2nd Layer – point 2: squillo or brightness?

The second point in my list of things a tenor needs to consider in developing squillo was:

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.

I am not interested much in explaining why this happens as much as how this is done.  And this brings us back to what Cotogni said about the layers of sound.  The sound can be dark with a bright rim around it, or bright with a dark rim around it.

In my previous post I talked about appoggio and the connection of “air and resonance tubes” at the larynx, to borrow from Lauri Volpi.  In the old school tenor’s imposto (set up), the sound had a dark core given by the strong 1st layer of sound – an embedded head tone quality at the core of the sound.  The squillo seems to be balanced by the head tone which aids against excessive pressing.  The voice has a dark core right in the cords (1st layer) surrounded by a sort of halo of vibration (laryngeal squillo, the 2nd layer). This halo of vibration has a corresponding counterpart, a mirror, up in the sinus cavities (a strong counterpart in the high voice – squillo up in the mask, also called posizione alta; this is the bi-local squillo: laryngeal and mask).  

Cotogni called the connection between laryngeal 2nd layer and its mask vibration “sound rays”, propagating from the larynx to specific sinus locations. So, the 1st layer is surrounded by this halo of brighter vibrancy, a sort of vibrancy at the edge of the cords, almost as thought they were a whistle.  Directly around this laryngeal core is the cavita’ (3rd layer), the darker low harmonics – the feeling of spacious darker voice, the baritone in the tenor. This 3rd layer of sound is above the larynx and in the expanded pharyngeal cavity; and depending on whether we are above or below the passaggio, this spacious feeling expands in the posterior mouth (below passaggio – 1st formant), or all the way up to back of the head (above passaggio – 2nd formant), as well as having a corresponding sensation in the chest (depending on how much affondo is present).

The lighter you sing (mezza voce for example), and the more the squillo can be felt up in the head without a corresponding vibration in the laryngeal area.  Women that have strong squillo often do not feel this laryngeally because the 1st layer (the fundamental), is the most dominant harmonic in their voice, overpowering all other feelings.  The sensation for them is more about release and “no feeling” of local effort in resisting the air, except for a few more adept squillo singers who may be able to sing with more chest, and feel the voice’s squillo in part laryngeally.  So the whole concept of 2nd layer may be foreign to women, as they feel the squillo mostly in the front of the head.  Some men who sing with a very strong head tone will likely not feel laryngeal vibration either.  But back to the traditional Italian way. . .

We have been talking about Cotogni’s dark core with a bright shell around it, but he also said that the tenor can feel a bright core with a dark shell around it.  I believe he was referring to what we hear in voices like Pavarotti or Corelli.  Some tenors, especially in Italy post-Pertile, have developed a different resonance strategy for the top. While not new, it has become more prevalent.  This strategy maximizes the brighter elements of the voice, extending the harmonic strength well past the 7th harmonic.  This strategy is a  2nd formant dominant one.  The squillo is less focused and more like a resonance buzz.

Here is a comparison to understand the sound.  In this comparison we have Bjoerling and Pavarotti singing the High C of Che Gelida Manina.  These are magnificent sounds.  They are different in strategy, but magnificent nonetheless. I posted the tenors’ high notes followed by isolated sounds of the high note resonance from 2,100 Hz and up.  So you will hear the tenor’s note, and then his higher resonance strategy. 

Comparison Pavarotti Bjoerling Squillo High C

Pavarotti’s sound focuses on a broad resonance strategy, while Bjoerling zeroes in on the 5th harmonic (maxillary sinus sound ray).  Pavarotti’s resonance extends well into the 10,000 Hz range, while Bjoerling’s harmonic strength above 3,500 Hz drops intensity significantly. Some say that Pavarotti’s high voice, when live in the theater, ignited a surround sound buzz; while Bjoerling’s seemed very directional, coming straight at you. Pavarotti’s sound, in my view, can be said to have a bright resonance, while Bjoerling’s has squillo. 

Now I would like you to listen to a comparison between Pavarotti and Pavarotti.  In 1969, Pavarotti recorded one of his most exceptional examples of vocalism: Decca’s L’Amico Fritz.  This recording has the only example I can think of where Pavarotti actually sings a Bflat in a narrower squillo position.  He does so in the Bflat of Tutto ho tentato.  I will compare this to the traditional 2nd formant dominant Bflat we are used to from Pavarotti from the same recording, the finale of Ed anche Beppe amo’.  You will hear the squillo isolated as well as the more general resonance.

Pavarotti two strategies

So, point number 2 in my list of things to look at when looking to develop squillo, addressed squillo versus general bright resonance, and how the old school really focused in on a specific harmonic strategy.  Now you have heard what this means, and not just read about it.  Tenors like Caruso, Bjoerling, Gigli, Martinelli, etc., all sang with isolated harmonic strategies – squillo,  that whistling high pitched tone.  Others like Corelli, Pavarotti, and many currently performing tenors sing with a general resonance strategy, more like a buzzing cloud of higher resonance.

Just so you can hear Corelli too, here is Vincero’ from Nessun dorma, along with the higher resonance isolated.  You will hear that it is not laser like, but rather a bright buzzing like Pavarotti’s – resonance extending upward of 3,500 Hz.

Corelli B Natural resonance

So, of course, the question is – what determines one or the other strategy?

To get the Corelli-Pavarotti type bright resonance, to quote Stephen O’Mara, who knows how to sing both ways, he would tell you that the Corelli way has a wider canna.  The tube above the larynx feels wider.  One thing I have noticed is that in the brighter buzz way, the voice feels more like middle voice as you ascend.  You relax the larynx and the cords are not as tense as in squillo singing.  When the cords are energized the edges are more active.  If the cords are more relaxed, more of the body of the cord seems to vibrate.  The vibration feels more in the back of the head.  The focus is width in the Occipital area.  The brightness is given by the AH function (AH as in the word Bat).  This is more like how a Soprano sings. 

The problem with this method is that it is very easy to push air through and get the sound to become very backwards.  There are a few modern tenors that have this problem.  The solution is to think of the position of the voice as high.  The cords are still in a cry position, but more of the body of the cords is involved in vibration and not just the edges, or so it feels.  The appoggio is very strong.  The sound is very laryngeal, and feels like it is very bright in the larynx, and surrounded by a very dark cavita’.  There is not much sense of head tone imbedded in this type of sound.  In the beginning it is easy to get super pressurized.  Pavarotti himself stated that the beginners will feel strangled by this position. However, once a balance is found, this is a very powerful position.  This is bright core surrounded by a dark, spacious cloud of resonance.

The traditional way to sing the top (Bjoerling, Caruso, etc)  is also very laryngeal, but has more head tone.  The bright is balanced by the dark core.  The cry surrounds the dark 1st layer; where instead in the modern way, the cry is the core – no sigh in the center.  In the traditional way, when you get to the top the cords close more energetically, and it feels like the edges have become a sort of whistle. 

In the modern way, the feeling is as though the outer shell of the vocal folds is vibrating.  This is the clincher!  The modern way has to have the vibration in the whole cord not just the edges, but on the outer shell of the cords, not inside the cord.  The cords feel closed, without the air buffer of the 1st layer.  My father would say that if you are pushing, the vibration will go into the “fibbra” – into the fiber of the cord; where if you are not pushing, the vibration stays in the shell…  a feeling that the vibration is somehow enveloping the cords, but is not sinking into the fibers of the cords themselves, making them stiff.  This happens when you do not press the cords together excessively by focusing on the cavita’ rather than on the squillo and on MORBIDEZZA…  You aim for the back of the head rather than the front.  This alleviates the pressing; and if you engage the shell of the cords in vibration, the sound remains “alto di posizione” or high in the head, rather than sinking into the throat.

So the keys for the traditional way is balance between the 3 layers.  The key for the modern way is staying laryngeal always, and singing with morbidezza so as to have the vibration all around the closed cords, but not inside them – which causes the bright voice to be high in the head in its position.  All those high harmonics, extending all the way up to 10,000 hz.  create a very high position for the voice.

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7 responses to “2nd Layer – point 2: squillo or brightness?

  1. Wow, what a treasure of information!

    These different qualities in the singer’s formant between Björling and Pavarotti is something I have observed before, also in a lower tessitura. I made spectra of the vowel Ah at pitches F4 and Ab4 (from “M’ama! Sì, m’ama” in Un Furtiva Lagrima). My original interest wast to see the turning from first to second formant tuning of the lower harmonics, and, indeed, both artists made a very clear switch of formant resonance strategy between F4 and Ab4. *But*, a clear difference between them was in the singer’s formant (SF) region. Pavarotti’s SF was broader (between 2.5-3.5 kHz) and weaker (-10 dB below the dominant H2 or H3), whereas Björling’s SF was roughly equal in strength as H2 or H3 but narrower (2.5 – 3 kHz).

    Amazingly enough, almost exactly the same can be said about the spectra of the C5’s in the clip you provide in the post! I quickly made some spectra and will try to include them here, hoping that it will work…
    Both Björling and Pavarotti use a 2nd formant tuning of the H3 (at around 1.6 kHz) , but Björling’s SF is stronger, lower, and narrower!

    This difference in the SF is physically known as a difference in “Q-factors” (Quality factors) of associated resonators, and is likely caused by differences is how the epilaryngial region is shaped, longer and narrower in Björlings case (just as you allude to in your post). But I find it interesting that this difference is noticed throughout the tessitura! So I guess that if one is interested in developing an SF strategy a la Björling, this can be practiced in the middle voice first before attempting it in the acuti?

    Martin

    • I am sure this has to do with epilaryngeal positioning, etc. In fact, I can sense in my own voice the narrower position when I sing this way. You can notice I use the traditional approach in this high C. However, I don’t talk about narrowing this way because one should be guided by the sound in this process, and cannot do this mechanically.

      Thank you for your contribution and observations!

      Happy New Year
      Jack

  2. Well, it seems like the picture didn’t show up. I will try a link instead:
    C5 spectra; Pavarotti vs. Björling

    Martin

  3. This is very enlightening regarding different schools of singing.
    I studied with a baritone in Vancouver who definitely taught the “modern” way with more focus on ‘cavita’ and sensation towards the back of the skull. When singing this way, there was the cloudy buzz you mentioned, yet the voice was very powerful.
    At school in Virginia my current voice teacher is definitely “old-school” with focus on sensation in the sinus area. Singing this way definitely brings out the more focused ‘ring’ which is easy to pick out of the harmonics my voice is producing.
    Point being, I was confused at first because of the conflict between teachers, both of whom are excellent singers. Now I realize, it is not right or wrong, it is a difference of approach, and I am free to sing either way.
    (BTW, have been reading the blog for about a month now, and the articles and recordings have helped me tremendously with the control of my voice. Thank you Jack!)
    -Andrew

  4. I’m wondering about your term — imposto — which you describe as the set-up. In Bel Canto by Lucie Manen, she describes the imposto as crucial to bel canto technique.

    She states:

    The entrance of the organ of smell, the ethmoid bone, situated in the upper part of the nose, has a special importance for tone quality. It is connected to the nostrils below by a very narrow passage. In order to prevent the entry of bad or harmful odours or gases during inspiration, a set of small muscles (the compressor narium), acting as a reflex safety-valve, closes off the entrance to the olfactory bulb, the organ of smell. At the same time the larynx is closed reflexly to protect the lungs. This closing mechanism of the compressor narium I call the imposto . .. she goes on to say that this was called the Hochgriff in the Viennese School.

    Furthermore (in regards to tenors) she says this:

    Separate the jaw, moisten lips, and hum the high harmonics of the imposto with the lips almost closed -> mi-mi-mi

    One last thing:

    She says that [u] should come from the larynx without and moment of the lips. Using an oscillator, he produced an [u] of moderately loud intensity, and then increased it into a forte, which sounded as if pitch had dropped by two whole tones. While [u] continued to be sound, an [i] with its higher harmonics was played by a second oscillator –> THE SYNTHESIS of [u] + [i] sounded at the original pitch…and then she later recommends using the french [y] as in “lune” to bridge the two sounds…claiming that this produced the voce mista used by bel canto singers.

    Does this align with your view of the imposto? I thought the second point was interesting because you seem to advocate this [u] / [e] mix in the upper register!

    Cheers,
    Mike

    P.S.

    • Hi Mike,
      Excellent observations. Let me see if I can address your questions.

      I’m wondering about your term — imposto — which you describe as the set-up.

      Yes. Impostazione is the tuning of the entire instrument to produce the right harmonics.

      Lucie Manen:

      The entrance of the organ of smell, the ethmoid bone, situated in the upper part of the nose, has a special importance for tone quality. It is connected to the nostrils below by a very narrow passage. In order to prevent the entry of bad or harmful odours or gases during inspiration, a set of small muscles (the compressor narium), acting as a reflex safety-valve, closes off the entrance to the olfactory bulb, the organ of smell. At the same time the larynx is closed reflexly to protect the lungs. This closing mechanism of the compressor narium I call the imposto . .. she goes on to say that this was called the Hochgriff in the Viennese School.”

      Personally, I don’t think it is useful to manipulate physical structures. I had a soprano colleague who closed the nasal passages to get the sound in the mask. I do not think this is accurately described as Hochgriff. Hochgriff and Tielgriff seem to me to be similar to what Italians would say appoggio in maschera and appoggio in laringe – learning into the mask, and leaning in the larynx. The squillo is bi-local as I explained. IT is both in the larynx and in the mask. So one has to find a balance between the two, and this depends on the range.

      “Furthermore (in regards to tenors) she says this: Separate the jaw, moisten lips, and hum the high harmonics of the imposto with the lips almost closed -> mi-mi-mi. She says that [u] should come from the larynx without and moment of the lips. Using an oscillator, he produced an [u] of moderately loud intensity, and then increased it into a forte, which sounded as if pitch had dropped by two whole tones. While [u] continued to be sound, an [i] with its higher harmonics was played by a second oscillator –> THE SYNTHESIS of [u] + [i] sounded at the original pitch…and then she later recommends using the french [y] as in “lune” to bridge the two sounds…claiming that this produced the voce mista used by bel canto singers.
      Does this align with your view of the imposto? I thought the second point was interesting because you seem to advocate this [u] / [e] mix in the upper register! ”

      The OO-EE mix is a bit narrow compared to the OH-EH mix I use. However, the OO is the first layer’s best buddy, so to sing OO-EE reduces the Cavita’ and enhances the squillo. If you listen to Bjoerling, often he has a moderate 2nd formant and a very dominant 5th harmonic in the top voice. It sounds like the result of an OO-EE mix to me.

      Best
      Jack

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