2nd Layer of Sound – Squillo (part 1)

As tenors, we are absolutely nuts about squillo.  It’s the first thing we hear in an another tenor’s voice.  Most tenors usually forgive “un mondo di peccati” as long as they hear something that sounds pingy.  Most of us had initial contacts with other opera singers who spoke to us about squillo, or the ringing qualities of the voice, and how important it is to place the voice in the mask to get the voice to ring.

Did you ever try to get ring in your voice by pushing your voice into your sinuses?  I have, many, many times.  I heard other tenors talking about “perfect placement” and I looked for the perfect spot to place my voice in.  I have been the Sherlock Holmes of secret placement spots in the mask.  Let me spare you the anxiety and the heartache… those notions are wrong.  Squillo comes from the larynx, not from the mask.  Undoubtedly, as we will see, squillo is felt in the mask, but it originates right in the larynx.

A few general ideas about squillo then to start.  Squillo is a sound.  Listen to it.

Squillo High C

Squillo is not a position.  It is not achieved by pushing your voice into any particular space.  The source of the voice in all its harmonic aspects is the larynx.  The vocal folds produce all the harmonics of our voice, and then specific adjustments in the vocal tract strengthen some harmonics over others.  However, remember that you can make any adjustment you want in the vocal tract, positioning the tongue here or there, lifting the soft palate, lowering the soft palate, opening the nasal passage, etc., and none of it will produce squillo.  The harmonics have to be produced before they can be selected and reinforced by the vocal tract.

The same concept is valid for all the layers of the voice.  I was just speaking to some of the people I work with about this. When you try to open the throat to get cavita’, that spacious sound talked about in previous posts (3rd layer), you can never achieve this properly by opening the cords to get deep and dark.  This gives the illusion of an efficiently produced dark sound, but it is far from it.  Space is a sound.  Squillo is a sound. The fundamental is a sound.  The open throat is a complex multi-faceted sound.  The fact that we can selectively strengthen the lower harmonics by creating space in the throat doesn’t mean that the space makes the harmonic.  The harmonic is made because the voice is efficiently produced.  Because the voice is efficiently produced, the vocal tract can select the sound and reinforce it.  The same is precisely true about squillo, or singer’s formant.  So the first thing to remember is that in order to get squillo (and any other efficient resonance) the vocal folds must be firmly adducted.

How does one learn to get squillo in the voice? 

This is a tough thing to do properly without a good teacher.  There is a lot of hit and miss going on, and most of the times, students don’t know what a hit or a miss is.  It’s important to have someone guide you into understanding what is and what is not appropriate, especially because squillo is one aspect of the global voice.  Most tenors sacrifice one aspect of the voice in search of mastery of another.  This is wrong.  The teacher should guide into the building of the global voice.

Let me set up the discussion by just giving you a list of things needed to get correct squillo, and then little by little I will post about these.   As a premise, I am not interested in general resonance that comes from a looser phonation.  I am only interested in the development of a precise set of harmonics in the voice, the 5th, 6th, and 7th, with no enharmonic energy. (Precise harmonic tuning produces sensations of laser-like quality, while more general resonance seems to spray a cloud of higher pitched harmonics upward toward the head.)

  1. Appoggio – the cords need to close by keeping the origination of the sound laryngeal.  The cords must be closed firmly, but not block the air.  A flow must be established.
  2. As you ascend, the squillo should be thought of as a very specific tone – a specific ring, not a general resonance. General resonance has no drop off of harmonics.  The higher harmonics just keep extending upwards.  Old school tenors had a net drop off of harmonic strength after the 7th harmonic, making the voice compact and selective in its bright aspects.
  3. The breath should not be pushed out, but rather the singer should have as a baseline the sensation of the first layer – a suspension in the thorax.  The resulting air stream should be a warm mist, like when you try to fog up a mirror – slow and suspended.
  4. The cords should be longer in the high register, which means 2 things: (A)you will need to know how to keep the cords closed without pressing when they are thin, and (B) the feeling of the vibrant body of the voice will be felt in different ways throughout your range [(a)chest, larynx and mask in low voice; (b)  less chest, expanded pharynx, and some mask in the middle voice – between C and F; and (c)  far less chest, some pharynx expansion and a lot of mask to increasing degrees as we ascend.]
  5. Unimpeded flow: in order to get squillo correctly, there must not be blockages in the flow of the voice.  (a) The tongue must not stick to the back of the throat, but rather move forward in the mouth, and forward in the throat as well. How much? The space of the EH vowel should be the guide. (b) The cords must not block the air. Anyone can clamp shut the glottis as if lifting weights; but to sing with squillo we must have a balance between open and closed cords.  The guide is the 1st layer.  The imbedded head tone helps protect against excessive compression, but must not jeopardize the squillo.  The balance is pretty narrow, but not blocked. The produced voice ray guides this balance. The diaphragm cannot be held in a fixed low position or the singer will be singing as though he were running out of breath. Flexibility in the ribs!
  6. Morbidezza: a feeling of suppleness in the throat, elasticity rather than rigidity.  If we are not supple, even in the larynx, the edges of the cords will not be able to harness the breath and produce squillo. The sound may be vibrant, but will have a stiff quality.
  7. Cry phonation: using the edges of the cords.  You have to know how to sing with thin cords while resisting significant breath pressure without losing the flow of abundantly rich harmonics.
  8. The combination of squillo and first formant in the middle voice;  more squillo and turn to 2nd formant from F# to G# (drinking the sound); and from A Natural up, a dominant sensation of squillo with less affondo (depends on strategy), a sense that the voice has its vibratory pressure less in the throat and more into the mask.

Appoggio – saldatura del tubo pneumatico e sonoro
(sealing the air and resonance tubes together)

The Italian tradition speaks of achieving squillo through “mordere la voce” – biting the voice. If you do a gentle cough, or a net glottal attack on an EH vowel, you will feel where your larynx and vocal folds are. When you “bite the voice” you become aware that you are not singing woofy anymore. Your vocal folds are closed.  The air flow is narrowed and is becoming sound.  We become aware that this happens when the cords are closed and not when they are open.  The closure of the cords is essential but not sufficient.  Learning to sing with true squillo in the top means learning how to harness the breath pressure with thinner cords – how thin depends on how much chest you prefer to carry into the top, which will also determine the intensity of the squillo, the color, and the decibels of your overall voice.

In Cotogni’s view, the breath pressure in the trachea is imagined as a tube (tubo pneumatico).  The sound above the larynx is imagined also as a tube (tubo sonoro).  The two tubes are fused at the larynx.  The saldatura (welding) is appoggio.  When we sing without pushing breath or sound away from that point, but rather let the voice gently emerge, then as Lauri Volpi says, sound rays are formed and ignite a powerful resonance. 

I continuously consult with singers and students who believe they have a clear idea of what it means to sing with closed cords only to discover  they have diffused and loose sounds.   The position of closed cords is the position of the EE vowel when it is compact.  All too often I hear a diffused IH (as in the word “bit”) produced with no tonicity in the musculature of the larynx. The middle and high voice are welded together through the ringing closure of the EE vowel.  Just so you know what that means, let me have you listen to correct EE vowel productions.  Particularly, listen to the last singer, Richard Tucker, how the ringing quality of the EE vowel is exactly the same quality of his top notes.

EE vowel

The ringing qualities of a pure EE vowel require an active tone of the laryngeal musculature.  This quality of the EE vowel becomes a laser like quality that embeds itself into the high voice, becoming a main component harmonic.  This requires the voice pressure to increase in the mask and great morbidezza or suppleness in the throat. 

The 2nd layer is essentially BI-LOCAL: it is both in the larynx and in the mask, meaning that the singer has a sense of this ringing quality coming both from the larynx (right at the cords) and also in the mask at the same time.  Think of this sound as a light.  When the squillo happens, the “light turns on” at the same time both in the larynx and in the mask. Where exactly in the mask is a very important topic that Cotogni and others spent years on, fine tuning the harmonics. I refer you back also to Fisichella’s perceptions about how he feels various head cavities participating in the sound.

Lauri Volpi also talks about Cotogni’s method of helping the student place the “vocal ray” into the correct sinus cavity, etc.  The vocal ray is the EE component – it is not the EE vowel, but the EE component. 

But, first things first… you cannot get squillo as the old school intended unless an impostazione based on “alleggerimento” or “lightening the load of the phonation” occurs.  Thinner, elongated vocal folds must be able to capture the air without blocking it.  Anyone can clamp down on the breath.  However, one has to learn how to sing with energetically closed cords WHILE producing a gentle, vibrant, and rich flow of sound, and not a blockage. This is something gauged both through sensation and through sound, but especially through sound.  The singer has to avoid blockages at all costs, be this with excessively closed cords, the tongue constricting the space in the back of the throat, or the epiglottis shutting down the opening to the larynx.  These blockages often make the voice brighter, but do not give a correct squillo.   The EE component requires a narrower space in the larynx, but it is never pressed. 

The EE component is not a vowel, it is a harmonic.  If the ray connects larynx with the space directly above the cupola of the hard palate in the maxillary sinuses, then the 5th harmonic is being reinforced.  If the ray goes straight up the back and curves outside the head to the frontal sinuses, then we are selecting the 6th and 7th harmonic.  Enough for today.

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6 responses to “2nd Layer of Sound – Squillo (part 1)

  1. Wonderful, wonderful post! It ties in exactly with what I’ve been working on.

    The only thing that’s unclear to me is when you talk about the 5th, 6th, and 7th harmonics. Are you talking only from about A natural and up? Because the lower you go the higher the number of the harmonic that falls in the singer’s formant frequency range. So H7 on an F# is only at 2 590 Hz, while on a B natural we’re talking 3 458. Should we be aiming for clean, strong harmonics in the 2 500 – 3 200 range? Or is “squillo” the way you define it really just an above the passaggio phenomenon?

  2. What I referred to when speaking of the 5th, 6th, and 7th harmonics was the selection of these harmonics in the higher voice. Squillo is possible in the various ranges of the voice, there will simply be more harmonics amplified as we get lower because more harmonics will fall into the specific formant range. The specific, very distinct laser beam, that is for the higher voice, especially from A natural up.

  3. Amazing stuff, I can’t thank you enough for wanting to give your incredible knowledge out to the world 🙂

    You mention that from the A natural up there is an increase in the sense of squillo dominating the voice, depending on strategy. How dramatic are these changes in sensations from the G# to the A Natural?

    I assume it is a more dramatic sensation in the older school approach (Caruso / Bjoerling) than the more modern (e.g. Corelli) approach? I’m just trying to match this with my own sensations (though I suspect I’m not far enough along to feel either approach correctly!).

    • I will be speaking about this in the posts to come. I listed about 7-8 points of things that need to be developed to perfect squillo, and that is one of them. There is a definite switch in intensity between chest, cavita’, and squillo as we ascend. More later…

  4. I find after reading your blog and applying its suggestions I think I can feel “squillo” to around my E below middle C, if focusing on keeping the sensation constant throughout my range. If I lose focus then the sensation goes away. Is this possible, or am I perhaps feeling something else. I do experience the energy shift around G above middle C, and continue to struggle to keep the breath supported, but not pushed through tight cords…floating on the breath. When I manage to find the right “mix” it is quite fun! I think you and I are alot alike. I laughed out loud as I read how you tried to find the “perfect spot”. I have struggled mightily until reading your blog. Thankyou!

  5. This is such an important lesson. The EE vowel really gives great closure.
    I find that now all vowels have this EE quality too them without any extra effort or thought from myself. This has helped me make great improvements to my high notes, It has even had a major effect on my low notes.I know have a strong bright low G. before i could get to A2 but i would sometimes just make air.

    As a loose singer this is the perfect exercise to get closure with no pressing(a problem before)

    Thank you!

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