In a recent lesson with a very talented young tenor, I was reminded of a few important concepts that I thought I would share with my readers. My tenor student has a beautiful voice with strong higher harmonics. He was taught how to adduct the chords in a head dominant mode that allows him to produce a very focused and vibrant squillo. However, the lower harmonics were very weak, which revealed a slightly higher laryngeal position. What a marvelous talent he is!
My exercises aim at opening up the voice to tune both higher and lower harmonics. Part of this has to do with relaxing the larynx in a lower range, and part of it has to do with re-learning how to phonate in a more complete way.
So what happens when a person like the tenor I saw tries to expand the lower harmonics? I can tell you what typically happens: they push. The idea of opening up the lower harmonics typically induces an increase in breath pressure – a fattening of the voice. Why? Because of the way the mind conceives phonation. The baseline mental intention is thin, long, firmly adducted vocal folds. Attempting to expand the lower harmonics typically will occur without the tenor changing those conditions. Hence, the pushing starts.
This is exactly how I sang when I went to visit Corelli. He tried to get me to sing incorporating the lower harmonics, but I too pushed to try and do this. His sure instruction was that I couldn’t get this right because I wasn’t changing the way I thought of my voice. In order to not push, you must change the way you conceive of your voice, the vocal identity, otherwise we try to push the current mode of phonation in order to expand the harmonics. We should instead change the way we actually think of our voices.
An important mental intention is that of creating a baseline of effort for your phonation. If you sing in the most comfortable mode in your middle voice, you will sense the voice flowing, and filling spaces on its own, without you having to push it into any space. Well why would any of this change when you expand the lower harmonics, or if you go to a high note? You don’t give more effort to expand the voice, you just change the voice so that it expands naturally in a different way. The breath pressure may very well be more, but you won’t feel that in your larynx or in your throat, and you probably wont sense it at all, as the diaphragm adjusts slightly on its own if you are supporting correctly.
When you sing a full note in your middle voice, and the note is flowing and just filling the spaces, both up and down, without you having to push, this is an extremely important baseline. The note preceding your high note from the middle voice is the most important factor in your successful achievement of the high note because it sets up this baseline. When you go to the high note you don’t push more breath; you don’t push your voice into spaces in the mask. If you do, you will feel like you are pushing voice into a space that is too narrow to contain it, so you have to cram it in there. This is wrong. When the voice is correctly produced it expands on its own, and feels like it is a perfect fit for the spaces it is vibrating in.
One idea that I have found beneficial is to think of your voice as expanding into spaces. The image I would suggest is the voice as a balloon. When you are singing too high, your voice expands up in the mask, but it has little expansion below. Conversely, it does the opposite when you are too loose in your phonation. Rather than push breath to get the voice to morph and fill those spaces by compelling it through pushing, you should learn to TUNE THE VOICE. You tune certain harmonics, like pulling a string on a violin. In the case of the “too high voice” you have to discover “canto rotondo” – which means you need to relax the larynx in a lower range, you have to get your tongue out of the way by moving it further forward in your throat rather than it being stuck to the back wall of the pharynx, and you need to make sure your epiglottis is not depressed to give you a compressed bright sound.
When these impediments are absent, you may still have a voice that is too high. In that case it is because you have learned to phonate almost exclusively top-down. You know how to phonate in a very head dominant way. You can slowly tune the voice differently through exercises meant to open up a lower sound. How does this happen? Essentially, you have to learn to sing with a different coordination in the vocal folds. Greater chest mechanism means that the voice will feel darker, and will feel like it has a presence both in the pharyngeal cavity and in the mask, not only in the mask. As you ascend the ratio of presence above and below will change.
Beware of the dark side!!! Tenors ALWAYS drive ideas too far. If your voice has a strong squillo and is a little too high, you will have plenty of people telling you that the voice is too small and that is will not carry in the house, etc. This is true, but it is also a big mind job. You will have the tendency to push because you think your voice is too small, and you will accentuate the darker elements as you push thinking this is the way to counter the small voice. Or perhaps you will want to get a darker sound so you abandon the wonderful closure of the chords that was allowing you to access squillo. This is all wrong. It should actually be quite the opposite. Extreme ease and softness in the tissues creates a balance that allows the voice to expand throughout the range as if you were singing in middle voice. You don’t push the voice into spaces to make it darker, or to go up to a high note. You don’t abandon focus to introduce darkness. The voice just expands like a balloon in those spaces without any more push than it would have in a comfortable middle note. The mental intention must be to dominate the push, and instead expand the sound… tune the sound. Softness in the throat!! Morbidezza! The sound just changes. It is still a grounded, suspended, flowing sound that doesn’t need any push to get into any particular space. It just expands in that space on its own because you tuned it to do so by dominating certain functions.