Part I, Journal of a Richard Miller Week

I recently came across a journal I kept during five days of intensive teacher training with the great vocal pedagogue and singer, Richard Miller, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1994 . It is a combination of notes, observations and feelings–but not a standard academic report.

It is also record of how far we’ve come as teachers, because now, much of this information is considered standard fare in masters and doctoral programs and continuing education workshops and webinars. But back then, it was not, and few people had access to the Internet regularly.

At this point in life, I had been teaching 14 years, established a credible performance career regionally in contemporary chamber music and opera and had two young children.

May 21, 1994  Been looking forward to this week in Nashville to study with Richard Miller for a long time.  This damn travel anxiety messed with me on the way to the airport and I am already missing the kids even though I am looking forward to a break.  Breathe into belly and exhale.  Breathe and exhale.  A thought flits across my consciousness: “your knowledge comes from your belly and heart, not from your head.”  2.5 hour layover in St. Louis from DC where I get to read a book for more than a few minutes before being interrupted by little Neely’s age 2 and 6.  Arriving in Nashville, there’s my sweet brother, Jim, smiling and waiting with a big hug to pick me up and take me to his house.  I get to see Benjamin. (my brother’s first child)

May 22, 1994

Systematic Vocal Technique, first session with Miller

There are 50 voice teachers from around the world here.  I met 4 teachers from the DC area already.

His comment that “The process of staying in the inspiratory position has no counterpart in speaking except for stage speech” really strikes me.  Miller uses a microphone to teach. There’s static on the amp. EEK! How can a room full of voice teachers stand this?

Breath Management is establishing the cycle of Inspiration with Onset/ Phonation and Renewal. Air seeks to fill its reservoir at its lowest point. Atmospheric pressure should lead to subglottic pressure.

Fast staccato on one pitch    mm  mm  mm  ha ha ha

Miller calls the ‘rectus abdominus’ the outer shell for all the muscles of singing–not as important as the external and internal obliques, etc.  I guess I have been focused on this sheet of muscle because of all the abdominal surgeries over the past 4 years.  Perhaps the rectus is the only muscle I can feel right now due to scar tissue and trauma??

Miller suggests starting warm-ups with “onset exercises”

Insert 1

He says “we’ve been brought up with too many vocal myths.  Cites a quote by Lamperti “do not crowd the lungs with breath, but satisfy them.”  He says that British oratorio circles advocate upper back breathing, which collapses the sternum.  I want to ask him more about this but he has requested that we note all our questions and ask them at the end of the week in a Question session.

Insert 2

The diaphragm expands sideways more than down.  Miller frequently cites faulty teaching he’s observed by artists and clinicians at NATS’ functions.

  1. The Voice is an Acoustical Instrument
  2. The Voice is a Physiological Instrument, therefore it must go by the laws of acoustics and basic physiology

Miller disagrees with the statement that “all voice teachers are after the same thing,”  No we are not–there are too many tonal ideals, he says.  I am glad to hear this because every time a colleague says that, I think “nope.” Just listening to all the voice teachers at the university (where I was adjunct at the time) and what’s going on in their studios and in juries… wow.

Lordy I miss my babies.  I am listening to Miller and taking notes, but my heart feels sad- mother-lonely-longing sighs.

He is discussing the German “grunt and hold” technique:  Take a breath and grunt to cut it off, then let go at the throat and begin to sing without losing thoracic pressure.  Says it is not necessary to prepare to breathe!

There is a relationship between onset and agility.

He REALLY nixes “squeezing the anal sphincter” because there are sphincters all over the body and they all respond at the same time.  Please, no “pinch a penny’ or ‘hold a coin in your bum.’  People really try to sing that way??????? People really teach it????? Why???????

The most efficient coordinated singing will also be the most appealing to the ear.

It is very easy in any “system” to go rigid.  Do agility exercises.

Insert 3

He suggests using the term “support” only with the body’s structural system, not with muscles.  You can not have the appoggio without starting with the structural system.  He is assuming we all know what appoggio is, at least intellectually.  I am feeling like a dum-dum.

The singing voice as a Tripartite Instrument:  1.  Motor Source (breath management) 2. The Vibrator (larynx) and 3.  The Resonator (supraglottal or vocal tract)

In a balanced and free structural support, you must be able to hop on one foot. (visual image of 50 of us all clattering to our feet to hop about like the Dufflepuds in the Narnia series)

Dufflepuds

Reminder-the front lower ribs are attached to each other–it is the back ribs that float.

When the sternum falls, the rib cage HAS to cave in and the diaphragm HAS to mount.

He talks about physical types of bodies and how that influences breathing.  I wish he’d talk more about this.  It seems crucial.

The ideal is a balance among all four of the following muscle groups:
pectoral, epigastral, umbilical, pubic (hypogastral)

He says most teachers emphasize one or two over others.  He is showing us pictures of muscles before resonators on purpose.  Slides show origins and insertions of thoracic and pelvic muscles.  These slides show me why the chiropractic and body work have been so integral to starting to reestablish health after all my surgeries.

I’m hungry and my focus has gone to the beach.  I may have met a distant cousin who is a voice teacher, too.  We know enough about Frazier family history that there seems to be a connection.

  • Coming Up Next: Part II, Journal of a Richard Miller week