The Naked Voice: A Wholistic Approach to Singing

By Greschner, Debra | Journal of Singing, November/December 2007 | Go to article overview

The Naked Voice: A Wholistic Approach to Singing


Greschner, Debra, Journal of Singing


W. Stephen Smith, with Michael Chipman, The Naked Voice: A Wholistic Approach to Singing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Hardbound, xiv, 208 pp., $29.95, includes companion compact disk. ISBN 9780195300505. www.oup.com

W. Stephen Smith's principles in voice pedagogy can be summarized in two words: authenticity and balance. An authentic voice is pure, unfettered, and unique; it is a naked voice, denuded of entanglements. Because the snarls may be physical, psychological, or spiritual, Smith advocates a wholistic pedagogy that encourages a balance between vocal and extravocal aspects of singing. He underlines that he is not misspelling "holistic"-which refers to the connection of body, mind, and spirit-but instead is choosing the term "wholistic"-which encompasses all aspects of the human experience. At the core of the human experience is a longing for authenticity, and it is what compels people go to the theater or the opera. A singer with an authentic voice, coupled with a genuine understanding of the text and music, offers each member of the audience an opportunity to access his or her essential nature.

The Naked Voice is divided into three parts. In the first, Smith offers a summary of his pedagogic philosophies, principles, and ideas. Singing, he writes, is based upon the two fundamental instincts in life: breathing and speaking. Singers must think about breathing in a simple way (like the concise explanation proffered by Smith), but breathing is not so simplistic that singers do not have to think about it at all. As evidenced by the distinction he makes between holism and wholism (which most dictionaries treat as synonyms), semantics play an important role in Smith's pedagogy. He rejects some standard pedagogic terminology-for instance, he dislikes the term "breath support" because most singers respond to the phrase by increasing air pressure rather than airflow. He forgoes the term "breath control"; instead he instructs his students to release all their air, all the time. In fact, Smith finds the word "technique" too mechanistic for his taste, but uses it for lack of a better term.

Six basic voice exercises comprise the second section of the book. Smith calls them inventions because they are existing materials reorganized in a different way for a new use. The inventions reflect the author's belief in balance, exemplified in the principle of chiaroscuro. The first exercise focuses on chiaro (which correlates to speech), the second oscura (which correlates to breath flow), and the third balances the two. The second trio of inventions follows the same pattern. Readers will search in vain for pages of notated exercises. Instead, the inventions-with titles such as "Simply Speaking Simply" and "Free Flowing Air"-are as much ways of thinking as they are ways of singing. Smith challenges singers to perceive their voices in new ways; for example, he calls the invention for flexibility "The Wobble," with the knowledge that the term is repugnant to most singers. All of the inventions use [a] because it is the only vowel that cannot be set or held without changing its intrinsic quality. A compact disk packaged with the book contains the exercises performed by Smith and his students. …

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