© Lloyd W. Hanson 1999
[Re: Smile position]
The recent discussion of the "smile position" verses the "fish mouth" position as methods or procedures to achieve a particular improvement in tone is a good example of attempts to control vocal resonance through external means.
There was a time when it was believed that the phonated sound was bounced off the hard palate and, in this way, projected into the room. A singer was encouraged to "bring the sound forward" onto the hard palate in order to obtain the strongest projection of the voice. In later versions of this same concept the singer was encouraged to bring the sound into the front of the face to make use of the frontal sinuses as methods of projecting the voice. Once such "forward placement" was achieved, control of the vocal tone was done with the lips, cheeks, and jaw position. This is the basis of many well written methods and treatises on vocal technique.
The difficulty with all this is that it is not true. The voice does not bounce off the hard palate to achieve its projection. The sense of resonance felt in any area of the front of the face is a sympathetic resonance and is not a projecting resonance.
The fact of the matter is that the WHOLE of the vocal tract, that is the pharynx and the mouth, acts as a resonance unit that filters the phonated sound and acoustically amplifies the phonated sound. It does this through a very complex series of actions and reactions via reflections of the phonated sound introduced into the vocal tract. It is our shaping of the vocal tract that adjusts and, therefore, controls these action on the phonated sound. Although we very often perceive these adjustments through the sympathetic vibrations in other parts of our body such as the cheeks, face bones, teeth, clavical etc. these perception are only that, perceptions.
The sound does not come "forward" We do not "place" the sound. We make changes in the shape of the vocal tract which affects the manner in which the phonated sound is reflected and dampened within the vocal tract. The sense of "placement" often helps us make these adjustments more accurately but it is still the adjustment of the vocal tract itself that is causing the changes; the "placement" is only a kind of antenna which helps us perceive these adjustments.
Is it really necessary to know all this? I, of course, think it is. For one very important reason. It gives us a more accurate causal relationship between method and phenomenon. If we understand that we are only adjusting the vocal tract we are less likely to apply a procedure that is effective for some to all other singers.
Every human has a slightly different shape to their vocal tract. Some have very wide and low palates while others have very high and narrow palates. Some have very large tongues, others small tongues. Some have very wide jaws, others narrow jaws, etc. All these anatomical varieties that make the human species so wondrously different must be taught a bit differently.
If we understand that vocal tract shape adjustments are the cause of tonal changes then we can proceed with techniques for making these changes in the vocal tract. Periodically such techniques appear as topics of discussion on this e-mail discussion group. Good ! That is as it should be because only with such discussions of these techniques do we discover their commonality and their differences. We find that the boon of one technique to one singer, is the bane to another. Rather than looking for the one correct technique we find that there are many usable techniques depending on the singer.
The only danger in a realization that there is no one correct technique is the possibility that we might become convinced that any technique is efficient and good. That is where a better understanding of the physical phenomenon of vocal production will help us maintain a perspective around which the various techniques can be arranged and evaluated.
We need a core of understanding about vocal production that is not technique centered but phenomenon centered. Such a core of understanding will support technique ideas in all their varieties of expression but will also de-value techniques that are in conflict with it.
Lloyd W. Hanson, DMA
Professor of Voice, Vocal Pedagogy
School of Performing Arts
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, AZ 86011