Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The female middle voice, a complex and misunderstood puzzle, Part 1

The register scheme for the female voice causes lots of grief and a pointless debate much more so than the male register scheme. The traditional operatic male voice rejects extremes such as flute voice(i.e. falsetto) and vocal fry. Female singers on the other hand have made acceptable use of the extremes which is one of the main reasons for the confusion.

One student recently asked me the following: "Could you put an end to the register debate, once and for all? Are there two, three, four or five registers? I have seen all four points of view expressed but with little clarity." My answer to her was (and I have looked for the opportunity for such smart-ass sarcasm my whole teaching life. I am not beyond a little fun at the expense of a student): "Yes!" She enjoyed neither the answer nor my self-satisfied impish grin.

It might seem a tall order at first, but if we review what has been written here on this blog on the subject, we can find all four perspectives very defensible. Our perspectives on the female middle voice become conflicted when considering registration theories.

1. Two-register theory: Based on the female modal voice when both vocalis and CT muscle groups are active, this theory rejects both the pulse (fry) range devoid of CT activity and the Flute/Whistle voice devoid of Vocalis activity. This leaves a modal voice of two and a half to three octaves wide consisting of two modes: a) Heavy mechanism (Vocalis dominant) and light mechanism (CT dominant).

2. Three register theory: Based on the acoustic theory of formant dominance: a)the lower voice up to and including E4 is dominated by the first vowel formant; b) the middle range which includes approximately the octave between F4 and F5 is dominated by the second formant; c) the high voice, above F5 is again dominated by the first formant.

3. Four-register theory: Includes all modes of muscular dynamics including the fry register and the flute/whistle register as one mode (i.e. CT only, no Vocalis activity).

4. Five-register theory: Same as three except that whistle is distinguished from flute voice because whistle register includes dampening (i.e. the folds only vibrate along the forward portion while the arytenoid portion remains closed).

How does one define middle voice in a two register theory? A three-register theory? A four or five register theory?

I prefer to ask: How does the female singer experience registers? How does she cope instinctively in the absence of clear definitions? How do famous sopranos and mezzos influence the experience? Do famous singers (especially the legendary ones) conform to logical norms? And if not, how do we determine what is correct?

The classic problem that most women are concerned with is how to smooth out the so-called first passaggio. Why is there often a registration problem between D4 and G4?

The basic problem in this area is fundamentally one of resonance. We are used to our speaking voices, and what we refer to as the speaking quality is defined scientifically as First Formant resonance. Higher than D4, the [a] vowel which is among the most frequent vowels in singing loses the viability of its first formant frequency. It becomes necessary at this point for the singer to reshape the vocal tract (modify the vowel) to access the second formant resonance (a concept called covering). Second formant resonance is a foreign feeling to the inexperienced singer. The first instinct is to force the first formant sensation as much as possible. With that strategy the vocal tract resonances becomes incompatible with the sung pitch and causes laryngeal tension. Over time such a production causes an imbalance between the vocalis muscle which thickens the folds and the crico-thyroid that lengthens them. The other muscles adjust to compensate for the imbalance. At this point the entire system of laryngeal musculature would be malfunctioning.

At this juncture, simply modifying the vowel to the second formant will not work. The problem must be worked backwards: 1) Lighter singing to re-balance the vocalis-CT interaction. 2) Achieving a comfortably low larynx, a sign that the muscular compensation has been neutralized 3) achieving a balance phonation that produces a clear focused tone supported by adequate breath pressure 4) modifying the vowel as was initially necessary. This takes time, patience, guided practice and eventually conscious strategies on the singer's part. Quick fixes do not resolve such problems but rather exacerbate them.

It should be added that the problem is always less pronounced for the [i] to [E] vowel spectrum because those vowels facilitate the formant switch with mild, almost spontaneous vowel modifications.

Although the resonance changes cause a mild quality change, when phonation is consistently efficient (that is the tone is focused and well supported)and the resonance change is gradual, no perceivable change is heard. This always brings the following question:

Are the low voice and the middle voice the same or different.

We have already addressed the resonance issue. The resonance is different between the two ranges below Eb4 and above Eb4. However the nature of the phonation remains fundamentally the same. However as the singer goes from low to high, the vocalis-CT balance changes (i.e. vocalis gradually less active, CT gradually more).

What must be accomplished therefore in addition to the resonance change is a gradual thinning of the vocal folds as one goes up. The laryngeal muscles will accomplish this automatically if 1) the resonance change is appropriate 2) breath pressure is reduced to allow the lengthening of the folds to occur naturally.

Here we must understand a paradoxical reality: As the singer goes up in fundamental frequency (pitch) she must reduce in volume (breath pressure). However, as the fundamental frequency (F0) rises, the tension and medial pressure of the vocal folds actually increases and cause an increase in breath pressure. The natural increase in pressure and the singer's conscious decrease of volume (also breath pressure) yield a balance of breath pressure that is appropriate to the note being sung and the singer's native muscular strength.

Marilyn Horne demonstrates an excellent exercise for dealing with this passaggio, precisely pointing out the issue of reducing volume as the singer rises. See 4:50!

One of the greatest dysfunctional vocal strategies is the misconception that one must get louder as one goes higher. Such a strategy causes a net increase in pressure that is usually too high for the laryngeal musculature to handle and causes sudden changes in muscular balance (breaks).

An unapolegetic Agnes Baltsa takes a heavier form of the lower voice through much of the middle range and then must make a shift in the upper middle.

The quality we hear at the bottom is that of a traditional cabaret singer who does not need to access the upper end of the voice. Baltsa is also a gifted artist who dramatically sustains the muscular imbalance to great effect. It is important to know that she is singing a full modal voice more loudly than advisable and not a "loose" chest voice (vocal fry). That is why she is able to take it up that high.

Another error is to over-sing in the lower range and suddenly shift to a slightly breathy (i.e. inefficient) production above E4.

Even some very seasoned singers find it difficult to handle as is seen here in the treacherous aria, "Come Scoglio" from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte sung by two great divas who share the lower passaggio issue in common:

Renee Flemming

Leontyne Price

A third unfortunate strategy is to avoid the the natural strength of the lower range to avoid the muscular shift. By singing in general very lightly in the lower range the singer sacrifices the lower range in order to accomplish a smooth transition from low to high. Such is the case here with the great singer/actress Gundula Janowitz:

Such a strategy is only possible for voice type that do not require a strong lower range. Lighter lyrics and coloraturas might get away with this strategy but it leaves the listener wanting in those rare moments when strong low notes are required (e.g. Susanna's "notturna face" in "Deh vieni non tardar."

Balancing low to middle requires the most ideal laryngeal depth, efficient phonation and volume control. A few examples of singers handling the lower passaggio in their own successful ways. Some indulge the low, some too careful about the balance and others get it just right. What is certain is that that part of the voice is tricky:

Elina Garanca:

Jessye Norman:

Elena Obraztsova

Olga Borodina

Shirley Verrett

Few singers handle the lower passaggio as expertly as Marilyn Horne. She proves unequivocally that it is not only possible but satisfying and desirable and dare I say correct to learn to balance the lower and middle voices muscularly and acoustically. Her version:

Marilyn Horne

The female voice that most deeply touches me over the years is that of Janet Baker. She is someone I wish I could meet in this lifetime for much more than her well-balanced passaggio:

Janet Baker

This post is getting long and I have only dealt with the first passaggio. In the next edition we will deal with the middle voice itself. Other than issues of muscular balance, the most important issue in the middle range is the resonance. In the next post we will define the female middle range and why it is often weak.

© 01/08/2009


Frescamari said...

It took me a good hour to really take in this post and listen to the clips. A well-spent hour, but this is the caliber of the information here.

petersjj said...

Phenomenal post. I love it! And thank you for the examples. This truly is my favorite blog of all time. Please keep it up!


petersjj said...

Would this idea of "backing off the volume" in ascent also apply to the male singer as well?

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Very astute observation Petersjj! I consider the backing off the volume in ascent to be a fundamental principle of singing. It is important to remember that our ears are more sensitive to higher frequencies, particularly in the 2000-3000 Hz range. Higher notes tend to sound more intense to us when they are well-produced regardless of volume. So a perceived intensity increase does not mean a conscious volume increase. As explained above, there is a natural pressure/flow increase as the singer ascends in pitch. The important part is for the singer not to add pressure beyond the natural increase. I often use the imagery that relative to volume, the voice is like a mountain: bigger at the bottom and leaner at the top. The conscious reduction of volume from low to high (and this is very minor) combined with a well-supported tone yields a net increase in intensity.

thetruth said...

Does this apply to all genres of vocalizing cause I am a soul/rnb kind of person myself. I do like Leontyne Price and Joan Sutherland and Pavarotti n stuff but of course I sound nothing like them. I'm not too familiar with these aria things either, I just know the title and how some of them sound.

Have you ever assessed Adam Lopez? He's on Youtube if you type in his name. He's a man that has a talent for producing whistle tones like Mariah Carey or Minnie Riperton.

I dont know if you listen to any of that kind of music anyway. Just a question and some thoughts.

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Dear thetruth,

I'm working on a german post on belting and other popular modes of phonation. I listen to every kind of music and always have. The rules of muscular balance are the same for all genres, but pop singers do not usually train. They most often bank on their spontaneous coordination for as long as the voice lasts. RnB singers should be aware of the muscular balance issues as well. Whitney Houston's vocal decline is a warning to many. I hope Jennifer Hudson does not make similar mistakes. She occasionally goes beyond her means in performances.

As for Adam Lopez the Australian man who owns the world record for the highest sung note by a man, his ability is available to all of us if we train it. This is called flute/whistle register. Most men do not work on this unless they sing as countertenors. The ability to access the flute/whistle register is a sign of good vocal health. However, eclusive use of this register can lead to unbalance.

I will be writing some pop based posts soon.

All the best!

Blue Yonder said...

I'm with Frescamari. It took some time to work through this post, and it was time well-spent.

Adam said...

I look forward to your post about the whistle register. I once heard that as long as nothing was ever pushed or strained, and nothing ever left you feeling hoarse or vocally fatigued, singers should develop all ranges of the voice healthily. I agree, and I have been practicing the whistle register since about last November. It's quite rewarding to be able to follow Christina Aguilera in her own octave when she sings high head/falsetto notes, but god is it tempting to strain to reach just one note higher!

I do hope you will address healthy use of the whistle register in that post, because there are so many misconceptions and disagreements about it, like the whole "Most men can not phonate in this register" thing. Well, most men haven't tried! I told a few of my friends here at college about it, guys that have never even had one-on-one vocal training but just like singing in choirs and musicals, and within a few days they were squealing up higher than I was, without tension! (It was one of those I-hate-tenors moments, which I used to suffer from quite often until I discovered those notes below C3.)

It's wonderful for someone who loves classical so much to be unbiased against CCM, because that just isn't very common these days! As a fan primarily of pop and musical theatre who is learning how to appreciate the wonderful intricacies and sometimes oddly familiar patterns I hear in precontemporary art songs and opera, I just don't understand why someone would want to close off an entire genre of music just for the sake of elitism! Sure, feeling superior to others can be a nice ego boost for five seconds, but learning to love something that you had never taken the time to understand is so much more rewarding.

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...


It is a pleasure to have you here. I enjoy your commentary, which suggest a very open mind. We must remain open-minded if singing is going to grow again to the level it was meant to be. Keep the terrific comments coming.