The 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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Singers are often puzzled with two seemingly opposing concepts: letting the air out while at the same time conserving it. Equally puzzling can be this: you must keep the cords together; they must close for tone to be created. On the other hand air must come through for the cords to vibrate. There are differing pedagogical views of the application of these concepts. Others consider it paramount that there is good closure, even a tiny pinch of the glottis. Others think the air must flow and the cords will be closed through the Bernouilli effect.
All I can say is, both are right. Good closure will ensure clear tone, bad closure creates breathy tone. But even with good firm closure the air will come through in tiny puffs through the cords. So which should you think about; the closure or the air. This involves the whole body and the breathing apparatus obviously. And the final emphasis pedagogically speaking is always individual depending on the student. If the student has a breathy voice it will not be wise to stress airflow too much. If he/she has a tight, tense voice, the opposite is true. That´s why the same exercises will not do for everybody.
Airflow and air pressure are two different things. The old bel canto masters talked about lotta vocale, vocal competition – not meaning singing competition! – the pull between to opposing forces.
Excessive air pressure can hinder vocal fold vibration. The female middle range especially can be severely affected , the folds vibrating with too thick mass. Thick folds in the middle range require ever more pressure with unfavourable results: pitch problems and compensatory tensions. Male singers can usually cope with less problems because their vocal fold mass is always greater but they should learn to thin their folds, too, if they want to be able to sing high notes. That´s called technique!
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