Cord closure for all voice types – Post #1
As a young man, I was partially in awe, and a bit envious of the many talents that would come to my home to study with my father. After many years of teaching, I continue to be both in awe and envious of the magnificent voices I come in contact with 😉 So many wonderful singers! Many are not famous, and it makes one wonder how they have not made it into the bigger leagues. I can tell you this: the voice is not enough! More is needed than mere vocal talent. Musicality, expressivity, uniqueness of timbre, signficant resonance, acting skills, social skills, connections, and even good looks.
It has been a while since I blogged. In many ways I feel like my experience teaching has given me a language of my own that I use to identify and address vocal issues. So, after many years of teaching, I have decided to write again and address technical issues armed with both the ideas transmitted to me in the past, but also based on my own observations as to what works best in terms of communication and application. My first series of blog posts were mostly a flow of my consciousness and an attempt to put down on paper what I remembered and understood from what had been given me, for others to use, but also for me – to formulate a clearer and coherent picture of all these ideas; to discover scientific correlates to subjective experience, and to get to the core of what things actually meant. I have found that not all ideas are as effective as one would like. Though they may be right, they remain out of reach for many, because experiences, though shared because of our similar genetic makeup, are more about analyzing things after the fact, or after you have had the experience. So from TenorTalk, I am moving forward to a more general blog that addresses technical issues of all voice types from my own persepective, based on what I have gathered and what I have found to work best. Of course, I am still guided by the principles I was taught, but I have found different ways of saying things that I find work well for me. I will try to convey them my way.
The first issue that I would like to address is the one that I feel is the most important technical issue: cord approximation or cord closure. I feel this is one of the issues most misunderstood and most poorly taught across the board. The principal obstacle to both male and female singers mastering resonance is the lack of energy in the cord closure – a weakness, or in my estimation a looseness in the energy that seals the cords.
So often people talk about the tongue, the jaw, the palate, the mask, etc., as detemining factors in maximizing resonance. In my experience, this is seldom the case, or at least not the principal obstacle. Think of this: let’s say you have two violins of different size and make. One is a cheap $50 quasi piece of cardboard and the other a priceless Stadivarius. You put the same exact strings on both. We then proceed to pull a never rosined bow over the strings of the Stradivarius and a well rosined bow over the poorly constructed violin. Chances are, the cheap violin will sound better. Similarly, no matter what shape the vocal tract is above the cords, it can never make up for a poor sound from the source. Narrow larynx, open throat, high tongue, etc., all fail at producing a resonant sound unless that sound is first made at the cords. All those structures above the cords are just meant to tune the sound, or enhance some of its components, but they can’t tune a sound that doesn’t exist first. A microphone, even a good one, is of no use if you don’t speak or sing into it. Those higher harmonics need to exist in order for the vocal tract to enhance them. Most singers fail at the very source – the cords, and this is across the board the biggest reason why people fail – their inability to maintain a grasp on their cord closure throughout the musical line with varying vowels and pitch, and to fine tune it with varying dynamics.
Both male and female voices are often ruined by teachers inviting the singers to relax the throat and relelase the breath. The singers feel a sense of release when they let go of the imperfectly calibrated glottal closure. They are told that this relaxation is the way forward. They believe it because they feel “free.” The throat feels free from grabs and “constrictions.”
It is at this point that the sound sinks more and more below the jaw and eventually into the sternum. The dark looseness is accepted as part of the process. The teacher will try to help the student overcome the backward sound by inviting them to think more of the mask. Because the cord is loose, the singer starts pushing air through the cords and into the mask. They get the impression that the structures in the face are vibrating. They take this to be the “forward sound.” In reality they are placing air where thy expect the voice to be. The excessive air placed in the mask has to get through the cords of course, and so now not only are they loose in the phonation but they are trying to fix the looseness by pushing more air into the face, which makes them even more loose. The male singers hear this sound and for example in the passaggio confuse it for a “covered sound” because it resembles the darker timbre of a clearly efficient covered sound, and ladies confuse it for greater “head voice” for the same reasons. It is neither.
Vibrato then starts to get wonky. Pitch starts to sag. Getting to higher pitches sometimes equates to increasing pressure to reach pitch in the worse case scenario, or it may be a backing off the voice and getting excessively light in the best case. Both cases result in a severely non-theatrical version of the sound. It may mistakenly be believed to be “big” in rooms, but at first try in a theater and with orchestra, the voice sounds back, old, surprisingly smaller than imagined (to the ignorant), unsupported, etc.
The more savvy teachers will often tell the singers that they lack support. The singer will become masterful at suspending the breath and managing to measure the stream of breath with incredible skill. Yet the voice remains dull and bland. With ever increasing vocal skill in repertoire and artistry – an abyss in terms of resonant timbre frustratingly remains. I have heard so many extraordinarily talented vocal musicians who make their cheap $50 violins (technically speaking) play like they were Heifetz and his Guarnieri. They never go anywhere. Why? Because their sound is sub-par and says nothing because it lacks harmonics. It is a non-theatrical, lack-luster, room voice. On one occasion a student was struggling with me because I would not accept her loose sounds. I kept telling her to stop giving me air and to start giving me sound. Her reply was “air is expressive.” My reply was “air is expressive only in your head.” Never saw her again.
Let’s say you are singing an A4. This is a sound with a frequency of 440 Hz. It cycles 440 times in a second. This basically means that the vocal folds will open and close 440 times per second to yield that pitch or frequency. Think of yourself clapping 440 times per second. Now think: how long are your hands together and how long are they separate during that second with its clapping 440 times? Do they barely touch and then they are heading away from each other again? Or are they staying sealed and then separating for a micro-instant and coming back together energetically? The separation and rapid and sudden coming back together of the cords is the type of process that liberates signficant amounts of higher harmonics that the singer can then tune and amplify with correct vocal tract adjustments. The cord should come together along its entire length. There should be no gap in the cord closure. If there is, this can work for a normal human being in speaking, but not for an opera singer. The persistent presence of a glottal gap degrades the voice and its operatic potential.
Listen to what I am saying: YOU CANNOT SUPPORT YOURSELF INTO THE RIGHT VOICE. It will always be the other way around. The right sound will trigger the right support. You will learn to coordinate the correct suspension of the breath in conjunction with the correct sound. If the cords are not closing properly you cannot close them through support alone. First comes the sound and then the support. You can set up the conditions for support, but the process is always sound driven.
Listen also to this: if a teacher tells you that you will increase your cord closure and get the resonance that has eluded you by releasing more air, then you have a very big problem because you are being guided astray. Some people hear traits of resonance, totally unfocused and harmonically unorganized sounds and they assume “well that is my sound” not realizing its the result of faulty phonation. If the instructor says that by moving more air the Bernoulli Effect will cause your vocal folds to close and give you the resonance you seek, run away and never go back. They are using scientific notions without understanding and trying to mask their ignorance with science.
For the more scientifically minded (skip to the next paragraph if you don’t care about the science), let me address this complete quackery. The vocal folds have a certain mass. Think of putting your hands together. Think of your hands as the thick edge of the vocal folds coming together. Put your hands straight in front of you. Think that under your hands is the pressurized air – the subglottic pressure. That pressure is trying to separate your hands. The first place that will separate is the bottom. Separate your hands on the bottom while keeping the middle and top sealed. Slowly the air pressure separates the rest, almost like a wave. The top will separate last. Scientists tell us that once this wave of opening moves toward the top, the pressure differential between top and bottom will cause the bottom to start coming back to the midline. So the first part to close again is the bottom. That this mucosal wave is regulated by the Bernoulli Effect is to be seen, but in any case, one thing is for sure: the Bernoulli Effect would become significant for an opera singer only when the entire edge of the cord is sealed. If the cord is slack and with little mechanical effort at the arytenoids and in the inter-arytenoids sealing them, and with little longitudinal energy given by the crico-thyroid, the Bernoulli Effect will not give a magical contribution yielding higher energy partials. The idea that moving the air more will somehow magically give you more cord closure is completely false absent a firmness in the muscles that actually do keep the cords at the midline.
Just because releasing air makes you feel like you released tensions in the throat does not mean you did the right thing. Your absolute guide must ALWAYS be the sound, not the mechanics. If you release tension at the cord level and the sound loses resonance you have made a step backwards not forwards. It is true, that sometimes you have to let go of resonance because your cord closure is all bundled up with a whole bunch of other unrelated tensions. But this should last briefly and should be understood to be a very temporary transition. The better solution is to find the notes that are most devoid of tensions, focus in on hearing the vocal beam, the isolated higher harmonics in conjunction with the deeper ones, and then proceed to extend the voice from that relaxed place maintaining the beam of resonance, in essence maintaining the closure as an absolute necessity.
I have found that often singers release tongue and jaw tension as soon as they close the cords more energetically. It is almost as though the tensions are a subconscious fix for the looseness. Somehow, your throat is trying to fix something it senses is wrong, and as soon as you resolve the looseness, the tensions calm down. Doesn’t always happen, but I have seen it enough to know it is a significant possibility.
Having said all this, I must insert one of my favorite stories – Birgit Nilsson’s quantum leap.
She studied initially with Joseph Hislop in Sweden. She states that her voice at the time was unruly, big wooden and full of air. She says it was the type of voice that sounds “big in your own head and to people close by.” She says that all of Hislop’s work was on the cords, locally in the larynx. He wanted to “take off all this unnecessary sound.” She faulted him for not working the resonance and the support and making her voice smaller. One day she has an engagement and gets sick, and couldn’t do the things Hislop wanted her to do, so she just let the voice go up into the mask and that is how she found her voice. The stage taught her, not the abusive Hislop.
This is the kind of stuff teachers have to patiently endure. With all due respect to the legend that Nilsson is, do you think for ONE SECOND that had she thrown the voice into the head while it was, in her words, wooden and full of air, that somehow she would have found that mask resonance? I tell you that she would not have. ABSOLUTELY NOT! She found that sound because she put in the work to strengthen the cord closure and “take out the excessive sound” as Hislop guided her. She didn’t find the balance of the release vs. the adduction as quick as she wanted, but that cord closure didn’t come out of nowhere. Her letting the voice go into the head is a great image of her finally figuring out how to balance cord closure and flow of breath, but that is a realization that comes after having put in the work, not before. People read her story and probably just start throwing sound into their head. You can’t place a sound. It’s a concentric wave. It goes where it can not where you want it to. The fact that she could feel the resonance go strike in the face was the result of the high energy partials she developed by training the cords for 3 years, despite her disdain for the teacher.
She later stated about young singers and technique the following: “Most of the time the breathing is not right, they don’t support correctly. They don’t use the resonant room that we have in our foreheads and at the sides of the nose. I work like they did in Italy many many years ago to get the tone produced “in the mask” because that is the only way to get the right sound. That is our violin case, our piano case, and that has to sound. If you pass those areas, the voice either gets dark or heavy, or it might sound very big in one’s own head but it doesn’t project. If you have the voice placed correctly, far up in the head in those resonant rooms (as I call them), then you can start working on expressions, dynamics, and everything else.” These are absolutely correct ideas, the problem is that people cannot find resonance that doesn’t exist at the source – the cords. You cannot get the cords to magically seal by just supporting. There are specific actions that have to be strengthened at the glottal level. The very concepts Hislop pushed on her – the work at the cords, or locally in the larynx, is exactly the work that does this.
Pavarotti talks about this and says how in the beginning one must make the voice “squeezed” and how this often makes people red in the face, etc. He goes on to say that it takes often 6 months (well maybe for him) before the muscles are strong enough in the cords and then the voice comes out round and beautiful, but that initially it is sacrificed.
My approach to this very much centers around the Italian language. Our language is a very glottal language. Many think Italian is not glottal. They are wrong. There are degrees of glottal attacks. While Italian is not harsh in its glottals, it is a very glottal language. If I say to someone “Eh come va? Apposto? Dove stai andando?” all those vowels will be produced with what I call a baby glottal, as if you were saying Ah Ah Ah… They are thought of as projected sounds too. We don’t do indoor voice. If you don’t believe just come visit with my family at a family reunion. If there are 10 of us in a room, I guarantee you will walk away within 30 minutes with a headache.
Similarly, in my teaching, I use baby glottals to help singers isolate and identify the action and coordination between support and glottal compression. One exercise is the following: do a scale 1-2-3-4-5-5-5-5-5-4-3-2-1 on EE. Proceed legato all the way to 5, then repeat 5 rapidly staccato and produce it on one breath column, no pulsing of the breath, as if you were just saying in Italian EH EH EH EH, rapidly. The feeling is that instead of closing the cords to make the sound, you are at a glottal stop in between sounds and suspending the breath so as to have a sense of one column of breath rather than compressing the glottal. The result is that it feels like you are saying it rather than pulsing it. While doing this one should try to produce those sounds as much as possible in a nasal way, without actually pushing air into the nose. So if you gently touch the skin of your nostrils you should feel no vibration in the skin as you make these “nasal” sounds. In reality, the result is nasal resonance, not nasality. Big difference. One implies sound in the mask and the other putting air where you expect your voice to be (not good).
The interesting thing about this exercise is that it doesn’t give you time to engage bad tensions around the larynx. It helps you identify very keenly the connection between breath energy and cord closure. When done properly it also helps you identify the functions that actually produce the voice in the mask. Mask resonance is first and foremost a laryngeal event. The mask is a reflection. The mask is the effect, not the cause. The cause is in the larynx (and of course secondarily also in the tongue and breath support).
I agree with Nilsson that addressing resonance and breath support is essential, but I think she didn’t fully acknowledge how crucial that period of 3 years (or 6 months for Pavarotti) of pressed phonation was for her in subsequently finding her voice. It is infinitely better to be pressed than it is to be loose. Pressed can become correct once you learn to not allow the closed cords to excessively stop the air. You have to know how to let the air flow with closed cords, not loose ones. This means the flow will be less, but it won’t feel stuck. When all is said and done, the singer just feels a sense of gentle flow with no waste of air imbedded in the sound, a very slim and exact resonant tone, like a laser that emerges from the low larynx and goes and strikes in the mask forward.
Exercises for cord closure on the EE vowel are truly important, as well as the EH, especially for English speaking natives. Your language is a huge disadvantage because your AH OH and OO vowels in speaking are produced by loosening the cords so as to darken. AH OH and OO should be bright bright bright. What is this dark thing? This is a false sound that never is theatrical. These swallowed dark sounds are not right. They unavoidably lead to pushing, particularly when your rep calls for volume. Focusing your mind on the resonance of an EE or EH can help you identify the small beam of sound that proceeds from the larynx to the area close to your nose and in the forehead (depending on range). By discovering the beam you can learn to not “push passed it”, or not destroy the beam with unnecessary and excessive air movement. The beam teaches you to support because you start to get a feel for how much air pressure and air movement is needed to keep the beam alive. Too little air and the sound crushes. Too much air and you disintegrate the beam and get dirty.
The image of appoggio is truly important. The sound meets the column of pressurized air at the cords. The two meet and when correctly balanced produces the sound ray that goes and strikes in the mask. Ray implies origin and destination. The origin is the larynx. When you do glottals and say Ah Ah Ah, you identify where the sound meets the pressure. That is where ring is created. The regulation of the pressure under that spot and the regulation of the air passing through it is crucial. It is all accomplished through the sound. But first you have to develop the strength of that closure. It usually goes through pressed phonation unfortunately. There is not much wiggle room there. Most people are not naturally talented enough to not go through pressing. But if you focus on releasing right away, they just won’t develop the adduction. You can try. Good luck. You can minimize the pressing by proceeding from strength. Find the notes that more easily balanced and vibrant and proceed from their. The problem is that as one ascends, the registration shifts will cause the cords to lengthen when the laryngeal tilt is properly executed. This will almost always shift the way they feel the beam and will likely cause a loosening of the cords. So you have to err on the side of greater energy of closure in that process because it is not intuitive.
This beam of sound (the sensation of a very harmonically exact sound) must be perfected by correctly positioning larynx (low and tilted particularly as we ascend), tongue (vowel), jaw, lips, and soft palate. The configurations of these are important and change with pitch range. A soprano singing a D5 does not do the same thing when she sings a B5 with regard to jaw, lips, larynx, etc. The mid range has a smaller mouth opening for example compared to the top. The correctly forward sound will have protruding lips so as to tune harmonics correctly when you are aiming for incisive ringy sound. It will not be so in the top. If you don’t make the right adjustments, you lose the beam of sound and its exactness, and that is the crux. You have to know the sound, but then you need a guide to make the adjustments to keep the sound. Just thinking of keeping the beam will not be enough because there are physical changes that have to occur in order for you to sing an extended range.
Some schools like the Melocchi school focused on very small intervals, or just singing one note. Finding the resonance of the one note, or migrating a very short distance to an adjacent note. Slowly they extended. To avoid the problems in registration, they just basically covered everything (that is not what Del Monaco did). That is very much what Kauffman is doing. It minimizes the registration shifts in resonance because it relies so heavily on 1st and 2nd overtones. For those following the old school idea of tuning squillo or higher resonance (on high notes particularly the 5th harmonic for men or 3rd for women – 2400-3000 hz).
For men, the exercise of the voce finta helps develop cord closure in a low impact way and identify the kind of cord closure needed to create the beam. Knowing how to reproduce that beam with a thicker cord is a challenge. For women, a corresponding exercise is by making a sound similar to voce finta but higher in complete head voice. It is on an EE vowel, very nasal in feeling, extremely ugly and bright. Some would call it a witch voice. It must be extremely forward, almost exclusively in the nose area. Almost always when working with women with “no top” we end up vocalizing on this sound to E natural, and then when I tell them they sang an E natural they almost pass out because they can’t believe it. One of the things of this sound is that the intense cord closure makes you lose concept of where you are on the scale. The sound is very much skewed toward higher harmonics. What feels ugly and terribly forward is actually not far from the complete full sound for a woman. The opera house has its way of taking those sounds and making them wonderful. The true opera voice is not for rooms but for the theater.
What I find kills singers often at a higher level, is their concept of vibrato. Vibrato is made of two components, a pitch and an intensity variation. You have an oscillating pitch and then you have also a changing volume. In the singers that are not quite there yet technically, I find almost across the board that within the pitch excursion, when the voice gets to the bottom part of the oscillation there is a significant decrease in volume, a much greater release of breath. You can see this on spectrographs. The higher part of the vibrato wave is intensely colored and the bottom gets lighter, indicating a decrease in decibel level. Why is this important? Because that intermittent loosening that is happening on the bottom trough of the oscillating wave degrades the voice as you hold the note. Eventually this can turn into a bleat, or even a shake within the body. Why? Because the column of air pressure is varying within your vibrato and so is the intensity of your cord closure.
To fix this problem, you have to separate in your mind voice and air; think that you are vibrating a straight tone pressure. Think of your voice like a trumpet producing a sound striking potently right in the mask but powered up by a constant column of breath. Think one volume within the vibrato. What ends up happening is that the column of air pressure becomes very regulated. The singer feels almost straight, but the vibrato is significantly improved as is also the legato. The cord closure becomes more constant and the beam of sound is not degraded.
You have to discover what maintains the beam of intense resonance. Knowing the mechanics serves no purpose if you don’t have the beam of resonance as your guide. You must be a master of the resonant beam. If you push air passed the sound, the beam will be degraded because your cord closure is now under-energized and inefficient. The master controls the cord closure through the sound, but everyone else has to first learn how to make the beam. You can’t direct a beam that doesn’t exist. You cannot support yourself into the right sound. You learn to support by making the right sound, and you will NEVER EVER learn the right sound by trying to support. No level of support will ever trigger the right muscles that need to stop the air from leaking into the voice, making it wide, dull, backward and largely harmonically unorganized.