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One trick pony.

LET'S BEGIN THIS DISCUSSION WITH TWO oft heard, yet diametrically opposed statements:

Singing is a simple, natural behavior--anyone can do it.

Singing is a complicated, learned behavior--it takes years of
discipline, practice, talent, and training to do it well.

In reality, these two viewpoints are not so far removed from each other as might seem. Singing at the highest levels, whether classical or commercial, must appear effortless and natural, but in reality, most people require a great deal of skill and training to present this illusion of vocal ease. I've used the word illusion quite deliberately, because world-class singing--on the opera stage or in an arena concert--is no more natural or effortless than ballet, gymnastics, soccer, or golf. Specialized training and expertise is required. Education enables excellence. It also leads to proficiency, which is much more important for the vast majority of practitioners. Few golfers make it to the PGA, but all benefit from lessons. Likewise, relatively few singers will earn a living exclusively through vocal fold oscillation.

We almost certainly can agree that some training is beneficial for anyone who wants to sing. But opinions vary dramatically about what this training should entail and how it should proceed. Voice science clearly has shown us that singing requires coordinated physical and mental processes. Not too long ago, we believed that voice production was a one-way system: exhaled air causes the vocal folds to vibrate, generating soundwaves that pass through the vocal tract, where they are resonated and articulated to produce the phonemes of speech and singing. We now know, however, that this system, which consists of a power source, vibrator, resonator, and articulators, is highly interactive. Changes in breath alter how the vocal folds vibrate; vocal fold vibration patterns--largely related to the strength of glottal adduction--impact airflow, subglottic pressure, and resonance; changes in resonance impact vocal fold vibration and breathing; and changes in articulation impact not only diction, but also resonance, vocal fold oscillation, and breath.

So singing is complicated. Why is it then that so many singing teachers, many of whom consistently produce fine vocal artists, primarily focus on a single element of technique? Let's explore this phenomenon in greater detail. I might ruffle a few feathers and skewer a few sacred cows in the process, but please stay with me. There is value in everything we'll examine, especially when viewed not as an exclusive solution, but as a component of a multifaceted approach to singing technique.


Many years ago, I participated in an intensive workshop on body awareness, alignment, and conscious relaxation for singers. The charismatic teacher was supported by a cadre of students who gave testimony to the effectiveness of the technique. All reported that the master had changed their lives, enabling them to fulfill their true potential as singers. Exercises and hands-on physical instruction supported informative lectures. By the end of the day, I was physically aligned, completely relaxed, and ready to conquer the world with my voice. Then it was time for the master and disciples to demonstrate how their own singing had been transformed. You can imagine my surprise when almost none of the good habits promoted by the workshop were evidenced in the performances. The master teacher was particularly noteworthy; during introductions, interludes, and postludes, posture was elegant and tension was palpably absent. But as soon as vocalization began, the head jutted forward, the muscles of the neck bulged, and the jaw shook. Clearly, concept and application were disconnected.

The above example is extreme, but follows an oft seen trend. Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, martial arts, and many other training and awareness regimens are promoted individually as the keystone of excellent singing. We've all witnessed (or perhaps given) master classes where students were transformed by tweaks to alignment or other physical adjustments. Chances are slim, however, that real change occurred; it is much more likely that we saw a temporary response to a novel situation or an example of the "second time always is better" phenomenon.

I can't imagine any singer or teacher arguing that appropriate physical alignment and freedom from unproductive tension are unimportant; that either element can guarantee excellent vocalism remains unproven. And in the real world of lyric theater, singers often find themselves performing vocally challenging music while lying on the floor, sprawled over a table, or bent over backward--not to mention the challenge maintaining proper alignment while singing Rigoletto!


You've heard me speak to this issue on numerous occasions. Many teachers and singers--including some of the greatest artists of all time--claim that proper breathing will solve all vocal problems. Lamperti even attributed faulty diction to incorrect breathing. The question remains, however, how finely tuned control of the power system of a musical instrument can guarantee that the vibrator, resonator, and articulatory systems will work in harmony. It is a bit like expecting an engine tune-up to correct a car that pulls to the right when braking.

Some practitioners take breathing even further, using pseudoscience to support their claims. Newton's Third Law of Motion might state that every action induces an equal and opposite reaction, but that in no way suggests the soft palate must rise in response to a descending diaphragm! Nor is it possible to use the diaphragm to press the breath against the sternum instead of the vocal folds, to fill the buttocks with air, or to breathe through a reproductive organ.

Science provides plenty of evidence that proper breathing is crucial to excellent singing, obviating the need to make stuff up. There is no disputing the benefits of regulating air pressure and the amount of air that flows through the glottis. But these tasks require coordination of the breathing mechanism and the larynx; neither can do it alone. Until recently, singers were taught that vocal fold vibration was sustained exclusively by breath through the phenomenon known as the Bernoulli effect; now we know that tissue elasticity, inertance, and resonance also are needed. Breath remains important, but no longer can be viewed as the sole causative factor. From my pedagogic perspective, it is reasonable to say that poor breathing will inhibit good vocalism; perfect breathing, however, is no guarantee of excellent singing. There also is little evidence to support any notion that one particular breathing technique is superior to another. Pressure increases in a balloon whether you squeeze the top, bottom, or middle. Of course, this is a gross oversimplification, but the analogy is accurate.


For some, good singing is all a matter of onset; start the tone well and everything else will follow suit. Garcia famously spoke to this issue with his term coup de la glotte (stroke of the glottis). Surely, he did not mean that every vocal utterance should begin with a hard glottal onset? The horror!

Some pedagogues insist that holding the glottis closed prior to phonation is a recipe for vocal disaster; for them, the proper position for onset is an open glottis with an inaudible (or even audible) /h/. Other teachers find truth in the words of Garcia, insisting that optimal vocal efficiency only is achieved through onsets that employ a closed glottis. In practice, however, either of these two approaches can lead to voice damage if used to excess.

Onset, like alignment and breathing, truly plays a significant role in voice production. Try this experiment: use an aspirate (breathy) onset, and then follow it with pressed phonation. Now do the opposite: use a hard glottal onset followed by breathy phonation. You immediately experience the difficulty of this task, for the manner in which the tone begins has a huge influence on how it continues. That said, onset could be an effective tool for establishing optimal adduction (muscular closing of the glottis). A slightly aspirate onset can help release the excess tension commonly found in "squeezers," and a clean glottal onset will encourage better glottal closure in "blowers." Of course, effective breathing and well tuned resonance must accompany the appropriate onset.


Fascination with formants can be traced back at least to Coffin's Overtones of Bel Canto and Appleman's "vowel-o-meter." It continues today with the increasingly common use of spectrographic feedback in voice studios, practice rooms, and wired master classes. We've already established that breath, which is the first step in phonation, cannot cure all vocal faults related to the vibrator, resonator, and articulators. Why then should we expect perfectly tuned formants to solve problems that rightly reside with the power source or vibrator? Yes, voice production is interactive (also known as nonlinear). But is this interactivity sufficiently strong for resonance to correct problems that occurred upstream?

There are two interrelated issues concerning formants, or resonances of the vocal tract: the eponymous singer's formant, and the tuning of vowel formants to harmonics. Operatic and other unamplified singing styles hugely benefit from the presence of high-pitched harmonics. As we know, orchestral sound has its strongest intensity somewhere in the neighborhood of 500Hz, or the pitch B4. That peak in the audio spectrum is determined by averaging together every pitch and overtone from every instrument in the orchestra, over the duration of a lengthy span of music. Singers most easily can be heard above the orchestra when something in their sound is higher in frequency than that orchestral peak at B4. For sopranos, this is a simple task, as the actual pitches they sing often exceed this pitch. Acoustics are not quite as kind to lower voices, who must rely on the strength of their overtones, not the actual pitch they sing, for projection. This is where the singer's formant is helpful. By clustering together formants three through five, a "super formant" is created that strongly intensifies harmonics in the highest octave of the piano keyboard ([C.sub.7] to [C.sub.8]). In practice, however, many highly successful singers, especially tenors, prefer to use the second vowel formant to boost harmonics half an octave lower. Either approach yields similar results--the voice has sufficient brilliance from strong harmonics to soar above the sound of an orchestra.

So what's the problem? If we concentrate on strengthening the singer's formant as the acme of vocal technique, we produce singers whose voices will penetrate like a laser beam to the back of the largest opera house, yet lack balance, suppleness, and beauty. And a strong singer's formant (or well tuned second formant) cannot compensate for a vocal timbre that is inconsistent, tremulous, wobbly, or out of tune, or singing that is wooden or mechanical.

What about vowel formants? As you no doubt know, I am a huge champion of efficient tuning of vowels to optimize the interactions between resonance and harmonics. And I hope that by now the majority of readers of Journal of Singing are familiar with this concept. To recap, we are looking for ways to help our resonances, or formants, better intersect with harmonics of the pitch we are singing. For example, if a man is singing the word "met" on [C.sub.4] (middle C), it might be helpful to slightly close the vowel toward a close /e/. Closing in this manner lowers the first formant from its typical location at approximately [E.sub.5] to something nearer [C.sub.5], which also is the second harmonic of [C.sub.4], the pitch he is singing. The result of this tuning is to increase the strength of the harmonic in question, enhancing vocal timbre, and creating better synchrony between the vibrator and resonator. Indeed, by tuning the resonator, the vibrator works more efficiently, which in turns helps improve breath support.

But problems can arise when formant tuning is assumed to be the tonic for all vocal ailments. Yes, well tuned resonance increases vocal efficiency, but it cannot compensate completely for hypo- or hyperfunctioning breath management or malfunctioning vocal fold vibration.

Not too long ago, I participated in a workshop that focused on voice acoustics, formants, and the use of spectral feedback as a tool for better singing and more efficient teaching. Toward the end of the event, a group was team teaching a young tenor. He had a fine voice, excellent musicianship, and a real dramatic flair. He also had a few pesky pitches in his upper range that were not working as well as they might. Many instructions were offered, including opening or closing vowels, changing how far he dropped his jaw and where he placed his tongue. Each suggestion had validity and might have worked under different circumstances. This singer, however, was part of the new generation for whom appearance and physique are as important as vocalism. He was strong with particularly well developed abdominal muscles, which he vigorously contracted as he approached higher pitches. As a result, he was using significantly too much air pressure, which in turn caused his vocal folds to hyperadduct. The combination of abdominal and laryngeal squeeze prevented him from releasing his top. Improvement finally came when he was asked to move his torso while singing in a manner that required him to let go of his abdominal wall. Air pressure dropped, his larynx released, and he had sufficient vocal freedom to tweak his formants for optimal resonance. Better breathing isn't always the solution--but quite often, it is.

Teachers tend to have areas of specialization. Perhaps we need a system where students always are taught by a team consisting of:

* An expert in alignment and general issues concerning the body, who ensures students know how to hold their instruments.

* An expert in breathing, breath support, and breath management, who ensures students always supply the precise amount of air for the singing task at hand.

* An expert in taming unruly larynges, who understands how to regulate adductory tension and to create clean, efficient vocal fold vibration.

* An expert acoustician, who can tune the formants of every vowel to every pitch that is sung.

* An expert in articulation, who ensures the tongue and jaw enhance, not impede phonation.

* An expert in musicianship, who trains students to become independent artists.

* An expert in languages, who prepares students to sing in all the languages currently in vogue on the stage.

* An expert in musicality, who coaches students to sing expressively.

* An expert in stagecraft, who ensures students are able to put a convincing character on the stage.

* An expert in business, who helps students become independent impresarios and musical entrepreneurs.

* An expert pedagogue, who helps singers become teachers who can pass along everything they know to future generations.

Perhaps there are a few locations in the world where a tenor can shop for a "one trick pony" that only helps him learn to sing open vowels on A b4. But that is not how it generally works in real life. I contend that it is impossible to know everything that is needed to prepare every singer for every situation; the technical challenges are too diverse, the musical genres too numerous, and the body of repertoire far too vast. Nonetheless, we must strive to have mastery of multiple areas, to have respected colleagues to whom we can refer students when answers elude us, and to possess the wisdom to know when we are in over our heads.

Scott McCoy, Associate Editor

Hail, January, that bearest here
On snowbright breasts the babe-faced year
That weeps and trembles to be born.
Hail, maid and mother, strong and bright,
Hooded and cloaked and shod with white,
Whose eyes are stars that match the morn.
Thy forehead braves the storm's bent bow,
Thy feet enkindle stars of snow.

                     Algernon Charles Swinburne,
                     A Years Carols, "January"
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Title Annotation:Voice Pedagogy
Author:McCoy, Scott
Publication:Journal of Singing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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