Function As A Vocal Barameter

What Happens If You Sound Great and Still Have Vocal Issues?

Hang in there, folks, This is long.

Too much chest register in the middle voice or perhaps at the bottom can create functional issues. [If you are not familiar with the term “chest register”, don’t read further, as you won’t understand what I’m writing about here.] A flutter is one kind of instability that could show up. The vocal folds are “kicking” (spasming) because they are not strong enough to resist the air pressure below. They cannot “hold” against the sub-glottic pressure needed to phonate in that pitch range. If head register can’t counter the pull of chest (and that can definitely happen) the secondary passagi (such as the one at about B above middle C or B4) will do odd things. Or, the odd behavior can delay until about F/G at the top of the treble staff. In both cases, the laryngeal movement is suppressed and the “adjustment” can’t happen as it should, and the larynx slightly “rebels”. It happens in men, too, but the pitch range varies a bit.

Sometimes the larynx is too low to move or adjust. It has to be in the middle of the throat, loosely, to be in optimal position to function. If your sound is “warm” and “full”, especially at the bottom, you might have to work to get the lower pitches to be less “deep” by making the vowels bright and the tongue lifted from the back. Classical singing can make this difficult to do. It can also be stuck up too high in the throat and that creates a different set of problems. You can sing in either place, but the function ends up skewed. NONE of this can be done by trying to move the larynx on purpose. That just makes things worse. You can never, ever deliberately manipulate the structures within the throat and sing freely. NEVER.

This “chestiness” can be very difficult to hear in yourself or as a teacher if you are listening to a student, as the sound itself can be fine artistically — musical, comfortable, attractive. The clue, however, is a fluttering behavior (or the consistent flatting or weakness or the inability to sing softly, etc.). You have to go by the response the mechanism is making (assuming the vocal folds have been checked to be sure they are OK). The response of having problems at any “mini-passaggio” place is always register imbalance. Assume there is “too much” chest and lighten up the entire mechanism, acting on a temporary basis (about 3 weeks) as if chest register didn’t exist. Keep the middle light. Work softly about 75% of the time and in practice. It’s OK to do some chest low (below E/F4) but keep it to a minimum. If the problem decreases, it was too much chest, lurking in a disguised form. Watch the /a/ vowel (as in father). It tells you what is going on at the level of the folds.

I once asked Richard Miller about how to work with a voice that sounded wonderful but had technical problems. He said, “the way you work with any other voice”. At the time (it was decades ago), I didn’t think he understood what I was asking about but I didn’t have enough knowledge to ask better questions. I think many teachers of singing assume this is a “breath support” issue and ask for “more support” but it is my personal experience that the problem does not stem from “too little” breath support, but sometimes from “too much”. This camouflages the stickiness of the larynx (temporarily) but, over time, it makes it harder to sing, to warm up, and to keep the top going. Mix can be very tricky or just go away entirely.

It took me at least 25 years of teaching to learn to really pay attention to what the voice is doing regardless of how it sounded. People with big, rich voices can be very deceptive to teach. They can get away with lots of chest in the mid to low range but that will also shorten the top a lot. It makes the voice louder, but can cause flexibility issues (meaning singing runs, rapid staccatos and softer high notes gets hard to do). Given that everyone, in any style, is always happiest with a “big” sound, I wonder if that doesn’t contribute to the increasingly common diagnoses of MTD or the latest variety of “muscle tension issues” in singers.

One of the reasons I have been able to keep going vocally is because I always used the high notes and the soft notes as a barometer of how chesty I could make my middle voice. As soon as the top sticks, I have too much on the bottom. On the other hand, in order to get my phonation back since my paresis diagnosis three years ago, I have had to work very hard on chest in the bottom and middle. The stability I have gained there has been enormously helpful to the ability to sustain a louder mix in the area of the paresis (between about F and C above middle C). It is a zigzag maneuver, but it works. Theoretically, if the mechanism balances across the break, without distortion in tone or vowel, at mezzoforte or louder, whatever sound one makes is the “right sound” for the voice. If you are going to “override” that by making the middle deliberately chestier or headier, remember that this imbalance might be necessary for repertoire but may still be out of whack for the instrument, especially long term. 

 In other words, singing in a very heady mix in order to keep my classical sound beautiful isn’t really “normal” because in the pitch range I would use for speech, instead of being in chest/mix (the normal mode) I am in head/mix. It can be very tricky to get the sound there to be strong enough to be useable and cheating towards head is a good “substitute” for having the ability (or the time) to do otherwise in repertoire in performance.

This is one of the reasons why you cannot even talk about having this happen with 15, 16, or 17-year old students who have been studying for just a few years, or (worse) those who started “studying singing” at 7 or 8 but who just sang songs in whatever sound came out. Even in a 25-year-old you may not get this balance immediately, even when working toward it very deliberately.

Analogy: As I have said before, young ballet students take class for hours a day but they do not go “en pointe” until they have studied for at least 5 years and are 12 or 13, as they are still growing. Even then, the amount of time on the toes is supposed to be limited, so as to avoid serious damage to the feet and legs. Some of the traditional roles are left to be danced by those in their mid-20s who have the strength and stamina to hold up but the “big roles” like the Swan Queen, go only to the most powerful dancers who can hang in there for this very long, demanding role. Dancers, feel free to correct me here if this is not accurate.

If we regard the singing voice in the same way (and traditional classical vocal training did just that) then there are some things that younger voices just should not do if the voice is to hold up for a lifetime. These days, a lot of people do not think in terms of “holding up for a lifetime”. I can think of a lot of present moment older singers who pushed for a big sound on Broadway when they were young who do not sound very good now. Coincidence?

Therefore, for some of you who are new to teaching, or who are CCM based, or who have not had specific issues with your own technique, and for all of you who work mostly with kids, teens and young voices, or even with adult beginners, you can’t know about what I just wrote until and unless you have the guidance of an older, more experienced teacher. A teacher who has expertise in functional training (me, or someone like me) and who can sing very well as a classical vocalist but also does other styles; and, has had significant experience with adult professionals in several styles, over time and can explain all this to you as I just have.  Working with kids, teens and amateur adults isn’t the same as working with seasoned professionals with decades of life experience who go out on the road as singers. Remember that.

For this reason (and there are many others) the people with their “few quick tips” who make a bazillion dollars selling their wares online, will never be true master teachers, understanding the instrument from a broad and diverse point of view. They are mostly young, mostly not capable of singing well enough to have had careers and who, therefore, do not perform or, if they do, stick to just  one style, and think they have “the answer”. Always a bad sign for singers but a great sign for the teachers’ bank accounts.

In a profession that does not respect long life experience and does not “venerate” those with a long history of vocal excellence (particularly as teachers), the “prizes” go to the flashiest packages or the loudest noise-makers. Somatic Voicework™ is not and will never be a method that teaches manipulation of the structures in the throat as a goal. Those methods are just a way to teach vocal parlor tricks. They work well instantly, but they do not serve artistry nor humanity. For that, you need long-term training.

We are living in a time when “humility” is a dirty word. (Donald Trump is beloved by millions. Ditto many others in public life, both in politics and in Hollywood whose world consists only of themselves. The world loves the Kardashians whose claim to fame is being famous. Really?) A great teacher is not interested in self-promotion. He or she is interested in the student and the profession. That matters to some, but many now could care less. Somatic Voicework™ has in mind the highest ethical standards for overall vocal health and longevity, for vocal authenticity and for honest, painstaking vocal development over time.

The exchange of information, from older singers to young ones and vice versa, is very necessary. In Somatic Voicework™ all styles are discussed with respect, because we offer a range of experience and ideas, but we all strive to be the best teachers of singing possible. My 44 years of life experience as a teacher can be a guiding force to those who choose to accept my advice, using what I have developed and taught as Somatic Voicework™, but it is a choice to let me guide you. You must all know that I learn everyday, not just here but in my life outside of Somatic Voicework™. If you are not willing to learn from someone who is older and wiser, then you must question why someone who is young should trust her voice or her life as a singer to you.

There are many ways that you can sound very good and have vocal problems functionally. If you have persistent or difficult problems that you “sing around” you might think about why you should settle for that. An experienced teacher can help you sort out what’s wrong without making everything you do change. Function is a measure of balance, and freedom comes from balance. If you do not understand the concept of vocal balance, you should. Functional vocal training is available. See me in Chicago or Vancouver.

If you think you understand this, please share it with every singer you know, most especially those that teach.

The next Level I training of Somatic Voicework™ is in April in Chicago, followed by a Level I in Vancouver. The details are on this website.


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One thought on “Function As A Vocal Barameter”

  1. I recently had the experience of working with a very young vocalist on a song from the musical theatre rep that was far, far, far too advanced for this singer. The song was what I like to call aspirational repertoire. I think we all have songs like that in our practice books. Anyway, the major reason why the singer was failing was due to the entire mechanism, voice and body, simply not being strong enough, balanced enough and flexible enough, to withstand the rigours of this incredibly difficult song. As we worked and as it became more and more apparent that the singer did not have any of the skills required, at this time, to even safely practice a few simple bars from the song, the singer became more and more relieved to be able to just make the decision to put the song away, work on the skill set needed to do the song, and take on other, more manageable rep in the meantime. The singer was relived to know that the failure that he/she was experiencing was normal when working on something this unattainable. It was not because he/she was not practicing hard enough or diligently enough or in the “right” way.

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