Kashu-do (歌手道): Chest Cavity AND Mask: Complimentary Antagonism

If there is any symbol of consistency on this blog it is the words “AND”and “PARADOX”.  The biggest problem in addressing vocal technique issues is one-sidedness.  Even in the case of a teacher addressing a missing part, it is too often one-sided in treatment.  It is more common to hear: “You need more brilliance!”  There is nothing wrong with that statement except it should be followed by: “…However be sure not to lose your excellent depth in pursuit of brilliance!”

After a singer has developed muscular-balance training (the part usually taken for granted) comes the issue of vocal coordination, too often based on personal esthetics.  Some like brighter sounds and some like darker sounds.  One to the exclusion of the other however leads to imbalance.  I have often quoted my late teacher, Ada Finelli: “Chiaro e scuro! Non chiaro o scuro!” (Bright and dark! No bright or dark!).

The question is:  what are the characteristics of dark and bright?  How does the singer feel these sensations?

Indeed bright and dark can be expressed in all kinds of ways that may help or hurt the ultimate vocal balance.  I would express it thus:

Scuro (Spaciousness):  Sensations of a vibrating chest cavity is associated with low notes.  It is because in the average singer, low notes are relatively relaxed and balanced.  This sensation of resonant chest cavity is based on four aspects of singing that I can think of:

A. Relaxation of the throat (i.e. the natural low position of the larynx when there is no laryngeal constriction)
B. A clear source tone, whereby the folds approximate adequately, without breathiness or pressing.
C. Consistent breath pressure/flow induced by a need to express (I believe idiomatic, i.e. specific support is driven by emotional commitment to the note being sung.
D. A clear idea of the text being sung (specificity of vowel concept and clear and efficient articulation of consonants).

It might be interesting to some that I include efficient phonation and clear vowel as a part of “Scuro”.  This is purposeful.  The vowel should have a spacious, three-dimensional nature that reflects the complete resonance chamber including not only the chest as mentioned above but also sensations of vibrancy in the head.  What brings the vocal intensity “forward” inducing “mask” sensations is the following:

Chiaro (Brilliance):  Given that the folds are approximating well (i.e. deeply enough and fully closing the glottis but not pressing), the length of the folds (i.e. the stretch) is what ultimately produce true brilliance (strong high overtones as opposed to weak low ones produced by pressed voice).

Attempt this exercise:

Sing a comfortable low note and attempt to find its best balance: A) a complete sense of resonance space low and high, a clear tone that also flows and is sung with some emotional intensity (think happy for starters) on the clearest, deepest [a] vowel possible not pushed too loud or held back too softly!  From this ideally comfortable note, sing legato to one octave higher on the vowel [i]!

Unless you resist too much, the voice will feel like it stretches upward and even feel like it turns a corner toward the mask.  This is natural!

The questions in finding balance are the following:

1) When you sang to the octave on [i], did you lose the sense of the open chest cavity of the low note?

If so, the folds have a tendency of thinning out too much as you go up in pitch.  Solution: Seek to maintain the sensation of flow and clarity and spaciousness as the voice naturally stretches to the top note.

2) Did you sense that the voice did not stretch up at all?

If so, it is possible that your own concept of your tone may be too much geared to the dark sounds.  The folds may be forced too thick to create a sound that is richer than natural, which would resist the natural stretch.  Maintain depth and clarity and flow, but be sure that the tone has buoyancy (that it is not stuck or rigidly anchored).

Over-producing the voice in the low range and over-thinning in the top are the common problems that young singers face.  Often these natural tendencies are then over-corrected.  The singer may then sing way too lightly in the low or over-resist the stretch in the high to compensate for the tendencies of too stiff at the bottom and too elastic at the top, respectively.

As in anything balance is the key.  We should begin with the premise that all the best qualities are possible in any voice.  The voice should be substantial, rich, spacious, clear, flowing and brilliant all at once.  Never give up one good quality to achieve another!  However one should be willing to reduce a quality that may be exaggerated.  Each voice is different and so each singer must find the ultimate balance that gives rise to all these wonderful qualities in balance: A sensation of Complimentary Antagonism.

© 04/25/2013

2 thoughts on “Kashu-do (歌手道): Chest Cavity AND Mask: Complimentary Antagonism

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  1. truly a lost ideology if anything there are quite a number of antagonisms within the practice of the voice we must be aware of..its amazing how many teachers can fail to realize they've taken a concept too far…..as a side question is it possible for you to do an article comparing pavarottis technique to domingo's especially their acoustical characteristics i have encountered a number on pavo but very few on domingo i'm especially keen to see how you would categorize his fach was he baritone, tenor or a bit of both and what lessons can one learn as a baritone from such a voice that may want to attempt tenor roles


  2. Hello reyes249,

    Thank you for your comment. spectrum analysis of Domingo reveal his voice to be very similar to other traditional tenors relative to the passaggio. His voice tends to switch from F1 dominance in the lower voice to F2 around F4# on the [a] vowel. Earlier switch on [i-e] spectrum. His top is different from Pavarotti in that it is very Singer's Formant dominant with a rather unclear strategy in the lower part of the spectrum. The sound can be thrilling but the irregular vibrations in the lower side of the spectrum on high notes suggest laryngeal instabilities. Still, his is one of the most exciting voices I have heard ever, including recently as Germont Père at the MET.

    The acoustic analysis does not suggest that he was more of a baritone. To me personally, Domingo never sounded like a baritone, even now. The voice has substance but always sounded like a tenor. My personal opinion is that he never mastered the support necessary for the top notes. A slight laryngeal squeeze made notes above Bb very uncertain. The rest of his amazing skills made up for that. In his early years he sounded like a full lyric with an interesting color. No more. I think the baritone thing is more marketing than anything else. Now he is making money singing those baritone roles because he sings fully. Meanwhile, many of the baritones of the current generation of either undeveloped tenors who sound weak in this repertoire or baritones who are also under-developed and under-supported. At the MET Traviata, Domingo sounded more substantial than anyone on stage. But still sounded like a great tenor who no longer has the upper fourth available. Great question, though. Thanks.


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