Two weeks ago I began a three-week master class on the idyllic island of Ischia in the bay of Naples, in Italy. I am convinced during this week that there is an absolute necessity for students and their teacher to meet somewhere remote, away from their normal place of work, to investigate the barriers that hinder true vocal progress. I will have taught 15 students during this stay, meeting them on average three or four times a week. The work is intense, emotionally invasive, lovingly challenging requiring trust and risk-taking from me and from the students. Let me start this post by thanking them for going full tilt into a journey that is perhaps much more complete and vulnerable than city life in New York or Berlin allows us. A special thanks to the guest students who have completely integrated themselves in our way of working and have done us honor by their openness, resulting in substantial and tangible steps forward. One of the questions that kept coming up during the last few days is the question of resonance space, open throat and how the sensation of yawning figures in.
Some teachers swear by yawning as a means of achieving the open throat and others quote science and the necessity of tongue depression relative to the yawn that would then cause tensions that would take time to resolve later. Up until a few years ago, I was also against the yawn for the reasons just mentioned. Yet, as I developed the techniques of Kashu-do, I realized that every technique should be applied with the consciousness of the paradoxical nature of muscular function and balanced function in mind. I began to rethink the usage of the yawn or pretty much any technique that has had success. In other words, I have learned not to “throw away the baby with the bath water.”
Italian axioms like “gola aperta”(open throat) and “voce ingolata”(swallowed voice, literally throaty voice) are not defined by empirical evidences or the logics of function as understood by those who try to make sense of the voice in their minds, but rather by a visceral experience judged quite subjectively via the listener’s ears. I had the pleasure of teaching a wonderful local soprano, with quite a bit of teaching experience. The simplistic nature of her vocal vocabulary makes total sense in a country where “squillo” in the voice is the norm not the exception. Italians by culture develop such readily resonant voices that the subject of vocal study is fundamentally one of tweaking rather than building.
Voices that are muscularly developed from a certain cultural vocalism, be it Italian language or Gospel choirs, etc, require mostly coordination. Such voices are too often thought of as a “gift”. There are two dangers here: 1) Gifts do not need to be developed, particularly when thought of as divine gifts. Consequently there often results a poor work ethic relative to developing the talent 2) Even the most extraordinary “gift”requires some conditioning in certain parts of the range. Too often these extraordinary voices are considered perfect and their limitations considered “natural”.
When a vocal technique is developed with the “weakest” voice in mind, a philosophy and training regimen must be developed to bring the voice to function at a professional level. Voices that are spontaneously trained through cultural and environmental habits will have an advantage. However, the philosophy would be such that possessors of such voices would be aware of the possibility that their spontaneously developed voices might not be complete trained.
I bring this subject up again because it has a bearing on how terminology such as “gola aperta” and “voce ingolata” might be experienced. Where default phonation is efficient (experienced in excellent speaking habits), yawning would produce a wider pharynx, without necessarily rob the voice of brilliance. The wider pharynx is also needed for the production of squillo (the Singer’s Formant). Where phonation is loose or pressed, the voice would be perceived as not functioning properly in the throat. The hollow or otherwise “unfocused” sound would be perceived as “throaty”, giving rise to the term “voce ingolata” (throaty voice).
The greater technical downside of yawning as a means of expanding the pharynx has more to do with the functions of the hyoglossus muscle, originating at the hyoid bone and inserting at the base of the tongue. When the larynx is lowered to produce the yawn effect, the action should be produced by the laryngeal depressors and not by the depression of the tongue. A good way to train this is to produce the yawn while singing [i]. The necessary high tongue position of the [i] vowel prevents the tongue depression, thereby facilitating a yawn that is produced primarily by the laryngeal depressors.
To summarize, a yawn is an excellent way to teach the “open throat” because all singers have that natural point of proprioceptive reference. The danger is in introducing the yawn before some level of efficiency in phonation has been achieved. Furthermore, doing exercises with the yawn requires awareness with respect to the base of the tongue. Yawn exercises should begin with [i], followed by vowels with lower tongue positions, particularly [a] which tends to encourage tongue depression during the yawn.