What is voicing?

I’d like to address the term “voicing,” which I think is often misunderstood. Here’s my best definition:

Voicing refers to the relative size of the oral cavity, which can change depending on the position of the back of the tongue.

There are a number of other terms that are used to describe this same concept in woodwind playing. I don’t take issue with any of these terms individually, and I think that as a teacher it’s useful to have a variety of possible ways to explain this concept. (These terms can become problematic, however, when they are used in opposition to each other: “Open up, and blow cooler air.”)

Here are some examples of ways of describing voicing. I consider the terms in the left column all to be descriptions of the same thing, and those on the right to be likewise equivalent to each other.

More open vs. More closed
Place the note lower vs. Place the note higher
Like an “oh” or “ah” vowel vs. Like an “ee” vowel
Warmer air vs. Cooler air
Slower air vs. Faster air
Like whistling a low note vs. Like whistling a high note

I do think that “faster/slower air” needs to be used carefully, because the air speed can be altered by changing the voicing or by changing the breath support. (Think of increasing the speed of water in a garden hose: you can narrow the opening of the hose by putting your thumb over it, or you can turn it up at the faucet.)

Every so often I hear a woodwind player deny that they use voicing at all—usually meaning, I think, that they don’t change their voicing from note to note. Under my definition, there’s no such thing as not using voicing, the same way there’s no such thing as not using an embouchure. Any player’s voicing at a given moment is some balance of “warmer air” versus “cooler air” (or whichever terminology you prefer).

The larger issue of how to apply the concept of voicing is a contentious one at best. Stay tuned for future articles!

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