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.


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