Mar 27 2011

Discussion of Nasality in Singing

I am posting some of my comments from a discussion on the Jussi Björling Yahoo Group that started as an assessment of Joseph Calleja’s Met performance in Lucia di Lammermoor. The topic swung to discussing nasality in singing. First are some of the comments that got things started, then my statements on the issue. I figured some would be interested.


D: he’s (Calleja) very impressive in the house with an ample, warm sound that is flavored by a nice vibrato and just a bit of nasality, two features of Jussi’s sound as well – if in a slightly distinctive way of his own.

T: I don’t hear Jussi’s nasality at all, but there is a tendency to push sharp at times. When I heard him in person, there wasn’t the slightest trace of nasality, none whatsoever.

E: I agree with you about Bjorling and nasality. To me, his voice was placed perfectly in the mask, which includes the nose but goes higher into the front of the forehead. Calleja’s voice seemed centered in the nose until he went for a high note.


I just want to pipe in here on this. I think “D” has just experienced the difficulty in expressing personal descriptions about the voice. He is absolutely correct, by the way. And so are the folks that oppose his statement.

Being a regular writer about vocal issues for going on 10 years now I have learned this lesson well. Not everyone defines the various terms the same way. So, two people can get in an argument even though they actually agree but are saying the same thing with different words.

Both Jussi and his Father described the importance of allowing the resonance to exist in the space behind the nose. Many refer to this as “nasal resonance”. I refrain from that term because it makes people think of nasality. And often
people try to fulfill the description, which makes them sound nasal.

First and foremost it should be stated that a tone should not sound nasal. But if the resonance doesn’t include the nasal passages it will sound flat and heavy. It also feels difficult to the singer and is at risk of losing color and sounding white or overly dark, depending on how the singer adjusts the resonators.

The problem of nasality is NOT an issue of the nasal passages, but an issue of constriction in the resonators or leaking of breath through the vibration of the vocal cords. If there is a complete, pure vibration and the resonating spaces (including the nasal passages) are open there will be no impression of nasality. Just good, complete resonance.

That is what we hear in Jussi. No nasality because he has a complete vibration of the vocal cords and the nasal passages are open, not constricted. It is impossible to create the weightlessness of the voice we hear in him without this resonance in the open head spaces that are the nasal passages.

So like I said, everybody is correct. The difference is “D” was talking about the cause of how the voice was working and everyone else was talking of the effect of the sound you hear. You don’t hear nasality in Jussi’s singing, but in
the functioning of his voice there does exist resonance in the nasal passages. “D” chose to call that nasality. I find that to be a dangerous term to use, but based on what he meant by it it isn’t wrong.

“E”, as a philosophy professor you should be familiar with this challenge of talking about the actual thing and not the words used to represent it. You and “D” have two different things being represented by the same word “nasality”. By your definition what he said would be wrong. By his definition he is absolutely correct.

Hope that clears things up some.

  1. Michael, excellent discussion to help people understand that the same thing can be said, and often is, in different ways, and confusion can result. I have heard this discussion in the professional world for decades, and as mentioned in one post dealing with nasal sound, I mentioned a famous conductor who demanded super strong “overly forward production” or he felt our voices would be drown by the orchestra. My voice is naturally huge, dark like a contralto (not a manufactured darkness, I make that clear so readers are not confused) but with an extremely strong ring or brightness. And I don’t make it happen deliberately, and never did. What got me with this conductor is I had to “make it happen even more to suit him.” It was unnatural and uncomfortable. I described what a colleague told me to do to make sure I had the forward resonance he wanted to the degree he wanted), but at the same time to check to make sure I was not closing off the other resonanting chambers of my body and developing bad habits I would come to regret.

    But like you have said, this subject can turn into a real battle. Many singers swear by the “mask placement” and that one MUST put the voice into the nose and mask. Others claim one only need add that resonance to the rest of the voice, and so on. So, if your readers get confused about terms, believe me, so do the professionals. Some simply let people do what works for them, others will actually come to you backstage and tell you how horrible you were, and that you have no ability to sing at all. (at times like that, you need to be very sure of yourself, and remember: were you as untalented as this artist claims, you wouldn’t be singing where you are singing, or what you are singing; but believe me, such a torent of insults can really leave you shaken, even after years of success)

    I sat in on a discussion with a panel of experts all discussion singing and “mask placement” which in essense is what you are talking about with the idea of nasality. I was shocked at what I saw and heard. One expert literally told a singer they didn’t know what they were talking about, and the singer countered with some really astonishing accusations. And so it went for over an hour. The viciousness of the comments went from terrible to worse than that. This was a panel that was to help students understand singing, and it did more damage, in my view, than it did good.

    Strangely, the student sitting next to me (I was not part of the panel, only sat in on it) said: “But they are all saying the same thing, but only describing it in different words.” And she was absolutely right. One singer simply cancelled all her performances scheduled with the opera company sponsoring the discussion because she refused to work with the conductor (the most vile when it came to his condemnation and language). I am glad I didn’t have to smooth the waters over that one. I pitied the opera management.

    Your explanation about using different words to say the same thing, or sometimes using the same words but meaning something completely different is spot on. Also, referencing the comments to what the person is commenting on, whether it is the technique used, or whether it is the sound heard (two very different perspectives) was excellent.

    I would say that 99% of the anger and confusion I have heard throughout my career leveled at people is based completely on this very thing: a difference of perspective. The singer is describing the feelings the sensations, the conductor or coach is discussing the sound they hear, and both end up really clashing only because neither will take the time to really understand which vantaage point is being used.

    There are some conductors out there (who really clue in quickly to what the singer is saying, and whether they are speaking of how they sound, or the sensations of the act of singing. There are almost never any arguments.

    But some times these arguments come about also because of experience. Many people of today, including many of the new younger conductors (who know their music well, but have never worked with really good voices) have nothing on which to base their idea of sound. They are used to the “manufactured sound” the “imitation operatic voices” and really have never heard a really balanced good voice. They can’t judge one based on recordings (because recordings, whether old or new never really give the reality of sound the singers produces), but often that is what they have been required to do. They never worked with the past greats. They never worked with a Nelsson, or a Sutherland, or a Ponselle, or a Bjorling. In fact, they have never even heard such singers live to know what they did sound like in the theatre. Nor did they work with them in a rehearsal room to hear the difference (most of these singers had full sounding voices in the rehearsal rooms, but not ear-splitting loud; it was in the theatre that one heard the real sound, for such developed voices need space for the sound to grow into).

    They (these conductors) are used to the discussions of “mask placement” by so many famous singers. But they really don’t comprehend what is being said. None of these singers (Giullietta Simionato for one) ever had nasal voices, but they used mask placement. And as you discuss with them, you see their term mask placement really means the use of nasal resonance. Even singers describe things as they learned them, and often don’t realize themselves what is really being discussed. And arguments do result.

    So, I am not amazed at all that some of your readers cannot agree on what is being said. The issue is really discussed in such a complicated way. Fortunately, you have hit the topic squarely on the head. And you have illustrated how people can be describing the exact same thing, but from two different vantage points. Believe me, how the music worlds needs to start understanding that.

  2. Thanks, Bea. It’s unfortunate but reassuring to hear that this confusion exists in the professional world as well. It certainly exists in academia.

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