More on the Pharyngeal Voice

I thought I’d throw in a couple of historical connections regarding the pharyngeal voice.

The first person to coin the actual word in print was Edgar Herbert-Caesari, but he also acknowledged in May 1950 in the Musical Times that there was no such thing as a pharyngeal voice. (Semantics, semantics!)

Herbert-Caesari asserted the idea came from the Italian term voce faringea and was taught to him by Riccardo Daviesi. According to Herbert-Caesari,

The discovery of the pharyngeal dates back about three hundred years (c. 1650) and was employed by church tenors all over Italy. Subsequently, it was taught by all exponents of the old Italian school. Riccardo Daviesi, my singing teacher in Rome, was the greatest Sistine Chapel ‘contralto’ of the nineteenth century.
Herbert-Caesari goes on,
When properly developed, either as a natural gift or as a result of considerable exercise, the pharyngeal mechanism dovetails perfectly into the basic or chest mechanism-just like gears and can be engaged in exact percentages at the will of the singer; at the same time he can also introduce small percentages of falsetto if he so wishes. The quality of such mixed tones is remarkable. The falsetto by itself is a windy, anaemic, stupid tone; mixed, however, with goodly percentages of pharyngeal it becomes a living entity. In tenors (not in female voices) the pharyngeal is inclined to be ‘ steely’ in timbre; but when it is mixed with a small percentage of falsetto we get a highly attractive tone-a glowing centre with a softened rim, and of great carrying power. The so-called chest voice, when mixed with well-balanced percentages (according to the pitch) of pharyngeal, acquires brilliance, quality, and carrying power.
Rather tellingly, Herbert-Caesari credits the neglect of the pharyngeal voice to Gilbert Louis-Duprez. Duprez is considered (perhaps apocryphally) to have sung the first do di petto, or high C from the chest in Rossini’s opera William Tell.
The breakaway from the aforesaid tenore di grazia tradition was initiated by the French tenor Duprez; credited with being the first tenor to sing all head notes up to C with unmixed chest, his ‘ Do de poitrine ‘ (high C in chest voice) became famous; but his success was short-lived. Rossini shed tears when he heard him in 1837 in ‘William Tell’ because ‘ poor Duprez won’t last long’. Duprez gave up singing when he was about forty. Panofka, celebrated teacher of singing in that period, wrote of ‘ Duprez’s brute force in singing ‘ and said that in imitating Duprez and his new method tenors ‘engaged in an athletic contest with their voices, and subsequently sopranos, to compete with these new tenori di forza, were obliged to force their voices beyond the normal’. That was one hundred years ago. Today, the universal wobble is a symptom of forced and bad production everywhere.
Herbert-Caesari’s pronouncements are worth lengthy consideration by voice teachers, as they do suggest a pedagogical historical “bifurcation” in training the upper voice. But that’s a post for another time.

Continuing on, we might ask if there are earlier connections to this pharyngeal voice in historical writings?

I believe there are, and I’d like to dive back into the past and see if we can find some answers.

In his book Misurgia Vocalis (1836) Isaac Nathan describes a particular quality of voice that he calls voce di finte, or feigned voice. It is very important to know that the term existed PRIOR to Nathan but he clarified his definition,

I am aware that the falsetto is considered a feigned voice – but the quality of the sound to which I allude is not that which is produced in the throat, and already distinguished under the name falsetto; nor is it the voce di testa.
Nathan asserted that the two registers of the voice had to be joined through ‘il ponticello’ or the little bridge, and that this joining of the registers
cannot be accomplished without the aid of the feigned voice, which may be justly considered the only medium or vehicle by which the falsetto can be carried into the Voce di petto.
So, if we can understand Nathan’s particular definition, we may have a technique of voice training that connects to the Old Italian School of Singing. For that, I looked at the writings of one of the earliest Italian Masters, Pierfrancesco Tosi. His definition of the voce di finte mirrors the wording of Isaac Nathan 93 three years before:
Whoever would be curious to discover the feigned Voice of one who has the Art to disguise it, let him take Notice, that the Artist sounds the Vowel i, or e, with more Strength and less Fatigue than the vowel a, on the high Notes.
The selection of these vowels [i] and [e] is telling, because they are the same vowels that were advocated by Nathan as well as Herbert-Caesari.

In our modern times, pedagogue Cornelius Reid in his Dictionary of Vocal Terminology (1983) defined the term as follows:

The term “Pharyngeal Voice” was coined by the twentieth century Englishman E. Herbert-Caesari to describe the tonal quality that results when the falsetto is in the process of being transformed into the head voice. Herbert-Caesari accurately believed the so-called “pharyngeal voice” to be the combined product of a special type of vocal fold formation and a “tuned” oropharyngeal resonance adjustment.
Reid connected the dots between Tosi, Nathan, and Herbert-Caesari:
The concept of the pharyngeal voice as formulated by Herbert-Caesari would seem to be identical with the ‘feigned voice’ described by Isaac Nathan in his Misurgia Vocalis, and is quite clearly a device for combining the two register mechanisms, the chest register and the falsetto. Pedagogically, the development of the coordinated falsetto or “pharyngeal voice” is most desirable, since the combined activity of the register mechanisms significantly reduces the amount of energy needed to produce the upper tones, greatly enhances vocal flexibility, and ultimately leads to upper tones of rare freedom and beauty.
Today, we know the pharyngeal voice mainly through the teaching of Los Angeles pedagogue Seth Riggs, who worked with Tito Schipa, Helge Rosvaenge, John Charles Thomas, and Robert Weede. Through his work teaching, pharyngeal voice training has gone into studios throughout the country and has been especially adapted for training in popular music styles.

In his book Singing for the Stars (1985), Riggs doesn’t use the term pharyngeal voice but does describe the sound as a “high larynx exercise”. He asserts that the sound is aimed at coordination of the air and muscle at the level of the vocal cords, in order to connect the chest and head voices together as a functioning unit.

It’s important to note that Riggs used pharyngeal voice training in conjunction with low larynx exercise as well. His cyclical approach to high and low larynx mirrors an approach advocated by Frederick Husler and Yvonne Rodd-Marling in their book Singing: The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ (1965). Husler and Rodd-Marling were some of the first writers in voice pedagogy to explain the importance of vertical laryngeal height through discussion of the suspensory mechanism or ‘elastic scaffolding’ – the extrinsic muscles of the larynx that inspan the larynx.  For them, the larynx had to be exercised both in high and low positions, but only as way to innervate and strengthen musculature of the singing voice, not as an end result.

One of Riggs’s pupils, Randy Buescher, a Chicago-based voice teacher, has written on the pharyngeal voice in the training of the female pop singer. His article, written with Steven Sims, is entitled “The Female Pharyngeal Voice and Theories of Low Vocal Fold Damping” and was published in the September/October 2011 Journal of Singing. Buescher conclusions were that:

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. 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.
Speaking as a voice teacher and singer, I have found an enormous benefit in using the pharyngeal voice. I agree with Herbert-Caesari, Reid, Nathan, Tosi, and Riggs in its usefulness. It has helped my students find a connected sound from chest to head and vice versa. I have also found it helpful in eliminating weight out of a too-robust chest voice. It can be sung at various dynamics, and this also helps the singer to understand the connection of the registers.

Finally, Herbert-Caesari’s description of its usefulness as an exercise sum it up nicely:

1. The full messa di voce in its purest form (on the tenor’s high notes), starting from a pinpoint pianissimo and developing with perfect graduation through crescendo to forte, and back again with graduated decrescendo to pianissimo.

2. The half messa di voce, i.e. (a) a graduated CRESCENDO from piano to forte, or (b) a graduatedDECRESCENDO from forte to piano.

3. Greatly facilitating the production of, and strengthening the tenor’s high notes.

4. Creating perfect attacks, particularly of the tenor’s high notes.

5. Revitalizing the vocal cords (of all voices possessing the mechanism).

6. Correcting the tremolo or wobble, in tenors, sopranos, mezzos, and contraltos.

7. Rehearsing, as it saves the wear and tear of constant repetition of high notes that is so fatiguing to the tenor’s normal or basic voice.

Spontaneous Action in a Voice Lesson

The buzzword of the past couple weeks in my studio has been spontaneous.

This can be difficult for some singers who are married to a certain way of making vocal sound. They often have a tough time “letting go” of a way of doing something because they are (often erroneously) attached to an incorrect aesthetic conceptualization of their own voice.

What does spontaneous mean?

Here are some WONDERFUL definitions I grabbed from the dictionary:

  1. coming or resulting from a natural impulse or tendency; without effort or premeditation; natural and unconstrained; unplanned.
  2. arising from internal forces or causes; independent of external agencies; self-acting.
  3. growing naturally or without cultivation, as plants and fruits; indigenous.
  4. produced by a natural process.

I absolutely LOVE every single one of those definitions, because they also describe a way of working on the voice that accords with its Nature. This is that wonderful hallmark of the Old Italian School!

A singer that is self-conscious will usually prevent spontaneity in their vocal approach. They are often overly rigid, and psychologically and pedagogically dogmatic. They have dug in their heels with the way that they sing, and have ‘armored’ themselves into ‘their’ sound.

A self-aware singer is open to all possibilities, understands that the act of singing is a process, and are not constrained by intense judgement of their work in the studio.

When a student is faced with a stimulus in lessons (an exercise that combines some combination of vowel, volume, and pitch) they can react in a habitual way (which can be useful for unlocking further muscular entanglements), OR they might surprise themselves by letting go to see what ‘shows up’.

Often in lessons I will say, “Let’s just see what shows up – no need to judge anything.” BOY – does that relieve a singer from a need to ‘make’ a sound in a certain way, or work to impress me!! One student said to me, “I just want to make you happy.” My response to her was, “There isn’t anything you could do that WOULDN’T make me happy! Everything that you are doing is teaching me, too!”

So let’s get down to singing:

We start to do an exercise.

Let’s say it’s a nasty nay, or a hooty oo above middle C.

And you don’t like it.


Until you actually try something, you really can’t have an opinion of it. Much like a book you haven’t read, or a meal you haven’t tasted, or a movie you haven’t seen, judging something beforehand will lock down your spontaneity and freedom of movement in singing.

You can’t claim to have freedom of musical communication unless your options of interpretation open up into a MYRIAD of directions, NOT ONE. If there is only the ONE and ONLY way of doing something, how is that artistic? The goal of becoming a creative artist is to get all the crayons in the box, not just 64. More paint, more options, more color, more choice. This is bad because…???

Many students who come from a classical vocal tradition resist exercises based in function because they tend not to be ‘beautiful’ right away. They throw them off their axis, as Seth Rudetsky so comically says. As I say many times, and will continue to reiterate – Beauty is a by-product of a correctly functioning vocal mechanism. It is an EFFECT of a functional CAUSE. Peter T. Harrison in his book on singing has a whole chapter on this very idea, which is worth a read. Cornelius L. Reid as well remarked that,

the benefit to be derived from a healthy coordinative response is that it provides absolute spontaneity of expression…The singer then becomes able to express what he has to say the way he wants to say it, not the way he has to.

My job as a teacher is to unlock, liberate, and free the voice in front of me for the widest abilities possible. This IS the bel canto school. Can you sing fast/slow, loud/soft, high/low? If not, you have a limited palate of options as an artist.

Aesthetics and tonal judgement can be a slave master to the singer, and freedom is the enemy of a slave master. Break the chains! Follow the freedom train and drop your judgement. Try a new exercise and see what shows up.