Kashu-do (歌手道): Pharyngeal Voice: A Mystery Created From a Normal But Less-used Function

A year ago, a very attractive young singer came to New York concentrating on auditioning for Musical Theater opportunities.  She was a student of one of my students in the Southeast United States who in turn recommended her to me.  Upon arrival she had several auditions coming up, which required several different musical styles requiring different vocal adjustments.  She also explained to me that she had a real desire to pursue operatic singing.

We spent the first 8 months preparing her for one audition after another because she was having success, getting to call-backs and final call-backs.  After 8 months, she had a bit of a break from auditions and performances and wanted to explore her “operatic” voice.  When she started to sing the aria she had brought, she could not believe how much more powerful her voice had become and how much lower the aria felt.  She was a little confused.  I told her that we had been working on her classical voice all along!

What do I mean?

Simply put, we developed “chops”!  Call it muscular structure.  Whichever name we put to function, I believe in a “coordinated” voice that maintains an antagonistic balance between vertical mass, furthered by the Vocalis muscle and longitudinal tension (stretch) furthered by the Crico-Thyroid muscle.  This coordination, when properly balance maintains a voice of substance and elasticity.  Furthermore, I advocate a fold closure mode that brings the folds together gently, inducing a sensation of clear fluidity (call it flow-phonation) that is neither pressed nor breathy.  These are fundamentals that used to be true of both classical and popular singing before the second world war.  As pop music became diversified and less-balanced vocal productions became not only acceptable but desirable, classical singing also became diversified.  Evenness of tone production became less important.  Extremes of falsetto/flute production on one hand and extremes of chest production became popular effects.  Well-balanced voices are sometimes treated as “boring” by those who seek idiosyncratic voices that they judge more “individualistic!”  Voices are unique by nature.  No two voices sound the same.  However proper production can make voices sound like they have something in common.  Idiosyncrasy is not necessarily “Individuality”.  It is rather like taking two exact same automobiles, painting them different colors and calling them two completely different machines.  It is superficial.

But how does all this relate to “Pharyngeal Voice?”

The only consistent attribute I can find relative to the term pharyngeal voice is that singers can “belt” all the way up the range without a break and that voices feel less fatigued.  This is pretty much what my student experienced.  The truth is that all my classical singers have the same ability to belt all the way up the range if they so chose because the muscular balance explained above makes this possible.  The basic difference between a good belter and a classical singer is resonance strategy in the middle octave. Where old school classical singers establish a second formant dominance in the middle range, the belter maintains a “speaky” first formant strategy throughout.  The classical female singer sings first formant dominance below F4 and above F5.  The octave between F4 and F5 is the area that distinguishes the belter from the classical singer.  A belt strategy by definition will require a slight laryngeal rise in the middle of the voice without glottal squeeze if the CT-Vocalis balance is adequate.  That says, F1 strategy in the middle voice and the raised larynx associated with it makes for a glottal posture that requires a slightly higher level of sub-glottal pressure to maintain vibration.

The kind of belting that cannot continue up the range constitutes a pressed glottal adjustment that sounds extremely intense in the low range but becomes stiff towards the middle of the voice.  Some classical singers produce a slightly pressed low voice, leading to a slightly breathy middle voice eventually achieving full-closure due to longitudinal tension (stretch).  The External Thyro-Arytenoid (also called muscularis) draws the folds together as it assists in the stretching of the folds.

A voice that shows no break and easy modulations from low to high without losing power constitutes healthy and exciting vocal production.  This can be done for both classical and popular modes of singing. What they have in common is a balance muscular structure relative to phonation (i.e. source tone).  The basic difference is acoustic (resonance). One requires a very low larynx and released jaw where as the other necessitates a slightly higher laryngeal position to facilitate F1 dominance and a slightly more closed jaw to evoke a more mundane, speaky quality.

In essence, the difficulty in explaining the mechanics of this “Pharyngeal Voice,” as explained in this article, is based on a desire to present the function as something rediscovered (having its roots in Italian Bel Canto) and having particularly successful application in popular musical modes.

The concept, or rather the results aspired to, by those who champion the term, are noble.  However, the tendency of some CCM voice teachers to package vocal function as if it is something totally new is sometimes misleading, and only point to the fact that current classical practices are inadequate with respect to the needs of modern CCM singers and by extension incomplete for classical singers as well.

In short, “you either have chops or you dont!” Great singing technique gives singers choices not limit them to the genre they chose to concentrate on.  A great classical singer, if trained properly should be able to switch modes and belt a song without problem. Knowing how to use the instrument in different modes should be the expectation from a “professional” singer.  The ability to sing an operatic aria should not be beyond a well-trained pop-singer.  The ever-growing abyss between CCM singers and classical singers is only symptomatic of the inadequacies on both sides.

© 04/22/2014

4 thoughts on “Kashu-do (歌手道): Pharyngeal Voice: A Mystery Created From a Normal But Less-used Function

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  1. excellent article. i totally agree if only the CCM students would try even at the least in practise in the studio the “the classical voice” . the sensational ease when going to sing pop almost feels like child's play in comparison. what you call “chops” i feel as bounciness, there is just this feeling of bounce in the cords that feels like the throat is taking care of it self.

    i would say the requirements of classical music force or should i say insist that the voice reach a certain level of competency to be considered stage ready e.g singing mic-less .

    one of the things that blinds students is false expectation born from what they hear and they set their mind to reproducing that inaccuracy not realising that in healthy function they can supersede what they first saw as grand.

    the voice i am gaining now has so much meat to it that sometimes i feel i am making too much noise for everyone.but at least i can say not one neighbour complains, even though i hear them talk about it 🙂


  2. I've been considering my lower middle quite a bit this year as I've been teaching a more science-influenced pedagogy course this semester. And by extension, I'm wondering about how I teach that middle voice registration. Hmm. My teacher advocated a top down approach. Good, healthy, speaky, lots of descending exercises with diminuendo. However, I have to have quite a bit of power in my sound around E4-G4, and this strategy isn't working at the moment.

    Don Miller certainly advocates strengthening the F2 component of the sound but offers little in terms of HOW to do this. I have a stronger F1 and SF component to my sound, even in the lower middle (above where I'm inclined to sing chest mix). When I try adjust F2, the resulting sound seems uh-gly.

    Anyway, for some of us classical gals, it may still be a F1 dominant sound with strong SF as opposed to F2 dominance. Maybe that's similar to the Domingo vs. Pav strategy that D. Miller discusses?

    What do you think?


  3. Kgjames,

    Thank you for your very interesting question and sorry I could not get to it earlier. I can understand wy F2 tuning might sound ugly. Where there is a tendency to lose substance between E4 and E5 (where F2 tuning should be desirable for classical singing) F2 tuning is nearly impossible. Female singers tend to change “phonation mode” in the lower passaggio instead of making an acoustic (i.e. resonance) adjustment. F1 is dominant by default. It does not take much training to achieve F1 dominance. Falsetto will be F1 dominant; belting will be F1 dominant. What distinguishes the classical singer is the ability to sing F2 where it should be dominant. That says, the expectations today are lower. The singers of the past did not call it F2-dominance since the science was not yet available. What my analysis shows me however is that prewar singers by and large achieved F2 dominance in the middle octave (E4-E5 approximately), where as it diminished after the war and few singers today achieve this. I do not judge technical achievement by what is popular or acceptable but by what makes sense empirically. The standards of the past seem to agree with the empirical discoveries of the present. The art changes. Often at the best houses, the singers cannot be heard. Pavarotti had an easy breath emission and did everything possible to learn to adjust his voice to F2-dominance. But he had very little SF. That he came about at a time when his particular charm was necessary does not mean that his technique was perfect. The lack of SF in his voice confirms his tendency to sing considerably lighter than his voice actually was. The source tone is crucial to the SF and Pavarotti's was lacking. Domingo had a more traditional technique up to about Ab. He achieved F2 tuning quite easily until there, but he did not develop a well-organized top range. He could rarely trust notes above A4. He used a considerable amount of tension to achieve those notes and the spectra reveal a lot of subpartials (noise if you will) because the vibration was not regular. The SF also derives from acoustic predisposition (i.e. size of epilarynx vs. pharynx). By just bringing his folds together firmly enough, Domingo could produce the SF.

    Singers can be very convincing with less than ideal technique. Charisma goes a long way. Sometimes it is more the personality we like than the technical achievements. All of that is important, but I am more impressed by a singer who can make the instrument work at it's most efficient level and that requires a certain kind of vocal fitness. Your F1 and SF production in the middle range is acceptable by today's standards. If you are consistent, you will not get any negative comments from those who critique. But there is a higher standard. To accomplish F2, there must be a substantial enough source tone that is fuller and more fluid than chest voice. Chest voice is a relatively weak sound compared to full voice. Not many singers today achieve full voice beyond the lowest notes.


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