liebling studio.
Mdm. Liebling’s famous American student was Beverly Sills, and those of us who followed Miss Sills’ career saw that toward the end she had to stretch her mouth open to such an unattractive width that stage direction had to work out ways for her to cover her mouth in operas. You can see her do it, with great dramatic success, in her many videos. I think that she was trying to create the dome with muscles that had been stretched so much over the years that they needed extraordinary stretching to accomplish in late middle age what had been easy in her 20’s. By contrast Joan Sutherland found her high notes without such maneuvers, and Miss Sutherland’s career lasted several years longer because of what I believe to be a more relaxed approach to high notes.
I think that Mr. Miller was right in saying “Tell them how it works, and let them have their own sensations.” I believe that Inge Lundeen was right about the relaxed soft palate, and that is how I teach my own students today.
In : Learning to Sing