Kashudo (歌手道):The Little Voice Is the Real Voice: The Danger of Volume Before Its Time

Often, a singer will come to me and ask me to teach him to sing piano. The strange thing is that the singer often has the ability to sing a well-coordinated piano but does not realize that s/he has the ability. Our classical singing world is so driven by volume that quality is often sacrificed for it. The terms falsetto or flute voice are very misunderstood and are often so named because the singer does not yet have the ability to sing such notes with enough breath energy (sub-glottal pressure) to match the quality of the the lower voice that they summarily accept as their “real” voice. In many such cases the real voice is in fact a “pushed” voice. In other words, a voice sung with too much breath pressure, forcing the vocal folds slightly apart. In such cases the voice sounds loudly up close but because of the lack of efficient fold closure, the resulting harmonics lack in power and the voice is not heard well at a distance or with orchestral accompaniment.

Very often we hear lighter voices sounding much more present than their fuller voiced counterparts, yet the fuller voices are called more dramatic, more powerful than the lighter voices. The darker sound we associate with dramatic voices is indeed a natural characteristic of such voices. However, it is important to distinguish between a sound that is rich and has dark qualities even at its most efficient and brilliant and a false darkness that come with “loose” phonation (inefficient fold closure).
It is important to remind that the world record holder for the highest note sung is a male and he sings C#8, a half step beyond the high side of the standard 88-key piano. This would suggest that a woman could theoretically coordinate pitches in the vicinity of C#9 since male and female voices average around an octave apart.
The greater error is however the misnomer “falsetto” applied to soft high notes that cannot handle a great deal of breath pressure. I had an F6 even 20 years ago that was referred to as “reinforced falsetto”. As I train as a tenor, I am finding that those notes have come back and they are becoming stronger. This I have also noticed with coloraturas I teach. Over time, what used to sound like a flute voice becomes gradually fuller (what some might call “real”). In short, what is often called “not real” or “falsetto” is rather an undeveloped sound. The coordination required for each individual note necessitates a specific recruitment of muscle fibers. See a simple discussion of muscular motor units here!
The ability to coordinate the two main pitch muscles (Vocalis and CT) on an individual note does not mean that the muscles are able to exhibit the same strength on even an adjacent note, one half-step apart. An individual note depends not only on increasing muscular activity of the more dominant muscle (CT for high notes, Vocalis for low notes) but also decreasing muscular activity in the more passive muscle (Vocalis for high note, CT for low notes). The strength of motor units in each of the muscles factors in. The strength of the required muscular motor units must be high enough to resist the breath pressure applied to the system (i.e. volume). The question therefore is whether the system, correctly coordinated relative to necessary motor units in each muscle, is strong enough to handle the applied pressure without the system buckling and recruiting additional motor units that are not appropriate for the note in question.
For example, if a tenor is trying to sing B5 and has a vocalis recruitment that is appropriate to Bb5, the pitch will either lower or the folds will loosen (i.e. relaxing the Inter-Arytenoids that close the posterior end of the folds. I.e. Speeding up vibration cycles to maintain pitch). The result would be correct pitch but with a kind of inefficiency that prevents the note from sounding brilliant and present.
What often sounds like a light sound is often a correct muscular set-up that has not yet gained enough strength to handle the necessary breath pressure that would result in a note that sounds “real” (i.e. matching the quality of other notes that are strong in the range).
In short, forcing a note to sound louder before its time will change the natural set-up of that note. To develop notes that sound weak, a singer needs 1) to accept the notes as weak and challenge them carefully by applying a little more volume until they develop in strength. This might take time but it guarantees the correct coordination of the laryngeal musculature.
Increased sub-glottal pressure can also have another effect. It could induce hyper-activity in the Inter-Arytenoids causing pressed voice. In such a case, folds thin out and are pressed to maintain pitch (i.e. slow down the vibration cycles). This is often the case with Counter-Tenors who often apply more sub-glottal pressure on very thin folds than the muscular set-up can handle. Over time, the hyper-function of the IAs cause a reduction of sound pressure (volume) lowering the quality of the sound. Counter-Tenors often start to sing big repertoire (for them) too early. The extreme light mechanism of a traditional male voice requires a long time to develop enough strength to sing Handel Castrato roles in large Opera Theaters with large orchestras. The tendency is to press the lower octave of the Counter-Tenor’s range in order to match the thin but relatively intense sound of the upper octave. It is not unusual that the quality of Counter-Tenor voices that specialize in Opera, with large orchestras in large theaters, lowers significantly over about 10 years.
Several issues need to be reviewed.
1. What we call falsetto and flute voice is usually a weak but properly coordinated upper range that needs to be encourages and challenged carefully in order for it to develop into a full sound.
2. The lower and middle voice, often called “real voice” is often inefficient production with fold postures that are too deep resulting in looser adduction.
3. Volume must be applied judiciously in order to maintain a muscular motor unit recruitment mode that is appropriate to the note being sung. Too much volume applied too soon (i.e. singing roles that require great volume before the singer has properly developed) can ruin the quality of the sound and hinder the progress of the singer.

© 12/25/2009

6 thoughts on “Kashudo (歌手道):The Little Voice Is the Real Voice: The Danger of Volume Before Its Time

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  1. I really try as much as I can to avoid my falsetto. I think it sounds so ugly……I think my experiences with headvoice/falsetto have only appealed to me from females. It never sounds nice to me coming from a man and I guess CCM music, what you call it is why. A lot of those men now love to sing in it because they can play around with the range in it and pretty much go as high as they want with ease. It seems singing in a chest voice and going into the slightest upper ranges are too much for them and they have trained themselves to instantly click into falsetto to substitute it. Only thing is….from reading your blog all this time, I believe you have said the transition into ranges should be smooth …not rough and pitchy…like a rough click.

    But if the falsetto is properly coordinated, how do they slowly apply volume to it….or what I hear most say as “strength” to it so it doesn't sound weak and light…but more like a powerful chest voice?

    -Dovie Lee


  2. Dear Dovie Lee,

    Thanks for your comment. The word falsetto is thrown around indiscriminately. I think it is important to distinguish between a well-coordinated tone that is not very strong and the kind of breathy phonation also called falsetto. Sometimes they are difficult to tell apart, particular if the air loss is occurring because of a posterior gap. Full-closure in the upper range, even when weak constitutes what one might call head voice. But because of its softness it does not exhibit strong enough overtones.

    To grow it in strength, one simply crescendos carefully without losing the clarity of the tone. In the beginning one might not be able to grow very loud. But over time, it will grow gradually louder.


  3. There's a feeling I get when I hear some people singing with a good coordinated passagio.

    It seems to me that when they go trough the passagio and above it they sound with the ease as if they where singing in falsetto, but they are singing in mixed voice, not falsetto

    The feeling is like if their voices floated, I don't hear any effort from these singers and they can sustain the notes really well.

    Is that the feeling one should try to achieve while singing piano trough the passagio?

    Cheers from Argentina


  4. Querido(a) Scalectric,

    Thank you for your comment. Every modal note we sing requires a muscular balance that we could call “mix”. When the mix is correct,the fold closure is perfect. The voice feels very lean and flexible and does have a floating sensation.

    This floating sensation must be accompanied with a very pure clarity. It is possible to have this floating sensation when one sings breathy. This is not what we want.

    At any rate, this sensation can be felt throughout the range not only in the passaggio and higher. It is also the same sensation when one sings forte.

    Most of us are used to a labored forte and think that full singing should feel this way. But that is not the case. Even forte can feel just as floaty. The great singers of the past talked about this.

    The messa di voce is the exercise that proves that it is possible to do this. If you can do a messa di voce on one note, you can learn to do it on all notes. It is a matter of guided training to build up muscles that are weak.

    Felices Fiestas alli in Argentina. Soy apasionado del Tango Argentino.


  5. Dr. LaFond,

    Scientists tell us the the falsetto mode of vibration and the “full voice” mode of vibration are distinct, and that anyone who switches from one to the other is shifting, no matter how carefully they disguise it.
    When you describe the “weak” sound which gradually gets stronger (I'm talking about male voices, here), it sounds to me like a production that is in the “chest” mode of vibration with a strong CT component. Please correct me if I'm assuming incorrectly. Given this, you could take two approaches–keep trying to sing it in this way and see if and when it builds, or allow yourself to switch in order to more completely engage all the muscles for their entire range of motion.
    In other words, when doing a messa di voce, do you allow falsetto or do you insist on a light, fully-balanced production even if you may not swell beyond piano?

    Thanks for your insight,
    Klaus Georg


  6. Great comment Klaus! That is precisely the reason for this post. The scientists need to be careful about what they label falsetto. If we define falsetto by its relatively low acoustic strength, that is not enough. We find low acoustic strength (i.e. weak higher partials)even in sounds considered to be “modal” (i.e. coordinated between TA and CT).

    For us as voice teachers and singers, the issue is whether singers began with falsetto in the old school “messa di voce”.

    That question is difficult to answer. I know some excellent singers who can do a messa di voce without a hint of a shift, yet the acoustic information suggests that they might start in falsetto.

    Personally I am looking at this based on what I consider ideal fold posture for a given note. There should not be any significant change from ppp to fff other than an increase in breath pressure/flow. Since we are not robots, there might be some subtle changes in IA activity relative to the increase in pressure.

    But logically, in the best case scenario, the fold posture for a given note presupposes the balance between TA and CT regardless of volume.

    The issue I raise is more concerned with inappropriate changes that may occur in a situation where needed motor units of the muscles in question are not strong enough to do the job they should be able to do. Naturally in such cases, compensatory measures are the result (i.e. the recruitment of motor units or entire muscle groups that are not necessary for the given event). In such cases we get a certain amount of dysfunction. How much we are aware of the dysfunction depends on how much it effects performance and the skill of the singer in masking the resulting problems.

    In truth we have to look at ideal function for all the intrinsic muscles involved. Weak IAs for example will induce increase vocalis to make up for the lack of efficiency (i.e. a deeper phonation to lengthen the vibratory cycle since hypo-active IAs would increase vibration speed).

    To more directly answer your question, I advocate a balanced phonation at all dynamics. What I question here is what we “aurally” define as falsetto.

    It is possible to have a slightly loose phonation that is modal in nature. I believe such was the case with much of Hermann Prey's singing. That is however different from breathiness resulting from a large posterior gap, whereby the air is totally unopposed. Crescendoing from that posture would be next to impossible unless the singer indeed shifted the mode of phonation.

    A quiet modal production in the tenor high range for instance can sound falsetto-like but may not be. This is the issue that is of most importance. The high weak modal voice is the beginning of full singing and that coordination can be strengthened to handle more breath pressure. A posterior gap falsetto cannot be strengthened to produce a full sound.


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