Getting our squillo back: This is the real issue. It is not whether we can have squillo or not, but rather how do we get back what we had from the start. If the answer was simple, I would not be writing this article. The problem with vocal pedagogy is that singers like easy answers and we teachers try to accommodate that need too often. Operatic singing has many inter-connected, interdependent, interactive components which influence each other. The problems are best solved when we understand that it is not “the chicken or the egg” but rather “the chicken and the egg.” Resonance and phonation are interdependent, as are tone-concept and breath coordination, as are body alignment and breath coordination, as are text articulation and phonation, etc. Likewise squillo, that special Singer’s Formant resonance that gives the audience the impression that our voices are more easily heard than the orchestra’s sound depends on a well-organized source tone, requiring adequate mass and fold lengthening and correct closure (not breathy not pressed).
“Adequate mass” is relative to the nature of the specific voice. A dramatic soprano who believes she is a soubrette and has that sound concept is going to reduce contact area (vertical mass, if you will) to produce the expected sound. In reducing mass to fit the tone concept, the soprano will have to induce pressed phonation to accomplish the length of the vibration cycle for the desired fundamental frequency (pitch level). Likewise a leggiero tenor attempting to sound more dramatic may over-thicken (too much contact area) to produce the desired sound and have difficulty maintaining pitch. He might loosen his closure to accelerate the vibration cycle. Unlike the dramatic soprano’s pressing to be a false soubrette, the light tenor would sound a little breathy and hollow lacking brilliance. Having a correct sense of one’s true timbre is essential to creating the correct conditions for proper phonation and therefore the production of squillo. Unfortunately, few singers have a correct concept of their natural tone at the beginning of vocal study–Nor does the teacher in fact! With experience a good teacher has a good idea of what a voice might end up sounding like when fully developed, but no-one can know precisely what a voice should sound like at first hearing. That is why we listen for functions. The phonation part of voice production depends on fundamentally three functions: 1) fold depth (vertical contact area) controlled by the Thyro-arytenoid muscle group 2) fold length controlled by the Crico-thyroid muscles and 3) fold closure controlled by the Inter-arytenoid muscle group.
Phonation requires a constant and dynamic rearrangement of these main muscle groups for every change of fundamental frequency (pitch). This is the main challenge of vocal production. When this dynamic and ever-changing balance is achieved, we discover what the specific vocal timbre is. It goes without saying that the rearrangement of these muscle groups to achieve balance is like a gymnast learning to stretch for the first time. It requires strengthening as well as relaxing. As my Yoga teacher told me early in my practice:
flexibility equals strength. Each muscle must be strong enough to do its part for the specific movement. It is not only about one stiff muscle relaxing, it is also about the countering muscle contracting adequately.
When this balanced source tone is achieved, both breath coordination and resonance adjustments must also be dynamic in order for squillo to become consistent. The many muscles outside of the larynx must do their own balancing to achieve resonance balance. This includes: A) laryngeal depressors and levitators achieving balance B) tongue, lips and jaw achieving appropriate balance in vowel and consonant articulation such that the optimal size of the vocal tract is not compromised.
Adequate breath support in the best case scenario should be reactive not active relative to the tone concept. The singer must begin with a tone concept that sets up the fold posture and resonance space upon inspiration. The inspiration part of breathing must expand the body, activating the inspiratory muscles enough to provide appropriate counter to the expiratory muscles. Support is achieved when the feeling of inspiration is not collapsed at onset, such that the appropriate muscles of expiration are called to duty to provide the needed compression. A singer does not need to support but rather learn to observe how the body supports the tone, such that they get out of the way of a complex function that our unconscious brain can process more efficiently than our conscious control. The Old School teachers used to say:
Sing on the feeling of inhalation. Do not try to support! Let your body figure out!
When remaining suspended in the feeling of inhalation, the correct support muscles will be activated without your conscious help. Wait…for…it! All respiratory musculature have attachment either directly or indirectly to the pelvis. When we truly get out of the way of the natural process, we sense all kinds of interesting sensations in the pelvic area. That is why some teachers prescribe “singing with your sex organs!” No, the sexual organs, as such, are not involved. But the breathing musculature is attached very close to the sexual organs.
However, even though the support muscles are automatic if their function is not preempted by conscious manipulation, they are not necessarily in shape for primal operatic sounds. When a baby cries we can see their breathing musculature extremely involved. Just as we lose our squillo by reducing our voices in childhood, the function of support musculature can atrophy or rather do not grow in strength with the growth of the body unless the vocal instrument is used with the same primal instinct that a baby has. The more civilized we become the more we forego our primal instincts and thus we tend to lose the muscular tonicity necessary for operatic singing, which in short is primal sound applied to extraordinarily civilized music.
We have gone deeply into the discussion of the complexities of global vocal function to explain why some have squillo and some have not. Some do not have because they are not encouraged or willing to do the work necessary to reawaken what was once there without special effort.
When a teacher tell you you do not have enough voice to sing opera, it should be translated thus:
I am not willing to spend the time with you that it would take to reawaken abilities that you had as a baby!
Many people maintain vocal abilities from their babyhood through adulthood and if they were encouraged to study music early and be onstage early, and they lived in Europe and speak several languages and are Caucasian, they have lots of advantages. These people are called talented. Not having these advantages does not mean you are damned to never sing opera. It only means you have a lot of work to do and you need to find people who are engaged in helping you do that work! A lot of it you will have to do on your own! Therefore it is possible that the only statement I may utilized from the Fast-Food Operatic Culture is this:
You must really want to sing opera! Unless it is absolutely necessary to your soul, don’t start!
To achieve a high level of proficiency in opera, especially if you did not start with all the advantages I mention in the paragraph above, you will need to have extraordinary will power and patience and dedication.
© May 12 2016