Anna Maria Hefele is a highly skilled polyphonic singer from Austria who also performs with various ensembles as a specialist multi-instrumentalist.
She spoke to VoiceCouncil about her incredible talent, and explains the benefits of overtone singing for all singers.
What emotive effect can polyphonic singing have?
When people hear it for the first time they are often very moved. It is mysterious yet strangely familiar. We hear and use all sorts of different vowel shapes all throughout our lives, and the overtones are the reason why one vowel sounds quite different from another vowel.
We know that and “u” sound is very dark because we amplify the low overtones contained in the sound and filter out the higher ones at the same time, and an “i” is very bright, because the high overtones are amplified and the low ones are filtered out. So, we are connected to overtones in a complex way in our daily lives, but we are usually not doing it on a conscious level.
How did you discover polyphonic singing?
One day, when I was 16, I was listening to a radio broadcast of a man who performed polyphonic singing. He lived locally to me so I met with him and asked if he could show me how to do it. I had a certain talent for it, but I was also so intrigued I couldn’t stop practicing.
What came first – the theory or the practical?
It goes hand in hand. By understanding how it works, you are able to do it better. It is difficult to learn or practice something if you don’t have any guidance or direction.
Are you singing the same as Tuvan or Mongolian throat singers?
The filtering process in the mouth and pharynx is the same. But, the sound production in the larynx is different. In classical voice training, you aim for a balance of air and sound where you can develop a natural vibrato. However, with overtone singing, you close the vocal cords a little bit tighter.
The throat singers do this like me, but they also add more pressure on the larynx. With this they can supress the fundamental even more, as it is their aim to make it almost unhearable.
In the western overtone singing technique I don’t use this high pressure on the larynx in order to keep my flexibility in changing quickly into classical technique, and also to have the ability of changing the fundamentals a lot, which allows my polyphonic singing style. The Mongolian throat singers usually don’t change their fundamentals. Mostly they sing overtone melodies on one fundamental which they keep throughout the song.
How important is it to have clean tone for polyphonic/overtone singing?
You need a more ‘tight’ sound in the voice than in other vocal techniques, which means I am working with a higher closing quotient in the vocal folds. This sound already contains more overtones. An airy voice will not have so many overtones to amplify. Overtone singing is about filtering overtones out of the voice out and amplifying others. But you can only filter and amplify something you put into the filter in the first place.
If I meet a breathy singer at one of my workshops, I encourage them to use the whole body for support. I make them stand in a stable way and sing whilst I try to push them (carefully) over. Automatically the voice gets stronger when the student tries to keep his stabile standing position.
Overtone singing makes you more aware of vowel shapes and vocal colours
When a singer has learnt to close their vocal cords well and developed good support, they can hold longer notes which is very helpful for developing a good filtering technique in overtone singing.
Overtone singing is all about searching for the overtones in the vowel transitions. If you’re able to hold long notes on one fundamental note, you also have more time to explore different sound colours before you run out of breath.
Do you think practicing overtones will help the voice in other ways?
Overtone singing can certainly help all singers. For example, it improves your perception for resonance; overtone singing makes you more aware of vowel shapes and vocal colours.
As well as developing vocal cord closure and sustained support, you are also able to expand your range and find higher notes because you train to have the physical power for it.
Overtone lesson 1
How could choirs benefit from learning polyphonic singing?
You can ‘tune’ the vowels of each choir member to each other to boost the same overtones inside the same voice section in the choir. It will sound more precise.
The conductor could even ask the choir members to tune their vowel to amplify a specific overtone. For a major chord for example, the section which is singing the fundamental of the chord (bass, usually) can amplify the major 3rd in the vowel for a super clean sound. This supports the female voices that sing the major 3rd as a normally sung note.
What role does the soft palate play in polyphonic singing?
I usually won’t let any air out of the nose because you lose some sound. The effect of the overtones is clearer if you lift the soft palate.
Is it easier for high voices or low voices to find overtones in their voice?
The lower the pitch, the more overtones you have. There is a cap at about G4 for filtering overtones – it’s impossible to access overtones above this pitch, although above that there are still some, but you cannot filter them out as separate notes in the overtone singing technique any more.
What should a singer do if they want to develop overtones in their voice?
Sing long notes and play with vowels. Start with an “u” and move very slowly to an “i”, like the French “oui”. In reverse it is like the English “you”. It is a very small movement but you time-stretch it for as long as you can.
There are so many more vowels than our standard “ah, eh, i, oh, u”. You will find overtones somewhere in between these “normal” vowels. You will begin to hear overtones or feel sensations of better resoncance when you hit an overtone.
Anna-Maria Hefele is an overtone singer and voice artist. In 2014 she graduated as Bachelor of Arts in Elemental Music & Dance Education with classical singing as her main subject from the Carl Orff Institute, Mozarteum University Salzburg. Anna-Maria is a soloist as an overtone singer in different ensembles, such as “Supersonus – The European Resonance Ensemble”, “The Lady & The Cat” and “Orchester der Kulturen”. She plays nyckelharpa and harp, and builds specialist instruments. www.anna-ma