Sunday, April 12, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): One Must Die To Rise Again: Rebuilding the voice from imbalance to balance

I have not forgotten about the promises I made here, and today is a day to deliver. First, Happy Easter and a belated Happy Passover! These last couple of weeks have been full of activities upon seeing my New York students, and it has been truly a blessing to see with what dedication they have taken on the work of developing their own voices while I was away. Everyone has made marked improvements and that is heart-warming. My hope is that a language could be developed that tells the student facts that they can understand and apply to their own singing, gradually becoming independent of the teacher. And I am seeing that happening. I intend to deliver on two promises. First, in this post I will include a clip that gives a glimpse into my own process and where I am in my journey from bass-baritone to tenor. Second in the next post, which I may write today, I will give a series of warm-up exercises that can be done as a daily warm-up, explaining what they do. Clips for each exercise will be added later.

As I observed each student, I saw a pattern that applies to my own process as well. In all cases, we have dealt with two principal issues: 1) Reestablishing muscular balance (weight) and 2) accomplishing pressure/flow balance. It is true that technical problems with the greater share of singers stem from too much vocalis activity, what we in layman's terms refer to as too much weight. Yet in a great many cases, the problem is the opposite, too little vocalis activity. In the case of several coloratura sopranos that I have taught over the past couple of years, that has been the issue. In those cases, achieving consistency in the Queen of the Night's high F passages depended on not less weight but more. Contrary to popular belief, an approach that is too light (by this, I mean too little vibratory mass, fold depth) does not help the process of phonation but in fact creates a need for unnecessary muscular activity, namely pressed voice (very likely hyperactive adductory muscles making up for a lack of mass).

There is also a common misunderstanding that tension is associated with too much weight. A student of mine who is also making the switch to tenor from baritone kept saying: "that was too heavy, wasn't?" The question he should have asked is whether it was too tense. In fact, true freedom is not possible until appropriate weight has been established. In the case of lower voices becoming higher voices, there is naturally a weakness in the upper end. That weakness manifests usually in tension, often wrongly described as weight. In the case of the tenors changing from baritone, what I have observed is that they do indeed sing heavily in the lower part of the voice and just beyond the muscular passaggio (where crico-thyroid becomes dominant over vocalis, around C#4). They had to do so in order to sound viable as baritones. The big job is achieving appropriate weight in the lower and middle part of the range in order to allow proper muscular balance. Once the appropriate weight has been accomplished, then flow phonation (and by association, vocal tract adjustment) can be addressed.

The problem is that many changing bari-tenors do not like to give up the dark quality of their lower range. There is a psychological attachment with the vocal color that had been used for so long. In that sense, one must die before s/he can rise again. In order for the excessive weight in the lower range to be normalized, the singer must accept a different sound quality. For that bari-tenor, it is important to die a baritone death before rising again as a tenor. This is an emotional death, a letting go of something that has served well, often for a long time. The average person wants to hold on to what feels familiar. That is the principle difficulty in making a voice type change, particular from low to high.

Consider another scenario:

A soprano who sings too lightly consequently develops pressed phonation, which limits the top range. How do we remedy this? Based on the discussion above, it is important to bring the weight to balance. This means increasing the weight in the top voice where it is too light and pressed. However, this would cause more tension. I find it logical and practicable to fix the problem in reverse. First remove the pressed phonation that is essentially lack of air flow, and then adjust the weight while being conscious of the need for air flow. The end product is appropriate fold depth (thickness) and flow phonation based on the edges barely touching. A simulated complete glottal closure by means of supra-glottal inertia will be achieved through a long vocal tract resulting from low larynx and high/wide soft palate and vowel choices that keep the relevant formant frequency below the respective harmonic. I must stress that appropriate weight (fold mass, fold depth) is central to the phonation equation. A given pitch can be distinguished by the fold mass required to produce it. When that is altered, there must be extraneous mechanisms in order to achieve that particular pitch. Those extraneous mechanisms (pressed phonation, often followed by mild muscle tension dysphonia) are what we recognize as tension. Accomplishing appropriate weight makes those mechanisms unnecessary.

This has been a part of my personal struggle in making the change from bass-baritone to tenor. In my early days at the University of Michigan, George Shirley did warm me up to C#5 more than once. So I knew that I had the notes. Among many of his wisdoms, was the idea that one should feel an anchoring in the chest. I have come to identify this anchoring as associated with vocalis activity or better said, fold depth. This explains why there is such a correlation between chest sensations and heavy mechanism. This is an effective way of approximating the appropriate fold depth. However, it is important to consider flow simultaneously. The released sensation associated with falsetto and flute voice should be combined with this sensation of connection via the chest. Balancing these two sensations will ultimately result in appropriate fold depth and flow-phonation mode. I will give exercises in the next post that encourage the balance between fold depth and flow phonation (one exercise to be found below). In the mean time, I share the following clip recorded yesterday between voice lessons. There are moments where the muscular balance is still tenuous, particularly around C#4 where I believe the muscular passagio (as opposed to the acoustic passaggio that occurs higher around F#4) occurs for more robust tenors (this causes a slight instability in the pitch). The first Bb has some tension to be resolved. The second is better. Now that the basics have been accomplished, the work of the next few months is strongly breath-related. Teaching the fold edges to return to a natural mode of vibration. The ability to sing the consonant [v] throughout the modal range is a sign of balanced phonation. This is also an exercise that promotes such balance. During the exercise, there must be enough air pressure in the mouth to create a strong [v] sound. This requires enough air flow through the glottis and guarantees flow phonation at that level. In other words, enough air pressure must be created to vibrate both the glottal obstruction and the obstruction at the lower-lip-upper-teeth juncture. However the pressure must convert to flow at the glottal level in order for enough pressure to become available above the larynx for the lip vibration. Achieving a clear vibrant [v] is therefore a confirmation of flow phonation. Singing a scale on [a] right afterward always yields exciting results in my experience. This is a safer exercise than the lip trill, which requires greater air pressure in general. I consider lip trills a stronger version of the [v] exercises and should be done once evenness has been accomplished with the [v].

© 04/12/2009


George said...

So many great points made here. I think your hope of developing a language of objective facts and principles that a student can understand and apply is becoming achievable. Through your blog, your posts, and our discussions I feel like I am gaining a real understanding of vocal concepts that makes sense and is practical. Concepts of TA/CT balance and 1st and 2nd formant resonance are very helpful in the midst (and mist) of varying confusing language about head voice, chest voice, open, cover, etc.

It makes so much sense that much of the battle in rebalancing the voice as one transitions between fachs is the process of allowing oneself to let go of conscious and also subconscious aesthetic expectations (in addition to years of muscle memory, of course) for one's voice. A tenor may be so used to his middle voice feeling and sounding a certain way as a baritone that the psychological block could hold him back for some time. I wonder what some practical strategies for the singer to overcome this mental obstacle might be.

Thank you for posting another clip! You are achieving a nice ring in the voice, especially impressively on the Bbs. It is impressive to me to hear how you are clearly achieving the transition into CT dominance on the Gbs - Bbs on top. What's great is how the voice expands and blooms up there. I recently heard a fine young successful tenor performing in Detroit who had a very nice voice but on the Bbs and Cs the voice shrank and the sound disappeared rather than the other way around like I hear in your clip.

I love the "vvvaaa" exercises and look forward to the next post.

thetruth said...



Martin Berggren said...

Thanks for a very informative post, as usual!

For a science geek like me, this part is particularly illuminating:

A simulated complete glottal closure by means of supra-glottal inertia will be achieved through a long vocal tract resulting from low larynx and high/wide soft palate and vowel choices that keep the relevant formant frequency below the respective harmonic.(Just some nitpicking: It should be "vowel choices that keep the relevant formant frequency above respective harmonic", right? )

Otherwise the sentence above is so true, I believe! I have just started to really appreciate lip trills, which is a new experience for me! It feels like the increased back pressure guides the phonation towards a lighter approach, so that the vocal folds does not collide so heavily, which in turn helps the vibrations become clean and harmonic. The trick is then to maintain that feeling of back pressure when singing. I interpret this feeling as inertial load, and I believe it is the same as what some has labeled as "singing on the breath" or "letting the sound oppose the breath".

The experience of lip trills have reinforced my belief that the there is a what I like to call a "static" component to the inertial loading, created by a correct shaping of the vocal tract as you talk about. The "dynamic" component of the inertial loading is the somewhat less crucial (I think) formant placement, accomplished by vowel modifications. (The terminology "static" and "dynamic" is mine, but it is consistent with what I understand of the underlying physics.)

I have also tried the trick of singing through a drinking straw, as Titze has proposed for the same purpose (read about it at nfcs), but that does not accomplish much for me. It feels like standing waves are building up in the straw, disturbing the phonation at certain pitches (I think the standing waves creates a dynamic load that becomes destructively compliant at certain pitches). I will try the "v" also!



Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Dear George,

Thank you for the nice comments on the clip and the [va] exercise. What I am looking for is a more release between C#4 and F#4 (the old Baritone drama area). I have found good results since the clip with the [mmm--wi] exercise. The m guarantees glottal resistance (I think occlusion like [v] and lip trills is at work here as well) and the [wi] tends to induce flow, the [u] portion helps relax the larynx and the [i] more palatal stretch (good conditions for flow phonation). I hope to post again soon with more efficient phonation. Beginning to get some nicely released Bs and Cs, a major achievement for me.

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Dear Martin,

Always a pleasure to have your input. Yes I did mean the formants above the harmonics. Thank you for spotting the error.

I also tried the straw trick but did not find significant results with it.

I agree with your assessment of static vs. dynamic inertial load conditions. I think you will find that the dynamic component is very satisfying when the static component is consistent. I believe I have always had a long vocal tract adjustment, but often inexact phonation modes. Having sung as a baritone, the vocalis-CT dynamics where off (too much vocalis in the muscular passaggio point, around C#4). I find the occlusion-type exercises actually induce a better muscular dynamic and over time, the nature balance of those muscles is achieved anew. once this occurs, the resonance issues we are discussing begin to play a significant part.

I hope you are finding success with your own voice.

Warmest greetings,


Adam said...

I disagree a little bit with the statement that lip trills are less safe than the [v] sound. I absolutely think that if you start right into your warmup with lip trills at full-blast, you're asking for trouble. But that's not how the lip trills are meant to be used, according to the article by Titze referred to earlier (and also by my own experience with lip trills). The lip trill does several things, but the effect I want to mention is the increased intraoral pressure.

The one Titze mentioned is to be able to warm up the respiratory musculature more rapidly without injuring the vocal folds in the process. The high intraoral pressure provided by the lip rolls prevents pressed voice or other problems associated with excessive subglottal breath pressure. I believe the underlying principle there is that the absolute amount of subglottal pressure doesn't have a direct effect on vocal cord function; it's the pressure difference between the sub- and supra-glottal areas that results in the effects of "too much" or "too little" breath pressure. So, a lip trill done in a healthy fashion should not involve an increase of the glottal pressure gradient. In fact, the relative subglottal pressure should actually be lower than normal at the beginning of the warmup.

If this happens, it has the effect of allowing the laryngeal muscles to be warmed up gently (as if starting on a piano tone and gradually increasing volume over several minutes to reach mf) while actually starting with enough air to give the much larger respiratory muscles a chance to warm up at the same time, instead of having to wait until the larynx is ready to produce mf, f, and ff sounds.

Presumably, exercises done at piano and mezzo-piano intensity don't warm the respiratory muscles up because they aren't getting any more of a workout than for regular speech and breathing, and they don't get a workout until you're at a volume that would be foolish to begin an vowel-based warmup at.

One more note about lip trills: if you gently raise the cheeks up with your hands until the lips are parallel when closed instead of downwardly curved, the lip trill becomes much easier to produce. There's no need to add medial compression to the lips by tensing up the chin muscles, and less air is required to set the lips into vibration and maintain the vibration. Plus, the intensity of the vibration at the lips is greater due to the increased vibrating mass of the folds, which allows more intraoral pressure (thus less transglottal pressure difference) for the same amount of air. My personal experience is that lifting the cheeks makes the lip trill exercise much more effective at allowing a relatively rapid and intense warmup without any risk of irritation to the vocal folds. What takes fifteen minutes to accomplish with vowel sounds will take seven minutes to accomplish with the cheeks-lifted lip trill.

I hope this can be helpful! After all, you've just helped me. It sounds like the [v] sound is the perfect thing to use after lip trills but before nasal consonants with high vowels in my warmup. I find that the more gradually I increase the difficulty of exercises in a practice session, the better I do at the difficult ones.

MD said...

MD -
I'm looking forward to the exercises you mentioned at the end of your initial post as I feel they will address some of the changes I have been going through vocally. While I am not changing fachs I am recovering from viral attacks that have weakened the TA/CT balance. I've been using the tongue/lip trill which has been extremely helpful, but was interested in reading that you thought the "vvv" should be used first to even out the scale. I'm looking forward to trying this as there has been one or two notes in the scale during the tongue/lip trill that are weaker than the remaining notes. I enjoy reading the posts and the comments, but at times find them a little "uber-scientific".