Principles of Technique

Some of my students suggested I post the fundamental ideas guiding my teaching process.  So this post is meant to give a glimpse into the principles and methods I use in approaching lessons, and I will post it as a page in the heading section of the blog.  I just wanted to clarify that lessons are never the same for every person, and often different for the same person.  Sometimes a breakthrough occurs which will allow us to dive into a different course of development.  However, there are a few “doors” that must be opened and walked past in order to truly start experiencing growth in the direction I lead.

The ideas discussed below are:

1) Breath Support

2) the depth and height of the OO function

3) the EE function in closing the cords

4) the EH position of the tongue on other vowels

5) the chest mechanism in the low voice

6) the tilt and low larynx for the top

7) the voce magra of the passaggio and top voice (voce alleggerita, voce squillante, or some would argue this is also pharyngeal voice).

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Breath Support

“Do not win” – this is an invitation I give often to my stronger (literally physically stronger) students.  The level of air pressure beneath the sound varies depending on a variety of factors – from volume, to pitch, to harmonic choices made in tuning the sound.  However, the singer really shouldn’t feel those changes in any significant way.

Often singers are invited to press down with their diaphragm and maintain the inhalation mode constantly, displacing outward the abdominal contents and keeping the chest collapsed.  This method of breath support is contrary to the great tradition, and in my opinion limiting the progress of a singer.

The variations in pressure required to maintain a true legato line and which aid one’s ability to sing beautifully, require a dynamic control of the diaphragm.  The expressive intention formulated in the mind before ever opening our mouth to sing informs tacitly the process of breath support.  If we were to push down and out constantly throughout the whole phrase and our diaphragm were strong enough to actually win the battle with the support musculature pushing it back up, then this would be equivalent to singing while running out of breath.  Running out of breath means that we are unable to increase the pressure of the air within our lungs because we can no longer decrease the volume of the container.  Similarly, if our diaphragm wins the battle against the muscles that would push it up, the volume of the container would remain constant and we would approach constantly the sense of singing while running out of breath.  This has a negative cascading impact on the way we phonate.

There are some telltale signs of this the teacher can notice while students are doing scales.  Particularly as they descend from the higher register to the lower one.

So how should one breath?  The area beneath the navel should stay pretty much stationary.  This means a certain elastic tension should be there in the moment of inhalation, otherwise it will just move outward.  This transfers outward movement to the upper torso (abs, back, ribs, and sternum).

Once the upper torso is expanded, we are in an optimal place for the soft descent of the larynx without the aid of the tongue, with all the positive effects on singing that come from this.  One can sense the “tracheal pull” in this mode, as the breath support aids the descending larynx.  So this mode is not just about having a good breath, but is also about creating the right vocal tract conditions for “morbido” singing (eliminating tensions).

When we inhale it is clearly felt that the lower abs that did not move outward become a sort of floor against which the diaphragm descends.  This gives us the benefit of having immediate pressure available in singing.  Often singers start a phrase and don’t get to actual legato and support until half way through a phrase, with all sort of problems with consistency in volume, pitch, and resonance.  This is because they have no tension in the lower abs because they press out.

Conversely, while singing, some have no real legato and consistency in resonance because they do not know how to allow for a dynamic control in breath pressure, as guided by the sense of legato and flow (more later) because they are constantly pressing down with the diaphragm.

So, here is the equation for your breath support:  inhalation is the quick victory of the diaphragm against a losing resistance by the lower abs; and singing is the slow victory of the support musculature against the diaphragm.

The expansion of your torso and ribs should be a slowly changing reality, but change it must!  The guide for the ascension of the diaphragm should be sense of flow.  This is where things get complicated, but take this to the bank:  THERE IS NO CORRECT BREATH SUPPORT WITHOUT CORRECT PHONATION.  You cannot support the voice correctly unless you have a correct balance in your voice’s resonance.  The harmonics need to be tuned correctly in order for your mind to create a correct blueprint for the action of the diaphragm.

The Depth and Height of the OO Function

This is a point I will work from the very start with everyone, and that I will probably continue to work with over time with most people as it is the technical point that often gets set aside easily.

Early on in my studies, my father would often talk about the “foghorn sound” – a deep OO sound embedded within one’s voice, and would talk about how this was a fundamental secret of the old school.  He would recount how a very old pianist he knew who travelled with Caruso was told by the great tenor during one of their trips how the sound of the foghorn of the boat was the same function of his voice.

The depth of the sound is the fruit of balancing the chest mechanism which is local in the laryngeal area with a sense of depth and height of sound that often feels like a cushion of dark sound exactly where we gently cough, right in the cords.  This dark sound balances the bright rumbling chest mechanism, that if left unchecked compresses the sound excessively in the larynx, making the voice very powerful but also heavy and earthbound.  Stephen O’Mara calls this rumbling “chords scratching,” which is an interesting image, because excessive chest “bubbling” of sound has an inflammatory feeling to it.  Conversely, a sound built around the OO cushion brings a sense of oily flow to the voice rather than bubbling micro-explosions of chest brightness typical of heavily laryngeal mechanisms.

The deep OO exercises start like a very deep and very soft and hollow falsetto, completely efficient with no air escaping, to get the larynx low and tilted; and then in that mode we start a fuller voice, which is unavoidably impacted by the preceding sound.  The brightness of the chest mechanism is completely altered and the first formant is enhanced when done right.  The sound feels like it came from deep and bi-passed the larynx.

This is where the careful listener and student of past technical approaches sees the difference between Garcia and the Italian Schools.  The Northern Europeans and French had strong deep OO, and the middle voice was very sigh-like, while the Italians were more vowel oriented, lightening up the voice to pronounce a very bright AH in the middle voice.   Listen to Lauri Volpi and contrast him to someone like Schmidt or even a more modern Bjoerling.

Having said that, its not really possible to identify an “Italian” or  “Garcia” approach.  For example Lauri Volpi and Gigli both studied with Cotogni, but while Lauri Volpi adhered to an older era Italian Belcanto approach, which focused on this deep OO, but also was still very laryngeal, just in a lighter way, Gigli was very “sigh” oriented in his middle voice.

Anyway, the deep OO hollow first layer sound is an important primer for the middle voice sound, particularly important for the range between B and F.  It sets the larynx up in a way that stretches the cords appropriately.

The EE function in closing the cords

The bright EE vowel has always been a fundamental sound in the Italian method of singing, for all voices.  The bright EE exists because it is the vowel that opens the throat most while at the same time closing the cords on an edge, producing the higher harmonics necessary for the vowel itself.  The EE vowel is characterized by required closure of the cords.  This function can be brought into other vowel shapes.  The EE function is a narrow and thin cord mode that can and must be brought into other vowels in order to give them correct appoggio.

In a practical way the exercises progressively migrate from EE to EH attempting to keep the “same cords”, or the same sense of narrowness of the EE, practically maintaining the EE function.  Typically, I will work on a held note on an EE and then change vowel to EH without losing the sense of narrowness and focused ring of the EE.  The same as we migrate to the AH.  It is essential to do this in the context of the low larynx and the deep OO.

The EH Position of the Tongue on Other Vowels

Most Americans tend to sing an EH vowel with the tongue correctly forward, with the forward portion of the tongue body raised (not the tip of the tongue which stays on the bottom teeth), but when they go to an AH they flatten the tongue, which sinks into the throat and approaches the back of the pharynx, as in spoken language.  The AH and the EH should not be radically different, and this is an important part of my approach, getting the singer to not pull back the tongue or flatten it excessively.  Most of the time when the AH is right, singers don’t initially recognize it as an AH.

The Tilt and Low Larynx for the Top

In the high voice the singer should be able to allow the larynx to tilt forward and down.  The deep OO tilts the larynx appropriately.  The Voce Finta also sets up the low larynx and the closed cords for the high voice.

Excessive chest voice (open singing) will not allow the cords to stretch correctly.  Its important to not think loud to start.  One should think principally of extreme focus of ring.  I often invite students to monitor their larynx into the passaggio and top by placing their index finger on the Adam’s Apple to see that it stays relaxed low.  One should never assume the larynx has to stay in its deepest place.  The low larynx and tilt should be the result of breath control and correct mental intention of the deep OO.  This set up is very important for anyone wanting to tune the voice to the 5th harmonic in the top (2200 Hz formant).

Voce Magra (voce alleggerita, voce squillante, or some would argue this is also pharyngeal voice).

The concept of phonation for the upper register (which is the voice after the turn of the voice) should not be the same as the middle voice.  The tone should be considered anchored to the ring, very boyish.

This is one of those concepts that I rely heavily on demonstration for.  Most of the time tenors can’t conceive of their voice in terms of voce magra.  It seems weird to some at first.  A correct voce magra has one major characteristic: you can start the tone and end it without any “pops” or “stacchi”.  The onset and release are as natural as they would be in the low voice.  This is because this phonation manages the pressure correctly – it calls the diaphragm to it in a balanced way.

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These are some of the fundamental principles of my approach to teaching.  Studying with me will likely be a regimen of scales for a good two years.  You should expect that.  If you expect to be a great singer in less than 5 years you should look into another field of art.

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20 responses to “Principles of Technique

  1. Brilliant post, Jack–thank you.

    “So, here is the equation for your breath support: inhalation is the quick victory of the diaphragm against a losing resistance by the lower abs; and singing is the slow victory of the support musculature against the diaphragm.”

    I think this should be every singer’s mantra 🙂

    Obviously in addition to being a constant coordination refinement process, singing is also about building strength (as you mention above). Do you have recommendations for exercises singers can use outside the studio and offstage to build the strength that singing requires?

    Perhaps you disagree with this type of approach, but one wonders if creating continuity in physical behaviors in singing and non-singing contexts is beneficial: the way you speak in day-to-day life, the way you breathe and sit and the way you exercise in the gym.

    Isometric core exercises on an exercise ball come to mind. Sitting on the ball, thoracic cavity open and lifted, leaning back as muscles of inhalation stay suspended and engaged…compressing air and releasing it slowly, slowly, slowly.

    I remember asking one of my best teachers about whether I should do abdominal exercises in the gym. He said sure as long as I wasn’t locked and creating throat constriction (I think this is harder to do with traditional crunches–the ball is better). Then he remarked, “You wouldn’t believe it–but underneath all this fat I have an incredibly strong core.” I believed it 🙂

    Thank you for your insight.

  2. jack
    unfortunately most of your internet followers are thousands miles away from your residence and the only way that conveys your insightful trainings them is through your words and audio illustrations.so let me want you to do us a favor:
    I am very interested in comparing two schools of tenor vocalism(old school and modern school) PART BY PART, I mean listing the important characteristics of every school and demonstrating both school in audio files but most important in three part of the voice 1)C4 to F4 2)F-sharp, G, G-sharp 3)A-natural above
    i know this is a big request but as you may know your gentleness and generosity encourage me to ask you.

    thanks for your patience and responsibility

  3. I’m starting to GET IT !! For the first time I managed to make my passagio/high notes sound like a …. megaphone ?? Compressed in a way without intentionally bringing my larynx down or consciously supporting but thinking of my mature sound and spoken sound instead and speaking in the acuti instead of somehow hanging on just the upper resonance. Suddenly my fundamental has dropped and there is some increase in the 5 and 6th harmonic and drop on the 8th-9th(which I used to have huge). I can somehow only get this compression if I keep TALKING instead of singing. Please take a look and tell me if I’m hearing right or I’m deaf 🙂 :
    [audio src="http://dl.dropbox.com/u/17372522/more%20focused.mp3" /]
    Thanks a lot Jack ! Because of you I think I know what I’m looking for 🙂

    One more question: do females need the same kind of compression ? Could you speak a bit about female technique ( especially mezzo-soprano as my girlfriend is a mezzo).

    • Where do you live again Andrei? I think your voice is very interesting. I would love it if you would send me a clip just with your speaking voice. Definitely a step in the right direction. The technique is the same for all voices. The difference is the selection of the harmonics based on the range. I will have to write about it.

  4. Here’s a sample of my speaking voice : http://dl.dropbox.com/u/17372522/speaking.mp3 . Thank you Jack!

    • Your speaking voice is significantly different than your singing voice. You should try to sing with the same natural quality of timbre of your speaking voice. If you were in the USA I could show you in about 10 minutes how that changes your voice and your technique.

  5. dear jack
    how can I send you my audio files to tell me your opinion about my voice and my problems as much as possible through an audio file?

  6. I forgot to say that I live in Bucharest, Romania.

  7. That’s what my teacher tells me and I usually try to do that. If I ever come to the USA again I’ll try to get in contact with you :). Take care and thanks!

  8. One more thing … can you tell what kind of tenor I am ?

    • Not really, because you are not really using your full voice. From the clip it sounds like a lyric on the lighter side, but I am not sure that this is true. From your speaking voice , I think there is more.

  9. Jack, one more thing :). How do you keep yourself sane while trying to learn how to sing. I’m extremely ambitious and really want to learn how to sing but so far it wasn’t at all smooth sailing :(. How do you keep yourself from being obsessed with it and going mad ? I know this isn’t technique related. Thanks!

  10. Jack, I tried speaking more and pushing less and went up to a high D without feeling any difficulty and it sounds way more spoken and feels rather easy but I’m not sure if it’s what a opera singer should sound like :). Sorry if I’m bothering you :). http://dl.dropbox.com/u/17372522/up%20to%20D5.mp3

  11. Hi Jack,

    Any thoughts on my q?

    Thank you!!!

    • I am always a little concerned about exercises that are not connected with the voice because we may develop wrong intentions. Reality is, most singers have more than enough strength to be able to sing. What they lack is the correct phonation.

  12. I see your point. But what about the singers that understand the phonation idea, but in the context of an aria always begin to get anxious and breathe high (as most of us do)?

    It’s also easy to focus on phonation to the extent that you hyperadduct your cords, and/or don’t allow the breath to flow freely. Huge problem on high notes obviously–too much pressure. If your sound becomes too pinched, a breathier phonation might even allow you to temporarily break free from a place of tension….

    The ability to harness real impulse breath, fill the lungs for compressed air, flatten the diaphragm and get the larynx into that passively low state…are you saying you’d work at these problems focusing mostly on the intention of proper phonation?

    I love your thinking–and feel like we have similar ways of working toward the same goal. I just wonder what you find to be most efficient in helping singers to make a voluntary action feel more involuntary (or at least consistent).

    Cheers,
    J

    • Definitely, these people need to focus almost exclusively on their breathing. I remember once singing Edgardo, and getting to the last aria (Tu che a Dio), and when they brought Lucia on stage, I really felt the power of the moment, and my breathing became instantly erratic. So, during the intro to the aria, and after throughout, all I did was think breathe deeply. In between phrases, all I could think was breathe deeply. It worked.

      So, yes, for those who have a grasp on phonation, there is no doubt that breathing exercises can be largely beneficial. I would invite you to read my post up top on Fundamental Technical issues, where I describe the idea of breathing as part of our mental intention. We must learn to anticipate and plan in our minds moments like my Lucia experience, and our singing should be planned with deep breathing, so that when the moment comes the blue print is firmly in our mind. The choice to breathe should be made long before the moment. It should be proactively planned out, and not reactively approached.

  13. Jack I really like your blog, the best I ever visited. I am a tenor although I do not sing professionally I had been practicing singing for 20 years, I had gone through a lot on that time and still not reaching my final tenor potential. I am very interesting in the mechanics of breathing, which I have not found too much in your blog. There are many aproaches, from the pubic region breathing, expanding your ribs side ways, epigstrich which was postulated by Richard Miller, now I do not know which one is best! could you give a guidance? here is link of my voice:
    Usign more head voice and frontal placing:

    Using more chest pharynx forward placement:

    Attempting your advices, open throat vocalization:

    Let me know your wise opinions.

    Best Regards,

    Marco

    • Hi Marco, I think all three are very interesting clips showing different aspects of your voice and skills. As far as advice goes, I think the key for you is to simply find more of the relaxation in the phonation. You shouldn’t think too loud, but rather focus on ease and velvet in the voice. Your laryngeal position is fundamentally low and correct. The cords also close in a bright chesty way. What I would have you discover is the ability to get bright like that with a very thin edge, more head tone. You can do that by thinking of the deep OO head voice exercises… like a falsetto, and releasing the tensions of the chest voice as you ascend into the passaggio.

      Best
      Jack

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