Ah, Sweet Mystery of Voice!

I have said many times that there is no mystery to singing, and of course, there is plenty of mystery. I have to admit that I contradict myself not only in this but elsewhere. That’s because truth is often paradoxical. Sometimes two seemingly opposite things occur simultaneously. Life is full of examples of this. Water, when it is still, reflects as a mirror, but there is nothing there except light bouncing off the surface. Light is what allows us to see shadow. Forward movement creates a backlash.

The voice is a very real phenomenon but it has no weight, no size, no taste, no color and cannot be seen. The voice is personal and unique but has some characteristics that are the same for all human beings. Scientists don’t really know why we can sing. We don’t really need to sing to survive and the vocal folds evolved to protect the lungs from foreign objects, not to make sound, that came later. So how is it that we sing?

Since no one can answer this question, perhaps we should stick to things that can at least be discussed with a small measure of understanding. A good topic that never gets exhausted is vocal registers. If we take this discussion to that topic we must begin by defining again what a vocal register is:

A register is a group of tones or pitches that have the same texture or quality.

This definition says nothing about pitch. That is because registration is independent of pitch but in a beginning singer we use pitch to help access registers because the extremes of pitch help make the behaviors of registration more perceptible. A very high light sound is LIKELY to elicit head register and a very low loud sound is LIKELY to elicit chest register, but this is a probable, not definite, response. In a skilled vocalist chest register quality can be made on higher pitches (sometimes very high pitches) and head register quality can be made on lower pitches. Understanding this is crucial if one is to understand the difference between vocal production (or laryngeal behavior) and musical style.

CCM styles are predominantly chest register oriented in both men and women. Head register is found on some high pitches in some styles or can be used for ornamentation or expressiveness. By and large, however, since most of the CCM styles came from the “common person” rather than aristocracy or nobility, they were derived from speech, which, in most people is chest register dominant. The various styles have evolved over the decades but the declarative quality of most of our “popular” music is unmistakable.

The question then becomes, how does one take chest register higher as a vocal quality without shouting? Or, can shouting be musically and vocally acceptable? Is a gospel singer, wailing away on some very high pitch, singing, shouting, or is that a moot point? When a heavy metal singer is screaming, is that an effect of the electronics or is the person really doing something that is far away from normal vocal use? Where does taste come into this discussion? What kind of boundaries do styles have to have in order to be “authentic” and are those boundaries personal, musical, vocal, or some combination of each? (No, I don’t have answers. I just like questions!)

The question that comes up most often is “how do I belt correctly?” First of all you must understand that belting is using your chest register at a loud volume on pitches that are above what is traditionally called “the break”. If you do not agree with this you either don’t belt yourself, don’t understand what’s happening in the larynx when you do, or belt in some kind of sound that isn’t actually belting, but you think it is. Sorry. You don’t have to take my word for it, but that is what I do and teach.

The way to “carry chest up” is to carry chest up. If you can’t hear chest register as a quality, then you are going to use what you feel as a guide and if you try to carry the same feeling up, you will kill your poor voice in short order unless you have very sturdy vocal folds or keep your upper range very short. If you think that making a nasalized, squawk is “belting” you will end up sounding weak and ineffective rather than powerful and dynamic because you don’t have enough chest register in your mechanism to generate the quality or color that sounds appropriate. If you think that there are no registers, or five registers, or different registers for every pitch, and that resonance is enough to teach you to belt, good luck in your search. Of course, you can find all of these ideas and more on YouTube…….the world is full of folks who will sell you their DVDs. (I don’t have any).

This may be a mystery to some folks, but not to me. It’s not one of those paradoxes, it is something that is replicable, definable, specific, and consistent. The mystery is why others are mystified.

Keep those cards and letters comin’ in, folks.

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