After three hours of teaching today I find that a lot of my efforts revolve around the same issues over and over: loose phonation. People study for decades and they can’t sing effectively yet. They have superb intonation, great instincts for the music, sensitivity to both language and expression, but they look for tricks to get the voice to work.
I will keep telling people the same thing until I am red in the face: there is no secret placement, no secret turning of the voice, no secret path of the breath that you need to spin the breath into, no magical soft palate position, no perfect laryngeal depth, no secret diaphragmatic support system that will give you a voice – if your vocal folds aren’t closed.
There is no progress in singing without closed vocal folds… end of story… see you in 20 years, because that is how long you will search (in vain) if you don’t listen to this piece of advice.
Brilliance of voice, forward striking sounds, balanced but precisely focused harmonics – all done by the closed vocal folds, not by the tongue sitting on the larynx, not by an excessively constricted epilarynx, nor by a backwards moving stiff tongue. A well trained ear will hear the difference between fine-tuned ring and a spray-paint blast of higher partials posing as squillo.
Sometimes in working with students it has happened that they have commented something along these lines: “wow… that appoggio thing is very subtle…. I thought it would feel more aggressive… I would not have been able to feel that with all that other stuff that was going on…”
Most of the time, the teacher needs to first get you out of your own way. That shouldn’t be a long process. Your teacher should hear and tell you when your tongue is sitting on your larynx, or your tongue is too far back, or the cords aren’t closing. Some singers sound like they are pronouncing an R sound in the back of the throat, but the teacher doesn’t tell them to get the tongue away from the posterior pharynx. Others trying to gain access to squillo but singing progressively looser and airy as they ascend, over emphasizing cavita’ and space, as though some magic was going to cause their voice to suddenly change. It is not going to…
The basic element of singing correctly is closed vocal folds. Non c’e’ canto col fiato, solo sul fiato – there is no singing with breath, only on breath. The sound needs to narrow your breath flow. You initially err toward pressed, not toward loose phonation. I’ve quoted Pavarotti many times on the subject, but he is not alone. A slew of great voice teachers worked with the EE vowel to help their students learn adduction, and other narrowing exercises.
How can a tenor or baritone turn the voice in the passaggio and sing full voice if their vocal folds don’t know how to close in a longer, thinner position? There is no way you can turn the voice squillante if you are singing loose in the middle… no way. It is too drastic a change. Cavita’ needs to be harnessed and focused. You must find cavita’ with brilliance, not without it. The polar attraction is toward forwardness, not space. Space is achieved without sacrificing the forward position. Well, one thing you don’t do for sure: you don’t have beginning singers or loosely phonating singers sing in a way that aims their voice toward the back of the head. You get to the back after you have conquered the front. Your anchor is not the back of the head, it is the forward sound… from their you can “drink the sound” and expand the harmonics back, as it were.
So, for example, if you are vocalizing on an EH, in and out of the passaggio, and you suffer from loose phonation (90% of the people I see), then you don’t aim for an AYE sound which emphasizes the 4th harmonic in your voice and occupies the back of the head. You have the person sing the vocalizzo on an EU, pursing the lips (combining the EH/EE and OO), and seeking for a concentration of the resonances forward in the frontal area of maxillary and frontal sinuses. That occurs only when you narrow the stream. The voice strikes forward this way because you have closed the cords.
Within the larynx, we should still aim for an active first layer… that imbedded OO cushion, almost a sigh, which is not inefficient, but feels like it should be. The cavita’ is reduced… the expansion in the pharynx is not as much. The sound goes more forward. This is especially important in the passaggio. The sound strikes more forward because in that range we need to keep the strength of the cords in keeping them closed. This is a low range for the upper register… the chords will want to open. We need to be narrow so as to not have to carry chest up. This means forward sound.
As the narrowness takes hold and stabilizes, one can drink the sound more, finding a greater cavita’, but then again, you aim for that mostly on G and A flat. On higher pitches you seek to reduce the “rotondita’ della laringe” as Maetro Fisichella eloquently put it – or reduce the expansion of the sound in the pharyngeal space down by the larynx (3rd layer). The pressure of the voice stays up in the mask rather than down in the pharynx.
If you seek to be an “old school” – 5th harmonic tenor, then from Anatural up, you will seek a real anchor for the sound forward in the frontal sinuses and front part of the maxillary sinuses. You can’t force it to go there… this simply means that you are singing those notes with thin and energetically adducted vocal folds… that is why it is striking so forward.
If you seek to sing like Corelli, or Pavarotti, then you will aim for drinking this sound and pulling it like taffy toward the back of the head. How do you do that? By slightly widening the cavita’: less narrowness in the larynx, slightly more relaxed vocal folds. The feeling of the column of air is wider and the sound rises vertically, part of it bending forward toward the front, but most of it aiming for the back of the head.
My experience tells me that all tenors should be taught first the forward position, and never the posterior one. It is way too easy for the voice to sink into the pharyngeal cavern (become excessively loose) otherwise. From a forward position, the tenor can expand the sound to bring in more “eco sonora” (2nd formant) if they so desire. In fact, you listen to someone like Caruso sing the Bflat from La Fleur and you find how he starts forward and then expands to the back. Bjoerling does the same in this recording of the B natural from Nessun Dorma. Bjoerling’s is a very clear example of how it is possible to expand from the forward into the increased cavita’. Trust me, it doesn’t go the other way. I don’t know of one tenor who could start in the looser, wider 2nd formant approach, and then narrow it to a 5th harmonic squillo. Loosening is easy compared to narrowing. This is why a loose middle totally messes up the passaggio. It is the equivalent.
It is one thing to anchor your voice forward, by knowing how to sing with appoggio, and another thing to try to learn how to sing directly by sending everything to the back of the head. Sopranos and Mezzos have the same exact problem. They should read what Dame Joan Sutherland had to say about “the iniquitous forward position” as she put it, in Great Singers by Hines. She sang forward up until about a Bflat, and only above would go for the back of the head. Of course, she went there from a position of strength, not from a weak, loosely adducted position.
The EE position of the cords is a perfect guide. Listen to these old school tenors, how their EE vowel “infects” all other vowels. They keep the narrowness of that EE, which really does change the nature of the other sounds.
Final word: the proof is in the sound. You can say you have a forward sound and that your folds are sufficiently closed, but we can hear when you don’t. “Narrow” is not just buzzing sound, it should be a very refined pure stream of harmonic sound.