The Stroke Of The Glottis

The coup de glotte, translated as "stroke of the glottis," refers to

the manner in which a note should be attacked. This matter of attack

already has been covered by inference many times in the course of this

book. For, as the effectiveness of vocal attack depends upon the way in

which the air-column strikes the vocal cords, it follows that the advice

constantly given and in accordance with which the entire vocal tract of

/> the singer should adjust itself as if by second nature to the tone that

is to be produced, each time places the cords in the correct position

to receive the stroke of the outgoing air. It does away with all danger

of the "audible stroke" which occurs most frequently on the very open

vowel-sounds, when the air reaches the glottis too late and is obliged

to force its way through, the result being a disagreeable click; and it

also obviates the defect from the opposite cause, when the air passes

through the glottis too soon and results in an aspirated sound, an H

before vowels, the voice, for example, emitting "Hi" for "I".

Mackenzie remarks on these points that the great object to be aimed at

is that no air should be wasted or expended improvidently; that just

the amount required for the particular effect in view must be used. Too

strong a current tends to raise the pitch, a result which can be

prevented only by extra tension of the vocal cords, which, of course,

entails unnecessary strain. Again, the air may be sent up with such

velocity that some of it leaks through before the glottis has time to

intercept it; or with such violence as to force the lips of the chink a

little too far apart. In either case so much motive power is thrown away

and to that extent the brilliancy and fullness of the tone are lost. The

coup de glotte, or exact correspondence between the arrival of the air

at the larynx and the adjustment of the cords to receive it, is a point

that cannot be too strongly insisted on.

"The regulation of the force of the blast which strikes against the

vocal cords," says Mackenzie, "the placing of these in the most

favorable position for the effect which it is desired to produce, and

the direction of the vibrating column of air, are the three elements of

artistic production. These elements must be thoroughly coordinated--that

is to say, made virtually one act, which the pupil must strive by

constant practice to make as far as possible automatic." Extend this

admirably expressed paragraph to the entire vocal tract instead of

limiting it simply to the vocal cords as Mackenzie does, and it covers

the problem of attack. It is not only the vocal cords that should set

for the tone at the moment the air-column strikes them, the entire vocal

tract takes part in the adjustment that prepares for the attack. It is

indeed, as Mills says, a case of complex and beautiful adaptation.

Therefore, the term coup de glotte imperfectly expresses what the

modern physiologist of voice means by attack. For coup de glotte

conveys the idea of shock, hence creates an erroneous impression upon

the mind of the singer. It is spontaneous adjustment, and neither shock

nor even attack, that creates artistic tone.

"Voice and Song," by Joseph Smith, expresses very well the combined

psychical and physical conditions that should prevail at this important

moment. To be certain of a good attack, the student should first think

the pitch, then, with all the parts concerned properly adjusted, start

breath and tone simultaneously, striking the tone clearly and smartly

right in the middle of its pitch. The book also describes the three

faulty ways of attack: (1) the vocal cords approximate for the

production of the tone after the breath has started, resulting in a

disagreeable breathy attack; (2) the glottis closes so firmly that the

attack is accomplished by an extraordinary explosive effect or click;

(3) the vocal cords seek to adjust themselves to the pitch after the

tone has started, and produce a horrible scoop in the attack. One of the

worst faults in singing, the tremolo, is due to that unsteadiness of

attack which results when the relationship between the breath and the

laryngeal mechanism is not maintained--when the vocal tract has not been

adjusted in time to the note the singer is aiming to produce.

Another writer who has a correct conception of what occurs at the

important moment of attack is Louis Arthur Russell, who says that the

musical quality of a tone is due, 1st, to its correct starting at the

vocal cords; 2d, its proper placement or focus in the mouth after

passing through the upper throat, etc.; 3d, its proper reinforcement

through resonance and shape of the mouth cavities; and 4th, its support

by the breath. While this seems to describe four successive adjustments,

they are so nearly simultaneous as to be one. This is clearly recognized

by Mr. Russell, who says further, that what he has described implies

that the body has been put into condition and that everything is in

order, alert, responsive and ready for the call of the will; that the

whole body is in singing condition; that everything is in tune, and that

the one tone wanted is all that can ensue. The last is especially well

put. Everything has been made ready--psychically and physically--for the

production of artistic voice, and nothing but artistic voice can

result--no click, no aspiration, no tremolo, no wobble.

The vocal tone in its passage strikes against the walls of the vocal

tract. That part of the tract upon which it last impinges before issuing

from between the lips determines the placement of a tone. The singers

should think of the tone as focussed upon the front of the hard

palate--behind the upper front teeth at about the point where the roof

of the mouth begins to curve down toward them. If the tone is placed

further forward than this, its quality will be metallic; if too far

back, throaty. To impinge the tone near the nasal passage gives it a

nasal quality, a fault most common with the French, acquired probably

through the necessity of singing certain French words--bien, for

example--through the nose. When, however, the French speak of singing

dans le masque, they should not be understood as implying that tone

should be nasal in quality, but that it should be projected both

through mouth and nose and not unduly through either. As a rule, nasal

placement should be avoided by all but the most experienced singers, and

even by them employed only sparingly and only for passing effects in


The individual formation of the lips would seem to have much to do with

their position in singing. Some singers advocate a lip formation that

O turned sideways] like an ellipse. The former represents the lip

position of Nordica, the latter of Sembrich--so that, as I have said,

it is largely a matter to be determined by the individual. But the singer

who uses the elliptical position must guard against exaggerating it, as

it then results in the "white voice," another frequent fault of French


After all, the final test of tone-production, tone-placing and

position of the lips is the quality of the tone produced; and this is

determined at first by the sensitive ear of the skilful teacher, and

eventually by the trained mental audition of the pupil. The old

Italian singing-teachers have been greatly praised because they are

said to have reasoned from tone to method and not from method to tone.

Those who praise them thus, usually intend their praise to be,

incidently, a condemnation of anything like a scientific method of

voice-production. In point of fact, however, the modern physiologist

of voice-production is not an advocate of too fixed and rigid a

method. He, too, proceeds from tone to method, and he goes even

further for his tone than did the old Italian masters. For whereas

they began with the tone as it issued from the singer's lips, the

modern physiologist of voice-production begins with the singer's

mental audition--with the tone as the singer conceives it and to which

his vocal tract should automatically set or adjust itself even before

the breath of phonation leaves the lungs.

With the beginner, the attack should first be performed on the easy

singing notes of his voice; and although this book does not aim to be a

singing-method, but rather a physiological basis for one, it may be said

here that a, pronounced as in "ah" and preceded by l--that is to

say, lae--makes an admirable vowel-sound and syllable on which to begin

training the voice. The vowel-sound alone is too open. An absolutely

pure tone can be produced upon it, but it will lack color. It will be

a pure tone, but otherwise uninteresting. With the consonant added, it

obtains color and gains interest. Voice is indebted in an amazing degree

to the consonants. Sing the phrase "I love you," and put the emphasis

on "you," which, for practical purposes, is a pure vowel-sound. The

emotional vocal effect will not be nearly so great as when the emphasis

is put on "love" in which the vowel o is colored by the consonant l.

This can be explained physiologically. All vowels primarily are made

in the larynx by the vocal cords. The coup de glotte really is

the process of vowel-making without the aid of consonants. This process

of vowel-making is so smooth and open that a succession of legato

vowel-sounds can be produced with only one stroke of the glottis, the

vowel sounds flowing into each other, or each, seemingly, issuing from

the other. Consonants are formed within the upper cavity of resonance,

the mouth, some by the tongue alone, some by the combined action of

tongue and lips. Voice-color being largely determined by the

resonance-cavities, the articulation of consonants in the resonance-cavity

of the mouth covers the open process of vowel-formation and gives color

to the resultant word and tone. Thus, when "love" is sung, although l

is not a strong consonant but one of a small group called subvocals,

it is sufficient to cover and color the open o production.

The easy singing range of each individual voice usually is about

identical with the pitch of its possessor's speaking voice. Training

should begin with the highest tone of the easy singing range. The reason

for this is that the higher tone requires a certain muscular tension

which places the singer, so to speak, on the qui vive to the

importance of the task before him; whereas the greater relaxation on the

lower notes might cause him to regard the problem as too easy. At the

same time the higher note, still lying within the easy singing range,

does not call for a strain but simply acts as a spur.

Kofler gives six examples of easy singing ranges for as many

voice-divisions, and adds to each the qualification "more or less," thus

allowing for differences in individual voices. His easy singing ranges

are as follows:


Soprano: G4-E5 More or less

Mezzo-Soprano: E4-D5 " " "

Alto: D4-C5 " " "

Tenor: E3-E4 " " "

Baritone: C3-C4 " " "

Bass: A2-A3 " " "]

Reference having been made to vowels and consonants, it seems proper to

add at this point something about diction in singing. The interpretation

of a song is tone-production applied to the emotional significance of

words. There seems little reason to doubt that the old Italian masters

sacrificed many things, clarity of diction included, to beauty of tone.

This they placed above everything. True, beauty of tone is the first

essential of artistic singing, but it is not the only essential. If song

is speech vitalized by music, then speech, the words to which music is

set, has some claim to consideration. In fact, the singer's diction

should convey the import of the spoken word with the added emotional

eloquence of music.

Indeed, even some of the earliest Italians recognized this. Caccini,

at the beginning of the seventeenth century, broke away from the

contrapuntal music of the church because it made the words unintelligible.

Tosi, who published a vocal method in 1723, a little less than a century

and a quarter after Caccini's declaration, still insisted on the

importance of clear diction. "Singers should not forget the fact," he

wrote, "that it is the words which elevate them above instrumentalists."

But with the introduction into Italian music of florid ornamentation,

which of itself made the words more or less unintelligible, they lost

their due importance, until, as many an old opera-goer still can

testify, a tenor like Brignoli could, without protest, habitually

allow himself the liberty of substituting "la" for the words on all

high notes and phrases, simply because he found it easier to sing them

on that syllable. At song recitals, the words of the songs often are

printed on the programmes. Printed translations of words sung in

foreign languages serve an obviously useful purpose. But when an

English-speaking singer prints the words of English songs on his

programme, it virtually is a confession that he does not expect his

hearers to understand what he is singing to them in their own

language--so rooted in singers has become the evil of indistinct

pronunciation. Their songs are songs without words.

However, there has been an improvement in this respect. The old-time

opera libretto was so stupid that Voltaire was justified in saying,

"What is too stupid to be spoken is sung." But with Wagner the

importance of making the words clear to the hearer was recognized, and

since his works have established themselves in the repertory of the

operatic stage, and modern opera composers, following in his footsteps,

have striven to write music that would express the dramatic significance

of the words to which it is composed, the art of libretto construction

has greatly improved, and composers demand that the singer shall convey

to his audience some idea of what is being sung.

Similar progress has been made in song-composing and song-interpretation.

Just as the Italians formerly strove mainly for beautiful tone-production

without much thought of the underlying word or phrase, so song-composers

strove for beautiful melody--for music that was satisfying in itself,

whether it suited the verbal phrase or not. Now, as in opera so in song,

the relationship between words and music is recognized and the importance

of combined verbal and musical phraseology is insisted upon. Formerly,

interpretation was a matter of emotion only. Now, the intellectual

process, the intelligence that discriminates, the thought that justifies

the singer's emotional expression as that fitted to the words, are

weighed in the balance. Consequently the word must be clearly pronounced

by the singer. Vowel enunciation and consonant articulation--pronunciation

being a combination of these two processes--must be distinct, or rather

should be distinct, since there still is much fault to be found with

singers in this respect.

Much has been said, especially by American singers, about English being

a poor language for song. I think this is a survival of the time when

song instruction in this country largely was in the hands of foreigners,

mainly Italians. Naturally they preferred their own language, and

naturally they failed to appreciate the genius of English. It is true,

as Kofler says, that the Italian language presents few difficulties to

the singer. In it, pure vowels predominate and consonants are in the

minority, and even then many of these consonants are vocal, while the

hard aspirates of other languages, especially German and English, are

unknown to Italian lips. But that which is easier, by no means is always

the most artistic. Ease rarely leads to depth. And this ease of

pronunciation may account for a lack of dramatic grandeur and vigor in

Italian and for the Italian's method of tonal emphasis and vehemence

of gesture. "The German or the English artist has no need for such

extravagances, because the immense richness of these languages--the

great variety of vowels and the vigorous aspirated elements--gives to

his utterance a dramatic freshness and force which are life and nature


"The English language is probably the one that has been described by

foreigners as the most unfit for singing. Greater calumny has never been

uttered. I contend for just the opposite: That English is the very best

language for an artistic singer to use, for it contains the greatest

variety of vocal and aspirate elements, which afford an artistic singer

the strongest, most natural and expressive means of dramatic reality.

The English language has all the pure vowels and vocal consonants of

the Italian; and, besides, it is full of rich elements, mixed vowels,

diphthongs and an army of vigorous aspirates. I admit that it is not

as easy for singing as Italian is; but just here its true merit and

advantage arise. The difficulties thus forced upon the singer compel him

to study deeply and perseveringly; but the treasures thus unearthed and

placed within his reach will amply repay for hard work. My advice to

American students is: Study your own language thoroughly, and practise

its difficult articulation with the utmost fidelity. If once you find

the application of its forces to dramatic expression, you will like it

for singing as well as I do. But never forget that the appreciation of

a science comes only from a thorough mastery of it."

The truth of the matter is, that each language has its own peculiar

genius for song, and that a vocal composer unconsciously is under the

influence of his native language. Italian music is as smooth as the

Italian tongue; French music has the elegance of the French language;

German the ruggedness of the German; and the music of English composers

also partakes of the characteristics of the language. The highly trained

modern singer should be a linguist as well as a vocalist. As for the

amalgamation of the spoken word with the sung tone--that again is a

matter of unconscious adjustment of the vocal tract; and, not to word

and tone separately, but a single adjustment to what I may call "the