|Teaching New Music to Undergraduates
The Fully Human Voice
by Grenada Mnatsakanowa
New science and technology have brought us impressive awareness of
the physiology of vocal production. Many voice teachers are responding to this
new information by treating the voice, increasingly, as a purely physical act.
Particularly in the United States, we seem to be finding “voice
science” eclipsing other approaches to vocal expression. Does this
attitude engender the most satisfying performances?
The following article speaks with a different voice. The author has
managed to articulate aspects of the mystery and miracle of the human voice
that should be part of any dialogue on vocal expression. Translated from
Russian (thanks mostly to Jane Crouch and Elizabeth Markowsky), this article
is still, clearly, in a different language from what Americans are used to
reading. However, I believe everyone with a religious temperament will find a
rare and living power in these words.
Grenada Mnatsakanova is Professor Emeritus of the Rimsky-Korsakov Music
Conservatory of St. Petersburg, Russia, where she taught singing and was Vocal
Concertmaster in the Department of Opera Performing. She maintains a highly
successful private studio and continues her voice research.
This article was first delivered as a lecture in 1997 to the First
International Congress of Integrative Medicine, in Cypress.
If we turn to the Bible, the part that tells about the creation
of humanity, we read that the Lord, having created Adam, commanded His
offspring to give names to all the animals and the birds of the sky, thus
investing Adam with the task of discovering or creating a soundscape
corresponding to the material universe, and so forming a vibrational analog
for visible essences. This work gave Adam creative mastery through Sound and
Word of a subtle form of matter, finer than what one finds in the physical
aspect of the world.
“In the beginning was the Word,” the New Testament tells us in
the Gospel according to John. Given that man was created later, after the
Word, he is obliged to keep his secondary status in relationship to the Word:
first, man should feel himself as a receiver of it; and second, with the help
of the special organ which we call the “vocal apparatus”, he is empowered to
intone this Word. The Word contains two components: semantic and phonetic; as
speakers and singers, our principal task consists in holding and sustaining
these two parts in balance with each other. Only in this way will the Word not
be destroyed, not become a lie, primarily, in its substance. Whether this
balance is maintained depends exclusively on how a person uses this
The vocal apparatus contains 3 principal constituents:
1. the breath
2. the source of the sound wave
3. the mechanics of articulation
The operation of the second and third constituents are triggered
subconsciously by signals from the depths of our being and do not require any
involvement of consciousness. Very much to the contrary, it seems that any
conscious intervention into these most delicate processes will result in
distortion, and even destruction of the Creative Sound. The level of
articulation, which we shall call the “technological level”, being the level
of physical coordination, is provided for by the care of the Creator. To try
to control it involves us in conflict with Divine processes. It is interesting
that the larynx, behind which the vocal folds are hidden, is named the Adam’s
apple. As though man has, inside his body, that which, if it were outside,
could serve as a source of creative understanding of the Universe.
How can we grasp such an enormous gift !
It appears that, if you are going to speak or sing, the first
impulse goes not to the source of the sound wave as we might think, but rather
to the tip of the tongue and to the lips! (This is written about by the
Yugoslavian physiologist, E. Kropotich). This first impulse is
precisely the core of our concern, of our attention and need to comprehend !
In the Russian language there is a word which exactly pinpoints
the location of this impulse, usta. Usta` refers to a highly integrated
concept about a place on the path of the breath situated at its very edge,
carrying the function of articulation: this place comprises the lips, the
teeth, and the tip of the tongue. The root of the word usta` –st
– contains a deep sense of stability, of becoming formative in
the sense of growing in reliability, support, firmness. (This idea comes from
research into the roots of words in the Slavonic and Russian languages done by
A.S. Shyshkov in the 19th century).
Such Russian sayings as out of the mouths of babes comes truth
(usta), and a rumour flies from usta to usta, show the power of
this concept. The 19th-century Russian poet, M. Lermontov, wrote
“…The shelter of the singer is gloomy and
And on the usta of him there is a seal…
…She sings and the sounds are melting
As kisses upon the usta…”
These popular usages of the word as well as the poetic appeals to
common understanding show us that the word usta has a conscious or
subconscious importance, isolating this place, this element of the
Word-creating process. On Russian Orthodox icons, the images of saints are
always depicted with tiny, concentrated mouths, literally a dot. They have
huge eyes, in which the universe is reflected and ascetic, concentrated
usta, storing deep truth and containing a powerful energy. The
significance of this image, which is sensed intuitively by painters, seems to
have gone unnoticed. Speaking with loose, sloppy pronunciation, as when one
chews gum while talking, generates, innately, a distortion and
disharmony, even creating tension and hostility between people in the same
cultural milieu, let alone what happens if there are confusing disparities of
And so, usta. It hovers at the edge of the voice path and
has the power to integrate the work of the whole vocal apparatus and to
display its full expression.
Poline Viardot, the great French singer, when asked “how do you
sing?” responded “with the edge of my lips.” In the years at the end of the
nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, such giants as Lily
Lehman in Germany and Jan Moran in France talked and wrote about a
localization of sensation of the singing tone in the space around the teeth.
They linked this sensation with some internal force, but not with the
muscles. However they did link this sensation with the breath,
specifically relating it to the inspiration. They also commonly noted a
decisive effect of this practice upon the quality of the sound, which becomes
controlled and handles musical difficulties with ease.
So let us talk about the inspiration. In English,
inspiration has a double meaning which is ideal for our purpose, meaning
both a physical breath and a divine influx. In Russian, (divine)
inspiration is, similarly, derived from the word “inhalation” (vdoh –
vdohnovenie). And what actually is such an inhalation? It is a contraction
of the oblique intercostal muscles, which involves two key functions.
1. The bronchial tubes, which consist of the relics of an earlier muscle
system, have no direct signal from the original impulse to phonate. They are
controlled indirectly (and paradoxically!) by the internal intercostal
muscles. This means that when the oblique muscles are contracted at
inhalation, the chest resonators open and display their acoustic properties.
These resonators provide a medium of expression for the articulating sound
wave. An equilibrium is established, making it possible for the vocal chords
and the muscles of articulation carry out, unhindered, their difficult and
2. In addition, the contraction of the intercostal muscles leads to the
release of adrenalin by the substantia corticalis, and this adrenalin
is our very emotional fuel. While maintaining the form of the inhalation,
we enter into a process which is based not on the physical apparatus but on
the state of emotional exaltation – a process arising from the right
hemisphere of the brain. In consequence, the pronounced word merges its
semantic and sound parts and this blending is not disrupted or undermined by
our physical manipulations, but operates on a level which is disposed by the
But how, you will ask, is it possible to start to create a word,
if not by exhaling? Certainly the process requires a fully-supported, upward
motion of air, but “… it is necessary to take as much breath as the vocal
cords can consume,” as was told by the great Caruso. And he was
absolutely right. He is referring to a feeling, a perception of
something like the breath which is moving inward like an inhalation, at a very
particular rate. But how are you to measure the quantity of this subtle,
breath-like sensation ? How are you to give to your vocal cords the right
amount of support to perform all the work of this process independently?
Here the mechanism of operation of the usta and the whole
mouth become involved. Beyond that deep place of the first impulse to phonate,
where for singing and speaking persons the process of word-creating starts,
there arises a possibility to use the energy of the word itself, the energy of
every vowel and consonant, and to feel yourself as the receiver of this word
instead of pushing it out from the depth of the larynx. This experience of the
power of the voice finds resonance in the Gospel: “… not that which goeth
into the mouth defileth a man, but which cometh out of the mouth, this
defileth a man…” (Matthew 15:11).
Here, in the usta, it is necessary to find support and also
to discover the sense of word-creating. To find this delicate matter in
essence not belonging to the physical level, but beyond the limit of it.
This matter arises through a definite, though subtle, sucking of the lips,
experienced by the whole mouth (but not by the gullet or the
throat) as the state of inhalation.
The mouth consists of two hemispheres, upper and lower. The upper
hemisphere is rigid, formed in an upward arch, like a cupola, while the lower
is soft, flat. This arched form of the upper mouth makes it possible for every
vowel to find a rounded shape (similar giving rise to similar, according to
the laws of living matter). The bottom of the mouth must be pulled back
slightly, in a stretch, to create the conditions for the work of the usta.
We transfer, in this way, to usta the work of articulation: a
sensation of receiving each vowel and consonant from the outside, and a
ringing-out of them through this most delicate matter, which is localized at
the lower front teeth. We might call this place the tuning fork (cammertone).
Finding this tuning fork will save us all other cares in the
process of sound production. The sound thus created is a thin pen, it creates
a precise, graphic figure [clear, legible]. And the self-created size and
shape of the tone handles by itself the issues of color and shading.
It is interesting, here, to consider the inconguity of sensation
between a singer and his audience. For the singer, there is a sensation of
dark emptiness and closed mouth-space and a tone ringing equally for all
vowels, and an elastic sensation from the tuning fork in the direction
of the roots of the teeth: this set of sensations gives rise to a dual
perception of reality. For the listener, these two perceptual fields integrate
into a concrete sound with a clear pronunciation. Such a
construction of vocal production becomes something other than a personally
controlled, technically produced sound ! We use the energy of the word itself
(it is inexhaustible!) and we are saturated with a divine exhilaration.
In the year 2000, in Russia, a work of Drunvalo Melchizedek*, an
American exoteric scientist and very unusual man, appeared in print. This book
is called the Ancient Secret of the Flower of Life. This remarkable
book, among many other things, includes speculation about scientific research
and the development of instruments which permit the use of the energy of
space to transform it into heat and light, and, by extension, all manner of
aggregates. According to Melchizedek, the origin of this energy lies in the
so-called “zero points”. Melchizedek also writes that “between an
inhalation and an exhalation there are two zero points.” Certainly this
phrase needs to be deciphered, but my impression is, that these two points
create a field of tension, which comprises the tuning-fork
discussed previously, which is a resource with the help of which we are able
to use the energy of the “zero points”. This way of regarding the singing
voice is very interesting, not in the least because it resonates with the
experience of so many of our greatest singers.
It is interesting that two of the meridians of Hindu
physiology, a front-middle one and a back-middle one are starting at the base
of the spine and ending, one in the lower roots of the teeth, and the other
in the upper roots of the teeth. Thus our usta is closed by ends of
these meridians. When usta is broken, or opening, there
occurs a breaking of the emotional ring which supports our whole substance.
(One can see this breakage in very old people who have lost some physical
control; also in some of the mentally ill, the feeble-minded, and in people
suffering from exhaustion when their mouths hang slack).
We break open the usta to take in food; it is an emotional
process (we eat when we are hungry). The breaking open of the usta is
justified by this emotion. But when we speak or sing without respect to the
usta, not paying attention, as a rule, we leave the usta
unaccessed, empty. We slip into a technological level of sound production and
actually start to destroy the Divine harmony, by generating destructive energy
instead of relying on the inherent, creative energy. As we spoke before of
envisioning a tuning-fork, this visualization allows us to
become stronger in enabling the action of the usta. Foremost in the
process of instantiating the power of word-creating, is the necessity to
restrain one’s pride, to demur from intruding into the workshop of the
Creator, and, rather, to be content with remaining small in the great process
in which one has chosen to participate, as one works to produce one single
phoneme at a time. Instead of merely experiencing each succeeding sound
ringing in this tuning-fork, we experience the exhilaration of feeling
our inner being released into a space that corresponds to the whole universe!
Vowels and consonants in all languages are similar. The
differences of language lie, primarily, in their combination. And such
differences as there are have no effect on what we are describing as the
principal work of the vocal apparatus.
There is one other issue on this field of enquiry that seems to me
the most significant. E. Krapotich, the Yugoslavian physiologist, has
determined that children are born without the capacity to connect with the
usta . A child cries only when it experiences pain. To make this sound, it
uses false cords, a lower contraction of the broncial tubes. And the
impulse to make these sounds is derived from a negative emotion. During the
maturation of the child, the vocal instrument is shaped under the influence of
the environment, through hearing. The recognizeable features of expression and
range of expectation, along with national and ethnic differences will begin
to manifest in the child, independent of its desire or need. In this way, each
new member of society inherits the shortcomings of previous generations. Our
hope, as a society, lies in those who comprehend the importance of returning
to harmony and truth, and to the Word, by painstaking care, and through taking
responsibility for one’s own perception and one’s use of the Word.
It is an interesting fact, that, for deaf children, the vocal
apparatus doesn’t coordinate as such. Such is the value of hearing ! We should
tune our ears to the usta, controlling our speech and singing
processes, as if from the outside. Only then shall we ensure the quality of
our vocal production, and no unnecessary word will escape from our usta.
Here is how we might explain our phenomenon: there is a thought,
with the help of the vocal apparatus you have voiced it, and, if you have not
interfered with the process, you will receive confirmation directly, through
the exalted matter of the tooth space.
Thus, in order to enjoy the divine power of the Creative Word, a
human being has nothing to do except to be responsible for each sounded word.
In this way, using the vocal apparatus according to its true
function and not interfering with natural and divine processes, a person
harmonises his substance with his society/community, and also with the Great
Unknown. By continuing in this way, singers and speakers alike can find and
open new doors of the unexplored and seemingly boundless possibilities for
the fully human voice.
The Ancient Secret of The Flower of Life, in 2 volumes. An edited
transcript of the Flower of Life Workshop presented live to Mother Earth from
1985 to 1994. Written and updated by Drunvalo Melchizedek. Source Books.
Nashville, Tennessee. See the website: