Vowels and the epiglottis

I have noticed more and more a problem among tenors, especially English speaking natives: the tendency to shape the AH, OH, and OO with what sounds like excessive lowering of the epiglottis.

To get a feel for what I am talking about you should watch a video on YouTube where a quartet of singers perform Kyrie Eleison while their laringes are being scoped.  You will see that there is a little flap that every now and then goes and covers the laryngeal opening (the epiglottis).  You will see that especially in the 2nd frame (the mezzo).  By the way, the tenor is the 4th.

Often tenors, and obviously others, tend to lower excessively the epiglottis.  One thing to note is that this can happen completely independent of the tongue.  You can have your tongue forward both in the mouth and in the throat, and still have this happen.  The epiglottis can lower independently.  I know this because, curious as I am, I have observed my throat while I sing to see what was happening. (One reader read about my use of mirrors and penlights and dubbed it a McGuyver approach to scoping 🙂

I have found that the epiglottis tends to lower a lot when we cover the voice with force rather than on the breath.  When we cover on the breath, the sense of pathway for the breath remains intact, when instead when we cover with force, the breath pressure tends to accumulate right above the larynx.  I have observed that this feeling of pressure is associated with a lowering of the epiglottis.

I found an interesting paragraph for this among Richard Miller’s writings.

English speaking people tend to make a very big change in phonation when passing from an EE or EH vowel to and AH, OH, or OO vowel.  Their concept of phonation for those vowels is not conducive to proper singing. 

I know it is hard to trust this upfront, but the AH and OH are actually very very close to the EH, especially in the tenors B-F range.  This range is particularly important because what occurs above the passaggio usually cascades from what happened right before the passaggio.  If you look at notes on the page right before the passaggio they will usually fall in this area B3-F4.

The EH and round vowels are very close.  It is just a slight inflection of the tongue.  Not everyone suffers from this problem.  If you do, you will notice that when you go from an EH to an OH the voice tends to take on what Italians call “suono intubato” – tubed sound.  The sound is as though you were singing through a tube; while the EH is free.  The feelings of pressure right above the larynx are also greater when you go from an open EH to a tubed OH.  

I address this issue through the sound.  There is a specific sound change that I recognize when the epiglottis lifts.  One baritone student of mine I worked on this recently with couldn’t recognize his OH vowel for about 30 minutes while practicing by approaching an EH position.  Then suddenly he started hearing it.

This strikes directly to the most important technical principle: mental blueprints.  The “intenzione” – the mental blueprint of how we are supposed to sound and produce a sound is often distorted.  It is often counterintuitive and hard to discern when we are on the right path.

If you think you suffer from this problem, one way to approach fixing this is to sing short repeated EE vowels, almost on a sigh.  Then think in your head to go from EE to EH to AH… only in your head.  Then start focusing on the feeling of the path of the breath on the EE going easily through the throat and bending forward.  Do this while also thinking of doing the EE to EH to AH.  When you have the idea of EE-EH-OH in your head while doing this sigh EE  and you also sense the path of the breath, and you have done this for about 5 minutes, then start actually modifying the vowel just slightly to EH and then to Ah without losing at all this sense of flow. 

If you do this right, you may get a breathier AH.  Your purpose is to correct the wrong muscular movement not to have a perfect vowel.  You also may not hear an AH at all.  You may sense you are singing an EH.  The difference between the EH and AH is a slight inflection of the tongue.  When efficient, you will notice the voice strikes the mask forward much more, and you will sense a net path for the breath.

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