Saturday, July 18, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): Resonance and the released jaw

The idea of the "natural voice" is so froth with contradiction that it is almost foolhardy to address the many issues that contribute to the confusion. But that is the point of this blog: making sense of misconceptions and confusions. One of the issues that I find troublesome in the current pedagogy environment is the idea of singing with a closed mouth or nearly closed to be exact.

There is a reason why most vocalises are done of the [a] vowel and that most dramatic high notes are written on the [a] vowel. The baby's cry is produced on a vowel that fall on or near the [a] vowel spectrum. Both the dramatic high note and the baby's cry are meant to attract attention. They are both meant to be acoustically piercing; the high note piercing the orchestral texture and the baby's cry piercing through ambient noise and the lulling dullness of their parents' slumber.

The released jaw, consistent with a good [a] vowel releases the larynx to a lower position.

With the jaw closed touch the surface of the larynx at the thyroid cartilage (Adam's apple)
and while touching it release the jaw. The larynx automatically goes slightly lower.

The released jaw also promotes a palatal stretch without additional muscular activity. So why do many teachers promote the idea of a closed jaw or at least a closed mouth?

A well phonated tone produces important high harmonics that contribute to audibility and vowel intelligibility. Indeed those overtones are not possible if the tone is not properly phonated. In the case of improper phonation (breathy or pressed), those high overtones are not very strong. The resultant sound is then dull. To give the illusion of a "brighter" sound (not necessary a resonant sound) the singer will reduce the low harmonics. The easiest way to do this is closing the jaw, which brings the larynx up with it, thereby reducing the strength of the lower harmonics.

Another reasoning is adherence to the Italian axiom, "si canta come si parla" (one sings as s/he speaks). There is a problem with the axiom itself (already discussed on the blog). We do not speak with the intent of piercing through orchestral textures or our parent's lulling sleep, except as baby's and at parties. In other words, every day speech does not require peak acoustic output. This is particularly relevant to the production of the [i] vowel. Most of us produce an [i] with the jaw closed because it is easier to coordinate. The tongue, principal muscle of vowel formation does not need to be very active to produce an [i] when the jaw is closed. With the jaw released in the [a] position, the back of the tongue has to migrate considerably to form the [i] vowel. This is not easy for most singers. To make matters worse, the natural acoustics of the [i] vowel yield strong high partials even when the jaw is closed. Therefore there is little insentive to produce an [i] with the released jaw.

My argument is the following. The [i] vowel can yield strong high partials even when phonation is not ideal. In fact, when phonation is unbalanced, singing a closed jaw [i] vowel produces an acceptable sound. If however the jaw is released, the sound even on [i] often becomes dull. This can be confused to mean that a released jaw yields a dull sound. And this is precisely the conclusion that many teachers come to. However it is the opposite. What the release jaw does is that it reveals the nature of the phonation. If the phonation is breathy or pressed, when the jaw is released, the sound will be of poor quality. Therefore by maintaining a released jaw, we are able to uncover the inefficiency and then are required to address it. When the inefficienty is addressed, then good phonation will be the norm and be able to transfer from one vowel to the next without loss of quality.

The previous paragraph alludes to a common problem that is often discussed of discussion forums: "why is it that when I transition from [i] to [a], the [a] falls in my throat?" Because the [a] vowel requires a released jaw, the inefficiency inherent in the closed jaw [i] manifests when the jaw is released on [a].

Beyond revealing the glottal inefficiency, the released jaw makes for a better acoustical environment for vocal production. The lower laryngeal position is absolutely crucial to the operatic production (less so for Commercial Contemporary Music). A lower larynx (not depressed, but rather released when the jaw is released) promotes strong first formant resonance and gives strength to lower notes. The first formant also helps in the transition to the female middle voice and the male high voice. By maintaining the integrity of the first formant, as pitch rises, the dominance of the first formant is left behind and the influence of the second formant takes over. If however the larynx climbs (research shows that first formant values rise when the larynx rises) then the first formant will continue to follow the rising pitch and the acoustic transition from low register to high (middle for women) does not occur. Instead there would be a conflict for dominance between the two formants and the sung tone would be unstable. In fact this is the central argument for a double formant strategy. Not that both formants dominate, but that in order for one formant to dominate when it is appropriate, the other formant must not interfere.

If the larynx rises we also lose the efficiency in phonation provided by supra-glottal inertial reactance.

Each singer behaves differently and some very skilled singers are able to produce a very satisfying sound with a closed jaw. However, resonance is often weakened in a certain area of the range. Clever singers often preempt the loss of power by making an adjustment before the problems occur (e.g. bringing the chest voice higher, letting the larynx climb really high, etc). We are also willing to accept a certain loss of quality in parts of the range when the singer sings extraordinarily in the top voice. Such singers are often cited as examples of successfully singing with a closed jaw. It is crucial to give singers credit for their strengths and not for their weaknesses. A great singer can be great because of awesome stage presence, refined musicality, a strong vocal output, even while leaving much to be desired technically.

By following correct acoustic principles, it makes sense to maintain a released position on all vowels and to return to the released position after articulating consonants that require closure (fricatives in particular). Maintaining a flexibly released jaw promotes consistency in the resonance of the sound and gives an even quality from vowel to vowel. This is not easy to accomplish and requires a level of patience. When accomplished, this release reveals technical flaws that can then be addressed yielding a vocal instrument capable of maintaining stability thorugh the many changes required by the operatic repertoire.

I wish to pay tribute to Daniel Pratt, one of my early teachers who emphasized the importance of what he called "the tall [i]". Great principles stay with us through all our different stages of development.

© 07/18/2009


KG said...

You do a good job of articulating something I've often felt but have not quite been able to describe. Some teachers say closing the mouth promotes more head register activity and therefore sometimes use this as a pedagogical tool. This has always struck me as wrong--a quick fix at best and bad habit inducing more often than not.

Do you think there's truth to this? Can the closed mouth be used as a means to an end?

On the other hand, a forcibly open mouth, tense and rigid, is no better. However, I often find that the lifting of the palate when the jaw is down and relaxed will tend to stiffen the jaw. Any advice there?

Another question: You seem to imply that it is possible to achieve an extraordinary top with a closed mouth if one sacrifices other notes in the lower range. Am I understanding this correctly? I'm not sure I agree with this if this is what you're saying.

Finally, I would amend the famous saying as follows "si canta come si parla, se si parla in Italiano!"

- Klaus Georg

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Dear Klaus,

I am reluctant to have a singer close the mouth except in extreme circumstances of rigid over-opening of the mouth or depressed larynx. Closing the mouth as a short-term strategy to introduce a singer to higher overtones is conceivable (for those singers who sing a very swallowed [ingolato] sound), but I would never use it as an "end" strategy.

As for the superb top with a close jaw, I don't believe in this at all, but I do believe in singers who develop a great top voice even before studying (a result of proper speaking pitch mainly) and will maintain a very good top despite singing with a close mouth. Alfredo Kraus is a good example of this. His top was extraordinary, particularly in the early years when his technique was more traditional. With time, he closed his mouth more and more, his middle range became thin and the top voice actually lost beauty. However the high notes were there consistently and the audiences forgave him the loss of quality because the notes were secure.

As for the palate, I am not a fan of forcing the soft palate up as I am not a fan of forcing the larynx down. I do believe that releasing the mandibular joint releases the larynx and the palate to appropriate levels.

I would have to agree with your amendment of the famous Italian axiom. However I have met some speakers of other cultures that have beautifully focused and balanced voices.


Blue Yonder said...

TS, when people speak of a released jaw, does that mean that 1) the jaw muscles are engaged to actually open the jaw wider and push the mouth open, or 2) the jaw muscles are relaxed and the lower jaw is allowed to settle downward to its natural position due to gravity? I'm guessing it's #2, but it's always been a point of confusion when I hear teachers using language like "drop the jaw".

Your discussion on the [i] vowel has been helpful. After a long time, it's finally started sinking in for me that when I sing, I should not form the [i] vowel the same way as when I speak (which is with a fairly closed mouth/jaw). So I have been experimenting with relaxing the jaw and making the tongue do more of the work of forming the vowel. Results have been encouraging so far and we'll see how it progresses.

Ulf Wiger said...

Thank you for yet another very good post.

I would say that it's important to learn to articulate (including singing with a nearly closed mouth/lips when needed) without closing the jaw. I believe that practically all consonants can also be managed with relaxed jaw joints. It takes a lot of practice, though, but I've found that it's well worth it.

I've also had trouble with the "si canta come si parla" expression, for the same reasons you list, but also because I personally have had to re-learn practically all vowel and consonant sounds in order to maintain an open throat position and proper legato.

Perhaps this was much because I started re-learning after 15 years of singing, but I think that this may well increasingly be the case: many (most?) singers will learn to sing the wrong way first, and then - if they are lucky - come across someone who can correct their technique. And it will be more likely than not that many of the problems are related to improper articulation.


Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Dear Blue Yonder. Always a joy to receive one of your well thought-out posts. Same goes for both KG and Ulf.

Yonder, I agree with your conclusion. The second version you cite is correct. It is about releasing the jaw to its default released position, barring those whose muscular balance has been altered by the elastic retainers used with braces, or those who have otherwise altered the natural muscular balance of the temporal-mandibular joint.

Along this line, I have to articulate strongly that I am not advocating a jaw released beyond natural release [a] position. I am also glad that you are finding success with the [i] vowel properly articulated.

Ulf you make an excellent point about the ability to close the lips without closing the jaw. Many vowels require the lips to close but not necessary the jaw. I also agree that many consonants can be articulated with the jaw released. I will precise that certain consonants require the jaw to close (e.g. [f], [s]). The important issue is that one must release the jaw on the following vowel. The tendency is to keep the jaw closed on the following vowel when the preceding consonant requires closure.

Thank you all for your very astute commentary.


Ulf Wiger said...

JLR, I agree that [f] and [s] are among the trickiest to get right. Personally, I've struggled the most with [s], probably much because it offers very little 'friction'. Nowadays, I try to focus particularly on the following vowel, thinking 'inhalare la voce' and shaping the [s] with the aid of 'only' my tongue against the hard palate right behind the teeth and letting out a bare minimum of air (the transients of the [s] are so powerful that you really don't need to push it much.) I want to create the feeling of 'springing' back to the vowel.

I started working hard on this when I realised that I was losing position on the consonants. The first ones I got a handle on were [b], [d] and [g], since they involve a lowered larynx and are very helpful for acquiring the right position in the first place. The best way to learn [p] and [k], I think, is to sing Italian, since their versions of these consonants are not as 'leaky' as the Germanian versions. The nasals are worthy of their own chapter of course. [f] and [s] were indeed the most difficult.

Rebecca Fromherz said...

Hello TS,

I have been mulling over this post for a while! Thank you for addressing the open jaw, and thanks for passing on Daniel Pratt's concept of "the tall [i]" here, and in the studio.

Commenting today, I am thinking of myself and my colleagues who had braces as teenagers. Because of my braces (I think), I have always been perplexed by the idea that the jaw can just 'fall' open, as many singers claim that theirs do! Mine does not do this! When completely relaxed, my lower jaw hangs about a centimeter down from my upper jaw.

I would like to retrieve the flexibility and relaxation that I presumably had in the jaw, pre-braces. Any suggestions for exercises to restore this balance?

Thank you,


Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Dear RJF,

I include exercises geared to help release the jaw to its "primordial" form in the "Regimen for Vocal Warm-up" under resonance exercises at the end of the post:

I hope you find them helpful.

bleetenor said...

Hi TS,

I'm really enjoying the blog.

I think this is a very important post. My teacher (George Gibson) introduced me to this idea in April and I have mad huge strides with it. /i/ is still a challenge, but GG is very insistent that /i/ be done with the same jaw as /a/, and that all the other vowels live there too. Exactly as you explained, a more open position exposes what's there and allows one to fix it quicker. I'm getting much more "bang for the buck" and the transition from one vowel to the next is much stronger.

It's very helpful to see the different expressions of the same idea among my teacher, you, and Stephen Smith's "The Naked Voice" which I have just read. All agree about this jaw attitude and it is perfect logical physiologically and acoustically, and it FEELS great too! Carry on!

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Thank you Bleetenor,

It is always gratifying to know that informed teachers come to the same conclusions. I own Stephen Smith's book. In fact I am mentioned in the preface.

There are many who feel that good technique needs to be veiled in a shroud of mystery. Music is mysterious. Vocal technique should not be.

Thank you for your commentary. I look forward to more of your participation.