Monday, March 31, 2008

More depressing laryngeal issues

First, let me say that my little catch phrases relative to the larynx are little plays of words that I cannot resist. As much as the entire blog is extremely serious, I prefer to keep a playful tone throughout. Along those lines, I am very happy about the contribution of Thinkingtenor in the last post. I must make a clear difference in what I refer to as a natural laryngeal position and a depressed larynx. It is my belief that having begun my career as a low voice, I developed a low voice identity. The fact that I could sing low notes in high school was a point of distinction. This carried on to college where I continued to develop what I believed to be my vocal color. I had a difficult time occasionally with my teacher George Shirley who was able to extract a brighter more present sound from, which I resisted. I equally resisted the subglottic pressure which came with a well-focused tone. The depressed larynx production did not sound depressed to most people who heard it, in fact quite the contrary. They liked the warm color and in audition rooms which tend to be small, there was no issues of carrying power. The issue was never black and white either. My laryngeal depression was not that extreme, but where it became particularly evident was in the passaggio where my tone suddenly lost focus. To my own ears, it was never that extreme. But to those with keen ears, it was enough that my top although easy-sounding did not have the thrust of my lower voice.

One of my students who heard me practice mentioned to me that she felt that I lost power in the passaggio and above even though the notes sounded easy. Her comment sounded curiously familiar because George Shirley would often say this. So I proceded to allow for a more "speaky" laryngeal position and automatically the phonational efficiency I was seeking was there and my student agreed that the tone was more focused and "easier". Another student who arrived for a lesson commented exactly in the same manner. What I experienced was that the transition in the passaggio was much more subtle and my ever-running spectrographic analyzer showed much greater intensity in the singer's formant area. Since I have never been a fan of the high larynx, I figured that I must have been depressing mine and the adjustment was simply allowing it to be where it belonged.

Thinkingtenor made several excellent comments I would like to address:

As well, anatomy plays a part a long neck and a deep set larynx will effect the darkness of the sound whether you have the vocal fold length of a tenor or not.. Lifting the larynx should not compensate. When I was young I was a lyric leggiero with a smallish voice and sang with a high larynx. Now, I have a fairly substantial tenor voice , many call me a spinto however I would conisder myself a full lyric. That came from me understanding that the larynx has to remain low but in the right way. When I ascend the scale my larynx begins to lower and widen. It keeps widening and lowering, without the tongue and jaw. I did not lose the top at all but there is a definite shift at High c# to a thinner sound.

An excellent comment, of course particularly referencing the specific anatomy of the singer. Franco Corelli was very tall and had a long neck. In fact, he looked more like the traditional bass than a tenor. Few larger-voiced tenors have achieved the balanced that Corelli had and of course he believed in a low larynx. Corelli, like Thinkingtenor began with a "relatively" high larynx which caused the little goat-like "bleat" that he called appropriately: caprino. Even as a baritone, Corelli was one of my favorite singers relative to technique. Given this fact, I would not suggest that one sings with a high larynx. But I coming from the other end, might have achieved a more moderate laryngeal position that might be considered by most as a low larynx, although it feels comparatively high to me in reference to what I have done up to now. I certainly cannot ignore the focus (not the brightness) that my students and the spectrograph confirmed (the singer's formant spike).

Rather than dismiss it as high larynx singing (and I know that Thinkingtenor refers to my language not the habits themselves, which is why I am working to put up some clips), my thinking is that we cannot completely separate the functions of phonation and resonance. Good resonance is not possible without excellent phonation as Thinkingtenor affirms. Likewise, good phonation is at least difficult without good resonance support. Ingo Titze has confirmed for us the supraglottal inertia that occurs with respect to the air in the aryepiglottic region. The supralaryngeal acoustics of a a good resonance adjustment creates a spring effect that limits the distance the folds travel both relative to adduction and abduction, thereby creating a "more efficient process". That is certainly not the only effect on phonation. The strength of the entire phonation mechanism and the balance thereof, including the relatively strength of the vocalis group and the crico-arytenoid group are all part of the equation.

As for the shift at C# to a lighter sound, this has to do with relative vocalis activity. For both the tenor and soprano, somewhere around C -D (C5 for tenor, C6 for soprano) there is what we might call a muscular (as opposed to acoustic) passaggio. The vocalis muscle at this juncture becomes relatively passive and the folds therefore are less bulky. How smoothly this muscular shift happens depends on how much unnecessary weight may or may not be carried up. The goal is to have a gradual reduction of vocalis activity as the crico-thyroids become more and more dominant with the rise in fundamental frequency.


In my working with many "transectionals" moving from Baritone to tenor, the quick fix is to raise the larynx and have them sound tenorial, this always leads to problems later. The larynx must remain low so that it has enough leverage in between the hyoid and Thyroid. It must be anchored to the sternum by the use of muscles under the larynx, the sternothyroids, sternokleidomastoids, et al. not by the suprahyoids and diagastrics. As well, the constricter muscles which give a knurdle to the sound must not be used to create a tenorial sound. Have you tried putting your fingers in between thy hyoid bone and thyroid cartilage seeing if you maintain that space while you ascend the scale? It is near to impossible. That is an extremely important diagnostic to make sure when you make the turn into the top that the larynx remains uninvolved.

It seems Thinking tenor has as much a sense of humor as I do. I have never heard the term "transectional" before, but I like it. Relative to extrinsic laryngeal musculature I take a slightly different approach. Rather than thinking of a low larynx as the initial goal, I prefer the idea of a middle larynx, if you will which gives in to the necessary muscular antagonism whereby both superior and inferior laryngeal musculature are involved in achieving a balance. I agree that we do not want a dominance in the supra-laryngeal musculature, but we don't want complete passivity from them either.

Relative to the test of maintaining space between the hyoid and the thyroid, I concur that it is a good test, although a bit invasive. I do not do this test on students because I have observed that it usually freaks them out. But I have done this as for myself as well and I have to say that this test depends as much on the supra-laryngeal musculature as it does on the relative stability of the laryngeal position, which is why is it easier of an [i] vowel than on an [a]. Not being able to do it on an [a] reveals the tendency to depress the tongue which in turns depresses the hyoid and consequently the larynx.

Brilliance in the voice must come from the fundamental vibration at the vocal fold level, and raising the larynx is a cheap way of getting a fake brilliance. The brilliance will come if the vibration is normal and to my ears for a long time your efficiency of phonation has not been immaculately clean. Perhaps this has been solved now with your reflux medication that you have openly talked about, however I would be curious to know what a videostroboscopy from an excellent diagnostician would discover. As well the strength of the crycoarytenoids has much to do with the efficiency of the vocal fold vibration.

I agree that we don't want to raise the larynx to achieve a fake "brightness," (a resonance effect) that I differentiate from brilliance which has to do with a phonation effect. I humbly agree that my phonation in the past had not been immaculately clean, and far from raising the larynx to achieve a fake brightness, I believe that the laryngeal depression created a false resonance adjustment that prevented the true efficient workings of the laryngeal musculature.

My last two videostrobes revealed that my reflux is relatively mild and that my problems in the last couple of years have resolved with more efficient working of the folds. I will occasionally start with the day with a bid of mucous but it clears up within 10 minutes of warm up. As a tenor, I cannot have a couple of beers the night before without suffering the consequences the next day, usually in the form of a slightly heavier passaggio and a bit of laboring in the high end. So as I am in the critical phase of my development now, I have dropped alcohol for one.

I believe I caught myself before the laryngeal depression went too far. And in working things out, found more and more that true efficiency depended on a laryngeal position that is slightly higher than what I considered normal, which is also based on my expectations of my color as a baritone.

As for the strength of the CAs, I have been able to sing fully-supported high Cs since my early days in grad school (that should have been a sign). I have a lighter full-closure falsetto that sound strong and real to many people and that goes beyond F5 on a good day. My personal struggles presently stem from the fact that I have sung a covered baritone passaggio for 20 years. Letting go of that is harder because of muscular habits. I must say however that a consistent sustained Bb is already achieved and the B and C are coming back now that I am consciously working them. When true efficiency is achieved in the low and middle part of the voice the top just happens.


Much thanks again to Thinkingtenor for some thought-provoking statements.

03/28/2008

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The depressing reality of the low larynx

The title of this post takes a page out of Richard Miller's International Schools of Singing. The exact quote is the following:

"The history of the lowered larynx is a long and depressing one..."

I fought Miller's axiom for quite a while, but I have come to understand why he is partly correct.
The low larynx is deceiving and as with every aspect of singing, there is either a paradox involved or the need to find a middle ground between extremes. I personally struggled with this for years because unfortunately I can make a viable sound with what constitutes a depressed larynx. Consider that I am a tenor who sang as a baritone. I was encouraged by more than a few sources to cover my voice in the passaggio (the baritone passaggio). My voice preferred to sing open Fs, but I was cautioned about singers who sang wide open and ended up in vocal trouble. So I learned eventually to cover the baritone passaggio. But the result was a darker sound that many liked but was less present with orchestras. As I made my change to tenor, that darkened sound was no longer viable. One day I allowed myself to sing with what I felt might have been a high larynx and suddenly, the sound was ringy and much easier in the tenor passaggio.

I am certainly not advocating singing with a high larynx. But having sung with a depressed larynx, the natural laryngeal position felt high. I was singing open Fs again and the register rotation to the high voice was much more subtle. What I discovered was that my most efficient speaking (the one that focused the voice without me having to do anything) needed that same slightly higher laryngeal position. Assuming this higher position to be my natural laryngeal level, I decided to sing the lower register with that position. When I then go across the passaggio, I felt the need for a very subtle laryngeal lowering. The ringy quality of the sound did not change with this adjustment. Of course I had to make scientific sense of it.

Why is a slight laryngeal lowering necessary in the passaggio? To change resonance from formant 1 dominance to formant 2 dominance, it is necessary to discourage formant 1 (this is for the male passaggio and the female first passaggio). Since a smaller space constitutes a higher pitch, it follows that as pitch rises, the same resonance space must become smaller to match the rising pitch. Up to a point this is what happens with the pharyngeal space that controls the lower male register and the female chest range. Either the tongue lowers to make the space smaller or the larynx rises for the same reason. By lowering the pitch of the first formant space (e.g. slightly lowering the larynx) we discourage the participation of the first formant resonance and encourage the second formant (palatal space above the tongue) to take over the resonance. This is true of the low to middle voice of women as well as low to high for men. A further adjustment is made in the female second passaggio because the formant 1 space becomes dominant again.

What is important to singers is that men find the most efficient speaking voice in the lower register and women do the same in the low voice. Then, it becomes necessary to make a very subtle modification in the passaggio (by supporting it with appropriate resonance adjustment) in order to maintain efficient phonation The key word is subtle.

What is not advisable is a laryngeal position that is so low that the first formant resonance is always lower than the sung pitch. In such a way, the voice is only accidentally resonant on specific pitches and not so resonant on most others. There is also a tendency to sing flat because one is constantly fighting the resonance of the lower space, the pitch of which is lower than the sung pitch or one of its harmonics.

The problem with an excessively high larynx is that is promotes the first formant across the passaggi. The high larynx raises the pitch of the lower space to encourage a close proximity to the rising pitch. This makes it very difficult to make the change from first formant to second formant resonance. So register changes are difficult. This is the reason why comprimario tenors usually sing wide open in the top voice because the sound associated with comprimari is a high larynx sound.

It is also possible to maintain a first formant resonance in the high voice if the phonation is efficient. The larynx does rise and the sound tends to sound a little thinner than when a singer changes to second formant resonance. The most successful example of this is Giuseppe di Stefano. He could sing impressive high Cs in first formant resonance. His phonation was however usually efficient, so he got away with it. It is also the resonance strategy used by musical theater type singers.

03/27/2008

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Head voice and Chest voice: How these terms create confusion in pedagogy

The terms head voice and chest voice are the sources of great confusion in vocal pedagogy. The reason for this is that the traditional schools of singing in the 18th and 19th century did not have the scientific means to make a clear distinction between phonation issues and resonance issues. Consequently, the two terms (probably the most used in vocal pedagogy) are used indiscriminately and often have different meanings in the vocabularies of different teachers. The goal of this post is to bring some clarity to the usage of these terms.

1) Head voice and Chest voice in the context of phonation. The first distinction that should be made is how the terms are used in terms of phonation. Teachers who use the terminology in terms of phonation make a difference between head voice (at one extreme) as being akin to falsetto or flute voice and chest voice as being the loose gutteral utterance we often refer to as raw or open chest voice (at the other extreme). To avoid such extremes in the middle range, such teachers will use the term, mixed voice (I will avoid discussing this at this juncture because it has a resonance component to it).

What is most pertinent to this discussion is the way the vocal folds approximate in these two modes of production. In the flute production, the vocal folds do come together fully. This type of efficiency is desirable. To achieve a balanced modal phonation (a supported tone if you will), adequate breath pressure must be applied without the participation of extraneous musculature. This is perfectly achievable with practice and is in fact the goal of efficient phonation. This is the reason that many teachers advocate the top-down philosophy. It is a logical philosophy.
The open chest mode of phonation is inefficient and cannot be taken very high without causing extreme extraneous tension. This mode of production is a vocal effect that should be used sparingly and only in the extreme low range. Unfortunately, many men as well as women use this mode of phonation in the chest range believing it to be efficient, and that with practice it can be connected to the rest of the voice smoothly. This is not possible. Changing from open chest voice to the fully-adducted flute-like tone can be masked. But the glitch can usually be detected.

So why use the open chest voice? The answer is simple. It requires little coordination. The result is immediate, and singers are not often very patient people when it comes to their voices. Better yet what is the alternative? Am I suggesting taking the flute-based phonation down all the way? Yes and no! To explain this fully, I must also discuss what we mean by head and chest relative to resonance.

2) Head and chest voice in terms of resonance. In resonance we are dealing with two modes. The pharyngeal resonance or Formant 1 controlled by the space below the tongue, and the palatal resonance or Formant 2 controlled by the space above the tongue. These are often referred to as chest and head respectively in the male voice, and chest and middle in the female voice. The male passaggio and the female first passaggio (roughly between B3 and G4) constitute an acoustic phenomenon primarily. Depending on vowel, at a certain pitch level, the dominating resonance switches from Formant 1 to Formant 2. The singer must change the vowel (tongue, lips laryngeal height, palatal height, etc are all involved in the vowel change) in such a way as to accommodate the needs of the Formant 2 resonance. This is the concept of vowel modification. Beyond the female second passaggio (roughly between D5 and G5) the resonance mode should change back to Formant 1 resonance, and the range above the passaggio is referred to as the female head voice. To complicate matters, resonance adjustment has a direct effect on muscular activity in the larynx. This complicity confuses the singer in thinking that a resonance change is in fact a phonational change. Although the two processes are inter-dependent, it is important for understanding to keep them separate.

Now to the question that I previously posed: Do I believe that the flute-like tone should be taken all the way down?" I said yes and no. First, here is why yes:

The flute voice or full closure falsetto that most singers can experience in the high voice constitutes correct fold adduction. There is usually not enough muscular antagonism from the vocalis muscle group to constitute a "real" supported tone. However, one can learn to gradually crescendo from this tone. Furthermore, when one begins in flute or full-closure falsetto and maintain the quality of the tone while descending in pitch, the vocalis muscle becomes gradually active and a true tone is achieved. How much breath pressure can be applied to the tone depends on individual strength, and this can be developed over time. Therefore, in terms of phonation, I do believe that the full-closure falsetto or flute voice should be at the basis of healthy production. This is essentially a top-down approach, and it works only because there is the understanding that the full-closure flute voice must be properly pressurized (increase subglottal pressure and related vocalis activity) in order to be viable. Maintaining the unpressurized flute voice down, will not yield efficiency, but breathiness instead.

Now for the no:

In terms of resonance, there is an acoustic change that is necessary around both passaggios. From the female high voice across the second passaggio, the resonance should change from Formant 1 dominance to Formant 2 dominance. However, the flute-like nature of the phonation must remain. The problem is that the phonation is often lost when there is a resonance change. So the singer who is uncoordinated is convinced that he or she cannot maintain that mode of phonation. The same is true at the lower passaggio (the only traditional male passaggio) around B3 to G4. The change this time is from Formant 2 to Formant 1.

Scientifically, this means maintaining the flute-based phonational efficiency, but changing resonance mode appropriately across the passaggi. This brings me to the concept of a mixed voice. What is referred to as a mix is a combination of the flute-based tone that is traditional called head voice and changing the resonance to Formant 1 in the low voice, which is one element of chest voice. The sensation is that one is going into a different mode of singing in the range below the first passaggio, but one that is somewhat related to the top voice.

To summarize, the phonational mode, flute-based, should be maintained throughout the range, and the resonance mode must change across the passaggi.

Finally, I must also address the bottom-up philosophy. This approach to register unification has been less successful and less popular and there is a reason for this. The nature of the phonation in the low voice must be determined. If the singer has a well-developed mixed voice as explained above (flute-based phonation with Formant 1 resonance), then it is possible to bring this production up relatively easily. But fewer singers have such a coordination in the low voice. Building the upper voice based on an open chest voice is usually detrimental.

© 03/18/2008

Monday, March 17, 2008

Resonance sensations

Blue Yonder asked the following question in reference to the last installment on Phonation and mask sensations: "If mask sensations are indeed associated with phonation rather than resonance adjustment, then what ARE the physical sensations associated with correct resonance adjustment?"

I believe that we get sidetracked by what we perceive to be resonance sensations. As addressed in the previous post, I believe that the wonderful vibrations that we cherish are sensations associated with excellent phonation supported by good resonance adjustments. A better way of saying it is that greater intensity in the sensations we feel are a direct result of proper resonance adjustments. The manner by which the air is propagated through the glottal oscillation has a direct influence on how we sense the sound. How the sound hits our hearing mechanism also has an effect on our sensations. How our bones response to the glottal vibration, rather supraglottal or subglottal will have an effect on the vibrations that we sense. Our primary concern is therefore to identify the physical action that produces these vibrations, rather than concentrate on the vibrations themselves, because the sensations are influenced by various sources (e.g. hearing, bone conduction, mode of phonation, etc).

This is the reason why I concentrate on onset so much. Beginning the sound lightly is key. When the sound is then compressed (i.e. more breath pressure is added to create a supported tone), the onset mechanism must be maintained. Singers tend to accept a degree of tension when singing a supported tone. There is indeed a certain necessity of tension in the mechanism when the tone is "supported", but it is not any kind of tension. Many singers do not distinguish between the subglottic pressure that comes when fully approximated folds interact with the moving breath, and the supraglottal squeeze that often results and is detrimental.

As for resonance, rather than concentrate on vibratory sensations, I find it more productive to go to the source of the issue. We know that we are dealing basically with two modes of resonance that have to do with the way the vocal tract is partitioned by the tongue. Simply put, we have two spaces in the vocal tract: 1) the space below the tongue, which I call pharyngeal space and 2) the space above the tongue, which I call palatal space. The pharyngeal space is what is scientifically referred to as "first formant", the palatal space is referred to as "second formant." One of these two spaces will be primarily responsible for the resonance of the sung pitch. Consider that the tongue is shaped differently for each vowel. This means that the vocal tract is partitioned differently for each vowel. Therefore, the resonance of different vowels can differ drastically.

To identify the two different resonance sensations, it is necessary to chose a single pitch and sing two vowels that have opposite resonance strategies. It is also important to assure that phonation is correct to begin with. I recommend the following exercise:

Sing C4 (middle C) softly on [i] as in feel, crescendo enough to feel that the tone is supported, then switch to [a] as in father and diminuendo. Naturally, the [i] will feel higher, headier. The [a] will feel lower, speakier. The key is that while the resonance changes, there should be no glitch in the phonation, and one should be able to diminuendo without problem. From [i] to [a], the change is from second formant (i.e. palatal space, head resonance) to first formant (i.e. pharyngeal resonance, chest resonance [not the same as chest voice. This is what is referred to as a mix]). Women might find the exercise more remarkable on D4, one step higher. This exercise is based on the first passaggio for women (the only passaggio for the traditional male voice. It should be said that men who sing in their high falsetto, like countertenors do experience a second passaggio if they sing above F5)

Women may also experiment in the second passaggio. Do the same exercise on F5 (one octave and a fourth above middle C). Again, the [i] vowel will maintain a second formant (palatal mode) resonance mode and the [a] will switch to a first formant (pharyngeal mode) resonance.

The success of these exercises depend on relative freedom in the mechanism. the larynx and soft palate should be in their naturally released positions. That is why the exercise begins softly. This is to assure that no excessive tension is involved. If there is tension relative to muscular memory of old habits, the exercise may not be smooth. This would be a sign that there is work to be done in releasing of extraneous tensions.

Finally, relative to Blue Yonder's question, the exercise should give a clear sensory difference as to how the two resonance strategies differ in sensation, while hopefully maintaining a constant phonation mode.

© 03/17/2008