Kashu-do (歌手道): Leaning On the Breath: An Attempt at a Scientific Explanation

I believe Jack Livigni’s new blog is going to force me to deal directly with the equivocal terminology used by the great Italian Masters.  I believe there is great wisdom to be found in this code but there is danger when these words are taken literally.  There is always a balancing element that often goes unmentioned in this code. Probably because those who use this language with understanding take certain elements for granted.  Jack’s newest interview with the celebrated tenor, Salvatore Fisichella is filled with gems that must be cultivated.  I decided to take on “Leaning on the breath,” a term often used by voice teachers because I think it is very misunderstood.

The sensation of leaning the larynx against the breath has important muscular and acoustic ramifications.  First, why does one want to lean on the breath (i.e. push the laryngeal structure against the breath stream)? I would imagine to have a direct connection with the compressed air (by the way, the laryngeal occlusion also causes that compression) such that breath flow is uninterrupted.  Still there are great singers who are diametrically opposed to pushing down on the breath. They insist that the breath should be pulled from above, in the head.
What happens when both sets of singers who have such different approaches sing extremely well? Who is right and who is wrong?

The truth is both sets of singers are right. But it depends greatly on where the singers are in the development of their laryngeal musculature.  This requires clarification although the seeds of this discussion have been planted in many blogposts before this.

I have stated often here that fold depth (what the scientist call contact area) and fold closure (medial pressure quotient) determine pitch.  I take for granted that the resultant fold depth is derived from the antagonism of the CT/Vocalis, giving a certain longitudinal tension. In simple terms, the fold depth is related to the tension along the length of the folds. Both result from the tug-o-war between the two main muscle groups.

In an ideal situation, the fold depth/tension and the medial pressure are perfectly calibrated for the pitch to be sung, whereby medial pressure is exact enough to allow for build up of subglottal pressure and allowing enough time during the opening phase for proper release of the compressed air during each cycle. Too much medial pressure builds great intensity but reduces flow. In such a case, the sound is intense but less present (could sound thin).  This is pressed voice.  If the medial pressure is not enough, then the sound lacks intensity even though a lot of air may be released.  This is breathy phonation.  The important thing to remember is that any change in medial pressure will result in a compensatory change in fold depth/tension in order for the desired pitch to be constant.

If our ideal is the perfect fold posture in terms of contact area and medial pressure, how does leaning on the breath come into play?

In Jack’s interview with Fisichella, it would seems the Maestro speaks of leaning on the breath and lowering the larynx as one event. Jack cautions that these are two separate functions and should not be confused.  I must disagree because I think they are related.  It is true that one can lower the larynx during inhalation while the glottis is open.  There is no pressure involved in this action as air is passing unopposed down the glottal opening.  However, in the case of leaning on the breath, the lowering of the larynx is happening during phonation.  This is the distinction that should be taken into account.

Why lower the larynx while phonating then?

Laryngeal depth is crucial to the acoustics of the vocal tract and has a direct effect in terms of formant dynamics.  In the passaggio, a high larynx makes the transition from first Formant (F1) to second  Formant (F2) dominance in the tenor voice nearly impossible.  The lowered larynx lowers the frequency of F1 to allow F2 to take over as pitch rises around  F4 (not formant 4 but the pitch one fourth above middle C).  For the tenor in particular (although females deal with this in the lower passaggio and lower voice males slightly lower than that), the transition around F4 to second formant dominance requires a very specific balance.  It is important to understand the following:

Laryngeal depth is directly related to fold depth, which is related to medial pressure, which is related to subglottal pressure, which when to high causes the larynx to climb.  The proper default laryngeal position should be the result of balance between the laryngeal depressors and levitators, given that pressure flow balance is maintained in the vocal fold posture.  The vocal fold posture depends primarily on the CT/Vocalis antagonism.  If the folds’ contact area is too small, there will be excess medial pressure to compensate for pitch (since less contact area would raise the pitch and increased medial pressure lower it).

Therefore, in the case of slightly pressed phonation, a sensitive singer would lean on the breath (push the larynx downward against the breath) to both lower the larynx and induce greater flow.  This would have a direct effect on changing the dynamic relationship between CT and Vocalis.  In essence, this is a compensatory measure for a fold posture that is slightly thin and pressed.  I have not yet heard a singer who had ideal fold posture on every single note in the voice.  But lighter voices get close, because they require less air pressure to accomplish balanced phonation.

It is to say that this leaning on the larynx which is necessary for many singers is not necessary when the default fold posture is ideal, because the default posture would instill flow phonation which would result in the larynx achieving ideal depth without help from the back of the tongue.  Not so easy for dramatic voices, but achievable over time.

It is my belief that the sensation of substance and anchoring we associate with the chest voice is directly related to fold depth (contact area) and therefore with Vocalis activity.  When this sensation of chest voice is maintained, the folds achieve appropriate depth for balanced flow phonation and the larynx descends to appropriate depth.  Doing exercises on the [i] vowel with a sensation of chest engagement prevents the back of the tongue from helping in the process. Maintaining the brilliance of [i] in other vowels (particularly the [a]) helps instill an approach to a lower larynx based on intrinsic muscle dynamics without compensatory help by the tongue.

That still does not answer the question why the singers who advocate leaning on the larynx and those who do not are both correct.

In my experience, when muscles are being trained to change their function (in this case changing the balance of activity between CT and Vocalis), effort is required to get them to achieve the desired balance.  As the muscles are trained, less and less effort is required.  When fold posture has been achieved and the new muscular dynamic is stable, the singer can trust the sensation to occur by itself.  In the beginning of training tenors who once sang as baritones or sopranos who were trained as mezzos or developing fullness in the higher coloratura range, greater vocalis activity is necessary to undo the tendency to press because of too small a contact area (fold depth).  In the beginning, the singers try to engage the chest connection and it feels effortful to do so (a muscular effort resulting in glottal balance and freedom).  Not only must the Vocalis increase its activity, but the CT must become stronger to maintain appropriate longitudinal tension and length of the folds.  When this new balance becomes trained, the singer does not have to do so much work. Eventually, there is no work involved. Balanced flow phonation is the result without any more muscular work. The singers who have achieved this (and some do so because of great speaking habits from childhood on), do not feel the need to help the larynx in any way.  They experience only the flow of voice resulting from excellent breathing technique and a larynx prepared to transform subglottal pressure into transglottal flow and supraglottal energy.  They might even caution against leaning on the larynx. More dramatic voices that must sing repertoire that require greater sound pressure (volume), such as the bigger Verdi, Puccini and Wagner must develop even stronger laryngeal stability and throughout their career they may need to lean on the breath a bit to assure proper laryngeal depth.

We are not machines. Therefore even the greatest singers will occasionally compensate a little to achieve balance in the moment.  Yet we must be aware of the ideal, which is to be able to achieve flow (that sensation of head voice) without having to manage the larynx at the same time.  In my own development over the past three years, I have become able to perform a diminuendo on relatively high notes.  It is much more difficult to begin a note softly in the right laryngeal balance, such that would allow the ability to crescendo and diminuendo.  Some days I can achieve this, some days not.  Being able to document the different stages of strength is what I had hoped to do with my own voice had my computer and back-up data not been stolen in New York a year ago.  I hope I will be able to do this with a student someday as I am too far into my own training.

To summarize, when the voice has been balanced throughout, the need to lean on the breath becomes unnecessary but we are not machines and particularly with respect to dramatic voices, there may always be a need to compensate a little on certain notes to achieve the correct sensation of flow phonation.

© 10/22/2010