Last year, I wrote a paper dealing with vocal onset and how studying it is of utmost important in a singer’s development. I have not lost my conviction that vocal training must spend a, what may seem, inordinate amount of time on onset.
For clarification, when I say “vocal onset”, I mean the actual start of sound coming from the throat. A number of simultaneous actions take place that allow us to produce our voices, and learning about and mastering these at the moment sound starts or onset is important for a singer’s development.
In approaching onset, a few things must be considered:
- There will be a great deal of frustration and impatience.
- The singer (and teacher) should, so to speak, sweat the small stuff.
- EVERYTHING goes into onset (breath, attitude, resonator tuning, etc…)
- Both singer and teacher must be fully present in the moment to figure this issue out. It happens fast, like a gunshot, and once it is gone, then it’s gone. The vocal line that follows is the direct result of the quality of onset and cannot be taken back. It is either enjoyed or a cause of suffering.
- There is always more to learn.
As to the last point, my last lesson was about “gripping” at the moment of onset. I tend towards having a subtle and (as my teacher says) “pretty” grip in my voice. However, it is really not necessary, and it limits what I can do with my voice.
So we worked on using yawn sighs up to pitches, much like Sprechstimme. Simultaneously, I was told to hold my tongue with my fingers in front of my mouth and pay attention to any possible yanking sensation and eliminate it. Once this was comfortable, I was then instructed to cleanly arrive on the pitch at the moment of onset.
This in turn let my voice actually grow in size and warmth while allowing me more flexibility. It became more profound as I practiced it more, and it felt easy on the voice. In fact, it felt like a balm on my voice.
How we spotted “grip” in my voice at onset:
- There was a loud cut-off grunt when phonation ceased.
- There was a slight sensation of a ‘click’ when sound began.
- The “chiaroscuro” was slanted one way towards brightness though it could go either way.
- There was a sense of controlling in my throat.
- I felt my throat.
With most new students, onset problems usually fall into more obvious breathy or glottal plosive categories. When I work with these students on onset, I tend to use Richard Miller’s exercises from The Structure of Singing with a variety of vowels and voiced consonants to come at it from different angels. I also insist that they use a metronome since it often points out problem areas within a voice, and a student can therefore make the adjustment him/herself. These exercises are best practiced regularly in short bursts because they can be frustrating (see note above), but they have been very helpful in clearing up voices.
Craig Tompkins says
Ian, I just discovered your site via MTH. With your permission I’d like to use some of your writings and ideas with my own students. I especially like the list of things we can do in addition to practising! So many music students at college/conservatory get caught up in the practice/attend class/practice cycle that they forget the importance of eating well, exercise, sleep and friends!
Looking forward to more interesting and useful posts!
for us lay people, when you say onset, do you mean ‘warm up’?
A very interesting peice. I do also wonder how the onset really affects the pitches that follow it. Is it possible to control pitch and such before air even comes out?
Ian Sidden says
Yes. It’s called prephonatory tuning. It is something that a singer becomes better at over time because a lot does go into it, such as:
1) Sub-glottic breath pressure (the glottis is where the vocal folds reside, so this is the breath pressure level before the air interacts with the folds).
2) Adjustments of the length and thickness of the vocal folds.
3.) Resonator tuning (pronunciation on a slightly bigger scale).
If you are thinking about the pitch you will need to sing, your throat will make most adjustments it needs to unconsciously. You can try this in front of a computer. Think about yourself singing a pitch, and just pay attention to what your throat does in response. Of course, some pitches are harder than others, but they will get better over time.