Manuel Garcia and the Coup de Glotte

This is the Appendix from the book A Guide to Good Singing and Speech by Julian Gardiner. It explains the meaning behind this often confused concept in the most complete manner that I have found. The book is out of print so I am copying it in its entirety. It should be stated that although the coup de glotte is associated with Manuel Garcia, this method did not originate with him. It was the prevailing technical method of the Italian singing schools from circa 1600 until the end of the nineteenth century which was often referred to as ‘il bel canto’, although the term ‘bel canto’ was never used by Garcia or any of the masters from the old school. They simply referred to it as ‘L’arte del canto’.

As I explained in the Preface, this book was initially inspired by the teaching of Manuel Garcia, whose name will always be associated with a technique of launching notes called the coup de glotte or ‘glottal shock’. The very mention of this phenomenon is apt, in England, to set up horrified revulsion. Much of this irrational behavior is due to the unfortunate English translation, which suggests nothing so much as strangulation in a dark alley. If we cannot use the original term, for heaven’s sake let us think up an equivalent that is less convulsively opprobrious.

But there is more to it than just an unfortunate translation. Religions, systems of thought and methods of teaching tend to be perverted in all innocence by enthusiastic disciples. Garcia’s teaching was no exception. One of his most eloquent disciples used to demonstrate the coup de glotte with the aid of a gun, but such eccentricities need not be associated with a man who was clearly one of the world’s great masters. The brother of Malibran and Pauline Viardot, the teacher of Jenny Lind, Marchesi, Stockhausen and Santley, may have lived to be a hundred, but was not such a doddering old idiot as to teach his pupils to launch notes in a way which people nowadays refer to as the coup de glotte. Careful reading of his somewhat delphic treatise suggests that what he called the coup de glotte demands an intermediate movement between the inhalation and the attack. Quite certainly he never intended anything like the violent and explosive attack which, as doctors and teachers rightly point out, is bound to do serious damage to vocal cords. This is how he described it in his Traité Complet de l’Art du Chant:

…the neat articulation of the glottis that gives a precise and clean start to a sound…By slightly coughing we become conscious of the existence and position of the glottis, and also of its shutting and opening action. The stroke of the glottis is somewhat similar to the cough, though differing essentially in that it needs only the delicate action of the lips (i.e. the vocal cords) and not the impulse of air. The lightness of movement is considerably facilitated if it be tried with the mouth shut. Once understood, it may be used with the mouth open on any vowel.

With all respect to a great pioneer, Manuel Garcia was peculiarly unfortunate in his choice of words. The sense in which he uses ‘articulation’ would not be recognized by any dictionary, though the reader will be correct in understanding ‘articulation of the glottis’ to mean the approximation of the vocal cords. Less obscure but far more regrettable is his comparison of the coup de glotte to a cough. The word ‘cough’ is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘a violent expulsion of air from the lungs with the characteristic noise’. From the medical standpoint ‘the act of coughing comprises a short inspiration followed immediately by a closure of the glottis, and a forcible expiratory effort. A high pressure is thus created within the lungs and lower air passages. The glottis then opens suddenly, allowing the air to escape in a blast’. It would be difficult to object to either of these descriptions, and we can hardly wonder that as a result of his rash comparison, Garcia’s system has been associated not only with violence, effort and abruptness, but with the implication that air is forced through an open glottis.

The French word coup is also an unfortunate term, though in this case Garcia was hardly to blame. When associated with another substantive it does not mean shock or blow, as most people seem to think; it means a sudden swift movement and nothing more or less. By reason of its association with particular words, such as coup d’état and coup d’oeil, it has acquired dozens of shades of meaning. Sometimes by reason of the accompanying word there is an implication of violence, at other times an implication of delicacy. It all depends on the word that follows ‘coup de’, but basically coup means ‘split second motion’.

In his later book Hints on Singing the author tried to undo this dual misconception by writing a footnote in which he says that:

…the stroke of the glottis is meant to describe a physical act of which there should be merely a mental cognizance, not an actual physical sensation. The articulation which gives the precise and clean start to a sound is not felt in the throat (i.e. the larynx) of the singer. It is felt in the sound itself, the attack of the note, beginning clear, clean and true upon the middle of that note without preliminary movement or action of any sort beyond the natural act of singing.

The footnote was reinforced by an observation of the editor that:

The suggestion of an analogy between the stroke of the glottis and the act of coughing is intended simply to aid the student in locating the position and realizing the function of the glottic lips. There is no need even to think of its application when articulating or attacking a vocal sound.

No doubt the old man felt that some such footnote was needed to dissociate his teaching from the heavy-handed efforts of his more ruthless evangelists. But it is a thousand pities that he was persuaded into writing, or allowing someone else to write, this nonsensical footnote with its talk of mental cognizance. An unmistakable sensation is and must be present on a good vocal attack. It is every bit as unavoidable as the twang of a bow-string when you shoot an arrow into the air, or the click of an electric light as you switch it on. Once it is established, the sensation is forgotten within a few days. If nothing is felt at the glottis, it is certain that the throat and larynx are in a condition of normality, in other words in no condition for effective voice production.

Let us forget about the footnote and consider Garcia’s original words in the light of the technique which I have described. He says that the stroke of the glottis is somewhat similar to the cough, and that the lightness of movement is considerably facilitated if it be tried with the mouth shut. Normally the act of coughing is sufficiently violent to make you on social occasions eager to suppress your cough as much as possible. Nevertheless, with increasing physical discomfort, a time may come when the abdominal muscles contract so as to produce a compression against the larynx. You are, however, able to withstand this pressure long enough not only to provide yourself with a silencer in the shape of a handkerchief, but also to expel the released air with none of the explosiveness of less formal occasions.

The normal violent cough is an example of the perverted coup de glotte which induced Garcia to write his footnote. The polite concert cough, which follow along precisely the same lines as have been described in this book, is surely what Garcia intended, particularly when he goes on to suggest that you try it first with the mouth shut, in other words, that you grunt. In this way the act of singing is initiated with the same smoothness as when one puts a car in motion by releasing the clutch, though of course at infinitely greater speed. The operation can be made so quietly that, even over a microphone, it is no more noticeable that the impact of a violin bow against the string.

An even smoother attack can be achieved if the singer falls in with the conception of allowing the vocal cords spontaneously to vibrate before coming in contact with the compressed breath. In this way, and so far as I know, only in this way is it possible to make the coup de glotte as firm and yet as gentle as a lover’s caress.

My intention of making this information available is to try to bring some clarity to this misunderstood concept. In the U.S., like in England as the author states, the coup de glotte is generally regarded as murder to your voice. Unfortunately what these people are referring to is not what is meant by coup de glotte, and as a result the proper application of the coup de glotte has been neglected. The violent attack should be avoided because of its abusive nature to the vocal folds. But contrary to what most people think, it is not the action of the vocal folds that makes the coup de glotte abusive, it is the action of the breath. As the author described, an attack that resembles a typical cough is not acceptable. What makes it not acceptable is not the closure of the vocal folds, it is the build-up of air pressure against the closed cords. If we control our breathing so as to not have a build-up of excess, uncontrolled air pressure, the cords can close without discomfort or danger of injury. In fact this is the secret to rehabilitating damaged vocal folds, especially if they have been bowed from excessive breathiness. As Garcia explained in the first excerpt, the idea of a cough is used to locate the vocal cords and experience their action. What needs to be understood is you need to be gentle, and think of coughing with absolutely no air pressure. Allan Lindquest described it as ‘clicking’ the cords, which is the sound they make when you cough with no air. Allan Lindquest also used the English term ‘perfect attack’ instead of coup de glotte. That is what the coup de glotte should be, a perfectly clean closure and spontaneous action of the vocal cords. It also depends on a released open throat so the vocal cords don’t get crushed. Then after the attack the vocal cords can continue to vibrate on their thinned edges using the breath without effort. I think the problem comes in when people actually try to perform the coup de glotte. Like the first attempts of any highly coordinated skill, the individual is not able to be perfectly in balance and immediately assumes the act is too rough to pursue. The problem is not with the act, it is just that the individual hasn’t developed the coordination to perform the act perfectly. We need to look at the perfect attack in the same light as other athletic actions like hitting a baseball or golf ball, the tennis serve, shooting a basketball. No one who attempts any of these things for the first time is able to do it even remotely like a well practiced and skilled person. So don’t expect to be able to do the same with the attack. It is a skill that takes time to master. The key lies in the author’s last sentence, the attack should be firm yet gentle, like a lover’s caress.