Pavarotti’s Legacy, part 2: Efficient phonation or the baby’s cry

As I prepared to write this issue, I kept wondering how to distinguish Pavarotti’s near perfect phonation in words. Let us say he achieves perfect fold closure with the least amount of effort. His folds simply come together as nature intended and he does not fight it. The result is an intense, clear tone that always has a “floating” element to it. Many fear this float because not many can immediately achieve full closure without pressing a little. However this is the goal. This is what we hear in all the greats: Bjoerling, Gedda, Wunderlich, Kraus, Gigli, and today, Florez, Beczala, and a young tenor I had the pleasure of hearing this past weekend, Leonardo Capalbo. This is a tenor to watch.

To properly understand how special Pavarotti’s phonation is, we must consider the many parts that contribute to this. The manner that the vocal folds come together depend on the following: thickness (mass), length and tautness. The thicker the vocal folds, the less work the inter-arytenoids need to do to bring them completely together. However, for a given pitch the folds should assume a default thickness that is dependent upon how thin they are stretched. The tautness of the vocal folds depends upon how much opposition the vocalis muscle provides against the lengthening action of the crico-thyroids. This tautness, which is variable for each pitch, in the best case scenario, provides additional thickness (a slight bulging effect) without losing any length. This natural but complex coordination gives Pavarotti’s voice an immediacy of presence, a raw sense of the natural, a sense of speech. In effect, Pavarotti achieves the longest relative fold length for a given pitch, which makes the change from one pitch to the next higher pitch a very easy muscular transformation. This phonation is responsible for the ease of Pavarotti’s top. Giuseppe di Stefano’s influence cannot be minimized here. Di Stefano was also blessed with this kind of fold length (leanness), and he too had a great facility in the top, marred only by his inadequate resonance strategy above the passaggio.

The reverse is more easily understood. A singer, who sings with relatively short and thick vocal folds, may be able to ascend to the top range, but there will be a point where the thickness must be suddenly released in order to achieve a given high note. In the most extreme case we hear this as a crack.

How does Pavarotti achieve this maximum fold length (leanness) on each note? There are several factors of course. But a singer who accomplishes this kind of consistency has a sound concept in mind. As previously said, Di Stefano was a strong influence on the young Pavarotti, and Pavarotti talks about his father slapping him for saying that Di Stefano was better than Gigli. In essence, emulating Di Stefano’s wide open approach is one of the foundations of Pavarotti’s technique, which he later refined, by learning how to turn the voice gradually in the passaggio. That open lower voice prepared the mechanism perfectly for what was necessary in the top. The “wideness” of Pavarotti’s vowels I believe contributed to the optimum fold length, which set the conditions for the muscles of the larynx to react accordingly. This is not different from the baby’s cry and when we look at Di Stefano singing we could almost imagine a baby crying. When speaking of chiaro-scuro , we often imagine that such a bright, wide sound would be devoid of any depth. This is untrue up to a certain point in the voice. I met a lyric tenor the other day who sings a beautiful open G with the larynx remaining perfectly relaxed. The operatic world is in love with dark sounds. But the most successful dramatic voices aim for absolute brilliance. When we hear Vickers or James King, Windgassen we hear sheer brilliance and clarity.

So what is the difference between Pavarotti and those who sing a bright sound that sounds thin? Pavarotti understood that the efficiency of phonation depended as much upon the concept of the vowel as anything else. In this case, I am not talking about vowel modification, but rather what is the most natural vowel sound that can come out of an individual throat. This is why we need to remember the baby’s cry. My teacher in Rome, Ada Finelli, used to say in Neopolitan: “Chiagni, chiagni!” In Italian, “piangi, piangi!” This primal crying sound was the foundation of the vowels. I never achieved this fully, thinking I was a baritone and fostering what I thought was a baritone sound. As a tenor, I realize how much it really helps in terms of consistency, even in my transitional stage. The “covering” of the voice, as Pavarotti calls it, has that primal crying sound as a foundation. From this root sound, vowel modification has a discernible effect. Until that sound is achieved, vowel modification is almost useless.

It is worth listening to recordings of some great singers singing the same aria, Donna non vidi mai, to make sense of this premise. Gigli had what we might call a noble sound, so balanced that it is difficult to hear what he does. If we close our eyes, however, we hear the width and brightness of the sound, just a stone’s throw from Pavarotti’s comparatively exaggerated sound. I submit however that Pavarotti’s approach here is the standard from which many find a point of refinement. Corelli is also very successful in this aria. However, we can hear distinctly when he sacrifices the width of the baby’s cry for a more covered approach on F4, a touch too low. Listening to other tenors on, I find that their level of success or difficulty in this aria depends on vocalic range of motion. How close do their vowels come to the baby’s cry, as Pavarotti’s so wonderfully accomplishes. The broad baby’s cry that never violates the natural position of the larynx is a key element in developing ease in the top. In my case, it is certainly a crucial tool in developing as a tenor from a baritone past. From this baby’s cry adjustment, the voice tells the singer when and how it wants to turn. We are not advocating Di Stefano’s wide upper range, however that width in the lower range up to the top of the passaggio is the perfect spring board from which to accomplish a properly modulated top voice, and it is also the adjustment that provides clarity and presence in the lower and middle range.

© 07/08/2008


4 thoughts on “Pavarotti’s Legacy, part 2: Efficient phonation or the baby’s cry

  1. Thanks for this blog post. I read it just in time to help my performance tonight. Your discussion of pav’s bright wide vowels reminded me of my current teacher’s instruction about what he calls the “ah” in the palate. The idea of the palate being wide stretching from ear to ear. I sang a performance tonight focusing on this concept which I had neglected (not purposefully) for a while, and while I have been struggling with a dull, throaty tone fighting through the passaggio, tonight I felt like I sang better than I have in a long time, with a vibrant, billiant tone from low to high ringing and sailing through the passaggio, and holding my high note longer than I had been able to in rehearsals. I am curious why this brighter wider vowel concept increases fold length as you say. Why is this? Do you recommend vocalizing on the “ae” as in cat to build this kind of efficiency?Also, have you listened much to salvatore fisichella? watching videos of him on were also helpful to me. He was so amazing. Like di Stefano but with a solid technique. maybe my new favorite tenor.

  2. Thank you George for a very difficult question! I do not have an incontrovertible scientific fact to lean on for this but rather deductive reasoning based upon some experiences. I assume that the longest fold length that could be achieved for any given well-supported pitch is the desired one. If the folds are shortened excessively for a note then the higher notes that succeed such a note would have to undergo an difficult release of tension. With this premise as an objective, I have to assume that the best objective takes into account the most comfortable state of the vocal tract. What is the natural default size of the vocal tract from glottis to soft palate to tip of lips? I theorize that it must the be largest space possible that does not interfere with the natural production of vowels. What I have discovered is that this maximum space includes a large with and length relative to the release of the jaw (up to where it should stop naturally without any forcing)and the lowest point of the larynx that does not interfere with tongue function in vowel production. The brightness or presence of any vowel depends primarily upon fold closure and appropriate resonance. In the space I have just described, the resonance of the vowel depends primary on tongue migration and adjustment of the lips. What I have found in my own case is that the tongue needs to be a lot more active in accomplishing the partition of the vocal tract for appropriate resonance. Closing the jaw adds a major variable which then requires changes in the level of the larynx and the soft palate. In other words, by closing the jaw on a vowel we require excessive adjustments in the vocal tract and therefore in the phonation process itself. Hence the most efficient space is the biggest space that does not interfere with vowel function. When this efficiency of space is accomplished, and the tongue is agile enough to accomplish correct resonance, the only other part (take breathing coordination as a given)is the muscular balance of the laryngeal muscles which must assume the appropriate fold length if the rest is to remain stable and a strong tone is to be produced.When I watch Pavarotti, Vickers and most of the great singers that I admire, I see an attempt to achieve this space, and I hear it in the sound. Fisichella (thank you for pointing him out) is a wonderful example of this. And the high D in his Puritani aria is to die for: again for the excellent comment. I did not know you became a wolverine. How is Ann Arbor treating you. My old stomping ground.

  3. Okay, I’m trying to follow here. What you’re saying is that the longest/thinnest vocal fold length achievable for a given pitch is probably the optimal one because it would be easier to adjust from pitch to pitch than a shorter, thicker vocal fold length/mass. Then, you say that the most efficient set of conditions for the phonation process is one in each the larynx is lowered without excessive tongue tension, the jaw is released open without forcing, and the palate is high and wide. Therefore, the optimally expanded vocal tract which depends primarily on the responsiveness of the tongue to tune the resonance of each vowel (rather than using the opening/closing of the jaw and lifting/lowering of the larynx and soft palate) will encourage the longest/thinnest vocal fold length/mass for a given pitch?Is that the logic at hand here? If I am following your argument here, I’m honestly not sure one way or the other if the reasoning is sound or not. I say that not with cynicism but with ignorance. I wonder if anyone else will pipe in with their take on this deduction. Has there been any research on this by Titze or Sundberg?Also, I’d like to hear your thoughts about vocalizing on the “ae” as in “cat” vowel as a way of achieving this efficiency. I have done a little bit of this a long time ago and was unsure with it was healthy or not.Also if maximum lengthening of the vocal cords is a goal do you utilize much vocalizing in falsetto which exercises the crico-thyroids in isolation?Go Blue! I will tell you how much I absolutely love and adore UM and Ann Arbor in a personal message.Thanks,George

  4. You understand me perfectly. Thank God. I don’t take your reticence as negative. Quite the contrary, this is only a theory of mine that I have seen work in the studio. I hope the big guys will look it up. Titze’s writing encourages the release of the jaw and the low larynx and high palate as good habits, but not directly in terms of the fold lengthening. I don’t think I could have gotten this far this fast in my own singing.As for the [ae], I would encourage it if one is coming from too dark a form of the [a] or as a model for how brilliant the [a] should be. The [ae] gets the back of the tongue a little higher which helps achieve a back of tongue height that is close to what the other vowels should be. Ultimately what we want is the flexibility in the tongue that allows us to find the tongue adjustment to have that kind of brilliance regardless of vowel.I did falsetto exercises int he beginning. You are absolutely correct, it is a good exercise for the crico-thyroids. Eventually, we have to put some antagonism on the CTs for them to strengthen. Any exercise that helps to achieve optimum length of the vocal folds on any note should be encouraged.The way that is logical to me is that if the fold length is optimum throughout, we should have access to our entire range. And the continuum from chest to falsetto would be fluid. I accomplish this with female voices all the time. My own full-closure falsetto has gone up a full octave to QOFN high F6 since I began my switch up. A sign that fold length in general is being affected. Keep the dialog coming.

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