The aim is ultimately for chest, ‘middle’ and head register to all become ONE COMPLETE VOICE which blends from bottom to top.
I recently had a fantastic comment on one of my posts on a singing forum. It was in response to my most recent blog post about damaging voice teacher archetypes.
The commenter stated that he had encountered a teacher who insisted constantly on pulling head voice right down to the note directly after their natural break. This is, without a doubt, one of the worst ways to deveglop a healthy, connected voice from top to bottom.
Before I begin, I would just like to add that the ‘mix’ should exist right the way through the range (ideally you want to ‘colour’ the whole voice with elements of each other. You can colour the lower chest voice with aspects of the head voice and vise versa. Today, however, we are specifically going to focus on the middle voice leading up to the true head voice (middle-upper register).
Today I would like to offer three principles to transitioning, the mix and the passaggio.
Three principles of the ‘middle voice’:
- There is a point where the ‘lower gear’ or ‘chest voice’ cannot be brought too high to the point where it sounds more like a tense yell. This is the principle that the teacher mentioned above specifically adheres to. Therefore, I propose that at the upper end of the chest voice, there should be added ‘head voice colour’ to take the weight off the chest voice and enable a seamless transition.
- If the head voice is forced down too low too soon, it will adversely cause over-narrowing of the vocal tract and will sound ‘squashed’. This will never enable the natural development of the head voice because the muscle-memory for the head voice will always feel squeezed. Therefore, I propose that the lower end of the chest voice is ‘weened into’ and treated like an ‘extension of’ the lower register, having some of the colours and groundedness of the chest voice. This is preferred over ‘flipping into’ head voice as a safety measure.
- Transition is dependent on vocal type and natural vocal weight. A voice with a lot of ‘mass’ to the sound (without any added push) will incline to transition lower, while a voice with a lot less natural ‘mass’ does not need to transition as low, because the mechanism does not naturally have as much cord mass to ‘shed’ as it ascends. This is why light voices mature faster than dramatic voices.
So what is ‘the mix’? In short it is exactly what I stated above in principles 1 and 2, it is when you colour the upper part of your chest voice with a ‘head voice quality’, resulting in less weight at the upper extention of your chest voice and easier preparation to transition into head voice. Mix is also when you colour the lower part of your head voice with ‘chest voice quality’, which gives the lower part of the head voice a more grounded, fuller sound as if it were an extension of the lower voice rather than another gear. This will, as a completed unit, result in a blend, and what will sound like a ‘middle register’.
I will address my third principle briefly now, as I would prefer to stick with the first two points for the purposes of this article: Transition is completely dependant on the structure of the vocal mechanism. In Barbera Doscher’s book “The Functional Unity of Singing” (a.k.a the ‘bible of singing’, you get get it cheaply here on amazon. Get the e-book if you can, it’s far cheaper!), it is stated that the chest voice (for females and males) should ‘ideally’ transition between E4 and F#4 according to Marchessi, while according to Vernard, the male chest voice should not be taken higher than F4. Females, of course, are more likely to transition at or just above F#4 very comfortably, while males will more safely range between D4 and F4.
The main thing to note is; that the teacher should only use these suggestions as ‘guidelines’. Doscher is also careful to note that opinions on the voice differ and change. The teacher, while being mindful of not carrying the weight of the chest voice too high, should also not mandate that a singer ‘must’ sing in head voice on too low a note.
When full head voice is used and mixed legitimately:
So, we have established that the ‘mix’ is when we ‘colour’ the voice with aspects of the lower or upper register, we have established that every voice type will naturally transition at different points in the voice. Now I would like to invite you to listen to some examples of how ‘head voice’ and ‘head voice colouring’ is not, as many people mistake, ‘falsetto’.
Here are some examples of properly developed head voices that do not have the quality of ‘falsetto’ (aka the damper). I have taken three singers from different backgrounds because I believe that we should appreciate how other styles can use similar ‘features’ within their genre. I will follow each video with a few comments to point out specifically when the singer is engaging full head voice:
Adam Pascall, Pity the Child:
If you want to hear what a developed ‘belt’ head voice sounds like, listen to Pascal at 2:50. At this point he has fully gone into head voice. The distinguishing factor is the added ‘ping’ that you hear in the sound. If you listen to the earlier part of the song, you do not hear him prematurely engage this sound. Instead, he engages qualities from both registers to keep the sound even as he ascends – this song in particular demands a mastery of mixed voice because it gets progressively higher from start to finish.
Why must he use head voice at 2:50? Because he needs to prepare to sing “Son” at 3:14 without any kind of tension or squeeze. If he constantly sang in full chest without any mix until now, he would have no stamina for the top note.
Lady Gaga, Sound of Music Medley:
I think most of us know Lady Gaga’s voice to some degree. From the get go, you can hear a very different quality from her usual sound. This is an example of how classical technique encourages lower head voice engagement. I would also like to point out her final note at 4:00. Notice that the voice has a considerable amount of head voice quality. This is an example of a voice that has correctly transitioned without any ‘squash’. The notes leading up to this (“Til you find”) are examples of mixed ‘chest voice.’ They do not have too much weight to them, but they are not fully transitioned yet.
Luciano Pavarotti, Nessun Dorma:
This is a pure classical sound. Here is where we will hear more ‘upper harmonics’ from the head voice than any other style. We already know from THIS VIDEO that Pavarotti covers the sound from F, F#, G. In Nessun Dorma, we can already hear the added upper harmonics from head voice colouring his lower register, this creating the effect of a ‘middle register’. His altered vowels on notes F-G allow a very seemless transition that we cannot fully discern as listeners. This is why the greatest opera singers are held in such high regard. Their passaggio is covered without too much darkening (thickness) or brightness (squash), creating the perfect balance between registers.
I would like to point out, however, that at 1:24 (A4) and 2:45 (Bb4), he has fully transitioned. There is no physical way for a classical tenor to carry any weight into this sound. However, the sound is still ‘masculine’ and it is not squashed. This is a result of the vocal tract remaining fully open, while relying on a fundamental “uuuh” vowel (rather than a wide “Ahhhh” or an overly covered “Awwhh”).
Developing the upper chest voice:
As a singer is learning to develop natural pharyngeal space, tilting of the larynx and the correct placement/buzzing around the mask of the face, they will find that their comfortable transition point will be discovered naturally without sacrificing the power and depth required for full-voiced singing. They will therefore create an effect where the transition happens without the audience knowing when it occurred.
For example, a young male singer who is still developing vocal maturity and tilt, may find themselves comfortably pulling their chest voice up until around F4-G4 and then transitioning to head voice around G4-A4. Alternatively, some singers (normally older, lower or more dramatic voices) with a good tilt and space in the back can find themselves transitioning as early as D4-E4 without having a squashed tone. Females will also have very similar issues, where they will pull their head voice down to E4-A4 and will sound breathy.
Issues arise when the teacher expects the student to attempt to sing all notes too far above the natural break in head voice. The student should instead be offered the two principles that: 1. The chest voice cannot be brought up past a certain point for the highest notes, but 2. That the head voice cannot be forced ‘on top of’ the current chest voice, but rather ‘coaxed down’ to create one united sound.
The singer needs to first learn to colour the upper part of their chest voice with an ‘awareness’ of head resonance, which should result in a sound that is ‘prepared’ to transition. This is what is commonly referred to as ‘mix’ – alternatively, when the head voice is ‘coaxed down’ to the place that the singer IS COMFORTABLE with, the head voice will gain this mix-quality as well and the singer will lose no power. On the contrary, the singer will gain power.
It is prudent to let the student sing as far as they feel comfortable in their chest voice while encouraging them to ‘think head voice’ (rather than actually sing it). This encourages tilting of the larynx rather than raising of the larynx as the voice will not carry so much weight through the break. As a result, the singer will find a ‘sweet spot’ where the voice goes seamlessly into a properly connected head voice without a break or a squashed sound. If they are simply ‘pushing up’ their chest voice as high as possible, this is where issues like vocal fatigue arise.
So here is my suggestion for training this part of the voice:
The singer should focus on correct tilting and ‘mixing’ of head voice quality into the chest voice as it approaches the natural break. The following suggestions can be made to do this.
- The singer imagines the note going diagonally forward and downward from their face as they ascend through the range. Towards the top of the head voice, the singer should imagine that the quality of the sound is coming from the back of the skull and going towards the front of the face. This will result in a more weightless sound, but one that is still full and grounded in the chest register.
- Sing through the voice on an “ahh” vowel, while altering the vowel as you ascend from AAAHHH to AWHH to UUHH (oooh for women). Ahhh in the lower-middle part of the comfortable chest range, awwhhh towards the break and through the passagio and uuuuuhhhh (or ooooh) at the top of their passagio and onwards.
- Use a pure “oooooh” vowel through the voice, paying special attention to keeping the lips in a relaxed position as if they were about to whistle and for the tongue to be in an ‘ng’ position in the mouth.
- Sing a 1, 3, 5, 8, 10, 12, 11, 9, 7, 5, 4, 2, 1 scale on a ‘dumb’ sounding ‘muh’. Do not carry up too much weight into the high parts of your voice. This one is suggested in Brett Manning’s Mastering Mix programme which I used over the last few years along side my classical voice lessons – think of it as a daily voice regiment, but it does not teach support, so I wouldn’t suggest it unless you are a little further on in your training. Our review of it is here. We are very skeptical of online singing programmes but his one seems to have some good material.
- Another one that that comes straight from Master Mix is the water drop exercize. On any note in your lower register, make a ‘boiiip!’ noise that goes from low to high quickly (as if you were mimicking water dripping onto the floor.) This takes all weight off the upper part of your lower register and will cause your voice to blend very quickly.
Encouraging the transition into upper register:
The alternative is; pulling the chest voice too high to the point where the singer hits a ‘roof’ and the voice does not have the staying power or natural pierce that a correctly developed head voice would give.
In order for the head voice to be developed correctly, the singer needs to develop it higher than their natural passaggio. This enables them to develop the head voice without feeling as if they are ‘squashing it’, as the head voice will naturally want to develop more depth as it moves towards the break. This is very difficult to develop if the singer hasn’t firstly learnt how to colour and ‘prepare’ their chest voice first as discussed previously.
So how do we develop the head voice? I am currently working on a youtube series called “High C, easy as 1, 2, 3 in which I will go into more depth on this issue – please follow us on facebook and/or our blog for more updates on this! For now, what I will say is this; your natural head voice is sitting behind your falsetto. I want you to imagine a damper hammer sitting on a piano string. If you play a key when the damper is against the string, you will get a muffled sound. This is what’s happening to your head voice, it is being dampened by multiple things; a narrow vocal tract, the false folds and a bunched tongue.
This is not surprising, especially when males can be quite self-conscious about sounding more effeminate. However, as their head voice opens up, they will find that it develops into an extremely satisfying, piercing sound with an extremely masculine quality.
So my suggestions for developing this part of the voice are
The singer should develop head voice from higher in the range than the natural passaggio. This will prevent ‘squashing’ of the note as the student is still developing their preparation notes in their chest voice. I would suggest the following to develop pure head voice:
- Use wide arpeggios on voiced consonants. For example, you can use the following scale: 1, 3, 5, 8, 10, 12, 11, 9, 7, 5, 4, 2, 1. You can hear an example of this scale in the video below at 3:58.
- On the above scale, use staccato ‘boh boh boh boh’ right through your range. Make it weightless.
- On a note like A4-C5, sing three short boh boh boh’s (as if you were mimicking rain drops) followed by a longer ‘boooooh’. Do not be afraid of at first sounding effeminate. If you are developing the head voice above your passaggio first, you will not run into any issues where it will cause grip and squashing at too low in your range. For females who have mostly worked in chest voice, I would suggest doing this exercize around F4-B4 as the entirety of A4-E5 can be a passagio.
Finally, I want to add that for singers who belt, the transition may exist a few semi-tones higher than the classical transition. For instance, as a classical spinto tenor, my mixed head voice can comfortably (with no squeeze) start as low as D4, which when belting, I the vowel shapes do not allow for an easy transition at D4 without sounding squashed. I therefore will transition comfortably at F4 instead.
Your teacher cannot decide where you must transition. The general rule is that singing above an A4-B4 in full chest voice is practically impossible for a male, while for females, singing above B4-D5 in full chest is also very difficult. Anything below this however is up to you and your voice to decide. As you develop, your voice will ‘want’ to change without sacrificing power and vocal quality. The correct and idea training should result in a vocal illusion; where you sound like you are singing in ‘chest voice’ right the way through your range, but really, you have simply blended all the registers where they naturally want to change.
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