I begin writing this post with a sense of trepidation because I know this is a very difficult issue to understand and master without a guide. So please be very careful to treat this more from an intellectual point of view and not so much from a practical one.
I started talking about voce chiusa a little in a previous post on blockage and squillo. It is interesting how the latter two actually go together as there is no chance of getting real squillo in the tenor voice, or any voice, without a measure of closure that can easily be interpreted as blockage. So many teachers focus on complete and utter relaxation which typically amounts to an over-darkened voice with tons of space and no focus. For these people squillo is a mystery. They think efficiency is the key, or perhaps even some magical function of the naso-pharynx or upper sinuses. Or perhaps they think that their loose phonation will eventually be focused by a magical Bernoulli Effect. How wrong they are! Firm glottal closure is essential to squillo, but it will not yield squillo on its own.
The key to the type ring in the voice Italians referred to as raggio sonoro (sound ray), and the transition to a balanced squillo oriented strain-free top is voce chiusa – the closed voice.
Many tenors today turn the voice retaining a great deal of chest in order to increase power, but they also often widen the larynx excessively in order to develop as dark a sound as possible. Lauri Volpi wrote “il tenore dovrebbe essere tenore” – a tenor should be a tenor. The old belcanto ideal was that the tenor voice should remain bright and focused in the low and middle range in order to find “sfogo” (denotes an unleashing or liberation of energy) in the top and extreme top. This balance is achieved through voce chiusa. The label itself means “closed voice.” But what exactly is closed? Closed compared to what?
Voce chiusa is a voice production that emerges from a narrow laryngeal opening within a throat set up like a yawn. The pharynx is open, and the larynx is closed. My father would use the term “OO in gola” – not just any OO, but rather a bright one.
Nowadays with the predominance of 2nd formant dominant “relaxed” voices with dark cores, most people sing a covered OH instead of an OO. Few people actually sing a bright closed OO because they are concerned about the feeling of constriction they get from it. Something in the laryngeal area feels tight. “That can’t be right, can it?” What incredible nonsense.
If you don’t understand what I mean by bright OO, look up Parmi Veder le Lagrime and listen to the phrase “del subito periglio” (perhaps Gedda, Domingo, Bjoerling for starters).
Where is this brightness coming from? Why does the voice sound a little compressed? This OO is not unknown in American language. Something very similar occurs laryngeally when an American exclaims “Ewwww.” That sound is typically bright and narrow. The difference is that the truly correct sound is given by the narrow and deep larynx and not by a speech level one. Now listen when I say narrowing in the larynx I am not talking about in the vocal cords. If you gently cough to feel the location of your vocal cords the narrowing I speak of is felt directly above that spot. You must learn to discern the difference between this narrowing and the closure of the cords. You can sing with a narrow larynx and vary the firmness of your glottal closure, often you do so in singing varying dynamics.
I like to think of this narrowing like a small upside down funnel directly above the cords. This funnel tunes your higher resonance and helps you offset weight in the passaggio and top. It helps you pack a harmonic punch without excessive pressure. If you try to get ring without narrowing this space but just pressing the cords together more aggressively you usually will gravitate toward a pressed voice.
The type of higher harmonics you tune when singing with voce chiusa depends on how you position the larynx. In any case, it is essential to have truly firm glottal closure within a light, almost voce finta oriented, top. This can only come with laryngeal narrowing. If you open the space above the cords, these can’t catch the air pressure perfectly, and you remain with a varying degree of push in the voice.
What good is having a funnel if you don’t pour anything into it? The narrowing of the laryngeal space cannot yield voce chiusa unless you have voce! No harmonics? Well, then no squillo. You can’t tune a non-existent sound. So it is very important to view the two processes – laryngeal narrowing and voice production, as two separate things, both necessary to produce Voce Chiusa.
What is the mental intention involved in executing the process correctly? I don’t feel comfortable saying much about the process because it is just too easy to get this wrong without a guide hearing you. Many teachers who don’t understand this process end up with students sounding like Kermit the Frog.
From a practical point of view, when doing a scale, starting in the mid-low voice, just sing a bright OO or say Eww and feel the sense of narrowing above the cords. Take a breath, and think of this OO narrowing as if you were going to say that sound. Also take a good breath, expanding the lower ribs and think of a deep OO falsetto to get the larynx relaxed in a low range. Combine the ideas and intentions of the OO falsetto to the narrowing of the larynx from the Eww sound. Remember, so far you have made no sounds. These are physical shapings of the vocal tract. Try singing EH and AH in this mode continuously thinking of a bright sound. This will get your cords very active, and if done well you should feel a sense of isolation of the sound toward the center of the cords, as if the sound is gathering toward the middle of the glottis. Without expanding the larynx laterally go up in a 1-3-5-8 type scale.
I can tell you that letting the larynx tilt to get the turn of the voice while also keeping the larynx narrow and not letting the exit of the voice from the larynx expand laterally is not easy. Do not give in to the instinctive impulse to open the larynx wide in order to be able to ascend.
Much of the problem I find in singers I meet with for training is that they have been taught two mental intentions that often, if taken to the extreme have disastrous effects: 1) open the throat, and 2) relax everything in the throat.
It is correct to have an open throat. This is easy. All you have to do is breath energetically like at the beginning of a yawn. See how easy that is!! You have expanded the pharynx in so doing. Much of any other opening has more to do with keeping the tongue from blocking the space of the laryngo-pharynx excessively and in keeping the larynx low. But overall, this is easy. If you tell a singer to open the throat they will almost always open the space of the larynx along with the pharynx. It’s a safe bet. We instinctively do this with the yawn. This is why really good singers insist on the “beginning of the yawn” rather than just saying “yawn.”
To close the voice, voce chiusa, you can’t open laterally the larynx along with the pharynx. You have to think of these as separate in your mind, just like you must think of the cord closure and narrowing of the larynx as separate. The larynx is a little tube inside the pharynx. Just because you widen the pharynx doesn’t mean you should open the larynx too.
Doing this correctly is not intuitive and you need someone that actually hears the various parts of the voice in your attempt. You might close the pharynx. You may lift the larynx. You may squeeze the cords. You may tighten the root of the tongue. Finally, you may do a combination of the above. You need a guide in this process to make sure some basics remain intact. The sense of flow of voice and freedom from strain is the goal, so putting strain into this makes no sense.
When this process is right, the larynx becomes like a trumpet or whistle. By opposing the breath right at the center of the glottis, the air pressure propels the sound right into the mask without grabbing from the throat. If the cords aren’t strong and firm enough, and if the larynx isn’t sufficiently narrow, the breath will not propel the voice into the mask. The voice will sink into the throat, and the muscles of the throat will get involved. All you have left then to try salvage this is to maximize your proficiency in breath support to try to minimize the fatigue on your throat, when all along you could have just been using the larynx right to propel the sound into the mask.
If you maintain the right narrowness and glottal firmness, and allow the correct lightening of the voice, the top voice will lose the gravity of the chest voice and will almost feel like a potent sound beam with the weight of a falsetto, striking the mask, but emerging from a small area right at the center of the glottis where the breath meets the voice.