Loaded Words: Finding the Right Place for "Placement"

By Manternach, Brian | Journal of Singing, September/October 2018 | Go to article overview

Loaded Words: Finding the Right Place for "Placement"


Manternach, Brian, Journal of Singing


INTRODUCTION

WHEN STUDENTS COME TO MY STUDIO for the first time, a get-to-know-you period commences. As I become familiar with their voices, the musical styles they most love to sing, and the ways they learn best, they gradually get a sense for how I approach the voice, what sounds I listen for and encourage, and how I communicate in lessons.

Part of this process involves building a common vocabulary. With so much image-based terminology used in voice instruction, it is important for me to know what my students mean when they use certain words to describe their singing. In the beginning, I try not to foist my understanding of terminology onto them by insisting that they define everything the way I do. Rather, I prefer to allow a shared language to evolve over time, discussing terms as they come up in the course of our work together.

As this process plays out, we inevitably uncover "loaded words" that require extra attention. "Support," "open throat," and "head voice" are examples of terms that can have vastly different definitions from student to student. When these words arise, I ask questions to decipher exactly what the students mean: "What do you do differently after someone asks you to use more support?" "When you feel an open throat, is it because you engaged something or released something?" "How would you describe the sound of your head voice?"

One of the words that prompts the most discussion is "placement." Placement offers a treasure trove of tried and true solutions for some teachers while it presents a Pandora's box of problems for others. In this column, I will examine how singers and pedagogues have experienced and defined placement over the years. I will then offer a process for the studio that relates placement to individual sensation to try to help students and teachers reach a mutual understanding and give this loaded word its "place."

PLACEMENT IN PRINT

Tasked with defining placement for A Dictionary for the Modern Singer, author Matthew Hoch's first words get right to the controversy, identifying it as a concept in voice teaching that is "prevalent, but subjective."1 He points out that, as a means to achieving optimal resonance, placement can be more objective and fact-based if it is synonymous with vocal modification. However, when placement is sought by describing sensation, it is less definitive, since "the perception of sensation differs from singer to singer."2

This subjectivity is almost comically revealed in Master Singers: Advice from the Stage, which provides interviews with prominent opera singers who discuss their vocal technique.3 In the book, Thomas Hampson unequivocally states, "I do not use the word placement," whereas Alan Held says, "Placement is the most important aspect of my singing." Kathleen Kim says, "I don't try to place the sound. I just try to feel the sensation, which for me is more space in the back of my throat." Eric Owens, on the other hand, says, "I never feel that this space is in the back. If anything, I'll feel like the space is through the top of my head, in addition to the forward placement." Owens also says, "I feel resonance and placement, mostly, in the front/mask area," while Jonas Kaufmann flatly states, "I do not feel the voice in the mask."

Placement advocates and admonishers abounded in previous centuries as well. Polish artist Jean de Reszke (1850-1925) taught his students to use "placement of the tone in the masque and at the bridge of the nose," which may have been accomplished via "the singer's grimace (la grimace de la chántense) for high notes"- techniques identified by author and pedagogue Richard Miller as part of twentieth century French voice instruction.4 Meanwhile, in a 1945 NATS Bulletin, Albert Lukken, former dean of the University of Tulsa College of Fine Arts, referred to frontal placement as "one of the most controversial issues of all times," adding that "confusion has been widespread and harmful. …

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