Why falsetto (flute voice) is important in vocal pedagogy: An issue of muscular balance

The title of this article is obviously paradoxical. Falsetto or flute voice are equivalent states in the male and female voice respectively in which the Crico-thyroid muscle group is active without a balancing antagonism from the vocalis muscle group. So why then do I call this an issue of balance?

It is my experience in the studio, particularly in recent years, that the ability to produce a falsetto is dependent upon achieving the “at-rest fold length” that is conducive to the most efficient use of the vocal apparatus. What do I mean by this? The answer will take a historical as well as a theoretical scientific perspective.

There was a time that the development of a classical singer’s voice could be compared to the development of the physical skills of an Olympic athlete. The level of proficiency of a singer was not solely based on what range of pitches the voice is able to execute with relative ease, but also the sound quality of each note. We read from the writings of many of the great Italian teachers that vocal training could last 8 to 10 years of daily exercise before the singer was allowed to make a professional debut. Contrary to our time when expedience is the primary concern, singers often develop superficial skills that meet with a quick demise commensurate with the training time. With the knowledge and equipment we have available to us in the 21st century, it is conceivable that the training time could be cut considerably without loss of quality. Unfortunately very few teachers use the knowledge and equipment that science has made available.

The issue at hand is quality. It is crucial to understand that the specialization of voice types has reached such extremes that a classical singer’s skills can no longer be compared favorably with the ideals of the Olympic athlete. It must be said that the modern operatic soprano, other than the the dramatic coloratura rarely develops a complete range. If we look at the works of Rossini and Mozart and consider the types of singers that they composed for, we will find that modern categorization makes no sense. Were Malibran and Colbran Sopranos or Contraltos? Was Mozart’s Constanze or Queen of the Night a light voice coloratura or an anomaly in the Sutherland mold? Are the voices we consider unusual like Callas, Sutherland and others truly the exception or should they be the rule (in certain respects)? Every soprano I have taught in the past few years is capable of at least a three octave range, accessing regularly the Queen of the Night´s High F. This does not mean that every one should sing coloratura roles. It only means that when the soprano voice is fully developed those extreme high notes are accessible and this phenomenon is a sign of healthy flexibility and adequate strength.

This brings us to a discussion of registers. The terms falsetto and flute voice have been associated with “fake” sounds in modern time. It is important to know that the term falsetto originally referred to an uncoordinated, breathy production that tended to manifest in the male passaggio. This uncoordinated passaggio eventually took on a new name, “voce finta” and equally pejorative term meaning “feigned” or faked voice. Consequently, the term falsetto was used more and more in reference to the light quality sound in the high range that is devoid of vocalis muscle activity, an uncoordinated sound in a sense.

So why then would I consider uncoordinated sounds to be of benefit in vocal pedagogy?

First of all, we must understand that not everyone can produce a falsetto or a flute voice, and that this inability is a sign of muscular imbalance. This is a question that is not asked enough: Why can some singers not produce a falsetto or flute voice?

Second, falsetto is not inherently breathy if we consider the natural tendency for full closure in the higher falsetto or flute range. This full closure phenomenon tells us at least that at high pitch levels the falsetto achieves full closure quite naturally (as fundamental frequency increases, activity in the external thyro-arytenoid increasingly adjusts the folds medially). Furthermore, once full closure is achieved, there is a build-up of sub-glottal pressure, which induces a vocalis response. By definition, the production is no longer falsetto but modal (an antagonistic relationship is established between Crico-Thyroid muscle group and the Vocalis muscle group). Therefore, is it not logical to develop the coordination of the “light head voice” or “full-closure falsetto”? From such a production, as pitch level decreases, vocalis activity increases. If such a coordination is developed dynamically (as opposed to abruptly), the muscular dynamics necessary for an easy high range would be achieved. Why not follow this logic?

As previously said, not every singer can produce a falsetto and this is a sign of malfunction, at very least weakness in Crico-Thyroid and lateral Thyro-arytenoid muscles. These muscles mainly are responsible for the lengthening of the vocal folds. It could also mean that the vocalis is relatively muscle-bound, so rigid as to resist Crico-thyroid activity at a given pitch range. The ideal at any pitch level should be a possibility of variable interaction between the two muscle groups in question; that one is not limited to a single state on any given pitch. If the vocalis is so inflexible as not to allow falsetto, this must be seen as a relative dysfunction. This lack of falsetto ability is observable in many tenors referred to as possessing “robust” voices, and often in baritones who train as basses, and natural sopranos who train as mezzos. There is indeed a relationship between “pushed” down voices and inflexibility of the vocalis.

If we take merely a linear consideration between Vocalis and Crico-thyroid the problem could be more easily understood. At a given pitch level, fundamental frequency can be maintained at variable fold length-thickness-tension. If the shortest fold length is selected (i.e. greatest amount of vocalis tension) for a given pitch, the result is also the loudest, most pressurized possible result. One could conceive of gradually increasing CT activity and gradually decreasing vocalis with the rise in pitch. However, the entire strategy is based on vocalis hyper-function and CT hypo-function. There will indubitably develop excessive vocalis strength and inadequate CT strength over time, resulting in an inability of the CT in a CT-dominant posture to withstand the kind of pressure that can be endured in a vocalis-dominant scenario. At the extreme, second formant dominance which coincides with CT dominance in the male voice becomes impossible. Additionally, the hyper-function of vocalis over time curtails the possibility of complete vocalis passivity which is necessary for falsetto. And even if vocalis passivity were possible, the underdevelopment of the CT muscles also precludes the possibility of the kind of fold lengthening necessary for falsetto.

From this premise, the ideal fold length is the midpoint between maximum vocalis activity and maximum CT activity for a given fundamental frequency (pitch). The true timbre of the instrument would be identified when such a state is achieved and all other muscles are functioning adequately to produce unforced full closure. Strength in both muscle groups in balance can then be increased by gradually increasing volume (breath pressure). What we observe in “induced” or fabricated robust voices by and large is the scenario described above, whereby vocalis activity is increased to bulk up the folds, which in turn induces an increase in sub-glottal pressure. That induced robust quality trains a gradual hyperactivity in the vocalis group, which then throws the ideal balance of the muscles off. Lyric tenors singing dramatic repertoire is the plague of our time. Dramatic baritones singing bass, or dramatic sopranos singing mezzo is just as rampant. I have in fact observed many coloratura sopranos who were trained as mezzos. More personally, I believe that my long career as a baritone is an example of this gradual destabilization of the instrument. Developing and maintaining a healthy falsetto range is one of the necessary characteristics of healthy vocal production. I had a very healthy falsetto in my youth, even singing some counter-tenor. I had all but lost the ability during the last two years of my baritone career. Now not only do I have it back, It is nearly an entire octave higher than before.

Theoretically, there is a finite maximum fold mass and therefore a low pitch limit for any given voice. However, there is an infinite possibility of mass reduction and therefore an infinite possibility of high pitch production, “theoretically”. The following singer is not a freak, but simply someone who probably had unconsciously developed a facility in the falsetto range which got him attention. As a result he continued to develop this ability:

The singer sang nearly an octave above his previous record, which proves that coordination improves with training. His final note was C#8, two octaves above the soprano high C. The coordination is referred to as damping, whereby only a portion of the vocal folds is vibrating (this production is also called whistle voice). In essence, the smaller the vibrating portion, the higher the singer can sing. The vibrating portion can be made infinitely smaller and therefore, the pitch level can be theoretically infinitely higher.

Many respected teachers and scientist take the stand that falsetto does not help in vocal training. I disagree for the reasons given above. I believe the problem with the assessment of scientists in this specific case stems from an over-concentration on acoustic factors. Acoustics are crucially important once the phonation is of a high quality, but understanding how to bring the instrument into muscular balance is where science is lagging. It is virtually impossible to get professional singers to submit to laryngeal electro-myography. The idea of inserting needle-electrodes in the laryngeal muscles scare singers to death. Therefore, empirical data cannot be gathered relative to the function of those tiny muscles at work. Additionally, there is a prejudice in the field of vocal pedagogy against the necessity of long-term training to achieve superlative results. Teachers and singers and scientists by association, by and large believe that a singer’s abilities can only be improved to a certain point, that someone is specifically vocally gifted or not. This kind of limitation discourages the thought that a voice that appears imbalanced and does not response to superficial remedial exercises could improve to a professional level. If this is accepted, then there is no real reason to study muscular dynamics, for it is assumed that the coordinated singer is gifted and the less coordinated one has to chance of improvement in that regard.

Consequently, the research has focused more on acoustics because we have immediate control of resonance factors which are principally vowel production and vowel modification. Acoustic research is yields very immediate results, the equipment is graphic and flashy and the layman can follow on a superficial level. Such research is much more easily funded and the information gets a lot of mileage.

Although we have less empirical data about the behavior of the intrinsic laryngeal muscles with regards to the professional voice, we can however extrapolate logical expectations from what we know about the basic function of this musculature. For my part, I have based my teaching on these premises and indeed my own retraining as a tenor is based upon expectations of how the mechanism would respond as muscular dynamics change.

Verdi Di Provenza.mp3



How I sang as a baritone and what I do here in the Strauss Cäcilie practice clip are worlds apart. There is even a significant quality difference between the Cäcilie clip and the Deposuit clip that I posted here one month ago. For better listening pleasure, I will end this issue with a clip of Leonora’s Tacea la notte placida sung by Mexican Soprano Jessica García Gonzales, a current student who sang as a mezzo-soprano until April of this year.


© 07/27/2008