The Balanced Voice – Part 2: The elements of balance

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In my first post in this series I talked about why I’ve been reflecting on the ideal sound of my imagination, and how the idea of a balanced voice has emerged as the primary organising metaphor to describe what I desire. Today I’m going to look at a variety of different dimension in which this metaphor plays out. It won’t be exhaustive, in the same way that imagination is never exhausted, but it will take the metaphor into a number of different modes of experience.


The source domain for the concept of balance is physical experience, and so it makes sense to start here, where it applies literally.

Tone Bianca Dahl talks about physical balance in three dimensions – she refers specifically to conductors, but as is usually the case, what makes a good physical set-up is the same for both director and singers. The first two dimensions are left/right, which is readily checked visually, and front/back, which you can check by alternately standing on tip-toe and bending your knees. If you are centred, these actions won’t make you topple over.

The third dimension, top/bottom, is perhaps already metaphorical, even while it still refers to the body, as it refers to the relationship between the two halves of the body, rather than the whole body’s relationship with gravity. It also draws attention to how balance in the body isn’t merely a matter of position or symmetry, but also one of muscular engagement. A lot of problems that singers (and conductors) encounter can be ameliorated by increasing engagement in the lower body and decreasing it above the waist.

Once you’re talking about muscular engagement, then the literal meaning of balance becomes a matter of balancing energy and relaxation. This is where physical experience becomes a metaphor – dealing with concepts rather than objects – and is ready for transference it all kinds of other domains.

But before we leave the physiological world, it is worth noting that another of the ways through which we experience energy/relaxation is the interplay between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Over-dominance of either of these impairs singing; balance between them helps it.


Vocal tone is like flavour – individual people (ingredients), ensembles (dishes), and genres (cuisines) have their own distinctive characteristics that set them apart from others, but those sonic/gustatory identities have the capacity to be wonderful, ordinary, or unpleasant according to how well they combine the various qualities that contribute to the whole. Spectrographic or chemical analysis will reveal the precise composition of that whole, but adjusting that mix is more readily achieved in practice by finding the balance between the primary experiential elements.

In cooking, we’re balancing salt/sweet/sour/bitter and adjusting umami levels to create flavour. In singing we’re balancing the relative of volume of fundamental and overtones to create timbre. We do this via descriptors such as ping/richness, brightness/depth, twang/space – the first two of which are clearly metaphors to describe sound, while the last indexes elements of vocal technique as well as their desired effects.

Balance’s synonym of poise also has this quality of referencing sonic qualities and physical technique at the same time when applied to the vocal folds and their relationship with airflow. SOVT exercises are all about balancing the air pressure either side of the larynx to help the folds hover over the airstream with a clean contact such that we hear via a regular wave-form without noise in the sound.

As I am only halfway through my analytical list of elements at this point, it looks like this is going to be split into two posts. I did say that this is a metaphor that keeps giving…

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