Sensations of width in the Old and Modern Approach to Tenor Voice

A recent commentator asked whether the tuning of the voice in the upper register to strengthen specific harmonics wasn’t in fact the result of laryngeal manipulation (e.g. length of laryngeal tube, opening of the larynx, etc).  I think there is undoubtedly much value in this question.  In fact, it is very well possible that the firm OO of the tradition is a sensation linked to the elongated laryngeal tube.  However, with all the talk from singers and teachers about elongated laryngeal tubes how many of them can sing with a tuned 5th harmonic or teach their students to do so?

Asfalls, our recent commentator pointed out a harmonic analysis comparing Pavarotti, Bjoerling and myself on a high C.


I would point out that most of my career I did not seek to sing the “old school” way.  I wish I had because I think it would have been much more true to my voice type and also much more fun.  But most of the time, I sought for a more modern sound, so I know what it feels like to sing like this:

Li Vigni – B Natural (2nd formant dominant)

My model being:

Corelli_ je t’aime B Natural


So, when I talk about knowing the difference between sensations linked to the old school and those linked to a more modern approach, I am not just talking about notions passed on to me (which on their own could be already sufficient in the hands of a teacher with excellent discernment), but I also speak from first hand experience, harnessed on stage.  I know in my body what it feels like to sing with both approaches.  So, I can shed some light into the workings needed and the significant differences.

I gathered a  wonderful way to verbalize these concepts through tenor Stephen O’Mara in the unfortunately brief 2 or 3 times we actually worked together.  He often speaks of the width of the “canna” (the tube) – this imaginary resonance tube sensation, extending from the throat to various parts of the head – an image also spoken of by famous teacher Antonio Cotogni.  Lauri Volpi tells us about Cotogni’s “tubo risonatore”, of which I have spoken often.

Here is the point:  WHAT RESONATES WHERE?  Do you know what part of your voice (what harmonic or combination of harmonics ) feels like it resonates in the pharynx, at the jaw, in the mouth, at the hinge of the jaw, up above the soft palate, in the cupola of your mouth cavity, above the cupola of your mouth in the maxillary sinuses, and in the frontal sinuses and out in front of you?  If you feel intense resonance and buzz at the hinge of your jaw around an E natural do you know how to modify the various elements of your imposto (vocal set up) to change your approach if you want?

These are all important questions for your conceptualizing your own voice.  Your teacher should be able to help you understand, based on the pitch, how to approach the various harmonics in your voice and help you develop the ability to tune the voice so that it “spins” in the right spaces of the vocal tract.

For example, what is the difference between the B natural sung the Corelli way and the more traditional way?

Corelli was a masterful 2nd formant tuner.  He kept cavita’ dominant from middle C upwards, alternating between 1st and 2nd formant dominance above and below the passaggio.  His main concern was space, though he never allowed himself to slip into the folly of losing sight of the lightening of the voice  yielding higher harmonics which offset the weight.  In terms of sensation this means that from C to F he focused on letting the voice gently, and at times not so gently, resonate in the imaginary tube filling the pharynx, and mouth space beneath the palate, and then from F# upwards he put more emphasis on the space in the back of the head (risonanza occipitale), of course while also keeping higher resonances.  This position feels like the exit of the voice from your mouth happens somewhere behind the center of your mouth cavity in the soft palate region, and is the traditional posizione dello sbadiglio (yawn position).

Mistakenly many assume that this position requires an AH or OH vowel dominance.  Not so!  This space is dominated by learning to bring EH vowel components into the AH and OH, which I believe has the effect of keeping the tongue more forward in the throat, thus expanding the pharynx.  It is surprising and counterintuitive to bring EH vowel into the AH and OH, and often defies expectations and is somewhat of a shock to people to see how it radically modifies their voices.

Now, did old school singers like Lauri Volpi or Bjoerling have this spacious yawn thing going on?  Absolutely!  Here is where things get a little more complicated.  For example, within this context of C to F range resonance you can either have a firm OO position which is the basis for approaching the old school results, or you can “widen the canna” as O’Mara would accurately say – or widen the sensation of flow of voice directly above the larynx in the pharynx.  On one hand the sensation is a narrow tube of gentle resonance that produces strong resonance in the front of your face but has more of a sigh sensation pharyngeally… so there is still a connection between voice and breath at the larynx, but it is a darker quality… a sort of sigh.  The old school would make this very “boyish” in nature so as to keep sufficient appoggio.  So the cords remain closed but the pressure bypasses the larynx.  On the other hand, the wider sensation of a more modern approach does not have this firm OO set up in the larynx, and is more dominated by the sense of the width of the yawn. 

Picture the voice rising like a mist of sound upwards from your larynx to the mouth and head.  Ask yourself how wide that mist is? On one hand you can envision the old school resonating mist as narrow and somewhat transparent, taking on more substance and becoming brilliant above in the higher resonance tract in specific areas of the head. While the more modern sound is wider, thicker and shiny already in the pharynx.

To borrow Cotogni’s imagery – in the moment of appoggio, the air tube beneath the larynx and the resonating tube above the larynx come into contact right at the larynx.  The question is how wide is that resonance tube felt by you? 

To add even more complexity to this, there are differing degrees of chest voice in this set up.  So you have to also ask yourself, what kind of voice is resonating within this space?

Some might think that Corelli was a freak of nature because he could carry so much weight upwards.  This is a lack of understanding.  Why do people make this mistake in assuming Corelli’s voice was so heavy?  This happens because we tend to conflate space in the pharynx, space in the voice, and chest weight.  Open throat sound is A SOUND.   Often when tenors try to sing with the kind of cavita’ or space Corelli had, they usually create that space ALONG WITH an excess of chest voice, as if the two thing necessarily have to go together.  Who said this spacious feeling has to be deeply rooted in chest voice? You can open the jaw and have a more forward position of the tongue and sing in falsetto if you want.  What happens inside the larynx and what is happening above it don’t have to be necessarily linked. 

The truth is that this spacious feeling is fundamentally a head register component.  There is a reason why this starts happening between C and F and not below.  This is the appropriate range for this registro medio… middle voice… to start emerging.  It’s not totally head voice dominant and its not totally head voice dominant.  You will sense this laryngeally as you become more acquainted with the sensations.  You will discern how the sensation of connection between breath pressure beneath the cords and resonance above them changes as you vary the relation between chest and head voice.

Of course, if you carry too much chest into the C to F range, the voice will become heavier.  Also, this will occur if you  tend to obstruct the path of the breath with an incorrect tongue position or with an excessive lowering of the epiglottis.

Lauri Volpi warned against expanding too much this middle area, bringing in excessive baritonal qualities.  He said a tenor is a tenor and a baritone is a baritone.  Reality is what it is, and our aesthetic of singing has changed, but we can still gather precious information from Lauri Volpi’s thoughts.

An excessive baritonal quality in the tenor voice is unnatural because a tenor is a tenor and a baritone is a baritone… silly enough.  Their vocal folds are different.  There is a reason why one sounds naturally darker than the other.  So for a tenor to enhance those darker qualities AND make the voice bigger is not natural.  It is a lowering of the tessitura… a modification of the natural order of things which has consequences.  Corelli had a big dark voice, and used an open throat set up… if you don’t have a big dark voice, you won’t sound the same as Corelli using that set up.  Does this make sense?  If you get darker and wider to resemble Corelli’s voice, you will pay the price of modifying the natural tessitura of your voice.  Temet nosce.

Lauri Volpi warned to not let the voice sink into the “gorgo della faringe” – the pit of the pharynx.  His idea was that a voice unnaturally darkened had to actually sink into the pharynx in order to take on any substance for the stage.

My friends, there is a difference between singing in a studio and getting on a stage with orchestra!  Many teachers have no clue because they have never had to face that.  They accept “studio voices”, and allow you to modify your natural tessitura and then when you are faced with the reality of the stage your voice falls apart over a short time because you realize studio and stage are not the same.  To sing on stage with an unnatural tessitura will require pressure, while singing in your natural element will seem like a walk in the park.  In order for you to truly succeed long term you have to sing NATURALLY.  Sing within your tessitura.  If your voice is dark, then sing naturally dark, either the old school way or the modern way, but with your voice!

Corelli’s voice did not sink excessively into the pharynx.  In fact, in the Hines interview he actually states that in the beginning of his career he inflated the voice in the pharyngeal space to make it more dark, like Del Monaco, and the result was a wilder and more taxing voice that couldn’t extend upwards well.  Then he says he found a “sweeter voice” which could extend up and it changed his career.

What Corelli is saying is that WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF THE OPEN PHARYNGEAL SPACE, low larynx, and unobstructed by the tongue, he found a more boyish production.  He figured out that actual pharyngeal space and the voice are two different things that should be treated differently.  Like I said, you can sing within a wide pharynx with a falsetto… there is no need to associate chest voice to the opening of the pharynx.

The old school tenor is characterized by a narrower sensation at the larynx, and is not 2nd formant dominant in the high voice, which I suspect would have made these voices not as loud as a Corelli.  I suspect that as my commentator stated, the firm OO sensation may be linked to a longer laryngeal tube and epilaryngeal narrowing, yielding a 5th harmonic enhancement.  While the more modern approach is not based as much on this, it is certainly not devoid of it.


2 responses to “Sensations of width in the Old and Modern Approach to Tenor Voice

  1. What software did you use for the spectrographs?

    • The first graph was sent to me from the commentator, and I believe he may have used VoceVista. The ones with the blue area below are from Adobe Audition’s Frequency Analyzer.

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