Saturday, November 26, 2011


Great singing is a matter of certain measurable attributes. In my previous post I covered a couple of these aspects which are the fundamental pitch and the harmonic richness that great voices produce. These are two absolutely essential and quantifiable qualities that all great singing voices have the ability to wield.

In addition the these two qualities there are some other elements every great singer has. One of these is a proper vibrato action. The vibrato is an "on and off" nerve impulse from the brain to the muscles of the larynx. The vibrato also has a pitch fluctuation as well as a pulse. The pulse is about 6 cycles per second ideally. Of course someone can have a bit faster pulse or a bit slower pulse. However, if a singer has too fast a pulse it goes into a tremolo action which is not desirable. It is anti-musical as it forgoes the proper pitch fluctuation and also gives the feeling of agitation. If the singer's vibrato is too slow then they have a wobble which is also anti-musical.

The proper pitch fluctuation of a vibrato changes based on intensity and pitch range. The lower a singer is in their range the less pitch change there is generally speaking. The higher they go the wider the pitch change. This is also the case in reference to loudness. The louder a singer sings the more pitch fluctuation there should be in their vibrato - and the quieter the sing the less pitch change they should have. This can be easily seen in an analysis of great singers on a spectograph.

Additionally, the pitch fluctuation has a particular accent to it. The top of the pitch fluctuation, or the "peak", is generally 5 decibels louder than the bottom of the pitch change or the "trough". Also, there is a difference in the peak and the trough relative to the fundamental pitch. The peak will be about 1/3 above the fundamental pitch while the trough will be about 2/3 below. So here we have the peak being only 1/3 above the pitch, but 5 decibels louder than the trough which is 2/3 below the pitch. Consequently, our ears hear this action as being on the fundamental pitch. If this proper fluctuation of the vibrato is off then the voice of the singer is affected negatively. Some examples of this are as follows:

1) Tremolo vibrato - too little pitch fluctuation and too fast a pulse.

2) Wobble - too wide of a pitch fluctuation and too slow a pulse.

3) Inverted vibrato - the fluctuation in too big on the peak and to shallow in the tough. In this set up the singer will sound "sharp" or "driven". It is an unsettling vibrato.

4) The vibrato is evenly above and below the pitch which sounds more like a trill.

All of these improper vibrato actions affect the singer's voice negatively. So this is another measurable attribute of a great singing voice.

Another important fact to remember about the vibrato is that it is semi-reflexive. What this means is that the vibrato, just like blinking, will come in naturally by itself or it can be controlled by taking it out altogether or speeding it up, trilling, slowing it down etc. If, however, the vibrato becomes a reflex action then it is completely out of the singers control. This happens in the case of the tremolo vibrato. In this case the speed of the vibrato cannot be changed as it is a reflex.

Consequently, since the fioratura (passages that require rapid scale movement) are done on the vibrato action, if the vibrato becomes a reflex - as in a tremolo vibrato - it will be problematic for the singer for a couple of reasons. First, if the fioratura is at a different speed than the tremolo there will be unsteadiness and inaccuracy. Secondly, sometimes a singer needs to straighten out their vibrato action altogether when passages move so rapidly that they are faster than the vibrato action, giving no time for the singer to vibrato at all; And also there is a musical reason for taking out the vibrato at times in an aria. Singing with no vibrato causes a sense of heightened tension. This tension is then relieved once the vibrato action is added. Great singers use this affect to their advantage when singing. Additionally, there will be times when a singer will want to speed up their vibrato for emotional affect; e.g., at the end of a high note or long held out note. This also has an emotional effect on the listener.

Thus, a singer's control over their vibrato action is crucial for expression, vocal freedom and movement. Paramount to gaining this control is understanding what the proper action is and what controls it and/or affects it. For example, the proper breathing coordination is crucial to gaining control over the vibrato. You can see my past articles on breathing in my blog. If the breathing is set up incorrectly it will not be possible for the vibrato to be correct. The vibrato is also affected by laryngeal position, which is affected by the tongue and so on. In singing all of these components work together so it is vitally important that singers learn systematically and accurately what these components are and how they properly function together. This will result in the most vocal freedom, resonance, beauty and skill that a singer can attain.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


In reference to art as a whole, people have their own opinions on why they prefer a certain painter or a certain genre of music or a certain singer. This is completely natural and entirely understandable. However, that does not negate the fact that their are certain quantifiable elements to any art which demonstrate why it is so valuable. This is also true in music, and in particular for singing.

Since singing is such a personal experience for the artist and also for the listener, there tends to be a general belief that what one likes is just a matter of "preference"; and no one has the right to criticize someone else's preferences. Let me just say that this belief is 100% *WRONG*. Not in the sense that people do not have preferences, but in the sense that *opinion* does not shape reality nor does it alter quantifiable facts. A person with a particular opinion may or may not know these quantifiable facts for whatever reason. So for those who do not know these facts I am going to try and explain what they are in this post. I hope it helps to cultivate your opinions and taste. My ultimate goals here are not just to point out the things that are lacking, but also to give people the tools by which to grow which will greatly enhance their listening experience. This actually allows you to appreciate and enjoy singers in a much deeper and more moving way.

People generally seem to recognize if one singer is better than another singer regardless of musical genre. Not that genre isn't a factor because unfortunately it can be. However, when we are listening for vocal prowess we must learn to differentiate genre preferences from vocal ability. I may not like a certain singer's genre of music; e.g., heavy metal, but I can still recognize if that singer has vocal skill regardless of their musical genre. So for the sake of this article I am going to only write about the things that make a singing voice great.

When someone sings a note, that note is made up of the fundamental pitch as well as the "overtones" or harmonics relative to that pitch. As listeners we mainly hear the fundamental pitch, but if we are to listen carefully we can also hear these harmonic overtones. They are the "ringing" in the sound. That doesn't mean we will be able to hear them distinctly like notes played on a piano, but still we can hear that "ringing" or "clear" quality to the sound. The Italians use the word "squillante" to describe this sound. Squillante literally means, "ringing". Others describe these overtones as "brassy" or some just hear it as clarity or "focus". If you have never had these sounds pointed out to you and "defined" for you this will come as a totally new aural experience. The importance of understanding the fundamental pitch and the harmonic overtones is crucial to understanding what makes one sung sound superior to another sung sound; and consequently what makes a certain singer better than another singer.

In order to help with the idea of harmonics in the voice I think it is beneficial to refer to piano playing. When a pianist plays a single note on a piano we quite obviously just hear that note or fundamental pitch. And a pianist could certainly play a whole song one note at a time, but that would not be very interesting. On the other hand, when a pianist adds "chords" we have a totally different experience. The chords are made up of the fundamental pitch, which gives us the melody, and the other notes in the chord which give us the harmonics. We can think of a great voice and a mediocre or average voice in a similar way. A singer with a great voice is able to sing the melody (fundamental pitch) while also having a clear, "ringing" to their sound. That ringing is the harmonic overtones similar to when a pianist plays a chord. The more harmonics a singer has in their voice the more rich their voice will sound. I call this the "core" to the sound. On the other hand a mediocre singer will have very few if any harmonics in their sound. Furthermore, a singer could have "noise" in their sound. Noise is anything that is dissonant to the fundamental pitch. We often hear these sounds as "screaming", breathy, screechy, tinny, and/or generally unpleasant. All of these things are quantifiable and therefore give clear standards by which we can judge a quality of a singer's voice. This is one of the ways we can determine that the voices of Tebaldi, Caruso, Del Monaco, Gigli, Maria Callas (in her prime), Titta Ruffo etc. are superior to singers of today like Dessay, Villazon, Hvorostovsky etc. There are a few other quantifiable qualities that we can use to determine the quality of a singing voice and I will be expounding on those in part II of this discussion.

Monday, November 21, 2011

PUSHING THE VOICE: What exactly does that mean? Part II

In my last article I ended by saying that great singing requires a clean approximation of the vocal folds. This is not damaging, but it is something that takes time to achieve. So how does a singer achieve a big, free, dynamic, beautiful sound?

There are several things that need to be developed:

1) Building the instrument; i.e., Muscular strength - the muscles that need to be engaged must be strong to sustain the sound throughout an entire song and/or opera. This includes the muscles of the laryx, breathing muscles, tongue etc.

2) Developing the singer's aural image to the correct sound. This includes vowel, pitch, vibrato, chiaroscuro and registration. It also *must* include getting the singer to recognize a sound that is "constricted" and how to overcome it.

3) Developing a singer's skill of how to "play" the instrument once it is built. This includes things like trills, control of vibrato intensity/speed, fioratura, onsets, how to maneuver consonants, how to sing phrases legato, crescendo, decrescendo, mezza voce and pianissimo singing.

Numbers 2 and 3 above *cannot* happen without number 1 being completed. If a singer is physically incapable of making the sounds because of lack of development then they *CANNOT* proceed to 2 and 3. I cannot emphasize this enough because it is at the root cause of the problem with the singing institutions and what is taught today. It is not possible to build a singer's vocal instrument with one 30 minute lesson once a week. No way, no how.

In developing or building the singer's instrument a teacher must be able to first and foremost correctly analyze the sound a singer is making and also understand what the correct sounds for chest, falsetto, headvoice, constriction, chiaroscuro, "core", vibrato, "covered chest", coordinated chest, mezza voce, pianissimi, coordinated falsetto are. If a teacher does not know what the correct sounds are and if they are not able to correctly analyze what a singer needs and/or is doing right or wrong, NOTHING ELSE IS OF ANY USE! All the physiological knowledge in the world is completely and utterly meaningless if a teacher does not know what the right sounds are.

Now what I am going to say next is going to be just plainly honest and factual. There are some teachers out there who really are trying their best, but they just don't know what the right sounds are and have been misinformed. These teachers generally love the older singers like Tebaldi and genuinely want their singers to sound that way, but just don't know how to get them there. ON THE OTHER HAND, there are teachers now days, who unfortunately *KNOW*, *WITHOUT A DOUBT*, that what they are teaching is wrong and that they cannot get the singers to a great sound. So instead these teachers are the ones who tend to be the most psychologically and emotionally abusive of all teachers. They blame the singers, they tell the singers that the old way of singing is dead and that there is a new way, or they tell them that very few singers can sound the way the old singers did. And that is very, very sad. However, singers must remember that these kinds of teachers only flourish if you continue to go to them. So stop going to them. You owe it to yourself and to your art. But I digress.....

One of the main reasons why it is important to recognize the right sounds is because as a teacher you must know what a student is lacking. With vocal development whatever muscles are weak need to be immediately strengthened in order to be brought into balance with those that are strong. Generally we are speaking of the registration muscles; falsetto and chest. Additionally, most student's breathing muscles and coordination are weak and wrong when they start lessons. And that is something that is crucial to address in order to overcome constriction, and therefore "pushing"/"forcing".

Muscular development is dependent on, quite factually, working a muscle until there are tiny tears in it and then letting it rest so blood comes in and repairs it, thus building it strong. Now I am not saying that there should be bloodshed! LOL! But what I am saying is that if a singer is not engaging the muscles enough to tax them in order for them to rest and rebuild stronger, they really are not doing anything. And anyone who goes to the gym knows that building muscle takes *WORK*. Lots of intense work. It is the same with the voice. The breathing muscles alone have to be strong enough to overcome the constriction. The muscles in the larynx also have to be strong to keep it in a lower position, to stretch for the high notes, vibrato etc. So you *SHOULD* be getting vocally tired in your lessons. YES, you read it correctly. A SINGER SHOULD GET VOCALLY TIRED IN THEIR LESSONS WHEN BUILDING THEIR VOICE! Anyone who tells you differently is factually incorrect.

However, once the instrument is built (the muscles are developed and constriction is out of the way) then it is only a matter of maintenance. And that is much easier. It does not take as much energy to only maintain the voice. It is an unfortunate fact that we hear the great singers when they are in their "maintenance" phase, when they are at their prime development and skill. We don't hear what it took to get there. How many bad sounds, botched notes, blasted sounds, fatigue, and downright ugly sounds it took to reach their maintenance phase.

It is important to understand that I am not telling students they should be so fatigued that they cannot talk. Absolutely not. One of the keys to building the instrument, or even in physical fitness in sports, is knowing *WHEN TO REST*. In fact, the rest is as important as the singing lesson. And you can only fatigue the voice so much. Then the singer must rest, but with that rest the voice becomes stronger. This is problematic for the collegiate singer. When is there time to be fatigued and rest when they have classes or choir that they have to sing for constantly? So instead the teachers do not develop the voices this way. This accounts for the severe lack of great opera voices today. This system MUST be changed for great singing to survive.

PUSHING THE VOICE: What exactly does that mean? Part I

It seems to be the in vogue thing today in pedagogical circles, music schools, vocal coaching lessons, singing lessons, and in rehearsals to tell singers they are "pushing" or "forcing" when they sing. Especially if the singer has a big voice. Actually it is virtually impossible to have a big voice and to not hear those words aimed at you by teachers, coaches, colleagues, conductors and/or directors. But what exactly does the term "pushing" or "forcing" mean? Do they even know what they mean when they say it? Chances are probably not.

It should be pointed out that to be able to "push" something, one would have to have something to push against. In singing there is really only one thing that a singer can be pushing or forcing against and that is constriction. So what exactly is constriction? Constriction is precisely the Valsalva maneuver. I wrote about it in a previous article and it behooves any reader to take the time to read it in reference to the topic of pushing:

Basically, in order for a singer to push they have to be closing their throat while trying to get air out. This happens when we grunt, lift something heavy etc. It also happens in shorter spurts when we laugh and cough. The throat closes too much and the air that the person is trying to get out is trapped. Then they have to push against the throat closure. In singing this has to be minimized otherwise there will be excessive force that the singer must use in order to try and overcome this blockage. It also limits the free vibrating ability of the vocal folds.

Ironically, limiting the vibrating ability of the vocal folds actually produces *LESS* sound than if they were to vibrate freely. So if we take the constriction out of the way, the singer will produce more sound and the singing will actually be even easier than when the constriction was there. This is a most important point: The singers of the Golden Age of opera had bigger voices because they had less constriction blocking them; and therefore they had more ease to their sound.

Unfortunately, now days the young singers are being taught the opposite; i.e., that the singers of the Golden Age of opera were "forcing" and singing "too big". These young students are taught that chest voice is bad - in particular for women - and that singers like Del Monaco or Tebaldi were "forcing" their sound. Nothing could be further from the TRUTH!! It is utterly the opposite. But when you are taught differently from a young age and you are corrupted into thinking that the right sound is wrong and that the wrong sound is right....there is little hope.

That being said, I think those who are truly talented see through this misinformation for a couple of reasons. Number one, they can hear, clearly, that the old singers are far superior to modern singers - no matter how much they are told differently by "singing teachers". Secondly, if someone has the talent for singing they also have a kinesthetic awareness of their body when singing. It is patently obvious that something is not right with the modern singing approaches taught in schools and private studios.

Now, to sing "big" and "free" the singer must have proper vocal training. This training must include developing the muscles that are to be used in singing in order to create and sustain a variety of sounds. This includes the breathing muscles, muscles of the larynx etc. Additionally, this training must also include developing the singer's aural image to what the right sound is or is not. This is particularly difficult as a singer hears their own voice differently from inside their head than how they hear things from outside themselves. Clearly, if the muscles aren't developed, no amount of correct "aural imaging" is going to make a bit of difference because the singer physically will be incapable of making the sounds.

This brings us to another part of the problem for singing teachers today and students today; and in particular the teachers at prestigious institutions: How do we train the singers in a way to develop the muscles they need to produce a fully engaged, efficiently produced, free sound? Well, this isn't going to happen with a half hour lesson once a week for a couple of years. Or even 4 years. It takes years of lessons, preferably at least 2 - 3 times a week. A person cannot get physically fit going to the gym 30 minutes once a week and anyone who thinks they can get vocally fit that way is completely misguided.

So the Universities and music institutions are not set up to produce "big", free singing - or in other words "OPERA SINGING". It is not possible. So instead they have teachers that basically just "coach" the students on diction, interpretation, rhythm etc. And what is worse is that these teachers must also convince the students that what they are teaching has merit. And in order to do that they have to point out that the old, great singers were "forcing" and "pushing" so they can justify why they cannot get the students to sound the same way. Additionally, these teachers also terrify the students into thinking that if they sing too loudly they will ruin their voice. That is completely wrong as well. Certainly if someone sings loudly with a "blasty", unclear voice then they will damage it. But great singing requires a clean approximation of the vocal folds. This is not damaging, but it is something that takes time to achieve. In part II of this article I will explain how to achieve it.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


OK, so I hear this instruction used by teachers over and over again. And consequently by voice students as well without any idea of what "raising the soft palette" actually accomplishes. It is really not complicated, but even so most I have spoken to do not seem to know what it actually accomplishes in reality.

First, raising the soft palette simply lowers the larynx. And lowering the larynx causes the singer to elongate the vocal tract. Funnily enough the teachers that criticize singers for having "too dark" of a sound are the ones telling the same singers to "raise the palette". Ironically that will make the sound darker. Comical and sad at the same time. Comical in its irony and sad because the student is being pulled in different directions. On one hand they are told their sound is too dark and on the other hand they are then instructed to do something that makes it darker even though the teacher wants it to be "brighter".

Secondly, when a singer does lower the larynx that can be a good thing, IF AND ONLY IF it is what that particular singer needs at the moment. If a singer comes in with a depressed larynx whereby it is already too low, then instructing them to raise the palette will only make it worse.

Third, one of the hardest things to get as a singer is chiroscuro. That is the balance of "clear/bright" to "dark". The clarity/brightness comes from the core/squillante in the sound. That is produced by the thyroarytenoid muscles (chest voice) and approximation of the vocal folds - as well as proper resonance tuning. The scuro or "darkness" comes from lowering the larynx. What often happens when the larynx is lowered, whether by the instruction to lift the palette or "yawn", the student usually ends up distorting the vowel and thus the "clarity/squillante" or chiaro. So the singer has to learn how to *properly* lower the larynx without depressing it and or losing the clarity of the vowel or "squillante".

Lastly, keeping the concentration on the palette being high can eventually cause laryngeal depression whereby the larynx is too low. It usually also causes the hyoid bone to be pressed onto the thyroid cartilage. So there is a loss of flexibility in the voice to do fioratura, dynamics and also clarity.

The irony never ceases to amaze!!!

VOCAL PLACEMENT: The False Paradigm of "Singing in the Mask" PART III

In Part II we covered the first question which was, "What is the concept of vocal placement or "singing in the mask" trying to achieve?"

In this third article on singing in the mask/vocal placement I want to answer the second question:

2) What actually does happen when a singer tries to "place" their voice "in the mask"?

When a singer is told to try and place their voice, "in the mask" several things usually happens. First, in the singer's attempts to make a buzzing sensation in their "mask area" (which can be anywhere from the cheeks, nose, forehead or all of the above) they usually tend to raise their larynx. That shortens the vocal tract and gives a lighter, "brighter" sound. It also brings in constriction whereby the throat starts to close and the pharyngeal space is narrowed. That cuts down on vocal resonance.

Additionally, with the larynx raised in this position the singer also lets go of "chest voice" involvement. And let me be clear here, "chest voice" has absolutely, unequivocally nothing to do with one's physical chest area. When one sings in chest voice it simply means that the thyroarytenoid muscle that runs through the vocal folds is engaged. In full chest voice this muscle predominates. In headvoice it is also still active, but less so than chest. Chest voice gives off the acoustical energy that is then resonated by the vocal tract. Without this energy the singer loses clarity and power.

In order to maintain proper engagement of the chest voice and full resonance the larynx *cannot* be raised. It should be in a mid to mid low position. When singing in chest voice the thyroid cartilage moves forward and down. So if the larynx (thyroid cartilage involved) is moving up, the singer is stuck with having to let go of some of the chest involvement, resonance or both. This is why we hear 99% of singers today with a much lighter, brighter, more nasal sound than in decades past.

It should also be pointed out that chest voice - or the thyroarytenoid participation - aids in approximating the vocal folds. If you let that go you also let go of some of the approximation which causes even more of a loss of acoustical energy. And the approximation has to be made up by other muscles in order to keep the sound clear. This causes an imbalance whereby certain muscles are being overused or hyper functioning. This will cause anything from breathy sound to constricted sound depending on which muscles are overused.

And the snowball effect continues. When the chest voice is let go of it also causes issues with the vibrato action. In an ideal set up (which I have covered in a previous article on "falsetto") the vocal folds are held by the arytenoid cartilages in the back. One vocal fold goes to each cartilage. And in the front, at the Adam's apple, both vocal folds meet in a V. Those cartilages stay in place by the antagonistic tension of the lateral cricoarytneoids holding against the posterior cricoarytenoids. So a stasis of the cartilages is maintained as both muscles tense as the LCA move the arytneoid cartilages one way and the PCA move them the other way. And the vocal folds are attached to each cartilage. Now, the vocal folds are then stretched in the front (where the Adam's apple is) by the cricothroid muscles. In order to *approximate* or bring the vocal folds together the oblique arytenoids, transversus arytenoid, and the thyroarytenoids (chest muscle) must be brought into action.

If the above scenario is not maintained by the proper use of the voice, and chest voice gives out, there is no "anchoring" to the vocal folds by which they can be stretch for pitch AND for vibrato. Vibrato has an oscillation or pitch change. That means that the vocal folds are stretched and relaxed intermittently at a pulse of about 6 times per second. If the singer lets go of chest voice the above setup is altered. Any number of the above muscles must make up for the larynx thus being raised, loss of approximation of the vocal folds etc. So the vibrato is affected. And what usually happens in that case is the singer develops a tremolo or "caprino" vibrato. They also will have a much lighter and brighter sound along with it. If the singer tries to maintain a fully chiaroscuro sound, but lets go of chest they will either be constricted or woofy. Unfortunately all of those sounds are what we hear today on the operatic stage.


VOCAL PLACEMENT: The False Paradigm of "Singing in the Mask" PART II

My new FB page on technique:

It is my firm belief, having taught and sung for many years, that the phrase, "singing in the mask" was originally a catch phrase that described any sung sound that was "good". It is akin to the phrase, "in the zone" which many athletes use. When an athlete is performing at a high level they are often referred to as being "in the zone". However, there is no actual "zone" just as there is no actually "mask" or way to place sound. Similarly, when a singer is singing well many teachers or observers will say that their voice is "in the mask". So this catch phrase became the lingo of the day whereby most all great singers and teachers were using it to describe any great sung sounds.

From there the vocal "placement" idea became one where teachers and singers were trying to then get to the sound by making their "mask" area vibrate. That is putting the cart before the horse. So we will read of great singers saying that the voice should be "in the mask", but what they are really meaning is that the sound should be correct. Not that you should make a buzzing in your facial area and or nose. They might have well said that the voice is "in the zone" for that matter.

Another problem with the idea of vocal placement or "singing in the mask" is that it totally ignores what is actually producing the correct sound to begin with. The vocal folds are located behind the Adam's apple and sit on top of the trachea. They vibrate, producing a sound that is then resonated mainly by the pharyngeal cavity. The idea that the sinuses participate in resonance is highly flawed. First of all, the sinuses are fixed cavities; meaning that they cannot change shape. On the other and, the mouth and the pharyngeal cavity can. Secondly, the sinuses are thickly lined with tissue making them a poor resonator. Lastly, as we sing the velum virtually cuts off any possibility of resonating in the sinuses.

If this information wasn't enough lets discuss and experiment that was done and was written about in Jerome Hines' book, "The Four Voices of Man". They had a singer first sing some phrases and they recorded it and analyzed it on the spectograph. Then they took the same singer and filled his sinus cavities so that there was no possibility of resonance in them, and then had him sing the same phrases. The results were astounding as there was *NO* change in the quality of sound.

Still, a couple of questions remain:

1) What is the concept of vocal placement or "singing in the mask" trying to

2) What actually does happen when a singer tries to "place" their voice "in the mask"?


The idea vocal placement or "singing in the mask" is aimed at getting the singer to make a "clear", free sound. The clarity of the voice refers to the words and more specifically the vowel sounds. Singers "sing" on the vowel sounds. The quality of those vowel sounds determine the quality of the voice. And the vowel sounds can only be understood if the vocal folds are producing enough overtones for the vocal tract to then resonate those overtones correctly in order for each vowel to be understood.

In other words, the acoustical energy (sound) is produced by the vocal folds, which is then resonated in the vocal tract. The vocal tract (the pharyngeal cavity, tongue, jaw, lips etc.) forms itself in such a way as to either enhance certain overtones or dampen certain overtones for each vowel to be understood. That is why it is important for the vocal resonators to be cavities that can change shape. That must happen in order to change the vowel sound, let alone vocal timbre. That is also yet another reason why the sinus cavities are poor vocal resonators as they cannot change shape for each vowel and timbre.

Therefore, a singer's efforts of trying to place the voice in the worst resonating area (sinus cavities) is futile. As previousldy stated the biggest resonator is the pharyngeal cavity. To be clear, the pharyngeal cavity does include the nasopharynx, but that does not mean that the sinus cavities or nose are involved with a singers resonance. The velum cuts of nasal resonance during singing except for brief moment for slightly nasalized consonants or comedic sounds. And as I just pointed out, those cavities are not flexible and therefore could not be adapted for different vowel sounds and timbre.

By far that biggest space that resonates the voice is the area just below the uvula, in the back of the throat. That space is situated between the mouth cavity and the esophagus. Since the pharynx is the biggest resonator of the voice it is crucial that a singer maximize its participation. Unfortunately, even though the mouth is also a resonator it can also negatively affect the resonating ability of the pharynx. So the mouth - as well as the lips and jaw - need to be used correctly as to not take away from the resonating ability of the pharynx.

Lastly, the acoustical energy which is given off by the vocal folds also determines what overtones there are to be "tuned" (enhanced or dampened) by the vocal tract/resonators. If the overtones are weak then there won't be enough energy to tune and therefore the vowels will be adversely affected. This is exactly what determines *CLARITY* which is what the concept of "singing in the mask" or vocal placement is seeking to achieve. There is an extremely important point here that must also be made. CHEST VOICE is merely the use of the thyroarytneoid muscles that make up the body of the vocal folds. It is also used in headvoice (please see my article on the registers). If the chest voice muscles (thyrarytneoids) are not developed and coordinated into the sound the overtones needed for clarity and carrying power will be weakened. So all of the singers out there, especially woman, who are told not to sing in chest by their teachers should be RUNNING AWAY quickly from them for your own vocal health.

Ironically, placement and singing in the mask has nothing to do with clarity. It is the vocal folds, pharynx, and mouth that affect clarity - as well as the tongue which I have written about previously in another post. I will cover the 2nd question in part III of this discussion.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

VOCAL PLACEMENT: The False Paradigm of "Singing in the Mask" PART I

I am writing about this topic in a series as there is so much to cover. This is the first article:

One of the *WORST* concepts ever to be used in singing is the concept of THE MASK otherwise known as VOCAL PLACEMENT. More destruction has been leveled on the singing world as a whole by these concepts than almost anything else. The idea of singing "in the mask" is that you control your voice by placing the sound in any number of places in your face, forehead, nose etc. That area is deemed the "mask" area. It is essential for singers, as well as singing teachers, to understand exactly what problems these concepts have caused, what they were trying to achieve, and how we can get better results if we understand their limitations.

The idea of "singing in the mask," and thus "vocal placement" was first used by Jean de Reszke. Jean de Reszke was a French tenor who lived from 1850 - 1925. When his voice declined he retired from performing and became a singing teacher. De Reszke came up with the phrase "singing in the mask" as a way to describe what he felt when he was singing well. He thought he could get his students to sing well by having them try to feel what he felt. What is clear is that all singers experience certain sensations when singing; and they also have a proprioceptive or kinesthetic awareness of the sound they are producing as well as how they are producing it. Some singers are better at this than others. That is usually a question of talent.

What is also clear is that an individual's experiences of sensations are very subjective. While they may experience similar "feelings" or sensations, they also will have many different feelings or different interpretations of those feelings. That makes the concept of "sensations" or "placement" very difficult to teach. If you think about it, we are all shaped differently. And the "sensations" a singer feels is due to the vocal folds making a sound that is then resonated in the singer's resonating cavities. The biggest resonator is the pharyngeal cavity which accounts for about 95%+ of total vocal resonance. Funnily enough the pharyngeal cavity is not "forward" or anywhere near the "mask" area even though it is the biggest resonator of the voice. There is also some mouth resonance as well as tracheal resonance. So the resonators cause the singer to feel sympathetic vibrations in different areas of their body - mainly in the facial area. However, everyone is shaped a bit differently so their experiences of vibration intensity in specific areas will differ. Also, some people are naturally more sensitive to certain vibrations. So to try and teach a singer to sing well by feeling sympathetic vibrations which are completely subjective is a shot in the dark. There are too many variables and things that can be misunderstood.

Furthermore, sensations are of no use if the sound isn't "correct". A singer could be feeling the exact sensations a teacher wants them to feel, but if the sound is wrong then there is no value to it. Instead, the sound should be right first, and then the sensations the singer feels are valid; and they are their sensations and feelings alone.

Moreover, there were many generations of fantastic singers before Jean de Reszke, during his life as a singer/teacher, as well as after he died that never used this phrase or idea of vocal placement. In fact, some of the greatest vocal pedagogues in history never used this idea at all, but they were definite about vocal registration; i.e., chest voice and falsetto/headvoice. Mancini writes about it clearly saying, ""The voice in its natural state is ordinarily divided into two registers, one of which is called the chest, the other the head or falsetto. I am speaking only of the voice in general divided into two registers, as commonly happens."

Also, if we just speak scientifically we know for a fact that it is impossible to grab a sound and place it anywhere. That is not how the laws of acoustics work. We also cannot "spin" it or send it through a specific spot in our head or body. It is outright impossible. So what actually happens when we try to apply these concepts to singing is that the singer has to manipulate their body/voice in some way to try and accommodate this "idea" which is a subjective interpretation of a scientific fallacy.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


The importance of understanding the use of the tongue in singing cannot be overstated. The proper use of the tongue is absolutely vital to great singing as it affects the breathing, registration, laryngeal position, pharyngeal and mouth resonance, the vowel, the vibrato and thus vocal efficiency. Therefore the tongue can either *help* the singer or greatly *hinder* the singer. My teacher, Dr. Thomas Lo Monaco, has a chapter in his unfinished book titled, "The Tongue: Friend or Foe?" That is a perfect title. Funnily enough, my soprano student suggested that the title be, "The Frigging Tongue!" as it can really be an obstacle to great singing as much as it can help great singing. Consequently, there is a plethora of incorrect or misguided information about how the tongue should work to help the singer. I will address as much of that as I can in the following paragraphs.

First, let me help to define three essential parts of the tongue and how the work ideally in singing:

1) The tip

2) The middle

3) The back or "root"

So we can divide the tongue into these three sections. The front third, the middle third and the back third. Generally, the tip of the tongue (front third) is used for articulation. Many of the consonants are articulated by the tip of the tongue. "L", "D", "N", "T" as well as partly affecting "S", "Z", "C", the "SH" and "CH" sounds etc. The middle third of the tongue is responsible for the formation of the vowels: "AH", "EH", "EE", "OH" and "OO" as well as their variations such as "ER" or "UH". The middle third also affects mouth resonance. The back third or "root" of the tongue greatly affects pharyngeal resonance - which is the main resonator of the voice - as well as laryngeal position.


I am sure many of you reading this article have been told by teachers that you should hold the tip of your tongue behind your bottom teeth in order to get the tongue out of the throat. This is one of the most disastrous instructions that has ever been taught to singers. It is also a clear example of the difference between what is actual and what is apparent. This is something my teacher made perfectly clear. The fact is that when the tip of the tongue in held behind the bottom teeth it causes the hyoid bone and larynx to be lifted up and forward - like it does in a swallowing action. This closes the pharyngeal space and causes the singer to pull out of "chest voice" and shortens the vocal tract. This results in a "lighter" more "constricted" sound. It also does not allow for the proper use of the vibrato action as the "chest voice" muscles no longer hold the larynx in place by which the vocal folds are then stretched and relaxed to change pitch for the vibrato. What usually results over time is a movement called a tremolo or caprino. In other words, a true vibrato cannot be produced and instead the singer gets a fluttery movement. Additionally, it is impossible for the singer to open the mouth vertically wide - which is necessary on high notes and very low notes - and singing the vowels clearly. Especially the vowels EE and EH. So teachers will often tell students to "modify" these vowels. That should not have to happen.

What should happen instead is that the tip of the tongue retracts while the back of the tongue comes forward. The tip and the back of the tongue work antagonistically against each other which holds the throat in the most open position. The pharyngeal space can then be utilized for full resonance while the middle third of the tongue moves to form the vowels. In this set up the mouth resonance also enhances the pharyngeal resonance. In the other set up, with the tip of the tongue against the bottom teeth, the singer is forced to manipulate the mouth and lips which dampens resonance. This also causes a lack of "squillo" in the sound which I call "core".

Another faulty position the tongue can take is where the middle third of the tongue is in a concave position. What often happens in this position is that the tip of the tongue goes up on certain vowels such as OH and OO. Again, this is a disastrous setup as it causes the hyoid bone to then be depressed onto the thyroid cartilage. This setup while cause the singer to have either one of the following problems:

1) Woofiness; i.e., a lack of squillo/core/clarity

2) a depressed layrnx

The woofiness sounds "dark", but it is the improper darkness caused by a lack of squillo/core/clarity. Proper darkness occurs when the larynx stays in a lower position thus elongating the vocal tract. This causes a darker sound. Also, the pharyngeal resonance is bigger which causes a fuller sound and the proper use of the falsetto muscles (mainly the cricothyroids) allows for a fuller lengthening of the vocal folds. This also gives a bigger, richer sound. When the tongue is in a concave position this "clarity" or "squillo" in the sound is often dampened resulting in woofiness. If the sound is not so "woofy" in this set up and the singer manages to have some clarity then often will have problems with movement or will have a distinctive "uhl" in their sound. Especially on the vowels ah, oh, and oo. It does not allow for a fully chiaroscuro sound.

Therefore, if a singer is to aim for a dark, resonant, operatic sound with proper clarity/squillante, or in other words a chiaroscuro sound, the position of the tongue is crucial in aiding the singer to achieve this. If, however, the tongue is held in the wrong position this possibility is lost. It is a contradiction for a teacher to advise a student to hold the tip of the tongue against the bottom teeth while asking for a fully dark and resonant sound. The singer is basically setting up an obstacle with the tongue in that position that will not allow for the larynx to lower. If the larynx does not lower the vocal tract is not elongated and the sound stays lighter. One cannot make a dark sound without the larynx staying low. On the other hand, if a singer lowers their larynx by making the tongue concave whereby the hyoid bone pushes the thyroid cartilage down, the sound will lose clarity, become woofy, and the singer will lose flexibility.

In the book, "Great Singers on Great Singing", Jerome Hines asked Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson, "Do you think of putting it (the tongue) against the teeth?" Birgit Nilsson responded, "No, but I don't want to have the tongue down the throat."
Of course she is right and it goes along with the proper functioning of the tongue. not held against the teeth and not with the root (back) in the throat. As long as the tip retracts and the vowel is clear, the root cannot be down in the throat. She was right on.

Here are some examples of singers retracting the tongue. Some of these singers I think are talented, but need work on other things. However, this is about the tongue in particular:

Watch from 2:57

Hadley, who was taught by my teacher, watch at 2:26

In his prime when he was still working most closely with my teacher:

In Jerome Hines book 'Great Singers on Great Singing' Birgit Nilsson, the Swedish Wagnerian who said outright she does not hold the tip of the tongue behind the teeth. Watch at 2:30. You see the tip of her tongue retract away from the bottom teeth:

The same thing with Melchior. Watch at 55 seconds:

Juan Diego Florez is not my personal favorite, but he does it as well. Watch from 1:20:

Also not my favorite tenor, but he retracts also:

And one of the top rated singers today Jonas Kaufmann. Watch from 3:12

So I am sorry David Jones. You are misleading people

From 2:57 on you can clearly see the tip of his tongue retracted while the back comes up and forward and the middle forms the vowels.

Monday, October 10, 2011


We hear people talk about the vocal registers all the time. They throw around terms like headvoice, falsetto, chest voice, covered voice etc. Many times these terms are used to describe completely different sounds. Some people use the term falsetto when someone is actually singing in headvoice. So in an attempt to clear up the confusion I will give an accurate definition of all these terms.

Falsetto: I have written about this in a previous blog so I will make it short and simple. Falsetto is the sound that is made when only the edges of the vocal folds are vibrating. The main body of the vocal folds is inactive. The muscles that makes up the body of the vocal folds are called the thyroarytenoid muscles. These muscles are completely inactive in pure falsetto. In falsetto the pitch changes due to the pulling of the cricothyroid muscle which stretches the vocal folds, thinning them out. There are very few overtones produced in this register - only two overtones at most.

Chest voice is a sound that is made when the thryoarytenoid muscles (which makes up the body of the vocal folds) are fully engaged. The cricothyroid muscle is also still engaged, but the thyroarytenoids are more active than the CT's. The sound is much heavier and has many more overtones. So the thing to remember with chest voice is that the TA's are dominant. The vocal folds are shortened in this register.

Headvoice is a sound that is made when the thyroarytenoid muscles and the cricothyroid muscle are all active, but in this register the cricothyroid muscle is dominant. In the headvoice register the vocal folds are thinner than in chest voice register. The sound is therefore "lighter" than the sound of chest voice and it produces less overtones than chest voice.

From these definitions we can see that the main difference between how a man sings compared to how a woman sings - in classical music - is that a man sings thyroarytenoid dominant (chest) most of the time while a woman sings cricothyroid dominant (headvoice) most of the time. That is not to say that woman do not sing in chest and men do not sing in headvoice. To the contrary, women must sing in chest on their lower notes to be heard and men will sing in headvoice when they sing quietly. The chest voice range of a woman singing in classical music should extend past her passaggio. The passaggio is usually around E4 to F#4 depending on the voice. On the other hand, men keep full chest all the way up and down the scale unless the are singing quietly. This demands another muscular switch in a man's passaggio which is called "covering". A man's passaggio can be anywhere from Eb4 to F#4. Falsetto is really used just for training as it develops the full lengthening of the vocal folds.

Additionally, within these main categories for the vocal registers there are some other terms that need defining. These terms are "covering" for men and "coordinated chest" for women.

Covering happens as a result of the male voice needing to keep a thryoarytenoid dominant sound (chest) all the way up through the passaggio and into his high notes. Covering is a muscular switch that happens which allows men to achieve this. As a man reaches the passaggio he has to make this muscular switch to ensure that his larynx stays in a lower position while the TA dominates. The cricothyroids do become more and more active, but the sound stays TA dominant (chest dominant). So physiologically what happens is in the passaggio the CT's work more while the stylohyoid muscle as well as the infrahyoid muscles are engaged so as to keep the larynx stable in a low to mid low position. If they did not engage the larynx would either rise, giving a strangled sound that lacks any scuro (depth/darkness) or the larynx would drop down too far and the hyoid bone would push onto the thyroid cartilage giving an overly dark, woofy sound.

Coordinated chest in a woman's voice happens when she is singing in headvoice and adds as much chest participation as she can (thyroaryetnoid) while still remaining in headvoice. In other words, if a woman were to add too much TA participation she would go into chest or covered chest where the TA is dominating. Instead, coordinated chest adds as much TA as possible without becoming chest, but rather staying in a CT dominant sound. Less of the vocal fold vibrates than in chest of covered chest, but in comparison to headvoice, more of the vocal fold is vibrating.

Some of the confusion with these terms is due to using the word "coordinated". Technically any sound that is coordinated has both CT and TA working together correctly. An uncoordinated chest sound mainly only has TA active. Falsetto is also not a coordinated sound as it only has CT active. And both of these registers are used for training purposes. Once both registers are strong and balanced then you can "coordinate" them together.

I hope this post help clear up any confusion people have.