Kashu-do (歌手道): Achieving Voce Magra (Another Paradox)

Achieving Voce Magra (the lean voice) is a very mistunderstood paradox.  The sensation of leanness and ease that comes with ideally balanced phonation is often confused for singing thin. This ezine article describes lean vs. skinny in terms of female olympic athletes and super models.  The principles also apply to a singer who develops a balanced lean production and those who sing a thin, squeezed sound.

Achieving a thin sound is relatively easy. The crico-thyroid muscles must simply be dominant over the vocalis muscles.  In such a case, phonation is more a matter of fold length rather than longitudinal tension.  In such a case, fold oscillation is less efficient. The tendency is for the folds to because thinner than necessary, resulting in a squeeze. This results into higher-than-appropriate levels of sub-glottal pressure leading to a raised larynx and loss of lower resonance.  The singer often deals with the excessive pressure by releasing air via the arytenoid juncture ( in essence keeping the folds tightly closed along their length but opening slightly at the arytenoid level at the posterior end of the vocal folds). This is a very clever way of dealing with excessive sub-glottal pressure and pressing, but this type of phonation does not yield a rich spectrum even though the sound maybe sweet to the ear. Many singers who specialize in Lieder-singing produce such a sound.

Achieving a balanced sound that feels lean is a different process altogether.  Both muscle groups must be strong and an agreement achieved between them to achieve the exact combination of appropriately deep fold edges and complete closure (complete and rapid closure during the close phase allowing enough time during the open phase for good flow). This kind of phonation promotes good air flow, a lower laryngeal position that helps in the production of a 1:6 ratio between pharyngeal circumference and epilaryngeal circumference, which produces the singer’s formant.

An active vocalis muscle makes the job of the crico-thyroid more difficult for sure. Thus in order to achieve appropriate CT dominance when producing a full tone (requiring enough vocalis activity for appropriate fold depth) without the tone getting too heavy (thick), the CT must be trained in context with vocalis activity. In the beginning full voiced high notes are difficult, but after training, the top notes become not only easy but they maintain a full spectrum.  This kind of production requires muscular development and has a strong influence on the way the rest of the body behaves during phonation. This is the quality we hear from singers of the past. They either developed this muscular coordination and strength unknowingly through good speaking habits and cultural influences of they consciously do so when they become aware of the necessity during professional training.

Today we hear the thin production a lot more. Today’s generation find it easier to develop a lean body than to develop a lean vocal production.  Sports Science makes targeted training of skeletal muscles very quick and efficient. Most gyms have a certified sports science person on staff.  In singing, this used to be the job of the voice teacher.  José van Dam´s character in the excellent film Le maitre de musique, explains to his pupil that he is not a baritone but rather a tenor; that he has the voice but lacks the physical stamina.  The stamina is not only in the torso-down but also in the larynx.  Dynamic coordination between the muscles of the larynx produce an easy but substantial sound as opposed to a skinny and fragile sound.

As modern, superficial pedagogy demonizes the use of chest voice, the popular aesthetic is currently favoring the fragile, skinny sound. With amplification technology, such voices can record beautifully but do not fare very well in the presence of an opera orchestra.  Such voices are often preferred to singers whose muscular development is only partially achieved.  Th skinny voices can often demonstrate great flexibility since the production is closer to falsetto than a bona fide fully compressed modal sound.  For a modal voice to become lean, a great amount of muscular development is necessary and such a tone may sometimes sound superhuman in comparison to the the skinny voice.  This is what makes fully developed operatic voices exciting to listen to.  The skinny false voice is easier to achieve and unfortunately we are in a world in which expediency is valued above substance.

It has been my honor to witness the transformation of my students over a year’s time.  I heard one of my dramatic sopranos yesterday after a month away. To hear such a full-bodied sound riding on a lean edge, able to produce sumptuous pianissimi and mind-blowing fortissimi in Verdi’s Ballo made my day.  She feels herself suddenly at a different level vocally and remarked that producing such a sound has a profound effect on one’s confidence and the way that one handles life situations.  It makes total sense that the same strength it takes to control a fully-engaged tone would influence one in handling difficult life situations with finesse.  When I hear such affirmations I am convinced that not only does the difficult process of learning to sing a real operatic sound influence a person’s character positively but it may very well have an effect on the workings of the brain.

Thin and fragile may be easier, but lean and strong is far more interesting and in matters of fitness and of voice, the latter is superior and healthier in every sense.

copyright 12/27/2010

3 thoughts on “Kashu-do (歌手道): Achieving Voce Magra (Another Paradox)

Add yours

  1. The only point in this article on which I would venture to disagree with you is here: “the excellent film Le maitre de musique.”

    In the spirit of Colline's line “Io non do che un accessit,” I would say only “the interesting film.” 😉


  2. Jean-Ronald,

    Do you know of any new research around the value of the 1:6 relationship in soprano voices?

    Prof. Johan Sundberg has argued that it is irrelevant due to the dimensions of the female vocal instrument (also that they strictly don't need it, as they can cluster formants for dramatic amplification by simply increasing the jaw opening), whereas Joseph Shore argues that regardless, all really good sopranos sing with a low larynx (http://josephshore.com/debate%20on%20larynx%20height.htm).

    I see this as a minor point – only that it may be so that the 1:6 argument only applies to male voices whereas all the arguments about balance apply equally to both.

    Ulf W


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