Pushing and Pressing

Since rock music is so prevalent on Broadway now, there are a lot of people singing that push and press, thinking this is OK. It does sound more like rock singing, but many of the people who are on Broadway now are graduates of vocal training programs at the various universities and colleges. If you know how to listen, you can hear the training they got in their vocal production. This often becomes the only option they have to sounding “less classical”.

The men fare better than the woman most of the time, especially if they have good strong voices. The woman are often expected to be able to manage the “high chest belt” category which distorts the vocal musculature towards a lopsided top where all the acoustic energy lies above C5 (or C above middle C). The sounds between C5 and F5, in a mix/belt, are absolutely pressed or they would flip to head. The average vocalist who has been trained to sing in a classical sound can’t easily get past the C in a chest driven belt without strain.
The saddest thing, to me, is that there are natural belters who can go up pretty far in a good healthy sound but those (girls, mostly) don’t get into the voice programs because they can’t manage “An Die Musik” or “Caro Mio Ben” in an audition without sounding wrong. If they are forced to sound “classical” on top of their pop belt/mix, without retraining the middle voice first, they end up in a big mess that can’t be fixed until and unless they go back to the beginning and retrain the whole machine. Then, they would have to find a teacher who knew how to do that, and there aren’t many who do.
Chest register, used this way, has nothing whatsoever to do with chest resonance. Operatic people get them confused. Generally, it also has nothing to do with a deliberately lowered larynx which is fixed in a low position, which is currently in vogue in classical circles because it makes the sound warmer and darker. In a young voice however, it pretty much guarantees that high notes and soft tones will get harder and harder to do. That makes everyone a baritone and mezzo by default.
In order to sing in an “edgy” and stylistically appropriate “high belt or high chest/mix” you really have to know the difference between register and resonance. One is source the other is filter. Surely, they interact, but they can be uncoupled. The factors involved in mitigating the pressure on the vocal folds in a high mix/belt (or belt/mix) are many but include the head position (slightly raised), the mouth position, (jaw down, face lifted, corners of the mouth widened), the neck muscles (not pulled in or stretched up) and the tongue inside the mouth, (raised but not too much). The other ingredient is the clarity of the tone (it has to be very clear, at least initially), the volume, (moderately loud first, then louder after it is established), and the vowels should always be bright but not deliberately nasalized. Above all, the sound should be as comfortable as possible, and not stuck. It is close to, but not the same as, shouting. The vibrato should not go away permanently.
What all this has to do with classical training is: not alot. And, the breathing patterns are such that a beltier sound needs good pressure from the belly muscles but doesn’t use up a lot of air. You can hold on to a pressed sound for a good long time, and in so doing, you can pretty much guarantee that the vibrato will disappear until the end of the duration of the pitch, when it will return. It isn’t “added”, it shows up, because the high breath pressure is dissipating as the air pressure in the lungs goes down.
Some of the Broadway women are still singing in a “head mix” in the upper range because they can make that loud enough and bright enough to camouflage the headiness so that the sound still does the job by being “edgy”. They have register issues at the higher break, but no one cares much about that as long as the other ingredients are strong enough to “finesse” the music. Sometimes you find a female who belts to the D or E above middle C and then has a disconnected head register above it that sounds thin and weak, but some top out and have nothing above a certain pitch (that’s not good, but quite possible).
The people who do best in today’s shows on Broadway are those who have a naturally robust voice, good posture and are physically in good shape. Little weak voices and people don’t hold up in rock music. Even the robust people can get into trouble but it takes a while to show up. For everyone who is capable of managing the enormous output necessary to do a belty rock show eight times a week there are many others who can’t manage. The pressing and forcing (which is stylistic and which comes from the sounds made by untrained singers who were the originators of rock and roll) is a way to compensate for strong production that is “too resonant”. This harkens back to the idea that the pop singers don’t want to sound “too Broadway”. Heaven forbid they sound like they actually have good solid chops and can really sing……that would be “too old fashioned”.
So, as the standards drop for vocal health and uniqueness, and they will continue to as they have since the early 70s, and as everyone on Broadway is expected to sing everything (all styles, all pitch ranges, all vocal qualities) and survive, the responsibility for each individual performer to find his or her own way, melding the training from classical college vocal programs with what is necessary in any given role or song will increase exponentially. Much is left to the individual artists and only the strongest and most clever survive. Too bad.
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One thought on “Pushing and Pressing”

  1. Wow, Jeanie. This is fantastic!!
    Since taking your coursework (starting in 2008) I have been dissapointed in the Universities who still insist on “Classical only” training. I had yet, until just now, to consider the poor seventeen year old who is gifted vocally (in CCM styles) who can’t even get into a college music department!!!! Argh! That’s downright criminal!!
    Jeff Costello

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