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Archive for the ‘vocal technique’ Category

Are you confused about the so called vocal registers?

When I was a child I already loved to sing. But it seemed to me that I had two voices: the normal voice and then a strange high and funny one which I nevertheless could play with easily. But these two voices didn´t seem to match, and I had to decide which one to use. Actually, I never dared to try the funny one in public, on the rare occasions I performed at school or family events.

Nobody could help me because there were no singing teachers in my small home town.

Much later, to my own surprise even, singing became my profession. I had since learned that indeed, there were two or even more ”voices” – or registers to have fun with while singing. But sometimes the bridging of them – especially going from low to high – was challenging. Not to talk about the weird high range I had discovered. Almost by accident I noticed that there was a really high extension to my voice. It felt easy! But again, how to learn to transition smoothly over to that stratosphere?

Fast forward years and years. Now I know a LOT about the registers and other technical stuff. Just like me as a young girl, students continue to struggle with their breaks, passaggios and registers. We can read about them in books to find out that even the experts don´t use the same expressions for register terminology which adds to the confusion.

So, here is my contribution in super short form:

The vocal folds (or cords) can vibrate in different ways and it does not only have to do with the pitch. They can even vibrate differently on the same pitch. That´s what can be confusing if you´ve thought that head register is always for high notes or that chest register is only low.

Vocal fold vibration can be either thick or thin. If the folds are thick the sound is usually fairly low and strong. Both men and women sing this way especially in the low range in forte. When we want to sing higher the cords need to become thinner in order to stretch more and create higher pitches, unless we want to shout. Only the edges of the vocal folds then vibrate. But we can use the thin folds vibration also in the lower range to sing softly. The higher the singer can keep the thickness, the stronger the voice sounds but more breath pressure must also be added. And there is a limit – if you sing too loud and too high with thick folds you can risk damage. A special technique, belting, is needed to do this without vocal injury. Opera singers usually sing with a combination of thin edges of the cords vibration with some thickness and a lot of body strength, depending on the individual physique and how dramatic the role is.

So, in every genre and voice category, singers need to learn to mix the thickness of their vocal folds. The ultimate exercise for this is the messa di voce – starting in pianissimo (=thin folds), then gradually increasing crescendo (=adding vocal fold mass and breath pressure) to a full forte – and then back, controlling the thinning of the cords and balancing the breath pressure and flow. Worth practicing!

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Messa di voce kuvaThe vocal folds are amazing in their capability of reacting to emotions and the finest feelings. There are mechanoreceptors in the tissue of the vocal folds and one would never really guess how much intricate emotional changes can affect the status of our vocal mechanism. Neither do we need to, in fact, I mean, scientifically. Let the scientists measure those. Enough for us to understand that the larynx is really sensitive.

What we do need to understand as singers, is that the vocal folds can behave in various ways and that we should be able to control them consciously to help our voices stay in good shape. I´m talking about the mechanism that determines if the folds are vibrating with thick or thin mass. The way to protect your voice from excessive workload is to be able to vibrate with thin mass. Only the edges of the folds come into contact. The sound is what we also call head voice or head register. This calls for gentle closure of the cords, even airflow and regulated air pressure. If you can do it, great, you are safe! Because if you no longer can sing softly, you may have a problem. The cords may have become too thick and are perhaps swollen; there might even be some tissue damage (the much feared nodules).

So, always cultivate your ability to sing pianissimo! Evenly, gently, smoothly – both low and high range, but especially in the middle range. If you have a nice mixed voice in the middle range, you also have vocal protection.

This doesn´t mean you should always sing softly – naturally you also need your fortissimo at times. The best exercise for this control is always the messa di voce – the old Italian concept of starting pianissimo and swelling it to full forte, and then back again to piano. Practice this and you gain great control for both your vocal folds and your breathing mechanism.

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What is laryngeal tilt? Many singers do it  unconsciously because it is sort of built-in in classical vocal technique. What happens when you tilt? What is actually tilted? Can you lose this ability?

Let´s try to answer some of these questions.

The larynx consists of three main cartilages: the thyroid, the cricoid and the arytenoids. The thyroid cartilage sits on top of the cricoid and they are connected to each other with a paired muscle, the cricothyroid. When the cricothyroid muscles contract they pull the thyroid a little forward and down thereby tilting the thyroid. While the arytenoids also rotate towards each other closing the glottic chink, the vocal cords close while stretching and lengthening at the same time. This means we can sing different pitches; the more the folds stretch, the higher the pitch. IF there is no tilt we can still sing higher pitches but not as easily and the sound retains a speechlike quality. With thyroid tilt we can really SING!

Thyroid tilt is therefore very important. How can it be taught? Usually it happens quite automatically and classical teachers ask for it from the very beginning when they show and have students imitate head and mixed voice. This terminology is confusing again – it is not produced in the head but by the vocal cords – but we FEEL it in the head. That´s why it has been named head voice long ago. It is the result of function, not the cause of it. If we don´t have anyone to demonstrate tilted voice sound, we can also imagine crying or sobbing. They are natural human responses and primal sounds that we can take advantage of when learning to sing. Crying means the tilt happens naturally; adding even more cry with sob also lowers the larynx. This enables us to vary the colours of the voice depending on the emotianal contexts of songs.

If you have never been conscious of thyroid tilt it is possible to lose it. That can happen unfortunately for a number of causes. If too much pressure is used in singing the vocal fold vibration may become too thick and the lengthening / stretching of the cords gets more difficult. The fine edges of the cords that should be innervated and touch each other gently and firmly lose their sensitivity and thicken. That calls for even more pressure which of course exacerbates the situation. We hear this kind of forced singing all the time. The tilt that would enable the cords to stretch may be reduced. There are also cases where trauma to the neck or whiplash may cause deterioration of the laryngeal coordination, thus making singing very effortful.Image

How to tilt? Gently moan and cry, do the siren exercise (sing on –ng). You might  palpate the front of the neck gently and feel the tiny forward rocking motion. Tilting adds sweetness to the sound as well as healthy vibrato. Tilt can be used in all genres, not only classical and it makes singing more comfortable and easier.

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The heading of this post promises actually too much. I don´ t intend to say anything final about this much debated subject. But for your knowledge, Dear Singers, that´s what it´s about these days in every single voice/singing pedagogy congress. I have attended many of them, lastly the International Congress of Voice Teachers (ICVT) in Brisbane, Australia and

the PEVOC, Pan-European Voice Congress in Prague, Czech Republic this summer. And all those spectrograms describing the formants of the vocal tract; that`s really the craze today.

Spectrogram

Oh, I just love looking at spectrograms! But believe me, they can never substitute a good pair of ears by a good knowledgeable singing teacher. Maybe nobody ever claimed they would. And yet, as a teacher, it`s really great to SEE what you always thought you heard. “Ah, I knew it! ”

What I wanted to say with this post is that in classical singing there really exists a thing called vowel modification. Because as a singer ascends higher towards his/her passaggio range, it is very wise to do something about one´s vowels – to modify them towards a more slender, more narrow and vertical form. That is unless you want to sound strident and strained. By so doing, your larynx has it much easier to stay comfortable and your resonance doesn´t spread but finds a higher placement, giving you more overtones while keeping the depth in the sound. It´s really that simple! It´s all about the old bel canto adage “chiaroscuro”, the ideal th

at the vocal sound should be both dark and bright at the same time. That means beautiful balance both in the larynx and in the resonance.

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People often have prejudices against opera. This can mean particularly the way singers sound in classical opera as they sing without amplification. Singers spend years in developing their voices to the maximum, building their own instruments and their ”built-in microphone” . This means the voice gets louder and more penetrating because it has to carry over the strong sound of an orchestra. Sometimes this development is taken to an extreme and the beauty of the sound even compromised. There is a lot of carrying power, a strong so called singers formant. At near distance such a voice can literally  hurt in your ears! In many cases these voices are classified as dramatic and may be suitable for certain types of repertoire. The component of brightness is exaggerated in relation to darkness or there is an overly dark pressed phonation– against the old Italian ideal of the balance of chiaroscuro (bright-dark). This can also be a result of too much air pressure. Such overly metallic or unnaturally darkened voices are not always produced with harmful technique but the danger is near.

 

And the unaccustomed ear of an opera layman may feel classical singing is unnatural and ugly. Hmm…  How unfortunate is that. So, as a singing teacher I also want to say, classical singing is not always about a full-blown ”operatic” sound. Singing should be beautiful – that is ” bel canto”. Of course, singing about dramatic and violent emotions cannot be sweet. The emotional context should  colour the singer´s sound. But a reliable, balanced and safe singing technique probably makes the best of every voice. Then it is beautiful, flowing, soft or strong, both bright and dark in its  individual timbre.

 

There are so many  other musical styles besides opera where classical singing technique enables the voices to flower expressively, emotionally and intelligently.

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Old Italian teachers often refer to a term called giro. It means to turn around or make a circle. What has that to do with singing?

The feeling of the sound going high up in the head to resonate in the cavities there instead of in the mouth belongs to the technique of classical singing. That is what giro is about. Singers learn to use their pharynx as a resonator. The soft palate is one of the movable parts of our ”tube” ie. the length of the resonating chambers from the lips down to the larynx. In pop singing and CCM the singer´s voice sounds more speechlike whereas the operatic quality requires more roundness and overtones. These can be achieved by lifting the soft palate and directing the sound waves more towards the back. Some teachers refer to the feeling saying the sound should go ”up and over”. Others on the other hand claim that the voice cannot be directed anywhere.

In my opinion, all these concepts can be useful. If we want a round and mellow tone the sound should definitely not be pushed straight out of the mouth or even into the masque for that matter (see my previous article about the masque!). If we have the surprise feeling together with an inner smile the soft palate lifts gently. In my experience many singers overdo the lift and thereby cause the soft palate to stiffen instead, even sometimes engaging the throat constrictor muscles without perhaps noticing. That would give a strained and unpleasant sound and feeling. It could be helpful to just relax the pharynx and slightly lean backwards inside. And then the tricky part:  do not let the tongue go back! Because if you do, the sound will certainly be muffled and lack clarity.

So, how to combine the feeling of space in the back and a forward sound in the masque?  It all comes together with the inner smile and feeling the smell of a rose simultaneously, thus connecting the cavities from behind the nose to the pharynx. This is good phonation. Yet, we also have to have clear diction (articulation). So, make sure that the tongue stays forward, perhaps in the ng –position and make the consonant sounds only with the tip of the tongue and lips using small movements. And keep your body at all times connected to the sound, of course!

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In my latest blog post I wrote about the masque, stating it´s a good thing. Ok, I still think so, but I´m also aware there are many singers and voice teachers who don´t subscribe to this thinking. Why is that? There are many reasons why not all singers find it helpful and just as many reasons why some singing teachers have found it counterproductive. It´s a good thing but can easily be missunderstood. And in that case it´s better to forget about it at least for a while.

Let me explain. The voice flows out of you as sound waves. You need very little air to get the vocal cords to vibrate. It is not the air in fact that gives you the feeling of the masque but it can be helpful to imagine so.  If you start pushing air forward to feel this masque you are definitely out for trouble. That destroys the delicate balance of the instrument. The old Italian masters said: “inhalare la voce ma cantare davanti” , inhale the voice but sing forward. What does that mean? Feel as if you are sucking in air, or “drinking” the voice while singing because then you don´t push, you stay better connected to the body and keep the space in the pharynx open. On the other hand, the voice has to come out as well as the text. Therefore, at the same time, imagine singing out, letting the tongue come forward and the text to flow easily to the listeners ears. If you can combine these two there is good balance of function as well as balanced sound. Because of fear of losing this balanced function many teachers do not advocate singing in the masque.

I still insist on the masque as an end product but not necessarily as a method for beginning singers. Only gradually you become aware of this feeling. And when you get  it, your voice will have roundness and carrying power. But it requires wise training and kinesthetic awareness no to push while still maintaining the masque feeling.  It gives the passaggio and higher notes a forward placement, roundness and brilliance, the feeling of a high ceiling above and also balances the pressure from below. It is part of you” inner microphone”, your built-in amplifcation.

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