The depressing reality of the low larynx

The title of this post takes a page out of Richard Miller’s International Schools of Singing. The exact quote is the following:

“The history of the lowered larynx is a long and depressing one…”

I fought Miller’s axiom for quite a while, but I have come to understand why he is partly correct.
The low larynx is deceiving and as with every aspect of singing, there is either a paradox involved or the need to find a middle ground between extremes. I personally struggled with this for years because unfortunately I can make a viable sound with what constitutes a depressed larynx. Consider that I am a tenor who sang as a baritone. I was encouraged by more than a few sources to cover my voice in the passaggio (the baritone passaggio). My voice preferred to sing open Fs, but I was cautioned about singers who sang wide open and ended up in vocal trouble. So I learned eventually to cover the baritone passaggio. But the result was a darker sound that many liked but was less present with orchestras. As I made my change to tenor, that darkened sound was no longer viable. One day I allowed myself to sing with what I felt might have been a high larynx and suddenly, the sound was ringy and much easier in the tenor passaggio.

I am certainly not advocating singing with a high larynx. But having sung with a depressed larynx, the natural laryngeal position felt high. I was singing open Fs again and the register rotation to the high voice was much more subtle. What I discovered was that my most efficient speaking (the one that focused the voice without me having to do anything) needed that same slightly higher laryngeal position. Assuming this higher position to be my natural laryngeal level, I decided to sing the lower register with that position. When I then go across the passaggio, I felt the need for a very subtle laryngeal lowering. The ringy quality of the sound did not change with this adjustment. Of course I had to make scientific sense of it.

Why is a slight laryngeal lowering necessary in the passaggio? To change resonance from formant 1 dominance to formant 2 dominance, it is necessary to discourage formant 1 (this is for the male passaggio and the female first passaggio). Since a smaller space constitutes a higher pitch, it follows that as pitch rises, the same resonance space must become smaller to match the rising pitch. Up to a point this is what happens with the pharyngeal space that controls the lower male register and the female chest range. Either the tongue lowers to make the space smaller or the larynx rises for the same reason. By lowering the pitch of the first formant space (e.g. slightly lowering the larynx) we discourage the participation of the first formant resonance and encourage the second formant (palatal space above the tongue) to take over the resonance. This is true of the low to middle voice of women as well as low to high for men. A further adjustment is made in the female second passaggio because the formant 1 space becomes dominant again.

What is important to singers is that men find the most efficient speaking voice in the lower register and women do the same in the low voice. Then, it becomes necessary to make a very subtle modification in the passaggio (by supporting it with appropriate resonance adjustment) in order to maintain efficient phonation The key word is subtle.

What is not advisable is a laryngeal position that is so low that the first formant resonance is always lower than the sung pitch. In such a way, the voice is only accidentally resonant on specific pitches and not so resonant on most others. There is also a tendency to sing flat because one is constantly fighting the resonance of the lower space, the pitch of which is lower than the sung pitch or one of its harmonics.

The problem with an excessively high larynx is that is promotes the first formant across the passaggi. The high larynx raises the pitch of the lower space to encourage a close proximity to the rising pitch. This makes it very difficult to make the change from first formant to second formant resonance. So register changes are difficult. This is the reason why comprimario tenors usually sing wide open in the top voice because the sound associated with comprimari is a high larynx sound.

It is also possible to maintain a first formant resonance in the high voice if the phonation is efficient. The larynx does rise and the sound tends to sound a little thinner than when a singer changes to second formant resonance. The most successful example of this is Giuseppe di Stefano. He could sing impressive high Cs in first formant resonance. His phonation was however usually efficient, so he got away with it. It is also the resonance strategy used by musical theater type singers.