For the Old Italians, the vocal attack, or ‘onset’ of the tone, was the key to building an efficient vocal tone, and was primary to the voice building process.
Manuel Garcia, II was the first pedagogue to describe this particular vocal phenomenon, coining the phrase coup de la glotte or “stroke/blow of the glottis”. To be certain, it’s an unfortunate term in our time (and his) for its rather muscular and violent connotations. Garcia was aware of this fact when he stated, “My merit or demerit consists in having noticed it and given it a name.”
Garcia lived to be over one hundred years old, and he NEVER backed down from his position on the importance of the glottal attack. And despite all the controversy that swirled around it, and the vitriol that it inspired from some writers (including Henry Holbrook Curtis), he NEVER changed his thinking on this central tenet of his pedagogy.
According to James Stark in his book, “Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy“, the idea of the onset took two separate paths: one was later discredited as untenable, and the other was to mutate the onset into a ‘simultaneous attack’. This onset was the attack that would later come to be known as the ‘balanced onset’ by pedagogues like Richard Miller, or the “Imaginary h” of William Vennard.
There’s only one problem with this: this balanced onset IS NOT Garcia’s coup de glotte as he laid it out in his writings.
Garcia’s idea was that the glottis was CLOSED in advance of the ensuing phonation, “building up air in the passage” so that the resistance to the breath was COMPLETE at the inception of tone, and therefore NO AIR escaped ‘unphonated’. In this way there was no breath leakage. Also of importance to Garcia was that the continuing tone was ‘bound’ to the ‘attack’, so that the phrase would continue in this more adducted – Garcia used the word ‘pinched’ (eek!) – position.
Jenny Lind, Garcia’s pupil, described these maneuvers as a ‘stroke’ and a ‘bind’ to her friend Gusti. I love this idea, actually. That you ‘strike’ the glottis, and then bind the pitches afterwards from that ‘stroke’.
There’s an important thing to remember about this more ‘glottal’ attack of the voice: if you overbreathe and BLOW AIR at tightly adducted cords, you WILL experience the destructive glottal attack that Garcia warned against. This is what he termed the coup de la poitrine or “blow of the chest”. In a properly sung ‘coup de glotte,’ the singer becomes instantly aware of the unnecessary need to ‘tank up’ or OVERFILL the lungs. Breath is already available, and the singer who begins in this way learns that the instrument will become HIGHLY efficient because there is no overabundance of air needed to sing and sustain most phrases. This would give SOME credence to Richard Miller’s assertion that the onset is the key to finding a breath management system.
The bel canto singers were remarkable in that they appeared NOT to breathe, and take in VAST amounts of air. In fact, many sources say that the secret to the bel canto schooling was to sing on ‘as little air as possible’. I don’t think this means that we DON’T breathe, or starve the voice of air – but it does point to the importance of the proper “start” or “attack” of the sound as being central to finding an aerodynamically efficient method of singing.
image of Jenny Lind, as she appeared in 1849.