Finding the Two Anchors: developing an honest voice

As you progress in your journey to develop a full voice, most of the time you will need to discover what it means to sing with a low larynx and how this impacts the sense of width in your voice, as well as what we perceive as baritonal qualities.

I subscribe to the idea that a tenor should be a tenor, and not seek to be a baritone.  The type of tenor you are depends on the nature of the voice, but one shouldn’t try to make the voice bigger or darker.  Your ability to make it in this field hinges much on the honesty of your timbre of voice, and of the naturalness with which you sing.  If agents and theater directors perceive that your voice is somewhat manufactured and unnatural, over-darkened, etc., chances are that they will hesitate in hiring you.  Why?  Because experience demonstrates that tenors that do those things fail within a limited number of years.

How then do you keep a natural and honest tone in your voice?  This is one of the most important questions you will ever ask yourself as a tenor – trust me.  The answer is much more difficult than you can imagine, principally because fear often compels us to try to become more similar to someone that has had success rather than just be ourselves.  Some will try to sing like Corelli, others like Pavarotti, some like Caruso, but few will seek their own identity.

So, let me give you a roadmap from a technical point of view on how to do this. My approach is based on my method – Vowel Layers.

In order for you to develop an honest voice you must place two main anchors in your voice: balance in the first harmonic (fundamental – which I call 1st layer), and balance in the squillo region (Singer’s Formant), particularly in the 2200-2600 Hz region, but also above up to 3300 Hz.

Listen to what I am saying now:  no matter what you do, these two harmonic regions must stay in balance.

Often, in order to make the voice bigger or darker, tenors tend to increase the expansion of harmonics needing increased mouth opening – 1st and 2nd formant regions.  This is how it goes:

  • below the passaggio then enhance significantly the 1st formant, which gives them a dark spread sound that sounds really earthbound, powerful, and is in fact, loud. The more you pull power into this region, and the more breath pressure you will need to sustain it.  This is particularly true in the region of your voice between B3-F4.
  • Above the passaggio they will either turn the voice to Second Formant dominance (correct cover), or they will create a mixed sound where the voice seems to fall in between the cracks of registers (1st and 2nd formant co-dominance).  This latter strategy is particularly dangerous as it really weighs on the larynx and chords, and tends to strongly get stuck in the throat. 
    The correct cover, on the other hand, makes the AH and OH vowel tend to a round OH or OO, while the EH vowel tends to an AYE sound.  Both of these will tend to expand in a “mouthy” way, or in a vertical way toward the back of the head.  The heavier they are and the more they take on a back type character; the lighter they are and the more they tend to move forward.

So both bullet points above are about expanding an earthbound, dark sound that carries a lot of punch and takes on baritonal qualities.  These are in fact, very important qualities. However, when you exaggerate this middle harmonic region, 700-1800 Hz region, you tend to unbalance the anchors of which I have spoken.

When you drive this middle region, the first layer, or fundamental is no longer a relaxed flow, but rather a pushed sound.  You have exceeded the baseline of your phonation and are now effectively pushing.  On the other hand, the squillo area (2nd layer) becomes abrasive and noisy, increasing its non-harmonic buzzing as your chords do not harness the breath pressure effectively.  Your voice feels like you are playing a trumpet with your larynx rather than a clarinet.  The pressure has more of an explosive quality resulting in unbalanced brightness.

Often, tenors just outright lose most of the power of the 2nd layer – squillo.  Some tenors like Pavarotti, Corelli, and others have strategized their vocalism differently actually aiming to achieve a constant second formant dominance.  The old school tenors – Caruso, Bjoerling, Lauri Volpi, Merli, and many others were often dominant in the squillo region, especially above A flat.  Neither Pavarotti or Corelli have one recording in which they are dominant in Singer’s Formant in their high voice, not one.

They found their way with this strategy and were great tenors, keeping a balance so as to maintain a natural, almost spoken quality… very spoken and mouthy.  But they had enough of the anchors of which I have spoken to pull this off, even though those weren’t the dominant characteristics of their voice.  Most tenors lose their way and are mediocre because of this strategy.  Why?  Because by letting go of the two anchors: the embedded head tone and the squillo, they have exaggeratedly emphasized width and have lost the natural qualities of their voice.

So how do you keep those anchors in place?

You have to tune your sound with that intention firmly rooted in your mind.  I must keep the embedded head tone in my sound!  I must keep my voice forward so as to keep the brilliance in my sound!

Interestingly enough, the ability to tune a dominant 5th harmonic in the high voice, like Bjoerling, Caruso, Cortis, Lauri Volpi, and many others, depends much on balancing the head tone with the squillo.  I have written about how the first layer acts as a sort of cushion so that the squillo doesn’t crush the sound.  If you are very bright, and you push, you will crash.  Your voice will get smaller and the chords will get tired.  If your brightness is balanced with the dark core of the 1st layer, you have created the conditions needed to start tuning the 5th harmonic.  You then have to proceed to mix OO and EH so as to “funnel the sound” into the maxillary and frontal sinuses, requiring a far smaller mouth opening and not a flat tongue inside the mouth.

This tuning requires one to think of the deep OO and then put an EH “right on top of” the column… so the OO of the 1st layer guides the width from right below the larynx all the way up the area directly above the cupola of the hard palate, and then the EH is “ignited” right on top of this OO column so as to open the sound pressure in the maxillary sinuses.  Voce finta exercises can aid this process.

In any case, the balance between harmonics requires that you do not expand laterally excessively with your sound.  The more you open exaggeratedly the mouth in the region directly below or above the passaggio and the less likely you are to get this right.  Some tenors open wide the mouth and bring the tongue very much into the mouth.  This can work to balance dark and bright, especially if you seek to create co-dominance between 2nd formant and squillo (Filippeschi, Giacomini, O’Mara, Beczala, Gedda, Giordani, etc.), and is a more heroic approach no doubt, and you have to really know what you are doing to navigate those waters.  You shouldn’t start that way.

Concluding, the voice should be “tuned” in its harmonics by focusing on the layers of sound that are possible, and discernible.  You should learn how to work the functions that develop those layers and never push beyond the baseline of flow and balance.  Never give more than 85% of your volume except in extreme expression and sparingly.  Never sacrifice ringing high overtones for darker ones.  Tune them together.

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