Kashu-do (歌手道): Building A Structure and Attempting To Use IT At The Same Time

I have gotten to a point with several of my students whereby my teaching sounds like the average voice lesson:

1. Let us approach it from the head voice!
2. Start with a small voice and grow!
3. The tone begins with the deepest muscles
4. Fill your lungs with air and begin with just one molecule!


In the case of many students, as much as I would like to, I could not begin with these tried and “sometimes” true directives. Why not?

In order for the breath to flow easily, such that there is this bouyant sensation of headvoice, this almost floaty, domy feeling, the fold posture must be able to achieve balance as a default.  In most voices, there are parts of the range that work perfectly like that, but the student does not come to me to compliment his/her easy range but to correct the troublesome range. Before I can use such directives, the entire voice must be ready for it.

Why does one part of the voice work perfectly and other parts not? The parts that work have been trained, often by means of speaking habits, childhood play habits, cultural habits, etc. The “unused register” to quote Vennard must be used and trained. It can either become the element that limits the singer to false classification (i.e. you are a baritone because you have no high notes; or you are a soprano because your middle range is weak), or the one that defines the singer’s strength.

When I listen to a Nilsson or a Björling or a Gigli or the late great American song singer, William Parker, I hear instruments that have a fully developed range. When the structure is so fully “built”, one can walk on it without fear of falling through.  So it is with ideal fold posture.

The most common problems are the female middle range and the male upper range.  In both cases, the modern approach is to recommend that the student “not carry the chest voice too high!” When we listen to the great singers, what we hear is a solid body of sound from bottom to top without a change in quality. Such is the case with


Where in this song does Gigli leave the chest register?


At what point does Pavarotti abandon the chest voice?


Is Nilsson’s middle voice or even top devoid of chest voice? Not even the lean top is totally without a chest content.


Is Dimitrova devoid of chest content anywhere in this piece? Obviously not? Why are her top notes not as radiant as Nilsson’s? Nilsson developed them early. According to Dimitrova’s biography, she began her career with Abigaile, a rather powerful, middle-voice driven role. Nilsson began with Mozart and light Wagner. Was Dimitrova’s voice heavier? Doubtful. Slightly more heavily produced? More than likely.


Can we separate Damrau’s belty speaking voice in this monologue from the power of her relatively light voice in this powerful rendition of the Königin?

I say not? Her ability to reduce volume before the second set of high Fs, to “lighten up” so to speak does not mean she has changed vocal weight as is commonly understood. She simply reduced pressure and flow, but the the basic fold structure remains more or less the same. The effect of lighter makes one thing she is using a different registration. Not so different from the first time, only less volume.

These accomplished singers have something fundamental in common, namely a developed chest voice. This is in agreement with the early Italian teachers of the 17th century, such as Caccini and others who stated a clear preference for the chest voice, not liking the unsupported tones they referred to as “finta” or fake. These teachers were not talking about raw chest tones, but a supported chest tone that made breath flow easier. What we perceive of as a belt quality is often too little chest content, causing a squeeze and preventing the kind of flow we associate with head voice–that is to say, flow that occurs during proper fold oscillation where the folds adduct over their entire length for the close cycle and open fully for the open cycle, as opposed to folds closed along most of the edge but open at the arytenoids (posterior end). This is the false voice or “falsetto”.

The chest voice can be developed in many ways. Among “natural” or “spontaneously developing” singers, the strength throughout the range is developed through years of vocal use, often influenced by culture (i.e. African American singers using strong chest content in Gospel singing before developing into opera singers; Nilsson: young girl in a farm who sang since childhood and encouraged to do so; Björling: little boy who approached his voice like an adult tenor since age four with adequate chest content:)

Is this little boy singing a classic boy soprano sound with a falsetto approach or is he using his speaking voice? Do we not hear his future adult voice as a result of this production as a child?

The flow of breath that we then identify as a head quality is not possible without the foundation of a fully developed chest content, what we should refer to as a balanced modal quality.

In order to develop a full operatic quality that flows with the quality of what some call full head voice, the chest content must be accomplished. This process requires time. Either time during youth, developed unconsciously or in the case of we mere mortals, developed by carefully guided development of the muscles of the throat and body to produce such a sound. This kind of singing is not about coordination alone, but coordination made easy by appropriate muscular development.

What I hear in many singers today is the impossible task of holding the structure together because it has not been developed while trying to use it all at once. Imagine walking on a bridge while it was being built! You would fall through! So happens a lot today! Singers often do not understand why the simple directive: “Sing on the breath” does not work for them.  That simple directive does not work until the muscles have been developed to keep the the folds in the right posture. Until such work is done, simple axioms like “Sing on the breath” are next to impossible!

© 10/13/2010

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