“Friendly Compression”

That’s the term I use for Manuel Garcia’s coup de glotte. The terminology and wording of Garcia’s theory of glottal closure caused a firestorm of controversy in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The misunderstanding of it as a glottal plosive frightened many teachers, theorists, and voice doctors from that time to the present day.

Henry Holbrook Curtis derided it as “death to the voice”, and partnered with the De Reszkes, Jean and Edouard, to spread the terror of it throughout Europe. Of course, their versions, according to Blanche Marchesi, were highly exaggerated and not at all what Garcia intended.

Garcia’s wording on the exercising of the coup de glotte was ‘delicate’. It was a gentle closure of the glottis, not a ‘brutal pushing of breath’ ‘fit only to tear the glottis, not to rectify and regulate its movements.’

It is necessary to prepare the stroke of the glottis by closing it, which stops and momentarily accumulates some air in the passage; then, much as a rupture operates as a means of relaxation, one opens it with an incisive and vigorous stroke, similar to the action of the lips in pronouncing the consonant [p].

For author James Stark, the coup de glotte was a prephonatory setup of the instrument as well as a continuance of the tone in that particular firmer, ‘clamped’ (his word) arrangement.

Mathilde Marchesi is also in agreement with this idea as well when she wrote:

‘the glottis must be closed an instant before Expiration commences; in other words, it should be prepared’

From a breath management perspective, an efficiently adducted mechanism gives the tone a lower flow of air across the glottis. The result is that the singer needs less air for singing, not more. Numerous accounts of Old Italian School singers and authors speak of the fact that singers ‘scarcely breathed’. Visual perceptions of bodily breath were completely invisible. An effectively strengthened adductory mechanism would need less breath to bring the vocal cords into vibration.

You never saw her breathe – there was none of that heaving up and down. I remember thinking one evening during a performance, ‘I’m going to find out how she breathes.’ She as sitting on a bench and I had my arm around her – including a wine gum in my hand to give her when she got thirsty! – and I decided to feel how she did it. She just started singing – she went straight into it. And I thought, ‘She hasn’t taken a breath!’

Constance Shacklock on Kirsten Flagstad

Palmer, Andrew. Divas–in their own words: fifty sopranos and mezzo-sopranos talk about their voices and careers. Vernon Press, 2000.

Garcia’s coup de glotte is not only the onset, it is also the continuance of the tone with friendly firmness. This would lend credence to the wording of Jenny Lind (also a student of Garcia) who remarked that tones should be “struck” and “bound” together. This suggests she understood the idea behind the firm start of the sound, and the ensuing firmness of the tone. The pitch was ‘struck’ with the coup de glotte, then ‘bound’ to other tones in a phrase of music. For Garcia, a student was to exercise the coup in glotte in the first lesson, otherwise they hadn’t been taught properly.

…when singing, on one occasion, with Rubini, in the Matrimonio Segreto, he [Luigi Lablache] held the great Tenor’s hand in his own, during a passage in the famous duet, and, at the same time, looked him full in the face, without being able to detect the act of breathing in the least degree…triumph of consummate art.

-Frederic Lablache on his father’s account of singing with Rubini.

Shakespeare, William. The art of singing: based on the principles of the old Italian singing-masters, and dealing with breath-control, production of the voice and registers, together with exercises. Vol. 1. O. Ditson, 1905.

In modern times, we recognize only three forms of onset: 1. soft, or aspirate, 2. hard, or glottal, and 3. balanced. None of these three forms of onset reflect Garcia’s ideas on the start of the tone. 

In my studio, I work with singers on ‘friendly compression’ through something I refer to as a ‘stingy hum’ with the mouth closed. It has the quality of a ‘squeaky door’ which must be done gently and with as little extrinsic muscle participation as possible – only the adductory muscles should be active and the throat relatively free and relaxed. The scale is usually some kind of gallop figure over the interval of a fifth, later expanded to the Rossini scale of an octave and a half.

Garcia wrote in Hints on Singing:

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.

So that’s why I start all coup de glotte work with a closed mouth. The purpose is not to ‘blow breath’ against tightly adducted vocal cords. In fact, the maneuver can demonstrate to a singer the least amount of air needed to sing. From the Traité:

The rush of air, however, that is escaping through the half-open orifice, will be quite perceptible, and will give the sound a veiled character, at times extremely dull; this is frequently the case with the falsetto; we may hence conclude, that brilliancy of voice results from the entire closing of the glottis after each beat. Economy of the breath is another advantage derived from this complete closing of the glottis.

Some students refer to them as ‘vocal push ups’ because they build in a gentle way the adductory muscles of the larynx without ‘pressure of breath’. They are not user friendly, nor do I want students practicing them outside of lessons, where they will be likely to blow air against a tightly adducted mechanism. Students with whom I work in the exercise gain a true ‘ring’ of the voice, and an ease in register transition that is more efficient and less ‘pressured’. The ease with which high notes can be taken also attests to the effectiveness of firm glottal closure (without SQUEEZE, I might add).

The additional benefit of the exercise is awareness of shifts in the registration. If the mechanism is not allowed to adjust through the passaggio, a resultant tightness and strangulation of the throat will follow. This choke should not happen in any vocal exercise.  If the singer tries to ‘pull’ the lower register or mechanism up into the passaggio, this exercise will expose it right away.

To close, I’m going to include Garcia’s admonitions on the coup de glotte in his own Hints on Singing.


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3 thoughts on ““Friendly Compression”

  1. Thanks so much Daniel! I appreciate your response.

    I neglected to mention that in some students I borrow Bassini’s approach and use the consonant/vowel cluster “sca”, to give an intro to the CDG as well.

  2. Excellent! Well researched and written!
    Incorporating glottal starts–properly executed (clean, firm, but gentle, with the least compression of breath) is very effective in establishing efficient, complete, chiaroscuro timbre. It even stimulates palatal lift and seal. I also use a glottal suction exercise, in which inhalatory effort under a closed glottis sucks the larynx down from below, opening the throat without any tongue involvement (this also seems to lift the palate). It strengthens glottal closure safely. A gentle glottal phonation immediately afterwards is then well set up.

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