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Accurate Vocal Onset

The vocal onset, or beginning of sound, has a huge impact on the rest of the musical phrase. An accurate onset can only happen when the vocal tract and breath mechanism are correctly aligned, and it sets up those same structures to remain that way throughout the singing. Conversely, a poor vocal onset is indicative of a bad setup, body-wise, and it's virtually impossible to correct this problem in media res.

In parish choirs, the most common type of poor onset I've encountered is what I call the Doom Scoop (because when I hear it, I know that musical phrase is doomed). It can happen on any pitch, although it usually seems to occur in the middle and lower ranges of the applicable voice part. I've also noticed that it frequently happens when the phrase begins with a vowel, or with the letters "R" or "L".

The Doom Scoop happens when the singer begins on a note slightly below the true pitch, and quickly scoops up to the correct note. It doesn't necessarily sound terrible; the real issue is what the scoop usually indicates about the singer's listening ability, as well as the position of the soft palate and vocal folds — crucial components of proper vocal technique. I say "usually" because it is possible to scoop up with proper technique (although I've never encountered Orthodox liturgical music that calls for this).

The listening issue is often the most difficult to fix. When a singer scoops unintentionally, it's often because they aren't accurately hearing the target pitch — actually, the correct term is audiating, which means hearing a pitch in one's head. This does not mean the singer has a bad ear. Many "scoopers" develop this habit because they have difficulty grabbing the starting pitch from the director, so they begin to sing on note they believe is in the ballpark, and wait for the sound to "snap" into proper tuning. When this is the case, the remedy is simply to rehearse beginning various musical pieces from the director's pitches. (Note to directors: it's important that the singers understand your approach to pitching and know which pitch is intended for each section. It's equally important to give pitches at a volume the choir can hear. More on this in a separate upcoming post.)

The scooped onset is often accompanied by a closed glottis — the space between the vocal folds. In a correct onset, the order of events is as follows: the soft palate is raised and the singer breathes in through an open throat, followed simultaneously by supported exhalation and glottal closure (so the vocal folds vibrate as the air passes between them). In a poor onset, inhalation often occurs without first raising the soft palate, and exhalation doesn't happen until after the glottis is firmly closed.

This second type of scooped onset requires a more complex fix, preferably with singers practicing at home throughout the week. They need to understand the proper order of events descrbed in the previous paragraph, and then practice repeated onsets on a vowel of choice. The best vowel to begin with is "oo" ([u]), because that vowel naturally encourages an open throat, a low, relaxed larynx and a raised soft palate.

Specific exercise recommendations will follow shortly in a separate post. Stay tuned!

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