Dark Core

This title sounds like a sci-fi movie title…

So, some thoughts about high notes that I had this morning as I prepare myself for my marathon session in New York, and wanted to share as I have a second.

As I have spoken of in the past, there is a tradition, a very old one, in the Italian school that classifies vocal sounds and the sensations linked to them as having layers.  If you have read through this blog you will have found much on layers of the vowel sound.

This morning I wanted to point out one thing that may not be very clear to the reader.  Here it is:  if your vocal mechanism is correctly “alleggerito” or lightened-up in the passaggio, the sound will take on much strength as it connects to the diaphragm, and will feel like it had turned.  As we think “louder” the sound is propelled and feels amplified in the mask rather than in the throat.  Also the tendency is to go sharp if you push rather than flat as it would be if the mechanism is not lightened up correctly.

Conversely, if you continue to have strong chest mechanism going on in your top, your voice will feel like it has more presence in the mouth (hard palate, bottom jaw, etc), while also having mask resonance.  One of my singers refers to this as the voice having a floor beneath which it doesn’t go.  When it is correctly alleggerita the floor is the hard palate beneath which the top note doesn’t go; when it is chestier, the floor lowers a bit, even to the jaw.

Here is the point I wanted to make: right at the center of the tone, where we feel a gentle cough, directly in the cords, if we are in the traditional alleggerito mode, the pitfall is over-compression, or one can tend to over-squeeze the cords and “crush the sound”.  It becomes a bright pinched sound, which if driven too far goes into a falsetto-ish sound.  In the opera house, this will sound very small.  Often tenors are under the delusion that this bright sound, which feels like is is much more controllable, is very present.  It’s not.

So the correction and the basic rule is to remember that if you sing alleggerito (examples: Lauri Volpi, Caruso, Bjoerling, Gedda, or modern tenors like Calleja and Beczala), if you push the bright sound at the core, the sound will pinch, will sound somewhat nasal in the house, and will be smaller – therefore, KEEP THE CORE DARK.  The brightness is around the dark core.  The sensation is that a small buffer of air right at the center of the cords is pushing outward against the crushing of the bright sound.  Once this is in balance, you can forget about this because powering up the voice up in the mask won’t happen correctly if you are crushing.  So, if this balance is in place, you think loud, and your voice kind of suddenly “amplifies” itself up in the sinus cavities, then you have likely maintained your balance.  There are of course, no guarantees or magic bullets in this art.  You have to go by the sound together with your vocal guide.

On the other hand, if you are chestier, this dark core will be far less.  You can find a flow and a balance in this mode just fine, just don’t seek the voice to be too high.  If the “floor” of the voice is a little lower, then you will find a balance.  You can find a sense of flow in the voice without having a dark core, but the voice needs to be a little more chesty.

So depending on your registration, more or less chesty, you need to be able to determine two main things: 1) where the sound will likely feel, and 2) how bright or dark of a core should you aim for.  These things will help you create the correct mental intention.

So to clarify, if you are singing a phrase like “Pensier….” the B-natural from La Donna e’ mobile, if you are aiming for a lighter, laser-like  high note (which I recommend because of the exposure of the part, and wanting to sound completely effortless), then you should think that the sound will have a DARK CORE with brightness around it that propels upward over into the mask, and the sound pressure resulting up in the mask has a floor at the top of the mouth, beneath which this pressure should not go.  The diaphragm propels it up there as you think “loud” while keeping the balance.

On the other hand, if you are singing “Vincero’…” – the B natural from Nessun Dorma, you might want to have a bit more chest, depending on your approach (the chestier sound will be more “manly” here according to our modern aesthetic).  So you shouldn’t aim for the core of the sound to be extremely dark, nor should you aim for the voice to be all up in the head.  The sound will originate low as always, but the sound pressure will not be entirely up in the sinus area, but will have somewhat more presence on the hard palate, like in the molar region.

One last thing: remember I am talking about high notes (specifically A natural to C… anything above that go with the alleggerito mode).

Good luck!

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11 responses to “Dark Core

  1. Hi Jack. Wanted to let you know what I figured out. I had a lesson with my teacher yesterday(first in 2 months maybe) and he was finally in the mood. So he told me to really focus on thinking I’m a baritone in the passagio and I’m a bass in the acuti while also focusing on speaking( we do only word vocalises : La manolia e nona, La mia nona or Quanto e bella quanto e cara(the phrase). Anyway, it sounded to me very….nasty, dark, and …quiet …really quiet… Like no power, like if I wanted to push I’d really have to strugle. Even on the recording of my lesson it didn’t sound like that. And then I tried it again today…. It suddenly remained dark while picking up brightness but only if I focus on speaking the phrase. My teacher told me that at first it might not be as brilliant and nice sounding but getting depth is necessary. He says it will pick up more brilliance in time. I’ve checked out the spectrum and suddenly the 2700hzish harmonic has picked up strength and sometimes it is the strongest. The part I’m not sure about is that in order to be able to keep the darkness I have to use my mouth like Giacomini. But it sounds like it’s on morbidezza even though in the passagio I don’t get enough brightness yet, it feels like …. I can’t push enough brightness through the dark core yet. Is this …NORMAL ?

    • This is a process that takes many years. It is not something you can read about and then go and do… at least not normally. Though it is true that because of our previous studies sometimes all we need is a nudge in a direction to make significant discoveries. The fact that by thinking darker you had such a spike in the singer’s formant suggests to me that perhaps the simple idea of thinking darker helped you stabilize your larynx in a deeper position.

  2. The line about going sharp when pushing in the light position, and flat while pushing in the heavy position is key I think. When I’m warming up my voice and getting going I often find that I sing one or two passaggio notes a little sharp as I try to find the right compression and then suddenly everything re-coordinates into a position that I can sing all day without getting tired. Very interesting!

  3. The idea of having a floor at the hard palate beneath which the voice does not go is very appealing intellectually, but is it accurate sensation-wise? If the voice doesn’t go below the hard palate (for the high notes) then all I get is falsetto. The voice must be felt lower I think. Only, perhaps the balance of the sensation shifts. If that’s true then, also perhaps, the sensation isn’t a homogeneous tapering shape from chest to head. The hard-palate floor would suggest a preponderance of the sound (if not all of the sound) above the hard palate. Maybe there is a trap door through which the sound connects to the depth?

    This floor-beneath-which-the-voice-does-not-go idea is the first idea on the blog that is confusing to me. As Andrei Biro’s teacher mentions, he must get depth. But how if the hard palate is the floor of the sound?

    • There is a profound difference between the sensation of the voice originating low and travelling upward and over the palate, and the actual “sound pressure” of the voice leaning up in the mask.

  4. Allen, in my experience this is a very tricky concept to get around, and where I believe most teachers and students of voice spend many months and years treading water as they try to make sense of this. The reason is because at first the different sensations felt can be so similar to each other that we find it hard (sometimes impossible) to distinguish. After time, I have learned to recognize the difference in sensations and they do become more and more pronounced, proprioceptively, as we develop. In fact, I think as the vocal technique improves and the voice frees itself, we become more able to recognize and distinguish between these sensations – somewhat of a catch-22; but also somewhat of a great indicator that we are on the right track as we do develop and learn to discern sensation A from B.

    I was vague above, so let me be more specific. I have learned to be able to distinguish between what I am sensing as sound or resonance and what I am sensing as “connecting tissue” between such resonance and it’s origination. As we all know, sound does not originate above the palate, outside the skull, or even in the sternum – all places where we sometimes sense that it does. The sound, quite simply, originates right at the vocal cords. With my own voice, I feel (and all others agree, when auditing me) that my best sounds are when the resonance feels completely external to me – way in front of me. In some pitch ranges I feel resonance above the palate too – but still mostly outside and way in front. In other ranges (lower) I can feel resonance in the oral cavity striking the hard palate — but again, for the most part way out in front of me. What I also feel, though, is a kind of connective tissue, so to speak, between the resonance and the breath. The concept of appoggio is not so much that I lean on the breath deep in the sternum and then magically the voice is 100 feet in front of me — but there is definitely this feeling of tautness betwixt the resonance and the origination of the sound. What is taut? I don’t feel it as sound waves – and certainly not a physical or muscular thing. It is as if the resonance is the body of a kite, the appoggio beneath the cords the hands of the kite flyer, and the strings in between are nebulously not one thing nor the other – but taut they remain so that the kite continues to fly gracefully and does not collapse.

    So I can feel resonance above the palate, and outside of me, and not feel resonance or voice under the palate in the oral cavity, but yet still sense a connection from the resonance to the appoggio. It is like a firm postural definition whilst still maintaining structural suppleness and relaxation.

    There was a time when I was simply not able to distinguish between these sensations. They all felt like voice. At one point, none of it felt like voice. But after a while I could distinguish between what seemed like a cloud of resonance; what felt like the posture of the pharynx, larynx, and chest; and what seems like the connective tissue between the two. At first very subtly, but increasingly unique feelings over time.

    I hope this helps. I trust Jack has a much more precise and technical explanation. As a young singer myself, I only have the 5 or so years of experience with which to draw upon. Nonetheless, this has been my experience, and overtly so over the almost 2 years now working intensively with Jack.

    • Good points. Many great tenors have had experiences like yours – Gedda comes to mind as being on the record in sensing the voice as you do.

      Personally, I feel the lean directly in the maxillary sinuses like a balloon inflating with sound. This depends on the type of harmonic enhanced. The higher 6th and 7th harmonics tend to feel more outside or also in the frontal sinuses. The 5th harmonic tends to feel more in the space above the dome of the hard palate. The sensation of outside was my guiding sensation in my early career. It was the way I approached all high notes and I couldn’t sing them in the house unless they were out of me in front. If they were inside me, I would tend to try to control them.

  5. Thank you both. It’s heartening to hear of the shift from simply feeling voice to being able to identify (and thereby, one hopes, recall) the various elements comprising voice. The most helpful concept (today) is the idea of voice being outside. And yes, Jack, when I feel it inside I try to control it. And in addition to controlling it, I try to own it, possess it, make it mine and as soon as I do that of course, I grab it and poof, it’s all gone. I’m finding the more of I think of it outside (at this point I feel it in back of me, but undoubtedly that’s a whole other post) the freer and oddly more focused it is.

  6. I think, personally, that this is paramount (feeling voice predominantly non-corporeal). And I can start to sense what Gioacchino means when he says that as you advance as a singer this is less important. I think the tendency for the emerging singer (especially tenors) is to over complicate the mechanics — i.e. to simply do (and expect to have to do) too much with our vocal machinery. So, the intention to sense the voice completely (or mostly) external is a method by which we can focus our mind on the sound as an end result and leave the mechanics to auto-adjust … and thereby simplify and avoid over-mechanizing our singing. But, as we advance, as Gioacchino attests to, we become more expert and more attune to our technique and what we should and should not do. As such, the mental intention of a non-corporeal sound is less important as we have better control over our technique and our mechanic. Gioacchino can now focus his mind on more exact tuning to certain harmonics and locations within his sinuses etc. that reflect the resonance. He can do this, I presume, because of his experience with his technique. But for a time, it helps tremendously to get our bodies out of the way and conceive of the voice more simplistically as external and therefor reduce the risk of paralyzing our mechanics through trying to do too much internally. At some point, anyhow, the mind has to free itself from technique and focus for the most part on the communication of the music and the text. As Jack has written before – we get to a point where we MUST witness our singing, as if from behind it, and not wrap ourselves up within the sound.

    • Actually, the feeling you describe Ben is as advanced as it gets in my opinion, its just a different choice of harmonic enhancement.

      I would add that the feeling is not that different at all. The feeling of the 5th formant striking in the maxillary sinuses is pretty disembodied… the sense of passivity in the throat is identical. The difference is just a strong sense of vibratory pressure in the sinuses, compared to the outside feeling where the body is more like a big giant whistle and the vibration is perceived as an auditory phenomenon outside us. What is confusing, in my opinion, is the fact that even though the vibration is outside, it remains very clear that their is a very firm working inside the body, a sort of stability in the larynx and in its connection to the breath that allows for that nothingness. So, it has to be understood that the feeling is more like an absence of pressure; or an absence of vibratory pressure in the resonance tract, and more of a feeling of openness. One senses the voice is almost flowing through the vocal tract, but not stopping anywhere, but rather flowing out. Why do we sense that it is flowing? Because we can sense where it originated because of the interaction between voice and breath at the cords. Is that your sense as well Ben? It is definitely mine.

  7. I guess so. I think I need to work towards having a more definite awareness of this so it can help guide me more consistently going forward. As you are fully aware, I can be a little nebulous/vague with my proprioceptive awareness of these things — but it is getting better with time. I think the sense of perpetual motion, and not ‘stopping’ or being impeded even slightly anywhere along the tract is important and something to strive for. At times I think we do get a sense of bottlenecking/hourglassing where it feels like the sound has been gathered into a more compact tube (raccolto?) but a sense of the sound impacting with the vocal tract in any significant way is something to avoid, I think. “Impact zones”, if they exist, are for specific pitch ranges and limited to how we registrate – namely hard palate in low ranges and I suppose maxillary sinuses and mask in higher ranges … although I am yet to fully get a sense of that yet. Sometimes. For me so far it has helped to perceive of disembodied impact zones, with my body being felt as if completely behind the sound, merely a witness to it and not a participant much at all. There is still a sense of tautness however – my body still holds the strings to this “kite” but does not wrap itself up in its wings (resonance). Nonetheless, the origination of the appoggio is something I personally think is crucial. I think we have to have a sense of a deep sternal starting point that does not elevate with pitch, nor collapse or blow out through poor breath control. The trick is keeping this deep origination without feeling a need to use muscles and physical force. I think the advanced maneuver here is learning to do these things with sound intention, rather than muscular. Or at least, muscular in such a way that we don’t feel the muscles operating. Tricky!

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