Passaggio Tips: Part II

Last week, I discussed what the passaggio is in relation to registers. The main ideas were:

  1. To sound consistent, you have to change.
  2. The passaggio is used to move between acoustic zones or registers in our voice.

In this post I want to give you some mental strategies.

Know Thyself

First thing, you should know where singers of your type generally choose their passaggio points. Ask singers of your type where they perceive theirs. A book like Richard Miller’s The Structure of Singing has charts of voice types and their passaggi. Men generally have two that are important. Women have more.

Ultimately you will find your own points, but it helps to have a reference.

Breath, breath, breath

Your breath technique must be solid. That means an open body where the air itself is helping to keep you tall. It means that your ribcage resists collapse during the phrase. It means a balanced response and gentle pressure from your lower abdominals.

And I really mean “gentle pressure”. If it feels like you’re yelling or like it’s taking an enormous amount of pressure, then you’re probably overdoing it. You should always maintain expansiveness in your body, and singing should never feel like yelling.

This should be the very first place that you look for problems. If you don’t fix this, you can’t fix much of anything else.

Vowel Modification

Singing is not like speaking. You are taking your voice into places where it will sound and feel very different. You will cause yourself problems if you try to make your high range feel like your speaking voice range. Thus you modify your vowels as you move through your voice.

We have acoustic zones where certain resonances work and others don’t. Vowels are entirely based off of those resonances, and you have to be careful that you choose correctly.

Some vowels simply don’t work in parts of your voice. By choosing your vowels correctly, you’ll help your voice function, and your voice will sound louder.

Here’s an example of a vowel pathway (a variation on the Caruso scale):

So as you move through your range, you must consciously adjust your vowel choice to the appropriate part of your range. At passaggio points, you have a few choices:

  1. You can find the ideal pitch to move to a new vowel. This will be the smoothest and safest.
  2. Or you will have to consciously push one vowel higher. This will generally be louder but increasingly strident as you move higher and distort your vocal tract.
  3. Or you can bring one vowel slightly lower. This will be softer.

It all depends on the effect you’re trying to achieve.

Dangers

Even if you accept the idea of “vowel modification” you can run into problems if you try to make the correct vowel feel like it does when you speak it.

Resist that. Think of your voice like a machine: you do the actions, and there’s a result.

In your high range the vowels will not sound or feel like they do in your speaking voice range. The vowels will be closer to vocal tract shapes. Learn the shapes of each vowel, and then simply make those shapes. It’s hard at first, but over time you’ll figure it out.

Takeaways

  1. Know where the passaggio points are in general for singers of your voice type.
  2. Perfect your breath technique.
  3. Choose your vowels carefully.

Next time, I’ll give you some exercises to help you work through your passaggio.

NOTES

  1. What I call “passaggio points” Richard Miller calls “registration events”.
  2. The proper term for resonances in the voice is formants. I just didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole with too much terminology since resonances conveys enough information.
  3. The vowel pathway I presented goes for men and women, but they’ll start at different points due to differences in pitch range. For a reason that I’ll explain some other time, men’s and women’s vocal tracts aren’t all that different. A few half-steps are all that separates the average man and woman’s vocal tracts, so I tend to consider vowel pathways as going through the whole human voice, where men and women occupy different pitch ranges along that path.
  4. For an in-depth look at which vowels work and don’t work throughout the singing range, find a copy of Berton Coffin’s “Sounds of Singing” and its vowel chart. Most university libraries should have a copy.
  5. Dr. Donald Miller in Resonance in Singing discusses vowel choice as well by using less IPA than Coffin and instead uses acoustic feedback from the Voce Vista software. He also has practical methods of determining proper vocal tract tuning (vowel choice) for a given pitch. Again he uses Voce Vista as a feedback tool.

Comments

  1. Bruno Fortes says

    Hello Ian, I’m not a professional coach or anything but could it be that in some cases there are more than just two passagios for male voices? Perhaps they could be divided into something like major/minor passagios.

    In my case I found that those at D4-F4 and D3-F4 were the most “cripling” passagios. They were audibly present in my singing and “broke” the tone of my voice the most.

    Then, when I really started focusing on tone consistency, I came across a few more places where my tone kind of “shifts”. At those spots it’s like some of my characteristic overtones suddenly appear or dissapear, depending on which vowel I’m singing. For example, I found the one at G2-A2 and after a while I started noticing that it also occured at G3-A3.

    • Ian Sidden says

      Your observation is correct. For men, we usually reserve the term passaggio for those two “crippling” passaggi. But there are others.

      Why do we do this? For two main reasons. First, the higher ones are more difficult, especially the upper one. The shift from speaking ranger to higher ranges takes considerable adjustment. The shift to second formant tuning at the higher passaggio is a profound shift in vocal perception for the singer.

      Second, those lower changes happen in a part of the voice where the harmonics or overtones are closer together and are easily paired with formants. So harmonics move easily in and out of formants with little conscious adjustment by the singer.

      At higher ranges the harmonics spread apart while the formants maintain the same width of resonant frequencies. The singer then has to consciously adjust formant tuning. That’s what vowel modification is trying to accomplish.

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