In this Intelligent Vocalist podcast episode, speech-language pathologist and singing voice specialist Kerrie Obert talks about the concept of twanging as an effective vocal technique.
She demonstrates the subtle uses and varying degrees of twang, and the role of the tongue in creating ring in the voice. She brings attention to what the root of the tongue is doing and how this structure can bring in different frequencies and qualities to the voice.
Moreover, she shares the concept of how necessary tension is to counteract every singer's and professional voice user's laziness during practice or performance. We don't want this conversation to wait, so without further ado, let's get into the details.
A Brief Background
Kerrie holds multiple degrees as a speech-language pathologist and a singing voice specialist. She has done over 20,000 laryngeal examinations at the Ohio State University Voice and Swallowing Disorders Clinic during her career.
She continues to involve herself in massive amounts of voice research. She has put countless singers inside an MRI machine to watch and see the tongue's structures as they make different sounds.
Kerrie has written four (4) books about singing. Her dedication to this research makes her understand the intricacies of twang, which is an idea often misunderstood by many professional singers.
The Concept of Twang
A lot of singers are clueless about the term "vocal twang." What exactly is this, and how can this be related to singing?
The word "twang" comes from stringed instruments, and is used to describe the distinct twang that these musical instruments can produce. During the early 1920s, the term was included in the study of pedagogy. By the 1930s, people started to explore more about this concept, and a definition of twang for the voice emerged.
The twang sound was described as a bright and piercing sound, and not entirely nasal. It was sometimes likened to an American accents. The term was later used in reference to different dialects (like southern accents), and eventually became associated with country music, giving way to the terms like "southern twang" and "country twang."
However, Kerrie teaches us that twang is more like a recipe component that can be sprinkled into anything that you want a little more brightness in, whether that is in operatic sounds, musical theatre, or a contemporary commercial voice. In her own training, Kerrie learned from her mentor that twang was "the brass in Broadway" and "the squillo in opera."
Twang for Weak Voices
As a speech pathologist who clinically handled various voice disorders for many years, Kerrie and her team found applications for using this bright brassy voice quality (vocal twang) for people with weak voices and as a tool for the prevention of voice problems.
Kerrie and her team would scope singers and speakers, anyone who needed an additional boost to their sound, to see if twang could be used as a part of their therapy to strengthen their voices.
After a diagnostic session identified that an individual has a weak voice, Kerrie would have her patient make twangy sounds to see if twang compression helped improve their voice quality. If the twang-like voices helped them get better voice usage, strength, and vocal cord closure, it would be used as a therapeutic tool for them.
The Twang Process
Kerrie had previously been taught that twang was created by a narrowing of a small space right above the vocal folds (or epilaryngeal tube narrowing). However, during the scoping process, Kerrie realized that wasn't what she was seeing when she was asking patients to make a twangy sound. Instead, she saw that there was a narrowing in the pharynx (the space in your throat at the back of your mouth).
Kerrie suggests looking into your mouth with a flashlight while you make an "AW" with a distinct twang sound, and you'll see on the sides of the uvula that the pharynx walls narrow with the correct technique. You can then see the difference by making an "AW" sound with twang and without a couple of times. She recommends an "AW" over any other vowel to keep the back of the tongue from obscuring your view.
While we typically recognize exaggerated twang in cartoonish loud twang-like voices, there is a wide variety in twang strength that can be added to voice productions.
Kerrie explains that there is a whole continuum or spectrum of how much twang we can use and how much we narrow these pharyngeal walls. She calls this lateral to medial narrowing (LMN) since the pharyngeal walls are moving from the sides (lateral) to the middle (medial).
If we add more LMN, the brighter and more cartoonish the sound of your voice will become, like with character voices. If we have less LMN, that is what you will more likely hear used in several vocal genres. Some examples of singers to use this would be a classical soprano, an operatic tenor, and even musical theater voices.
We can use this whole spectrum of sound qualities, but the amount of narrowing applied to one's voice will determine what's perceived as distinct twang because there needs to be quite a bit of narrowing in order for the sound to be identified as twang.
Alongside vocal twang, the tongue can play a vital role in providing a different kind of brightness to the voice. Kerrie explains that pulling back the root of the tongue can give us a sound that has more ring and is richer in tone, and is not as bright or piercing as pharyngeal wall narrowing.
This movement of the root of the tongue is called anterior to posterior narrowing (APN). That is the root of the tongue moving from the front (anterior) to the back (posterior) of the mouth. Kerrie tells us we can hear this tongue effect in voices like Judy Garland.
Extreme Versions of the Tongue Root
Just as we can have exaggerated twang, there are extreme versions of pulling back the tongue root. This is how we can produce sounds like the Kermit the Frog voice, or what Kerrie refers to as a "gangsta voice," which is a fun sound she got from her friend, Bob Stillman, a voice teacher in Manhattan.
A lot of singers might get worried about finding these extreme locations because they don't realize the extent of movement they have available to them.
Kerrie believes that singers have become too fearful of the tongue, to the extent that they don't want to feel any effort at the back of the mouth at all. This excessive concern over the tongue has led us singers to eliminate a lot of sound possibilities.
It is very important for singers to understand why we would do these LMN and APN manipulations. We are essentially narrowing the space above the vocal folds in order to get a boost in our sound.
It is analogous to a cheerleader with a megaphone. Suppose the mouthpiece of the megaphone is too broad. In that case, the sound waves will have to travel far before they are reflected back, leading to a significant energy loss. However, as you narrow, you'll get a boost of energy.
The whole point of this explanation is that there is a necessary element in this narrow vocal tract configuration that can positively and consistently energize the voice.
In regards to these necessary narrowings, the tongue is the most flexible structure that voice users have to work with. This is why Kerrie likes to teach what she calls tongue-centric pedagogy.
This may be over-simplified, but consider that we have:
We don't have a lot of flexibility in these structures, but we can maneuver the tongue in so many different ways. Think of how your tongue can move and the nasal consonants and exact vowel shapes you can produce. We have a tremendous potential to shape and influence the sound of our voice by what we do with the tongue.
The tongue has been constantly overlooked and marginalized, perceived as the enemy. Because of this, voice users kept convincing themselves that the tongue could contribute nothing. But the fact is, the tongue has so much potential to help in shaping the sound of your voice - it is the primary shaper of the vocal qualities that you create.
Professional voice users, such as singers and speakers, tend to forget the essence of this big conglomerate of intrinsic muscles in the middle of the mouth. They use it daily and all day, but their awareness of the tongue is rather dim when compared to the lips and jaw. The lack of understanding can actually lead to many vocal issues.
Thankfully there are exercises to increase tongue awareness for voice users and singers. Here's a rundown of the exercises and essential singing techniques that everyone can take part in:
This course was primarily developed for people who work with different dialects, and they were ahead of everyone in terms of understanding and looking at all the ways humans can use the tongue. Working with someone to speak in various languages and dialects will focus primarily on the tongue and how they're shaping sounds. Kerrie highly recommends picking up the Knight-Thompson Speechwork book.
Looking in a Mirror
Spend time looking in the mirror while putting your tongue in different places. Play around with shapes and positions, twisting and contorting your tongue. Then make an unforced sound, and see how the different tongue positions and shapes affected the sound.
Simply vocalize in front of a mirror and observe your go-to tongue positions. Make note if those go-to positions are helpful or not.
Feeling the Tongue
For sanitary reasons, you can put on a glove or finger cot. Take a finger to feel your tongue, and take note of the following:
• Is the tongue rigid or relaxed?
• What is the tonal outcome with a rigid tongue versus a relaxed tongue?
• If you add more energy to the tongue, does it make your sound better or worse?
The Truth About Tension-Free Singing
Truly tension-free singing is silence. There needs to be a certain amount of tension in order to produce sound. The idea of the tongue needing to be completely relaxed can lead to vocal issues such as a dull tone, slow vibrato, and vocal tremors.
By introducing good tension into the tongue, the voice is more energized, the vibrato speeds up and takes on more shimmer as it moves into a more optimal position.
Kerrie teaches that tension can be thought of as unnecessary effort, but there is a lot of effort that is necessary. Belting out a big, loud, and high note doesn't come for free; you need to exert effort. Everyone must work on certain areas to avoid abusing the vocal function. Find the part where the "effort" is required, so you can focus on these areas.
For example, the tongue is always perceived as the antagonist to the larynx as these two structures are connected. Because of this, these areas consistently play a tug-of-war as they both want to generate the maximum benefit they can provide for the singer. So, to cope with this concern, you need to have that equal energy on both ends to keep things in balance.
In simple terms, voice users, especially singers, need to have enough energy in front of the mouth to match the energy at the back of the tongue, thus complementing the events at the level of the larynx.
Suppose the vibrato is slow and wobbly, sounding like an old person. In this case, you need to realize that there's something in the tongue that isn't energized enough. However, if you get a straight tone and don't have any vibrato, the tongue may be too rigid and it's not allowing enough relaxation, so you would need less energy in the tongue.
The important thing is recognizing that there isn't a one size fits all technique. Instead, it is a dynamic system. Different tasks require different things. So become a flexible singer in order learn how to properly navigate these situations.
Kerrie ends the discussion by reminding everyone to never be afraid of asking questions, especially when something doesn't feel right. We are bombarded with information, and at the end of the day, as the artist, you have to do what feels right to you and what you feel is moving you forward.
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