The Attack or Onset of Sound

Many world-famous singers came out or this school of training. Kirsten Flagstad, Jussi Bjoerling, Svet Svanholm, Karin Branzell, and more recently, Birgit Nilsson, among many others. One of the most primary characteristics which make these singers stand out from the crowd is their ability to begin a pitch at the perfect center. Alan Lindquest called this the "perfect attack". William Vennard referred to it as the "imaginary H" and Garcia called it the "coup de glotte".

I have found that in my teaching, it is difficult to explain what creates a "perfect attack". In the simplest explanation, I speak of the vocal cords gently closing directly after inhalation. At this point, the cords begin to vibrate as the "support muscles" in the lower body expand exactly as phonation begins. Often, I have asked the singer to begin the tone with a slight "grunt" at the lower lumbar muscles. This encourages the "perfect attack" to work with the body hook-up. While studying in Stockholm in 1938, Alan Lindquest befriended Jussi Bjoerling. It was during this time that they spent much time discussing different aspects of vocal technical study. Bjoerling explained to Lindquest that it took him approximately four years to master the "perfect attack".

The "perfect attack" must not be confused with "glottic shock". It is very important to draw the differentiation between the two. "Glottic shock" is a situation whereby the vocal cords are "held together" with too much glottic pressure ( an over-approximation of the cords ) and then "pushed apart" with an "explosion of breath pressure". This is very injurious to the instrument. The "perfect attack" is a vocal situation whereby the vocal cords are allowed to gently come together after inhalation. After they relax gently together, they can begin to vibrate as the body expands at the onset of sound. Alan Lindquest often referred to this study as the "sealing of the vocal cords". The breath has already been "compressed" immediately after inhalation, therefore, making it impossible to create "glottic shock".

What is the advantage of the 'perfect attack'? There are several advantages to mastering this vocal function. It creates an immediate access to healthy vocal tone and "resonance". The "compressed" sub-glottic breath allows the vocal folds to simply begin vibrating on what feels like a "pillow of breath" rather than a forced breath pressure. It also allows the acoustical space in the throat to stay open.

It is very dangerous for a singer or teacher to take "cord closure" to the extreme. This can create vocal fatigue, plus encourage the singer in an injurious technique of singing. Joseph Hislop, one of Bjoerling's first teachers, had to constantly remind him not to "go too far" with this concept. Teaching correct "nasal resonance" along with healthy vocal cord closure helps to balance this concept immediately. The healthy balance is a great advantage technically, however, like most vocal concepts, the extreme can be injurious. The breath line in controlled with the body support system, not the glottis.

In my teaching career, I have taught many mature singers who have sung long careers and have suffered major vocal problems due to the absence of this principle in their singing. I have found that in many cases, the singer had simply not "closed the cords" after the act of inhalation. After a short period of "cord closure" exercises, the singer experienced his/her voice as feeling freer and younger. Vibrato problems disappeared quickly and the voice began to vibrate in a healthy fashion. Balance in registration began to develop quickly.

Example: One extreme example of this concept restoring vocal health is in the case of a young Swedish lyric soprano. She had sung for years professionally in opera and was popular on stage and in opera videos. At age 32, she had been forced to give up her career due to major vocal problems. She no longer could sing "in tune without flatting in pitch". There were no symptoms of "breathiness" or "unfocused tone" in her voice. However, very soon I realized that her throat was closed and her larynx was somewhat high in position. It took approximately six weeks for the "opening of the throat" process to occur. Then the actual source of her problems revealed itself. When the throat was open, the singer could only produce a "small and breathy tone". Her past technique had taught her to "close her throat in order to close her vocal cords". Most vocal professionals know that this is often referred to as a "closed-throated technique" or "high-larynxed singing".

It was right after the opening of the throat that we could add the gentle "cord closure" exercises in order to complete her retraining. I used some of the same exercises that Dr. Bratt had used with Flagstad in 1916. The positive result was immediate. She was able to sing two world-premier operas in Stockholm the next summer as a result of only six weeks of this work.

Voice-building experiences like these have been frequent in this voice studio. I often find that many singers sing for years without a solid understanding of what helps to "structure" the voice without "laryngeal pressure".

When Flagstad first auditioned for Dr. Gillis Bratt in Stockholm, he said that she had the "voice of a child". Her vocal cords "leaked too much breath", therefore distorting vocal resonance. She had lessons twice per week with him and within three months her voice had grown to twice its previous size. (Refer to p.48 of Flagstad: Singer of the Century by Howard Vogt)

The idea of "vocal cord closure" is still controversial in most teaching circles today. Instructors tend to be fearful of "glottic shock". This is an understandable reaction, however, if the breath is controlled correctly with the body, it is virtually impossible to use "glottic shock". Sometimes Alan Lindquest would say to me "let the cords speak the vowel". If we hear a person speaking with a "resonant voice" that person is speaking with healthy cord closure, not breathiness in the tone. President Bill Clinton is a perfect example of someone who suffered vocal fatigue due to breathy tone.

In 1979, when I studied with Alan Lindquest, one of my most obvious problems was that my vocal cords did not approximate properly after inhalation. My body did not stay open and in good posture. The body (fuel tank) must learn to stay somewhat open without too much tension. This is the only way the vocal cords can stay approximated properly. He used several concepts, which helped me to realize my full instrument. (1) Feeling the vowel form at the vocal cords, (2) Speaking the words "every orange" to feel the cords approximate in a healthy manner, (3) Speaking the sound "huh-oh" and feeling the cords approximate, and (4) Singing a five-tone using the vowels eh,ah,eh,ah,etc. This change of vowels was taught without the cords leaking breath.

Flagstad said that after studying "cord closure" with Dr. Gillis Bratt, there was hardly a phrase she could not sing on one breath. This was due to the fact that her vocal cords no longer "leaked breath"; therefore the quality of tone could ride on a minimal yet healthy small breath stream. This small stream of breath must travel at an even rate. Sudden changes in sub-glottic breath pressure distort tonal quality and lessen the singer's ability to sing longer musical phrases.

It must be made clear that the breath is NOT controlled at the glottis, but with the body support system. (Refer to articles on breath support and management) Cord closure is only to strengthen the source of vibration, however, tonal and breath control are strictly functions which are controlled by the body support system.