The Art of Listening

Traditionally, many methods of voice therapy have been influenced by the principles of singing pedagogy. It is especially fascinating to examine scientific research and developments in singing pedagogy that do not focus exclusively on musical aesthetics but instead emphasize functional vocal integrity and methods for teaching it.


In the early 1980s, an interdisciplinary team of researchers in the Institute of Ergonomics at Darmstadt University of Technology in Germany performed a scientific study of vocal function. The participating engineers, natural scientists, physicians, singers, music teachers, and somatic therapists were concerned with the analysis, measurement, assessment, and functioning of the voice. Two central themes of this research were the concerted action of the true and false vocal cords and the influence of certain body postures, body movements, and forms of mental training on the functioning of the larynx.


Soon afterward, in 1982, the Lichtenberg Institute for Functional Voice Training was founded by the singer and vocal instructor Gisela Rohmert and the ergonomics professor Walter Rohmert. Its aim was to find practical applications of the new theoretical insights from the research project.


From a Somatic to an Acoustic Orientation

The vestibular folds, or false vocal folds, form a high-pressure valve, the first pressure valve to evolve in the larynx. This valve works together with the muscles of expiration. When it closes, air pressure in the lungs increases, making the trunk of the body more stable. This provides resistance when force is exerted away from the body, for example, in lifting weights, doing push-ups, giving birth, or pushing heavy objects.


The true vocal folds evolved at a later stage and form a low-pressure valve, which works together with the muscles of inspiration. When this valve closes, the result is low air pressure in the lungs, stabilizing the body for the exertion of force towards the body, as in activities such as hanging and climbing.


The initial approach taken to functional voice training was to stimulate the downward pressure valve in a somatic (body-oriented) way. In practice, singers often try to create a sense of support by manipulating the muscles of respiration. But if the wrong set of respiratory muscles is used to control the voice, then the upward pressure valve (the false vocal folds) and the auxiliary respiratory muscles are activated. This reduces the efficiency of the action of the true vocal folds.


In recent years, functional voice pedagogy at the Lichtenberg Institute has instead moved forward with a different approach, known as acoustic, or sound-oriented, pedagogy. Highly differentiated auditory perception is crucial to this method. Gisela Rohmert now tends to view the mechanism of low pressure (or vacuum) versus high pressure in terms of a network of tissue. Furthermore, she does not regard coordination between the true and false vocal folds as being related exclusively to breath and/or movement. Rather than on muscles and movement, the focus is now on the following issues:



The principles of Lichtenberg pedagogy

To improve singers’ sound quality, various somatic techniques were investigated during the above-mentioned project for their effects on laryngeal function: Feldenkrais, the Alexander Technique, yoga, Rolfing, Gindler, Shiatsu, isometric muscle training, Boyesen biodynamics, psychotherapy, Ki technique, and Eutony. During the investigation, a fundamental connection gradually emerged: specifically, the appearance of certain singers’ formants (3000, 5000, 8000, and 13000Hz) in the frequency spectrum of the singing voice was related to a maximum of ease and efficiency in singing. Subsequent investigations of instrumental performance and the speaking voice found the same correlation. Until then, sound had been regarded as the end product of subtle interventions in phonation-related function, tonus, posture, respiration, articulation, and psychology. This model was turned inside out, and sound itself came to the fore as a creative phenomenon that regulated other functions.


Gisela Rohmert views the deep structure of vocal sound in terms of four parameters: the fundamental and vowel, which are subject to direct, intentional control, and the parameters of vibrato and brilliance (the singers’ formants), which are less subject to conscious control and more like vegetative functions. In functional vocal sound, the fundamental and the vowel are thoroughly connected to vibrato (the vibration of mucous membranes at a rate of 5 to 7 Hz) and brilliance. When one parameter changes, so do the other three, in a manner comparable to a chemical reaction.


The Process of Self-Organization

Functional vocal sound is nurtured through training in perception, ear training, and the posing of questions about the relationships between sound parameters. Under special instruction, the sound Gestalt - audible to both the teacher and the student - enters into interaction with the cavities and substances that form the vocal tract, such as mucous membranes, connective tissue, muscles, cartilage, and bone. A feedback loop forms, resulting in active regulation of the entire functional process. The influence of the brilliant sound Gestalt extends to respiration and posture. This is a process of self-organization, or synergy.


Because of its broad bandwidth and, above all, its brilliance, functional vocal sound plays an organizing role. Through self-organization, the complex system (the comprehensive, dynamic system formed by the phonating human being) can create new structures from within, rather than having them imposed from outside. Voices that are oriented towards the fundamental do not permit self-organization of the system, but instead rely on willful, external intervention (control and auxiliary tension).


Stimuli and perceptual tasks during singing can bring about functional changes. Students may experience phases of destabilization - for example, creakiness, irregular vibrato, or transient loss of voice quality - before the new, highly refined mode of organization finally emerges. The voice may suddenly be full and clear, or unexpectedly, subtly mobile and agile. If self-regulation is permitted, it coordinates the disparate functions involved in phonation in the most efficient possible way. No other way of initiating this coordination is so refined: not external control procedures, and not ingenious tricks or manipulations of the will (“Move your tongue like this... Hold your head just so... The jaw must always be in this position...”). When such techniques are effective, it is only at the cost of tremendous effort (exaggerated articulation, indiscriminate breath support, etc.).


Small stimuli can evoke the greatest possible responses, with results that are not entirely predictable. It takes intensive training in perception to adapt to an instructional method based on the self-organization of functional vocal sound. This applies to both the student and the teacher. Curiosity, courage, and willingness to change are essential to this learning process.