When I meet a new voice student for the first time, I tell them that first and foremost, we’ll focus on breath and posture. These two elements of singing can take a new student a long way, and even advanced students work on breath and posture.
But once students become relatively familiar with how posture and breathing works for singing, other technical elements of the voice come into play. Most students (and perhaps teachers) think of resonance and registration as big technical issues that should be tackled sooner rather than later – and they are. But we as teachers must not forget a common and easy technical issue to examine and resolve: onsets.
What are Onsets in Singing?
Onsets in singing are how you start a note or phrase: the beginning of sound. Within vocal pedagogy, there are three primary terms to describe onsets in singing: glottal, aspirate, and balanced. Let’s define these terms, and then go on to discuss how these can be thought of in a more flexible way.
Glottal – A glottal onset, also known as a hard onset, occurs when the vocal folds are too closed. As a result, we hear the sound as pushed, forced, or hard. Students who sing with glottal onsets may complain of tightness in their throats. Here is an example of how a glottal onset may present on an “ee” vowel.
Aspirate – An aspirate onset, also known as a breathy onset, occurs when the vocal folds are not closed enough. This is identified by hearing too much air in the sound, or hearing “h” sounds that aren’t there. Singers using aspirate onsets may run out of air quickly. Here is an example of how an aspirate onset may present on an “ee” vowel.
Balanced – A balanced or coordinated onset occurs when the vocal folds are closed but not too closed. The singer with a balanced onset produces an easy sound that does not seem constricted or forced. Here is an example of what a balanced onset may sound like on an “ee” vowel.
The Spectrum of Onsets in Singing
As you may have noticed from the definitions above, onsets are a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I like to think of the glottal onset as “too hot,” the aspirate onset as “too cold,” and the balanced onset as juuuuuust right. However, onsets are not as equal as porridge. Instead, I like to think of onsets in singing on a spectrum, like this:
Glottal ———————————– Balanced ————————————- Aspirate
A student having issues with their onsets may not land entirely on one end of the spectrum or the other. I also find that when I start working with a student on onsets, they tend to dance around the edges of a balanced onset, going back and forth between slightly glottal and slightly aspirate.
Teaching Onsets in Singing
There are a number of exercises you can give a student to teach them how to have a balanced onset, but I like to introduce this topic by teaching students about the spectrum as a whole first. I define the various onsets for them and then have them try each one for themselves. This way, students have a physical and auditory understanding of how onsets work within their own voice.
Once I have established this understanding for students, I’ll choose exercises depending on which end of the spectrum they tend towards. Legato exercises can help the aspirate singer hear the excess air in their sound. Staccato exercises are also helpful for either end of the spectrum, but knowing which vowels to use can be even more helpful.
I find that round vowels like “oo” or “oh” work better for the overly glottal singer as they relax the throat, whereas “ah” and “ee” works better for the student with too much air in the sound as they encourage closure. Remember though, every student will need to know how to have a balanced onset for every vowel, so eventually each of the five vowels for singing will need to be addressed.
As a final note, it’s worth mentioning that a balanced onset may not be required all the time for every style of singing. Some songs or genres encourage more glottal onsets or aspirate onsets at certain times. Others may not be able to completely rid themselves of an aspirate onset at this time, such as young girls or those with a vocal health issue. That’s why I encourage teaching the spectrum approach – so that students know how to recognize and choose the onsets for themselves, but can also default to a healthy balanced onset.
How do you teach onsets to your students? How do you understand onsets in your own singing?