Il Passaggio – covering the voice

When I started studying voice I was absolutely obsessed with the covered sound Pavarotti had in his passaggio. I remember listening really close to my stereo speakers to try to capture perhaps sympathetically what was going on in his throat and sound.  As I tried to imitate him the resonance in my voice would shut down, and the sound would become “schiacciato” – crushed.I tried looking for a place in my mask where I could sing into to get that sound… couldn’t find it.  

I went straight to the source – Arrigo Pola, Pavarotti’s first teacher.  You can hear Arrigo Pola on Youtube ( in a variety of beautiful recordings. 

His idea was that the voice had two main regions where the singer felt the resonance respectively below and above the passaggio.  Think of your voice as having a sort of body or feeling vibratory pressure, almost like a cloud of vibration that occupies certain spaces (it doesn’t matter if this is objective fact or not… this is what the method reports one should feel).  

Pola taught that right below the passaggio the voice expanded in the mouth right below the top molars all the way to the front of the mouth, with the mouth open comfortably as though in the beginning of yawn.  This sound needed to be right to get the passaggio right. 

Over time I discovered that the “right” sound – the open throat sound, was produced when the larynx is relaxed low with a deep expansion of the lower torso.  Pola, true to his post Caruso Italian school, made singers sing these notes very wide.  

Why does this feel like the “vibration cloud” or “vibration pressure” is in the mouth, or against the dome of the hard palate?  Because the harmonic that gets reinforced is largely the one in the first formant, and the tenor’s first formant when strong feels like it is in the mouth, almost expanding laterally.  

Here is a picture of my harmonics in this area below the turn. 

1st formant - open throat sound


 I have posted also an audio clip from the aria – Quando le Sere al Placido.  What I did is break down the clip into the harmonics.  If you look at the picture you can count the harmonic peaks.  I separated them into 4 separate harmonics in the audio, so you can actually hear what those peaks represent in my voice.  The voice is broken down into its component harmonics.  You will notice that the second harmonic is the strongest.  It is the strongest harmonic in the graph – the first formant. Notice the flute-like quality of that harmonic sound. That confers a surround sound effect in the opera house when done with quality.  Notice, this sound is EXACTLY an octave above the pitch that we are thinking when we sing (the fundamental).  So the strongest sound actually coming out of our mouth when we sing open throat sounds in this area (middle D to middle F or as long as we keep open) is actually an octave higher than what we think it is; but our ear hears a composite sound and correctly identifies the fundamental as “the pitch.” 

 1st formant harmonics 

 Eventually, when we “turn” the voice, the harmonic dominance shifts from the 2nd peak in the graph to the 3rd.  The resulting sound is even more “surround sounding.”  Following is the graph after the passaggio and then an audio clip with the broken down harmonics in the passaggio.  I chose to highlight particularly the 2nd formant so you get an idea of what it sounds like.  When this sound is present in the voice, then the voice is “covered.” 

2nd formant - covered


2nd formant harmonics 

When the sound shifts dominance from that second peak to the third ( in the graph), the voice “covers”, but also feels different.  It’s not in the mouth as before.  It feels like it has turned over the soft palate.  Arrigo Pola would have students go from Eb to G – open/covered – again and again, and with his hand he would gesture the central tone in the mouth, and the higher one above in the cheeks. 

The feeling of the 2nd formant rises in the tube “su per la canna” or up the tube… a sense that the voice has climbed a tube in the back of the mouth up over the soft palate.  This is also why you can see Pavarotti and Tucker closing their mouth somewhat when they cover, because the opening of the mouth is no longer needed, because we are not enhancing the first formant any more, but rather the second. 

This is Cotogni’s “Eco Sonora” – Sound Echo, as described by Lauri Volpi.  When you listen to the clip you can hear that the sound takes on a sort echo quality.  With training, you learn to hear that sound in your voice. 

Some people sing “in the cracks” or a sort of mix of the two… that is not right according to the tradition.  It weighs down the voice as we are carrying too much chest.  This “openish” sound is not right.  The great Italian tenors make a NET SWITCH between 1st and 2nd formant dominance when they cover.  

There are other ways of doing this, an older way, more in line with Bjoerling, Caruso, and older tenors influenced by the Garcia school.  On a later date I will compare the two different ways of approaching the passaggio.  I will simply say that the older way blends qualities of the “EH” vowel into the OH vowel, bringing about a brighter and lighter sound.  The Eco Sonora is a more masculine sound, darker and chestier.  

How does one get this sound? What do we do to cover?  Well that will be for next time. 

– Jack Li Vigni


12 responses to “Il Passaggio – covering the voice

  1. Fantastic analysis. I’ve been craving reading about this and clarifying the types of changes I am attempting to make. Like you say, I’ve spent a long time in the cracks and need to really commit to this old-school method. Thanks!

    • First of all, I thank you for coming to this blog and posting here! From what I have heard on your clips, you are quickly becoming a master at this method! I would absolutely LOVE for you sometime to think about posting something about technique here and share your perspective on what you have learned. I don’t want to take any time from your incredibly demanding performance regimen, but you are an inspiring case for all young singers to luck up to when it comes to ascending to international stardom. I would also love to interview you for the blog, for my upcoming interview series with the real deals out there!

  2. Congratulations on a successful blog launch, Jack! I look forward to continued reading 🙂 .
    Mark— a Melocchian.

  3. Some years ago, when you used to post on NFCS, I found it fascinating to read your analyses and listen to the clips in which you would separate the harmonics of a sung tone; but I always had difficulty grasping the terminology. I am glad to find this blog now that I understand the terminology better, but I still have difficulty with your use of it. As I understand your practice, you identify the peaks of intensity at various frequencies in a tone as “harmonics” and the overtones as “partials.” Thus, e.g., you write:

    Why does this feel like the “vibration cloud” or “vibration pressure” is in the mouth, or against the dome of the hard palate? Because the harmonic that gets reinforced is largely the one in the first formant, and the tenor’s first formant when strong feels like it is in the mouth, almost expanding laterally. [. . .]

    The voice is broken down into its component harmonics. You will notice that the second harmonic is the strongest. It is the strongest harmonic in the graph – the first formant. [. . .] Notice, this sound is EXACTLY an octave above the pitch that we are thinking when we sing (the fundamental).

    In your use of words as I understand it, the fundamental is the first “harmonic,” and the peak an octave above it is the first “formant.” This causes me confusion, because it is exactly the opposite of how those terms are defined in other sources that I have read. E.g., here is Wikipedia:

    A harmonic of a wave is a component frequency of the signal that is an integer multiple of the fundamental frequency, i.e. [sic; the writer means “e.g.”] if the fundamental frequency is f, the harmonics have frequencies 2f, 3f, 4f, . . . etc.

    Formants are defined by Fant as ‘the spectral peaks of the sound spectrum |P(f)|’ of the voice. Formant is also used to mean an acoustic resonance, and, in speech science and phonetics, a resonance of the human vocal tract. It is often measured as an amplitude peak in the frequency spectrum of the sound, using a spectrogram (in the figure) or a spectrum analyzer . . .

    If the fundamental is f, then the series of formants goes: f, 2f, 3f, etc., while the series of harmonics goes: 2f, 3f, etc. Are you using the terms “formant” and “harmonic” with their meanings exchanged or have I misunderstood you?

    • I like to think of formants like little microphones that can be turned on in our throats when certain conditions are right (position of tongue, jaw, larynx, soft palate, etc.). They only pick up certain frequencies. So when we sing, our voice has harmonics that might fall into the range the microphone picks up. So those harmonics will be amplified, while others won’t be. Changing the conditions in the vocal tract will change the frequencies picked up, so other harmonics will get amplified.

      • Then there are two distinctions to be made: (1) fundamental versus overtone (do we start counting formants from the fundamental or from the first overtone?) and (2) resonating potential (an attribute of a resonator, in this case the vocal tract in a particular posture) versus frequency peak (an attribute of a sound event). The microphone analogy would be a way of thinking of resonating potential. Now it is possible for a vocal tract to reinforce the fundamental frequency of a tone, is it not (though perhaps only in female voices)? If that is so, then, no matter whether you think of the formant as a peak in the frequency of a complex tone or as the potential of a resonator to produce such a peak, formants should be counted from the fundamental and not from the first overtone. As I said, this seems to be the common practice in the use of the term.

  4. Drat. I used the word “partial” (in quotation marks) in my first paragraph when I meant to write “formant.” I wish WordPress would allow the editing of comments.

  5. Pingback: Is it always good to cover? | Tenor Talk Blog

  6. I just did a comparison between Pola’s acoustic strategy and Pavarotti’s on the final “Tosca, sei tu” of Recondita armonia (where there’s no accompanying orchestra), and they are almost identical! Its amazing how well Pavarotti learned this from his teacher (or how well his teacher taught him! :-)).


  7. oh and by the way, your blog is amazing…. you should be setting the curriculum for all voice teachers to follow! Perhaps then there wouldn’t be so many tenors falling through the cracks.

  8. you are a genius. I have been trying to understand this covered voice thing for ages, and everyone else just talks mystical mumbo jumbo. thank you.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s