Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
Last week I blogged about allowing forward placement to reveal itself instead of forcing it to happen. Someone asked “how do you allow the placement to reveal itself?” That’s a great question, but it needs two weeks to cover. So here is part one.
My philosophy is to make adjustments to the parts (registration, pressure/flow, tongue, jaw, lips) until we find the sound we are looking for in that moment. When the student gets it, I ask “What was that?” and allow them to use whatever terms are authentic to them. Sometimes its a sensation of placement, other times its a sound, and a few of my students have even said they see colors. Many of my students have been taught to use placement in the past, so my philosophy is that I need to work with them to give them the tools necessary to rely on those sensations if that is how they learn best. Even if it is not the way I experience my own voice.
So here is the first part of my approach for working with students who respond well to sensations of placement. There is of course much more to my process than what I am sharing here, and there are clearly some simpler and more traditional directives such as animal noises (i.e. “meow”) and buzzy bees that may work better for some students. However, this post is going to dive into the more functional part of my thought process behind allowing placement to reveal itself.
Harmonics and Formants
First, it is important to understand the two components of sounds that are present when we sing: harmonics and formants. To review, harmonics are produced by the vocal folds and are whole number multiples of the frequency (pitch) being sung. Formants are resonating spaces within the vocal tract. When we enlarge a space in the vocal tract, formants get lower. When we narrow a space, formants get higher. An easy way to remember this is that a 2-liter bottle (large/wide space) produces a lower pitch than a 20-ounce bottle (small/narrow space) when you blow across the top of the bottle. If you are not already familiar with these concepts, this is a great explanation of vocal acoustics and fun to watch. Also check out the Voice Science Works website and Kenneth Bozeman’s books.
Vocal Fold Closure
In order for a student to experience forward placement, they must produce harmonics strong enough to be boosted by the formants of the vocal tract. For example, an /a/ vowel as in “hot” requires formants in the area of 730 Hz, 1,090 Hz, and 2,440 Hz. If the vocal folds are not fully adducted, the student may not produce enough harmonic energy in the 1,000-2,500 Hz range to be boosted by the 2nd and 3rd formants. If that fails to happen, they will not feel forward placement no matter how hard they try to alter the vowel. Only an adjustment at the vocal fold level that improves adduction will fix the issue. I frequently begin the way Garcia did, by strengthening the chest voice. However, to optimize the system and get the most output for the least effort, there is also an acoustic component that must align with changes in laryngeal registration.
The truth is there are interactions between resonance and vocal fold closure that can be proven with complex mathematical formulas that are beyond the scope of this post. To keep it short, you could summarize by saying the vowel shape changes the amount of backward airflow assisting vocal fold closure. That’s why we now say that registration requires both laryngeal and acoustic adjustments. Dr. Ingo Titze is the expert on this and describes it in great detail in his and Kittie Verdolini Abbott‘s book “Vocology: The Science and Practice of Voice Rehabilitation.”
What all of that means is if registration at the vocal fold level fails to achieve results, you may have vowel issues interfering with vocal fold closure. It is also possible that the vibration of the vocal folds is not the issue and instead the vowel is not formed correctly, If something (i.e. the tongue) is obstructing the tube, free resonance can not happen.
That all sounds pretty complicated, but the more you work with the terminology, the easier it gets to understand and implement. If I suspect I am hearing a simple vowel issue, I use what I call the “The Vowel Morphing” exercise. The students moves their lips, tongue, and jaw around while sustaining a problematic vowel. You tell them to move all the parts around until the best spot reveals itself. They will know. All of a sudden the voice will pop (in a good way) and the student will feel a sense of freedom and ease in their throat. Then ask the student to identify what they experienced and try to find it again. If the student likes to use placement terminology, go with it and use small variations of how they described the experience to nudge them in the direction you want to go. You could also use simple directives addressing vowel, pitch, and intensity to help the student further refine their discovery.
Addressing the Epilarynx
Another simple entry-level approach to establishing a vocal tract that will allow placement to reveal itself is to use straw phonation to help establish optimal space in the epilarynx. The back pressure created by semi-occluded vocal tract exercises can help the vocal folds close more efficiently. You can even use a straw with water to help the student visualize their airflow. It is important to listen closely as the student does the exercise. If the student has been trying to force placement, you will usually catch them raising the larynx/narrowing the pharynx as they ascend. If that happens I use the “Small Dog, Big Dog” exercise to help them hear the difference. Then I have them sip an imaginary string of spaghetti and try the straw again.
If the student is still running into roadblocks, you are going to have to dig deeper. Next week I’ll talk about ways to work with the “front room” and “backroom” metaphors, which will cover the lips, jaw, and tongue.
Do you have variations of these exercises or other approaches for helping a student discover rather than force placement? Please contribute to the conversation by leaving a comment 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