One of the most common questions I’ve been getting lately is whether practicing in the passaggio is damaging to the voice.
The answer is both yes and no.
Firstly, let’s briefly explain what the passaggii are. You can get more detailed explanations here and here. The former is a 3 part blog. In short however, the passaggio is NOT the mixed voice (The mixed voice is a tool you can use to navigate the passiggio). They are a group of 1-3 semitones where the voice shifts from one register to the next.
The lower passaggio is one or two semi-tones where the singer will feel a ‘lift’ or a ‘lightening’ of the voice from their comfortable chest register (the voice most men sing in, and the voice that some women speak in, or feels like their ‘manly’ voice) into the middle or mixed register. This should not feel at all different in the throat minus a very slight sensation of ’tilt’ and grounding just under your voice box. The singer will notice more frontal ring nearer the eyes and cheekbones and a ‘laser-like’ quality in the voice if it is recorded.
The second or upper passaggio is around two tones where the middle voice starts to lift into head voice from middle/mixed voice. For many untrained (or poorly trained) singers, this can feel quite stressed, as if they are about to ‘hit a roof’. As a dramatic voice, if I am approaching this without maintaining an open throat, forward tongue and gently tilted down and back jaw, the voice will over-cover and become ‘swallowed’. When it is done right, there is a sensation of ‘whirring’ at the bridge of my nose and between the eyes. Imagine the bindi on the forehead of a practicing hindu, this is where singers often feel the sound when they are singing correctly in their upper passaggio.
I would therefore argue that the upper passaggio can be quite dangerous for the singer if they have consistently singing with tension. There is almost no way that their jaw, neck, shoulder and tongue muscles will not aid to assist the sound, and there may be over-pushing from the abdomen. These factors are near-fatal for the voice and can cause considerable fatigue and acute laryngitis.
On the other side of this equation, I would strongly recommend continued and disciplined work in the lower passagio and the middle of the mixed voice. This is where the singer finds and establishes the release of the crycothyroid
muscles (which are basically the muscles that ‘squeeze’ if the breath, tongue and throat space is not established. If the singer warms up and over-practices on their chest voice (so to ‘warm up’ to their middle), they will have the tendency to over-darken and ‘carry too much chest quality into the mixed voice.
My rule of thumb is: If the singer reaches a point where the voice has suddenly hit a roof, they need to work about two semi-tones down from there. If they cannot master tilt in the lower mix, they will never be able to pass through their upper passaggio. I strongly believe that this is where a lot of singers limit themselves. They believe that they will never sing high notes because they constantly ‘hit the roof’, but the truth is that they have nowhere near mastered their lower mix – or potentially have not even found it. Once they have found this, the top will, like magic, start to blossom.
- I suggest the Italian small u vowel (oooh) for initially learning to ‘lift out’ of the chest voice. Begin with a ringing ‘ng’ (as in a lazy “Hung”, not squeeky “nnggyaaaa!”) before proceeding to open to an ‘ooooh’ on a 5,4,3,2,1 scale. Be sure to continue the ‘ng’ ring at the front of the face (even though the sensation is harder to feel when the mouth open) and do not swallow the sound or let the tongue leave the ‘ng’ position.
- Do the reverse of the above, so 1,2,3,4,5, but imagine two little fish hooks pulling down on either side of your voice box down VERY SLIGHTLY. Imagine that they are attached to your collarbone and that you are tugging them down ever so slightly with your fingers (towards your lower ribs).
- I personally used the exercizes in Brett Manning’s Mastering Mix. I try to trickle some of his hints and tricks into my own articles outside of the Old-Italian school technique. I’ve written a review here and even mentioned some of the exercizes. He does a fantastic one that requires the singer to sing a 1, 3, 5, 8, 5, 3, 1 arpeggio on a ‘buh’. This is one way to sing through the upper passaggio without lingering on it for too long.
Do not take this exercize towards your ‘difficult spot’. If you reach it, go down two semi-tones and work on that area. Also make sure that in both situations, nothing changes or shifts in the throat. You are singing on the same space that you breathed in – which should be ‘pleasant’, as if you have just inhaled a lovely scent but through your mouth. Do not let anything change from this shape and feeling.
After a good 3-4 weeks of working this area, females continue to bring ‘ooh’ up closer to the upper passagio, while males bring ‘uuuhh’ (as in an ugly ‘Beh’) as they move up. Your mix voice will not feel significantly different to your chest voice, but it will have a different texture and buzz differently in your face. This is why it can be hard for singers to know if they are singing properly in their mixed voice!
So to sum it all up, I strongly encourage development of your lower and middle mixed voice. For a male this is generally between C4-E4 (see here for more details on male passaggii) and for a female, this is generally between B4-F5 (see here for more details on female passaggii). Please feel free to ask me any more questions regarding what I have said. I understand the temptation to repeatedly sing on the upper passaggio, and it should be addressed rather than forgotten, but the way to master this is to first master the lower passaggio.