Brightness versus Nasality

I can usually tell when I am listening to someone singing CCM who has had only classical training, as there are “telltale signs” in the singing. One of the most blatant is nasality. So many teachers think that making a nasal sound is an end in itself, a destination, and a stepping stone to belting. Wrong. Nasality is a disposal by-product (as William Vennard says) that helps firm up the laryngeal and pharyngeal musculature to make the voice more professional. Teachers who confuse nasality with brightness (ping, ring, point, focus) are doing their students a real disservice, as it makes them sound unnecessarily ugly and it makes it difficult for the student to change vocal qualities since nasality causes tenseness in the tongue and soft palate to be increased.

A bright sound is the result of chest register. (What? Isn’t brightness part of head register?) No, warmth and relaxation (yawn sigh) are part of head register and make the voice appealing and pleasant. Brightness or “sparkle” or whatever other of the many words you want to give this quality, brings out the high frequencies in the vocal tone (the “squillo” in Italian, or the “crying baby” here). It doesn’t make the voice sound nicer but it allows it to be heard easily. (We hear those baby cry frequencies around 3000 hz better than we hear the lower frequencies…..evolution, I suppose. Cavemom could always hear the baby crying, even when she was out with the hunters looking for dinner). If you sing with an active, full chest register quality, even when you go back up to your high notes, they will have more sparkle, regardless of whether or not that’s what you want. Try it and see for yourself. Chest register alone is enough to make the sound bright. To add nasality on top of that is overkill. Making a head register dominant sound nasal will cut down on the “open” feeling, camoflaging the “classical” quality, but it is just that…camoflage, not the real deal. It doesn’t substitute for chest register. Lack of clarity about the functions we are discussing here can cause a singer to be really confused.

AND, in a young singer, particularly a female, who grew up singing in mix, all sounds are some form of mix. What that means is that such a singer can sing a “heady-mix” and a “chesty-mix” but NOT a true isolated head tone or a true isolated chest tone. These young woman think they are in head when they are not. They confuse mix with head because it is the only configuration the throat can do. If classical training is put into such a system, the vowel sounds will never, ever sit in the right place and the resonance will never really be adequate to classical repertoire. Such students will manipulate the voice to try to create “forward” resonance, again by going toward nasality, and that just makes matters worse. If you don’t fix the imbalance before you do the material, you tie up the throat, confuse the singer, skew the singer’s perception of what she hears and feels and spend a lot of time “creating effects” instead of dealing with causes.

Nasality is useful, but it is important to understand what it does and does not accomplish and what it inhibits. Don’t get sucked into confusion about its functions.

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2 thoughts on “Brightness versus Nasality”

  1. Hi Jeanie –

    I always am late catching up on your blogs…no rest for the wicked, I guess.

    As you mention the young singer who sings only in mix and thinks they are really in head register, I can only take note that our two youngest NATS winners in the female college categories this year were deemed best in their categories… and BOTH of them performed their art song/arias in mixed voice! “My, how POWERFUL that young voice is!!” I overheard….hmmmmmm….


  2. OMG. Finally someone reads my mind and puts perfectly into words my voice teaching philisophy. I deal with all sorts of misconceptions that my students bring to my studio and most of them are about this issue. I totally believe in the use of chest resonance and an open throat to gain a perfectly balanced sound – bright, focused and rich!!! Yes yes yes!!! Thanks

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