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Complete Vocal Technique

Breathing, Support and Phonation Threshold Pressure

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After my last blog post I got a question about support and breathing so I thought I could write a bit more about it. First a disclaimer: I'm trying to balance between being specific and clear so probably I will fail miserably in both.

We all know that air flowing out of the lungs is needed for the vocal folds to start vibrating (of course you could produce sound by inhaling too but let's leave that out for now). In order to keep the vocal folds vibrating the airflow must be kept up. Phonation threshold pressure (PTP) is the minimum subglottic pressure needed to keep the vocal folds vibrating. If the pressure stays under the threshold there is no vibration. PTP is affected by the fundamental frequency and also the amount of adduction and stiffness of the vocal folds as well as the shape of the vocal tract (see eg Titze 2000).

In singing the PTP is changing constantly. So the suitable pressure to make different sounds is changing. Let’s make it a bit more simple and think what happens if we produce one long tone in one pitch without changing the quality. We need both a constant subglottic pressure and vocal fold setting. Because the air is flowing out while we sing the lung volume diminishes too. You can perceive that around chest and abdomen. Singers have been observed to have different strategies on whether the chest or the abdomen goes in first. Anyway it’s simply not possible to keep them both extended while singing a phrase. The pressure would drop too low.

It doesn’t matter much how exactly you produce the necessary pressure as long as you do it. Because singers are different there are probably many viable training strategies. There are two that I advice to avoid though. First one is trying to keep the whole torso expanded which will lead to insufficient pressure. The other one to avoid is to tense muscles suddenly. That will often lead to subglottic pressure first increasing and then decreasing which will probably have an effect on the sound quality and pitch.

Things that are utter nonsense can work as learning tools for singers. I come up with all kinds of images when I’m teaching. Often they prove to be useful. However, I always remind that they are just that, images. They don’t represent how things actually work. So even if I said earlier that you shouldn’t keep your torso expanded thinking about doing it might actually work in some cases.

breathing out

While on the subject I’ll give a little critique on how support is presented in Complete Vocal Technique. Cathrine Sadolin describes support as if holding back the breath (Sadolin 2018). The idea is that after we have inhaled our lungs want to let the air out. We should work against this urge by engaging our abdominal and back muscles. I guess this could be true in theory if we would only sing until our lungs reach their resting volume. You can find your resting lung volume by inhaling and then letting your breath out with a relaxed sigh. You will find that it is possible to exhale even after that. In order to do that we need to engage our abdominal muscles. Those muscles Sadolin describes as support muscles (which would mean that according to her they hold back the breath).

I believe that the muscles of both inhalation and exhalation should work together from the beginning of a phrase so that we can better regulate the subglottic pressure. More intensive phonation and higher fundamental frequency require higher subglottic pressure. PTP is higher and vocal folds won’t vibrate if the pressure stays too low. I find it pretty logical that muscles of exhalation can assist in controlling the pressure.

So what is holding back the breath if not support muscles? That is vocal folds (adduction and stiffness I mentioned earlier). For this reason I think it’s useful to include vocal fold function when training “support”. In practice this could mean doing the same exercise several times and changing the focus between laryngeal function and support muscles.

So PTP is changing depending on the pitch and intensity. This means that also the intensity of the muscle work to produce the pressure is changing. I believe that if there is an option of achieving the artistic expression with smaller pressure change you should aim for that. I have some interesting observations about this, one from the study I did together with Johan Sundberg (Sundberg et al 2017). However, I’ll write more about them later.

This post got a bit too long as it is but I’m happy to continue discussing the subject in the comments. Next weekend I’ll be heading to London to attend the conference ‘Towards Best Practice: Teaching Singing in Higher Education’. I’m going to write a more in-depth post about it later but you can tune into my
Facebook and Instagram for some real-time updates.

― Ville ―

Sadolin C. (2018). Complete Vocal Technique mobile application. Complete Vocal Institute.
Sundberg J., Holmberg A., Bitelli M., Laaksonen V. (2017). The "Overdrive" Mode in the "Complete Vocal Technique": A Preliminary Study. Journal of Voice.
Titze I. (2000). Principles of Voice Production. Iowa City: National Center for Voice and Speech.

I'm Not a CVT Teacher Anymore

Man on a top of a hill looking down in the valley

Ok, I am still an authorised CVT teacher. It means I graduated from the 3-year teacher course at the Complete Vocal Institute and have attended an update seminar during last three years.

So why the subject? I think that calling myself a CVT teacher is not entirely accurate and truthful anymore. I use so many methods and tools that I have developed myself or picked up elsewhere which are not related to CVT in any way. I don't want to mislead anyone to thinking that this part of my teaching would be CVT. Also, calling myself a CVT teacher isn't representative of the full scope of my professional skills. Of course, I haven’t abandoned everything CVT. I use what I think works well and there’s a lot. For example effects, how they are organised and their teaching methods are pretty clever and most comprehensive I've seen so far. However, nowadays I’m able to help singers much better and more efficiently in my own unique way.

Vocal modes and their vowels rules as well as separating them from sound colour form a nicely simplified model. It is easy to understand for beginners. However, I don't think it’s enough for ambitious teachers. Having studied theory and function of the singing voice and having done research with professor Johan Sundberg I have learned to understand the background of the model in a much deeper way. I understand now better why it works and why it doesn’t sometimes. And for those occasions it doesn’t work I have more tools now. Most of the theoretical information might not be useful for a singer but it helps me to provide them with better informed and more efficient teaching.

Previously I avoided taking credit when I did a good job and would credit CVT instead. Now that I think it might not have been beneficial to be that humble. Could it have been that I did well because I was skilled in applying the technique? The way my teaching has changed has been a process fuelled by constant studying. It has been difficult to notice the change because it hasn't been sudden. So I've come to realise that I should be proud of my skills and what I know as a teacher and not hide it. Maybe I have something unique to give to the vocal pedagogy community. Something that others can learn from too.

So I guess the bottom line here for singers and anyone looking for a teacher is that if you want to study strictly CVT you should pick someone else than me to teach you. However, if you wanna get best possible tools for you vocal development I could be a good choice.

And for singing teachers, vocal coaches and anyone interested, I hope you start following my blog. I'm going to write about how I have reorganised the vocal modes and sound colour in my head. I'll discuss why many technical instructions can be pointless. I'm also planning to write about vocal tract acoustics and resonance and share my observations and ideas about pedagogy, motor learning, embodiment and expression. Stay tuned!

If you have any comments, please write them below. All ideas are welcome!

— Ville —