The Balanced Voice – Part 4: The nature of balance

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Jansson's web of 'forcefields'Jansson's web of 'forcefields'My previous two posts in this series enumerated a variety of elements that need to be balanced in the singing voice, and we now have a good body of material to act as exemplars while we consider what we mean by the term ‘balanced’.

The archetypal image that comes to mind is a set of scales, with two weights suspended either side of a fulcrum, which come into equilibrium when equal in weight and distance from the centre. Or, of course, when the difference in weight is compensated for by a counter-balancing difference in distance. Even this simplest source metaphor carries within it the idea of a degree of flexibility – it’s not just equal quantities of things either side of the centre, it’s about their relationship to one another.

Another image, which I heard at a presentation on vocal technique some years ago (I forget, to my shame, by who), is of a ping pong ball balanced on a jet of water. This is what comes to mind whenever I think of poise in the voice, and it somehow invites one to think about the poise of the head on the body in the same terms as the relationship between folds and airflow. Once again, the elements to be brought into balance are disparate in nature, but are maintained in equilibrium by a balance of forces.

Both of these images, useful as they are, capture only one dimension to be balanced at once. The picture at the top of this post (click on it to enlarge) is from Dag Jansson’s book Leading Musically and is how he envisages the relationships between the various dialectics of the conductor’s role. He talks about them in terms of ‘forcefields’ within which the conductor and ensemble operate: ‘The overall mastery of leading musically relies on the momentary understanding of what matters within each of these fields, and for any deliberate position taken, be ready to embrace it’s antithesis’ (p. 238, emphasis in original). The point of balance is not compromise but existing between apparently contradictory opposites; the antitheses are the fixed points between which the strings of activity vibrate.

(By the way, if you’ve not read Jansson’s book, I highly recommend it, both in general and at this moment on our collective musical journeys. At a point when I was feeling out of practice as a conductor on the return to live rehearsals, I found it a really helpful source in finding my way back into living inside the music in real time.)

Jansson’s intersecting forcefields in turn have brought the image of a gyroscope to mind. Here the balance of opposing forces creates the sense of poise in multiple dimensions, and is, moreover, useful. It doesn’t just spin there like a child’s top looking interesting, it helps you find your direction. The voice doesn’t just spin a beautiful line of sound, it carries meaning.

The equivalent metaphor from the biological sciences would be homesostasis: the balancing of what Lisa Feldman Barrett refers to as your ‘body budget’ for optimal functioning.

The key thing with all of these metaphors is that the image is dynamic. You can’t just put it there and leave it, but have to stay with the experience in the moment. Even with the simplest balance scale, the opposing forces that create the illusion of stability remain in play throughout the process – as any slight jiggle of the hand from which it is suspended will show. It’s more like floating in water than lying on a bed.

Hence, a balanced voice (and by extension a balanced ensemble) is by necessity an active voice, it’s a voice that is alive and present. You can produce a reasonably well-rounded, competent-sounding voice on autopilot, but you need to get your gyroscope spinning to find those transcendent qualities that bind singer and listener into an experience of shared truth.

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