Embrace Your Inner Duck

“He was always careful to avoid making his pupils self-conscious by too many explanations. In one case he found a simple way of teaching chest-voice to a girl. ‘Do you know how a duck speaks?’ Señor Garcia asked her. ‘Imitate it, please.’

“With much giggling, to which he listened patiently, she tried to obey, ‘Quack, quack.’

“‘Good! Now turn this into a singing note; sing one tone lower in the same manner, and one more.'”

A simple enough device, which spared him and his pupil much vexation.

Mackinlay, M. Sterling. “Garcia the Centenarian and his Times: William Blackwood and Sons.” Edimburgh and London (1908).


Occasionally in voice training the student needs to make a funny noise.

What I think Garcia was aiming for in the above example was firm cord closure in the chest voice. He was ‘short-handing’ the work of the larynx to get to a result in a funny and non-traditional way.

Using ‘temporary sounds’ can provide a quick way to stimulate the voice to find new behaviors and functional realities. Many of the sounds that I use in the studio help the student find a particular coordination or vocal behavior that either does not exist, or has weakened from lack of use.

I have also found that these temporary sounds correlate with the placement (AH! PLACEMENT!) concepts of Yvonne Rodd-Marling and Frederick Husler. While sound cannot be placed (nor vibrations ‘supported’) these sounds can be an effective way of helping the singer find different coordination of the vocal tract and laryngeal mechanism. I do not teach placement but I do teach temporary sounds, which I find a close rapprochement between these two pedagogical concepts. (So sue me).

Some of the sounds that I use on a regular basis include:

1. ‘Dopey’ or ‘dumb’ sounds. This sound reflects the larynx being being drawn downward and maintained in that lowered position. It can be a helpful tool for those singers who cannot sing a rising scale without a commensurate rising larynx. It is also useful for eliciting chest voice function on lower notes of the singer’s vocal scale.

2. Ghost sounds are useful to help find free laryngeal movement over a large pitch range. They can also be helpful to stimulate a vibrato action in a constricted voice.

3. Nasty, bratty, “baa-baa” or quacky sounds (or pharyngeal exercises) can help the student find their chest voice in a strong way, and then proceed connect that chest coordination to the upper register. It is also a great tool to find more presence in the voice without undue WEIGHT.

4. Hooting, owl sounds. These sounds can be a useful assist for working falsetto with an open throat. Since this mechanism by nature is used to CLOSE the throat, working hooty can help the singer find a more open throated resonance adjustment without pharyngeal wall “squeeze.”

5. Smiley sounds, or the ‘voix claire.’ This horizontal, smiling posture (advocated by many writers of the Old Italian school) helps to release back wall tension and gives the singer a different resonance adjustment. For tenors especially, if the chest is too heavy and weighted down it will be very difficult to sing through and above the passaggio successfully.

6. Tall sounds or the ‘voix sombrée.’ This vertical position of the mouth helps the student find a darker sound, as the position of the resonator has changed. This is how I teach the distinction between the two timbres that Garcia described in his Traité.

An important caveat (taken from Husler and Rodd-Marling) should be remembered at all times when introducing and working these sounds. They are NOT the technique, but a means to an end. They DO have a shelf life and singers should not be chained to one temporary sound (or ‘placement location’) for a long time, lest the voice adapts and the usefulness of the exercise is exhausted. It is a process of SPIRAL learning!

Every single ‘focal point’ is identified with different muscle and groups of muscles in the vocal organ, all of which are component parts of a large mechanism; it follows, therefore, that to train the voice properly, each ‘position’ must be practised in turn, until the various muscles are so well-innervated that they require no special attention to function freely.

If the singer practices one particular ‘placing’ exclusively, he over-accentuates its corresponding muscle-system, thereby causing a specialization in the vocal organ that eventually damages it. (That is why ‘technical’ exercises can be far more dangerous than practicing songs or arias.)

In this connection, a word of warning against a very common misapprehension: if a voice has been brought to a standstill in this way, and the teacher changes the manner of placing, he will probably be able to record a success. But if this leads him to believe that he is now teaching the one and only correct position, it means the the pupil’s voice will once again be brought to a standstill, though in a different manner. (This explains the eternal wanderings of some singers from one teacher to another, their constantly renewed enthusiasm and their repeated disappointment.)

Husler, F., and Y. Rodd-Marling. “Singing: The physical nature of the organ.” (1965).