I have often talked about the importance of posture, especially the posture of the face. The feeling of lift under the eyes is critical to opening the upper resonating space behind the nose and above the mouth. Once again I use Jussi Björling as an example of this coordination. But now I have video to show exactly what I’m talking about. This is a television appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957. It is a performance of an excerpt from Verdi’s opera Rigoletto.
And as a bonus, this video features two women that also exemplify this coordination. The soprano is Hilde Güden and the Mezzo is Thelma Votipka. Just watch how they all have a lift alongside the nose when they open the mouth. This opens the resonating space behind the nose that really makes the vocal function easy. Many assume this will cause the tone to be nasal. But nasal singing happens not because the resonance is in the nasal passages but because the throat and nasal passages are constricted. The key is to keep them open. It almost feels like yawning with the nose.
Another element that could cause the tone to be nasal in quality is if the vibration is incomplete and the tone is restricted in the nasal passages. For this resonance condition to be correctly achieved the tone must place itself in the open resonating space. We must not try to deliberately place the tone. This is accomplished by understanding the difference between breath and tone. If we try to blow the tone into the nasal resonator we will have too much breath passing through the glottis, creating an incomplete vibration. There needs to be a pure vibration from the vocal folds to create the acoustical property of resonance.
Also, if we try to place the tone we will very likely constrict the vocal tract in some way. We need to keep the vocal tract, which is basically the air-way, open. Then with a complete vibration of the vocal folds the tone seems to place itself with no help from us. If we provide a path for the tone it will take that path through its own properties of radiance. This is one of the challenges of singing, trying not to control the things we can’t control. Trusting the laws of nature to do their thing.
A common concept that was traditionally taught was the idea of “smelling a rose”. I have described it in other articles, but this is an example of that in action. What is intended by this imaginary act is to lift the nose and face to open the nasal passages. It gives a feeling of stretch inside that resembles yawning inside and behind the nose that I mentioned. We can continue to feel like we are “smelling” while we sing to keep the open feeling. I sometimes imagine I am smelling my tone. This allows us to feel like we are pronouncing above the mouth.
This condition has a very interesting relationship to the soft palate. Most people that have been around the study of singing have heard people emphasize the importance of the soft palate being stretched and lifted. I have long been suspicious that there has been a misinterpretation of the proper behavior of the soft palate, as well as an over-emphasis of its importance. There are references in some older writings that recommend the palate be in a flexible condition and not pulled up so the naso-resonator is freely accessible.
The tone quality that people associate with a lifted palate is actually the result of this lifted and open nasal passage resonator. If we look in a mirror to observe the inside of the mouth and lift the palate the resulting sound is trapped in the throat and uncomfortable. I think what people sense as a stretch of the soft palate is actually a stretch of the soft tissue that lines the naso-pharynx, of which the soft-palate is the bottom. I’m not interested in trying to scientifically prove this assertion, but I think some mindful experimentation can help to clear up the confusion for each person.
Now I admit that Hilde Güden’s facial expressions are a little exaggerated. I don’t think it is necessary to exaggerate in order to have the resonators open. On the other hand, her face is nicely alive compared to many modern singers. And I am a believer in the saying it is better to do too much than too little, although we would like to find balance above either of these. I am willing to forgive her knowing that she had a functional reason behind it. But I would recommend a more subtle application, like we see with the other two singers.
I want to make a special point of highlighting the brief but enlightening example of Thelma Votipka (1906-1972). She was an American Mezzo from Ohio. The majority of her career was as a Comprimario, as she is here. She holds the record for most performances at the Met by a female of 1,422. I had no idea who she was before seeing this clip. I am blown away by her optimal function. You won’t hear that quality in a comprimario these days. I hope it is noticeable.
As always comments below are welcome.