Khoomei - How To's And Why's
by Michael Emory
During the past year I have learned techniques of some throat-singing styles as
practiced in Central Asia. With guidance from Maj. P.C. (Ret.), and access to his
collection of vocal recordings from that part of the world, I have experienced fair
success in executing the forms described below. The following is intended to offer
instruction to anyone with interest and patience enough to learn a way to refine
self-generated sound. Previous voice training is not required. I would be delighted to
hear of someone able to throat-sing while having listened to no recordings.
Much of learning to throat-sing is dependent upon the recognition of an existing
subtlety of one tone among many. When you hear this and find where it is and is not, you
may listen as it gains clarity and power. In this manner I was able to produce two
harmonics with melody soon after hearing the khoomei-borbangy of Mr. Kaigal-ool Khovalyg.
I already had been ending medleys of style with the required position simply because it
Variation in the character of throat singing styles is dictated by careful positioning
and movement of the tongue, lips, and jaw. These control pitch, timbre, and (in one case)
suppression of harmonic overtones. Also necessary is a tightening of throat muscles to
restrict the fundamental (lower, normal) tone. This allows generated overtones to dominate
that which is heard. A faint harmonic melody can be produced above a relaxed and normally
sung tone. With recognition of this possibility comes a realization that many singing
styles consciously utilize harmonics for dramatic effect.
The style of kargyraa differs in that another vibration is required of the throat.
Khoomei, basic - begin by producing a long, steady note with an open, relaxed
mouth and throat. by altering lip and tongue positions to say vowels, ``oooo... ohhh....
ayyy.... ahhh..... eeee....'', you will hear different overtones in ascending pitch.
Cupping a hand to your ear may help you to identify these initially. Maintain one tone as
you tighten your throat and stomach muscles slightly. If you choke, try a lower
fundamental. If you begin coughing, go into this tightening over a period of time to avoid
damage to your voice. Hard coughing is punishing to vocal cords.
You should now be making ``electronic'' sounding vowels. If any of these are extended
with subtle changes to the tongue, lips, or jaw (changing one element at a time as in any
controlled experiment), separate overtones will gain definition. The sounds you create are
feedback leading to finer mouth control.
It may be difficult to sort out the overtones created by each position. Discover them
as you work out a scale above one steady fundamental. Eventually simple melodies will
emerge within a limited range. As you consciously create melody, avoid the temptation to
alter the fundamental. This is basic khoomei.
Sygyt - with your throat tightened, sing an ``e'' vowel at a comfortable pitch.
Shift the jaw slightly forward and partially close the mouth with lips protruded. You
should hear a drop in the pitch of the harmonic. As the sides of the tongue are held
against upper premolars push sound between tongue and palate. By adjusting your lips
different notes will emerge. Flexing the middle of the tongue up and down lends a wider
range, greater definition and more drive to produced tones. Keep the tongue sides in
contact with teeth to maintain a separate upper cavity in which overtones are generated.
This is the position for sygyt used by Tuvan singers.
A similar style places the tongue higher on the palate or with the tongue-tip folded
back. I believe that Mongolian singers favor this position.
Khoomei-borbangy - if you are able to produce a very relaxed and clear khoomei
melody by varying tongue position but without jaw or lip shifts, you may begin hearing a
second overtone. This is audible at a pitch between the fundamental and the melodic
overtone. A third, higher, ringing overtone may also emerge (most people find it a painful
curiosity only, some people think that of all throat-singing). Tongue movement to create
melody must remain low in the mouth to avoid interference with the lower, more subtle
harmonic. It is simplest to keep the tip rested at the base of the lower incisors while
gently flexing the middle of the tongue. With practice comes greater freedom of movement.
The jaw should be held forward and fairly rigid as the lips are held loosely at an ``ohh''
position. On the verge of relaxation your lips should quiver lightly and rapidly. A slight
opening or closing movement of the jaw may help initiate this movement. This fine balance
is an elusive state and should be allowed to happen passively on your part. If it once
happens, simply try to recreate the conditions which led to its occurrence. Warm up by
singing in the other styles, your lips may respond more readily.
Fine control will take time to develop. The result is a pulsating overtone adding
richness to a remote sounding, fluting melody.
Kargyraa - this style relies upon vibrations other than those normally produced
by the vocal cords. A low fundamental is used to create a powerful percussive sounds.
Harmonics are created in an open mouth as in basic khoomei. Use jaw and lip changes
freely. It is easy to combine this with sygyt to create chylandyk.
While able to perform kargyraa, I cannot explain the mechanism used in its production.
A tightening of part of the throat is involved as is a push from the diaphragm. [Forcing
more air through a restricted passageway would accelerate it and may act to overload the
vocal cords, changing their vibration frequency?] As my singing practice continues I
realize that an ability to relax the lower portions of the throat allows surfaces deeper
in the chest to resonate and enhance tonal quality. Sygyt singing is a very good warm up
Kargyraa may be learned by ``huffing'' air forcefully at the lowest pitch you can
create, or at some level below that recognizable note. In time you should feel a regular
percussive movement. When you find that you can engage that ``motor'', rise the pitch
until clear overtones emerge. The amount of expelled air needed to sing passages of length
may seem daunting at first. With practice you will expend less breath in generating
desired sounds and can sing for longer periods. Achieving the correct throat movement is
the more difficult aspect of kargyraa. As I shift from a normally sung vowel into this
movement, I tighten my throat and stomach slightly, As I go from khoomei to kargyraa, I
open the upper throat.
Bicycle kargyraa - closely related to steppe-kargyraa but performed best on a
smoothly paved road of little traffic. I am presently at work on this technique and leave
it to the affluent to develop ``convertible kargyraa''.
Staircase khoomei (all forms) - good acoustics if enclosed. This is a fine
practice environment, better if you live alone. This and ``kitchen kargyraa'' are actually
subdivisions of ``home khoomei''.
Dairy products should be avoided before singing as they create mucous in the throat.
Milk chocolate seems to be especially effective at this.
As mentioned above, the new sensations your throat will experience was you initially
try throat-singing will likely bring on coughing; it tickles. Until your throat becomes
accustomed to this you should not push too rapidly. Do only a little each day.
Throat-singing is good for your voice, sustained coughing is not.
Therapeutic aspects - as a biological feedback element khoomei has much
advantage over other indicators. It is portable and needs no external power source ---
just add atmosphere. It is invisible and may (or should) be as private as you wish. It
reflects nicely from the inside of an auto windshield - when stuck in traffic, sing. The
best Tuvan throat singers started as truck drivers.
Vitality - khoomei will add color you your cheeks. Diligent practice of khoomei
will enrich your speaking voice. Two out of three women prefer a khoomei man.
Inter-specific effects - sygyt will freeze a squirrel and bring about a
floor-belly slink in a cat. Kargyraa will cause a dog to seek an oblique horizon or to
Guerilla khoomei - stand near people as a motor or other humming thing passes,
match its fundamental frequency, and see how much secret singing can be done. Sygyt can be
easily denied: ``it came from elsewhere!''. Got guts? Try kargyraa.
Thrill seeking - [see ``bicycle kargyraa'' above].
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