I have noticed recently with many singers I work with that as they seek to keep the voice very precisely tuned (laser sounds) they also tend to sing in a way that places the voice too high. Some have described the voice having a floor at the hard palate and the whole sound is above that floor. Others haven’t even realized they were doing this until told and corrected.
I want to go back to a few things I have spoken of in the past that I feel need reiterating. A few months ago I spoke about my experience with Arrigo Pola, Luciano Pavarotti’s first teacher. His method consisted of having the tenor sing right up against the hard palate from about a C to an F, and then once the passaggio was turned, the voice would go over the palate into the sinuses.
Franco Corelli said in his interview with Jerome Hines that in the first few years of his career, as a Melocchi-type singer, he sang with an inflated sound in the mouth throughout the range, which made his voice dark, loud, and wild. After meeting with Lauri Volpi he found what he called a “sweeter” voice that was not as inflated in the mouth but rather found its way over the hard palate.
First of all, let me say this: the voice is a concentric wave of vibrating air molecules that move away from a source. Your vocal folds are the source, and you can’t place a concentric wave anywhere, it just moves. However, there is a difference between the objective facts and the subjective experience of the singer. Specific technical approaches produce a recognizable pattern of sensations. They kind of act as a sort of bio-feedback to us. The objective of the method is to keep training the singer to develop certain coordinations, and to eliminate bad interferences, and to witness how these traditionally described sensations, or variations on a theme of them, tend to emerge in the singer’s experience.
Singing against the hard palate is one of these experiences, one of these sensations. I like to think of the mouth as the dome of the Pantheon in Rome.
I think of the hard palate as a sort of cupola, or dome. Like in the Pantheon I think of a little opening at the top of the dome, at the center of the dome of the hard palate. When, and only when, the sound is very efficiently tuned, and the singer has sufficient appoggio (sound resisting the air escaping at the larynx) there is an emergence of sound at the larynx that moves like a beam toward that hole at the top of the dome. If the sound is “beam-like” it makes it through and there is a ringing quality that emerges in the voice; a forward ringing sound. This is particularly evident between C and F. Now, the sound beam originates at the low larynx and goes to the palate. It is not stuck in the larynx or throat. There is a very vivid sensation of the voice actually leaning against the hard palate in the top of the dome. If the voice is not tuned well, the sound gets fat, breathy, and moves like a spray rather than a beam. It can’t concentrate onto that hole, and so it doesn’t ring exactly.
Most singers think of their voices in terms of “room voice” when they get “boyish”, or when they start the cry. Granted, this is a first step, but eventually we must connect this upward pressure of voice leaning against the hard palate to the action of the diaphragm. The diaphragm propels the voice which then bypasses the throat. If we are too precious or gentle about the sound we will significantly lighten our fach and the voice will tend to get smaller in the passaggio and top because we are tuning sounds that are not fully connected to the power of the diaphragm.
So, it is important to find the “lean”. Some traditionally called this “appoggio in maschera”, or the leaning into the mask. This is what Pola and Corelli were talking about. It is a sensation that emerges because you are singing VERY EXACTLY in terms of resonance, and this sound is powered up by the strength of the diaphragm. The sound therefore, has a pressure upward. You can think of a megaphone going from the larynx and emitting its sound onto your hard palate. If you put your hand in front of a speaker you will feel air vibrations. Think of it that way in terms of your hard palate. The vibrations move from your low larynx (the source) to the cupola of the hard palate. If the sound is tuned well enough in its resonance, it will be like a powered up beam, and lean against the hard palate.
Now remember, I am talking about the region of the voice between C and F. This increases the level of chest voice participation in your sound. Sometimes, in an attempt to bring the voice into a cry mechanism, tenors get what Gianni Raimondi called “gna gna” (done with a nasal twang) – bright and whiney. That is not a correctly produced voce magra, and is not hooked up to the diaphragm correctly. This type of voice is like singing above the passaggio while still in the middle voice. The voice nestles up into the nasal area and sounds pinched off and whiney to the listener.
The cords need to be long when we are in this mode. Go back to the post with Bergonzi demonstrating Celeste Aida, that I recently posted. If the sound is too bright, we lose that “stretch” in the voice that allows us to 1) stay connected to the sound (the larynx), and 2) stay connected fully to the breath. We can’t really power up the voice if it is excessively bright like this.
One image I use with my singers is to think of the voice in this pitch region (c-f) as inflating a balloon right below the palate. Also the idea of “masticare la voce” chewing the voice, is useful. If you think of the vowels initiated with a more close mouth on an OO, and then opening the jaw to a more open vowel, with the intention of “slowness” you might sense the voice being stretched, a taffy-like stretching. This OOOOUUAAWWWW sensation is useful to not EXPLODE the air upwards. Remember, it is not air that you are pushing upward, it is sound emerging and leaning upward on the palate.
When you go over the passaggio things change. That is another issue entirely. But it is interesting to note that when this middle range is not well executed it has a significant impact on what happens above the passaggio.
If we are too precious and “Frenchy” about our AH vowels in this middle range, singing somewhat delicately and diffused, not engaging the resonance of the voice, you can pretty much rest assured that your passaggio will not be stable if you try to sing out. The top will likely thin out as well. We have to sing dark and bright, but most of all very very concentrated in resonance in this range; so much so that we can actually lean the voice on to the palate, which won’t happen if we are artsy with our voice.
The idea of “boyish” and “flow” are NOT a contradiction to these ideas. Quite the contrary. The tendency for “concentrated” singers is to over-compress. We always have to think that the voice cannot be stopped at the throat. If we power up the voice while it is still stuck in the larynx, then we are toast.