3rd Layer of the Vowel

We are passing from the 1st layer of the vowel to the third.  This approach will become clear when I finish up this discussion with my next few posts.

It is very frustrating for a young tenor to be told that he needs to develop an open throat sound, and when he gets into the studio to try to “open the throat” more by doing some kind of stretching of the throat he finds that the resulting sound is just horrible. You start to feel like you are never really going to get it.

One of the things I work on a lot in my singing, and with students, is to learn that “speech pattern” vowels, where the tongue tends to approximate the back of the pharynx, are not the type of “impostazione” (vocal set up) needed to sing with an open throat.  Getting the tongue away from the back of the throat is truly essential in developing an open throat sound, particularly in the Bb3 – F4 range, and in the passaggio.

Training the larynx to relax in a low range and keeping the pharynx relaxed and open, like in the beginning of a yawn, with the soft palate high, and with the tongue away from the back of the throat, are all elements that allow for the development of this “width” in the voice, but not sufficient.

To paraphrase Cornell MacNeil in his interview with Jerome Hines in Great Singers, short of getting a knife and opening your throat, you can’t open the throat.  I like his thinking, though incorrect, because it brings me back to an important concept: that the “open throat” is thought of fundamentally as a sound.  Every great tenor I have talked to and studied with that spoke about the open throat (Franco Corelli, Gianni Raimondi, Arrigo Pola, Carlo Bergonzi, etc), had specific instructions about the open throat, all in line one with another; and they mainly addressed the issue in terms of sound, limiting their physical instructions to finding morbidezza (softness in the throat tissues), using slow and deep inhalation, and practicing the yawn, rather than stretching the throat.  Opening the throat merely as a mechanical function often leads to rigidity and tensions, significantly impeding the development of an open throat sound.  I work at this through the sound, as did my father.

This brings me to our next discussion on strati della vocale – or vowel layers. I previously wrote about how Antonio Cotogni , one of the great old school teachers – one of Verdi’s favorite baritones, and teacher of legends like Gigli, Lauri Volpi, Battistini and others, considered the vowel as being composed of parts, some bright and others dark.  The voice is made up of many sounds (pitches), or harmonics.  Some of these harmonics are dark sounds, and others bright.  Some have a surround sound effect and others seem to come right at you.  They feel differently inside.  One way of verbalizing Cotogni’s pedagogy is to think of the vowel in terms of layers. 

In my previous post, I wrote about the first layer of the vowel – which corresponds to the fundamental harmonic of our voice.  Great operatic singers have 3 very clearly defined and distinct resonance groups.  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, and slightly the 8th overtones (Singer’s Formant area).

Remember that the first layer (the fundamental) is felt right in the larynx in the tenor range.  The higher you go, approximating the soprano range, and the more the laryngeal sensation has a stronger mirror sensation in the back of the head.

First layer vocal tract

To get a better impression let’s use sound.  Let me have you hear these two clips.  One is Caruso singing the B flat from Come Un Bel Dì di Maggio, from Chenier, and then Corelli singing the B natural from Romeo’s Je T’Aime phrase. You will hear the high note, then the various harmonics one by one, and then the same harmonics added together from lowest to highest to reconstitute the complete sound. Remember, the first layer is the first harmonic you hear in isolation, the lowest one, and the darkest one.  The 3rd layer is the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th harmonics you hear, and the 2nd layer is the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th

Caruso Harmonic Break Down

Corelli Je T’aime Harmonic Break Down 

This helps to hear the harmonics doesn’t it?  Only great singers have very pure sounds without noise in between those harmonic peeks. 

So our discussion now turns to this third layer of the vowel.  The first layer, the fundamental, that dark head tone, is the darkest component of our harmonics. The third layer is the next step up in terms of brilliance, and also in terms of pitches.  It includes the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th harmonics, amplified by what is called the 1st and 2nd formant. Sorry, I hate to get technical on this. 

This layer feels like it vibrates above the larynx in the pharyngeal space, and in part also in the chest. This layer is divided into two parts seeking dominance: the first and second formants – the vocal set up below and above the passasggio.  I spoke of the interplay between 1st formant and 2nd formant dominance in the post about the passaggio. 

Below the passaggio we feel this layer of the voice as expanding from the larynx up to the soft palate, but also with vibrations in the chest.  The beefier we make this sound, and the more we will want to open the mouth as we approach the F, especially stretching the sides of the lips outward.  If we keep a balance between this spacious sound and the 1st layer (fundamental) – the opening of the mouth as explained will not need to be as pronounced as there is more head tone and more contribution of 2nd formant.

3rd layer below passaggio

Above the passaggio, the sound covers because the dominant harmonic becomes the 3rd or 4th depending on the vowel.  The 2nd formant becomes dominant and the 3rd layer is felt as having climbed into the space above the soft palate.  The round vowels like OO and OH will tend to feel further forward, and they energize the 3rd harmonic; while the EH vowel (which modifies toward an AY sound, as in the word BAY) will tend to vibrate vertically above the soft palate, toward the back of the head, and energizes the 4th harmonic.

3rd layer above passaggio

As we switch between open and covered sound, the 3rd layer of the sound morphs too, shifting its vibration from below the palate to above it.

I find, in line with Delle Sedie’s explanations, that the French schwa vowel EU, as in the world “peu” is ideal for the passaggio because it keeps the depth of the OO and incorporates the brilliance of the EH. But working just with the vowel is misleading.  The EU sound is just a reference, and requires a combination of factors to be looked at with a competent teacher.

So, ask yourself: how do I start producing higher pitched overtones?  How do I make that happen?  When you go from singing in first layer, to expanding the next 2 or 3 harmonics, you engage more appoggio, or a sense of vibration in the open throat.  The key to correct transition is to not push air through the head tone, or the first layer, but also to not let the new found brightness shut it down, or squeeze it excessively.  The feeling of balanced head tone of the first layer should feel like it continues, though the sound is far richer than a mere head tone.  If the first layer shuts down you will feel a sense of grabbing in the throat to some degree.  If the 1st layer is pushed open you will have an inefficient, airy sound.

When below the passaggio, the EH vowel, when sung correctly, is a perfect vowel to expand the open throat. This vowel has the perfect balance of brightness, and chest vibration, and keeps the tongue away from the back wall of the pharynx.  The great Italian tenors rarely sang a pure AH vowel in the B3-F4 range (middle voice).  They typically mixed EH vowel into it so as to open up the sound and not pinch it off in the throat.

I will post some examples tomorrow. 

One thing to remember is that when you sing with an open throat, you will feel the tendency to want to sing loud.  You don’t have to!  You shouldn’t associate open throat with loud singing necessarily. The feeling of gentle 1st layer should continue.  Think of what that fundamental tone feels like.  That is your baseline for phonating.  Continue that function even when singing full.  You will sense that the first layer balances your vowel function.

When you turn, or cover the voice, in the F – Ab, the vibration climbs into the mask.  Where it goes depends on the vowel and on how good you are at engaging cry phonation.  If you are really good, you will feel a very pure, lean, and efficient sound filling the maxillary sinuses, and the space above the soft palate. If you are not perfectly efficient, you will sense that to turn the voice you are increasing the pressure and sacrificing some comfort in the throat, and the sound does not rise into the mask but stays somewhat stuck in the throat. This happens because the sound didn’t get narrow but rather stayed wide as in the middle voice.  Modifying vowels is not enough.  You have to switch phonatory modes.

 This is how Lauri Volpi put it:

 Those who while singing stiffen the veins of their neck and become red in the face, continuously forcing the emission of every note, demonstrate that they don’t know how to breathe, measure the emission of breath, nor harmonize the various parts of the organism cooperating in the phenomenon of sung phonation. 

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

Measuring the emission of breath is not something you can do with the diaphragm mechanically.  You do this through the sound, and particularly through the first layer.  You continue as though you were producing the small first layer sound right in the larynx while also producing the complete sound. By continuing the intention of the 1st layer you avoid pushing.  Lauri Volpi warns us that if we execute poorly the voice will sink into the “gorgo faringeo” –  or into the chasm of the pharynx. Remember, this relates to the voice above the passaggio.

Students always overdo the third layer when learning.  They open the cords in order to get the voice to expand deeper in the cavita’.  There is absolutely no need to become inefficient and slacken the cords.  Some exercises, like y GWAW exercise (my students know…) uses the slackening of the cords to help release the larynx, but there is no need to open the cords to get the sound to sink.  You just need to learn how to get the tongue forward and sing in a yawn position efficiently.  Developing the voice requires a good teacher to spot when someone is going off on a wrong tangent.

I will post some audio examples possibly as early as tomorrow.

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4 responses to “3rd Layer of the Vowel

  1. amazing to hear the harmonic analysis of Caruso. As the upper harmonics were added, sound actually seemed to darken. Really quite fascinating, and instructional. If you don’t force it, they will come sort of thing. Thank you for this outstanding blog. I read it regularly, and have grown because of it.

  2. I am glad to hear that it helps. It is very interesting to me to note how developing a balance in the various harmonics of the voice conveys much more information about that instrument. So many teachers focus on bright bright bright…. and bright is but one element of the voice. Alone it conveys very little information about the voice, and about the words you are singing. The purpose of communicating is stifled if the voice does not carry information that is “human” sounding… as much as we strive to be superhuman with our singing, we still must retain the ability to communicate like human beings, which means having a voice that carries sufficient information to transfer emotion and understanding. This requires all harmonics to be treated correctly.

  3. what a fantastic idea is this idea of “first layer baseline”. it was about 1 year that i was trying to sing “Amor ti vieta” (some call it tenor test) and couldn’t because before reaching A4 natural I got really tired and always wondered what is my fault, my larynx is low, mouth is open, palate is high and support is strong and dynamic. beside my teacher and friends told that there is a feeling of push element in my voice and i couldn’t understand because i didn’t feel that I was pushing (internal hearing deception).until I read your article about first layer and using it as baseline and now i can sing Amor ti vieta without any excessive amount of tiredness and vocal fatigue.
    Thank you jack

  4. carlosdonofrio

    . Remember, the first layer is the first harmonic you hear in isolation, the lowest one, and the darkest one. The 3rd layer is the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th harmonics you hear, and the 2nd layer is the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th.

    I got confused because before you said that the @nd layer are the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th and the 3rd layer are the 5th,6th, etc.

    Was this a typo you made or I’m just missunderstanding? This is possible as english is not my native language.

    Thank you Very much for your blog.
    I’m taking my time to read it all and to study waht you say and I’ve got very good answers for many interrogants i’ve had for a long time.

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