Vocal placement is a term used by many singing teachers as a visual aid to teach students about resonance and vocal registers. Some common terms are singing in the mask, place your tone forward, singing from the throat and place the sound in your nose. It is a commonly used metaphor which has evolved as a means of expressing objectively the subjective experience of tone.

There have been teachers who have taken their ideas to extremes. The English teacher Ernest White, who founded the school of sinus tone production, taught his pupils to produce tone as though it were literally, coming from the sinuses, frontal, sphenoid and maxillary and flows down through the body, he firmly believed that the vocal cords were incapable of producing sound. Yet, despite this apparent heresy, he was a successful teacher. His concept of sinus tone production was scientifically wrong, but artistically a very good metaphor. He de-emphasised vocal cord function which is beyond direct control; he removed the gamut of pitch by adopting a horozontal-plane rather than vertical-plane approach to tone production; he taught his pupils to use good posture; to breathe well and the importance of good diction. The English tenor Sir Peter Pears took some vocal lessons from Ernest White's pupil Arthur Hewlitt, in order to find out what the method could offer singers. There have been and are still many others who would say that literal vocal placement is incorrect and misleading. It belongs in the past and should be left there.

The concept of vocal placement is very old. In A.D. 1250, two men John of Garland and Jerome of Moravia identified what they felt were three registers: the head, the throat and the chest, which could be associated with a light - very probably falsetto - voice, medium tone and heavy tone. Their observations were subjective but based on empirical experience. Singers do experience faint sensations of tone in the sinuses which are known as 'Head Voice'; in the throat which is known as modal or 'mixed voice'; and sensations of tone in the chest - the 'chest voice'. Chaucer in the 14th century described the singing of a prioress in the prologue to The Canterbury Tales. 'Ful wel she song the service divyne, Entuned in hir nose ful semely; And Frensh she spak ful faire and fetisly, After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe.'

The first step in the objective study of the voice in medicine and music, was the introduction of the larygoscope in 1854, by Manuel Garcia the Younger. This advance could be seen as the point at which the singing pedagogy becomes objective, since the inventor was a singer and singing teacher, who wanted to study the physiology of the human voice and realised that he could adapt a dental mirror to view his own vocal cords. Garcia had worked in a military hospital, where he was trained by La Rey, one of Napoleon's surgeons, who assisted him in his research into vocal anatomy and physiology. Garcia's methods and exercises were based on a thorough understanding of the vocal 'instrument'; his method covered posture, breath control and diction and the correct use of vocal registers; his research was remarkably detailed and objective in its content. We also know from his pupils that he never made reference to vocal anatomy or physiology in their singing lessons. The method was kept separate from the art. Garcia was in fact the inventor of one of the earliest laryngoscopic mirrors which enabled him to get beyond the epiglottis and make direct observations of the vocal cords.

The invention of modern surgical instruments and evolution of fast speed photography have enabled vocal researchers to understand in greater detail the complex way in which voice is created. We can now state categorically that the voice originates in the larynx; the lower part of a singer's voice, called 'Chest Register', is determined by the tension in the vocalis and arytenoid muscles; the upper part of the voice, called 'Head Register' is controlled by the crico-thyroid muscle, which tilts the thyroid cartilage forward, stretching and thinning the lips of the vocalis muscle. We know that the human voice is produced by a very complex vibratory process.

Singing teachers were constrained by a lack of knowledge of vocal physiology to teach subjectively. Garcia, despite his knowledge of human anatomy never introduced vocal anatomy in to a pupil's lesson. They taught what they knew, from empirical experience, worked and what was expected. Exercises were handed down from teacher to pupil. If a teacher felt that they had the right exercises and technique, then there was no incentive to investigate other approaches. Some teachers developed a strong intuitive knowledge, backed up by enhanced proprioceptive feedback, for what was happening at the laryngeal level and this could be passed on to the pupil. The time proven terms like head and chest voice were sufficient, hence they endured. It was not until the 1950's that vocal researchers were able to prove that the sinuses played no significant part in the propagation of vocal tone. Subsequent scientific data has confirmed this.

Nevertheless. diagrams like those printed in Lilli Lehmann's book 'Meine Gesangskunst', showing vocal placement and vocal registers have endured as powerful metaphors. They have meaning to most singers.


The original diagram shows, in sagittal section, the human face, throat and chest. A treble stave with a scale from A3 to F6 follows the contour of the singers face. Each of the notes is connected via dotted lines to a part of the singer's body. A3 to D4 are associated with the chest and the oro-pharynx. E4 to F6 are associated with the sinuses and the head. The implication is that there is literally a chest and head register and at E4-F4 a 'primo passaggio'.

From an objective point of view this is untrue. The lower part of the vocal register is determined by tension in the vocalis and arytenoid muscles. There is no possibility of resonance coming from the lungs below, which are soft, moist and spongy. The upper part of the vocal register is created when the crico-thyroid muscles tilt the thyroid cartilage forward, stretching and thinning the lips of the vocalis muscle.

It has been shown that a healthy and strong tone will produce very faint sensations of resonance in the sinuses or on the chest. They are only apparent to the singer, but they are helpful because they indicate that the tone is strong and there is no counter-productive tension in the throat. Conversely, a singer who tries not to sing with any nasality, is more likely to develop constriction in the throat which is audible to the listener and not so apparent to the singer! Asking a singer not to sing with nasal tone can have a counterproductive effect because they are more likely to sing with a constricted tone which is somewhat nasal. By getting the singer to focus tone forward 'into the mask' they are more likely to create a free and rounded tone with strong diction. Paradoxically, the tone which is audibly 'nasal' is more likely to be the result of poor support, poor diction and pharyngeal constriction.

The modern singing teacher should be able to teach with reference to objective facts and should have knowledge of vocal anatomy and function. The Estill Vocal Figures reflect this although they are, in point of fact a very elegant presentation of good vocal practice which has been in the public domain for many years.

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Copyright © 2014 Jonathan Jessop.