Liquid Focus or “Morbidezza”, a point of efficiency

The term morbide in Italian means literally soft to the touch. It is often used in singing to mean a tone that is not hard or muscularly tense. Recently I came up with the term “Liquid Focus” in helping a student experience the flexible efficiency of phonation. As important as empirical information is to singing, it means little if we do not have a way to communicate the implementation of such information.

As far as balance in phonation is concerned, the misunderstanding between the nature of falsetto and full voice is one of the most significant problems we have in vocal pedagogy. Little is possible without efficient phonation and achieving such a state is sometimes very time-consuming depending on what muscular balance or lack thereof exists in the given voice. Singers who sing with great flexibility and fluidity will state with strong conviction that full-voice feels like a continuation of what is referred to as falsetto or flute voice. Many others maintain that the increase of sub-glottal pressure that is necessary to full voice by definition means that full voice can never feel like falsetto. However efficiency as defined by scientists includes the concept of supra-glottal inertial air, discussed here before. SGIA confirms that in a resonant acoustic environment, the air above the vocal folds essentially acts as a facilitator increasing the length of the open phase and accelerating the close phase. In essence, the increased sub-glottal pressure is converted to air release increasing breath flow and therefore glottal amplitude considerably. In other words, the pressure that is built up during the short close phase is immediately released during the open phase. This exchange of pressure and release happens every fraction of a second. For A4 (440Hz, vibrations per second), this exchange occurs every 1/440 second. The resonant pressure-flow process results in a sensation of flexibility and softness that has been called morbidezza by the Italians.

The great problem with achieving liquid focus in our time is that the rushed nature of vocal pedagogy accepts the ability to sustain a pitch with enough carrying power to be a viable objective and that the ability to sing softly or flexibly is a special skill that some have by nature and others not. This kind of myth must be eliminated if vocal pedagogy is to recapture its original splendor. Teachers in Italy used to go to great pains and many years to achieve the kind of flexibility that results in the ability to sing for hours. This level of efficiency induces greater fluidity and viscosity and is consequently renders the singer’s work less tiring and more consistent. Stamina in singing is not so much an issue of strength in the large muscles of the body (although being well-toned is important to any activity) but rather to the balanced strength in the laryngeal musculature that makes the mechanics of liquid focus possible. To have the ability to sing like the great singers we must get our instruments balanced to the level that their instruments are. Those that begin with certain natural abilities have a difficult time believing that it should take disciplined and targeted work to get the instrument to behave efficiently.

Few singers exemplified this flexible, flowing, liquid tone as well as the great Catalan soprano, Montserrat Caballe. In the following clip of Signore Ascolta, she demonstrates the total control of her phonation by increasing her volume in the middle range at will, as at 1:10 on the word “labbra”. Her approach to the top notes above the second passaggio is never aggressive even when forte. The final note demonstrates her amazing flexibility. The breath control for which she is so renowned would be impossible if her laryngeal mechanism were not perfectly balanced.

Her liquid tone is never compromised even at the softest volumes as in this breath-taken rendition of Strauss’ Morgen.

On the men’s side, there is the great Beniamino Gigli whose rendition of non ti scordar di me from the 1935 film that bears the same title. Gigli sings between pianissimo and mezzo piano, but it is clear that this is a voice that could crescendo to a big forte.

This ability to render a well-supported piano and better yet a messa di voce is very scarce indeed in our time especially among male voices. For that reason, I include here this excellent rendition of Lamento di Federico by the excellent Maltese tenor, Joseph Calleja.

© 09/03/2008