In this post, I’ll give you a few exercises for working out your passaggio. It’s not easy, but it can be done with some patience.
I love glides.
“Glide” means sliding between two notes. There’s no stopping on individual pitches except for the two poles at either end (which isn’t true in the “siren” genre of glides). There’s no worrying about whether you’re singing in tune. Instead, it’s just an exercise to get in touch with your voice and your range.
Honestly, you can perform a glide between any two pitches, but it’s probably best to have at least a spread of an octave. Beginners often get stymied by glides that are too short.
Falsetto to speaking glide
This comes from Berton Coffin’s The Sounds of Singing. One of the gentlest exercises I do is to start on F#4 in falsetto and then glide down two octaves. I start on the vowel “ooo” ([u]).
For women: One octave is sufficient from this pitch, though two later become doable. If this feels too low, there’s no crime in starting higher. As you transpose higher, you can switch to more open sounds as “oo” will become more difficult.
When I get to the bottom pitch, I open to “Ah” in speaking voice. Along the way, I try to ease the transition from falsetto to modal and from closed vowel to open so that there’s no obvious break in the sound. This should become pretty easy after a few tries.
Then I glide up from the bottom note back to the starting pitch, in this case F#4. Again, you should strive to move from modal to falsetto without an obvious break. Then you can transpose the entire exercise up by half steps.
First you begin to sense what vowel shapes feel best in a certain part of your voices and what shapes help move you in and out of register changes.
Second, you begin to sense where you like to make the switch from that lower voice into the higher voice. For me, this happens around B3.
Breath warmup with straws
Sing through a straw. Really small straws will just cause stress for some people, so experiment with different sizes to see what you like. I personally prefer a coffee stirring straw. YMMV
Try a glide with the straw, but now you’ll start from the bottom of your voice and glide upwards to some high note. Because it’s safer to sing through a straw than with your mouth hanging open, you can experiment with different levels of breath support.
Remember that the feeling of gentle breath push from your abdomen must be paired with a sense of resistance and openness from the ribcage and inhalation muscles. La lotta vocale and all that.
Why straws? Ingo Titze, the voice researcher, has published a lot of material about how high impedance vowels and voiced consonants (shapes that block the outflow of air from your vocal tract) help vocal folds to begin phonation with less air pressure. A straw really increases impedance.
This is a gentle warmup for your folds, and you can begin warming up your breath muscles without too much worry about tiring out your voice.
Scales and Arpeggio Strategies
Any of the following strategies can be used for both scales and arpeggios. Play around with both and even combine them.
Andrew Zimmerman taught me this.
Small voice is exactly that. You attempt to make the smallest sound possible while maintaining some kind of pitch. The trick is to move it throughout your range without needing to blast your voice.
Begin low in your voice. Raise the back of the tongue to the “ng” position. Begin singing a five note scale in the smallest voice possible. Transpose this up by half steps. Be patient. Your voice will have obvious breaks at first, and some tones won’t want to work. But if you’re gentle, you will find the ability to make your voice work without too much breath pressure.
Whilst doing this, your voice will feel register-less, and it is hard to tell whether you’ve entered falsetto or not. Don’t worry about it. Later you can try and maintain some sense of modal voice as you get higher.
I also like “ng” because we have no strong opinion about how it should sound, so there’s less desire to actively manipulate the sound.
Small voice communicates how well our folds are working. If they feel totally immovable, then that means much more gentle warm up time in needed or maybe even some vocal rest. If they feel pliant and willing to move throughout the range, then that’s a good sign.
It also reminds us that we don’t need lots of vocal weight while singing through the passaggio. By maintaining the small voice, we find new pathways through our range that don’t involve really heavy singing.
Sing on [u]
Begin on an “oo” fairly low in your voice and sing an upward major scale. Because its formants are tuned lower than [a], it will flip to second formant (F2) tuning earlier than an open vowel like “ah”. That’s good since it will be in a lower part of your voice.
This flip is around the primo passaggio for men. For women, it will happen very low in the voice. You’re essentially moving into “middle voice” lower in your range.
If it doesn’t flip, you will have the distinct feeling that the vowel is becoming more and more distorted. It will also feel heavier and harder to produce.
If the flip happens, it will feel like the bottom has fallen out from underneath the vowel. That’s not to say that it stops sounding deep, but there is a distinct feeling change. As you perfect this, you’ll notice that the vowel actually sounds brighter while still maintaining its [u] character.
And here’s the beautiful thing: you barely have to do anything to let the flip happen. Just maintain an [u] tongue and lip position, and it should just work. Of course, it’s always easier said than done.
First, that flip is THE flip just in a lower part of the voice. Mastering it is essential. The [a] vowel flips higher in the voice, but it will be a lot easier to find that higher flip if you’ve already found the lower [u] flip.
“This is only one of the problems that the oo vowel solves … it’s already covered. But if you do ” – he sang an ascending scale on an ah vowel opening more and more as he went up – “then you have to teach him how to break that passaggio. But if you use the oo, it’s already there”
Note on [u]
The [u] vowel must have sufficient depth. We Americans tend to pronounce our “ooo” very shallowly (closer to “eww”). One way to find the deeper sound is to make the vowel first without using the lips. Use your fingers to prevent your lips from forming the rounded shape then make [u].
Hard, no? When you get to something that feels as close as you can, then add the lips. That’s the [u] we’re looking for.
Sing More Coloratura in General
I’ve been singing loads of Messiah recently, and it’s been great for identifying bad habits and sticky places in my range.
Even if you just do scale plus 9th exercises, do it with a metronome so that you don’t change tempo unconsciously. Try fast and slow speeds. Slow doesn’t necessarily mean easier.
Sometimes we need to approach it indirectly.
Closed then Open Exercises
Begin on a pitch with a closed shape (closed vowel, nasal consonant, straw, etc.) and then open to a vowel that’s been giving you trouble.
For example, Berton Coffin describes the open mouthed hum where you drop your jaw, place your hand over your mouth, sing a pitch, and then remove the hand.
Remember that high impedance vowel and consonant shapes help the folds to phonate? By finding that easier onset the folds will continue to open and close in that pattern even if you open your mouth.
From there, you can get the sense of what a well-sung note on a pitch feels like. Learn to prepare that feeling as you approach difficult areas of your voice.
Singing with earplugs
That’s it. Put earplugs in or cover your ears with your hands.
You’ll sound like a radio DJ to yourself because all the brilliance is blocked, but I promise you that you will get a very strong sense of what works and what doesn’t.
You’ll also hear how your voice transitions from one zone to the next. Find the gentlest path.
Is that all?
No, but I have to stop somewhere because there are so many ways to approach your passaggio.
But these exercises have helped me personally learn more about my voice and how to manage moving through the different zones of it.
One final thought: train your ears. Begin listening to singers and disassembling exactly what you hear. Eventually, you’ll begin to hear techniques and choices instead of loudness or beauty or whatever adjectives transfix you now.
Your precision in perception will help your precision in action.