The “Edge Mechanism”

weaving art crop

In Singing: Personal and Performance Values in Training, Peter T. Harrison quotes Husler and Rodd-Marling and then gives further definition of the “edge mechanism”:

We come therefore to the very heart and soul of the singing voice, the coup de grĂ¢ce, if you like. I refer to fine muscle-bundles and fibres that Husler and Rodd-Marling call the edge mechanism: ‘The fibres … radiate into the outermost edges of the vocal bands (and thus into the elastic membrane that covers the vocal lips). It is these fibres that control in a remarkable way the margins of the vocal folds … The manner in which the muscle-strands are placed, the fact that they consist of longer and shorter strands, that these traverse each other in their course, that they can act separately or jointly, that even single fibres are capable of acting alone, all this means that the possibilities of varying the quality and substance of the tone are almost unlimited … Because these marginal muscle-bundles are, on the one hand, extensions of the main body of the vocal lip and, on the other, provide a connection with the elastic tissue from which the vocal band is formed, they also constitute the necessary bridge between the “chest” and the “head and falsetto registers”; in other words they make a unity of the two “main registers”.’ (Husler & Rodd-Marling, 1976, pp. 23-24) The dynamic coordination of these various laryngeal activities constitutes the … complete voice which is capable of maintaining its integrity throughout the singer’s range. (Harrison, 2013, p. 40)

Harrison mentions the edge mechanism several more times in his book. One passage that has a lot to say about current conventional voice training is in the chapter titled False Perspectives and Misconceptions:

It is the much neglected and elusive ‘edge mechanism’ that effectively minimises breath use to a seemingly negligible amount when singing. Given this efficiency, the singing voice projects naturally – like a baby’s. Developing this economy of means is the opposite quest from the one driven by the notion that more breath, and/or a darker sound, is required in order to ‘get across’. The exponents of bel canto understood well that everything that makes the voice the singing voice is gained through this finely honed centre. (Harrison, p. 83)

The current common advice about a need for “breath flow” can cause one to never be able to experience the edge mechanism! Even a little too much air passing the through the folds will make this fine coordination impossible. Once experienced, the edge mechanism becomes a fine control of the the glottis. It, in effect, becomes “breath control”. It gives a focused, harmonic-rich sound with less overall effort.

Some of the popular pedagogues of our time understand it and encourage its use. Exercises that try to exercise it (or something related to it) have nicknames such as:

  • whimpering puppy
  • nya-nya (and its relative nay-nay)
  • pharyngeal voice
  • quack like a duck
  • cry in the voice
  • boy in the cave
  • the chiaro of chiaroscuro
  • squeaky humming

You will probably not experience the point of these exercises if you insist on a perceivable “air flow” as a desirable trait in your singing. It could be an interesting exercise to attempt to make loud sounds that require a lot of air flow. However, that is not how Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, Roberta Peters, Alfredo Kraus, and Leontyne Price have been able to create exciting sounds into their senior years. If you presently make great big “dark” sounds but have never experienced the small, clear, strong, colorful edge mechanism, you might find yourself in vocal trouble as you age. Even if you refute my arguments for vocal health and longevity, you are missing out on interesting and pleasurable colors in your singing if you don’t develop it.

  1. It will help your soft singing to keep a core.
  2. It will swell to a rich powerful forte.
  3. It will let you make a clear sound with little effort and much endurance.
  4. It will let you vary colors (timbres) more at all volume levels.
  5. It feels amazing.
  6. It “projects” or “carries” well.
  7. It allows you to sing for a very long time on one breath, if needed.

People have reservations about teaching this because, like much voice training, one needs to learn it by making “unfinished” sounds. At first it will be easier with particular ranges, volumes, and vowels, like most new vocal skills. It can be elusive if you are used to “powering through” all the time in order to be heard. It is contrary to to the current fetishism for “loud” sounds that pervades many genres. To cite one example, the “opera sound” has become a strange stereotype, with its dark, loud, uni-vowel tendencies. We hear this in the amateur and juvenile contestants “singing opera” on talent shows, as they try to aspire to the lugubrious sounds coming from our professional singers. “Opera singing” wasn’t always about loud and dark.

Making small, clear sounds, which is necessarily part of the training of the edge mechanism, is something that people overly attached to their present way of singing may resist. It can be very challenging to convince a “big-voiced” singer (especially a young one) that this skill has any merit until he runs into problems. It is tragic and unnecessary to lose a voice forever to “aging” when the body can no longer support an overly forceful, excessively breath-driven approach, but that is exactly what happens to a very large proportion of singers.

The acquisition of control of the edge mechanism is well worth the time it takes. It can be the biggest “Ah ha!” moment of your vocal studies when it first makes sense, and it can serve you for a lifetime of expressive singing.

Husler, Frederick and Rodd-Marling, Yvonne (1976) Singing: The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ.
Harrison, Peter T. (2013) Singing: Personal and Performance Values in Training.

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