Kashudo (歌手道): Coup de glotte. In search of a balanced onset!

A colleague/student of mine wrote to me recently requesting that I deal with the issue of coup de glotte, the controversial term coined by Manuel Garcia in the early 19th century. His statement goes as follows:

I had a pedagogy question that I wanted to ask you regarding the “coup de la glotte”. Throughout my research of vocal pedagogy I’ve learned that there are (generally accepted) 3 basic mode of onset: a breathy, aspirate onset; the hard attack; and the balanced onset.

Richard Miller describes these three methods in his books and states that we should all be aiming for the balanced onset to assist in finding an efficient breath management system. His balanced onset coordinates the breath and the tone into one gesture. He recommends an “imaginary h” to assist in the onset of tone.

However, I just re-read and interesting book from my library by James Stark, entitled, “Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy” and he posits that Garcia’s “coup de la glotte” was in fact a very lighter version of the hard attack whereby the glottis is closed lightly before phonation begins. Stark acknowledges the “balanced onset” of Miller but denies that it is what Garcia meant when he taught the “coup de la glotte”.

Is it your feeling that Garcia’s “coup de la glotte” (per Stark) is the one that we should be striving to learn and teach? That fourth onset does provide a “firmer” sensation and sound due to the fact that the cords are being sealed before phonation begins. But I do understand how it could become an exaggerated and damaging exercise if taken to extremes.

My reply to this query is based on the posts already on the blog dealing with phonation.

  1. The coup de glotte by definition is based on sensory feedback. In a sense we have to deal with it a a sensory issue. This I prefer to address one on one in a voice lesson. What language I use in such a situation depends on how the student processes information.
  2. There is also a functional component to the query, which I will address here.
  3. Finally there is a linguistic issue to be dealt with.

Let us first deal with the linguistic controversy that the term coup de glotte inspires. The word coup in French means both “blow” and “stroke” depending on context. The more violent “blow” is the one that is often taken by opponents of this technique. A singer and teacher of Garcia’s reputation would never subscribe to violence in singing. His technique and that of his daughters, Malibran and Viardot are testament to the kind of singing that he must have advocated. The idea of the glottal stroke (an apt definition for the French terminoligy) is not foreign in vocal pedagogy of any period, whether we call it such, or balanced onset as more science-minded teachers like me would prefer. But what is a balanced onset?

Miller chose a practical approach to the issue. Most scientists of the time would go along with that. The desired result is somewhere between breathy phonation and pressed phonation. However, this is simplistic in light of what we know about phonation. It is not simply an issue of how close the vocal folds come together that produces this feeling of security and freedom (pressure/flow balance). It is also an issue of fold depth. (Please refer to the post: The distinction between weight and tension). Fold depth will have a strong effect on how breath flow is opposed by the glottal obstruction and therefore how firm the glottal closure feels to the singer. Fold depth is influenced by the singer’s concept of his/her own sound. Developing a sense of the true vocal color will bring the instrument into balance. Likewise, dealing with issues of fold depth and fold closure as necessarily combined influences on phonation will yield the balanced sound that the singer should recognize as the true sound.

There is also an issue of continuous breath pressure. Breathing coordination/management must be organized such that the folds do not spontaneously squeeze from lack of adequate air pressure.

Finally, there is the issue of supraglottal inertial reactance (let us call it SIR for short). We have dealt with this issue in several posts. The importance of supraglottal inertial reactance (googling this term will yield results both on the blog and elsewhere on the internet that would be beneficial to read). In short under correct acoustical conditions (e.g. correct laryngeal depth and vowel choice), SIR provides a state of the vocal tract whereby the air above the the folds acts as a sealing mechanism. In such a case, the folds do not need to be totally touching during entire length of the close phase. Yet by this acoustic phenomenon, the glottis is indeed totally sealed for that fraction of time, enough to encourage a kind of easier flow that does not fatigue the phonation muscles from increased subglottic pressure as would be the case when the folds completely touch or squeeze.

Considering the many factors that come into play to achieve a balanced onset, the coup de glotte as described by Garcia constitute a sensory feedback experience once a coordination has been achieved between fold depth, fold closure, breath management and acoustic adjustment. The Bel Canto schools of singing were in fact based upon sensory experiences that may or may not yield the conditions necessary for balanced singing, because the teacher’s own physical experience as passed on to the student might not contain a complete conception of the several issues pertaining to balanced singing. I am more apt to entertain the thought that Garcia’s experience was that of a complete vocal concept. Yet, he faced a great obstacle from linguistics already, let alone the explanation of the concept.

Such are the eternal issues of vocal pedagogy. The dangers lie in attempting to express total vocal function in terms of a single sensation. Indeed, when the voice is balanced, all we sense is a flow of sound. However, to achieve such a state, the singer must become aware of the sensations associated with imbalance in specific areas. These sensations are froth with contradictions. The sensation of chest voice (anchoring in the chest) for example, does yield greater fold depth, and increased opposition to the air stream. If this is added to a voice that was pressed from inadequate depth, the result could be disastrous. Yet, adequate depth is necessary. In such a case it is important to address flow simultaneously to ascertain that the student is releasing the glottal squeeze before greater fold depth is added.

In adressing balanced onset, it is my recommendation that a teacher deals with all the elements that could have an effect on phonation. Guide the student to pay attention to all the elements until s/he accomplishes a personal sensation associated with balance as confirmed by the teacher’s feedback and a recording for the student’s personal gratification (for the balanced voice always sounds inadequate to the student the first time).

Garcia’s experience was sensory. Miller’s directive in his books was theoretical and logical, James Stark’s proposition was practical relative to his own vocal taste. The idea of closing the glottis first has been discounted resoundly. Starting with a closed glottis yields a snowball effect of greater medial tension forced apart by increased subglottal pressure. Theoretically, I would have to disagree with Stark. Yet he may get good results with this approach. The tone might be somewhat tense at the beginning, and he would probably correct the tension over time. What I do not agree with is that the final product requires a mild glottal onset.

What does seem plausible however is the paradoxical nature of SIR. At the moment of onset, it is possible that the vocal tract is in an inertial state, which could be the condition necessary for a sealed glottis by way of inertial loading. In such a system, the entire process is breath driven and the singer would feel a combination of resistence and flow with little effort. This could be what Stark is advocating. However, without taking SIR into consideration, his only option based on sensory feedback would have to be that there some glottal resistence. The only other option would have to be that the folds are closed at onset.

In the end, the final product is indeed based on the individual singer’s voice, and it changes over time. Some are lucky enough to maintain a natural, balanced voice from childhood. We other mortals, must find that golden fleece again and keep our sights on it. It is fleeting and requires time in order to truly own it. In other words, balanced onset or indeed the experience of Garcia’s coup de glotte is a process. The moment we experience a balanced onset, we think we have discovered something brand new, when in fact the principles that lead us to balance have been in use for months before resulting into that magical sensation of pressure-flow equilibrium.
Knowledge can be immediate. Coordination takes time.

© 06/29/2009

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