Squillo: The Haves and Have Nots in a Fast-Food Operatic Culture

Some voices have squillo and some voices have not!

I have heard this so many times and at face value, it is a true statement.  It is however an incomplete statement and in such a state it is dismissive and belittling of the nature of opera and even to the limitlessness of the human spirit.  
This statement has been used to dismiss and discourage singers whose voices have not fully developed.  However, many of these singers have such extraordinary imagination and musicianship, that it would be a shame not to help them develop the special resonance that makes a singer’s voice easily heard in the presence of orchestral forces.  Indeed, the complete statement should read thus:
Some voices have squillo and some voices have not! However all voices are capable of developing it!

First, let us define this word squillo pronounced [‘skwil: lo].  It is a special resonance that exists in the human voice when it is produced as nature intended.  That is a bold statement!  First, why is this resonance so natural and how does it function?
When I define squillo as a natural occurrence, the reply is always why does it not occur in all voices? The answer is that it does…In pretty much all babies unless there is a vocal defect of some kind.  I have a spectrographic analyzer on my Iphone and I will turn it on whenever I hear a baby begin to cry, whether on a plane (which often occurs) or in the supermarket.  That special resonance around 2800 Hz (vibrations per second–the precise resonance varies with voice type, and lies between 2500 and 3100 Hz.  The specific resonance depends on size and shape of the vocal tract and size relationship between the pharynx and the epilarynx) is always present.  When my son was in utero and I observed the first ultrasound, the doctor who knew I was a singer pointed to the vocal folds as the second vital organ after the heart that can be observed functioning at the end of the first trimester.  She said entertainingly: 
“he will be vocalizing non-stop until he comes out!  He has to warm up for that first cry!”

So babies train their voices in utero and come out with a voice with a powerful resonance around 2800 Hz.  Let us assume for a moment that all of us come out that way!  
What does it mean relative to carrying over an orchestra?  

Carrying over an orchestra is a deceiving term!  The truth is that in terms of decibel levels, the orchestra is always louder! However its area of greatest acoustic pressure as an ensemble peaks around 500 Hz.  The human ear is most sensitive between 2000 Hz and 3000 Hz and particularly sensitive between 2500 Hz and 3000 Hz.  When that resonance around 2800 Hz is strongly present in an operatic voice, the human ear perceives that voice more strongly than anything else in the acoustic environment.  The theory that accompanies this states that nature created this resonance, scientifically referred to as the Singer’s Formant (because it was discovered in the the study of operatic voices) is that nature developed the Singer’s Formant so that parents can hear their babies from anywhere, in case the child cries for food or for help even.  In that way, the species could continue to propagate.  
The resonance evidently is associated with primal sounds–a baby’s cry for instance.  That resonance can be eliminated to make soft sounds, as when one does not want to be heard.  If one were to socially develop speech habits that were about not being heard, s/he would gradually un-train the muscular dynamics in the throat that produce the Singer’s Formant.  And that is how most of us lose the squillo (also called The Ring in the Voice) before we even know we need it!

Getting our squillo back:  This is the real issue.  It is not whether we can have squillo or not, but rather how do we get back what we had from the start.  If the answer was simple, I would not be writing this article.  The problem with vocal pedagogy is that singers like easy answers and we teachers try to accommodate that need too often.  Operatic singing has many inter-connected, interdependent, interactive components which influence each other.  The problems are best solved when we understand that it is not “the chicken or the egg”  but rather “the chicken and the egg.” Resonance and phonation are interdependent, as are tone-concept and breath coordination, as are body alignment and breath coordination, as are text articulation and phonation, etc.  Likewise squillo, that special Singer’s Formant resonance that gives the audience the impression that our voices are more easily heard than the orchestra’s sound depends on a well-organized source tone, requiring adequate mass and fold lengthening and correct closure (not breathy not pressed).

“Adequate mass” is relative to the nature of the specific voice.  A dramatic soprano who believes she is a soubrette and has that sound concept is going to reduce contact area (vertical mass, if you will) to produce the expected sound.  In reducing mass to fit the tone concept, the soprano will have to induce pressed phonation to accomplish the length of the vibration cycle for the desired fundamental frequency (pitch level).  Likewise a leggiero tenor attempting to sound more dramatic may over-thicken (too much contact area) to produce the desired sound and have difficulty maintaining pitch.  He might loosen his closure to accelerate  the vibration cycle. Unlike the dramatic soprano’s pressing to be a false soubrette, the light tenor would sound a little breathy and hollow lacking brilliance.  Having a correct sense of one’s true timbre is essential to creating the correct conditions for proper phonation and therefore the production of squillo.  Unfortunately, few singers have a correct concept of their natural tone at the beginning of vocal study–Nor does the teacher in fact!  With experience a good teacher has a good idea of what a voice might end up sounding like when fully developed, but no-one can know precisely what a voice should sound like at first hearing.  That is why we listen for functions.  The phonation part of voice production depends on fundamentally three functions: 1) fold depth (vertical contact area) controlled by the Thyro-arytenoid muscle group 2) fold length controlled by the Crico-thyroid muscles and 3) fold closure controlled by the Inter-arytenoid muscle group.

Phonation requires a constant and dynamic rearrangement of these main muscle groups for every change of fundamental frequency (pitch).  This is the main challenge of vocal production.  When this dynamic and ever-changing balance is achieved, we discover what the specific vocal timbre is.  It goes without saying that the rearrangement of these muscle groups to achieve balance is like a gymnast learning to stretch for the first time.  It requires strengthening as well as relaxing.  As my Yoga teacher told me early in my practice:

 flexibility equals strength.  Each muscle must be strong enough to do its part for the specific movement.  It is not only about one stiff muscle relaxing, it is also about the countering muscle contracting adequately.  

 When this balanced source tone is achieved, both breath coordination and resonance adjustments must also be dynamic in order for squillo to become consistent.  The many muscles outside of the larynx must do their own balancing to achieve resonance balance.  This includes: A) laryngeal depressors and levitators achieving balance B) tongue, lips and jaw achieving appropriate balance in vowel and consonant articulation such that the optimal size of the vocal tract is not compromised.

Adequate breath support in the best case scenario should be reactive not active relative to the tone concept.  The singer must begin with a tone concept that sets up the fold posture and resonance space upon inspiration.  The inspiration part of breathing must expand the body, activating the inspiratory muscles enough to provide appropriate counter to the expiratory muscles.  Support is achieved when the feeling of inspiration is not collapsed at onset, such that the appropriate muscles of expiration are called to duty to provide the needed compression.  A singer does not need to support but rather learn to observe how the body supports the tone, such that they get out of the way of a complex function that our unconscious brain can process more efficiently than our conscious control.  The Old School teachers used to say:

Sing on the feeling of inhalation.  Do not try to support! Let your body figure out!

When remaining suspended in the feeling of inhalation, the correct support muscles will be activated without your conscious help.  Wait…for…it!  All respiratory musculature have attachment either directly or indirectly to the pelvis.  When we truly get out of the way of the natural process, we sense all kinds of interesting sensations in the pelvic area.  That is why some teachers prescribe “singing with your sex organs!”  No, the sexual organs, as such, are not involved.  But the breathing musculature is attached very close to the sexual organs.

However, even though the support muscles are automatic if their function is not preempted by conscious manipulation, they are not necessarily in shape for primal operatic sounds.  When a baby cries we can see their breathing musculature extremely involved.  Just as we lose our squillo by reducing our voices in childhood, the function of support musculature can atrophy or rather do not grow in strength with the growth of the body unless the vocal instrument is used with the same primal instinct that a baby has.  The more civilized we become the more we forego our primal instincts and thus we tend to lose the muscular tonicity necessary for operatic singing, which in short is primal sound applied to extraordinarily civilized music.

We have gone deeply into the discussion of the complexities of global vocal function to explain why some have squillo and some have not.  Some do not have because they are not encouraged or willing to do the work necessary to reawaken what was once there without special effort.

When a teacher tell you you do not have enough voice to sing opera, it should be translated thus:

I am not willing to spend the time with you that it would take to reawaken abilities that you had as a baby!

Many people maintain vocal abilities from their babyhood through adulthood and if they were encouraged to study music early and be onstage early, and they lived in Europe and speak several languages and are Caucasian,  they have lots of advantages.  These people are called talented.  Not having these advantages does not mean you are damned to never sing opera.  It only means you have a lot of work to do and you need to find people who are engaged in helping you do that work!  A lot of it you will have to do on your own!  Therefore it is possible that the only statement I may utilized from the Fast-Food Operatic Culture is this:

You must really want to sing opera! Unless it is absolutely necessary to your soul, don’t start!

To achieve a high level of proficiency in opera, especially if you did not start with all the advantages I mention in the paragraph above,  you will need to have extraordinary will power and patience and dedication.

© May 12 2016


One thought on “Squillo: The Haves and Have Nots in a Fast-Food Operatic Culture

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  1. This is an infected debate, I think, for many reasons. It think it's great that you bring it up, because it really seems to be a divider among teachers. Unfortunately my experience is that most teachers are prone to use the talent/nature argument when a singer seems to be technically competent but still doesn't have much squillo. To be honest, I find that this is descriptive of many (if not most) of the singers I've heard in universities – especially male students. I'm not sure why teachers don't want to believe in the possibility that everyone can produce strong squillo.

    Basically everyone likes to hear squillo in a voice, so if a student has it from the beginning no one is going to complain. Also, most teachers will pester you about singing more forwardly, and with a lot of high overtones. From a very general point of view I think that the component that is so severely lacking in the academic system is the primal aspect of developing an acoustically efficient voice. Not one teacher in academia has asked me to make a wild, unapologetic, veneer-free sound just to see what comes out, and I think that is telling. Even teachers I find competent seem more likely to go the traditional route; piling one technical assignment upon another; expand the back, stand proudly, feel the tone up by the eyes, feel as if the stomach sinks, etc. These are then to be automatized and eventually executed all at once. I don't believe in learning like this, I think the singer has to find more holistic ways of engaging the body and then fine-tune certain aspects of that holistic directive.

    One question; when a you teach a student to engage the 'singing body' more primally, how do you handle the musical aspect? By that, I mean the ability to phrase, sing dynamically, etc. I'm having a hard time (esp. in concert) applying the more primal way of singing without having doubts about the musicality of the output – which typically makes me back off, make effects and deliberately tune down the 'rawness'. This is especially true when I sing art song rep. How can one deal with the feeling that the artistry is being affected? Is it simply a matter of accepting that you might come of as less than a musical genius, and hold off on the high ambitions until the voice settles?


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