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Saturday, November 19, 2011

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

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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.

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