Definition: a glottal stop occurs when the vocal folds come together so tightly that no air can escape.
I’ve been exploring the question of line/phrase/flow/legato in earnest for the better part of a year now, trying to tease out the principal elements that confound singers when it comes to this primary expressive element in music. One thing that I’ve noticed is what I’ve begun to call the “glottal phrase pop”, so named because of it’s place within a phrase. It’s easy to notice, because of the telltale decay that precedes it. Listen to most singers, and you’ll hear their vowel decay in strength prior to the following consonant. I’ve been aware of that for years, but the glottal phrase pop is something that came to my ears recently.
The hypothesis goes like this: some combination of a loss of breath pressure, a change in vocal tract shape, and/or decreased adduction causes the vocal folds to have to work harder to maintain energy, and eventually leads to full glottal closer in order to reenergize the next consonant/vowel combination with a forceful reopening.
I’ve found that singers become aware of this process most easily when they are asked to speak the words, lengthening the vowels into the following consonants so as to energize the consonants. But there’s another challenge, in that we actually need glottal stops to create some vowels and consonants. Therefore, singers also have to explore the basic creation of words, noticing when and where those glottal moments need to occur, and when they don’t. Once they start to hear the decay/pop combination, they are more likely to make the kinds of phrase connections that will lead to the expressive qualities the music calls for.
Do this for a few notes in a row, and your stability is gone. If everyone around you does it too, the sound is disjointed and/or cacophonous. Instructors often comment on the decay. We don’t, however, tend to address the destabilizing elements causing the decay, or the aggressive glottal reboot that allows for the decay in the first place. If we take away the crutch of the glottal stop, we allow the voice to connect more smoothly with less effort.
Using glottal stops when they aren't necessary is like regularly kinking a hose.
Laurel is a consummate professional singer, always ready with her music, visually connected with conductors, music memorized more often than not, sounds integrated into her body, etc. Yet, she and I have regular discussions about how uncomfortable she is singing with many conductors. There’s something about the physical controlling element of the gesture that compromises her sense of line, and so she ends up trying to ignore most of us, and she’s certainly not alone. It hit me recently that the glottal phrase pop is a rhythmic element often directly connected with a conductor’s gesture. Many conductors that I’ve witnessed spend the vast majority of their physical energy on the ictus, and whatever happens in between seems to be left to chance.
What does that create?
Regular pops followed by predictable decay. It’s as if the singer, asked to respond to the powerful physical gesture of the conductor, but unable to intuit anything but intermittent points of attack, has devised a mechanism for reflecting that prominent element. In effect, the conductor’s hand is down the singer’s throat. Singing with a piano offers the same percussive influence.
But what’s to be done when singers must rely on conductors and pianos so often?
These leaders have to be aware of the limitations of their percussiveness, and work to maximize on the space between attacks so as to support the singers in their own sense of connection. For myself, as a singer, when I became physically aware of the glottal phrase pop sensation, my sense of stability, timing, tone quality, etc., improved, leading to a new level of confidence.