Teaching of singing is full of misunderstandings and false beliefs that are wrong from the point of view of science, and the reason for this is easily explained: the teaching of singing as we know it was born centuries ago, while the science of the voice is relatively very young.
The first singing teachers, with their genius, their brilliant intuition and their excellent ear, created and transmitted a training that brought – and still brings – results, but which in the absence of a scientific foundation has also commonly absorbed false beliefs.
Unfortunately, over the centuries these false beliefs have become irrefutable dogmas at worst, paradigms of inspiration at their best, and from the work where they were born they have managed to pass into musical genres with completely different stylistic requirements, such as jazz, pop and musical theatre.
But if we look at the recent scientific research on sound and physiology, how many of these dogmas have a foundation in reality and a basis of effectiveness?
Certainly there are many false beliefs in the field of vocal pedagogy, but I wanted to select the 10 that over the last few years of my career I have had to refute most often, providing explanations and alternative solutions, which have given effective and immediate results both for beginners and for experienced performers.
In the sophisticated physiological process that leads to vocal production, breath is only one of the components; without generalising, many methods and teachers focus on respiratory training as if it were an essential starting point for vocal training, proposing a way of breathing (be it diaphragmatic or costal-diaphragmatic or whatever) as the only correct one, usually associating large amounts of air and high levels of muscular work with phonation. In reality this matter is not so simple.
In other words, breathing alone does not make the sound, and if it is true that minimum quality standards in breathing should be respected, it is also true that breathing alone does not improve, nor “set” the sound. What makes the sound, what turns the breath into an audible sound wave, is actually in the larynx and the vocal tract. The control of these structures will cause the sound to change, and not the breath control (which we have only a limited capacity to directly influence). The breath will simply be allowed to “adjust” to the different conditions it will encounter in the larynx and in the vocal tract (“Breath must be adjusted to what it meets on the way out”; McDonald Klimek, Obert, Steinhauer, “Estill Voice Training Level One: Figures for Voice Control Workbook “)
This principle matches with the affirmation of Dr. Alfonso Gianluca Gucciardo (from the book “Silence and Voice“) on the need to “synchronise the rhythms of breathing to those of phonation and vice versa”, as well as when he speaks of voice as “Pure elastic, ductile, malleable breath”
Breath changes (and MUST change) depending on the sound and many other factors, including posture. Here then is what Joan Lader, world-renowned vocal coach and winner of a Tony Award, but also Estill Master Trainer and speech therapist, in 2016 wrote in the “Voice Council Magazine“: “Worry less about breath, focus on alignment”. But even earlier, in 2008, confirming the work of Jo Estill, Dr. Franco Fussi and Elisa Turlà, in their book “The treatment of dysphonia: a perspective for the Estill Voicectaft method” focused on these differences in respiratory patterns in different musical and vocal genres. They concluded that, without denying the importance of pursuing a correct approach to respiratory management, vocal training focused on breathing (defined as “educational business”, according to Jo Estill’s beliefs) as well as speech therapy based only on postural and respiratory exercises, are ineffective and overrated.
Anne-Marie Speed, of whom I am proud to be a friend, colleague and above all a student, brilliantly summarizes this concept in the words “Air is the enemy of volume“.
But why? As already mentioned, what makes the sound is not the air, but what happens in the larynx and the vocal tract that transforms the simple inaudible air into an audible sound wave. How does this happen? Essentially with the closure of the vocal folds and their resistance to the airflow. So, what is essential to create a sound is that the vocal folds close effectively and vibrate elastically on the air flow. This mechanism is masterfully explained by Ingo Titze, who after explaining the myoelastic aerodynamic theory of phonation, reiterated this important concept in 2015 in an article entitled “Breath is not the carrier of speech“, in which, without minimizing the role of the air as an essential primary impulse for the voice, he focuses on how the energy of the breath must be transformed into acoustic energy.
In 1974, Hirano presented his “Body-cover theory”, in which analysing the structure of the vocal folds also showed us that in a vibratory cycle of the vocal folds (from when they open to when they close), the longer the closed phase the more subglottic pressure will be “collected”, resulting in a stronger sound. The thicker the vocal folds, the longer they will remain closed, thus producing a stronger sound.
But then how much air pressure is needed to activate that vocal fold vibratory mechanism that turns the breath into sound? Very little indeed. Seikel, King and Drumright, in their “Anatomy and Physiology for Speech, Language and Hearing“, speak of a minimum of 3-5 cmH2O (centimetres of water) to activate the vibration of the vocal folds while Kent and Read, in their “Acoustic Analysis of Speech” speak of a relatively constant pressure throughout the speech ranging from 6 to 10 cmH2O. 1 cmH2O is the pressure exerted by a column of water one cm high. As Kent and Read themselves describe, to get an idea of how strong this pressure is, just dip a straw in water for as many centimetres as we want to test the pressure and blow as gently as possible into the straw until bubbles appear. For example, if we dip the straw 3 cm into water and start letting the air gently come out of our mouth, when the bubbles appear, the pressure of our breath will be greater than 3 cm of water. I encourage you to conduct this experiment and realize how little pressure your vocal folds need to vibrate.
So, what happens if the pressure gets too far above these minimum thresholds? This is the important point: the vocal folds must work harder to stay in contact, having to fight against more pressure than they need. At very high levels of pressure the vocal folds may even separate or remain in contact for a shorter time, actually decreasing the volume, and even making the sound partially breathy or scratched.
Estill Voice Training, teaching Body-Cover control, gives us simple and effective exercises to learn how to vary the volume by varying the thickness of the vocal folds, without creating excessive air pressure that could actually be harmful or counter-productive.
Try to lift a chair with your thumb and forefinger with the same muscular work with which you would lift a candy. At best you will fail in your intent and your chair will remain there; at worst, in an attempt to keep the thumb and index finger more relaxed than necessary, you will begin to involve other muscles, creating tensions and using structures that are not necessary for your purposes. Voice production works the same way: different tasks and sounds need different muscle work.
The general encouragement to “relax”, therefore, is often too general and ineffective. Relax what? Relax where? How much?
Estill Voice Training, proposes guidelines, based on the work of S.S. Stevens, to find the most appropriate effort for every single task, which is based on 3 key principles: localisation, quantification and elimination of extraneous tensions. Following the exercises and the guidelines that help us to achieve these 3 objectives, we will arrive at a use of muscular work that is appropriate to the objective and effective, that is sufficient but not excessive, and that does not involve unnecessary structures or tensions, so that it does not need to “relax”.
Let’s not forget that the respiratory muscles are in the torso and in the neck (some neck muscles help the rib cage to rise during inhalation).
Also, the muscles that raise and lower the hyoid bone and the larynx are located in the neck and some of them connect to the shoulder blades in the torso.
The connection between these muscles is certainly complex and an inappropriate activation of them can lead to both vocal and postural problems. This is why so much attention is traditionally given to neck relaxation and correct posture in singing.
However EVT- Estill Voice Training, in its anchoring control exercises, combined with the rules for monitoring muscular work and exercises for the control of the false vocal folds, offers useful tools to make the most of muscular activation and involvement, as necessary and in a flexible manner. These very useful muscles can help the management of the breath and provide stability to the laryngeal muscles, so that they can work more efficiently and with less effort.
We perceive different notes when the instrument vibrates at different speeds: the faster the instrument (the “source”, if we want to be precise) vibrates, the higher the note will be. In the case of the voice, to reach different notes the vocal folds must therefore vibrate at different speeds.
Like the strings of a violin or a guitar – which when stretched vibrate faster and emit higher sounds – the vocal folds need to be pulled to vibrate faster and reach higher notes.
Not many people know that the height of the larynx is fundamental in this mechanism.
In fact the extrinsic muscles of the larynx, those that raise and lower it, are able to increase or decrease the tension of the vocal folds, as explained very well in “Geography of the Voice” (Obert-Chicurel), a simple but accurate anatomy atlas of structures used for vocal production.
A training method that tries to prevent the larynx from moving is actually counter-productive and could lead to flat sounds or high vocal effort.
However, there are at least a couple of reasons for the proliferation of these training methods that encourage a single position of the larynx without allowing movement (especially upwards).
First, a very high position of the larynx could remind the body of the swallowing mechanism and trigger the closure of the larynx at different levels, including the constriction of false vocal folds, which leads to problems both with sound and, potentially, with vocal health. EVT- Estill Voice Training, however, offers the solution to this problem, teaching retraction of the false vocal folds. Allowing the larynx to rise on the high notes while maintaining a high level of false vocal fold retraction thus becomes an almost risk-free behaviour.
There is another reason why it is taught not to raise the larynx, which is entirely aesthetic: if the larynx rises the sound becomes brighter, and this may not be appropriate for some musical genres.
The solution, however, lies not in preventing the movements of the larynx, but in limiting them in the musical genres and vocal qualities that require a uniformity of colour tending toward dark. EVT- Estill Voice Training teaches how to find a perfect balance between pitch and colour through different exercises, mainly the control of laryngeal height and the siren.
When the tongue is relaxed it tends to occupy all the space in the mouth, going upwards. Therefore, to believe that a low tongue position is relaxed is a mistake.
The lowering of the tongue requires muscular effort that could interfere with the laryngeal movements necessary to reach different notes, making them inaccessible.
In addition, movements of the tongue produce all the vowels and most consonants; excessive lowering of the tongue could limit these movements and worsen diction, which is not the case when the tongue is in a high and forward position. Try to concentrate on Maria Callas’ or Pavarotti’s tongue while watching their videos and enjoy their extreme ease on the high pitches and their clear and intelligible diction.
The false beliefs about the positions of the tongue are predominantly linked to the misunderstandings about laryngeal height.
The nasal cavities are not empty as is often believed, and the tissues within them cushion the frequencies that give volume to the sound. Encouraging facial or masked vibrations could lead the singer or actor to direct the sound into the nose, thereby decreasing the volume rather than increasing it.
William Vennard, among others, conducted research in this regard as early as the middle of the last century, and now this principle is confirmed by all scholars of acoustic phonetics.
We already find the reason for this misunderstanding in the studies of Vennard, who wisely claimed not to be so convinced by the idea of ”nasal resonance”. He named a kind of nasality capable of producing a “pinch” in the sound, called “twang”, as an alternative to a “honky” nasality, which dampens the frequencies responsible for sound projection. Subsequent studies have shown that twang was actually produced in the larynx, and not always – but often – associated with nasality (hence the confusion of the concept of “maschera” and “nasal resonance”). In many accents (some American, but also some Italian accents) and many singing exercises the two mechanisms are co-present, and this makes us mistakenly think that the “resonance” and the amplification of sound, what Sundberg calls “the singer’s formant” is actually always associated with, if not actually created in, the nasal cavities.
The human ear is particularly sensitive to frequencies between 2000 and 4000 Hz, so a sound that has a peak of acoustic energy in this frequency band (which Sundberg calls “the Singer’s Formant”) is more “projected” and easily audible.
This band of frequencies is amplified when the so-called “contraction of the aryepiglottic sphincter” occurs in the larynx, that is, when the epiglottis and arytenoids approach one another, without completely closing the larynx as in swallowing.
Although there are several studies in place that seek to better define different ways of obtaining this Singer’s formant (or “twang”, to quote Vennard and use a term more familiar to those who know EVT- Estill Voice Training), everyone agrees that the movement occurs in the epilarynx (upper part of the larynx) or, at the highest, in the pharynx.
Like all movements, especially those aimed at increasing volume, the risk of making mistakes is always present. EVT- Estill Voice Training provides effective exercises to perform this movement with the best conditions, monitoring work and managing air pressure, body cover conditions, false vocal folds, laryngeal height, tongue and much more. It teaches how to equalize this type of resonance, of sound amplification, of brilliance throughout the range and in all vowels.
In any country in which I work and with any kind of students, even with performers who work on Broadway, sooner or later it happens that someone tells me that they cannot belt, or that their belting is not strong enough, or bright, or in tune, or comfortable . Leaving aside all the cases in which the performer in front of me is trying to apply the principles of opera to belting, without recognizing that different sounds need different movements and positions (“if you want to sound different you must do something different”, Anne-Marie Speed), in most cases the mistake is to believe that any sound that sounds “in the chest” in the high range is belting. It is not so.
First of all, I would like to point out that the equivalence of belting = chest voice is not universally accepted. In my opinion, to have a definitive answer we should first better define the head and chest registers from a point of view that is based not only on perception but also physiology and acoustics.
I personally believe that the classification of the vocal possibilities in different parts of the range as “chest, head”, etc. is not only imprecise and confused, but also extremely reductive. From the physiological point of view, we know that a certain laryngeal mechanism is associated with the “chest” sound at the level of the vocal folds, but in a continuum of vocal fold thickness/thinness, duration of contact, and interaction between pairs of antagonist muscles (the thyro-arytenoid and the crico-arytenoid) the possibilities are many, as are the different movement possibilities of structures in the vocal tract that change its shape and size.
Translating all this into simpler and more immediate terms, there are different ways of singing in “chest voice”, different physiological set-ups of the larynx and vocal tract, and not all of them should be called “belting”. Some positions sound “chest” but fail to reach high volumes, others do so in the face of great and damaging muscular effort, others do so compromising the typical acoustic characteristics of belting.
Jo Estill has provided us with a very precise “recipe” for training belting (or “belt” quality) that differentiates it from other acoustically similar vocal qualities that have a different physiological set-up, such as speech, guaranteeing maximum results in terms of volume with the maximum result in terms of “safety”, from the point of view of vocal health (always remembering that every loud voice quality is potentially more tiring and risky than a soft one).
Dr. Gucciardo, in the afterword of the book written by Yva Barthélémy called “Liberare la Voce” (“To release the voice”), states that ” a warm up that is done badly (for example, with the classic vocalisations; they should not be demonised but perhaps in many cases should be chosen wisely only for those who find them useful) tends to increase the facility, but also the fatigue, of the performer and to destroy potentially unique voices and their potential use in a career.”
When we approach vocal warm up (and cool down) we should, in my opinion, start with a couple of fundamental questions: 1) “Why should we warm up the voice?” 2) “What do we warm up when we warm up the voice?”
Reflecting on these two questions, I have come to the very personal conclusion that there is no standard warm up that works for all occasions and for all people.
A few years ago, I followed an enlightening workshop by Dr. Fussi on vocal warm up. The principles expressed during the workshop by Dr. Fussi, namely gradualness, physicality and correspondence of warm up to musical genre, combined with the technical tools that EVT- Estill Voice Training provides me, constitute for me the bases on which I build different warm ups depending on the person, the circumstance and the musical or acting genre.
This warm up almost never includes scales and arpeggios. Of course, in the “versatility” and “adaptability” of warm up, scales and arpeggios can certainly be included if other teachers consider them necessary and know how to use them. But the point is that often scales and arpeggios are considered a suitable and effective warm-up simply because they are not a song. Furthermore, vocalizations that immediately touch high notes, performed at high volumes and perhaps in a vocal quality not suitable for the musical genre to be sung, and maybe even performed for more than 15-20 minutes can be absolutely counter-productive, tiring and completely useless if not even harmful.
Steinhauer, Klimek, Estill, “The Estill Model – Theory and Translation”
Mecorio, “EVT (Estill Voice Training) Introduction: General Principles, Six Estill Voice Qualities, and Different Approaches to the High Range in Speaking and Singing”, pubblicato in “KAVPA (Korean Association for Voice of Performing Arts) JOURNAL N. 3”(pagg. 49-58)
McDonald Klimek, Obert, Steinhauer, “Estill Voice Training Level One: Figures for Voice Control Workbook”
Joan Lader: http://www.voicecouncil.com/worry-less-about-breath-focus-on-alignment/
Alfonso Gianluca Gucciardo: https://www.gianlucagucciardo.it/2019/07/17/voce-blocco-respiro/
Alfonso Gianluca Gucciardo, “Silenzio e Voce”
Fussi, Turlà, “Il trattamento delle disfonie: una prospettiva per il metodo Estill Voicecraft”
Titze, “The Myoelastic-Aerodynamic Theory of Phonation”
Titze, “Breath is not the carrier of Speech”, pubblicato in “Voice and Speech Review”, Vol. 9, Numero 1.
Hirano, Minoru. 1974. “Morphological structure of the vocal cord as a vibrator and its variations“, pubblicato in Folia Phoni-atrica 26. 89-94.
Seikel, King e Drumright, “Anatomy and Physiology for Speech, Language and Hearing”
Kent, Read, “Acoustic Analysis of Speech”
S.S. Stevens, “On the Theory of Scales of Measurement”
Obert, Chicurel, “Geography of the Voice – Anatomy of an Adam’s apple”
Vennard, “Singing – the Mechanism and the Technique”
Albano Leoni, Maturi, “Manuale di Fonetica”
Sundberg, , “Articulatory interpretation of the ‘singing formant‘”, pubblicato in Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 55, 838–844.
Biavati, Cavazzuti, “Belting e Mix: Emissioni a confronto”.
Alfonso Gianluca Gucciardo, Postfazione, in: Yva Barthélémy, Liberare la Voce, Volontè, Milano 2019, in stampa
Franco Fussi: https://www.voceartistica.it/it-IT/index-/?Item=Registri
Franco Fussi: https://www.voceartistica.it/it-IT/index-/?Item=registri%202010
Franco Fussi: https://www.francofussi.com/come-si-riscalda-la-voce/