Revisiting the Rubix Cube of Vocal Balance

The concept of a balanced phonation is a the heart of high quality classical singing.  What that entails requires intimate knowledge of how the instrument function or the blessings of genetics and environment.  A young person who sings early and has appropriate vocal models at an early age tends to develop a strong “sense of self” in singing.  Having an instinct for comfort at an early age tends to help the developing singer to navigate the changes in the anatomy as s/he matures.  That sense of balance at an early age, if encouraged throughout the singer’s development, can make all the difference in how easy the process of maturing occurs.  

This is why such singers are called “Natural Singers!”

As a pedagogue, it is always exciting to get the singer who comes with natural coordination.  In some regards the job is easier at first.  But more times than not, the singer who develops without conscious effort and without an awareness of the discipline needed to grow to professional levels can become very difficult to convince that it takes great concentration, great conviction, great patience and hard consistent work to develop further, especially the refinement stage.  There are always exceptions, and they often become,  because of their early advantage, the stars of our field.

I am more interested in the singer who is passionate about singing and willing to do what is necessary to become the best s/he can be.  I find the most passionate singers most often to be real musicians who lack a certain muscular coordination to perform at the highest level.  My most dedicated clients come as amateurs, college level students and professionals.  They all have the common trait of desiring to excel.  They are great listeners and they practice efficiently.—Daily, focused and concentrated.  Not two hours one day until they are tired and then must take 2 days off.— 

I research and practice almost every day—Partly for myself and partly to find more exact answers for my dedicated students.  The balance of phonation requires not only an understanding of the concepts but a feel for them.  Teaching a tenor to sing a high C for instance is an emotional experience.  While it is not absolutely necessary to be able to demonstrate it, every tenor out there know that they feel better when their teacher can demonstrate it—Well!  Because of my dramatic voices, they are happy enough if I do a great high B for them.  But it is certainly encouraging for them to hear me do the C.

Why  is a high C so important to a full voiced tenor?  Because it requires a level of correctness that leaves very little margin for error!  I have always had a Bb.  Even in my baritone days.  But singing one in the context of an aria while sustaining a high tessitura (living in the passaggio) is trying at best.

So while I can speak of the “Rubix Cube” of phonation in theoretical terms, considering fold depth (contact area) fold lengthening and medial approximation (closure), coordinating a high C requires  precise sensations relative to these three main functions.  What does a gentle (but fully compressed), clear (but not pressed) and flowing (but not breathy) onset feel like?  A gentle onset can remain superficial and not coordinate with the breath compression fully.  This will lead to an eventual glottal squeeze for compensation.  A clear onset can easily be pressed because clarity relies on both closure and fold tautness (antagonism between a sensation of singing fully and the elasticity to stretch the folds appropriately).  The appropriate stretching of the folds for a given pitch depends on the pitch itself but the quality of the tone/vowel.  The singer must want a certain brilliance while not loosing the initial gentleness.  Flow can very easily be confused with breathiness.  

Thus we can simplify the onset to gentle and full, brilliant and flowing.  Gentle and full address TA group as well as the LCA group. Brilliant and flowing address the CT and IA groups.  Both double-directives active the breathing mechanism.  One must train to take a full, elastic breath and maintain the “sensation of the intake” (never pushing outward but suspended in the desire to expand) even as onset occurs and phonation continues.  Furthermore, there is no stoppage time between intake and onsets other than the imperceptible time that it takes a pendulum between swing in one direction and then the other.  

How long is a pendulum still when changing direction?  

The fullness of the tone guaranteed breath compression.  Let us say the singer achieved the ideal onset (after many tries) but then must maintain the feeling of balance when changing from note to note.  All the parameters are changing!  If the singer were to sing a five-note scale from F-C, the folds would be lengthening, which means the CT muscles would be contracting, while the TA group would be slightly relaxing.  Perhaps!  If the singer has a tendency of relaxing the TA group too much, the correct product might require a feeling of getting fuller not lighter.  Does breath compression need to increase or decrease.  If the singer has a habit of overexerting s/he might feel a need to reduce compression.  Conversely, if the singer has a tendency of decreasing compression too much, the moment might require a sensation of increasing.  Yet what is actually happening may very well be the reverse.  By the same token, if the singer tends to press medially as s/he ascends the scale, s/he might correct by relaxing them and conversely attempt to increase medial closure as s/he goes up if the tendency is to become breathy.  It does not guarantee that one needs to either increase or decrease medial pressure as one rises to a top note.  It has to do with the singer’s background.  The process of balance relates to reducing over-compensations and correct the tendency to under-perform a given function.  

The final product depends a great deal on the singer’s sense of self.

A bigger problem is the psychological factor.  When a singer sings the appropriately balanced sound, it can be so unrecognisable to him/her that s/he may back away from it.  The greatest challenge to the singer who did not develop “Naturally” (unconscious training) is acceptance of the most efficient voice.  It often feels too much at first.  

It takes time to get acquainted with the true timbre, so as to let go of the one we accepted heretofore.  

The management of the vocal tract as resonator becomes crucial in this kind of precision singing.  While jaw articulation may not cause noticeable problems in the singer’s comfort range, a slight hyperextension or reduction of the mouth space can have a detrimental effect in a sensitive range (the high range is not always the most difficult.  Depends on the singer).  A slight retraction of the tongue could cause a wrong resonance adjustment and cause compensatory stiffness in the fold vibration.  

Too much volume may destabilise an otherwise balanced tone.  

In the refinement stages singers must be aware of their instrument globally.  They must have their feelers everywhere, but not interfere with the physical process.  The singer must have a clear idea of what s/he wants and focus on it, such that the brain sends the appropriate signals to the muscles via the nerves.  

This weekend at the Gothenburg Opera, I worked with a number of very, very focused singers.  Intelligent enough to understand the issues at hand and disciplined enough not too interfere and micromanage.  

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Fear is natural, but panic is a choice!  Walking such a tightrope, a strong-minded singer concentrates on the task at hand!  S/he sings fully, but not necessarily loudly; gently but not cowardly; clearly but not stridently; passionately but not violently, etc… 

At this level, I often tell the singer:  “I may give you suggestions, but in this flight I am only a co-pilot.  You are coming to the time for your solo flight.” 

This means simply that the final step to technical mastery is taken by the singer alone.  While a teacher may always be there to guide, s/he cannot know the singer’s inner experience and therefore must come to trust the singer to take those solo steps and own their own voice and technique.  

© 01/22/2018

2 thoughts on “Revisiting the Rubix Cube of Vocal Balance

Add yours

  1. Very Very helpful description of things that happen inside. For you hit the nail on the head with “The greatest challenge to the singer who did not develop “Naturally” (unconscious training) is acceptance of the most efficient voice”. It happened to me several times in the past.

    Thanks again for the great work and sharing of it – Jay


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