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.



Shawn Thuris said...

Great blog. Having started as a baritone myself, I know the temptation to make the sound as full and beefy as possible right up to the head voice. But doing that will cut you off from easy access to the top. In the last couple of years, I've found that my soft singing in the passaggio is more effective with a slightly lower larynx -- it matches the qualities above and below the passaggio better that way. Thanks for sharing!

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Thank you as well for sharing Shawn. As you said, a slight lowering! Makes all the sense in the world.

Thinkingtenor said...

Jean Ronald-

I have followed your blog with great interest. I remember your singing several recitals and was always impressed with your musical intelligence and skill with languages. After listening to your clip of Di Provenza which used to be online, you still sounded very similar to when you were young. So it was always interesting for me to watch you

I think this particular laryngeal idea is slightly wrongheaded.And Miller, when I spoke to him and asked him specifically about this issue was more concerned with the use of the supralaryngic musculature in vocal production.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.

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.

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.

Brilliance should then follow up the track by the shaping of the tongue and vocal track but the larynx should not play a large part in that, as well you certainly strengthen resonance by an increased tension in the aryepiglottic folds, which should not be confused with the constricter muscles.

OK I could talk all day. Best of luck with your continued explorations and I always enjoy reading your posts.

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Thank you Thinkingtenor for a wonderfully explicit post. Be secure that I am not suggesting a high larynx but rather that I suggest a naturally low larynx in the chest voice range. The statements in the blog come from many hours of spectrum analysis and consultation from those who I have been working with the past few months. It was unanimous when I allowed the laryngeal position to be itself rather than "making it low". I believe that I was slightly depressing the larynx in my early days and up to the time of the Di Provenza that you heard. The sound was never pushed at the laryngeal level which made for a certain amount of flexibility, but the voice lacked presence. When the low range achieved its natural laryngeal position (not necessarily a high larynx which I don't believe in either).

Acoustically, an artificiallly low larynx does interfere with the resonance of the first formant and causes a certain struggle in phonation. The supraglottal inertial air that helps so much to achieve efficiency in the folds cannot occur when there is no coincidence with one of the overtones or the fundamental of the sung pitch. This is what I discovered. Rather than a high larynx, I suggest a natural laryngeal position in the first formant range which allows for a natural lowering of the larynx in the passaggio. This lowering makes sense with the need to discourage the first formant in favor of the second.

What I believe is an error is to start in the lower range (I speak of men here primarily and women relative to the first passaggio)with the space that is necessary in the second formant range. The deeper laryngeal position, in my experience that is necessary from the passaggio and up, is not necessary below the passaggio and in fact causes phonational ineffeciency in that range.

A high larynx causes a stiffness that may in someways help to bring the folds together, but that stiffness prevents the laryngeal change (girare la voce) that is necessary in the passaggio. I agree with you fully in that sense. To repeat, I am not recommending a high larynx, but rather a "middle" larynx in the first formant range that is flexible and can adjust to the needs of the passaggio and the second formant range.

Thank you so much for a very thoughtful post. I look forward to more.

Antonio said...

Do you think perhaps that what you describe as an artifically low larynx is a depressed larynx with the base of the tongue pushing against the cords? The reason phonation is impeded here is because the tongue is actually touching the cords and they are not fully closing. This makes the voice heavy and the first formant very big, but at the expense of the singer's formant.

A higher larynx might prevent this problem by getting th tongue out of the way, but really will not create the real tenorial sound unless the larynx is properly lowered by the pull of the depressor muscles. A new way must be found without the help of the base of the tongue. The yawn position helps as well as energetic inhalation.

Usually tongue depression is a sign of too much breath pressure. The concept of appoggio must change from pushing breath to holding back breath. The cords will close on their when the breath pressure is sufficiently minimized (held back). Mirror work with an arched tongue is beneficial.

As far as the turn from 1st to 2nd formant, the tuning changes because the cords thin out in the passaggio. The Ct stretch becomes stronger while the vocalis subsides. This tunes the sound differently. You could intend to have an even resonance sensation through the passaggio and will still notice this changes due to the chords thining out. The sensations will be headier and more
2nd formant dominant.

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Thanks for the comments Antonio. There is a difference between a laryngeal position that is too low and a depression by the back of the tongue. Neither is helpful, but the laryngeal position that is so low that first formant resonance is improperly tuned is one thing and mechanically less of a problem to resolve than tongue depression.

The tongue however cannot possibly touch the vocal folds. What actually happens is that the back of the tongue pushes on the epiglottis which covers the larynx and completely obliterates natural resonance.

There are many reasons why the folds might not come together adequately. Correct fold closure depends on the coordination between several sets of muscles. crico-thyroid and vocalis/internal thyro-arytenoids, the tension of which bulk up and bring the folds closer. The inter-arytenoids bring the folds together. Also correct vocal tract tuning help create an inertia in the air above the folds which bring them together more easily.

The first formant constitutes the space below the tongue and its relation to the overtone series of the sung pitch. Correct tuning of the lower space in relation to one of the components of the sung pitch is the means of resonance strategy in the lower voice (male). While formant resonance has an influence on vocal weight, the most important factor is the balance between the two main laryngeal muscle groups: Crico-thyroid and vocalis. A heavy voice means that the vocalis is too active. When the folds do not come together fully, the sound is hollow and dark, lacking in focus.
Tongue depression can be a symptom of excessive subglottal pressure, I agree. But that is only one reason. The most common reason I find for tongue depression tends to be the concept of the sound. A singer who imagines his sound darker than it really is tends to push the tone back to satisfy his expectation.

The thinning of the folds relative to second formant tuning is correct, but it is rather the tuning of the vocal tract that influences the thinning of the vocal folds. Still it is not so black and white. Di Stefano sang up to high C without ever turning into second formant tuning, proving that it is possible to control the thinness of the folds independently of formant tuning. However, long term, first formant tuning in the male high range causes thickening over time.

Some singers are blessed with natural balance between vocalis and CT in their speaking range which sets up the gradual change from F1 to F2 without problem. Those that begin with heavy speaking habits or singing a lower fach than is natural to their vocal nature have to go through a retraining process. This takes time, but with patience the CT can be strengthened and the balance regained.

The Neural Monastery said...

Thanks so much for this one! That seemingly minor adjustment has done more for my passaggio (which has never quite gotten smooth at higher loudness levels) than anything I've come across in a long while.
If I lower the larynx below the passaggio, it seems to encourage excess effort in the chest voice to compensate, which in turn makes me feel stuck in the heavy mechanism - but if I DON'T lower it a bit through the passaggio and head voice, it again seems to encourage excess muscularity in the upper range (gradually snowballing into a strained sound) in an effort to get a tone that is strong enough to blend well with chest.
Also, correctly identifying my vocal fach became very important for the above reasons.
Thanks again!