Rethinking “coup de glotte”

starting-block-297655_960_720“Science is great at describing what happens, but you can’t do what happens.” – Stephen Smith, during his master class at the 2016 Conference of the National Association of Teachers of Singing.

Laryngeal tilt, medial compression, singer’s formant, balanced onset – these are all terms with which the voice scientist is familiar. They are things that are observed to happen. But if a singer is trying to learn how to sing better, knowing that these things happen isn’t enough to help his singing. He needs to be shown how to actually sing. “Voice science” should serve the art of singing. Science for the sake of science is interesting and fun for some people, but science in the analysis of performing arts or sports is not the same as teaching someone how to do the thing.

If the teacher hears a lack in a young singer that the scientist would call an “aspirated onset”, he would be foolish to say this person “That was an aspirated onset. Please stop aspirating.” You wouldn’t do that, would you? Of course not. But do you have three ways to tell the student in plain English what you are hearing and why it could be undesirable, and five exercises that might help the onset to become more clear?

Manuel Garcia Jr. brought us “vocal science” in the modern sense, beginning in the 1840s. He dissected animals’ larynxes, looked at vocal folds during phonation with the newly-invented laryngoscope, and tried to include science in his writings about teaching voice. One of the things he observed in a clean start to the phonation is the action of the vocal folds at the start of vibration. He called their coming together the “coup de glotte” and advised the singer to get in touch with it through the beginning of a very light cough. It has been argued about ever since.

I have been playing with the concept of starting with some kind of glottal “click” for years. My students and I have experimented with the spectrum of onsets (sometimes called attacks) from breathy (aspirated) to explosive (pressed glottal). I have found that a singer can clear up much breathiness by having a neat, exact start of the sound, which can be cultivated by going slightly overboard with vocal folds together before they start. I do all of these experiments on the /a/ vowel. They usually can find breathy and glottal attacks right away. From there we can explore the stuff “between”.

Here’s the spectrum we explore: 1) very breathy (strong H start) – 2) breathy (audible H start) – 3) balanced (no breath sound, instant vowel) – 4) slightly glottal (vowel begins with tiny explosion) – 5) very glottal (turbulent noise is heard before the vowel)

For some years I was in favor of having a gentle glottal “click” at the start of the tone, but now I think it is best to dial it back one more notch until the sound starts clean and clear and the note springs into being precisely, but without either click or “H”. Trying to insert a click gets a little too mechanistic, and seems to only have therapeutic uses for a breathy voice, for a time, and then it should be abandoned. I think that some singers might render the coup de glotte with extra movement and friction rather than a spontaneous emission of a free vowel.

I suspect that Garcia’s observation of the folds starting an “Ah” with a very clean energetic onset lead him to believe that the folds should be quickly clapped together consciously, but it seems to me, as with “air flow”, if you can feel it happening, it’s probably too much. It’s too much because it encourages more tension and local effort than is necessary for free singing – in a word, overkill. Coup de glotte may be what happens, but it isn’t what we should consciously try to “do”. Later in life Garcia de-emphasized the coup de glotte, although his influence as a pioneer in scientific inquiry into the voice is undeniable.



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