High Light Singing

How many times have you been in a voice studio and an instructor says, “I would like to hear you lighten the voice more in that phrase”! Though intended to be a helpful request, there can be vocal problems that result. One of the most common issues is that, when asking a singer to lighten production, it can invite the singer to disconnect from the lower body support. This usually results in a higher larynx position at and during phonation, resulting possibly a temporary lighter sound, but one that will often become throaty over time. While lighter singing is certainly a valid and healthy vocal function when employed correctly, it is critical that the proper way to accomplish it be explained and executed properly.

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Correct light singing is absolutely based on a deep vowel formation (pharyngeal vowel forms) and lower body connection, what many call support. In the principles of Lamperti and Garcia, lower laryngeal vibration (sometimes described as tracheal vibration) was a part of getting to the higher overtones from a deeper release. This was taught in conjunction with the forward ‘ng’ [ŋ] tongue position. The open throated hum function was also used, allowing the singer to exercise both ring and space simultaneously.

Understandably, most teachers are looking for a way to achieve acoustically released phonation, which discourages muscular singing and expands the ring factor in tonal production. But in much of today’s vocal training there is an obsession with high, light, bright singing, as though it is always the healthiest approach toward quality professional sound. The assumption that light singing is always going to “fix the problem” is quite false! Since the abandon and/or loss of many Old World concepts over the past two generations, there seems to be a fear that has developed regarding natural color in a voice. This fear has led to an international disorder of high-larynxed, generic, disconnected, and throaty singing. In Old World training, EVERY singer was encouraged to find the appropriate COLOR AND RING (chiaroscuro) in his or her voice! This was accomplished by both laryngeal release (pivot of the larynx in middle register) and, palate and tongue release. Laryngeal release opens the pharynx, creating appropriate vowel color, and tongue and palate release allows the voice to travel on the ring. To simply request that a singer lighten the voice, without explaining HOW to accomplish it often leads to more technical problems. Perhaps some instructors may not have been exposed to concepts that assist the singer in lightening the voice through body-connected vocal exercise or use of the Italian appoggio. This is unfortunate, as it is of major importance in the development of balanced teaching and singing skills.

Connected Light Singing and the Cuperto Function: Every singer needs to know that even the lightest vocal sound needs body connection and that the tone must be sung in a protection (cuperto or coperto), with includes proper low and wide laryngeal release as a solid vocal foundation. The vocal protection basically consists of an expanded [u] in the pharynx, a rounded embouchure (mouth opening) without Flagstadtbunching of the tongue root, a slightly released down and back jaw position and a subtle [ng] sensation. It is unfortunate that, especially in the female voice, many today do not hear when singing tone is produced without acoustical protection or ‘voce cuperto’. Since much Old World training has been lost in the last two generations, spread light singing has become acceptable sound, which does not allow for the development of warmth in the voice. When a singer finds the correct vocal protection (ng resistance), then there is a natural tendency for the body to engage. Kirsten Flagstad told Lindquest, in a 1938 interview, “I sing from the lower back muscles to the ring. This way, I feel as though I have no throat when I sing!” She was describing a feeling that when the voice is produced with an acoustical protection, the body connects. This is especially of critical importance to lighter singing. In truth, body connection is the only vocal approach that can assist in avoiding throaty singing.

The ‘thin edge’ function of the vocal folds:  One of the most critically important vocal concepts in vocal pedagogy is that of the ‘thin edge’ function of the vocal folds. Exercising the thin edges of the folds assists a singer is finding lighter vocal production, yet with a body-connected approach. Assisting a singer in finding the thin edge function of the vocal folds avoids such problems as registration issues, breath management problems, and general thickness in vocal production. It can be accomplished through small staccato exercises. (See Exercise #5 at the end of this chapter.)

When is lightening appropriate? To lighten is not a bad concept if a singer is over-producing his or her sound. Over-produced sound (pushed sound) usually consists of using too much vocal weight (thick cord mass) or too much sub-glottic breath compression without sufficient flow of air. Over- compression of the breath often comes from compromised posture, often including a ‘pulling down’ of the rib cage, which engages the gag reflex at the root of the tongue. As I have said before, Kirsten Flagstad called this approach the “school of the tall spine”, reflecting the emphasis of healthy posture. (I consistently recommend the Alexander Technique as a way of accomplishing a more suspended posture for healthy singing.)

Is Disconnected Singing Weighted Singing? Disconnected singing, which is singing with the abandon of lower body support muscles, is always throaty and often weighted, no matter if tonal production is heavy or light, loud or soft. Many singers can make a light sound by lifting the larynx, usually disconnecting from lower body support, and singing too ‘spread’ or ‘open’ (voce aperto). When the voice is spread, the singer tens to over-blow the voice with too much breath pressure, resulting in heavy (thicker cord mass), weighted sound, which then results in registration problems, breath management issues, and/or pitch problems. Virginia Botkin, student of Alan Lindquest, used a term in her teaching that she called ‘breath weight’. This means that when too much loose air travels through the larynx, which results from too little lower body connection, the cords thicken, resulting in too much vocal weight in the voice. Dr. Evelyn Reynolds uses specific reflexive exercises in her teaching that use rhythmic patterns that encourage body connection, while dropping the vocal weight. For example, she would often use the dotted eighth and sixteenth note pattern, but in ascending broken arpeggio patterns. This invites the body to engage automatically from a rhythmic response. Alan Lindquest once said, “We must all learn to sing loud and light (not loud and heavy), with tone connected to body!” Singing loud and light is accomplished through accessing the thin edge function of the folds, while keeping the lower body resistance (support) engaged yet flexible. Lindquest’s statement was designed to encourage singers to avoid placing too much tongue pressure or breath pressure on the larynx when singing at louder dynamic levels. To simply assume that light singing is healthy singing is a huge mistake, one that is often made in voice studios internationally. (See article: “The Dangers of Undersinging a Dramatic Voice”) On the other hand, we do not want to encourage weighted heavy singing either. Remember that when the larynx is high, the result if often too much vocal weight.

Everyone does not have our vocal history or vocal problems! In an interview about his life in 1980, LindquestLindquest (founding member of NATS) said, “Many teachers cannot see the forest for the trees! They teach only from their own vocal experience, rather than researching the total art of teaching.” From personal experience, I must say that my early university training was with a teacher who was obsessed with the high, light approach to singing. Rarely did any of his singers release the larynx down and wide at inhalation, because he never mentioned laryngeal function, much less laryngeal tilt in the middle register. He himself was a high leggiero tenor and, like some instructors, felt HIS vocal experience was correct for everyone. It was unfortunate for his students, that he never researched and learned the value of individualized vocal training.

As state once again, that a healthy voice has both color and ring, and should not just possess a high, light. generic tonal quality. Today, I find it especially amazing that there are a number of ludwiginternational careers based on disconnected generic singing sound. Generic singing is in bad taste, not only because of the lack of beauty and lack of emotional colors in the voice, but also because the sound is one-dimensional. Generic singing is too ‘voce aperto’ or spread. Excellent communication skills reflect the use of many contrasting vocal colors in the voice. Listen to the singing of Christa Ludwig. Contrasting emotional colors, the primary component that makes singing interesting, cannot be realized through disconnected singing or generic sound. What happened to Old World training, which specifically encouraged and taught each singer to learn the balance of the chiaroscuro (dark-bright tone)? The idea that disconnected light singing is a healthy alternative to pushed singing is a confused one. This is especially a trap for early music singers, who often spend a lot of their mental energy trying to imitate a sound they have been told is ‘authentic’.

Case Study #1: Swedish Soprano: So I ask the question, “Can singing too lightly and disconnected be dangerous over time?” The answer to this question is a resounding YES! Many years ago, I taught a beautiful Swedish Soprano, who had lost her ability to match pitch from what she thought was lightening her voice. This singer had been to many teachers in an attempt to solve her flat under-pitched singing with no positive result. She was a well-known professional at the time and her middle register was deteriorating (meaning she could not sing in tune) because of disconnected light high-larynxed singing. Because her teachers had her so disconnected from her body, there was little or no access to pharyngeal vowels or an open throat in her tonal production. Over time, her cords had become slightly bowed, robbing her of her ability to sing in tune, especially in the middle register. We worked for 6 weeks to regain the correct approximation of the cords through the Garcia ‘coup de glotte’ exercises. This work was taught in conjunction with the opening of the pharynx. Within days, she began to feel her body connection and realized the amount of work it took to really support open-throated singing. (Note: Often singers will find their body connection when the cords close properly.) This is an example of a singer who was suffering from vocal deterioration due to incorrect early training. Since she was always considered a natural singer, her instructors did not investigate thoroughly to discover whether or not she was singing with an open throat or released larynx.

If a singer possess a lighter voice and sounds relatively healthy, perhaps it is difficult to see the need to teach more body connection, or laryngeal release at inhalation, (pharyngeal vowel stretch). I say to any teacher, remember that color is not a negative in the teaching of singing, if it is a result of simply an open pharynx and body connection. Stretching the throat muscles always creates more color in a voice and the resulting timbre often resembles the timbre of the singer’s speaking voice. Laryngeal release always allows more natural color to come into a singer’s tonal production. But today many instructors are terribly afraid of a depressed larynx production. I understand this, because a depressed larynx technique can be extremely dangerous. But working with the laryngeal release in combination with the [ŋ] tongue position can create tremendously balanced results.

Case Study #2: British Baritone: A few years ago, I taught a British Baritone who was quite a successful professional. However, he not been taught to connect to his body, especially when singing high pianissimo. The result was the slow development of a wide, overly open upper passaggio, which began to create tuning carusoproblems in the voice. These tuning problems had relegated him to taking contracts for smaller character roles, when in fact he possessed a world-class instrument. We worked slowly on the laryngeal pivot that William Vennard describes so well in his book, Singing: The Mechanism and the Technique. Through careful exercise, this singer learned to achieve an open throat and body connection when singing at all dynamic levels. We studied the different levels of intensity of support for the different levels of sound intensity. Within a short time, his upper passaggio aligned and he was able to take on more mainstream roles. One tool that we used was to keep a low vibration at the base of the larynx when singing high and soft. This was a technique taught Lindquest by Caruso in 1914.

Singing the Wrong Fach: Extremes in Vocal Training: I have often explained my vocal problems in early training, which developed in singing tenor when indeed I am a lyric baritone. Because I could make a high light lyrical sound by age 16, I was placed in the tenor section of a choir. In fairness to my early instructors, I could make a convincing tenor sound until about age 22, when my entire larynx began to shake with the vibrato and I could no longer sustain proper tuning. Thus began my long journey to vocal recovery through years of study.

I have also taught tenors who were trained as lower voices, because they could depress the larynx and make a baritone or bass sound. Over time, the cords suffer from the resulting tongue pressure and breath pressure that is required in order to then force phonation. This is of course the opposite of light disconnected singing training, and is probably the reason some teachers go the opposite extreme of over-lightening the voice through body disconnection. Committed teachers strive to teach in balance, finding both the open throat, body connection or support, and ring in the voice. When the balance between color and ring is reached (chiaroscuro), then a truly professional tonal quality can be attained and long term vocal health made more attainable.

Casting the Wrong Fach! There is yet another disease I call ‘miscasting’, which is another reflection of the obsession of high light singing, even when it is totally inappropriate. This is a sad tendency in that classical composers of dramatic music designed that music for specific voice types, establishing a specific effect in performance. In almost all cases, Wagner did not design his operas to be sung by lyric singers, yet today many of those ‘powers that be’, (who are casting) do not realize the mistake of casting a lyric voice in a dramatic role. Not only does it not serve the singer, is certainly does not serve the composer and ESPECIALLY not the audience. The audience is being robbed of what it deserves, hearing and experiencing dramatic music sung with the specific resonance thrust of a dramatic voice. I recently went to a Wagner opera at one of the 3 major opera houses in America. Only about half the cast could represent the music appropriately. Many audience members walked out of the performance, which was quite noticeable. People are subconsciously looking for the resonance thrust of a dramatic voice in dramatic music. You might ask the question, “What can I do?” The answer is, write to the managers of the opera houses directly and voice your distaste and desire to hear authentic dramatic music sung appropriately by dramatic singers.

Make no mistake. Lyric voices have their own roles that are designed specifically for them. ‘Miscasting’ also applies to larger voices being cast in lighter roles. This is just as inappropriate. I recently had a dramatic soprano role cast in a Mozart role that was completely inappropriately for her to sing. In fact she developed a squeeze of the throat just to get through the role. I would never recommend that a large-voiced singer take a lighter role.

Today, we need to educate our audiences and those who cast to the appropriate sound of dramatic voices singing dramatic music. AND YES, dramatic voices often come in larger structured individuals, who actually look much better on stage in these dramatic roles; roles that are designed to be ‘bigger than life’.

Singing Without Vocal Protection: Light singing that is disconnected is often produced with a spread embouchure. In the Old Italian School, many spoke of the ‘inner smile’. This is not to be confused with a smile at the mouth. Quite the contrary, a singer needs an oval or rounded embouchure in order to keep an open pharynx or open throat space. Singer’s who try to listen to their voice through spreading the vowel shape are in for a long journey of unhealthy singing. A smile technique simply closes the throat and the singer may sound light, but they are singing with a high larynx at the same time, which irritates the vocal folds. There can be no acoustical protection on the voice when the larynx is high. Singing without a vocal protection, which is discussed in my book, is extremely dangerous over time and leads to severe vocal problems.

How do you achieve a vocal protection?  In the Old Italian School, the vocal protection was achieved through the ringing [u] vowel, which not only assisted the singer in achieving an open pharynx, but it also assisted the singer in achieving a specific type of acoustical balance in the voice. The resulting ring that was achieved came from properly opening the pharynx and coordinating a forward arched tongue position, which accomplished more carrying power without pushing the voice with too much breath pressure. This subject will be covered in detail in my upcoming book.

Use of the Appoggio: Another factor that assists the singer in achieving and sustaining a vocal protection is that of the Italian appoggio, or leaning of the body, which regulates the outflow of breath and discourages the larynx from rising. This leaning originates under the sternum bone, and encourages all of the lower body muscles (lower abominals, solar plexus, lower lumber muscles) to engage. Besides the management of the sub-glottic air pressure resulting in the singer sustaining a slightly lower larynx position, it also discourages the over-blowing of the vocal cords. The resulting sound from use of the proper engagement of the appoggio is a tonal quality with both color and ring (chiaro-scuro), and a singer can sing lighter or fuller without pressure on the throat.

augerCorrect Light Singing: I am one of those audience members that enjoyed the singing of Arleen Auger, one of the most balanced light-voiced singers I have ever heard. I had the privilege of meeting her when she presented a master class at the Mannes College of Music many years ago. Not only was she a balanced singer herself, but she was also quite knowledgeable about the voice. She was very careful to encourage young singers to lighten and connect. She accomplished this through working with the body and the voice simultaneously.

Ms. Auger was a singer who knew her instrument well and interpreted Baroque music with style, grace, and artistry. She was able to interpret Bach and Handel with body-connected ease and she herself was a great teacher of light and connected singing. She achieved both ring and color in her tonal production and she was able to navigate her voice with poise, grace, great musicianship and extreme elegance. I encourage all of my singers to study the singing of Arleen Auger, who was a shining example of technical balance and artistry in singing.

donathAnother wonderful singer who knows balanced body-connected singing is Helen Donath, who has been an example of vocal balance and longevity in healthy singing over the years. I first heard Ms. Donath at a recital in New York many years ago. I remember leaving that recital with a great sense of fulfillment, hearing a light-voiced singer perform with such an excellent understanding of body connection. There are several videos of her singing on you tube. The body connection is quite obvious.

Alfredo Kraus was yet another singer who knew body connection, even though he was a lighter voice. He never pushed his voice in a performance beyond what he could manage healthily, and he never sang to the edge of his voice. Years ago, I heard him at the Metropolitan Opera in Lucia di Lamamoor, with soprano Joan Sutherland. He was never overpowered by Ms. Sutherland’s voice, even though he was a lyrical singer and he did not push throughout the performance.

Another career singer I enjoy studying is Jose van Dam. Although a larger-voiced singer, he never reverted bjoerlingto pushing his voice beyond what it could healthily attain in his earlier performances. His body connection was always present in his performing. Certainly Jussi Bjoerling sang many contrasting roles with a lyric tenor voice that could transition back and forth across the line between light singing and dramatic singing. As an example of the Swedish-Italian School of vocal training, Bjoerling achieved both color and ring in his voice and was an unmistakable artist at managing his voice and his musical interpretation. Joseph Hislop, who taught Bjoerling and Lindquest, is an excellent example of a lyric singer who used correct body connection. There are several CD’s available of his singing and they reflect confidence in singing through balance in technique.

Final Thoughts:  In the end, only balanced singing is healthy singing. Singing light without body-support or body-connection, is not healthy for the voice. Hopefully, we can get back to balance in training both color and ring, and I hope this article assists both singer and teacher in the journey toward that goal.

Concepts on body connection can be found in David Jones’ upcoming book, The Modern Book of Old World Singing: A Practical Guide to the Swedish/Italian and Italian Schools, to be released Spring of 20089. This book is based on concepts of the Italian and Swedish/Italian Schools.

Recommended Exercises for Connected Light Singing

Exercise #1: This is an exercise given my by Dr. Evelyn Reynolds in her New York Studio. Vocalize in front of a mirror during the employment of this exercise. Pinch the upper lip, which assists in lifting the soft palate. Then sing a 5-tone ascending scale on an [o] vowel. Make sure that the jaw is back in order to ensure a protected tone. Work this exercise in the middle and upper middle voice range. Sing both piano and forte (soft and loud) and feel the same [ng] resistance under the nose bone. You will feel the body support more in louder singing of course, but the muscles should keep their elasticity and never lock or stiffen.

Exercise #2: Sing a 5-tone scale on the small Italian [u] vowel, in the middle register. Make sure the tongue is toward the [i] position and the back of the tongue is wide. Native English speakers tend to bunch the tongue root on the [o] vowel and the [u] vowel.

Exercise #3: Another Evelyn Reynolds exercise: wrap your arms around yourself, as though you are giving yourself a hug. As you move up in pitch, pivot from the hip sockets and lean slight forward and down with the upper body. This discourages the pushing of breath pressure and assists the singer in finding a vocal protection through control of the breath.

Exercise #4: Alan Lindquest gave me this exercise in 1979. Line your body up against a wall with your back to the wall. Walk your feel slightly forward, so that you feel the lower back almost touch the wall area. Then as you vocalize, press the lower back into the wall, which will help you feel the relationship between the lower abdominal connection and the lower back muscles.

Exercise #5: Work slowly with staccato function on the [i] vowel. Imagine that you are simply touching a tiny point of the vocal bands together. At first, if tuning problems exist, then the thicker edges of the vocal folds are engages. Repeat the exercise over and over until perfect tuning is achieved. Then you know that you have accomplished finding the ‘thin edge’ function of the vocal folds.                         


Additional vocal information can be found at David Jones’ web site, www.voiceteacher.com. His instructional CD is available at www.cdbaby.com.


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© 2008 by David L. Jones