Floaters and Floating

Among the more interesting natural voice characteristics which occur in young singers is the phenomenon known as ‘floating’. It is found in lyric and leggiero sopranos, occasionally mezzos, and consists of the innate ability to lighten the voice for quiet high notes and suspend them in spell-binding pianissimi. Because of this ability, ‘floaters’ are often amongst the most successful of young singers at college and in the early years of the profession. If, in addition to being natural floaters, their voices are beautiful as well, they are strong frontrunners in the race for all the roles in the theatre which require young women. Thus, at any one time, there are many floaters amongst the leading light lyric, soubrette and lyric coloratura ranks of the profession. One might say that their natural ability, which for many has been an attribute since childhood, gives them an enormous advantage over their peers, particularly over those among their number blessed – some would say cursed – with larger, clumsy, or even dramatic voices. However, within a few, brief years many of the rising stars of yesterday will have disappeared, superseded by a new generation which will not only have replaced them, but will have exactly the same characteristics. Of course, market forces – the desire for novelty – will be one reason, but there are others. And one of them is technical.

When anyone who has had no training sings higher, the larynx rises. Exactly the same thing happens for rising pitch in speech, which is why both screaming and shouting can result in discomfort and even pain, on occasions. Anybody can utilise this natural action to sing high notes, but for most the result is poor and inefficient, if not disastrous. Floaters are the exception. For them the natural is transformed into a thing of beauty; their poised high notes are ‘to die for’. However, although the benefits are obvious, particularly at first, there are hidden drawbacks which do not reveal themselves until later – sometimes too late for correction. The elevated laryngeal position which produces the beautiful pianissimi, which give floaters so much success, is a source of danger when attempting to sing forte at the top of the voice, or in strongly sung sustained phrases. Many floaters are far less happy when singing strongly, the quality of their voices becoming quite ordinary in comparison with the quality of their piano singing, particularly at the top. The cause is, of course, throat tension: always present when the larynx is high, the breath compression is high and the breath stream strong. In these circumstances, floaters become ordinary mortals and not the special beings they can seem when effortlessly spinning their magical high notes.

If no change in basic technique has taken place by the moment the floater is asked to tackle more demanding repertoire, then this becomes the point of balance in the career. If no remedial action is taken, the prospect for the future will be certain decline: gradual maybe, but decline nevertheless. The speed of deterioration depends entirely on the amount of work undertaken and the weight of that work. What, therefore, can any singer faced with this dilemma do to avert the disaster? The answer is strangely reassuring: go back to basics. The problem area is that of laryngeal stability; the solution – to learn to sing with a stable larynx. However, in order not to deprive floaters of their greatest asset and advantage, it would seem unwise to change the way they ‘let go’ at the top for piano effects. But for forte, robust singing they should adopt the same remedy as everyone else and make sure the larynx does not rise. This would enable many talented artists, who are now prematurely lost to the profession, to continue to develop vocally and healthily, and progress to heavier repertoire in their later years. Of course, this means that floaters would have to separate their floating ability off from the rest of their technique, because there is no way that singing with a high larynx will marry with normal technique. Messa di voce, for instance, is impossible with a moving and unstable larynx. Nevertheless, adoption of this practice would enable floaters to reap the benefits of their natural ability, without any of the long term dangers inherent in it. Strong, loud singing in the upper part of the voice would become reliable, the throat tension which is part and parcel of high larynx singing would become a thing of the past and the wear and tear associated with it would disappear.

Awareness of the danger inherent in the practice of floating and prompt action to counteract it, by both teachers and the singers themselves is, of course, the only way that the early vocal decline of these singers can be prevented. The crucial factor is realization that what appears at first to be an advantage is only short term. If it is indulged in to the exclusion of basic technical tenets, cracks and fissures in the technique will surely arrive at a later date, preventing healthy development and restricting singers to a limited repertoire – most of which they will have been singing since the beginning of their careers.

© 2008, Neil Howlett