Tuning the harmonics to cover

I hope that so far I have been able to convey the concept that covering the voice for the tenor is about learning how to selectively enhance some harmonics of the voice over others. 

The EH vowel is an incredibly important tool in the tenor’s arsenal.  My dad always used to tell me “follow the EH vowel” – in other words, listen, feel, understand, intend to get the ringing or resonance of the EH and the EE vowel, and then bring those VOWEL QUALITIES or VOWEL COMPONENTS into your other vowels. 

My training was this “vowels are made up of many layers and parts.”  This is  very old concept.  You can read about this stuff in Delle Sedie’s writings, where he talks about learning how to hear specific harmonics in the voice, etc. 

The great tenors were incredible masters at selecting very specific harmonics to enhance.  Their care was equivalent to crafting the voice with a laser rather than with a sledgehammer.  They were very specific about which harmonics to enhance. 

This is what I want to convey to you.  But you know what… I know that “harmonics” are not cool… they don’t translate into anything useful for 95% of us… so let’s forget about the harmonics and talk about them in their practical interpretation – voice.

When you cover, you must approach the switch in registers with the “cry,” or voce magra that I talked about in previous posts.  By doing so you prepare your voice to thin out appropriately as you ascend.  You will feel a change in the actual way you produce the voice… its whimpier… its ridiculous… you must be joking… that is the way I should sing?  This whiny crying stupid sound? This can’t be right… where is the warmth and beauty and depth of the voice? 

You will have a lot of thoughts while developing this that will challenge your faith.  The voice MUST squeeze itself, or in other words become slim, thin, etc.  The reason why we feel that is because the lower harmonics (fundamental and first) are no longer domineering.  That big expansive wannabe bass is on a serious diet!

Practical stuff now……

To learn how to cover the voice you must learn how to sing with a relaxed low-range larynx.  I didn’t say depressed… low range. You do this by taking a seriously energetic breath.  I am not saying to explode… it’s not about quantity.  It’s about intention.  You must breathe like you REALLY need to replenish the oxygen in your blood. You are going to be needing this breath under water for about a minute…. but you’re only allowed to fill up 3/4 of the way..

When done right, your lower ribs should feel like they are in an elastic tension, expanded outward.  That is the ITALIAN TRADITION – Respirazione Costo-Diaframmatica.

According to Giacomo Lauri Volpi, Cotogni taught him that:

If one wants not the sound to fall into the chasm of the tracheal or pharyngeal cavity, or that it come to a stop between neck and palate, or that it introduce itself into sinus cavities where resonance excludes fundamental harmonics…

With the domination of the soft palate – who’s opportune lowering brings about the resonance of the frontal mask in the passaggio and high note regions of the voice…  into the nasal cavities and expand toward the maxillary and frontal sinuses – these would avoid the forcing and consequent swelling of neck and face.

(Giacomo Lauri Volpi – Voci Parallele page 189 & 200-201)

My dad studied in Rome initially with a teacher from Santa Caecilia, where Cotogni reigned. The idea is this, take note:

When you get to the passaggio, with the “alleggerimento della voce magra” with the lightening through the cry phonation, you slightly lower the soft palate. The tongue moves forward, with the tip on the bottom teeth, and the forward body of the tongue moves slightly upward, with the back remaining relatively down. The lips protruded with the corners as if you were smiling.

Jussi Bjoerling

In this position you sing an EH vowel and OVER TIME, you learn how to keep the sound ringing while also having a low larynx.
By doing so, the second formant picks up the 4th harmonic of your voice, and the singer’s formant picks up the 5th 6th and 7th harmonics.
What you get is a very vibrant voice that also has depth to it. 
The brilliance of this EH vowel is given by the Singer’s Formant.  This makes your voice feel like it has moved up into the head… or as Lauri Volpi states – into correct sinus cavities.  This is proprioceptive – meaning that you feel that way… it doesn’t have to correspond to physical reality in order for it to be useful.  The voice goes where it wants being a concentric wave… but WE FEEL IT SYMPATHETICALLY vibrating in certain sinus cavities.  This EH vowel feels like its strong up in the face.  This is the Singer’s Formant.
The depth and definition of the EH vowel is conferred instead by the 2nd formant picking up the 4th harmonic.  If you don’t sing with a relaxed low larynx, in other words, your sound gets too heady and loses connection to the support in the body.  Your larynx lifts and your sound gets small in the opera house… though it may be pingy and ringing with Singer’s Formant.
I would say, breathe deep and try singing from F# upward with this forward EH sound. Once you have found this EH sound you are almost home.  
Your next step is to do what Lauri Volpi said:
(DO NOT LET)… the sound to fall into the chasm of the tracheal or pharyngeal cavity, or that it come to a stop between neck and palate.
If the EH vowel is striking the mask, and the sound has depth, then why change that?  Keep the sound pressure up there above your mouth, in the sinuses, and just slightly… slowly… slowly… slowly change your vowel from EH to an OH/EH mix. 
The ringing in your voice will stay… because you are THINKING OF STILL SINGING AN EH.  But the sound will become rounder, and take on an OH quality.
Harmonically, the 2nd formant is now picking up the 3rd harmonic instead of the 4th.  This is the cover of the OH vowel.  This happens because the tongue shifted ever so slightly downward, away from the roof of the mouth, and it caused the 2nd formant to track a slightly lower harmonic… the 3rd. 
Now you are singing an OH but with the EH ring.  You accomplished this cover by NOT LETTING THE VOICE SINK BACK INTO THE PHARYNGEAL CAVITY AND GET STUCK BETWEEN THROAT AND SOFT PALATE.
Granted, there are schools that want you to do EXACTLY THAT, like the Melocchi method, which is fanatical about keeping the soft palate as high as possible and the sound below it.  But that is not the old school tradition, and it doesn’t protect the voice as much as the older school, nor give the same variety of artistic tools.
So, here is the practice.  In the following clip you hear me sing two phrases: 
  • Talor dal mio forziere… the A flats in Che Gelida Manina.  I start the notes with an EH vowel and then migrate to an OH vowel, for you to hear that it’s a slight change.
  • I also sing the “Io Vivo Quasi in ciel” – the G at the end of Lunge da Lei, Traviata.  On this note I sing it with an OH/EH mix, which makes the vowel a mix of the two… toward the end, I actually bring it to an EH briefly to highlight the difference.


This is what it looks like as far as harmonics go

Eh vowel 2nd formant

The EH vowel with ring and depth selects, as you can see, the singer’s formant AND the 4th harmonic within the region being tracked by the 2nd formant.

Then here is the graph for when I migrate the vowel from EH to OH, while keeping the EH ringing quality.

Li Vigni - Covered A flat - OH Vowel

So the OH made the 2nd formant switch its tracking to the lower harmonic, the 3rd.  This happened because of a slight lowering of the body of the tongue away from the roof of the mouth, while keeping the tip on the lower teeth.

Here is Bjoerling doing the same thing, but of course a million times better (I am only human – to quote Pavarotti).  He is singing the first Aflat in the famous Pearl Fishers duet.

Bjoerling OH-EH mix A flat

And here is the graph

Bjoerling OH-EH mix A flat

So, go ahead and think about this… think that covering the sound is about getting the sound to go up into the right “sinus cavities” to quote Lauri Volpi.  You do that by migrating the EH qualities into the OH, so you have both the ring, and the depth.  It’s about slight movements in the tongue once you have the EH right.




18 responses to “Tuning the harmonics to cover

  1. Fantastically educational! Thanks for sharing and for the courage of showing with your own (beautiful) voice!

    Martin B

  2. An extremely audible example of a great artist going out in and out of cover is the following clip with . There’s like a click on the second m’ama when he turns back to first-formant dominance!

    Martin B

  3. jeanronaldlafond

    Dear Jack,
    Thank you for a wonderful post. I wish to add something you said to me a few years ago when we were talking about vowel modification. You said: “The function calls the vowel!” This is very important. By function, I think you meant the nature of the fold posture. You also suggested that the activity of the vocalis muscle was important to squillo, etc.

    I only want to reinforce all those wonderful things that you said back then. The acoustics depend in great part on the nature of the fold set-up. A full enough tone must be produced for the turn of the voice to occur. Some people confuse a thin, slightly pressed voice with the “lean” sensation of voce magra. A true voce magra (difficult to achieve) is based on a full tone. The cry in the voice is not possible if it it is too heavy or too thin. I make a distinction between loudness and full. It is possible to sing a full tone quietly of course.

    When the phonation is full enough, the turn of the voice happens almost spontaneously.

  4. jeanronaldlafond

    I am working on a post for you on my experiences with voce magra and how I am finally enjoying the benefits. It will take a few days, as I hope to use examples. In the meantime, I have added your blog at the top of my favorite links and furthermore officially introduce you to my blog readers: http://tsvocaltech.blogspot.com/2010/10/welcoming-gioacchino-livigni-to-vocal.html

  5. Question: in the resonant functioning voice, we use yawn space. Of course, this can be overdone, like anything. I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about base of tongue in this vocal tract set up.

    You mention tip of tongue must be forward. Ok. But if yawn is employed, I feel a distinct hardening in the base of the tongue directly underneath jaw. I understand jamming down on the larynx is to be avoided, evidenced by a shortening of space in the area directly above adams apple. I can’t seem to yawn without a certain stiffening in the tongue. If feels like it comes FORWARD to the front of the neck, not down. But it IS tension nonetheless, and gives the voice this Filippeschi quality. If I ONLY think “thin out, and turn”, this yawn mechanism (and resulting depth) isn’t there, nor is the space in the throat.

    Is not space in the throat made by soft tissue “hardening up?”

    • AH!! Very very interesting!! When I sing with high squillo (6th and 7th harmonic enhancement) – the chesty type, which is more compressed, the tongue is tenser, at least it is so against the teeth, and the body of the tongue is a bit more curved – the channel in the middle, or better in the posterior half. If I sing with a lower squillo (5th harmonic enhancement) there is more head tone and the tongue is less flat and less tense.

      But do this… actually touch your tongue all the way to the back while you are singing. You will see that it is much more supple inside than what appears. Its not hard actually, its just active.

      If you look at any Pavarotti clip where he has a close up of his mouth on top notes, you will see his tongue is pretty active.

      This is why it is important to have the tongue on the bottom teeth. When the tongue presses there, the front tip is more tense, but the back part is more supple. The back of the tongue should not be hard.

      Also, you mention the tongue forward in the throat. ABSOLUTELY!! The tongue doesn’t move down the throat, to the contrary, I think it tends to move forward in the throat… meaning toward the front of the actual throat and away from the back of the pharynx. This is why its important to let the tongue move forward and a little closer to the top of the mouth (with the tip always on the teeth) for the passaggio and higher register. The tongue has to get out of the back of the throat.

  6. jeanronaldlafond

    Personally I have never heard of space in the throat being made by soft tissue hardening up. With respect to the yawn, it can be done two ways. When the yawn is used to bring the larynx down, the back of the tongue is usually involved in the process. To what degree depends on the nature of the singer’s vocal balance.

    When the fold posture is balanced, appropriately deep, the pressure/flow balance is equalized allowing the larynx to float down to what would be its default position . When this occurs, the pharyngeal space increases and we feel it like a yawn. This also resleases extrinsic muscles of the larynx from being hyperactive in maintaining the phonation balance, including such muscles as the palato-glossus, etc. We feel a sense the both the pharynx and the palatal space relaxes and opens. In essence a yawn. In this case the yawn is a result of “flow phonation” and not the cause of it.

    If the larynx has to be pushed down to create the yawn, it means that the full fold posture has not been realized yet. The sound is probably a bit thin and pressed causing higher subglottal pressure and raising the larynx. This would prompt the singer to push the larynx down with the back of the tongue by use of a yawn.

    In short, if the yawn is used to get the larynx down, then in my opinion it reveals an inefficiency. If however the yawn sensation is a result of a flowing larynx experiencing flow phonation, then it is correct.


    • I think there is a balance of things here JR. The depth of breath pulls down the larynx when singing on the yawn, not the tongue. The tongue should not push the larynx down. However, just focusing on vocal fold posture is insufficient in my view. I think you actually have to have an energetic deep inhalation to get this right – an expansion of the lower ribs and a suspension of the breath in that mode.
      The chicken or egg scenario really doesn’t matter in the end, because as with all physical workings, the only thing that matters is the sound. We go by the sound in training.

  7. Interesting post indeed!

    I’d like to comment about the use of “eh” in the upper resonance. I think that it is quite accurate as a proprioceptive in that it facilitates more space ergo more place for the breath. The use of “eh” modification (today) has cleared up (momentarily) an issue that I have had with pitch in the upper resonance.

    In response to the good Jean Ronald (hey there!) I agree with his statements with regard to subglottal pressure. The larynx will naturally float down into its proper position when yawning and will create a relaxed “flow phonation.”

    I am still toying around with the voce magra- I haven’t quite grasped the concept yet!

    • jeanronaldlafond

      I have used the eh vowel as a tool to teach the cover. When the phonation is balanced, it will guide the singer to a closed French/German form of the vowel around Eb/Enatural, helping the singer to get to second formant dominance. The vowel gradually reopens to F# and then closes again up to Ab and then opens again toward high B. Definitely my favorite vowel for the passaggio!


  8. Ok, here we go….ready for comments.


    from the reh yesterday. See notes on that site for staging (pretty intense during Cabaletta)

    Overall, I’m pretty happy with the continuing re-registration. At times hard to give up the impulse to enter “full burn” and overuse chest, but there is an evenness now that I’m pleased by.

    Comments app’d. Sorry I’ve been rather quiet. This production has been very challenging to say the least. About to enter final week of reh.

    • That is just fantastic stuff my friend!!! WOW!! So much squillo. Its beautiful and overwhelming. I can’t think of any tenor that sings like this with a voice that even approaches this kind of beauty.

      One question I have is about the last the last high “Che non la vegga” – why did you open the vowel? I am just curious because I REALLY like when you went back up on the “non la vegga” the diaphragm responded amazingly to the mask pressure… not that the other note wasn’t good, I just have some biases. I wonder out of curiosity if you had gone up with the same closed EH how it would have felt, or gone up as if you were going to go to that EH and then gone more toward an OO/EH mix. I feel almost embarassed to even make these comments because the high skill and beauty of what you do is just so fantastic… Bravo dude. This is the right path FOR SURE.

  9. jeanronaldlafond

    Bravo! It is even more balanced than I heard in New York! The weight is just right and the closure therefore also right. The slight feeling of insecurity occasionally comes from a need for breath management. Fill the lungs so that the breath expands low all the way to the pelvis, but just before onset, imagine you had to go to the bathroom and could not find one (both number 1 and 2). The feeling of holding it in engages the entire core and provides a column of muscular support underneath the diaphragm all the way up to the sternum. This steadies the breath pressure and your folds do not have squeeze to make up for a lack of pressure. Release for every intake! Take a full breath and do it all over again. We do not need a lot of air so sing, but we need the air to provide adquate pressure under the folds. Keep the chest more consistently involved. You need the sound to stay full in the top. It does not thin substantially, but it should remain a little more substantial. Robust! Excellent work. A beautiful sound. Just below the passaggio, sometimes a hear a slight darkening of the sound. That darkness should come from the chest connection not a hollow space in the back. It is slight, but to my ears it sounds just a little bit “made”.

    Please take these comments as fine tuning issues. Your voice is working wonderfully. Don’t make any big changes. The best I have heard you ever!

  10. Dear Mr Li Vigni, thank you very much for this post.

    One question, you write that if you sing the EH vowel
    in the f# and higher notes, you will also need to use
    the OH vowel for depth. Do you mean the OH vowel
    ”connects the EH vowels ring to the low larynx”?

    One more question, do you think the ”EUH” vowel
    is basically the EH and OH vowel combined? I was
    thinking of using that ”EUH” vowel on F sharp to high
    to develop the high notes. After getting a somewhat solid
    tone, then I could proceed by adding more ”OH” or ”OO”
    vowel which ”connects” the voice to the lower larynx. Hope
    it makes sense this post. Thanks in advance and wish you
    good luck with your future.

  11. IMO it’s better to think of a blend of two vowels rather than creating a vowel. It allows you to adjust the mix for greater resonance. It is difficult initially to sing two vowels at a time but once you can it makes things alot easier!

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