Appoggio. Response to a question on NFCS

The question that was asked by LCJ on NFCS:

When singers change teachers, this often means a change of technical direction. My current teacher is absolutely brilliant, sung on stages all over the world, and still in his mid 50’s and able to sing “A mes amis” on stage after a 20 year career. I say these things as testament to his technique. Now, he’s trying to teach me his technique, which focuses on the actual use of “appoggio”. Before, my voice was basically developed in layers. My falsetto was oddly developed, and not blended to my chest voice going up. Now, there is MUSCLE MEMORY (I never thought I was going to say this here), that is majorly messing my stuff up. When I try to keep my throat relaxed and open with an “AH-UH” using my abdominal wall to support, when arriving to the E natural above middle C, my voice starts to crack. I would like to know how I can work on allowing the sound to just “flow” out starting at this problem area. My teacher is hardcore Italian school from what he’s told me, and from what I know about Italian technique personally. So all you Italian Technique buffs, please help. Especially TS, and IT.

When I read your post LCJ I knew I was going to lose this whole Sunday afternoon to articulate this properly. I will attempt to define “Appogio” as completely as I can and then deal with your specific problem afterwards.

Appoggio: 1. from appoggiare which means “to lean on” as in “Io appoggio sul muro” I lean on the wall. 2. Also means to support as in “Io mi servo del muro per appoggio” I use the wall for support.

The first meaning is active. I am doing the leaning. The second is passive. The wall serves as support to my passive body.

In singing, the term appoggio has both a passive component and an active connotation among varying technical approaches.

In the best case scenario, breath-flow pressure becomes a self-sustaining system whereby the singer feels the breath pressure in the body as an influence of stability. The singer might say “The voice feels like it is sitting on something” like “a beach-ball pressed against the water in a pool”. There feeling of buoyancy.

Others say that they consciously push down against the pressure of the breath. In that way they are actively trying to find something to lean on, to use as a support.

In any case, we are talking about breath pressure. Singing is not possible without breath pressure. So first we have to be able to create breath pressure. The primary pressure mechanism is the glottis. The vocal folds must close fully between 40 and 60 of the vibration cycle to create effective breath pressure (depending on what part of the range a singer is singing in). When the folds close properly, the desire to sing or to speak, activates the rise of the diaphragm and the contraction of the many abdominal muscles to create pressure. THIS IS AUTOMATIC. The singers job is to reduce pressure to a manageable level which includes two things:

1) Regulate volume. The strength of the laryngeal muscles to sustain fold length reaches a threshold when the singer sings louder than the system can handle. Some throats are stronger than others. With correct coordination, strength builds up over time and the singer can handle more volume than before. By desiring to sing softer, the abs and diaphragm activate less strongly and the pressure is less.

2) Pressure reduction by maintaining volume of the breath tank. By keeping the intercostals active, the singer keeps the space that the breath is in larger, reducing pressure. This active part (the singers only responsibility during exhalation) maintains the upper part of the thorax large. The diaphragm’s rise and the contraction of the lower abs then become the principle agents of pressure. In this state of “muscular antagonism” (often called appoggio technique by modern pedadogues) many muscular actions are felt by the singer
in the pelvic area, lower back, upper back, below the sternum, etc.

Unfortunately, a singer, who feels these actions, begins to teach breathing by actively accessing these muscles. This is wrong!!! Those muscles respond automatically to the need to create pressure in order to create the sound that the singer imagines. There is no need to try to access these muscles directly. This need only presents itself when the glottis is not closed properly and there is air leakage. When the singer feels this loss of pressure (whereby the feeling of being supported is lost), then s/he tries to make up for it by trying to access these muscles. This only complicates the wrong coordination of the glottis.

Now, relative to your over developed falsetto and the cracking problem in the passaggio. This is a laryngeal problem. Singers are either vocalis dominant because of speaking habits or CT dominant because of the same. The transition point of the voice depends on balanced activity between those two muscle groups (the other muscles are second-tier and respond based on fold thickness determined by vocalis-CT balance). Oddly enough, I believe you are vocalis dominant. This means that your lower range (which is based on vocalis dominance over CT) is over developed. On any given note below G4 you use too much vocalis muscle. The folds tend to be a little thicker and the breath pressure greater. When you go to the top voice near G4 (for you around E4) you reach the pressure threshold for that particular fold length. For the folds to remain correctly lengthened for F4 the pressure must be reduced. Otherwise, the CT cannot handle the strain and gives up. Vocalis becomes more dominant and you cannot sustain the pitch level. The alternative is to go falsetto. In falsetto, the arytenoid side of the folds (the back side)opens up slightly a lets some air out. The pressure is reduced, the CT is able to lengthen the folds, but the resulting tone is lighter and breathier. Sounds real enough, but not quite.

The best approach I recommentd in your case is to sing softer in the middle range for a while, spend more time singing in the upper range to develop CT strength while maintaining proper function of the articulators (jaw released to neutral on every vowel including [i], larynx maintaining best low level [not depressed or raised], tongue and lips much more active in vowel and consonant production such that jaw closure does not alter the basic resonance of the vocal tract).

Over time, you will accomplish balance between the CT and vocalis and the folds will begin to close naturally and efficiently. This has been the gradual process of my own development as a tenor, and I have been following this approach with most imbalanced voices I encounter with great success. My personal case was the most extreme and now I can sustain a real high B4 and the passaggio is balanced. F and F# are still not perfect but significantly improved.

Stamina depends on the ability to maintain this balanced state under the pressure of a song. Tenor songs attack the passaggio incessantly and that requires strength. For that reason being able to sing an aria does not mean you are ready for a role. Being able to sing one page does not mean you can sing the whole aria in public under pressure. Being able to sing the high note really well does not mean you can sing it in context.

This requires patience and cracking. If the voice cracks when the principles of good singing are being applied, it means your muscular balance is not strong enough for that level of pressure. Sometimes the correct coordination cannot handle any pressure and you will crack any way. But by going through that period you strengthen the muscles and the voice is then able to sustain pressure while coordinating correctly.

Once that balance is achieved, the correct breath pressure is accomplished. Resonance adjustments help to create that self-sustaining system where the breath pressure is kept between 40/60 to 60/40 ratio of close phase to open phase of the each vibration cycle. The paradox of pressure/flow is then created.

I am sure you will have questions. So I am leaving the afternoon open while I work on my next blog post (a doozy that is taking some time).

© 09/14/2008