A new label: Old School Formant

Recently,  Ron LaFond posted a very interesting addition to his blog about the scientific aspect of tuning the upper strength of the voice to the 5th harmonic of the tenor upper voice.

Effective vocal tract tuning (including, vowel, laryngeal depth and  aryepiglottic fold diameter, etc) would raise the 3rd formant and lower the fourth such that both energies would impact the fifth harmonic.  Most of the vocal energy on the upper part of the spectrum would center on the fifth harmonic.  The third formant of the [u] vowel falls just below 2300 and its fourth formant just above 2300.  This would support a constant assertion by Gioacchino Livigni that the Old School tenors (before Corelli and Del Monaco) tended to pursue this strategy of clustering around the 5th harmonic on notes Bb and above.  A similar strategy is possible on the 6th harmonic (c. 2760 Hz).  This would require tuning the fourth and fifth formants of the back vowels ([u, o, a] respectively up and down to cluster around the 6th harmonic or the third and fourth formant of front vowels ([i, e, E].

There are a few things to say about this not from a scientific point of view, but from a singer’s proprioceptive point of view.  What does this all feel like?  What can you expect to sense and how do you actually get this to happen?

First of all, I can say that it will likely take years to tune properly.  That is why in the old days singers studies for 4-7 years before EVER looking at an aria or a score.  “How dare you pick up a piece of music to sing if you haven’t studied on pure scales, tuning your voice for at least 4 years!”  – this would have been a typical reaction of a teacher before getting kicked out of the studio.

First of all, let me rectify what LaFond says about my ideas.  I do not say the old school tenors tuned the 5th harmonic from the Bflat up.  They tuned that area of the voice starting in the passaggio, as soon the voice turns.  It became increasingly dominant as they ascended, but the conditions that produce the 5th harmonic tuning are initiated as soon as the voice turns, they just produce increasingly focused results as you ascend. 

The area of harmonic strength is around 2300 Hz.  That means that depending on the pitch you are singing, the actual harmonic being picked up might be the 5th or it might be the 6th.  The passaggio harmonic would be the 6th, while the higher voice, from A natural up, would be the 5th.

Think of it this way… there is a microphone in your throat that can only pick up a certain pitch range around 2300 Hz.  So when you sing, depending on the pitch you are singing , some of the overtones of your voice will fall into the range that this mic is able to pick up, thus amplifying them.  This is what a formant in your voice does.  It amplifies certain pitches selectively.  Nothing mysterious.  Its a natural amplifier built into your throat.  A harmonic is simply a pitch.  You sing a pitch, but there are many pitches that come out of your throat when you sing… you just don’t hear them as readily.  Instead you hear “ring”, “space”, “darkness”, brightness”, and most of all “vowels”.   The vowel is nothing more than a specific arrangement of all these pitches.  Your brain puts the pitches it hears together to give you the impression of a vowel.   Formants are nothing more than a natural amplification system for some of these pitches.  Depending on the position of your tongue, your larynx, your soft palate, your jaw opening, your pharyngeal width, your laryngeal opening width, etc… all these are the electronic components of your built-in amplification system.

So in the passaggio, how do you tune the 2200-2300 Hz amplifier to catch the 6th harmonic?  In the high notes, from A natural up, how do you tune so that you catch the 5th harmonic?  I am going to call this formant area “old school formant.”  Should I copyright that?  The modern school passaggio and high note formant energy sits around 2800-3100 Hz.  I will call that “New School Formant” – all rights reserved.

First and foremost, and it truly is the most important thing, your cords MUST BE CLOSED.  Some will say, well aren’t the cords always closed when phonating?  When the tenor voice is well phonated the tenor feels like the cords are closed.  It is a feeling of adduction.  Some will say “you can’t feel the cords because there are no nerve endings for you to feel them with.”  They say this because they think objectively and not about what the tenor feels, and also because they don’t know how to do it, so they have no idea what you are talking about.

When you sing tuning the “old school formant” the cords feel adducted but not so much as they do in the new school way.  They definitely don’t feel loose, but there is a sense that right at the center, right where you feel a gentle cough, there is a dark OO like when you sing a very very soft dark hooty falsetto (1st layer vowel).  This dark OO is like a spring keeping the cords from over-compressing.  if they  too much, you can’t get the tuning right.  I suspect the reason for this is that the larynx doesn’t relax and tilt low if your over-compress the cords. But the sense, the feeling is that without this small pea sized dark voice right at the center of the cords your voice gets TOO BRIGHT.  The old school squillo is darker.  Here is a clip to demonstrate this.  It is Tucker Vs. Caruso on an A natural.

Comparison A Natural Caruso – Tucker

The higher pitched squillo is the result of greater compression.  You have to have more chest voice to get what Tucker had.  His is a very exact tuning, but higher than the old school way, but very exact, to rival Filippeschi, Raimondi.  You can’t get what Tucker had unless your larynx opening is narrow.  You can feel that as a singer.  It feels like within the wide throat there is a small space out of which the voice comes (my students will tell you that I will often say “boy inside the cave” to indicate the correct boyish phonation coming from a specific area around the cords almost isolated from the wide pharyngeal space surrounding it).  If the sound, either modern or old school, fills the pharyngeal space around the larynx rather than press upwards into the mask, then you can NEVER get the tuning Tucker or Caruso had, old or new school.  Notice how precise the pitch selection is.  The singer FEELS THAT!!  You sense that your squillo, the ring in your voice, has a specific pitch… like a laser striking the mask, the sense is both one of laser and of precise pitch.  If you listen to that clip you can sense how precise the pitch of the ring is.  Do you think the singer would not be aware of that?  Of course.  Because the pitch of this ring is so acute (acuto), or narrow, the more it feels like a laser sound moving out of the throat.  This is why the old school would refer to these sounds as “raggi sonori” sound rays, being emitted by the larynx.  Another reason is that, like a ray, there is an origin.  The sound MUST originate in the larynx and move to the mask.  If the sound does not originate in the larynx, the squillo cannot emerge correctly.  I don’t know what the physiological reason behind the sensation is, but one thing is certain, the intense pitch of the high ring feels like a ray of sound striking the mask.  I know because I can do it.

Comparison 5th Harmonic Caurso-Li Vigni

IF YOU PUSH, the cords will not word the breath correctly.  If you push, you will push past this ring.  For example, here is a clip from early on in my career.


I tuned effectively the more modern ring (around 2800 Hz.), but you can’t hear the isolation of the ring as much (for example compared to Tucker) because there is too much pressure. 

If you looked at a graph you would see that for Caruso and Tucker there is a very signficant difference between the strength of their squillo and the strength of their fundamental.  My adobe audition says 30 decibel difference…. I don’t know if that correct, but it is signficant.  On my clip the difference between intensity of 6th harmonic and fundamental reads 12 decibels.  My fundamental is too strong.  Why is that?  Because the 1st layer… the release… the air flow… is too strong.  Breath is moving too fast out.  I am pushing.  The cords, even though they are producing ring correctly because of the shape of the vocal tract, are not producing the right sound because I am pushing.  Though the sound, or pitch of the squillo is being produced, the totality of the sound is not efficient enough, or it is not a clean sound.  I might have the strength of that ring on the paper, but the sound is wrong because I am pushing past the squillo.

How do I stop from doing that.  The solution your teacher should give you is to find the right baseline.  When you do a first layer sound correctly, your teacher should indicate to you that this is the right pressure… the right sense of flow.  You shouldn’t push past that baseline when singing full voice.  This is NOT INTUITIVE.  How do you produce a big sound if the air is flowing that gently?  Disconnect in your mind intensity of sound and movement of air.  Do not assume that they are proportional.  They are not.  Increase in air flow is not proportional to increase in volume.  Or better, it is not proportional to increase in an EFFICIENT SOUND’S volume.  You can get louder, but it will sound somewhat muffled in a big hall.  Some will hear this as darker too.  For example, listen to Alfredo Kraus here  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6Gd2EIt2Vg , the B natural has TONS of ring, however, the fundamental is just as strong if not stronger than the squillo.  He pushed regularly in order to stabilize his voice in the mask.  Ignorant “critics” in Italy often talk about Kraus as though he were a great master. No doubt he was a great tenor, but his way of singing high notes was not right.  I don’t care what anyone says.  This is a pushed mode that increases the air flow in order to increase volume.  Listen to Fritz Wunderlich do the same thing http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAdbrTZ7Wlk , his ring is more refined.  Why?  Because he is not pushing.

Here is the clincher ladies and gentlemen.  Does the person feel different when pushing?   Just slightly.  The effort in the throat is almost the same.  This is why it is so incredibly difficult.  The sensation is not the same, but the effort is almost the same.  In fact, the sense of narrowness of the correct position might feel initially more effortful because it is easy to get pressed; while opening up the cords in a less narrow position will feel like a more generous flow and easier.  However, the correct way, when you get it, feels just as easy on the larynx as just opening up into a backward, dark, and flowing position.  I can think of a modern tenor whom I LOVE, but he sings the top in this released backward position, and I wish I could sit down with him and help him fix this.  If he did fix it, he would initially feel like he is squeezing the voice more… he would feel like the voice is smaller because the flow is less.  Eventually however, the voice would feel like it is using the air efficiently and striking the mask forward rather than filling the back of the head.  But… it doesn’t matter, he is making more money than I am singing the way he is.  Why change?

Concluding, what does it feel like to tune the old school formant in the passaggio and top?


In the passaggio the larynx stays low.  There is a deep OO position of the throat, but the tongue is forward as in an EH, while the back the tongue is down.  Even though there is a deep OO in the voice, there is also a sharp EH sound right in the front of the mask.  In a sense, the vowel result would be more like an EU, as in the French peu.  To increase the Eco Sonora, the 2nd formant, you also can feel the back space of the EH vowel (the AYE sound) increase.  The sound should be above the palate, never below it (see my previous post).

High Notes

In the high notes the larynx has to be low and somewhat tilted forward.  The OO component increases and the EH in the mask gets much more confined into a spot right behind the nose.  You need to feel like the beam of sound is NOT wide, but narrow and forward in this narrow pouch behind the nose.  The air cannot move rushing out of the larynx but rather moves just like it would when you sing in your 1st layer… the soft hooty falsetto.  This baseline is important.

The vowel feels like a very deep originating OO, just like in the hooty 1st layer, but it also has this powerful forward ringing quality.  The ring starts in the larynx but moves into this forward place behind the nose and strikes there.  Working this through voce finta is a great way to discover the position.


7 responses to “A new label: Old School Formant

  1. I was asked to clarify the baseline issue:
    When you sing a hooty falsetto, if you sing very softly and hollow, you can find a balance that will allow you to hold the note for close to a minute. You will feel that the cords have a pea sized sound right at their center, and that the air is not blocked by this small core, but it can’t move too fast out otherwise you lose this dark efficiency. That is the baseline of your sense of flow. Will the breath move more in full voice? Objectively, yes, I am sure… but in terms of sensation, you should let that baseline guide your mind and intention. Creating the correct intention is a huge step toward getting the correct sound.

  2. dear jack and friends;
    I have encountered a significant question in my training and I would like to share with you:
    As you know the “Humming” exercise as one of the greatest ways to establish forward or mask placement is used by most teachers and I use it as well. but the problem is that based on your idea of “Never push always expand”, while ascending the scale and “humming”, near the E4 my resonance sensation or humming buzz that is located near my nose and face, starts to bend backwards and my buzz sensation gets lost and muffled and the only way that I can Force it to stay in the mask is pushing the breath and otherwise it gets muffled and it’s not resonant anymore. someone told me that I have to resist that backward tendency and try to keep the sensation of buzz on the mask area even with using some tricks and even if it causes some irritation in my throat at the beginning. but based on your idea of “never pushing and always expanding” and the meaning that I have elicited from it,(and maybe I understood it wrongly) I don’t force the vibration cloud to the mask but let it to go every where it wants, and the result is not a resonating and pleasant voice and rather a laryngeal and suffocated one.

    • The voice doesn’t go to the mask just by leaving it alone. You have to do things that cause the voice to strike the mask. Those things are done at the level of the cords. If you sing a really focused, laser-like EE vowel, and then bring that cord closure to the other vowels, the sound will strike forward. Humming can help with the passaggio because it induces a slight lowering of the soft palate, but its not going to bring your voice to the mask. The closed cords produced with correct flow bring the voice to the mask.

  3. Great post again.
    I can definitely feel the sinus ring when I get a nice powerful harmonic at around 2,300 on an /i/ or /e/ vowel. And that ring can be quite powerful, even in voce finta or when singing softly in full voice.
    I don’t understand, however, how to get that 2,300 Hz resonance on anything other than an /i/ or /e/ vowel. It seems like it’s a vowel formant reinforcing this range, not F3. And, as I go up above the passaggio, even attempting to maintain exactly the same vowel, the sound becomes H4 dominant on /i/ and /e/ and the next powerful harmonics are H6-8, not H5. I guess this is “new school” ring, not “old school.”
    Can you explain how you maintain the ring at 2,300 Hz and sing with “old school” ring? I am drawn to the apparent ease of singing and the longevity of the old school singers and would prefer to sing my top like them, even if it sacrifices the potentially more lucrative modern sound.

    • There are two things: alleggerimento (the lightening of the timbre of the voice… this doesn’t mean sing soft, but rather changing the type of phonation so that it is more boyish); and second things is to have correct laryngeal position. The larynx tilts forward and is in low position and is narrow within the open throat. The vowel also has to be an OO in the throat, but an EH in the mouth and mask. This puts the tongue in a particular forward position with the back lowered. The tongue is not groved but rather round up front.

  4. Hello Livigni
    I follow your blog for a long time and find the articles very instructive. We tenors suffer for not being properly understood on our problems. Unfortunately here in Brazil there are few teachers tenors.
    I wonder if there is some peculiarity in the light voices. I thought my voice was spinto tenor or lyric heavy but I find that this voice masked with the tongue and brings a lot to excessive lowering of the larynx. However I have been trying to make my voice as natural as possible and found (although my voice is not fully formed yet because I’m 23) I am a light-lyric tenor with a voice more appropriate to sing Mozart and French opera repertoire. So I ask again if there is any peculiarity about this kind of voice, that is some hint or some specific training or theoretical foundation that is more focused for that
    voice. Thanks, Ali Tareek Chahin, tenor, Brazil

    • Good luck Tareek! The larynx should RELAX low, and not be lowered excessively through heavy muscular activity. The lower larynx actually helps to sing in a “leggero” way. Those who say that singing with a low larynx makes the voice heavy do not understand singing in my opinion. Opera singing is for the theater, not for rooms. Even though you may be a light lyric this doesn’t mean that you can’t develop a full voice.

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