Independent Movements

When tenors attempt to learn to sing with a low larynx they often make the mistake of associating the movement of the larynx to other parts of the vocal tract – particularly the tongue, the jaw, and the soft palate. 

This happens often because of the invitation to sing “sullo sbadiglio” or in a “yawn” position. 

At times, tenors are told that if they pull the soft palate very high, the larynx will descend, and this automatically connects opening of the jaw and elevation of the soft palate (and often excessive lateral stretching of the throat) with the descending larynx.

More along these lines, tenors are often told to open the jaw so as to have an unhinged mandible, and that this “yawn” position will lower the larynx.

What is the problem with all these postures?  The problem is that you learn to associate physical efforts that do not need to be associated at all costs. 

Lowering the larynx is principally about energetic inhalation expanding the bottom ribs.  When this is accomplished it takes very little effort to keep the larynx low.  One does not need to push the tongue down on the larynx, or open the jaw to cause the larynx to descend.

I invite you to take a look at a video of Richard Tucker singing high notes.  What does he do?  Take a look at this  at 2.14.  Did you see how he closes the jaw? What if he associated lowering the larynx with opening the jaw?  Then he would not have been able to do what he did.

You have to be able to open or close the jaw independently of the larynx.  You have to be able to move the tongue further forward into the mouth on the higher pitches.  You can even look at a low tongue singer like Corelli and see what happens to his tongue on his high note at 3.20.  By the way, this is a fine example of Corelli singing  with a perfectly balanced laryngeal voice, all beautifully and crisply phonated in the same resonant closure of his EE vowel.

Independent movements also relates to the independence between laryngeal movement, jaw opening, tongue movement, and the closure of the cords.  One of the main reasons people sing loose is because when they open the mouth to go to an open vowel they also loosen the cords to create a darker sound.  Why should the AH be less bright than the EE?  Why would the chords be closed on an EE and then open on an OH?  If you sing an EE in middle voice, with forward lips and relatively closed jaw, and then you open the jaw to go toward an OH but try to keep the cords closed you will see that doing so modifies the OH (at least this sensation is more evident for those who are not used to singing this way).  There is a balance of course, in all things.  The closure of the chords should be regulated by the sound and by a sense of flow, avoiding pressurization (air against closed chords).  However, initially, it is likely that you will err on the side of compression.

You shouldn’t lose chord closure with movements of the tongue and jaw to create vowels.  The efficiency of the sound should remain a constant.  This is the foundation of a resonant legato line.  If every time you sing a phrase every vowel has a different “impostazione” (vocal set up), then your legato line is ruined.  The rich vibrant resonance should flow continuously, which requires that you know how to keep the chords closed independent of jaw, tongue, and laryngeal position.


6 responses to “Independent Movements

  1. Hi Jack – When we meet I would like to experiment with the ideas you bring up in the last two paragraphs.


  2. “Lowering the larynx is principally about energetic inhalation expanding the bottom ribs. When this is accomplished it takes very little effort to keep the larynx low. One does not need to push the tongue down on the larynx, or open the jaw to cause the larynx to descend.”

    The importance of this paragraph cannot be overstated.

    Case in point: I’m working right now with a rather famous mezzo who asked of me yesterday (thru stage management) in a rehearsal in which I was marking: “Can you be more strong in the body for me. More solid. I need all of your strength to get thru this. When you are so relaxed and loose I don’t get the same energy back and it makes my job harder. And I think it makes your’s harder too.”

    I admit to being a bit pissed off by that. And told stage management to screw themselves. Up til now my model for the role had been Franco. The suppleness to his singing has always captivated me. There’s so much liquidity to his singing. And then I re-discovered Tucker’s stamp on Turiddu.

    Let’s not kid ourselves; no one is gonna call Tucker a supple singer. It is compact. Go thru this blog and you’ve find very good examples as to WHY this is the case. But when I listen to Tucker, I’d always heard the following priorities:

    1. Focus
    2. Breath Management (of the highly compressed variety)
    3. Resonance

    But now, as i’ve done a bit of re-thinking thru things, I would place 2 and 3 over 1. So secure is his singing that I know without a doubt, he is relying on a certain way of managing air to provide the outlying things. So intense is the way Jack is describing the “active inhalation” that it cannot be #2. It is everything to a singer such as Tucker.

    And I can concur, with a far greater set of activity of what goes on in the inhale, everything (for me) is falling into place. I would even go further than saying you can think about independant movements. I would say, there is really only one coordination that is important and that is the way the breath feels in the body. It really DOES exactly what Jack is saying. It provides depth, height, resonance, stability and cry. If you will allow it and can fathom how it can be. Within the parameter of keeping the tongue forward and not over-opening the mouth, this way of breathing opens an entirely different vocal world.

    (Or maybe I’ve been singing long enough and think about all the independent factors that it feels like it. I had to laugh at the recent comments about Nilsson. Kinda what I’ve gone thru too.)

    The question remains, WHY is this particular way of breathing and management so evasive in today’s teacher. And I think the answer is round within Waltraub’s criticism of me. Casualness. We live in a culture that shuns all types of artifice and concreteness. Singing with this way of supporting the voice is very concrete. Onstage and in rehearsals, those people who are more fixed and concrete are criticized for not being good actors, too flat footed and not easily moveable. TV, film and musical theater have invaded our thinking in a way where I believe we have forgotten that opera singing is not simply about released breath. Its not like talking or even shouting (e.g. Take in a big breath and expell it with loud sound). No, singing in the way Jack is talking about is about measured expulsion. It is not about casual and without a certain type of militaristic expanse in the rib cage. It is old-fashioned and takes a considerable more effort in the body to maintain. Fortunately, far less effort in the throat.

    Which is why tenors are not lasting as long as they used to. Support itself has fundamentally changed in much of today’s pedagogy. Today we’re all about balanced and easy. Natural. And then we compound the problem by thinking more is more.

    Blech. Gimme old-fashioned any day.

  3. Thanks for sharing this precious information! If I may say, I think that what you describe as a sense of everything being linked to the sense of your breath is a truly advanced stage of technical accuracy. I think its a testament to all the hard work you have put in over the years, which has brought you to every major opera stage. And if I may say, I think it is also linked to your willingness to explore an older way of singing, based on squillo, which anchors the voice to the breath in a very exact way.

  4. Its really exciting to hear great singers expounding on technique… This blog is a godsend! My singing has improved a great deal since I started reading this blog and particularly your last post on compression has really brought out some exciting breakthroughs.

    This most recent blog has come to my greatest vocal challenge and mystery, my larynx. It is no secret to me that to sing tenor, you must sing with a low larynx. Watch any professional operatic tenor sing and the larynx is there, low and anchored, however, this position is nearly impossible for me to sing in. When I sing, my larynx (adams apple) “disappears” rising just behind the underside of my jaw and sinking towards the back of my neck about a half inch. In this position, I can produce a beautiful, unified sound all the way into my upper register. When I try to sing with a lowered larynx, the sound changes dramatically and phonating above an F 4 becomes impossible. I have wondered if perhaps I am a baritone, who is faking the tenor sound, but when I try to sing anything in this low larynx position, my voice becomes tired to the point discomfort. I am not forcing the larynx down either, merely trying to keep it in a comfortably low position as you have described in your blog. My teachers have told me that my larynx will anchor with time (I have not noticed any change in years,) but I wondered if you had any experience with this or advice. I fear that the foundation for my technique might be flawed as my larynx position is so different than other tenors. I have tried to gradually bring it down, “mixing” the two positions, to no avail. With the low larynx, it is like using an entirely different voice…

  5. That is exactly right… and entirely different voice. I had this same problem when I went and visited with Franco Corelli. His advice I pass on to you “in order to change the position of the larynx you have to change the way you think of your phonation…” – in other words, your mental image of your voice is inaccurate. Particularly relevant is this post. Your mind envisions a sound created with a higher laryngeal position.
    There is absolutely no reason to think that you cannot ascend where you ascend now when singing with a low larynx. I will tell you that when singing with a low larynx it is natural to open the cords and get overdarkened. You have to find the way to phonate correctly with a low larynx. You just need to be shown how it is done, and then you will retrain the instrument fairly quickly. Where do you live? Email me.

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