What is phonation?

Phonation is a fancy term for the making of sound. In other words, as soon as the vocal cords come together and air flows between them causing them to vibrate, you are phonating.

What is good phonation?

As in so many areas of vocal technique, the objective is to discover a happy medium between two extremes, ‘pressed’ phonation and ‘breathy’ phonation. In pressed phonation the vocal cords are brought together with excessive muscular effort, and this makes it harder to set them vibrating, so that a great deal of air pressure is needed to force them apart. This results in a forced, shouty quality to the voice, and is very tiring for the singer. The opposite extreme is breathy phonation, where the vocal cords are not brought together vigorously enough, and air escapes audibly between the cords as they are vibrating. The sound is lacking in tone, volume and vibrancy.
The happy medium (“just right”, said Goldilocks) is called ‘flow’ phonation. This occurs when the balance between the muscular activity of the vocal cords and the air pressure beneath them is exactly right for easy, efficient production of high-quality sound.

How do I teach good phonation?

One of the main tools available to achieve this happy state is work on the onset (the very beginning of the sound). The onset should be neither breathy nor glottal (glottal means a cough-like sound at onset which is indicative of pressed phonation). These exercises are important because the way that a sound begins is generally the way it continues. A breathy onset will generally result in breathy phonation, and a glottal onset in pressed, or shouty phonation

Exercises designed specifically for this are included in Richard Miller’s “The Structure of Singing” (10), and students in my studio use them regularly. Over time, coordination between the breathing mechanism and the laryngeal mechanism is developed so that every sound begins in a state of flow phonation.

By means of these exercises, and direct feedback, I endeavour to make singers aware of the quality of their phonation. To obtain the desired result, I subscribe to Cornelius Reid’s principle of using directions as to pitch, vowel and dynamic level. In other words, by choices made by me as to these three variables, we arrive at a configuration of the voice in which continuous flow phonation is taking place. Then, gradually, this state is extended out to other pitches, vowels and dynamic levels. (See “The Free Voice” by Cornelius Reid.) (5)

A good reference work for the anatomy of the mechanisms of breathing, support and phonation is Richard Miller’s “The Structure of Singing”. (10)