One of the easy but ill-advised choices that some science-based voice teachers make is to attempt to replace older terminology with scientific jargon. Too often modernists like to present tradition in the way that some in Western medicine like to define traditional medicines as “snake oil!” In this way, modernists also conflate information with methodology. After 33 years of active teaching I cannot say that the process of teaching voice has changed fundamentally although we have a wealth of new information.
Teaching and indeed singing is informed by the mind but occurs in the body.
That is why a very talented and experienced colleague said to me: “I don’t really know what head voice is.” Likewise, some 15 years ago when I was still singing as a baritone, I was preparing Germont Père from Traviata. I went to have a lesson from one of my former teachers and after I sang Di Provenza il mar…, she said: “You never used head voice in the entire aria!” My very science-minded answer was: “The voice turned. I know I achieved dominance of the 2nd Formant (now called fR2- 2nd Formant Resonance).” She replied: “It’s impressive that you can do all of that in chest voice!”
This is where an either/or jargon in my on mind prevented me from understanding what she meant. What I have learned over the years is that Head Voice and Chest Voice are components of the voice and both are active at all times in a well-coordinated voice. The way I was able to make sense of that memory is that the head voice function was not active enough when I sang Fs and Gbs. For a baritone, certainly not! A baritone would have given in to the lighter side of the voice a bit more when singing Fs and Gs. What my teacher did not know then is that I am in fact a tenor. This means that my Gb will exhibit more chest content than a baritone’s Gb. In someways, that Gb may have been appropriate for my tenor voice or maybe it could have had a little more head content. Either way, the fact that I made the turn to rF2 dominance did not necessarily mean that I made the muscular shift appropriately. Maybe I did, but I was not aware back then that rF2 was not the same as giving into the lighter mechanism.
As I explained in a recent post, vocal fold closure is a three-part system: 1) LCA closes the folds superficially along the folds’ length. 2) IA closes the folds posteriorly. 3) TA muscularis closes the folds inferiorly along the folds’ vertical depth. My theory is that closure 1 and 2 constitute the head voice and is a clear light experience, while closure 3, closure along the substantial depth of the folds constitute chest voice. The sensation is that the chest voice is full and is the dominant sensation in the lower two thirds of the voice (but the head function is always present) and the head voice is the dominant structure in the upper third. For me as a dramatic tenor, B3-F4, what I refer to as The Bermuda Tritone is an area of shared dominance. Subtle changes occur in this area. F4# and above require more and more head voice sensation but the integrity of the chest voice is not compromised. A good chest voice requires a strong compression of the breath and a deep fold posture to result in a flexible full tone instead of pressed voice. Maintaining the integrity of the shape of that full tone while allowing the head sensation to dominate our experience is the vocal battle (La lotta vocale) that we need to manage all our lives in order to become more and more skilled and not less so.
But explaining is never enough. Passing this along to students is not a one size fits all experience. Each student comes with specific issues and histories, which require the teacher to take a very specific approach to each student although the fundamentals are the same for everyone.
The last thing I wish to express relative to head and chest voices is that they relate to each other. A fully developed chest voice is necessary to liberate the head function because tension or dysfunction in one part of the system reflects in all parts. Accessing the ease of the head voice depends on developing and maintaining the fullness (support inducing aspect) of the chest voice. This balance more than anything else explains the great singers.
rF2 dominance is important! It was always a part of the operatic tradition. Girare, “turning the voice,” (which is what rF2 is) is crucial in the organic production of the voice, but it is meaningless unless a proper muscular balance has been achieved.
There are many examples of legendary singers who never valued the turning of the voice as important, or perhaps confused achieving head voice with turning the voice. Most famous among the men are Giuseppe di Stefano, Alfredo Kraus and Juan Diego Florez. These voices tend to be somewhat head-voice driven, but there is always enough fullness of tone to balance out the head voice. It is possible for a traditional male to achieve rF2 (turning) in a chest dominant adjustment or a head dominant adjustment. It is also possible to remain in a non-turned acoustic adjustment (rF1) in head voice as well as chest voice.
The problem relative to female voices is the concept of the middle voice. rF2 dominance from a traditional acoustic transition should occur in the female voice around E4b. The singers I teach talk about this lower passaggio around Eb to F#. All of that is very low in the voice. Feeling that transition of the voice can be confusing for female singers. The problem to understand is that changing to rF2 does not mean that the the singer is suddenly in head voice. The female singer has not reached a muscular necessity to access head voice dominance until the upper middle of the voice (For mezzos around B4b and for sopranos around D5. The interval of a 5th between G4 and D5 is often the weakest part of the modern female voice. The voice building challenge is to develop chest dominance in rF2 acoustic adjustments. Few women achieve this these days. It was easier when women assumed that the only passaggio was the upper passaggio. They assumed what is now called middle voice was still in chest voice dominance. Early Tebaldi, Margarethe Klose and Violeta Urmana are some examples. I’ve also observed that lyric coloraturas tend to do well here. If a soprano of a lighter voice must sing Violetta in Traviata or the second and third act of Gilda in Rigoletto, they need a strong middle voice. Mezzos and dramatic sopranos require a full middle voice but it takes time to develop the breath support for it. Often such singers, chose a different strategy–go into head voice dominance earlier in the range. I believe that is what has driven the tendency to lighter voices in opera altogether–It is difficult to develop a full voice. It takes a lot more time than the business of opera is willing to allow in our times. Not only are more dramatic voices more difficult to develop but even the middle voice of an average lyric soprano or the top of an average lyric tenor are also.
Fully developed voices produce consistent and replicable patterns that can be observed acoustically. However differences can be seen in voices that are fully developed because the singer has a different sound aesthetic. Di Stefano was called “a law unto himself” by his contemporaries but he was an exciting performer and artist. Today, we still use di Stefano as an example of someone who’s vocalism was against the grain. His contemporaries understood that his obsession with “pure text pronunciation” made acoustical vocal balance impossible. Yet his muscular balance made it possible for him to do great things, especially when coupled with his extraordinary musicality, stagecraft and linguistic gifts. Nevertheless, his colleagues judged his vocalism to be flawed. Today, many singers sing very much a flawed sound and are applauded for it. Whereas even 30 years ago there were agreements about the fundamentals of operatic singing, today people seek to lock themselves in a bubble of people who applaud what they do even if it is objectively problematic. We need to go out of this so-called post truth world. There is no post truth! The malady we are experiencing must be made an anomaly. We must return to a fact based world.
Lastly, there are many singers in the world who sing truly well by any measure and remind us how a great traditionally trained voice sounds like. But the environment caters to a more superficial sound aesthetic and therefore the great voices are actually valued less. The idiosyncratic voices are considered more unique. But are they really? Or just disorganized? Are they audible? Well, see you at the opera house!
© February 20, 2020