Layers of Vowel – Strati della Vocale

As a very young tenor, I visited with the wonderful tenor Gianni Raimondi, who stressed to me the importance of getting my voice “rotonda” – round.  He said my voice was too “gna gna”, uttered with a nasal twang.  He said I needed appoggio and needed to learn how to use the diaphragm, and develop “a more complete vowel sound.” 

Raimondi stressed the importance of finding the correct suono chiuso, or closed sound, for the voice from the passaggio up.  He was very much against forward sound without the round element/function of the vowel.  Have you ever heard of the vowel being composed of various parts?

Chiuso, rotondo, balanced, efficient, gathered, focused, flowing, are all terms that often are used to describe the well phonated voice.  The conceptual framework passed on to me focuses on thinking of the vowel sound as composed of three main dimensions – “tre strati”, or three layers.

Layers of the rotondo vowel sound

My father was very fortunate in his years of study in Rome, Milano, and Pesaro in that he had the privilege of working with very good teachers – a very old Maestro Piervenanzi in Rome (the real old school legacy); Vladimiro Badiali in Milano; and of course Arturo Melocchi in Pesaro.  His jovial character endeared him to his colleagues, many of whom were great singers.  One day I will have to write an article about his roommate in Milan, Salvatore Gioia. 

When it came to vocal technique my father was very proud of the important notions he had picked up over time, but not jealous or guarded regarding this knowledge.  I am like him in this.  Unfortunately, he never was able to smoke less than two to three packs of cigarettes a day – a true post-war Sicilian paesano.  It’s a miracle that he had a career to start with, and he always shrugged these worries off, and attributed his abilities to the technique he had gathered over time from great maestri. Make no mistake about it – protecting your voice is number one on the priority list.  If you injure your cords your technique may not save you.

Perhaps one of the concepts my father treasured most was how he produced the “right squillo.”  When the resonance is right, you sense a very specific organization of sound. Think of this composite as being made of layers.

Antonio Cotogni apparently explained to Herbert Caesari how the vocal tone can be visualized as either bright with a dark rim around it, or dark with a bright rim about it.  I found this anecdote to be very significant, as I had similar notions passed on to me, and I would like to share my insight into this, but I won’t be able to do this in one post.  So, let’s take it a step at a time. I will try to get this message of “bright center with dark rim” and “dark center with bright rim around” clearly to you. This is a very important old school concept.

The great tenor voices have 3 distinct resonance components, which also often generate similar sensorial reports.  The three resonance components are (A) the fundamental tone, (B) the first three overtones (1st and 2nd Formant areas), and (C) the 5th, 6th, and 7th overtones (Singer’s Formant area).

First Layer

The first layer of the vowel tone is the fundamental harmonic.  I call this “first layer” not because it is the first harmonic – the fundamental, but actually because it is felt right in the vocal folds, at ground zero of our phonation. If you cough gently, or make a glottal attack on a sound, the place where you feel your voice starting is the larynx. The fundamental harmonic, when efficiently phonated produces a sensation linked exactly to this place in the larynx.  This is why old manuals say that falsetto is a voice produced in the throat (see Tosi).  The fundamental is felt right in the larynx, at the center of the cords – hence first layer.  The fundamental is a dark laryngeal voice.  This is the darkest harmonic in the voice.

Among our harmonics, the fundamental is the pitch we are actually thinking when we sing.  Remember, our full voice is made up of many pitches which we perceive as a unified experience – our sound. 

The fundamental can be sung in isolation.  When most people try this, they tend to get very airy because this type of phonation does not engage very much the muscles that close the vocal folds.

Here is an audio example showing efficient and inefficient fundamentals.  The efficient I can hold for close to a minute; while the inefficient for about 6-10 seconds.

efficient and inefficient first layer

It is very important that we should learn to exercise a head tone very efficiently.  I have attached a clip for you where I hold this falsetto tone for quite a bit, close to a minute.  I do so just to demonstrate that it is not an airy, inefficient sound.  Because this sound has very little harmonic strength, it doesn’t require a lot of breath as full voice would; hence, I can hold it for so long.  This is the kind of fundamental that you should be interested in because it is the type of sensation that you seek.  The inefficient fundamental is a type of production that leads to pushing in full voice.  Here is the long tone.

Long held fundamental – 1st layer

Notice the following graph.

Fundamental and Full Voice

This is a comparison between the head tone you just heard before and the following high C from Faust performed in 5th harmonic dominant squillo (old school).

Ou se divine la presence

 Notice how the fundamental in the head voice exercise is about the same intensity as the fundamental in full voice. This is significant in terms of sensations and learning.

 The head tone, or first layer function, when efficient, produces a sensation of gentle cushion between the vocal folds. The sound is coming from the larynx. Some perceive this as an air cushion.  Some talk about a spring between the cords that help keep the vocal folds from squeezing too hard. 

If you can get your head tone to be focused and efficient (you can check this by singing an A4 natural for more than 30 seconds – this is not loud) you will sense a sort of cushion right in the cords producing a dark focused sound.  There is a difference between a general hooty sound, and a very focused fundamental tone.

You should think of this tone as a vocal function that you will use in varying degrees in your full voice.  Managing correctly the first layer in the vocal tone is very important for men because it ensures the balance between subglottal pressure and medial compression (energy with which the cords close). 

A singer aiming to be “bright” in their singing is increasing the energy with which the cords close, that is why the sound is getting brighter.  Often, in chest, or even in the upper register, excessive intention to get bright or forward can cause a sort of growling or bubbling in the cords, a sort of super accelerated vocal fry imbedded in the singing. At times the singer ends up in full-fledged pressed phonation. Managing the first layer of the vowel, the fundamental, allows for a balance between medial compression and air pressure that results in a smooth flow of sound.  If you can manage to maintain the sense of cushion you feel in the fundamental tone exercise, and the same sense of flow, not driving more air when you sing, especially in the passaggio and above, you will also learn to dominate the tendency to push and squeeze. 

We do not strengthen the first layer by simply letting more air escape and slackening the vocal folds.  The boyish cry voice is undoubtedly linked to finding a balance in this head tone.  A cry without this first layer is more like a gripped whine. 

Correct and gripped cry

 The physical reasons I will ignore.  I could write about balancing laryngeal tilt and inter-arytenoid action, but it wouldn’t matter to my aim. I want you to gather the sensorial aspect of all this. A correct first layer will contribute to the feeling of balance in the voice, and could be described as oil flowing rather than the violent bubbling of a trumpeter’s lips against the ambusher of his instrument.  The first layer is undoubtedly Cotogni’s dark core around which the bright squillo rim will envelope itself.

In following posts in the next few days I will talk about the second layer, which is the singer’s formant area’s tonal energy; and the third layer, which is what we in Italy call cavita’, or cavernous sound.  These two layers are brighter than the dark core.

Just as a teaser, here is a clip going from the fundamental to a high note.  The trick is to insert EH onto OO.  The OO is the fundamental.  Singing the top on an OO is the old timer’s secret for maintaining a well nourished dark core, providing the necessary release. 

Messa di voce adding EH

Inserting an EH function works as follows:

1)      You sing an OO fundamental, first layer isolation.

2)      Then you think of continuing this sense of flow of the OO right in the cords

3)      You slowly start putting the bright qualities of an EH vowel into your sound.  This will be felt as an increase of intensity up in the frontal region of the sinuses, and in the anterior portion of the maxillary sinuses.  But the core OO should not change at all.

4)      The intense ringing EH component leans into the mask, but the OO stays laryngeal.  The overall feeling is very similar to singing fundamental, but with an intense sound pressure in the mask, but still no weight in the throat.  The first layer allows you to not push air directly against the cords.  It acts as a spring against the forces that induce pushing. 

This is a first introduction to layers of vowel.  The fundamental is a very important component of the vowel, but careful: DO NOT confuse this with singing on a falsetto based technique!  As Lauri Volpi wrote, falsetto is the “leprosy of the voice.”  This is one component of the complete vowel, and in and of itself a useless sound.  It is helpful to create a baseline of flow and laryngeal relaxation; but singing is a full-voice endeavor.  Those who do not phonate properly and remain loose and airy in their phonation will never develop the true color and character of their voice.

Next time: 2nd Layer – Squillo

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One response to “Layers of Vowel – Strati della Vocale

  1. You just opened my mind.
    I can’t wait to find out about the second and third layers.
    This is very closely related to the point you made earlier about learning to hear different harmonics.
    When pushing I’ve always heard a kind of fundamental “uh” in my own sound–I think this must be the incorrect fundamental you’re talking about.

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