Kashu-do (歌手道): Balanced Onset: In Honor of Lloyd Hanson

I had planned to name this post: The Simultaneous, Paradoxical, Physical Experience of Pressure and Flow.  Long titles often look funny on the blog and furthermore, I might not have had space to recognize my long-time cyber-colleague, Lloyd Hanson in the title.  

The question of a balanced onset is one that a singer has to continually address.  The voice changes with age, with use, with training, with good and bad experiences, and certainly with health.  It is therefore crucial that a singer has some principles that guide through these changes.  My dear colleague, Lloyd Hanson, who I consider one of the great, perhaps unsung pedagogues of our time, once wrote the following on a forum discussion.  It is somewhat difficult to find the exact quote but the principle stuck to my mind: (not exact quote)

After so many years of teaching, it has become clear to me that no issue is more important to vocal function than onset. In fact most problems of vocal function can be addressed through achieving a well-timed, balanced onset of phonation.

It was also Lloyd who made another comment that, though obvious to those of us who understand the anatomy of phonation, is often ignored.   This too has become one of the fundamental principles of my teaching:

It is not worthwhile to discuss support without discussing phonation!

As I work more and more with top-level singers, fundamental principles must be constantly on my mind.  Unlike a beginning student or even a mid-level professional aspirant who I may give one-sided exercises to correct a significant imbalance, when dealing with top-level singers and those who are already fundamentally well-coordinated, the directives I give must promote balance at every level, long-term and short-term.  One such directive is that of a balanced onset.  But what does that mean precisely?

The mechanics that are crucial to a balanced onset are the following:  

1) The closure and opening phases of the vibratory cycle occur one after the other.  However, they occur with such extreme frequency (hundreds of times in one second even in the lower voice–Bass low G2 is approximately 100 cycles per second; middle voice G for the female voice is about 400 cycles per second) that we experience them as if they occurred simultaneously.

2) Clarity of tone and vowel cannot happen when phonation is breathy. However a sense of trans-glottal flow can be experienced (and must be experienced) even when the vocal folds meet completely for every cycle.

3) Pressed phonation can sound very dull!

4) Stridency is not squillo!

Consequently, one of the greatest errors that singers make is to aim for a bright sound at all cost.  At the risk of confusing the student in the beginning, I will often discuss brightness and flow at the same time.  Once I explain that fold closure and opening (the flow phase) occur so quickly that we cannot experience them separately, a wonderful light comes to the student’s eyes.  Suddenly the paradox makes sense.  I submit that in a healthy voice, clarity is possible without a squeeze, at least in the middle range.

Pressed phonation can stop airflow so much that it causes a number of tension-filled reactions in the mechanism including tongue-depression that muffles the sound and take a way the high overtones that are necessary to brilliance.  Many singers/teachers will experience this dullness and conclude that the folds are not in complete contact and seek to force them together further, resulting in even less brilliance.

Language is so often confusing, which is why it is so important to be anatomically correct in our use of language.  Sensations are not always adequately descriptive of anatomical function when it comes to the voice.  Example:

Do not take the chest voice too high!

But what is chest voice?  Even the scientists are not clear enough about this.  Is chest voice essentially tantamount to vocalis activity?  I say not.  An excellent vibratory pattern depends on a certain amount of vocalis activity such that the folds accomplish an appropriately deep posture and it is possible to go too far with this.  The problem is usually a difficulty accessing the high range.  But sometimes a singer may have a difficulty accessing the high range not because the vocalis is hyperactive but rather because the CT is not strong enough to stretch the folds when the vocalis is appropriately active.  Training of this aspect of phonation must be dynamic.  In the present case, it would be necessary to decrease vocalis activity to a level that is commensurate to the strength of the CT such that the vocalis remains relatively acquiescent to CT as pitch rises.

Yet the experience of chest voice content is not limited to vocalis-CT dynamic, but in my way of thinking more fundamentally connected to fold closure.  The resistance that some singers feel when attempting to access the high range has more to do with a lack of airflow than to vocalis hyperactivity.  Paradoxically, inadequate closure particularly in the high range could lead to compensatory closure by the false folds causing a supra-glottal squeeze.

The danger therefore is in dealing with either element (flow or closure) separately.  A gentle, rapid onset
that yields clarity and flow is essential to accomplishing a self-sustaining phonation pattern.  It must be gentle to avoid excessive medial squeeze, but it must yield clarity.  Flow and clarity provide the brain with specific directives such that the vocal folds meet completely at the mucosal edge without pressing of the folds.  Gentle and rapid teach the singer the fundamental habits that prevent violence to the folds and avoid the kind of muscular interference that is tendential when the singer tries to micro-manage via a slow onset.

This of course brings us to coup de glotte.  A recent article in the N.A.T.S. Journal of Voice (unfortunately I cannot find the issue among my magazines) revisits the issue, suggesting that perhaps a glottal plosive was what Manuel Garcia meant in his treatises.  As a native French speaker, I never interpreted the word coup by its primary translation, a blow or a strike but by its secondary translation, a stroke or rapid movement.  A glottal plosive requires a glottal squeeze followed by a burst of extremely pressurized air and encourages a sustained vibratory pattern of squeeze-and-push.  Granted, there are degrees of plosives.  Slight plosives may occur in the attempt to induce a flow-phonation onset.  But because the intent is to flow, the temporary fault is corrected upon release of the breath.  I can understand the use of a glottal plosive as a temporary measure in the case of extreme breathiness, but I will avoid using it unless there is no other way to help the student experience glottal closure.  Only as a last resource.

As I rehabilitate after my gluten intolerance, which caused me a three-year night-mare, even as I made my transition from baritone to tenor, the concept of a balanced onset is helping me find clarity.  At the end of a long teaching day yesterday, I warmed my voice down, as I usually do.  I felt relatively fresh during the warm-down and decided to sing a couple of arias through.  Ch’ella mi creda from Puccini’s Fanciulla was one.  The approach to the two Bbs require daring!  One cannot micro-manage those notes.  The onset on the Db and Eb respectively that leads to the top notes must be immediate, smooth.  The ribcage must be suspended in the open position after inhalation to prevent over-pressurization.  I judge it respectable.  It is nice to have my voice behaving more or less as expected now that I am beginning to free myself from the evil gluten infestation. I am working for greater flow of course. But this is a good beginning.

In our times, relationships are made online and sometimes these relationships have a lasting impact.  The truth is I have befriended Lloyd Hanson online and he became an unsuspected mentor who has in many ways guided my profound entrée into vocal science.  I have had it in mind to visit him in Arizona someday.  Perhaps I will have that opportunity.  According to his N.A.T.S. profile, Lloyd is still very active as a voice teacher after retiring from Northern Arizona State.  I would recommend him to any singer who finds himself/herself in the neighborhood of Flagstaff, Arizona.  Thank you Lloyd, for your sharp scientific mind, your musical spirit and your love for the art of singing!

© 06/17/2011

3 thoughts on “Kashu-do (歌手道): Balanced Onset: In Honor of Lloyd Hanson

Add yours

  1. Hooray for onset! I am a graduate of Northern Arizona University and although Dr. Hanson was not my voice teacher (he directed my very first Magic Flute and was a constant companion to my artistic development), the importance of onset was an ever-present notion across the board. After all these years, I return to Flagstaff to remind myself what good singing is all about. A visit is definitely worth it!!


  2. Yes! I'm a Tucson native, and went to summer music camp in Flagstaff all during high school. Seemed only logical to continue my education there in college. Many of its graduates (college and music camp) are quite successful in “the biz.”


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