Vocal terminology that could use an update: Placement

Placement can be a strain

Placement can be a strain!

Certain terms that are traditionally used in teaching voice have unfortunate connotations that can trigger undesirable vocal habits. I’d love to propose a new way of referring to the registers, for example, as there are so many potential traps in misunderstanding the terms chest voice, head voice, and falsetto. But—for better or for worse—after centuries of use, these terms now form our common language of vocal pedagogy. We’re stuck with them, even if they have come to mean different things to different people and even if they keep many singers mired in misconception.

Right now, though, I’d like to talk about placement. Placement is indeed a legitimate concept; understanding it is crucial to singing well. But the word misleads! It seems to be asking us to do something—to place a note in a particular place. What’s more, we really get ourselves (and our students) into trouble if we decide that we know where that place is.

Placement is actually a kinesthetic illusion: a note seems to be centered in a particular place in our body (or outside it), depending on the pitch. Of course, every note actually comes from vibrations of the vocal cords, which are always in the same place. But when we sing different notes well, we do feel vibrations or sensations (or just get a particular feeling) in various different places. (By the way—and this is so often not acknowledged—where I feel the sensations is likely to be different from where you feel them. It’s a highly individual thing.)

Here’s how it works:

  1. Sing a note well.
  2. Feel where it seems to be resonating: That’s the placement!

It doesn’t work if you reverse the steps:

  1. Place a note somewhere.
  2. It will be well sung.

(Sorry, no.)

Every note you will ever sing has its own requirements for placement, depending on factors including pitch, volume, vowel, desired timbre. You could never memorize all the permutations of these factors and place a note in the appropriate place. Luckily, you don’t have to! When you sing well, each note will place itself where it needs to go.

Our responsibility as singers is to allow the placement of each note to go where it wants. We can get skillful in noticing what our voice is asking for and allowing that to happen. Please don’t interfere with the inner wisdom of your voice by trying to place tones where you think they should go.


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