Kashu-do (歌手道): Defining falsetto and how it may be used to further balanced phonation

My voyage from bass-baritone to tenor is getting to the point whereby daily experiences are like a sequence of wonderful miracles. I say bass-baritone because at my heaviest I sang Wotans Abschied with the Salt Lake City Symphony, Sarastros arias in concert and towards the end, Germont, Macbeth, Scarpia and then I began coaching Amfortas and Hollander. But no! I was never a bass or even a baritone for that matter. The fact that judgments about voice are made often haphazardly in small, resonant, medium-sized rooms that encourage volume rather than efficiency, can lead even the most disciplined singer astray.  Being led astray in part by my remarkable ability to ape the sound of a Verdian baritone is however not the issue today, but rather the remarkable road back to truth or better said to conscious singing.

If I had to chose a single principle in the last 28 months that I would call the most significant, I would have to say without a doubt that it is the paradoxical term, full-closure falsetto. More on this later! But first, I will attempt to make sense of the term falsetto. The term has been used historically for many different situations. At one point, falsetto (literally little false [voice]) referred to the tendency for male singers to sing a little breathy in the muscular passaggio (incidentally also true of women), roughly between A3 to G4 depending on the severity of the muscular imbalance and the vocal type. This little false voice could sound less false in the upper passaggio where the activity of the external Thyro-Arythenoids (not the vocalis, which is internal) would have an adductive effect on the folds. Nevertheless this would not induce full closure. Just enough to give the sound a partial clarity due to the fact that the folds had come together enough to create some glottal resistance.
However this coordination, unlike a well-coordinated phonation, cannot endure great levels of subglottal pressure without falling apart. Thus, this false sound was also identified as less loud. This is however not a black and white issue. This falsetto can exist on a continuum of efficiency to inefficiency, meaning that it is possible to make a sound that is closer to a real sound than it is to falsetto, but is nevertheless falsetto because of its inherent inefficiency. Ergo, when one thought of me as a baritone, my hollow falsetto driven to loud levels was considered a real sound. The inherent inefficiency made the sound darker. It lacked the clarity that comes with full closure as well as the strong high partials necessary for vocal presence in an orchestral environment. In a medium, live room however, I was considered in the same category as Bastianini.  Is it a wonder that my favorite singer in my early years was the late Hermann Prey?  By my estimation, he was a tenor who mastered the slightly breathy voice, yielding enough darkness to make him viable as a lyric baritone. Had I not been able to produce very low notes, I could have made it as a very successful lyric baritone specializing in recitals.

But there is another voice quality that is referred to as falsetto. It is also quiet and unable to become very loud for reasons that are opposite to the first kind of falsetto. In this case, the folds are closed tightly. In such a posture, an increase in subglottal pressure does not get released fully in the open phase of vibration. Over time, the pressure builds up to an unsustainable level. So this coordination also remains relatively less loud, but it has greater acoustic strength than the hollow, driven falsetto. In the high range, B4b and above it could take a quality that ressembles a Rossini tenor or a haute-contre (many modern counter-tenors use this coordination). This reinforced or full-closure falsetto is not very different from a balanced modal production with the sole distinction of being pressed. Some singers are strong enough to crescendo smoothly, albeit with great effort, from this sound to a full-voiced sound. They tend to be called robust tenors after the Italian term tenore robusto  or spinto in the case of sopranos. But such terms require a post of their own.

Naturally, a perfectly balanced but quiet sound is often mistaken for falsetto, until great singers like Nicolai Gedda, Giuseppe di Stefano, Alfredo Kraus and others demonstrate how it is possible to perform a crescendo and diminuendo from very quiet to very loud and quiet again, a term mistakingly called messa di voce outside of Italy.  The problem with these singers (Gedda much less problematic in this case) is that the upper voice is often not developed fully enough for these tenors to sing with their fullest voices without imbalance. Jussi Björling, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Miguel Fleta and Gigli developed their voices more fully without losing this flexibility.  It is this quiet modal voice, mistakingly confused with the other two modes described above, that can be developed to yield the most beautifully balanced voices.  Like the specific actions of other skeletal muscles, the balance of each individual note requires a specific strategy in the recruitment of muscular motor units (fibers). It is important to know that the ability to touch one’s toes comes from having muscles strong enough that can overcome the resistence of the opposing muscle groups and not from the inherent flexibility of a muscle group. As my yoga teacher always said: flexibility is strength.

The muscular function of the larynx encourages closure as fundamental frequency (pitch for simplicity) rises. Such is the function of the External Thyro-Arytenoid Muscles, as mentioned above. The reverse is also true, one is more likely to be breathy in the lower range as external TA relaxes, thereby requiring greater activity from the Inter-Arytenoid muscles to complete fold closure at the posterior end of the vocal folds. It is from this fact that comes the concept of “bringing the top down”.  Bringing the top down is a good concept but does not work equally in all singers. Imbalances, when they occur, are specific to each voice. Bringing the top down or bringing the bottom up (in cases where the lower voice is more efficient from habit) will tend to get bumpy at the muscular passaggio where the intricate balance between the laryngeal musculature is most tenuous.  Patience is necessary to achieve balance on each note using the uppermost coordinaton at low volumes as a model. Over time this quality can grow powerfully with little stress and considerably less effort. In my case, I have had the most palpable success when I alternate one month from the top (sometimes singing the lightest lyrical repertoire) with one month utilizing what I think as my full voice. The two qualities have become close to fully unified and I experience greater range and greater dynamic control at the extremes. The middle of the voice still requires attention.

The important lesson here is to learn to distinguish between the three modes referred to as falsetto.  The quiet modal voice is difficult to distinguish from the quiet pressed voice that often is produced virtually without vocalis activity.

Example clips will be posted soon!

© 07/08/2010