Never push – Always expand

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.

Expand and tune

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4 responses to “Never push – Always expand

  1. Great reminder

  2. I think one aspect of what we worked on today would be worth adding here. I think it a *huge* breakthrough for me, so I really want to share it – and it ties in here. I often experience the sound living mostly inside the head, and in particular the pharynx. I knew intellectually that the sound should be generously out in front of you for the audience to experience and not inside your own head (where you as the singer get to revel in your own perceived squillo but the audience tends to get more muffled tones). However, I don’t think I really had a useful cognitive tool to enforce this phenomena – and no matter how positively I would tell myself to not trap the sound inside myself and to generously let the resonance spin outside of myself – nonetheless I would continually slip back into the bad habit. I would find myself saying all the time “geez, I know I am not supposed to be doing this — why does it seem to happen despite my best intentions?”.

    Today, we worked on a very fascinating concept. That was to think of the air in the room as already being full of the potential sound, and my job being to simply activate the air. Of course, in reality this is much closer to the acoustic truth of the matter. We don’t push our breath out into a vacuum to project the sound – we literally do start a vibratory chain of air that “ignites” the air that already exists in the room, making it vibrate with our sound. What this concept did for me was akin to turning my ears inside out — and I found myself listening to the room, and not to what was going on inside myself. All I had to do was ignite the air in the room, and I could literally feel the tensions abate in my pharynx and the back of my tongue. I think with my acoustic focus turned external it was simply *far* easier to stay in a free and released phonatory mode and much more difficult for my old habits of internalizing the sound to creep back in.

    I think this adds to the third last paragraph above.

    Something else that perhaps Gioacchino can expand upon was the notion that this should be applied in all singing environments, however to be careful not to try and ignite all the air in a large hall or theater, for example, lest we push past our baseline. Rather, we imagine a “room” around us (most likely the stage area) and make that the space we work in – trusting that the voice will ring out throughout the theater, but not trying to impose it out over the balcony!

    I think this is likely a huge step forward for me — it is going to enable me to better perceive the harmonics/formants in my voice and thereby allow me to tune them with much greater effectiveness, and I think it will also help avoid my habit of bearing down on the sound within my own head and crushing the tone – which admittedly sounds wonderful in my own ear at the time – but we all know is not the path to giving the audience the best experience! – which is ultimately what matters.

    • Yes Ozitenor! Frankly, I have rarely heard intense squillo in the high voice as you produce. It really is totally old school. But today, you vibrated the passaggio in a way that few know how. Congrats!

      I think what Ozi said is really important. The voice lives all around us in the space we are singing in. To get this to work, we have to get impediments out of the way – worst of all the tongue. And the chords need to work in the context of a soft throat, never pushing, just vibrating each tone.

  3. Just want to say that I love your blog, Jack! As a bass-baritone learning to sing higher repertoire and utilize a more head voice rich approach (I think many baritones like myself were frequently taught to squeeze, darken, and essentially ‘age’ their sound), I envy this tenor’s problem 🙂

    In my own singing as of late, I’ve tried practicing with extremes. Making the tone breathier in all regions of my voice (esp low and middle) to ensure I’m not constricting my throat or locking my air–alternating scales that are ‘breathy’ and then more fully balanced, always careful to keep the pressure off the cords. Thinking about sensation and auditory feedback simultaneously. When it’s all working efficiently, the ascension into my top feels organic, elastic, and more effortless.

    Throughout all of this practice, it has also been clarifying to better understand the synergies behind better vocal technique. It has taken me a decade to embrace that labeling one problem as the culprit (oh his tongue falls back on his top!) is reductive; it’s actually more intellectually gratifying to embrace singing as a complex coordination wherein efficiency should be improved across various points. Additionally, we need to use our ears AND our kinesthetic sense. When my throat feels or sounds constricted–and the head voice dominant mode has escaped me–a quick check-in with my body will often indicate that:

    1) My mouth is too closed or my jaw is slightly forward (does no favors for the throat or the larynx)
    2) My ribs are collapsed and/or my abdomen no longer feels soft–I’m locked and no longer moving air.

    On the other hand, when I’ve taken the head voice rich approach too far, I’ll realize that my larynx is an inch higher than it should be. This too is the product of an inefficient breath approach, no? When the breath mechanism is functioning properly and flexibly, the larynx should float low–a passive byproduct of relaxed inhalation, sustained exhalation and clean phonation.

    Cheers,
    Janson

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