The definition of “OPEN”: One for the boys

In vocal tech jargon, another very confusing term is “open”. It has both positive and negative connotations. On the positive side, we often hear the sentence: “He needs to open up the voice.” This usually refers to a tense vocal tract (e.g. tense, lacking in dimension). On the negative side we also here he sings an open sound throughout, meaning that the sound lacks focus, the phonation is loose, spread, inefficient. We also hear the sentence: “He sings wide open on top.” This phrase refers to carrying the resonance strategy of the lower voice to the top of the voice. I lovingly refer to this condition as the Di Stefano Dilemma or the Macneill Manifestation (As you can see, I like alliteration).

Getting beyond jargon is crucial if we are going to make headway in this complex puzzle that is vocal coordination. Unlike some of my colleagues who quite rightly declare that we should dispense with jargon and use more objective language, I take a more moderate view (this time). Since we are not going to convince teachers to give up their traditional language, the better thing to do is to expect them to provide a definition for what they mean, and thereby help their students to better understand the catch phrases and vocal shorthand that they use. Good vocal pedagogy depends on a common language that is shared by student and teacher.

My purpose here is to make sense of the various meanings of the term “open” such that a student might think to ask what is meant by the term at any given moment and what the vocal issue is that the teacher might be addressing. This generation of singers is lucky enough to have access to, the source of a large bank of video clips of professional singers. I use this resource to point out examples of the various meanings.

First the positive:

No one more than Pavarotti comes to mind in terms of the open sound that is desirable. The tone is always perfectly focused (i.e. perfectly efficient phonation), but the amount of room that Pavarotti uses for his vowels is so complete that it identifies his voice as singular among all other voices. The vowels are not only tall, and wide, but they are also deep. There is brilliance and depth. One gets the sense that there is no more room available for the vowels. This opened sound is due to a combination of perfect phonation and an Italian vowel concept that is more extreme than other languages. The great baritone, Piero Cappuccilli, admired greatly by Pavarotti had a very similar production. This kind of openness is clearest in the production of the extreme vowels [a] and [i] in the lower range. The great Bulgarian Bass, Nicolai Ghiaurov is known for the same kind of clear openness. He has recorded the Verdi canon of Bass roles with his wife, the Italian Soprano, Mirelli Freni and the likes of Pavarotti, Cappuccilli and others. His influence in this repertoire is undeniably Italian. One of the reasons I limit this particular post to men is that there are ways of aurally discerning the difference in men’s voices. In all three examples we can here a perfect speaking quality to the singing voice of these great men. This gives truth to the Italian axiom: “Si canta come si parla” (One sings as he speaks).

1. The not-so-negative or the first formant top range (Di Stefano Dilemma or the Macneill Manifestation )

Giuseppe di Stefano was at once Pavarotti’s idol and the model he consciously diverged from. Pavarotti said clearly that the difference between himself and Di Stefano is that he learned to “cover the voice.” The slightly yelling quality that Di Stefano favored was workable to a certain point. However beyond G4 the larynx climbed enough to give the voice a narrower, reedier sound that loss the dark side of the sound spectrum. Therefore, the only way to get the darkness that was necessary for the more dramatic roles was to thicken the phonation (in essence pushing beyond the natural weight of the voice). Over time, Di Stefano’s amazing top notes became less secure as a result of this strategy.

This is less of a problem for a baritone who does not have to sing to often above the F#4 range. Cornell Macneil is a singer who routinely advocated a “speaking” approach throughout the range. He too had a natural strength int he CT that made it possible to stretch to the top range with great ease. Additionally Macneil possessed a very massive fold structure which helped him maintain a very dark quality dispite the loss of color which comes from a high-larynx first formant strategy.

The G4 at the end of Michele’s aria from Puccini’s Il Tabarro, does reveal the same kind of yelling quality that we heard from Di Stefano. Like Di Stefano however, Mcneil has fantastic phonation capabilities and maintains great stability on the G4. There is a slight tendency in however to be slightly below pitch in the higher part of the passaggio where the muscular balance changes Vocalis dominance to Crico-thyroid dominance. A second formant strategy would facilitate the muscular balance change through more accurate resonance tracking.

2. The more-negative or the loose phonation model (the old ME)

Verdi Di Provenza.mp3

I am not being overly self deprecating in using my clip of Di Provenza. In fact, it is a fitting example. I was able to be quite convincing over 20 years of professional singing as a bass-baritone, singing effectively low works like Haydn’s Creation, Handel’s Messiah and roles like Leporello and Dulcamara. In smaller houses with smaller orchestras or in concert halls with piano accompaniment, I was often complimented on the naturally dark color of my voice. The voice was often referred to as “big” and “dramatic” and by initial hearing of the clip, one might agree with the descriptions. The voice was not completely inefficient, but there was enough air loss during phonation that the sound lacked presence when competing with a sizable orchestra. I experienced such commentary during a production of Tosca when I sang Scarpia. The orchestra was quite loud during the Te Deum and some Scarpia was left to be desired. Loose phonation is a relative term, unlike first or second formant dominance which are well-defined.

The relativity of loose phonation is what makes it a problem. It is not so much that the vocal approach was wrong, but that the mode of phonation was relatively inefficient. Slightly loose phonation gives the voice a mellower color. That warmth however is due to a loss of high partials that would be present when the folds come together fully. However I was able to get enough vocal presence to justify me as a dramatic voice. This means that I had to increase air pressure considerably. Yet increased breath pressure would be difficult to maintain if the tone is slightly breathy. To compensate for this, musculature above the glottis had to contract to seal off the air leakage that should have been handled at the laryngeal level. This kind of supra-laryngeal tension is actually a mild form of muscle tension dysphonia. It seems that not only is loose phonation a symptom of MTD, but it can also be the root cause. Loose phonation causes hypertension in the supraglottal tensors which causes a counteraction from the posterior crico-arytenoid muscles.

This was a result of seeking an easier mode of phonation. So while easy phonation is a desirable aim, it is important to distinguish between easy and efficient phonation and loose phonation. The dangerous habits are formed when loose phonation is coupled with a need for power. The needed efficiency comes in the form of supra-laryngeal hyper-function when the vocal folds do not come together adequately.

© 08/12/2008

2 thoughts on “The definition of “OPEN”: One for the boys

Add yours

  1. Thanks for this post. The past few months in my vocal studies, as well as your recent writings, are really emphasizing the importance of efficient, balanced, healthy phonation as a foundation of good singing. If my phonation improves, the other technical pieces fall into place more easily. If my phonation is poor, the other parts of the technique just don’t come together. Also, there are all of these compensating mechanisms that kick in to make up for the sub-optimal phonation, and a lot of them are ineffective or even downright harmful.


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