3rd layer of vowel: keeping the tongue forward in the throat

One of the most important aspects of learning to sing with cavita‘ or with an open throat  is to learn how to get the tongue away from the back of the pharyngeal wall.  This is not just the part of the tongue that you can see by the soft palate, but also the root of the tongue out of sight.

A correct EH vowel, that has the correct tongue position forward, is both dark and bright.  It is the ideal vowel to help you develop cavita‘.  Some might think that open throat requires an OH vowel.  To the contrary, the EH has the tongue position required.  Once understood, you can transfer those EH qualities to the other vowels.  In essence, you are isolating the 3rd layer from the EH vowel itself, and treating the layer as independent from the vowel form.  It becomes a sound function.

I have prepared as series of audio examples.  The first is my explanations and examples.

Audio lesson about 3rd Layer

You may be able to gather useful information from that clip, but trust me, most tenors, or baritones and basses for that matter, because this applies perhaps even more to them – will be able to crack this code without a guide.  If you don’t sing this way, you will likely not hear what you are doing, and you need someone to train your ear to hear.

Now of course the space of the 3rd layer requires the relaxed low larynx, but you won’t get the relaxed low larynx well until you get the tongue out of the path of the breath.  The tongue will pressurize your voice, and your larynx will be pushed up, or you will hold it in check further with the tongue aggravating the situation.

So, here are a series of great tenors who sing or sang this way.  I will just go in alphabetical order for what I prepared.

Bergonzi tongue away from back

Notice how his vowels on no, no, non posso are hardly OH, but are morphed by the tongue forward.  Follow the words, and you will see how the OH and AH vowels are influenced by the EH tongue position.  The result is often similar to the French word PEU.

Bjoerling tongue away from back

Come io piango is highly influenced by the EH.  Come io chiedo pieteu.    Che piu’ cercando io VEU…  MEUMEU.  The difference between the EH and AH are so minute in the D-F  range that they could easily interchange.  It’s not about opening the vowel here… this is not opening the vowel, this is getting the tongue forward and out of the path of the breath.  The tongue forward opens the vowel.  You can try to sing an open vowel; you can try to sing the EU,  and still have the tongue in the back, and all you get is a bright vowel stuck in the throat.  The tongue forward expands the lower harmonics making the sound scuro, or dark.  This is cavita‘ – 3rd layer. When correct in middle voice, you feel a connection to the chest vibration.

Caruso Tongue Away from back of throat

Masterful.  Ma pur se nella peugeeneu – amazing beauty.

Corelli tongue away from back

No comment needed.  If you can’t hear it there… well… you should hear it.

Zenatello tongue away from back

E rider vuole qua becomes vuole queu and t’invola becomes t’involeu.

Last, but certainly not least, let me just post the whole aria of Martinelli singing Apri la tua finestra from Iris.  This is just so beautiful.  This is a testament to singing with open throat and not having to push or even want to sing loud in order to achieve it.  It’s haunting how Martinelli just weaves harmonics into a beautifully balanced production.  It’s one sound and one pressure constantly, and the blend of the three layers is spectacular.


I hope all this helps you understand more.  Word to the wise: it’s not easy to get this on your own.  The mind hears what it wants and you need a guide.  Find a good guide.

The next stop in this journey is finally about getting to the bright element Cotogni described.  We will see how the bright can be around the dark, or it can be at the center of it.  This depends on how much chest voice you carry and how crafty you are in maintaining the 1st layer intact.


5 responses to “3rd layer of vowel: keeping the tongue forward in the throat

  1. This is a superb post.

    Question: You say the EH vowel is ideal for developing the optimal cavita. Is there merit in using the UH vowel or even more towards the AH vowel for the same purpose? or are there big drawbacks with those choices compared with the EH.

    I think my goal would be to gravitate towards the modification that provides the most relaxation in the throat – i.e. the most morbidezza. I would even probably choose relaxation over openness if it ever became a trade off (which I am not sure it ever has to).

    I think I know your answer, and it will have something to do with getting the most energy in certain frequencies (the good squillo, so to speak) and that is why EH is preferable, but I would like to hear your thoughts on the nebulous and vague UH vowel – which I hear a lot of teachers and coaches talk about utilising in the passaggio. I know myself – and I have a tendency to make an EH vowel which is too shallow. This is clearly the wrong type of EH vowel, but is there a risk of a high larynx EH that is avoided by using the UH?

    – Ben.

    • This is a good question. First off let me say this: THE RIGHT VOCAL FUNCTION CALLS THE RIGHT VOWEL TO ITSELF. What this means is that correct “impostazione” or vocal set up creates the conditions for a specific vowel at any given pitch. Also, depending on your vocal strategy there can be a variety of ways. For example Caruso, Bjoerling, and the European school favored an EU (as in the French word “peu) for the passaggio, while Italians favored what Cotogni called “eco sonora” or the 2nd formant strategy. The European way was more head tone based and put more emphasis on squillo, or singer’s formant. The Italian school put more emphasis on cavita’ or the finding of the round lower harmonics in the voice. The result for the Italians was a gravitating more toward an OH or an OO in the passaggio.
      Independently, the two had one thing in common – the EH function of tongue forward in the throat to clear the path of the breath.
      One thing I tried to make clear in the post was that simply singing an EH will not be sufficient. You have to have the right EH, with the tongue really foward in the throat, which connects the cavita’ and the chest resonance in the middle voice, and opens the voice for what comes above the passaggio.
      The trade off you mention between relaxation and openness is really a false dilemma. The tongue in the back creates tensions on the cords, which become pressurized. So even if we sing with a relaxed throat, there is still lack of ease and flow.
      And last but not least, if you sing an OH and blend into it the forward tongue position of the EH, you get an EU sounding vowel, which is a brighter version of the UH you speak of, with more singer’s formant or squillo. I absolutely do not believe singing a specific vowel will resolve these issues. A teacher that shows the way, almost micromanaging the sound to break the status quo of a preconceived sound and mental intention is probably very necessary.

  2. I can’t speak for Jack, but I would imagine Eh is more likely to preserve some heady qualities, as Uh and Ah can tend towards excessive weight. Also, if what you’re doing is moving the middle and back of tongue forward, that’s kind of by definition an Eh. Ah is actually quite closed in the throat, it just feels open because it’s open in the mouth…

    • Yes, this is correct. But I would add that the correct EH position of the tongue actually opens up the chest too, because it opens up the “cavita'” in the voice. The voice becomes darker when the tongue is out of the way and the larynx is relaxed, because now the cords are not being pressurized by this big air stopper which is the bulk of the tongue. The cords can close without pressurization, which allows them to not only produce high resonance, but also the lower harmonics abundantly.

  3. Thank you all. This helps tremendously. And having this demonstrated face to face was of course the most clarifying situation. Exciting stuff – a new way for me to think of addressing a oft problematic vocal habit for me and a great tool for managing the resonance without overt mechanics.