Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
Students frequently ask me where they need to place their voice. My answer is usually some version of “I don’t know.” I am not being flippant; I honestly do not know the answer. As a 6’4″ middle-aged man my experience is going to be much different than that of a 5’1″ twenty-something female. Our facial structures are very different, our vocal folds are different, our lung capacity is different, and the list could go on and on. If I tell the student to place it in a spot where I experience my voice, I could be missing their sweet spot, the place where their resonator and vocal folds fall into perfect harmony and provide a constriction-free acoustic boost to the sound. Instead of telling them where to place their voice, I work to free their voice and allow the placement to reveal itself. I am not the only teacher to take this point of view:
“Included in “masque” pedagogical orientation are systems that posit the existence of a sphincter unknown to anatomists, located at the bridge of the nose, by means of which tone can be controlled and “placed.” A related pedagogy! claims that lifting the eyebrows both “places the tone in the masque” and “widens the pharynx.” By bone conduction most singers experience sensations of sympathetic vibration in the bony and cartilaginous structures of the head. These sensations can be relied upon as part of a singer’s ability to feel, hear, and see what physical postures contribute to vocalized sound. Clearly, when coordinated action takes place between vocal folds and the flow of air (aerodynamic/myoelastic precision), producing a match between laryngeal configuration and vocal tract configuration, many singers experience some frontal sensation in the head. Yet, concentrating on locally inducing such sensation generally results in upsetting the efficiency of vocal-fold approximation; reduced vitality and intensity of the sound is mistaken for having accomplished the “light head voice.” It is an acoustical fact that tone cannot be placed.” (Richard Miller, p. 83-84)
Because we can change the shape and size of our primary resonators, it might seem as though we could manufacture resonance. However, resonance is always passive. It is a response to another vibration—it is something that just happens, not something we do. We seem to be able to make resonance happen in a specific place and are therefore lulled into thinking that it is active rather than passive. This concept is often referred to as placement, meaning we are putting resonance in a specific place. However, the nature of resonance is passive response and can’t really be placed anywhere.” (Smith, p. 16-17)
“In addition to vocal tract sensations are those that result from considerable bone conduction of vibration in the head, neck and even in the chest wall. The Singer’s perception of tonal sensations will therefore be due in large measure to that facet to which her mind is attending. Sensitivity to vibratory sensations and bio-feedback also varies from singer to singer. These acoustic sensations change dynamically with change of pitch across the singer’s range. Furthermore, they interact with the kinesthetic sensations of anatomic shape, position, or posture of the vocal tract. The complexity of these sensory signals necessitates flexibility, ongoing discussions with and feedback from the student, and avoidance of dogmatic insistence in the use of specific “placement” or other sensory imagery.” (Bozeman, p. 46)
“Many of the images and descriptive sensations that are used, such as placing the tone forward or in the mask, are related to physical sensations created by forced resonance. In reality, placement is an illusion; you can’t place the sound in your mask, on your hard palate, through the top or your head, or even in your elbow. But depending on your personal physiognomy, you might indeed experience resonance or feelings of tone placement in one or more of those regions (well, perhaps not your elbow…). While these sensations – caused by forced resonance – can be extremely helpful to individual singers, they are less reliable when used for teaching. There is a simple reason for this dichotomy: no two people share the same body. Because we are unique individuals, one singer’s experience of resonance often is very different from that of another, even if both produce similar sounds using the same fundamental vocal technique.” (McCoy, p.27)
This goes back to the idea of confirmation bias that I wrote about a few weeks ago. It would be convenient if everyone was able to sing the way I learned to sing. But we are all unique human beings with different proportions and different stories to tell. I could pursue the approach that worked for me and ignore any information that does not confirm my own experience that placement is the key to great singing. However, that isn’t a student-centered approach. I have been singing for over 25 years, I know what sensations tell me that my vocal folds are in a good set up, my airflow is being managed effectively, and my resonators are free. However, if I try to get a student to replicate my placement and they do not have all of those components working together, they will have no choice but to squeeze parts of their vocal tract to force their voice into a place. The result is a constricted voice that could likely take months or even years to sort itself out. If we spent that time continuing to force placement, we might eventually get there. But “might” is speculative. It is also quite possible I am going to end up with a student whose throat is tied in a knot. David Jones is clear about this in his book:
“I refuse to use the term “forward placement”, as I would never instruct any singer to “place their voice forward” – world-renowned voice scientist Dr. Johan Sundberg has shown that sound cannot be “placed.” The concept of “placement” invites the singer to close the pharynx and/or squeeze the throat in order to intensify frontal sensations, making easy access to the upper passaggio impossible. This is a common mistake and can lead a singer toward a closed throated production. It can take up to three years to release the laryngeal muscles of a singer who has employed a “placement” technique. Navigating one’s singing on sound, rather than on healthy sensations and an open acoustical space, always results in a push reflex….Correct vocal sensations are a result of a proper vocal coordination. They are not the origin of sound, but a healthy result. When achieved, the singer can then use them as a guide to transition from pitch to pitch and from register to register without muscular interference.” (Jones, p. 151-152)
My ultimate answer to the student it is that we are going to move things around until we find a sound that feels and sounds good. Then we will figure out how they experience it and identify what it takes to consistently reproduce the quality we discovered. Here is Oren Brown discussing this approach in “Spectrum of Voices”:
“I was interested to read that a famous teacher, Garcia, had four students who were excellent. One of them felt the vibrations in the front of his face, another felt them at the top of his head, another thought they were coming out of his ears, and another said they were in the back of his head—and all sang very well! It is an individual thing. To me, the things that people call “placement” are sensations of which they become aware when their voices are developed.
I doubt very much that beginning students are aware of anything – they haven’t gotten to that stage. I do not like to call attention to it; I suppose because in my early training I was told to give it a lot of attention, and it gave me a lot of trouble. I was trying to “put” the voice in a particular place. If you try to do anything in singing other than “release,” you’re heading for trouble, because you’re making something happen rather than allowing it to happen.
If a student tells me, “I felt that sort of behind my eyes,” and it was a good sound, I say “fine!” But I don’t tell them to try to find it behind their eyes or in front of their nose, or in their soft palate, or any other place. As students become advanced and reach a professional stage, some may become aware of sensations in the head; the sound, in going high, will possibly feel “down and back.” Perhaps they will feel it going forward.” (Blades, p. 33)
As with many things I write, I know I am challenging many traditional norms. Yes, there are thousands of voice teachers out there using placement and getting results. However, is every student getting better, singing with less constriction, easily navigating the passaggi, and seeing noticeable growth in every lesson? I’m not so sure about that. I meet many students who have struggled for several years to “place the voice” and when a colleague or myself addresses the specific functional roadblock standing in their way, they have a massive breakthrough in a matter of minutes. Its not smoke and mirrors, its not rocket science, its just voice science and it is our friend. It is scary at first. I’ll admit I shunned voice science upon my first several encounters, but when I set my confirmation bias to the side, I was blown away by the possibilities.
I’m sure this is a controversial topic, but open and respectful discussion is the only way our profession will grow. More importantly, it is the only way we can be sure we are giving our students the best information our profession has to offer. You can add to the conversation by commenting below. If you are not yet following the blog, please sign up to ensure you receive each new post in your email.
Thanks for reading and have a great week of teaching!
Matt Edwards is an Associate Professor of Voice/Coordinator of Musical Theatre Voice at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, VA, and Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute. He is the author of “So You Want to Sing Rock ‘N Roll” and dozens of articles and book chapters on functional voice training for non-classical styles. For more information visit EdwardsVoice.com