December 21, 2016

Seat of Sensation

But in the expirations of breath, what is its course? It comes from the great reservoir, through the trachea (the windpipe), then through the larynx to the glottis, the ligaments constituting the vocal chords; it is then guided by the epiglottis (which is in perpendicular position) to the pharynx at the back (when the musical tones are formed in accordance with its dimensions); it next comes to the uvula and soft palate. 

The sound now proceeds either through the mouth or behind the uvula, through the passages of the head. Now it is just at this point, the division between the two, that the tone of a well-placed voice should seem to be—this is the sensation point, forward as possible—reflected, if I may so speak, by the pharynx (which extends from the base of the skull to the little bone at the root of the tongue). 

This will assure us that the head should not on any account be thrown back. Now, for the voce de petto, the open tone, the uvula and velum palati should be raised, that the voice should come freely and with resonance through the mouth—not drawn back, else a throaty tone would ensue. This open tone through the mouth is capable of great delicacy and should be so cultivated. It should not be confined to loud and robust tones. Great care, however, is needed to find out its true natural limits, beyond which it should never be forced. These limits once well assured, cultivation should be kept within them, otherwise it would be at the sacrifice of the voice. How necessary then for a master to have real practical knowledge of how to treat a voice, if he have not scientific knowledge! 

But for the upper register, the voce di testa, or head voice—not falsetto—instead of the sound coming through the mouth it comes through the cavities of the head. When the sound leaves the back of the throat, that is, the bag of the pharynx, it passes over or behind the uvula, and thus through the passages of the head.

I need not trouble you with any scientific statements as to the power of the trachea to elongate itself, or to contract its dimensions, or to the fact that it falls considerably when the di petto voice ceases, and rises again for the bright tones—the voce di testa. I will simply observe that the seat of sensation of these two productions should be as nearly as possible the same. There should be a note equally attainable from both registers, and it should be in the power of the singer to go from one register to the other and back again while on that note. (In an ascending passage, for example, requiring a note usually taken when alone in the head register, the progression would be improved by that last note being in the same register as the preceding one. This would prevent a sort of anti-climax.) The blending of the two registers here is a point I would urge as an evidence of the right placing of the voice.

When they do not blend the production is usually not forward enough. When it is remembered that only the lower jaw moves in opening the mouth, I am at a loss to find out how it is that some persons throw the head back in the endeavour to reach a high note, when the several organs are in front. The result of this action rather impedes the sound from proceding through the channels of the head, besides straining the muscles generally, and almost leading to the conclusion that a person so acting thought the voice passage and the food passage, the larynx and the oesophagus, were one and the same.

The blending of these two registers by some artists is so well done that it is at times difficult to say which is being used, the open or the "bright," as Braham used to call the voce di testa.

The fact that this upper register voice comes through the head will suggest that the head should incline rather forward than otherwise, the back part of the tongue slightly rising to direct the sound behind the uvula and soft palate and through the cavities of the head; but for the tone generally, the tongue should lie flat in the bed of the mouth, so that the sound should not be impeded. 

Acting in this way with respect to the voce di petto and the voce di testa, the singer will be free from the two great defects of nasal and throaty tone, and, which is a great desideratum, free from fatigue after a good amount of singing.

If, as is the case, some of the greatest physiologists speak with becoming hesitation on this difficult subject, owing to the complexity of the structure and the many functions the several organs of the voice have to perform, your present reader, who speaks with extended experience and close observation, may content himself with giving opinion and judgment (with respect to the production and the placing of the voice) on the ground of sensation, supported by such scientific knowledge as he could master.

Permit me to repeat—that voice is best placed whose excellence is dependent upon its sensational proximity to the uvula and soft palate. Whether the sounds go through the mouth, or through the posterior nostrils by means of the ponticello (the little bridge), the sensation to the singer should be as nearly as possible the same.

Penna, Frederic. "Some Thoughts About Singing," Proceedings of the Musical Association, 16th session,  (1889-90): 41-62.


Penna was a student of George Smart, a British conductor and voice teacher who was steeped in the Old Italian School, taught British aristocracy (he was busy into his 8th decade), coached Jenny Lind in Handelian oratorio singing—his own father having observed the great master at work, and conducted Maria Malibran's last performance before her death. Students of singing will note Penna's insistence on placement at the top of the pharynx, which echoes the teaching of Francesco Lamperti. 

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