Inter-Arytenoids: perhaps not just efficiency

At the heels of the blogpost based on Ingo Titze’s 2014 paper on a “Bi-Stable” glottal closure system, I reconsidered the role of the IA. This is more based on personal practice, but I find it particularly helpful on a number of fronts. The closure of the posterior gap cleared up (pun fully intended) a few doubts over the past couple of weeks. Titze’s article concentrated so much on the interaction between LCA (lateral crico-arytenoid) and TA (thyro-arytenoid) that the role of the IA seemed almost secondary. Titze further emphasizes the instability of the two-part system, which made me wonder if there was a stabilizing factor that was overlooked. Might the IA (inter-arytenoid) be that stabilizing factor? I believe that to be true.

Unregulated air loss, when a posterior gap exists, would have a destabilizing effect on phonation when the other two muscle groups are playing at Tug-o-war. Is it possible that the IAs provide just the needed interference between the main fighters such that neither exaggerates? Worth considering!

The idea of lifting the soft palate might be related to posterior closure and therefore the IA. Raising the palate has always seemed sketchy to me since I’ve never felt a direct relationship to the tone. However when achieving what I believe to be posterior closure, I experience a resonance sensation in the area of what I perceive to be the soft palate. This action produces a very satisfying brilliance in the so-called “back vowels” (i.e. /a/, /o/ and /u/ and related mixed vowels).

The question is, of course: “how do you achieve this posterior closure?”

The idea of lifting the soft palate is not bad. However, the action must relate to a desire to say very clear vowels, particularly with respect to back vowels. Closure along the length of the folds (front to back), without closing the posterior gap seems adequate with respect to front vowels (i.e. /e/ and /i/ and related mixed vowels). However with closure of the posterior gap, the front vowels take on greater richness (to be expected with greater efficiency).

Finally this makes me think about a trend in recent decades of the “lighter” approach to singing. Lyric baritones who sound like tenors, lyric mezzos sounding like sopranos and lyric tenors sounding more like lower range countertenors, when compared to their counterparts some three to four decades ago and further back. Is it possible that this prevailing trend results from reduced involvement of the TA combined with some slight posterior gap? I have tried it! And the argument seems to hold water.

This is true particularly of Rossini tenors by and large! But that strategy is understandable (although not ideal) because their repertoire depends on unusually high tessitura and high notes (as high as F5). That other voice types follow this trend might have been caused by the dominance of electronically amplified media as the prevalent mode of experiencing music, even classical singing, which was meant to be experienced without electronic enhancement. Producers of recordings do not like the strong Singer’s Formant resonance, particularly at the dawn of digital recording when noise reduction was brought to zero. Before digitization a certain amount of ambient and mechanical noise was acceptable and in such an environment the “buzz” of the all-important Singer’s Formant (if one is too be heard with emotional intensity) was not intrusive. Is it possible that “the tail is wagging the dog?” That the acoustically reductive environment of recorded voices is dictating an aesthetic that is ultimately unviable in the context of an acoustic performance? I say yes!

I will leave it to the researchers to create a protocol for testing my contention. Meanwhile I’ll continue testing it in my practice.

Copyright 22 January 2020

Advertisements

Sing-O-Meter

I was introduced to this App and I find it very interesting, in particular because it is very sensitive. There are so many intangibles in singing that whatever clarity we can find we should pursue it. I will investigate the Pro version and try to understand the coding parameters behind Sing-O-Meter but at first look, it is impressive. It is not a “singing” app in the advanced sense of the word. However it addresses the most fundamental skill in singing, which I call “ear-to-throat coordination.” Intonation in actual singing is fundamentally a perception issue and perception means context. In operatic singing, the desired chiaroscuro balance plays also into perceptions of intonation. 1) First of all, what are operatic vocal norms? Sadly today we don’t have any. Mass media plays a big part. Whatever we are told is viable is what we accept. Singers who are inaudible live can sound like they possess giant voices when they are amplified. 2) The audience is very forgiving. What we deem to be acceptable intonation has as much to do with what we accept as the singer’s timbre. That however can change with the singer’s personal tone expectations. In a way, consistency within the acceptable pitch margin of error can define the listener’s tolerance to a great extent. For example, is the singer flat or does s/he have a darker voice? As listeners we are also very forgiving relative to our timbre preferences. Furthermore, in a post-truth world, the singing business apparatus sees us as sheep who will accept whatever we have been programmed to accept. The human brain prefers what it is used to. That is why nearly 90% of pop songs in the last 20 years was written by two song writers, one American and one Swedish. It would not be a stretch to understand why Sweden is the most important nation relative to Eurovision, one of the entities that controls what we define as modern pop stars. What is the connection beyond Eurovision? How is this all related to the music we consume on our little personal computers?–This goes deep and dark!

That is why the fundamentals of Sing-O-Meter impress me. The level of sensitivity is very high therefore lowering the margin of error. This app leaves little to timbre preferences. I tried to modify how I sang into the app, but purposefully dark or purposefully bright, the app responded to fundamental frequency not perceivably to variations in the overtones. I could sing darker or brighter and still control my fundamental frequency relative to the app’s very limiting margin of error. An app like this can restore some objectivity to what we define as standards!

The truth is that the business, the schools and even private teachers lower the bar in the name of making more money. In the last 30 years it became more profitable to be mediocre than excellent. There aren’t so many people who have the staying power to become great singers in any discipline if great singing is defined by vocal control within more narrowly defined parameters. Someone can be a great musical artist and be a very poor vocalist. I love the voices of Edith Piaf and the lead singer of the Flamenco-Latin fusion group The Gypsy Kings but I’m clear that neither produces the voice in a way that is healthy and that both produced their voices in ways that are “harmful longterm.”

Longterm harm is a powerful combination of words! In a world obsessed with immediate gratification, almost no-one cares about longterm consequences–Not the music business driven by short-term profits, not the schools driven by student enrollment for their short-term bottom-lines, not the singers who get to scrape a living and perhaps not the teachers who also need to put food on their family’s tables and certainly all the bottom feeders who are sticking to aspiring singers like barnacles to a sinking ship.

In the last generation, we have seen the dumping of pretty much every value that made singing something special. Similar trends can be followed in every facet of life. Being an “artist” has essentially lost all of its luster in the name of money. The Internet was not conceived for what it has made the world. It is only a tool that has magnified the effects of the unbridled greed that can followed through every part of human history. And even at the edge of environmental catastrophe and even human extinction, it would seem that our human greed overpowers even our survival instinct.

There’s nothing I can write on this blog that will provide any effective counter to the momentum of a runaway greed train. However, this app gives me a little ray of hope that standards might be brought back. That in some corner of a post-decency world, Excellence might have worth. Quality might matter. Patience might be a virtue again. More than ever we need Art for Art’s sake.

App Logo

The app is available on Apple and Google Play platforms.

© 14 January 2020

Two-part Vocal Closure Mechanism per Titze

Since I have not been part of the Higher Education environment for the last fourteen years, I miss out on a lot of interesting publications. What is interesting is that an article by Ingo Titze in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America dating back to 2014 corroborates the theories I have shared on this blog relative to the necessity of deeper fold adduction. Titze’s conclusions (a culmination of more than a quarter century of research and shared research with colleagues) are so accepted in the field that they inspired research in surgical procedures to achieve the so-called rectangular glottis in phonation. I will attempt to clarify the basics as Titze explains in his article:

Titze concludes there are three muscle groups responsible for different aspects of glottal adduction: 1) The Lateral Crico-Arytenoid (LCA) pair that bring the folds to midline at the superior aspect (upper portion) of the folds. 2) Thyro-Arytenoid (TA), which includes two muscles, vocalis and muscularis, thicken the folds vertically and brings the folds in contact at the inferior aspect (lower portion) of the folds. Finally 3) Inter-Arytenoid (IA) pairs seal the posterior gap to prevent air leakage (IA is less relevant to this discussion since it only prevents leakage beyond the vibratory edge of the folds)

Titze states:

The LCA adducts the vocal processes of the arytenoid cartilages, which bring the superior edges of the vocal folds together…The bottom of the vocal folds is adducted by the TA.

But Crico-Thyroid (CT), the primary function of which is the lengthening of the folds (also called the pitch muscle) has an adductory function as well.

Titze explains further:

What role does CT activity play in registration? Its main function is anterior–posterior fiber stiffness regulation of the vocal fold tissue layers by vocal fold lengthening, but CT also plays a role in adduction. LCA and CT activity are often highly correlated in speech (Atkinson, 1978). One reason is that, when fundamental frequency is high and governed by tension in the vocal ligament (Van den Berg, 1960Titze et al., 1988), amplitude of vibration is small. Smaller amplitude requires more adduction at the vocal processes to allow the vocal folds to reach contact in vibration.

Titze confirms what I have attempted to explain here–That shallower glottal posture (i.e. convergent glottis, as Titze refer to it) requires “more adduction.”

Thinner tends to be pressed (my words).

In addition, elongated vocal folds are retracted from the glottal midline because their cross sectional area is reduced. This retraction requires further LCA adduction, which adjusts the glottis toward a convergent shape if TA activity is not simultaneously increased (Hirano, 1975). In other words, bottom adduction may not follow top adduction of the vocal folds when CT is much more activated than TA (Berke et al., 1989). At the opposite extreme, if TA activation is strong and the ligament is lax due to little CT activation, a divergent pre-phonatory configuration can be the outcome. Adduction at the top is then weaker than adduction at the bottom. For mixed registration, it is hypothesized that the two extremes are avoided with appropriate muscle balance so that a near rectangular glottis is achieved and stiffness is balanced in the tissue layers. A small convergence angle is probably not detrimental, but large divergent or convergent angles are not conducive to low-threshold self-sustained oscillation.

Titze concludes (perhaps correctly) that LCA (the primary adductory muscle) approximates only the upper portion of the folds and that TA is needed to adduct the lower aspect. He then correlates LCA and CT. He refers to convergent glottis as related to LCA dominance and divergent glottis to be TA dominant. That is one way of looking at it. Far be it from me to question the research of a top scientist far more fluent in his understanding of such matters than I am. Nevertheless, I have a suggestion purely from the singer’s point of view:

I believe that pre-phonatory postures are a result of the singer’s expectation of vocal timbre. If I imagine myself to be a bass, I will tend to expect a deep sound, which might lead to exaggerated TA activity resulting in a divergent glottis. The sound feels like it is rooted in the chest. This posture prevents the folds from closing at the upper portion, which is related to a lack of CT activity (lengthening). That imbalance results in lax vocal folds and result in a rather dull timbre. This, of course begins with the singer’s desire to sound bassy (this would work for a mezzo as well). The opposite can be said for a tenor (or soprano)–that is a tendency to desire brightness over darkness in the voice, resulting in an excessively convergent glottal posture. Naturally a tenor or soprano can desire to be excessively dark just as a bass or mezzo may seek to be excessively bright.

If we take as given that fold posture is primarily influenced by the singer’s imagined sound, then I would explain more simply that LCA is the primary adductory muscle and that the shape of the the glottis will depend on the balance between CT and TA.

Titze concludes that a balanced (or mixed) coordination in the antagonistic relationship between CT and TA will produce a desired rectangular posture that requires less adduction than the convergent (relatively pressed) glottal posture. Ideally, the folds approximate gently along the entire vertical cross-section of the folds.

The rectangular posture gives both richness and brilliance to the tone–In bel canto terms, chiaroscuro.

Titze also mentions that the extreme postures, convergent and divergent, are more stable, which is why more singers tend to find comfort in a one-sided posture (convergent or divergent). The most admired singers achieve a successful tightrope act of balancing CT and TA and regulating breath pressure as to not blow apart the gently adducting rectangular glottis and adjusting vowels in order to achieve acoustic configurations that encourage the dynamic coordination that produces the rectangular glottis.

The singer’s challenge is to figure out how it feels to access the two sides of adduction. How does appropriate TA activity feels such that it produces ideal posture on the lower portion of the folds? And how does one combine that sensation with the sensation of appropriate CT activity to close the upper portion of the folds? That is what we must achieve in voice lessons. The benefits of a mixed (rectangular) posture include an easier, more flexible tone; more dynamic transitions between registers; greater volume control; greater stamina and less wear on the folds. And more!

Lastly, health matters! Our folds’ surface is not always flat and smooth. It is usually somewhat uneven from inadequate sleep or viscosity from inadequate hydration or reflux or allergies or colds, etc. When the surface is uneven, we often compensate by adducting a little more firmly to avoid gaps in the closure (which sounds raspy and produce subharmonics). In so doing, we are creating a chain reaction that results in a more convergent glottis, lacking in depth and causing abrupt register changes. Achieving this balance is the singer’s daily work for a lifetime. Additionally, achieving balance in speaking has a great influence on the ability to achieve a mixed (Bi-stable fold adduction, per Titze’s article) posture in singing.

Copyright 4 December 2020

The Development of Anna Netrebko in Light of the MET NYE Gala

I was not at the gala, so my comments are a response to comments I have read from singers who were there and from two reviews that disagree on most aspects but are united in Ms. Netrebko’s singing (The New York Times and Operawire). From the recordings I have listened to of Netrebko’s “In questa reggia,” I am not surprised that she would do well. Her tone is fundamentally full and flexible and always well-supported. There is enough natural substance to the voice to justify certain dramatic roles. But before I continue, a little background regarding my personal assessment of Netrebko’s voice when she caught the world’s attention.

I tend to shy away from opera singers who are complimented for their looks far beyond their voices. That was the case with Netrebko in the beginning and I was turned off even before I had the chance to hear her live. When I finally did, it was a production of Rigoletto with Villazon as Duca di Mantua. The voice reminded me of the more substantial incarnations of Renata Scotto’s career–More lyric than coloratura. She was comfortable in the first act but not dominant. She was breathtakingly beautiful in the second and third acts. Therefore I was surprised that she took on Puritani and Sonnambula. In both roles I found her inconsistent relative to intonation in the highest parts of both roles. Lucia was even worse and the Traviata for which she garnered great reviews also betrayed suspect intonation the highest parts of the role. I said often (perhaps even on this blog–I must search) back then that she should sing more lyric roles. Gounod’s Juliette was a great fit for her. I experienced that incarnation opposite Alagna in a celebrated MET production. Unfortunately the night I saw it had Domingo in the pit to disastrous results. While I loved her “Je veux vivre,” despite Domingo pedantically interfering in a 3-pattern (no professional conductor would be beating 3 in that situation), I left the theater after the first act. I could no longer bear the disaster in the pit. I’m a huge fan of Domingo as a singer, even in some of his baritone incarnations. If he were serious as a conductor, he should have taken some lessons from his many great conductor-friends. But I digress! I had also enjoyed several of Netrebko’s excellent Mozart roles.

A few seasons ago, I experienced her as an excellent Leonora in Trovatore in Berlin and later as Elsa in Dresden’s Lohengrin. The voice had gained in fullness without losing flexibility. I was impressed! The Lady Macbeth attempts (as I experienced at the Waldbühne in Berlin), in my opinion, were disastrous. I remember a similarly scary broadcast of a celebration at the Bolshoi in Moscow. The hint of a wobble was evident and a sense that the voice was at its limits:

I was under the impression that she would quickly decline as so many before her have done by taking on heavier and heavier roles until they cross the line of inappropriateness. Perhaps I was wrong! Many great singers with very long careers have overcome disastrous role attempts to become models of vocal intelligence: Gedda’s singular Lohengrin and Pavarotti foregoing Cavaradossi for 13 years after he was advised by di Stefano to respect the potential perils of the role.

I questioned Netrebko’s choices further because of the fact that the World Operatic Oligarchy (WOO for short) banked so much on the persons of Netrebko and Kaufmann to unbearable stress, at very least evident in Kaufmann’s illnesses over the last few years. But unlike Kaufmann’s dilemma of being the only lirico-spinto that WOO has bet on, Netrebko’s reign as the current prima donna in assoluta, she is far from the only viable and celebrated soprano taking on the light Wagner, Verdi and Puccini in the world. She may have more time to calculate and learn from potential mistakes. If she is to last, she will have to forgo roles like Lady Macbeth, Santuzza, Elisabetta (Don Carlo) and ultimately Kundry, Isolde, Senta and Elektra, i.e. roles requiring a thicker middle and fuller second passaggio than are natural to her fundamentally lyric instrument.

Why do I think Netrebko will take on those roles? At least Elisabetta, Isolde and Elektra (the Strauss not the Mozart) are bonafide prima donna vehicles and Netrebko’s career has been built on glamor not artistry. By all estimation, she is indeed a very sensitive artist. Unfortunately, those responsible for developing a career are less interested in the impact on the art form but rather obsessed on the individual as an end unto herself. And despite the fact that Ms. Netrebko is a rare artist, I had to find that out upon reflection and sifting through many videos. For despite her superior talent, she has been marketed as a fashion modal who sings opera instead of a great operatic artist who happens to be a very glamorous woman as perhaps Schwarzkopf before her. Now that she has fed the WOO, perhaps she has enough time and freedom to build her legacy as the excellent artist she is without the tethers of representing pop culture as well. She chose her MET NYE Gala repertoire very well. Indeed she is a memorable Mimi and one of the best Tosca’s around (I prefer Radvanovsky’s sound-surround suppleness vocally) particularly with respect to the necessary emotional content she brings to the role. Her current videos of Turandot on Youtube reflect promise in the role.

Let’s hope she continues a great and steady climb and bring back the idea that an opera singer’s legacy is based on her/his longevity not how much they flash the pan!

copyright 2 January 2020

The Absolute Weight of the Voice

One paper I read a few years ago (I will post the article’s information when I find it again) stated the obvious: Regardless, of fundamental frequency, the net weight of the voice is constant. The voice doesn’t become suddenly “lighter” when we go up in pitch nor heavier when we go lower. For some of you, this may sound radical, because that is all you ever heard. Let us be more exact! The vocal folds change shape with changing pitch/vowel combinations. The folds are 3-dimensional. They can change in length (horizontal), in depth (vertical) and width (medial/closure aspect) if we are looking at the singer’s frontally (the way the singer traditionally faces the audience).

What we call weight is the way we experience medial tension (or how tightly the folds close). Yet a part of the paradigm is that the folds must close firmly. I’ve been hearing this for a long time and honestly, following that advice only contributed to my less than superlative former baritone incarnation (I was always a tenor but trained as a baritone). Here’s the kicker! My favorite singer in those days was the great Domingo, whose phonation mode became increasingly about “fold closure.” In my experience, fold closure is the easiest way to get glottal resistance as to avoid leakage–especially when there is no knowledge or consideration that the y-axis (vertical contact area) contributes greatly to glottal resistance. Appropriate resistance produces the high overtones we need for vowel clarity and for the singer’s formant. In a spectrogram, the singer’s formant (the ring of the voice) manifests as a cluster of harmonics combining the influences of formant-resonances 3, 4 and 5.

A strong glottal resistance is needed to produce strong harmonics. However, a medial squeeze is not the only way to get a strong resistance.

In Journal of Voice, Vol. 32, No. 1, 2018, Li, Scherer et al. concluded that the vertical contact area, controlled by the activity of the vocalis muscle produce a deeper, bulgier fold cover that approximates the folds more closely. There are even experiments and theories that suggests that the folds might only need to come close enough to each other to create the desired acoustic results. That can only happen with “relatively deeper folds.”

I say relatively because the folds do not have a constant depth for all pitches. The folds become less deep as pitch rises but the question is how deep/shallow relative to the pitch in question? The right depth and length combination produces conditions for a softer closure and above all:

An isolation of the fold cover. When the folds are lengthened and appropriately deep, the muscular layer of the folds become stiff enough to isolate the fold cover to vibrate freely–Zhang et al.

Therefore, we must avoid the false narrative that more closure and less fold depth is the path to a strong glottal resistance. It’s one path! That path is closer to a pop singing strategy than an operatic one. A medial squeeze is easier and gives immediate results of a type. But those short term results are also the ones that produce limitations later. An appropriately deep, long and gently closed folds is the path to flexibility (morbidezza). The larynx is then able to relax down to a low position without being pressed down. That part is simple.

A tone that is relatively pressed, even a little contributes to a higher larynx, which makes the transition to the second resonance area (F2) rather difficult. In that case, one must make a concerted effort to push the larynx down to lower the 1st Formant resonance to facilitate the process of the second to take over.

Guess what? A lot of singers have successful careers doing exactly that. So I’m not saying it’s not possible to have a little squeeze and be successful–especially singers with relatively thin fold covers by nature. The lighter voices!

As a dramatic tenor I don’t have the option of pressing. I must do it the best way possible. Teaching the folds to stretch and not lose too much depth is not easy. Some singers grow up with relatively good habits and can prosper with very little intervention. Rarely the case with dramatic voices–especially dramatic tenors! Our ultimate success as dramatic singers in the world of opera depends greatly on the good fortune of meeting a teacher who matches our needs. And since I personally do not like to rely on luck, and I was not fortuned with wonderful vocal balance in my youth, I figure being as much informed about the voice is the best way to even the odds.

Be informed!