Kashu-do (歌手道): Pharyngeal Voice: A Mystery Created From a Normal But Less-used Function

A year ago, a very attractive young singer came to New York concentrating on auditioning for Musical Theater opportunities.  She was a student of one of my students in the Southeast United States who in turn recommended her to me.  Upon arrival she had several auditions coming up, which required several different musical styles requiring different vocal adjustments.  She also explained to me that she had a real desire to pursue operatic singing.

We spent the first 8 months preparing her for one audition after another because she was having success, getting to call-backs and final call-backs.  After 8 months, she had a bit of a break from auditions and performances and wanted to explore her “operatic” voice.  When she started to sing the aria she had brought, she could not believe how much more powerful her voice had become and how much lower the aria felt.  She was a little confused.  I told her that we had been working on her classical voice all along!

What do I mean?

Simply put, we developed “chops”!  Call it muscular structure.  Whichever name we put to function, I believe in a “coordinated” voice that maintains an antagonistic balance between vertical mass, furthered by the Vocalis muscle and longitudinal tension (stretch) furthered by the Crico-Thyroid muscle.  This coordination, when properly balance maintains a voice of substance and elasticity.  Furthermore, I advocate a fold closure mode that brings the folds together gently, inducing a sensation of clear fluidity (call it flow-phonation) that is neither pressed nor breathy.  These are fundamentals that used to be true of both classical and popular singing before the second world war.  As pop music became diversified and less-balanced vocal productions became not only acceptable but desirable, classical singing also became diversified.  Evenness of tone production became less important.  Extremes of falsetto/flute production on one hand and extremes of chest production became popular effects.  Well-balanced voices are sometimes treated as “boring” by those who seek idiosyncratic voices that they judge more “individualistic!”  Voices are unique by nature.  No two voices sound the same.  However proper production can make voices sound like they have something in common.  Idiosyncrasy is not necessarily “Individuality”.  It is rather like taking two exact same automobiles, painting them different colors and calling them two completely different machines.  It is superficial.

But how does all this relate to “Pharyngeal Voice?”

The only consistent attribute I can find relative to the term pharyngeal voice is that singers can “belt” all the way up the range without a break and that voices feel less fatigued.  This is pretty much what my student experienced.  The truth is that all my classical singers have the same ability to belt all the way up the range if they so chose because the muscular balance explained above makes this possible.  The basic difference between a good belter and a classical singer is resonance strategy in the middle octave. Where old school classical singers establish a second formant dominance in the middle range, the belter maintains a “speaky” first formant strategy throughout.  The classical female singer sings first formant dominance below F4 and above F5.  The octave between F4 and F5 is the area that distinguishes the belter from the classical singer.  A belt strategy by definition will require a slight laryngeal rise in the middle of the voice without glottal squeeze if the CT-Vocalis balance is adequate.  That says, F1 strategy in the middle voice and the raised larynx associated with it makes for a glottal posture that requires a slightly higher level of sub-glottal pressure to maintain vibration.

The kind of belting that cannot continue up the range constitutes a pressed glottal adjustment that sounds extremely intense in the low range but becomes stiff towards the middle of the voice.  Some classical singers produce a slightly pressed low voice, leading to a slightly breathy middle voice eventually achieving full-closure due to longitudinal tension (stretch).  The External Thyro-Arytenoid (also called muscularis) draws the folds together as it assists in the stretching of the folds.

A voice that shows no break and easy modulations from low to high without losing power constitutes healthy and exciting vocal production.  This can be done for both classical and popular modes of singing. What they have in common is a balance muscular structure relative to phonation (i.e. source tone).  The basic difference is acoustic (resonance). One requires a very low larynx and released jaw where as the other necessitates a slightly higher laryngeal position to facilitate F1 dominance and a slightly more closed jaw to evoke a more mundane, speaky quality.

In essence, the difficulty in explaining the mechanics of this “Pharyngeal Voice,” as explained in this article, is based on a desire to present the function as something rediscovered (having its roots in Italian Bel Canto) and having particularly successful application in popular musical modes.

The concept, or rather the results aspired to, by those who champion the term, are noble.  However, the tendency of some CCM voice teachers to package vocal function as if it is something totally new is sometimes misleading, and only point to the fact that current classical practices are inadequate with respect to the needs of modern CCM singers and by extension incomplete for classical singers as well.

In short, “you either have chops or you dont!” Great singing technique gives singers choices not limit them to the genre they chose to concentrate on.  A great classical singer, if trained properly should be able to switch modes and belt a song without problem. Knowing how to use the instrument in different modes should be the expectation from a “professional” singer.  The ability to sing an operatic aria should not be beyond a well-trained pop-singer.  The ever-growing abyss between CCM singers and classical singers is only symptomatic of the inadequacies on both sides.

© 04/22/2014