At the passaggi, a singer has some flexibility. With the vocal tract being comprised of flesh and cartilage, we can manipulate our throats within reason to achieve certain vocal effects depending on the musical choices we want to make.
Once you see my examples, you might think, “Yea, well duh. I’ve heard lots of singers do this stuff,” and you’d be right. But I want make these “flipping” strategies more explicit than they have been. Because the concepts of formant tuning are still relatively new, many singers approach their passaggio with a certain amount of guesswork, and that guesswork can lead to uncertainty about the results they can expect.
If you don’t know what the heck I’m writing about with regards to formant tuning, please check out the formant-tuning primer I wrote for the occasion.
My examples, by the way, will detail the strategies for ascending on an “ah” vowel (IPA: [a]) into resonant second formant third harmonic tuning (F2H3) and away from first formant second harmonic tuning (F1H2). 1
Where is my Passaggio?
This is a question only answered after you’ve given it lots of time and experimentation. In my post Tenor or a Baritone? I included a chart of standard passaggio points. While useful, don’t make the tail (that chart) wag the dog (your technique). Because the passaggio is primarily resonance-based, it depends on the shape and size of your vocal tract. However, it may not match up with the length and thickness of your vocal folds in a way that’s considered “standard”. That means you could have bass folds but a baritone vocal tract or vice versa. Discovering your ideal tessitura, repertoire, and passaggio will be more difficult in those cases.
Likewise, well-meaning singers may introduce absolutes that aren’t helpful if applied dogmatically. There’s a video out there of Luciano Pavarotti saying “A real tenor covers at F#”. Well, there are lots of tenor types, and it’s possible that you’re a tenor who flips a half step lower or a minor third higher.
In the below examples, I’m singing as if my flip happens at E4, which is pretty standard for a baritone. When you’ve determined your ideal flip points, you can mentally transpose my examples. My examples, by the way, aren’t meant to be the ultimate example of great singing. They exist purely to give you an idea of what scales look like and sound like when deliberately trying to achieve these formant tuning strategies.
Standard Flip: the Goldilocks of Flips
This is the standard passaggio model, where a singer moves from F1H2 tuning to their F2H3 tuning at pitch they’ve identified as their ideal passaggio. It’s possible, depending on the singer’s voice and level of development, that the flip still won’t kick in at first but instead have a thinner sounding and feeling resonance for a half step or two. Luciano Pavarotti described the feeling like this:
“I think the muscles must be very relaxed, like you’re yawning. But you must really make the voice more squeezed. At the beginning of study the sound seems almost sacrificed. This changes the color…In the beginning… you always crush these notes… And when they begin to come out correctly, they are very secure, even if not yet very beautiful. More and more they take on body…I think I give less space when I go through the passaggio, and then more space after I’ve left it. The normal space I give before and after it… The sound should be even, but inside there is a kind of . . . almost a suffocation of the sound.”
Jerome Hines. Great Singers on Great Singing: A Famous Opera Star Interviews 40 Famous Opera Singers on the Technique of Singing (Kindle Locations 2424-2426). Kindle Edition.
Here’s me singing an F Major scale (recorded in a small room near the mic), where I flip on E4:
You can see that on the E4 and F4, the third harmonic becomes emphasized. Here’s a screen shot of the F with the dominant third harmonic:
Here’s a video of Luciano Pavarotti discussing and demonstrating his technique on an arpeggio to F#4:
And of course he nailed it every time. Here’s a power spectrum using Audacity on one of his “covered” F#s:
The third harmonic is clearly the most dominant.2 Notice how he clearly sings the “awe” (IPA: [ɔ]) on the F#4 to pair the second formant to the third harmonic.
Early Flip: Vowel Distortion
It is possible to try and track the third harmonic lower than one would think of as being one’s official passaggio. This strategy will distort the vowel away from a speech-like quality, and it won’t have the resonant heft that a later flip would.
So why do it? To be honest, you’re unlikely to hear this strategy very much on an [a]. In its favor, the passaggio flip has a distinct feeling of safety compared to energetic F1H2 singing, and once you’ve successfully made the transition to F2H3 tuning at this lower point, it’s much easier to track the third harmonic into the higher range. Second, it could help tamp down excessively loud dynamics.
But the effect it has on a vowel like [a] is obvious and distracting. It is also the quietest strategy, and that’s rarely the best choice for live opera. When I hear this strategy employed, it’s usually using vowels that are already closer to being closed vowels (such as [o]) in musical moments where lighter dynamics are desirable.
Here’s an example of me doing an F Major scale. I add a G4 on top, and I track F2H3 tuning as far down the scale as I can. Since my passaggio ideally happens on E4, I choose to flip a whole tone lower on D4, which I modify to a dull “oh” (again, in small room, near mic):
You can hear, that the ‘Ah” vowel gets obviously distorted, and there’s little corresponding benefit in terms of dramatic loudness. When I flip on the D4, you can see the first three harmonics flatten out and the timbre become bland. Eventually, the F2H3 tuning kicks in, where it begins sounding operatic again, but this kind of phrase is one reason why “vowel modification” is sometimes regarded with suspicion.
However, for vowels like [o] and [ɪ], you can flip earlier without sacrificing as much vowel purity. But that deserves its own post.
Late Flip: Risky but Exciting
The late flip means to push F1H2 tuning higher than one might otherwise choose because of some musical or speech reason. This carries a speech-like quality higher.
If you do then flip into F2H3 tuning, it will sound much more jarring than the other two techniques. It’s almost like accelerating with a stick shift and refusing to up shift until the last moment.
This is risky, of course, because the singer can easily start making a sound that’s closer to a yell on pitch at the top of the F1H2 zone. So watch out. My mantra is “shout resonance, not shout push”.
But there are times when this is necessary, so you’d might as well practice it to find where the safe upper limit of your F1H2 tracking goes, and then you should set an upper limit above which you won’t allow yourself to sing wide open like this. My upper limit is F4.
First, here’s me doing an F Maj scale again, with added high G (in larger room, away from mic):
I kind of blow the G4 out of the water in this example. The late flip often times accompanies that kind of musical gesture by design since it’s meant to exist more on the dramatic rather than the musical side of the spectrum.
Now, here’s Mario del Monaco singing the famous “Vittoria!” from Tosca. He sings the F#4 wide open on the “to” and then flips to F2H3 tuning on the “a”. Then he sings the A# with standard F2H3 tuning. I’ve heard multiple recordings of him doing this, so this was a strategy he decided on and used throughout his Cavaradossi career:
Here’s the spectrum for the “-to” with the dominant second harmonic:
And then the “-a” (same pitch) with the dominant third harmonic:
Interestingly, Pavarotti used the opposite approach (closed “o” open “a”):
Both used their techniques to preserve some aspect of the language. Del Monaco tried to preserve the natural stressed syllable “vit TO ria”, while Pavarotti tried to preserve more natural vowels.3
Singing an “ah” through the secondo passaggio can be approached several ways, and you have some flexibility there. Take the time to find your personal ideal flip note, and then play around with flipping lower or higher by changing the shape of your vocal tract (generally corresponding to mouth opening, which I’ll write about another time).
In general, the normal flip is your best bet, but there are times when you need to slightly stretch your middle voice tuning (F1H2) higher than you otherwise would. There might also be a time where you’d bring F2H3 tuning downwards, though that’s much less likely on an [a].
It’s best to experiment a lot.
- They were recorded using a Lightning connector microphone on my iPhone into Spectrum View and then recorded using the new screen capture feature in iOS 11. <-
- Of course, this was his voice, captured on an old mic, recorded onto VHS, turned into a digital video, compressed by YouTube, and then analyzed by Audacity. So the spectrum isn’t the same as what was in the room. What’s important is that the third harmonic was so dominant that it carried through all that. <-
- Corelli, on the other hand, just sang the entire first “Vittoria!” using F1H2 tuning before flipping on the top note. <-