Constriction what…?

Learning to sing is tough.  I know!  I have a friend, a doctor in a field of research that studies the very processes through which human beings learn, get motivated, plan, follow through, fail, get up from failure, etc.  A few weeks ago, Yoshi asked me to explain to him what the factors are that go into singing.  So I started listing fundamental things in the process, which are not just individual actions, but also combinations of them.  After I passed the 20 item mark, we both started to realize what a daunting task learning to sing really is.  As singers, we usually don’t think to deconstruct our techniques this way, at least most don’t.  It shines a spotlight on the task and often we can get overwhelmed by something that Mother Nature has already programmed us to do to a large extent.

Things get more difficult when you read or hear contrasting notions on vocal technique.  There is a lot of nonsense out there.  Blogs, forums, Facebook pages, webpages, ezines, Youtube comments, books… people are always trying to make money or gain power. It is difficult to cut through the clutter and find your path toward true learning. 

One word I find thrown around a lot online is the word “constricted.”  This term is typically used in a negative way.  What exactly the word constricted means is probably different for each of these commentators – in general it probably means the sound gives the impression of strain, or even conveys a sense of tightness in the muscles of the vocal tract.  

So my question to you is:  what should a singer or teacher do when a so called “constricted” sound emerges?  The answer to this question is a good indicator to me of how much someone gets technique.  Tenors will often get conflicting and often misguided answers like “you need to relax and open the throat more,” or “you need to learn support.”  I am going to try to give you my impressions relating to “constriction.”

If you read my interview with Salvatore Fisichella, you will recall he said “In other words one starts the high note narrow to reach maximum opening toward the end of the high note.”  What does this mean? 

Pavarotti stated in an interview that in the beginning of his career he used to often sing high notes “stretti” or “tight” to secure the focus.  You can hear this on the high C of “Dal piu’ remoto esilio” from I Due Foscari in Pavarotti’s earliest studio recordings, or even in his C sharp in the aria from Deserto in Terra (at exactly 5:00 in the recording).

There is no successful tenor voice that does not learn flow through a carefully calculated and deliberate process of constriction, though we don’t think of it in those terms. Singing an EE vowel is a form of constriction… finding squillo is about constriction… learning efficiency in singing is about constriction… but it is all balanced constriction, that is neither heard nor felt when executed correctly.  But that is THE END RESULT, and often not the beginning.

One doesn’t hear strain in accomplished tenors until they miss the mark, or the balance is disrupted by one of the 50 or 60 things that need to be right. I think Pavarotti described the process correctly in his interview with Jerome Hines when he talked about how in the beginning the passaggio is always crushed and the tenor gets red in the face; but that over time he figures things out.  He emphatically states that the position must never be abandoned even though initially it doesn’t yield the results we would like, and that giving up because of the crushing leads to disaster.  I know its a a mine field…  I know.  Many teachers are just bad.  I wish it weren’t so.  But the solution is not in loosening incorrectly the whole voice.

Birgit Nilsson speaks about how she was taught initially to exert a lot of local effort in the larynx and that it was always a terrible effort for her (I believe her teacher, though she doesn’t mention him by name in the Hines interview, was Joseph Hislop).  Then one day she was sick and just couldn’t sing that way, so she let the voice go free up into the head, and voila’ she became La Nilsson.  She didn’t have kind things to say about this teacher.  She figured out how to sing almost by accident by her account. 

Ms. Nilsson was one of the great sopranos of our age, but I believe she may have missed the mark on this occasion.  I really don’t think singers have voila’ moments out of nowhere.  There is always a process leading to it.  I believe she may have had the epiphany because of the work that trained the muscles; and she had that moment of grace where things fell into place, but there were undoubtedly a series of factors that brought that epiphany into the realm of possibility.  Had she not been “constricted” the “right way” by her teacher, it is very unlikely that she would have had her epiphany.  If she was being taught badly she would have had a myriad of parallel problems to go along with her excessive pressing.  You don’t just get a cold and fall into Birgit-Nilsson-land. No surprise to know that Hislop was also one of Bjoerling’s teachers.  Notice how Nilsson never sang anyway but slender and on a cry throughout her career.  She never really did lose the wonderful functional constriction.  So, when you work at scales for a long time, and then suddenly you find something you had never found before, its not because you stumbled on some secret passageway that lead to hidden treasures, it is because you built the treasure.

Now given, I think having a woman sing laryngeally as Hislop was doing with Nilsson is probably wanting to apply male technique to a soprano.  While that can work in the lower range to get a head-chest mix, you probably wouldn’t want to do that in the upper voice.  But, there is no doubt in my mind that part of the power in Nilsson’s voice was in fact in her very ability to find flow in a narrow position, the very one conferred by her thin chest sound, which she so deftly carried upwards in her voice.  Here is an example: O Patria Mia   I recall how all of my father’s female students had voices with tons of metal in them.  But enough with this brief excursion into sopranotalk… tenortalk only here.

There is no correct flow for the tenor without “mordere la voce” – biting the voice.  If you make a slight cough you feel where your vocal folds are.  Those vocal folds have to close in order for you to sing correctly, and energetically in order to get squillo.  To one degree or another, the sound leans in that area.  I agree with Fisichella that as we ascend, the “roundness of the larynx decreases”, and the voice pressure emerges more resolutely in the “maxillary and frontal sinuses.”  But my fellow tenors, this occurs through a calculated and flexible type of constriction.

Science tells us that squillo emerges because the epilarynx, the laryngeal tube right above the vocal folds tends to get a little tighter and the surrounding pharyngeal cavity is wide (a 1 to 6 ratio).  The ring of muscles in the upper part of the larynx constrict the opening of the larynx, and that brings about the acoustic conditions for squillo.  Constriction…

The tongue should not be back against the pharynx in singing, but this doesn’t mean that it is completely out of the way as though there were no tongue. The tongue’s shape constricts the space.

The very closure of the vocal folds and the increased closed phase is constriction.

What in the world is constriction?  Sounds like my best friend to me.  Thank goodness for constriction!!  What would male voices do without it!!!  Of course, the problem with words is not the words themselves, but rather the partiality of knowledge that accompanies them. What does the word “constriction” trigger in your mind?  Does it equate to tightening the throat muscles…? You would be wrong.   Does it mean putting the tongue on the larynx?  You would be wrong.  Does it mean approximating the faucial space, bringing your tonsils together?  Oh my… definitely not.

The question remains: what do we do when a tenor crushes the sound, or when he is too laryngeal, or is too bright, or has excessive medial compression?  Do we have him abandon the narrowness?  To echo Pavarotti, you do so at your own peril.

When we are well balanced in our singing, the vocal folds work the breath in a way that feels like a gentle flow of sound like a river is moving inexorably toward the mask where it strikes and explodes in all its richness and with ease.  We feel we are almost cheating because it is way too simple to be right.  Take away the constriction from that equation and you get a donut, nothing, zero, a big old flat tire blowing air out a hole; the sound of a tenor becoming a bass but with no vitality or youth to the voice.

Good singers and teachers tune the sound through a painstaking, time consuming process of small adjustments that are barely discernible to the untrained ear.  A bit more EU… a bit more OH.. keep your tongue forward in its place… keep greater tension in the diaphragm… open the jaw… lean back… etc..  Chaos theory speaks of the fluttering of the wings of a butterfly in Japan causing a hurricane in Florida through a real causal chain of events; each small event amplifying itself into unpredictable consequences.  Similarly, small adjustments in sound can produce in time significant results. 

Good singing is narrow and slender.  “Narrow” isn’t happening for hyper-relaxers.  Relaxing away the narrowness is much easier than what people think.  Finding flow in the correct impostazione is about correct muscular activations which are flexible but not mush.  The voice resisting the pressure correctly is work.  Heck, speaking is work… why would singing be different?  Singing effort is similar to speaking in terms of level of laryngeal strain, but not physically, and not in terms of muscular activity outside the cords themselves. 

There are other things that need to happen that will not if all you do is relax.  For example, just so you get a glimpse: sing a bright and pure EE on an Eflat, and then go to an EH without losing the ringing nature of the EE, striking the mask forward in the frontal area.  Keeping the position needed to get the ringing on the EH feels completely pretty passive when done correctly, but hardly ever when you are first trying.  If you fail and you try to fix the problem by relaxing the narrowness you can kiss your chances goodbye.  The invitation should be to continue to seek the ring and to tweak the sound, discovering what is disrupting the flow, eliminating it without eliminating the narrowness.

Why did I write all this, because it is the #1 problem I have encountered so far in students.  I have sung most of my adult life, and over the last few months teaching I am totally astounded and dumbfounded by the level of misleading notions in the heads and throats of all voice types relating to relaxation. 

Way too many tenors sing fluffy with a lack of narrowing. The guide is the sound as always. If you take away anything from this post let it be that relaxation and constriction are selective affairs in correct singing and that rigidity has no place in singing.  When you hear “constriction” in good singers it is because they probably got rigid.  When they are correctly narrow and slender in their phonation, you only hear beautifully produced resonant sound.


6 responses to “Constriction what…?

  1. I just like to add and emphasize that the benefits of a constriction is much exploited also in other acoustic contexts, besides singing.

    One example is the mouthpiece of a brass instrument. The mouthpiece contains a small cup over the lips, which ends with a narrow outlet into the instrument. This narrowing is extremely important for the ease of tone production. Without enough constriction, the timbre becomes dull, and the player needs to force the buzzing of the lips by heavier adduction of the lips and an increased breath pressure.

    Another example is the so-called compression driver that sits in the throat of a horn loudspeaker (such loudspeakers are used for the mid and high frequencies in all high-quality public address systems). The vibrating cone of such a driver is 1-4 inches in diameter. In front of the cone is a shallow chamber with a narrow outlet (actually, there are typically several outlets). Without this “compression chamber” the sound becomes dull, and the efficiency of the higher frequencies decreases due to the mass of the cone. The effect of the “compression chamber” is to increase the acoustic efficiency at higher frequency. At the same time, the efficiency at the lower frequencies is reduced, which together yields a more balanced sound.

    I believe that the constriction you talk about – maybe the term compression is better? – works in the same way: it moves the sound energy up to higher harmonics, and it provides a favorable acoustic load on the vocal folds, which makes phonation easier so that the vocal folds do not need to be pressed together so hard. The folds can then vibrate more freely, which in turn can be felt as sympathetic vibration in the larynx and chest.


  2. A question to clarify: Constriction facilitates “compression” of tone?

    • Absolutely. The tone is the only thing we should go by. One never “constricts” anything… Following specific vowels, and understanding their qualities and bringing certain qualities from vowel to vowel is the path.

  3. Well, I know that singers use the word “compression” in contexts like “vowel compression”. I don’t really know what is meant by that, and I was not referring to this. I was referring to compression in a physical sense. Think about a bicycle pump. The area of the piston is much larger than the area of the narrow opening. The compression ratio of the bicycle pump is the quotient between the area of the piston and the outlet area. When the piston is pressed, the air is accelerated through the outlet nozzle.
    A constriction, or a narrowing, creates a compression of the airflow, which is beneficial in many contexts; loudspeaker drivers and brass mouthpieces are two examples I gave, and I believe that a compressive (“inertial”) loading is an important component in the creation of squillo in the voice.


    • The methodology in the Italian school hardly ever focuses on physical adjustments. Perhaps the smile, or perhaps the yawn… maybe opening the mouth… expanding the ribs, etc… but never physical things in the throat…. that kind of “constriction” comes by inducing it through sounds… we discover the correct constriction through the sound over a long period of training.

    • I had a former teacher who would constantly say, “you’ve got to compress the tone”, but could not explain what he meant. He could do it, he possessed highly secure and active tones. They were resplendent. I wanted to have those tones too, but “compression” meant nothing to me without a cogent explanation.

      This makes sense.

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