I’m planning to do a few articles this summer about formant tuning techniques for men. I don’t want to write a full explanation in each article though, so I’ll refer back to this one.
Last week, I discussed what the passaggio is in relation to registers. The main ideas were:
- To sound consistent, you have to change.
- 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.
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.
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:
- You can find the ideal pitch to move to a new vowel. This will be the smoothest and safest.
- 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.
- Or you can bring one vowel slightly lower. This will be softer.
It all depends on the effect you’re trying to achieve.
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.
- Know where the passaggio points are in general for singers of your voice type.
- Perfect your breath technique.
- Choose your vowels carefully.
Next time, I’ll give you some exercises to help you work through your passaggio.
- What I call “passaggio points” Richard Miller calls “registration events”.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
As singers, we have all probably experienced the thought, “I could do it in my teacher’s studio, but I cannot do it anywhere else.” Being unable to reproduce results outside the studio is very frustrating and leads to insecurity when working away with the teacher. When I work with my students, I will often ask them to describe for themselves what they are experiencing. When I learn a new concept, I must boil it down into more manageable bits, or name it, before I can easily apply it. I believe this practice to be fundamental when learning how to sing.
To name and describe for yourself what you experienced in the studio offers a pathway to successfully mastering what has been learned. It offers a small but necessary first step to navigate through new techniques. Without this, a student may fall into the trap of trying to reproduce results without working through the method of achieving them. This can lead to fatigue and frustration and, ultimately, less desire to sing.
Where can this be applied?
Most obviously, this can be applied whenever you learn a new technique. Less obviously, it can be applied when you have to switch styles. Often, I am asked to sing in a musical theater setting where a total operatic production is inappropriate. Being able to name exactly what must change is a safe way of switching in and out of stlyes. There is less chance then that habits will leak from one style to the next.
There is a process to naming. Namely, it is:
- Why: Why must you do this?
- What: What, as clearly as possible, must you do?
- Name: This must be simple.
These steps cannot be taken out of order, or else the names have no clear meaning to the student (and perhaps for the teacher as well).
Recently, I received a coaching that was very useful. What I primarily learned was:
- It is important to open my throat throughout my range to feel and communicate ease and beauty in my singing.
Of course, that “why” does very little for me process-wise, and so the coach and I had to boil it down into “what to do” ideas that are more concrete:
- My voce naturale is in my chest voice.
- Remember that voce naturale relaxation throughout my voice.
- In chest voice, feel the vowel in my mouth. I can trust the sound of vowels here.
- In the passaggio, leave an open [a] feeling in the throat and pronounce pure vowels with the front of my mouth. I cannot trust the sound of the vowel here to my own ears.
- In the passaggio, protect my voice with closed vowel shapes in the front of my mouth.
- Pick repertoire, for now, that reminds my throat what my voce naturale feels like.
And from there, with these understandings, I can break these ideas down further and name them.
- voce naturale.
- Open throat.
- Mouth vowel.
- Pear shaped vowel.
- Cover or cuperto.
- Be smart.
You’ll notice that the names I ended up with are common names that we classical singers use regularly. The problem arises when the name is used first without clear description of how to achieve it. When a problem arises with a name that has been carefully crafted, you may go back to step two and adjust the meaning. If the name no longer works, it may be abandoned.
Those descriptions and names work for me. They may not work for you. You may need something more, or less, esoteric. More and more, I am coming to the conclusion that a lot of what we do in lessons is try to find descriptions and names that really speak to us. And that is very important. If a description does not work for you, or for your students, drop it and try something else. We all have different tastes in literature, movies, music and so on, and why should it be different in singing? Just look at the varying descriptions of registers. All of those descriptions worked for somebody at some point and therefore should not be totally discounted. Vocal science, singing, and our imaginations interact in weird ways, and if the goal is good singing, being “right” in our descriptions of it may not be the most important priority.
As always, I would love to hear from you.