It’s always best to start at the beginning…

One of the things I have discovered in my own singing is the adage from Garcia that ‘all control of the tone is lost as soon as the cords become vibratile’.  What this means to me is that if the start of the tone is not correct and clear, then whatever comes after it is invariably of a poorer quality.

For Garcia, the coup de glotte was the foundational exercise that set up the vocal mechanism for pitch making. In Garcia’s teaching, the cords were to be closed entirely before the tone was begun. This is NOT Richard Miller’s ‘balanced onset’ or ‘simultaneous attack’ as it is taught throughout the United States. Jean Baptiste Faure compared it to a finger plucking a string. It was central to Garcia’s pedagogy, and he described it as similar to the lips of a horn player.

To find the proper coup de glotte I have students use an affirmative “Mm-hmm” or “Uh-oh” to find a gentle coup de glotte. As Garcia states in “Hints on Singing”:

[the glottis] needs only the the delicate action of the lips and not the impulse of air. The lightness of movement is considerably facilitated if it be tried with the mouth shut.

This shutting of the mouth is important because its very easy to find the coup de glotte at first with the closed mouth. I think that’s because the sound is SO similar to vocal gestures of negation or affirmation. It’s easy to imitate a “Huh-unh” or an “uh-huh” with a coup de glotte.  Students can practice gentle coup de glotte in this way with little strain or effort.

There are several valuable lessons here of course. The first is the fact that there is not an ‘impulse of breath’ as Garcia describes it. So the singer is achieving a more adducted vocal cord setup without blasting more air.  Many singers who have been trained in breath, breath and more breath will demonstrate very loud voices that are veiled, or fuzzy on one side and squeezed on the other. In an attempt to make MORE sound with breath, they miss the more aerodynamically efficient ability of the vocal cords to properly resist the air. This less-air is more idea was mentioned by Battistini when he remarked, “I take no more breath to sing than I do to smell a rose.”

Battistini’s quote speaks to a high level of glottal efficiency. The system, balanced amongst all its parts (motor, vibrator, resonator) consumes less oxygen not more, and therefore the singer has the feeling that they have more ‘breath-control’ without stressing direct breath control maneuvers.

Once the singer has a grasp of the “closed mouth” coup de glotte, Garcia recommends using Italian vowels [a] and [e] as in the words alma and sempre. The purpose for these two vowels is to ‘bring out all the ring in the voice’. Garcia is stating in an indirect way that the ‘ring’ or ‘squillo’ or ‘ping’ in the voice comes from the approximation of the vocal cords, rather than concepts of resonance.  This is very much in tune with the Old Italian School of singing – that the EFFECT of proper closure of the cords was the CAUSE of more brilliance in the tone. This is an important distinction to make.

Another vowel which the singer may find useful in vocal cord adduction is the vowel [ae] as in the word cat, bat, mat, rat or sat. This vowel can be very helpful for finding the ‘perfect attack’ of the tone with correctly adducted vocal folds. Then slides on fifths and octaves can be attempted.

Another highly effective aid to getting greater clarity in the tone is to take an EVER-so-brief pause at the top of the inhalation, BEFORE phonating. This allows for a split second of mental focus on the desired tone, and then start on short scales or single tone [ae]s. If the tone is NOT clear and ‘ringing’, then the setup has not been correct, and the singer should start over.  I often find in my own singing that if that FIRST instant of sound isn’t clear, nothing that comes after it is of any functional value. ALL control has been lost.

The ‘breathe-wait-sing’ idea can be a very helpful to habituate the singer to clearer inceptions of tone  – as long as the wait period doesn’t become a HOLD or a GRAB. The wait period is literally less than a second. The singer should get into singing as soon as possible, without too much fussing about.

If the reader is interested in more information on the coup de glotte, James Stark’s book Bel canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy is a terrific place to start.