Author: Buescher, Randy
Date published: September 1, 2011
WHEN LISTENING TO SUCH FEMALE SINGERS as Aretha Franklin, American Idol winner Fantasia, Chaka Khan, Eva Cassidy, or Ann Wilson, one hears a very identifiable vocal sound. What is that quality? Those familiar with working with this type of voice production will call it the witch's voice, puppet voice, or as referred to historically, the pharyngeal voice. Although the pharyngeal voice is also used by males (think of Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame), the present article addresses this unique production in the female voice.
In Buescher's discussions with noted Los Angeles-based teacher Seth Riggs, Riggs often spoke of the peculiar voice quality of African American singers that has well served the various genres of this community. Riggs stated, "While listening to these singers, it became apparent that they had stumbled upon a coordination which heavily relied on the pharyngeal voice. The question then was: How do I train singers to make these sounds, and how does it create a mixed production?"1
Riggs uses the pharyngeal voice extensively in training singers in his method. Examples found in his book Singing for the Stars will give the reader a better idea of the desired quality of this particular production.2 However, little has been written on the causes for the pharyngeal voice to sound as it does beyond unsupported supposition. To those unfamiliar with the approach, it can prove confusing and astonishing. One attendee of the Midwest Voice Conference where Buescher and Sims presented a study on pharyngeal voice, expressed her amazement and cognitive dissonance in a blog:
By some accounts, we've opened a can of worms and I can understand if it seems a bit strange to you.
If I hadn't heard it for myself, I'd have questions about it too, however, for our part, there was a demonstration later in the afternoon with a young soprano who has been coached using the pharyngeal voice and it was astounding to hear the steadiness, power and focus in her voice, with her head and chest voice connected seamlessly. The male voice works this way already and the female voice, using this method, could also be trained to have a fully connected head and chest voice.
I wasn't trained using this technique but with Bel Canto, the standard technique in conservatories and universities that has been used for hundreds of years to train singers of opera, art song, musical theater and those who want to engage in beautiful singing in general.
To go from what I knew to hearing what I heard took me aback and was puzzling as I tried to wrap my head around the concept and the sheer power of the sound at all times on any pitch. It's like turning the fire hose on full blast.3
PHARYNGEAL VOICE IN THE LITERATURE
Several noteworthy teachers have discussed pharyngeal voice. E. Herbert Caesari, for example, writes at length about the phenomenon in The Voice of the Mind. He claims it derives from the 300 year old Italian school practice of voce faringea and bemoans its lack of use in current teaching.4 He states that the pharyngeal voice lies somewhere between the basic or real and the falsetto mechanisms. When produced exclusively by itself, without any admixture of the basic voice or falsetto, it has a certain quality of steely intensity, exactly the quality the singers mentioned above possess.5
Riggs holds a different view. He believes the origins are different from those suggested by Caesari, proposing that this specific vocal production derives from the castrati school of training.
Although those young men were altered, they did . . . get a longer vocal cord as they matured. Because it was a male voice, albeit a very high one, they needed to join the chest voice to the high voice. To do this they used a device called the puppet or witch's voice, also known as the pharyngeal voice. It's a direct hookup between where the vocal cord is vibrating along its whole length (chest) to where it damps (head). It builds the bridge between them, the mix. It is, however, a high larynx condition which we don't want when all is said and done. [Still], it does give the singer the sensation of a totally connected line, which is the most important aspect of singing.6
In a study on contrasting sounds in the upper male voice, Lloyd A. Smith states,
Four sounds were contrasted in the upper male voice. The sounds were identified as follows: (1) falsetto; (2) head tone; (3) pharyngeal voice; (4) operatic head voice. All sounds were sung by a tenor on the vowel /a/ at a pitch level of A^sub 4^, 415 Hz. Spectrographic analyses were performed to determine what physiological relationships might be inferred among the sounds. The length of time the singer was able to sustain each sound was tested in order to gain information concerning the relative airflows. The results show that the pharyngeal voice and operatic voice have much more energy in the high partials and have much lower rate of airflow. This evidence indicates that these two sounds are characterized by much more complete closure of the glottis than is exhibited in the other two sounds. It is concluded that the four sounds are produced by only two different laryngeal adjustments. Acoustical differences accounting for differentiation of sounds produced by the same laryngeal setting are discussed. A recommendation is made concerning the pedagogical use of registers and suggestions are made for further research.7
Online, one can find many discussion boards (usually focused on modern commercial music) discussing this term with usually confused results. Also, the pharyngeal voice in singing is not to be confused with term used in describing postlaryngectomy patients' attempts at speech.
PHARYNGEAL VOICE AND THEORIES ON VOCAL FOLD DAMPING
Because no real studies have been conducted on the pharyngeal voice, those who have written about it have proposed some very interesting theories on how it affects vocal fold function. While discussing pharyngeal voice, Caesari explains its role in diminishing the vibrating mass of the vocal folds and vice versa.
For, unless there is adequate elimination of the vibrating mass of the vocal cords as the pitch rises, the pharyngeal mechanism cannot engage and participate in the operational network.8
Caesari writes in great detail about vibrating mass elimination, but he expresses the main idea in the following passage:
For the purpose of measuring the graduation representing the note-by-note shortening process of the cords chromatically on an ascending scale, we propose to divide one inch into sixty-four parts of grades. As the length of cord in sopranos is generally about half an inch (it is slightly more in the bigger calibers) and assuming her compass to be thirty-two notes (semitones) from b flat, below middle c to f, five semitones above high c, we are dividing this half-inch vibrator into thirty-two equal degrees or grades, one for each semitone. Consequently, each step in the shortening process will be represented by 1/64th of an inch, the entire length of half an inch vibrator being thus divided into 32/64ths.9
What Caesari is arguing, then, is that the length of the soprano's vocal folds decreases by 1/64th of an inch for each ascending half step. This vocal fold shortening, as Caesari termed it, is now commonly referred to as vocal fold damping.
Riggs is also an adamant supporter of vocal fold damping in the first passaggio (bridge) and cites the importance of the pharyngeal voice in producing the mixed production for which he is famous.10 Riggs believes the folds damp (zip up and stay closed) along the posterior two-thirds of their length, leaving only the front one-third free to vibrate at the first passaggio (somewhere between G^sub 4^ and B[musical flat]^sub 4^ in the female voice using this approach). His ultimate reasoning for this conclusion is that he can feel the process. However, to prove his point, he displays pictures from Keep Your Voice Healthy by Brodnitz.11 Interestingly enough, Riggs fails to mention that the photos show phonation produced not in the first passaggio, but in falsetto. Brodnitz describes the process as follows:
At the beginning of the head register, the cords are stretched but still vibrate at full length. Higher up the cords are approximated at the posterior half, leaving the anterior half free to vibrate. In the falsetto the cords are damped in the two posterior thirds; only a small triangular chink is open in the anterior third where the sharpened margins vibrate.12
In the popular textbook, Speech and Hearing Science. Anatomy & Physiology, Zemlin points out other research that also attributes falsetto to a similar mechanism, including Farnsworth (1940), Pressman (1942), and Pressman and Keleman (1955).13 According to these authors, when the vocal folds have been tensed and lengthened as much as possible, further increases in pitch must be accompanied by a different mechanism, namely damping. In the region of the vocal processes, the posterior portions of the vocal folds are firmly approximated and do not enter into vibration. As a result, the length of the vibrating glottis is shortened considerably.
Titze, on the other hand, offers a different explanation.
If vibration is "damped" at the endpoints, the vocal fold is effectively shortened, as if pressing a finger near the endpoints of a violin or guitar string. Perhaps a better term would be "extended clamping" because of the universal usage of damping for energy dissipation. In part, the macula flavae may provide this extended clamping with the addition of tapered endpoints. Thus, it may not require much adductory "pressing" to shorten the effective length. In fact, it is generally understood that falsetto is anything but "pressing." Adduction is usually thought to be rather loose.14
Riggs's proposed theory of a two-thirds damping process in the first passaggio (between G^sub 4^-B[musical flat]^sub 4^ in the female voice) has caused great controversy within and outside of his organization, Speech Level Singing International. Because of this, associates of the organization are now required to follow an official stance when discussing the issue. It is as follows:
As the singer moves from one group of muscles to the next, the vocal cords shorten and thin out to accommodate a higher pitch, but still maintain a "connected" sound (vocal cord closure) and a stabilized larynx.15
The organization also purports that this process cannot be documented because of the following:
Although we now have the ability to look at the vocal cords and see this process taking place, there is still no absolutely definitive agreement on exactly what is happening or what things look like among Ear, Nose and Throat specialists or vocal teachers. Everyone has his or her own opinion. The vocal cords are just vibrating too quickly to get a definitive answer, even with stroboscopy or super slow motion or even stop-action photography. As well as the fact that any process of scoping is an invasive one, and limits the freedom of vowel usage. Because of this we have to rely on "feelings" and judge the process on the sound quality that is outputted.16
Although Riggs has had outstanding success with this approach, ultimately the explanation above does not stand to reason. If the back two thirds of the vocal folds remain closed while the front third is left free to vibrate, it would be evident because of the static position of the posterior portion of the folds during phonation. Therefore, the damped vocal cords would be easy to view. True damping (as previously mentioned) has been noted by several authors and other sources. It has, however, been observed only in the production of very high pitches. Nowhere has it been documented as low as Riggs states. Furthermore, contrary to Riggs's beliefs, the vocal folds can be observed directly using stroboscopy without altering the physical act of singing. If a flexible scope is used, vocal production is not hindered.
Riggs is not alone in supporting this theory. In his popular book, Set Your Voice Free, Roger Love dedicates several pages to explaining this theory in a section called "Meet the Zipper."17 Included is a diagram that shows the process of mixing (or middle voice) which previous discussions of pharyngeal voice claim this approach creates. Interestingly enough, Love's diagram shows the damping effect occurring at the wrong end of the vocal folds and states it occurs because of the buildup of phlegm!
It is easy to see why this controversy occurs about low vocal fold damping, because the claims of such well known teachers are at odds with the studies mentioned on vocal fold damping.
Because this approach is used in so many influential studios (Randy Buescher, Seth Riggs, Roger Love, Brett Manning, among others), yet so little is known about the exercises and application of this technique, the present authors wanted to see if these methods produced a consistently similar result across three subjects and to find the cause of those results. The purpose was not to compare it to other approaches producing similar results, but to define the approach within the school of teaching that uses pharyngeal voice training.
The Subjects and Methodology
Three female singers participated in the study. The first was eighteen years of age and an aspiring singer; the second was twenty and a rather well known singer/actress; the third was twenty-five and formerly a recording artist with a major record label. All learned to employ the pharyngeal voice in both exercises and songs. Multiple subjects were used to determine whether the training had produced a common behavior pattern across subjects and, if so, to describe it on a laryngeal, supralaryngeal level.
First, a KAY Elemtrics 70 degree rigid laryngoscope with videostroboscopy was used to carefully examine the larynx during phonation. This allowed for mucosal wave function to be assessed and structural pathology ruled out. As vocal production is altered when using a rigid laryngoscope and the tongue forced to protrude, a Storz flexible laryngoscope with videostroboscopy was next used. This device was inserted through the nasal passage in order to once again monitor the larynx. Due to its position in the hypopharynx, using this device was also advantageous in that it allowed for visualization of the pharyngeal walls and activity in the pharyngeal constrictors. With this approach, none of the subjects felt that the instrumentation interfered with normal production of the pharyngeal quality. Rather, they reported great ease in vocal production.
The subjects then sang a thirteen-note scale on /ne/ using a pharyngeal quality, increasing the starting pitch by a half step. The lowest notes sung by all subjects was E[musical flat]^sub 3^ and the highest being A[musical flat]^sub 5^ the highest note advocated by those who use this approach.
Finally, all three subjects were recorded while singing a selected song and employing the pharyngeal voice. The phrase chosen was from Arlen's "Blues in the Night" as performed by Eva Cassidy, an artist noted for her use of the pharyngeal voice. To ensure that the examined sounds were produced using pharyngeal voice, the recordings were presented to twenty teachers who use this approach. All agreed that the examples were, in fact, pharyngeal.
As each of the three subjects ascended the scale vocally, we monitored activity in the posterior pharyngeal wall. When monitoring activity in the posterior pharyngeal wall as each patient transitioned from chest to head voice, increased activity in the pharyngeal constrictors was noted. In all three, this began at B[musical flat]^sub 4^-precisely where Riggs claims damping occurs. When subjects were reminded to produce a pharyngeal voice, we observed clear, distinct, and purposeful movement in the pharyngeal walls that altered the vocal tract.
Subject 1 displayed the greatest precision of movement and control over voice production. She consistently demonstrated not only a "straight lined narrowing" of the pharynx, but also a precise inward bulging of the anterior portion of the pharyngeal wall (Figure 1). The photos from Figure 1 clearly show this in her performance of "Blues in the Night." Subjects 2 and 3, displayed a similar pattern of narrowing the pharyngeal aperture by activation of the pharyngeal constrictors to augment the upper register. Subject 2 showed only straight lined narrowing, while Subject 3 showed straight lined narrowing with less obvious anterior bulging. In all three, vocal fold lengthening and thinning was observed, but damping was not. No evidence of pressed phonation was displayed.
Additionally, in certain exercises, the arytenoids and epiglottis moved towards each other to create smaller space above the folds, most likely a result of the pharyngeal constrictors shaping the vocal tract. Sadolin refers to this as twanging.18 While twanging and the pharyngeal voice bear similarities in the function of the arytenoids and epiglottis, the pharyngeal voice seems also to include fine tuned coordination of the pharynx, which Sadolin does not note in twanging. Among all three subjects, twanging was present in the exercises, although to varying degrees. It was not present in any significant manner in the Arlen segment, though, despite observing and hearing the pharyngeal quality.
Because all three singers had received extensive training in the pharyngeal voice, it is reasonable to conclude that the common behavior pattern observed was a result of the training. It was also evident that the use of pharyngeal constrictors helps create a longer closed phase, increasing subglottal pressure, which would be in line with Smith's observations.19 This accounts for the edgy quality necessary for singing certain styles without resorting to pressed phonation. Because of the ability to create a longer closed phase, the pharyngeal voice would also be useful in situations where improper closure is an issue, such as vocal fold bowing, paresis, muscle tension dysphonia, and postoperative posture/gap memory. The study also shows that the pharyngeal voice is truly pharyngeal in nature, in that the trained use of the pharynx helps create the sound and keeps it present even when twanging was not observed.
Concerning previous suggestions of early vocal fold damping in the first passaggio, these findings prove them to be incorrect. As noted in the Speech Level Singing International memo, that theory is based on an analysis of sensation. The present authors would suggest that what singers in a pharyngeal production experience is not a vocal fold based sensation, but pharyngeal. This seems to clearly indicate that teachers cannot come to conclusions about function based on sensation, but have to rely on documented evidence to support their argument.
1. Seth Riggs, Personal conversations, 1997-1999.
2. Seth Riggs, Singing for the Stars (Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing, 1998), 46.
3. Stephanie Ciccarelli, Midwest Voice Conference : Pharyngeal Voice : Description and Application to Pop Music Styles; http://blogs.voices.com/voxdaily/2008/08/midwest_voice_ conference_randy_buescher_steven_sims.html.
4. E. Herbert Caesari, The Voice of the Mind (London: Alma Caesari-Gramatke, 1996), 334.
5. Ibid., 335.
6. Ibid., 337.
7. Lloyd A. Smith, Contrasting sounds in the upper male voice; http://scitation.aip.org/getabs/servlet/GetabsServlet?prog= normal&id=JASMAN0000660000S1000S30000005&idtype =cvips&gifs=yes&bypassSSO=1.
8. Herbert Caesari, 337.
9. Ibid., 77.
10. Seth Riggs, Personal conversations, 1997-1999.
11. Friedrich S. Brodnitz, Keep Your Voice Healthy (New York, NY: Harper and Brothers), plate three.
12. Ibid., 35
13. Willard R. Zemlin, Speech and Hearing Science. Anatomy & Physiology (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), 167-168.
14. Ingo Titze, Normal Vibration Frequencies of the Vocal Ligament; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1552154/#R5.
15. David Stroud, SLSI memo, 2005.
17. Roger Love, Set Your Voice Free (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company), 52-54.
18. Catherine Sadolin, Complete Vocal Technique (Copenhagen: Shout Publishing), 83. 19. Lloyd A. Smith, Contrasting sounds in the upper male voice; http://scitation.aip.org/getabs/servlet/GetabsServlet?prog= normal&id=JASMAN0000660000S1000S30000005&idtype =cvips&gifs=yes&bypassSSO=1.
Randy Buescher is an internationally recognized expert in nonclassical vocal technique. He is also well known as a clinician, author, vocal therapist, and researcher. His clients include stars of major Broadway productions, touring companies, and high profile Chicago companies. He has also worked with artists from virtually every major record label and stars of various network television shows. His clients have won Tony Awards, Dove Awards, Emmys, have been nominated for Grammies, and been American Idol finalists. Based out of Chicago, Randy works a large number of clients and is not only degreed in Music and Mass Media Communications (from DePaul University), but also degreed in Communication Disorders from Governor State University. He has presented, or been a speaker for the Voice Foundation, NATS, Naras, and the Broadway Theatre Project, along with various universities, and other institutions. Randy was recently recruited to be the Singing Voice Specialist at the Chicago Institute for Voice Care at the UIC Medical Center in Chicago. You can learn more about him at www.yourtruevoicestudio.com
H. Steven Sims, MD, is the director of the Chicago Institute for Voice Care at the UIC Medical Center in Chicago. He is a board certified otolaryngologist who chose a career in professional voice care as an extension of his two passions. A graduate of the Yale University School of Medicine, Dr. Steven Sims completed a research fellowship at the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders as well as a clinical fellowship at the Vanderbilt Voice Center. He is also an accomplished musician who plays trombone, bassoon, and piano.
While an undergraduate at Yale University he was a member of choirs and he continues to use the first instrument, voice. His personal experiences and education are employed to address problems of performing artists and other voice professionals. The Chicago Institute for Voice Care is dedicated to increasing awareness of the unique issues faced by performing artists and providing comprehensive care.