How to Achieve a Coordinated Vocal Onset

Starting Vocal Sound With Ease

The importance of the first note of a phrase cannot be over-emphasized. Like speed and feet position determines how high an ice-skater can jump, a lot of physical preparation goes into a proper onset of vocal tone.

Posture and Inhalation: Before creating good vocal tone, a singer should stand with their feet, knees, hips, shoulders, and ears aligned with their chest high. Take a deep breath, where the stomach goes out naturally during inhalation.

Above all, breathing in should feel relaxed. Avoid overfilling the lungs.

Breathy, Glottal, and Coordinated Onsets: Three types of onsets of sound are common. The breathy onset creates an aspirated “h” or “wh” before the initial sound and lacks energy. The glottal onset creates a frog-like sound before the beginning of the sung tone and sounds tense. A coordinated onset is unnoticeable. The first sound heard is the sung tone.

Vocal Cords During a Coordinated Onset: The vocal cords completely close with the beginning of the exhaled breath creating a free tone without any preceding noises. If vocal cords close after the breath is released, a small puff of air escapes creating a breathy onset. If they close before the breath is exhaled, the onset is glottal.

Practicing Opposites: One way to find a balance between a breathy and glottal onset is to practice both. First practice the breathy onset by taking a deep breath and singing “ha.” Let a large amount of air escape as you sing the h.

Now take a deep breath and sing “ha” again. Repeat several times. Notice how your throat and mouth feels when you sing with an aspirated onset. Mine feels dry. Are there any other sensations you notice in your body? I feel light-headed and tire quickly. The next step is to initiate the tone with a glottal onset.

The glottal stop, where the vocal cords close and air pressure builds before opening the cords creating a frog-like tone, is naturally produced in English before vowels in speech. Say the word, “egg,” notice how the sound starts. Pick several words that start with a vowel, “actually,” “accentuate,” “igloo,” etc. Now take a deep breath a sing “ah” with a glottal stop preceding it. Take another deep breath and do it again. Repeat the practice several times. Notice the way your vocal cords feel as opposed to the breathy onset. My cords start to tire quickly, but do not dry out as in the breathy onset. I feel my stomach engaged while producing a glottal onset and sometimes when the sound is particularly forceful my neck and shoulders start to tense. Practicing how not to sing onsets first makes it easier to find a balanced and coordinated onset.

Practicing a Coordinated Onset: After singing a breathy and glottal onset and noticing how you feel during each, take a deep breath and while focusing on finding a middle ground between the two sing “ah.” One way to think of a coordinated onset is to imagine imploding rather than exploding air through the vocal cords during vocal onset. Practice until you feel you have achieved a coordinated onset.

Now note how you feel. For me, it feels more like a glottal than breathy onset. My stomach engages at the onset of sound in the same way. On the other hand, my body always stays relaxed and my vocal cords never tire.

Dramatic Considerations: Be aware there are times a singer may choose to start a sound breathy or with a glottal for expressive reasons. For instance, in Angela Lansbury’s rendition of “The Worst Pies in London,” from Sweeney Todd there are several moments she adds glottal onsets not only emphasizing her cockney accent, but disgust and frustration as well. The act is a choice, which is clear, because she demonstrates lovely coordinated onsets within the same song. Having the ability to choose is what good vocal technique is all about.