Jun 11 2011

Q&A - Transition from Middle to Chest

I was wondering if you could give me some ideas about making a smooth transition from middle voice to chest in a song. I find it no problem if there is a jump down, but extremely clunky if I am singing a scale down. This is made more difficult by the fact that the note on which I make the transition varies slightly depending on how tired and/or nervous I am. The song I have particular difficulty with this is ‘Una voce poco fa’. I know I could take it up, but I would like not to have to and I think sorting it out is important…Thank you for your site. Since I found your site and have been reading all your articles, my voice has been improving dramatically. People have been asking me if I have a new teacher!! So, thank you…

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I’m so pleased to hear you’ve found the info helpful. It is great others are noticing your improvements.

Regarding your question about transitioning down into the lower register. What you are experiencing is common. It is even normal to a certain extant. There will always be some kind of adjustment when transitioning between the registers. The question is how big. Naturally we would like it to be as small as possible so it feels smooth. This happens when either side of the transition is equal. I’ll try to explain that below.

The main thing I point out to anybody that has a question about a specific issue is there are no specific fixes. All problems that seem to show up as seemingly isolated issues really are a product of the overall condition. It just may not show up except in this one place.

Register transitions fall into this category. Because it shows up at the transitional area of the range we naturally think of it as a problem isolated to that area. But the reality of it is the basic condition is lacking a bit overall. It just isn’t as noticeable except at the transition.

The little thing that is lacking is the purity of the vibration. The vibration of your vocal cords are slightly leaking unvocalized breath. It is like the bow of a violin slipping and not creating a regular vibration of the string.

When this is the condition it often is not objectionable, as is the case for you. But this keeps the registers separated. It is like they don’t quite line up. That is why there is a slight clunk when going through. It really isn’t too bad for you. For someone who has this to a greater extreme there is a hole between the registers and they seem like different voices.

The remedy is to learn to stimulate the voice itself to be more active. The body wants to fulfill our intentions. We just need to give clear, strong commands. In the case of singing many fall into the trap of being too relaxed. Especially trained singers. Untrained singers tend to be too tense. So it follows that trained singers are trying to avoid that by being more relaxed.

The answer to being too relaxed is not to be tense. But instead we want flexible activity. Just like any good athlete. Muscular strength comes from flexible, or elastic, activity. Not rigid tensing. But if we emphasize relaxation we often lose vitality. And everything we do requires energy.

So this loss of vitality shows up in one way as an incomplete activation of the larynx. The key part of this being an incomplete closure of the glottis. Now, there are some schools of thought that talk about the closure of the glottis and many that do not. The many that do not have a good reason, that to try and close the glottis directly creates problems.

But if the glottis doesn’t close we have just as many problems. So it is a delicate situation that needs to be handled correctly.

I said earlier that the body wants to fulfill our intentions. We need to use this aspect of our nervous system to accomplish the closure of the glottis. We don’t try to do it directly. We do it by a very simple method.

We focus on pronouncing clearly and completely. And we think of doing this with the part of the body that actually does it. The Larynx. Sometimes called the Voice Box. That is the Voice. The simple concept is we think of saying the vowel and the pitch with the larynx. In order to do this we need to think at the larynx.

Every musical instrument that is based on a vibrating material as its source is played at that vibrating material. The violin and guitar are played at the vibrating strings. The oboe and other woodwinds are played at the vibrating reed. The trumpet and other brass instruments are played at the vibrating lips.

The voice is the only instrument people are taught to play somewhere other than where the source vibration occurs. Most play the voice at either the mouth or the pharynx. Some even play at the nose. But none of these locations of the vocal instrument contain the material that originates vibration sound.

The vibrating material for the voice is the small tissues of the vocal folds in the larynx. So it is of great importance that we as singers take care to ensure that they vibrate in the most effective manner possible. This doesn’t happen automatically. Even when we are well skilled. We need to be mindful and skillful to coordinate the Mental, Emotional and Physical processes involved to create an optimal response.

So this has been a long way of saying that to have a smooth transition we need to make sure we are getting a complete vibration of the vocal cords on both sides of the transition. We do this by emphasizing the clear pronunciation of the vowel all the time, but especially at the transitional areas.

Now, there is also the important factor of resonance. A big part of having smooth transitions comes from utilizing the resonators effectively. The key one being the point of recent discussion on my blog. The naso-pharynx that is behind the nose and above the mouth. Using this space for resonance frees the vocal cords to adjust spontaneously with no interference.

It is important to recognize that we need to activate the tone through the vibration of the vocal cords and amplify the tone with the resonance. So we hold the resonators open, which is the form the tone will take, and “play” the voice at the vibration of the vocal cords. Just as the body of the violin is held open by its structure and then is played at the vibration of the strings.

This is actually very important for a reason other than the obvious one of amplification. Doing this also removes the excess pressure on the larynx that tends to exist when people think there. This excess pressure often is the reason people dismiss this approach as being wrong. The approach isn’t wrong, it is just the manner in which people often do it is wrong. As I said before, we must figure out how to do things correctly to get the results we are looking for.

Hope this helps. Thanks again for contacting me and for reading my site.

  1. Josef Germaine

    I do not appraoch the voice from the ” thought” of registers. My approach is from one simple thought, a fact if you will. Every note you sing is prepared by and from the note that precedes it. In a word, legato, where all the notes are connected. This will automatically allow transitions from one “space” to another. Yes, the lower the note the more chest, the higher the more head. But, to mechanically make adjustments will lead to disaster. The body is already prepared to do the right thing, your task is to merely allow it, and that is the mystery, if you will.

  2. Mr Germaine…I do understand what you say, however, the question stays if the body is prepared as you say or not? I’ll tell you from my own experience, that it is extremely frustrating when you as a beginner come to a voice teacher with a feeling you have 3 voices, even 4 if you count the high whistle voice, and your voice teacher tells you “the voice has no registers, I don’t approach it like that, sing with your own voice”. Or simply “prepare the note before the note”, or, “before you sing one note, already think about the next one” or “simply let the voice do what it wants to do” or “Use Pavarotti’s leanding piano on a note”. This doesn’t help. At all. And it doesn’t happen. Especially because it’s a fact it breaks and the registers do switch suddenly.

    And no breath support exercises and no thinking here or there or focusing somewhere will fix this. It simply doesn’t happen automatically. You feel like you have a bass, alto and coloratura soprano voice in one. And you can’t sing in neither one of them properly. And your voice has so many unrealiable areas you can’t even count.

    Since that was my case, I had to learn what a correct sound actually is. How to even create one single middle note which is a combination of both registers and which isn’t a hyperfunction of one or the other, which is really balanced. It also took months and months of everyday practise isolating one function and the other one to feel the extremes, develop them to harmony, yodel, and for the middle state even start appearing, by crescendoing the flute head voice. When I discovered this, from there on, this balanced middle, I continued exercising my complete voice. I’ve contacted Michael to explain me a confusion I had with this problem. And I’m each day exercising and feel that I’m approaching the even blend and a state when the voice responds automatically to my musical thought more and more, in my complete range.

    But the whole process was certainly much much more than letting the voice do what it wants and think in a connected way. Yes, it does happen now, after so long and after so many frustrating hours. Because some of the exercises in fact bring you to a state you can’t even sing or talk anymore. Like developping falsetto trough the whole range. But what keeps you at it is understandment of the problem, why it happens and a logic which tells you that what you are doing needs to be done. Mr Anthony Frisell had many encouraging thoughts in his books on this process.

    The point of this whole thing was only that the voice really has no registers. That it indeed functions harmoniously. That it really responds automatically. That it’s indeed enough to think about the complete phrase and the note after the note and the connection. BUT, only when the voice is properly exercised, balanced and trained to be able to respond in all sorts of muscular manuveurs to this. Or it’s a natural talent. Then, the job of voice teacher is easy.

    I’ve also found that legato in my case at least appears from itself when this state is acheeved. You just need to allow it then and take care you don’t disrupt it. But I’ve heard too many beginners, advanced students and professionals singing with a faked legato, thinking they’re connecting things and phrasing. And in fact, they’re doing 2nd or even 3rd rate singing with nothing natural in it. The approach is also more dealing with the effect than the cause. What Michael talks about a lot in here. If there is an imbalance or a wrong muscular response due to that, change of thinking might help only when the anatomy itself is already trained ok or the voice is in a good natural state. If not, one really needs to get to the root of the problem, the very cause of imbalance. And if there is muscle hyperfunction of the vocalis, you can’t fix the problem by simply thinking legato. I wish someone told that to my ex-teacher 3 years ago, they would have saved me a lot of nerves and a near loss of my voice.

    One last comment…I heard very often that beginners with problems such as mine were simply told they’re not talented enough. And many famous teachers in fact accept only students who have these mucular actions already at the beginning. It’s an easy job that way. But I haven’t met many who really understands how to get this in a beginner who doesn’t have it. I think we’re now at the enough high level of advancement of tchnology and spread of information that teachers should learn their job. And not take money from poor students, ruining their voices and “teaching” them a ton of useless scales and how to deal with effects of voice production, which in fact don’t train the voice in its essence at all nor deal with the cause of the imbalance. Theaters are full of singers who are not masters of art of singing, but in fact masters of art of making the tone and inefficient voice production beautiful despite the wrong function. From fake color, to fake phrasing, to fake legato, to face connection, to fake vibrato, to fake emotion, to fake projection… And some have careers like that. And teach that to people. And it’s only expected with such a training only the functionally from nature most balanced individuals will be successfull, if they don’t get ruined in the process, what I’ve witnessed too.

  3. Josef – Thanks for your comments. Yes, that is a good way of thinking, that each note comes out of the one before. This can be helpful in encouraging a continuous vibration. Which is at the heart of good function. I agree that we don’t want to control or direct the adjustments. I often tell people to let the voice adjust itself. As soon as we try to make the changes we disconnect from the continuous vibration. I tend to avoid using the concept of “allowing” because in my experience that causes people to stop doing anything. As I said in the post, we do need to continuously say the vowel and the pitch so the larynx is stimulated. If we just “allow” things to happen the singer risks giving an incomplete intention resulting in an incomplete response of the nervous system. Then the natural adjustment won’t happen.

  4. Excellent points, Dinko. Your experience is valuable to be shared. And I find it very encouraging to read your descriptions and feel like someone understands the concepts I’m talking about. Unlike so many in the vocal community. (The ones not reading this blog)

  5. Dinko, I really felt for you as I read your post. I was one of those strange singers whose voice was “well placed” from the start. It worked well throughout its entire range, and I never had to tire the lower range to enjoy the higher range. But I still had to become aware of what the voice was doing. Just because it was easy for me to pass through the registers doesn’t mean they weren’t there. I had to be fully aware of what was happening all the time.

    Josef’s idea of the voice having one note take its cue from the previous one was also used by my teachers, but for a completely different reason. Most singers are terrified of high notes, and the fear of them is almost overwhelming. Even with an incredible range where the G above the Queen of the Night’s F was a snap, sometimes a high C simply horrified me. That is where a teacher told me to think of the lower note leading to the upper note. Think of them as a group, rather than an individual note. That put that horrific note within the context of a phrase, and the fear of the note left me. I found this especially good advice when dealing with grabbing a high C out of the air, no sung passage leading up to it. I simply imagined I was singing the accompaniment that logically would lead to the high C, and out it came, effortlessly. And example of that is in Tosca act 2.

    But none of that replaced learning how to keep things balanced. Even with the blessing of having everything basically falling into place without effort, I still had to learn what to be aware of. And it was with age I discovered the widsom in that. The body doesn’t stay as strong as you get older, and you have to pay attention to doing things in the most balanced way.

    But I have seen so many people have their voices literally destroyed before they even had a chance to begin, all because the teacher didn’t understand that the voice does have different registers, that there are changes that happen, and that to get through the changes one must sing with a completely balanced approach, no favoring one idea or “placement” (I really don’t like that word) over another. The end result may sound like there is but one register, but that is because one has learned to balance everything, especially in the transition passages.

    And it takes work. Lots of it. Even for someone like me whose voice naturally was balanced and passed through all the various registers evenly and well. I still had to learn to be aware. I still had to learn how to avoid putting too much pressure in the chest or taking it too high up the scale. And having a huge big massive voice, I had to also learn to not take the weight up too high, or allow too much weight to be in the voice. And you are right, when those things were learned, THEN the scales, the trills, the other important musical things you must learn to do, are learned well and do the voice good. And a true legato, which one seldom hears at all now days, takes a super well balanced voice, with everything functioning well. Out of that balance in vocal function, in breath management, in feeling the entire phrase, comes the true legato. And believe me, when people hear it, they are moved, even if they are not sure what it was that moved them.

    And one thing I think is so hard is learning WHAT A CORRECT NOTE SOUNDS LIKE. We don’t hear them often anymore, and most people are only familiar with the results or what they think are the results, and not what brings about that result. That is why so many singers, and teachers, imitate sound rather than take the time to understand what creates the sound. They put it backwards. They think if they imagine a sound and try to recreate it, then the voice will function as it should. But it really is learning to make the voice function as it should, and then the sound comes of itself. The end results is the type of sound that moves our souls.

    I love Michael’s explanations, as they put things in a way that opens up our way of seeing how the voice works. That understanding really does help invigorate the being. As a singer learns HOW something is done, and then masters it, it is like a drug. Producing the sound is like living in a different world. It is like being consumed by something incredible. The high you feel inside is overwhelming. And it is harmless. It can’t damage you in any way. But it can really excite you, thrill you, and just energize you in a way that simply cannot be described. And in my view, all that happens because NOTHING is fighting against anything else.

    They say, a house divided against itself cannot stand. Well, a voice divided against itself cannot stand either. Both end up in destruction.

  6. Thanks, Bea. As always it is so valuable to hear your perspective. Very true about the importance of not working against ourselves. Ultimately, that pretty much is what everything we’re doing is about. Removing the interferences we create that work against the free functioning of our body. And even if things work well from the start, as you describe for yourself, I’m glad you emphasized the importance of learning to understand how and why it was working. Because you never know if, as you go on and increase the amount of singing you do, things will stop working well. Without that understanding the singer would be in trouble.

  7. Michael, you wouldn’t believe the amount of wonderful singers, every very famous, who have faced a wall later in their careers. They were natural singers, everything worked as it was supposed to, teachers saw no reason to work on anything that didn’t need working on, no real understanding of how their voices worked was acquired, and then age (which it always does) started to take the natural strength from the body, and troubles set in. MOST I will say seek out help as soon as possible, though they will deny it publicly (the public is quite silly, for if someone has a vocal problem, even super small, instantly the news is spread around the singer has lost their voice, which is anything but true). Usually the alignements are not that hard to fix. But they must be fixed.

    My teachers cared less that my voice was, as they put it, “well placed.” I still had to learn everything the voice was doing, and why it was doing what it did. They never did this thing of deconstructing the voice and reconstructing it again (which can often have terrible results), but rather they made me aware of what was happening. Soon, I was very aware of what the voice was doing when it passed through both the upper and lower passaggio, I sensed the lifts in the voice leading to the passaggio. I was aware of what the voice did. The beauty of being aware made it so I was not tempted to fight against what was happening, but rather go with the flow of what was happening.

    Yes, during my career I have attempted for dramatic purposes doing things that really didn’t feel right, and I suffered. No, the voice was not damaged, but the confidence was. I hate “struggling” or feeling like I am struggling to get through difficult music, and sometimes the choices made to make the music more dramatic were not wise. I soon dropped them, and returned to what I knew worked, and within those confines discovered ways of creating the dramatic affect I was after.

    Personally, I don’t think a singer can ever know too much about the voice, and particularly about their own voice. It is a never-ending school, it really is. That is why so many say, after decades of singing and deciding it is time to quit, they are just now understanding what it is they should have known in the beginning. But it is impossible to know it in the beginning, for all that understanding comes with work, experience, and life.

    Personally, and sadly there are many, I think a singer is quite unwise if they simply don’t care to learn about the voice and why it works as it does. They should learn something. But there are many who simply find all that too confusing, too much a bother, and as long as the voice is functioning well, and there are not noticeable difficulties, they are happy. (some such singers often have husbands, wives, or coaches that are so in tuned with their voices, that that second set of earns is ever-vigilant at making sure bad habits don’t set in; but without such ears, you simply can’t do it yourself, especially if you are one who simply doesn’t want to learn)

    But as I said, age makes it so what once worked doesn’t anymore. It is as we lose the strength of youth, the energy of youth, that we begin to rely more and more on making sure things work in top notch order as much as possible. Singing is very fatiquing to begin with, but as you age, it becomes more so. Super excellent physical health is a must (though many singers don’t practice that important point), excellent mental and emotional health is a must, confidence in one’s abilities (without arrogance) is a must, and a willingness to learn, constantly learn, is a must. That is what gets a singer through a long career. And that awareness you are so desperately trying to get readers to understand is a real must. That becomes your “bible” if you will, and it is the foundation on which you base and build everything. It isn’t something to be taken lightly, but at the same time, it isn’t to be fixated on either. Fixating on anything only makes it worse.

    The solid foundation you are talking about in your blog and posts is so important to all singers. When singing, there are so many issues that come up: singing when ill, yes, you have to do it, even when you don’t want to; different acoustics in the various theatres, and yes, that can drive you nuts, for in some theatres your voice is in your face and the accompaniment is impossible to hear, and in others you are so overpowered by the accompaniment, and your voice simply is not heard at all, you can even be uncertain any sound is coming out, unless you have confidence in what you know about how your voice works and why, you will be forced to force all because of fear. The things stage directors require you do, often really stupid, puts your entire body off line, but you have to keep your foundation just the same. Even conductors, many younger ones who have no idea about “breathing” with the singers, will expect you to sing literally pages of music with no time to get a breath! It is learning how to manage things, and sneak a breath in without him knowing it. Some theatres are constructed in such a way you have to anticipate a note, actually singing it a slight bit earlier than the beat just so you sound on the beat to the audience. And there is the rising pitch as the orchestra warms up. Yes, it will begin at one pitch but as the instruments warm up they rise in pitch a bit. One has to learn how to sing slightly sharp (but not enough to sound sharp) so that you don’t sound flat when the instruments finally are warmed up (which always seems to happen right in the middle of the most famous and important aria).

    There are many things, and each one of them can put you off balance, and without you even knowing it. Sometimes I say it is not “if” things stop working well, but “when” they do. The question then is will you be in tune enough to be aware of it right from the start and fix it before things go out of wack, or will you ignore it, work against yourself, and finally get to the point that things are in real danger of falling apart? That is why most really good singers always are studying, learning, appraising, and trying to be aware. They are the ones who will know when troubles set in long before it is evident to the ears of the audience or the critics. If they are not aware of what is supposed to be happening, then when little things do start (the never-ending tickle in the throat, the tired speaking voice, the strange cought that doesn’t seem to clear up, etc — and I have seen many really important singers suffering from all of these things, maybe not all in one singer, but some little thing like that which indicates something is wrong, it is time to fix the problem) when these things start, instead of feeling like one can find solutions, fear, lack of confidence, and real struggling sets in. And those feelings only make the entire process worse.

    If a singer waits until it is evident to the public something is wrong, they have waited almost too long to fix the problem. But you can’t know the problem, and recognize it early enough, if you are not aware of what things should be like. It is that simple. At least, that is how I see it.

  8. Samuel Sheffer

    I have been consulting this site for about a year and have found it to be informative and edifying. Would be interested to know your opinion on the value of etudes (Vaccai, Sieber, etc.) used in addition to abstract vocalises and language formulas to warm up. Thanks again for your careful work.

  9. Thank you, Samuel, for your feedback and support. It’s good to hear from you. I think the various etude/vocalise collections provide a very valuable link from scale/arpeggio based exercises to word/melody repertoire. They are a nice stepping stone to actual rep. by introducing text within a still fairly basic tonal framework.

  10. pls can u be of help with how a real good tone,especially at the high range, should sound,i believe knowledge of the real tone would,help in experimenting on how to produce it

  11. Jeremiah – that is pretty much what we all spend years trying to develop. A good tone should sound like good, full, energetic speech. Not like yelling or thrusting the tone out.

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