Good Tone Production for Singing
(Page 2 of 4)
The mutational chink is a medical term that describes a situation in which an oval opening is left between the vocal folds during the vibratory portion of the cycle; that is, when sound is being produced. (You may recall that I wrote earlier in this article that the folds, ideally, should open during inhalation but gently and fully close just prior to phonation. The closing of the vocal folds creates a degree of resistance to the air that is exiting the lungs, and they begin to buzz in response to the pressure building up beneath them. This buzzing is the basic sound of the voice, before it is shaped by the vocal tract into specific speech sounds.)
In pre- and early adolescent girls, especially between the ages of 11 and 14, the mutational chink creates a breathy tone. Typically, the interarytenoid muscles (the muscles between the arytenoid cartilage that are responsible for closing the gap, or “mutational chink”, that occurs between the arytenoids when the muscular portion of the glottis is closed) enable a singer to achieve a firm closure during the vibratory cycle. However, they develop more slowly than the arytenoid cartilages themselves, leaving a gap. (The arytenoid cartilages, to which the vocal folds are attached, control the folds.)
Girls within this age group tend to have a very well developed chest register that can be carried up quite high, leaving only a small range of pitches in the middle register. If you were to listen to girls within this age group singing in musical theatre, as in the movie Annie, you would notice that they tend to sing mostly in chest (or natural) voice. This extended chest register in young girls is common because the vocal fold muscle, the thyroarytenoid, becomes quite developed while its antagonist, the cricothyroid muscle, which elongates and thins the vocal folds for high pitches, remains somewhat under-developed. With maturation, a lengthening of the middle register occurs.
Breathiness in female adolescent singers can be managed and improved with appropriate exercises, such as staccato. (Read “The Attack” section below for more exercises to improve the effectiveness of onsets and eliminate breathiness.) However, these muscles need to develop at their own pace, and should not be forced to work overly hard in young voices. During vocal training, onset exercises should be limited to a few minutes per lesson.
Typically, by the age of sixteen, the mutational chink is no longer a hindrance to clear, efficient tone in the female voice.
The term mutational chink also applies to the oval-shaped gap that is left between the vocal folds in order to produce a falsetto-type voice. In falsetto, the vocal folds blow apart, creating an oval orifice in the middle between the edges of the two folds through which a certain volume of air escapes continuously as long as the singer is singing in the same register.
Singers can produce falsetto in a variety of different ways, involving more or less of the vocal folds, and producing a tone with more or less breathiness in it. Some speakers and singers leave the cartilaginous portion of the glottis open (sometimes called mutational chink), and only the front two-thirds of the vocal ligaments enter the vibration. The resulting sound, which is typical of the sound produced by many adolescents, while pure and flutelike, is usually soft and anemic in quality. The mutational chink type of falsetto is considered inefficient and weak.
The perfect attack describes a vocal situation or technique in which the vocal folds are allowed to gently and adequately come together after inhalation and just prior to phonation. This “sealing” of the vocal folds helps to ensure a clearer tone and more efficient airflow, as only enough air passes between the vocal folds – in a steady stream – to set them vibrating and to create the desired tone, pitch and volume.
The firmer and more complete the approximation of the lips of the glottis - the combination of the vocal folds and the space in between the folds - the more resistance they will offer to the air that escapes from the lungs, and the less air it will take to set the vocal folds vibrating. The slower the expiration, the longer the sound will last. Therefore, good vocal fold closure enables a singer to sing longer vocal phrases without having to renew his or her breath as frequently because the folds do not “leak” as much air. The quality of tone is able to ride on a minimal yet healthy stream of breath. The "compressed" sub-glottic breath allows the vocal folds to simply begin vibrating without forced breath pressure. (It should be noted that vocal fold closure serves only to strengthen the source of vibration. Tonal and breath control are strictly functions that are controlled by the body support system.)
Some teachers may refer to this rapid and energetic approximation of the lips of the glottis an instant before expiration as the coup de glotte. The coup de glotte is a natural movement of the vocal organs, and is something that happens during speech as well as during singing, assuming that the vocal folds are functioning optimally and correctly. Singers need only prepare the mouth and glottis for the production of a vowel.
To “attack” a tone, the breath must be decisively directed to a focal point on the hard palate, which lies under the critical point for each different tone. (This is what many teachers refer to as “placement”. Each vowel has a different focal point, as do varying pitches.) The breath strikes the top of the palate and sounds above the soft, elastic floor of the mouth (e.g., tongue, etc.). Pressure on this place should be minimalized, however, so that the overtones may be able to sound above and with the tone.
The “perfect attack”, so named by the late master teacher Alan Lindquest (1891-1984), may be difficult to teach and to acquire because it elicits the involvement of many support muscles that the student of voice is not accustomed to controlling intentionally. However, the elasticity of the vocal organs can indeed be developed through vocal training.
In speech, the closing of the vocal folds is an intermittent action, as the opening of the glottis is quickly followed by its closing, or contraction. A good onset during singing is more challenging, however, because of the length of the phonatory cycle, in which vowels are sustained for significantly longer than they are during speech. The singer must learn to keep the glottis contracted and together after its lips (the vocal folds) have been brought together. Once a note has been “attacked”, the singer then needs to maintain the same closed glottal position.
The singer must learn not to close his or her throat in order to close the vocal folds. This problematic technique is often referred to as a closed-throated technique or high-larynxed singing. The singer needs to learn to structure the voice without producing excess laryngeal pressure. The body (fuel tank) must learn to stay somewhat open without too much tension in order for the vocal folds to stay properly approximated.
A good attack or “onset of sound” is desirable not only because it eliminates breathiness in the tone, but also because it creates an immediate access to healthy vocal tone and resonance. Balanced singing timbre is initiated and perpetuated throughout the entire phrase. When breath and resonation are coordinated actions, pitch targeting and exactitude of spectral balance immediately occur. In other words, mastery of the onset of sound enables a singer to begin a pitch at the perfect centre, and is essential to good sound production. Additionally, it allows the acoustical space in the throat to stay open, which enables the voice to begin vibrating in a healthy fashion. Problems with vibrato disappear quickly. Balance in registration can also begin to develop.
The perfect attack must not be confused with "glottic shock", which is a situation in which the vocal folds are held together with too much glottic pressure (an over-approximation of the folds) and then pushed or forced apart with an explosion of breath pressure. This is very injurious to the vocal instrument, potentially creating vocal fatigue, strain or damage, and encouraging the singer in an injurious technique of singing. A singer must always remember that the breath line is controlled with the body support system, not the glottis. If the breath is controlled correctly with the body, it is virtually impossible to use or produce glottic shock.
Simple exercises that enable the folds to approximate in a healthy manner can help students with vocal fold approximation problems learn to feel the closure mechanism at work. Speaking brief, energized expressions such as “Every orange” or “Ah ha!” with a hand placed gently on the larynx can accomplish this. It’s also often helpful to speak single-consonant words at various pitches. I find that using staccato on simple three-note exercises or arpeggios elicits a clean and rapid voice onset, establishing a dominant mode of vibration. Staccato exercises train the adductor-abductor muscles simultaneously with the tensor muscles during pitch change. (I am careful to listen for signs of pressed phonation, or a squeezing of the sound, at the beginning of the vowels. Ideally, the folds should be closed with the ideal amount of pressure while the throat remains open in order to prevent this tight or squeezing sound from being produced.) I usually immediately follow up staccato exercises with the same exercise in legato so that my students can attempt to reproduce the same tone as they do on the staccato exercises.
A nasally kind of voice production is marked by the presence of too much nasality in the tone, which is often more noticeable on high notes. The singer may sound whiny, or sing with a very strong twang.
Some singers with pronounced or evident nasally tones are Vanessa Hudgens, Sia, Gary Levox, lead singer of Rascal Flatts and Wesley Scantlin, lead singer of Puddle of Mudd. Nasally singing is stereotypical of country singers with a southern twang. This particular style of singing has also become increasingly popular amongst R&B and hip-hop singers, both male and female, as these singers tend to employ this type of tone production in order to sing the type of embellishments and improvisations that are characteristic of this genre. (Internally, it creates a feeling of greater control over the voice.)
Followers of the American Idol competition likely remember one airing of the show during its sixth season when contestant Chris Richardson declared, “Nasally is a form of singing! I don’t know if you knew that.” in response to a critique by judge Simon Cowell, who had described Chris’ voice as nasally and tin-y. I would argue that Chris Richardson’s retort was not only a demonstration of his arrogance and unwillingness to accept constructive criticism, but also a reflection of his lack of knowledge about good singing tone.
While hypernasality, also known as nasalance, may indeed be a tone with which some people intentionally sing, and although some listeners may even enjoy certain nasally voices, it is not generally considered to be a desirable tone, a pleasing sound or a valid nuance in singing. In fact, most people find it annoying and grating.
Nasally singers subconsciously create a tone that sounds good to them internally and that has a characteristic timbre of the sound that they believe that they should be achieving. However, the sound that they hear inside their heads does not translate to the audience. They misinterpret the biofeedback that they receive while singing because nasal sounds seem to produce more volume and more “presence”. The listener, though, simply hears how restricted the vocal sound is. This false sound and imbalanced resonance is not rich and full, and it may take years to undo the tensions that are created by this vocal habit.
Beyond the subjective critique of nasally singing in which listeners find the vocal sound to be acoustically unappealing, there is nearly universal agreement among vocal teachers and vocal scientists about what makes for good, balanced, healthy speaking and singing tone. Apart from that which naturally occurs during intended, intermittent nasal phonemes - the smallest contrastive structural units in the sound system of a language that distinguishe meaning, though they carry no semantic content themselves in language – a nasally tone is considered to be a less acceptable and technically incorrect vocal element in most genres of music. It encourages singers to sing with poor technique and does nothing to expand, enhance or develop the voice. In fact, it severely limits the voice. Perhaps most importantly, though, nasality is not a healthy approach to singing.
Nasality is a combination of several vocal issues working together to distort true vocal resonance. The voice’s resonance needs to be balanced throughout the resonating cavities of the body during singing in order for the voice to produce a warm, fully resonant tone. Closing off the voice in the nose not only produces less resonance, and thus less volume and a thinner tone, but it also limits a singer’s range, particularly as he or she moves upward in pitch. Focusing one’s resonance in the nasal cavity produces nearly the same “closed off” effect as a head cold or nasal allergies.
Most often, nasality is a result of a few factors, including a raised back of the tongue, a lowered soft palate (or velum, or muscular palate, which is the soft tissue constituting the back of the roof of the mouth) and a forward jaw position.
First, a nasal sound is produced by raising the back of the tongue toward the soft palate and lowering the soft palate toward the tongue. During speaking or singing, the velum is lowered only for the formation of nasal consonants. However, nasality will also occur in non-nasal vowels if closure of the velopharyngeal port (the entrance to the nasal chambers from the pharyngeal and oral cavities, lying between the velum and the walls of the pharynx) is lacking. This port can be closed by elevating and backing the velum, like a flap, until it approximates the posterior pharyngeal wall. Pharyngeal wall movement normally accompanies velopharyngeal closure to form a tighter seal at the port. The degree of constriction or closure of the velopharyngeal mechanism varies according to phonetic context from the low positions typical of nasal vowels and consonants to the intermediate positions typical of low vowels to the more closed positions typical of high vowels to the highest positions typical of oral consonants.
Helpful in demonstrating the movement of the soft palate for nasal and non-nasal sounds is the use of a hand mirror. (Wall mirrors are fine, too, if you can get close enough to see inside your mouth clearly.) If you were to say “Ah” with your mouth opened enough to see the back of your mouth (e.g., the soft palate and posterior pharyngeal wall), you would see that the uvula lifts up and moves backward and the fauces also push back along with it. This action of the velum closes the port to the nasal cavity. Speaking a nasal vowel, as in the French “in” or “an”, would involve little or no movement of the soft palate. In fact, the velum remains lowered in order to allow the velopharyngeal port to remain open and sound to enter the nasal cavity. (It may be difficult to witness the lowering of the soft palate on such nasal vowels because the middle of the tongue tends to move upward when forming them, obstructing the view of the back of the mouth.)
When nasal consonants are spoken or sung, the velopharyngeal port is open, permitting open resonation of the voiced air stream in the nasal cavity. At the same time, the oral cavity is closed off at some point, forcing the airflow through the nasal cavity. For example, for [m] production, the resonating cavity consists of the open nasal cavity and the oral cavity occluded (shut off) at the lips. For [n] production, it is closed by the tip of the tongue resting on the gums behind the upper front teeth and the body of the tongue against the upper teeth themselves. For [ng] production, the oral cavity is closed off by the back of the tongue and the raised soft palate. In order to pronounce the word “hanger”, which has a nasally sound, for instance, we need to lower the soft palate and raise the back of the tongue.
Apart from these three sounds that require more resonance in the nasal cavity, almost all speech sounds in the English language are oral sounds. Therefore, the entrance to the chamber of the nose must be closed off most of the time.
To understand a little better how the role of nasality in singing, try this demonstration. First, sing the vowel [a] at a comfortable pitch. While you are singing the note, gently pinch your nose, closing off the nostrils completely. Because the velopharyngeal port is closed during non-nasal sounds – that is, it should be closed if your tone is not nasally - the air from your lungs filters out through your mouth rather than your nose. Your tone should change little, if at all, when you pinch your nose while singing a non-nasal vowel. Now, try humming, and then pinch your nostrils again. You will notice that the voice ceases to make sound. When you hum, you are singing an extended [m] sound or consonant. During nasal consonants, such as [m], the air from your body is filtered out through the nose. Occluding (closing) the nose puts a stop to the stream of air, and thus to the tone.
You may also wish to try singing the phoneme [ng], as in the word “sung”, for a few seconds. Without pause, sing a vowel. Try singing [ng-a-ng-a-ng-a] on the same note. During the nasal, the velopharyngeal port is open, allowing for the nasal sound of the [ng] to be created. However, the velum rises and closes off that port for the elimination of nasality as soon as the vowel appears. In this exercise, you should be able to feel an immediate velar shifting from open to closed nasal port every time that you sing the vowel.
Focusing the resonance of the voice in the nasal cavity during the singing of non-nasals works against the laws of articulation and vocal acoustics. Raising the back of the tongue decreases the amount of space available, cuts off the breath (e.g., nasally singers tend to lock the airflow with the back or root of their tongues) and makes it impossible to form vowels properly. Vowel distortion can be a huge problem in nasal singing because the tongue is not placed in the proper position for the pure vowel sound to be produced. It is important to know how to form pure vowel sounds with an open throat.
Second, the pushing of too much breath pressure through the larynx (resulting in high-larynx singing or a closed throat) tends to contribute to a nasally sound. This produces a tremendous amount of tension at the root of the tongue, which is usually accompanied by a forward jaw position.
The forward jaw position does not allow for the full adduction (closing) of the vocal folds. The air is then expelled chiefly through the nose. This thrusting forward of the jaw encourages a backward pull of the tongue. Without enough opening of the back of the throat, the voice is driven toward the nasal port. The forward thrust of the jaw creates a brighter sound inside the singer's internal hearing, which is a major factor in why singers assume this kind of jaw function. Instead, for good tone production, the jaw should actually gently wrap back after every consonant. (I will be discussing jaw position in greater detail in my upcoming article on Singing With An Open Throat: Vocal Tract Shaping.)
Registration shifts can’t occur in a healthy manner if the throat is closed and the vocal sound is driven toward the point of nasality.
In some cases, too much nasality in the tone is the result of severe and chronic nasal allergies or nasal congestion. Oftentimes, treating the symptoms of allergies and congestion is sufficient to improve tone, although sometimes singers with long-term allergy problems have developed compensatory vocal habits that need to be corrected. Usually, they have grown accustomed to hearing how their voices sound inside their heads when their nasal passages aren’t clear, and it may take some time getting used to how their voices resonate when there is no longer excess mucous and congestion obstructing resonance. (See the section on dealing with nasal allergies in my article Caring For Your Voice.)
It needs to be understood that the nasal cavity plays an important role in the production of a good vocal tone, and aids in the execution of certain specific vocal techniques. However, as I have already discussed, the nasal cavity can produce a less-than-pleasing overall tone when used inappropriately. There is, therefore, an important distinction to be made between the squeezed or compressed nasally sound that can be heard in singers like Chris Richardson and authentic, good nasal resonance, which is the true “ring” in the voice that results from an open throat, or the three primary open pharyngeal chambers (naso-pharynx, oro-pharynx and laryngeo-pharynx) and good support in breathing.
In order for sound to be able to filter through the nasal cavity, the tongue and soft palate must be out of the way, rather than bunched up in the back of the throat, and the three pharyngeal chambers need to be open. The singer also needs to have a small stream of air escaping through the nasal port and a sense of a sustaining ring in the voice. When healthy nasal resonance is achieved, the root of the tongue is released, making healthy vocal fold adduction possible.
When true resonance is achieved (beyond nasality), the singer can produce a pure legato line, and have greater volume, more control, smoother registration and complete vocal freedom.
Learning to sing without sounding overly nasally can be difficult for many students who have long been in the habit of singing in this manner. They need to learn to 'place' their tone so that it settles in the three resonating cavities of the vocal tract in a balanced manner, and get used to both the sensations and the sound of singing with more openness in the throat and balance in the tone. This retraining entails lessons in vocal posture, which will include an examination of jaw and tongue positioning during singing. Some students may initially get the feeling that they have less control over their voices once their tone is freed from the nasal cavity because their nasality has always given them a sense of better management and containing of the voice. They have come to trust in the comfortable sensation and seemingly stronger internal sound of nasality, but once the tone begins to enter the other cavities more, they feel as though they have less control over it. However, because there is less space in the oropharynx when the velum hangs low, and more space when the velum rises to close off the velopharyngeal port, in time most singers do come to feel a greater sense of openness when the velopharyngeal port is properly closed. These singers also come to experience this new openness as vocal freedom, much like the comfortable phonation that they experience during speech.
A simple trick to check if you are “singing through your nose” is to gently pinch your nostrils with your fingers, then sing non-nasal vowels and pitch consonants. Sustaining the same note, release the fingers. If the velopharyngeal port is properly closed during non-nasal vowels – that is, if your tone is not hypernasally - the tone should change very little, if at all, when the nostrils are allowed to open again because sound is not actually emitted through the nose on non-nasal vowels. However, if your tone is nasally, you will find that your voice becomes noticeably thinner when your nostrils are occluded.
One tool for ridding the voice of nasality suggested by master teacher David L. Jones is to shape the hand flat, then place it laterally in the mouth and breathe above it. This will stretch the soft palate and, ideally, lift it.
The throaty voice is characterized by too much pharyngeal resonance and/or excessive pharyngeal tension. This technique can produce a hollow sound within the voice. I like to describe the sound produced by “throaty singers”, which seems to have become popular in recent years amongst certain pop, Gospel and R&B singers, as something that you might hear from Kermit the Frog, Pee Wee Herman or the cartoon martian that Bugs Bunny encounters in space. Of course, these are examples in which pharyngeal tone production is extreme. David Archuleta from American Idol’s seventh season is a more practical example of a singer with a 'throaty' tone production that is present both in his singing and in his speaking voice. In the chorus of Fly, the lead singer of Sugar Ray, Mark McGrath, demonstrates a particularly pronounced pharyngeal tone on the words "I" and "fly".
Some singers employ this technique of tone production because they are under the impression that it makes their voices sound 'bigger' and deeper. They tend to use it whenever they want to 'belt' out a note or add a 'growl', falsely darkening the timbre of their vowels and tone.
Other singers produce a throaty tone in a misguided attempt to open the throat and increase resonating space. However, this extra space is often created through techniques such as mimicking the feeling or pharyngeal action of a yawn, which inevitably produces the hollow quality of tone with distorted resonance that is heard when one is attempting to talk while yawning.
In reality, though, their ability to produce volume is severely limited because they are not making full use of all of the resonating cavities in their bodies, which strips the voice of its overtones. Essentially, the resonance from sound production during throaty singing is being pushed back into the soft tissue of the upper throat (the soft palate). The fauces - the two pillars, (which include the soft palate, the base of the tongue, and the palatine arches), that constitute the passage from the back of the mouth to the pharynx - tend to rise, separate and push back. The tip of the tongue separates from its ideal position behind the lower teeth, which is often accompanied by an unnatural spreading of the sides of the mouth and tension in the cheek muscles. This technique can lead to tension in the deep tongue muscles, since the tongue is being pushed back unnaturally in order to close off the throat and restrict airflow when a gruff or growling sound is desired. Neck muscle tension, particularly in the submandibular (below the jaw) region, is also common among singers who employ this kind of technique. Furthermore, with the tongue being pushed back, tension is often placed on the larynx because the root of the tongue is closely connected to it.
Correcting this faulty technique entails not only educating a singer on the potentially damaging effects of the pushed back tongue position and excessive soft palate involvement, but also having the singer hear the hollow quality of tone that is produced when the tongue is pushed back and down when demonstrated by someone else (e.g., the vocal instructor). Oftentimes, a singer need only hear how unpleasant the throaty tone is, and he or she is willing to make changes to his or her approach to singing. Therefore, some exercises in correct tongue positioning (relaxed, with the tip of the tongue placed gently behind the lower teeth and the middle, not the back, of the tongue raising or lowering depending on the particular vowel being articulated) immediately improves tone and reduces tongue and neck tension.
I have taught a few students for whom the throaty quality of their voices has not been the result of intentional stylistic choice. These students struggle with excessive pharyngeal quality in their voices only as they approach their passaggi. Their voices seem to deepen – likely because of the lowering of the base of the tongue so that it depresses the larynx - and adopt a hollow, throaty character as a result of the pharyngeal spreading and the erroneous elongation of the resonator tube, but only for a few notes within their range. Usually, they have developed bad compensatory habits - resorting to altering the timbre of their voices - in an attempt to navigate register changes with more smoothness and muscular control. However, there is not an evenness of timbre throughout the range. Once they pass their lower passaggio, the pleasant, balanced quality of their voices returns.
For many singers, certain vowels, most typically the back vowels or open vowels, seem to make this throatiness more pronounced. The vowel sounds 'ah' and 'oh' seem to present the most problems with this kind of pharyngeal spreading, and it is made even more noticeable within certain vowel combinations (e.g., when going from a front to a back vowel). Timbre falsification or altering is almost always successfully eliminated when improper tongue behaviour is addressed and corrected.
I would be remiss if I did not include in this discussion on tone the poor vocal technique that leads to what is typically called pressed phonation, which is a hyperfunctional mode of phonation. Pressed phonation occurs quite commonly in speech, in brief instances, but is difficult to consciously control or deliberately create during singing, which makes it somewhat challenging to correct.
Although pressed voices are easily identified by auditory impression, a clear definition or description based on acoustic features and the production mechanisms are unclear. (As a result, many voice instructors with less experience fail to diagnose this problem in their students.) Generally, though, the pressed voice usually has a tense voice quality and is sometimes accompanied by vocal fry or harsh sounds. Oftentimes, at the beginning of a sung vowel, the singer's voice will sound squeezed and tight, and then there is a sound of 'release' of this tightness once the vocal folds relax their resistance and begin vibrating more optimally. This is sometimes described as 'grabbing at the onset.
In pressed phonation, airflow is too energetically resisted by the adducted vocal folds. In other words, the vocal folds are brought together with excessive instrinsic muscular effort, which makes it harder to set them vibrating. The folds then have an elongated closed phase in response to this high airflow and elevated rates of subglottic pressure, and a great deal of air pressure is needed to blow them apart. The result is a forced, “shouty” quality to the voice that is very tiring for the singer to maintain. Besides demanding a strong effort from the singer, pressed phonation is deleterious to the vocal organs.
In pressed phonation, the open phase of the vocal folds is also much shorter than the closed phase, representing irregularities in periodicity (vibratory rate). The completely closed intervals of the vocal folds are predominant to (or much longer than) the open intervals, which creates the tight or pressed sound. When vibrato is used, the closure gesture of each vibratory cycle also lasts longer than it should, creating an uneven vibrato rate. In pressed phonation, an asymmetry in the movements of the left and right folds can also be noted.
The peak amplitude of the flow pulses in pressed phonation is small - the spectrum of such a voice displays low amplitude of the fundamental frequency - which generates a relatively low level of sound pressure. Harmonic partials that lie beyond 2000 Hz become dominant and the first formant grows excessively prominent, accompanied by a loss of overtones in the region of 3000 Hz, where the Singer’s Formant is generated. The pressed voice, then, lacks the overtones necessary to create a balanced, pleasant, rich tone.
Pressed phonation is typically associated with an elevated larynx position, (whereas the healthiest mode of phonation, free-flow phonation, is typically produced with a lower, relaxed larynx).
The popular technique of ‘belting’ relies heavily upon pressed phonation to give the belting voice its characteristically ‘bigger’ and brighter sound. A study on belting by singing voice researcher Jo Estill revealed that, just as in pressed phonation, belters have a longer closed quotient phase than in any other type of phonation. With the folds so tightly closed for so long during the vibratory cycle, breath pressure builds up beneath the larynx, supplying the extra ‘push’ that is needed in order to increase pitch and volume. This amount of breath compression is far greater than that which is necessary in order to produce the voice. This excessive breath pressure, along with the unnatural constrictions of the vocal tract that enable the belting voice to be produced, oftentimes causes damage to the vocal folds, and many belters find themselves unable to keep up with the demands of their performance schedules, canceling shows due to vocal strain, fatigue or injury. Belters also use thyroarytenoid dominant vocal fold activity (responsible for chest voice) higher in the scale than non-belters, maximum muscular involvement of the torso, as well as of the head and neck (in order to stabilize the larynx), a raised larynx, a narrower pharyngeal space, a lowered velum, as well as a flattened tongue and other incorrect vocal posturing. (I have written more about healthy postures of the entire vocal tract in Singing With An ‘Open Throat’: Vocal Tract Shaping.) Any kind of forcing can lead to vocal deterioration.
Pressed phonation is most commonly seen in male singers as they approach and reach their upper-middle and high range, although many women who fear singing higher notes and incorrectly navigate the upper parts of their range also have pressed tendencies. When singing pitches that lie above speech-inflection range, vocal fold closure is aggressive and subglottic pressure is increased. In attempting to sufficiently energize the body to meet the demands of long phrases and high-lying tessitura and intensity (volume) levels, some singers induce too much laryngeal resistance to airflow. In other words, singers will tend to resort to pressed phonation when they are singing in mid to upper range and are mistakenly substituting increased effort for increased energy. A singer needs to find the proper balance between vocal freedom and energization. I remind my students with pressed phonation problems to allow the tone of their voices to ride on a minimal, steady stream of breath - to use only enough breath energy and air to create a steady, balanced tone for the duration of the sung phrase. This often helps these singers to abandon their habits of “over supporting” their tone, or feeling as though they need to use a lot of breath in order to sing in the upper registers.
Faulty breath coordination is a major cause of pressed phonation. Unfortunately, many vocal instructors offer misguided solutions when striving to eliminate pressed phonation in their students. Many teachers encourage their students to either insert an imaginary or real "h" at the beginning of phrases or to consciously introduce higher airflow levels (e.g., breathiness, sighing or yawning) as a means of alleviating or eliminating pressed phonation. However, these are not the best approaches to take when dealing with pressed phonation. These are merely compensatory solutions that may end up producing problematic side effects, as one bad technique (i.e., pressed phonation) is merely being replaced with another (i.e., breathy phonation). These techniques only offer temporary relief of the pressure at the vocal fold level without ultimately curing the problem.
Many contemporary singers already habitually insert "h's" before all vowels when they sing, either as an intentional stylistic choice or as an unconscious or instinctive response to incorrect technique (usually to alleviate the mounting vocal fold and muscular tension that they would otherwise feel as they are forcing their voices because of an overly firm glottal closure). The inserted aspirant "h" allows easier production at the climactic (higher) notes of a phrase, but it can easily become a crutch for singers. The letter "h" is an unvoiced consonant - an aspirated sound - meaning that the glottis remains open during its production and the folds don't vibrate or produce sound because the sound is produced by the exiting puff of breath alone, which in turn introduces more air into the tone. As a result, air is lost between the slightly parted vocal folds at the onset of the phrase, just when effective breath management is needed the most. Instead of substituting breathy phonation for the proper balance between airflow and laryngeal response, it would be preferable to learn how to achieve ideal vocal fold approximation through the discipline of the precise onset (the “attack and the release. In other words, instead of inserting an "h" or introducing breathiness into the tone, the proper cure for pressed phonation is to learn how to correlate breath emission and vocal tract filtering of the laryngeally generated sound.
Another technique to help alleviate forced phonation in males is to use falsetto exercises. In falsetto production, the vocal folds are not fully occluded (closed), and resistance to airflow is slackened a little. Nevertheless, in falsetto, the vocal fold elongation necessary for pitch elevation still takes place. Temporary and brief substitution of falsetto timbre that is followed immediately by legitimate full voice timbre may be a useful practice device because a lighter onset is produced. The closure mechanism therefore avoids over activation, and more appropriately matches the degree of vocal fold stretching. These exercises can be attempted on a single note, beginning in falsetto, then moving immediately to legitimate full (head) voice without pause. For example, singing a five-note descending scale, a male singer can begin in falsetto timbre at the top note and gradually shift into full voice by the last (bottom) note of the scale.
Yet another corrective technique for addressing pressed phonation is having the student speak short phrases with short syllables, such as “Ah ha!” and “Oh, yes!” then sing the same expressions in a corresponding range with comparable intensity. This will help the singer to become aware of the sound and the feel of free timbre as it occurs in the energized singing voice in contrast to the tension inherent in manufactured, pressed, sung phonation. (There should be no greater sensation in the larynx during singing than in clear, energized speech.) However, if the singer also tends to speak with an overly pressed voice, this exercise will not benefit him or her and will not help to correct the problem.
As mentioned in the first paragraph of this section, pressed phonation is quite common during speaking tasks. However it is not as recognizable (noticeable) because the open phase of the glottis is significantly shorter during speech than it is during singing. Every vowel must start out with the feeling of openness in the throat, and every singer must learn to encourage this openness at the beginning of each sung vowel. A particularly useful technique for ridding the voice of the tension and squeezed sound associated with pressed phonation is encouraging such openness in the throat before the tone is brought into focus. The singer can imagine and form the neutral “uh” vowel in the throat before shaping the desired vowel with the articulators (jaw, tongue, lips, etc.). This will open the pharynx before the tone is created at the laryngeal level. Practicing singing only vowels – without consonants preceding them – is a good idea until pressed phonation tendencies are eliminated, as consonants will sometimes make the squeezed sound less obvious or mask the signs of pressed phonation.