Saturday, August 21, 2010

Vocal Cords, Tendons, and the Strings of Fate

Ancient wisdom gives us the story of the three fates; the women who spin and manipulate finite pieces of string that represent the length and course of our lives. They remind us that our lives are finite, fragile, and connected, and that we have to do with them what we can, while we are able.

Our musical lives are finite, fragile, and connected. Some people reveal extraordinary ability very early, and it blows our collective cultural minds when they do. There is something that tells us that singing like Jackie Evancho is not "natural" (though we can hear very clearly that singing is the most natural thing in the world for her). At the same time we have the collective fear that the beauty of her voice and the natural quality of her musicianship won't last. I'm reminded of Menuhin who played the violin like an angel as a child, and spent his adult life trying to figure out how he did it. We think of what happens to child pop stars like Michael Jackson, or child actresses like Lindsay Lohan, and see the toll that life in the public eye can take on take, and we look at (and listen to) this angelic kid, and only hope that her strings don't get tangled in the quagmire of life in the public eye. But people will want to hear her. People already want to hear her, and I imagine she enjoys the attention. What 10-year-old girl wouldn't?

Before I got distracted by Jackie's singing, this post was going to be about the tendons in my bow arm, the ones that are starting to wear out from overuse, or perhaps from practicing down-bow staccato. Now that I can finally "do" the stroke, my body is telling me that it is something I should not do. There is a great deal of music that I want to play (most of it doesn't use down-bow staccato), but I know now that my time to play is finite, and the chance to play it depends on the way I take care of my vital playing parts. I know this at 51. If I started playing the fiddle seriously at the age of 20, would my tendons have gotten to this point at 40? If I continued playing fiddle after the age of 11 (which is when I stopped), and if I became a soloist of some kind, would my physical trajectory have remained the same? Has my professional relationship with the viola (violists usually don't play much down-bow staccato) given my tendons more time?

The human voice is an instrument, and when that instrument is a particularly good one, it has to be cared for like a rare Italian fiddle. I trust that Jackie, with help from her family, is taking care of her voice. You can keep a fiddle in a case in order to keep it safe. Playing it with incorrect technique (within limits) will not damage it physically, though playing it with incorrect technique might, at some point in the future, make the instrument impossible to play. An Italian fiddle can last for centuries, and when parts wear out, they can be replaced. This is not the case with a voice, or an arm, or the person that uses them.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Mom!

Anonymous said...

Oh, you did mean vocal CORDS, not chords, right? Or did I miss a pun? (And actually, they are vocal folds, not cords at all.)

Anyway, as a singer, I agree that care must be taken to preserve the instrument which we also use for speaking and which is also compromised by everything we eat, drink, and breathe...

Anonymous said...

"...we have the collective fear that the beauty of her voice and the natural quality of her musicianship won't last"

I had not heard of this young person until I read your post. I listened to a few clips on YouTube and I must say that I see neither "beauty of voice" or "natural... musicianship." Her voice is small and her mannerisms are forced and inauthentic, as would be expected from a child who is not prepared emotionally or intellectually to take on music written for mature minds and voices. Those who are in charge of her care and training are doing her a great disservice by taking the TV/YouTube route to "stardom". She needs careful, restrained training and should not be performing in these huge venues for uneducated audiences who are only encouraging and reinforcing her wrong approach. She has been sadly deceived about the quality of her talent and skill. She will be sadly disappointed when she fails to continue on this trajectory of "succes." One commentator said that she has the same vocal and musical talent as a "seasoned star," and others refer to her as an "opera singer." Hogwash. She is not an opera singer. Is she performing on the opera stage, singing full operas? Only opera singers do that.

This rant is not directed toward you, Elaine - I'm just annoyed at this sort of thing.

Elaine Fine said...

Oh Dear! You're right. I meant vocal cords (and have fixed the title).

Elaine Fine said...

It's too bad she isn't a boy. Boy sopranos have (and always have had) excellent places to sing that develop their musicianship and safely develop their voices.

I agree with you, Anonymous, about the questionable path to stardom by the TV and YouTube route, but I don't agree with you about the quality of this girl's voice. I don't like everything that I have heard, but I do find the Panis I linked to lovely.

A ten-year-old's musical ideas are often parroted. That's a big way that kids learn. You may interpret it as "forced," but I have spent enough time with ten-year-old girls to know that they are all "works in progress."

Some people go on and on about the size of her voice, and I believe that is hogwash. A microphone and an amplifier regulate the size of a voice with recorded music, and of course the people who use the term "opera singer" don't know what they are talking about.

Anonymous said...

"...microphone and an amplifier regulate the size of a voice with recorded music..."

But in the opera house, amplification is rarely, if ever, used. Opera singers must, and do, have enormous voices to project over and through the orchestra. Most classical singers train, practice, rehearse, and perform without amplification. Because this little girl's singing is miked, her listeners, and she, have a false sense of what her voice is really like. I'm not saying that she doesn't have some voice in there, just that the whole presentation is misleading. Let's check back in 10, 15, or 20 years and see if she's still singing publicly.

Elaine Fine said...

Precisely. What we hear on a recording has nothing to do with the size of a voice. It's the same with baroque period instruments and guitars and lutes.