Q&A - Freely Accessing Upper Register
There are some things about singing that I am not completely understanding. I studied voice for 4 years as a baritone. This past fall, I went to grad school and switched to tenor, as I knew that I was never really a baritone. What I am not exactly getting is how to freely access my upper register. I get to my passagio and just can’t get past it. I don’t know if you could help with this, but I would appreciate if you tried! Thanks!
Thanks for your question. You kind of hit on a topic that is a big one. The unfortunate reality is you can’t learn that coordination through words alone, at least not through writing. For the upper register you need description, explanation, demonstration, experimentation and repetition. And most of all accurate information of all the involved components.
It is one thing that really requires full personal access and attention. But I will try to give you some advice to help you move in the right direction.
First, since you are changing the perspective of your voice from baritone to tenor, I feel it is important to encourage you to forget voice type while training. Of course when you are selecting repertoire you need to think of it. But while you are still developing your coordination you should forget about it.
This is because we don’t want the concept of voice type to influence how we use the voice. Regardless of what type of voice we are we want to use the voice as it is designed to function. No artificial alterations to make it sound more like what we think it should.
For example, thinking of baritone we may sing darker or heavier to sound more baritonal. Or if we are thinking as a tenor we may overemphasize the higher elements of the resonance and lose depth or disconnect.
We should always remind ourselves we are looking for balance. So we should have both height and depth. Connection and weightlessness. And also we are looking for our natural voice. Not an imitation. But the full potential of our natural voice. So work for balanced resonance and balanced vibration. Unfortunately specifics are too many for a blog post.
The second piece of advice I would give you is be aware of the difference of perspective between what you sound like in your own head vs. what you sound like outside. This is especially important to be aware of when dealing with the male upper register.
(I actually observed the same type of experience with a high soprano working on the extreme top notes above high C. They seem almost inconsequential to her, but to me as an outside listener they were vibrant and intense. Almost explosive.)
When correctly done, the upper register doesn’t sound full and powerful inside our head. If you go for that result from your perspective you will force the middle register up and have difficulty. It should feel secure and connected, energetic and intense, but not big. Not like what you want to sound like outside. It should feel small and might seem a little too much like head voice at the beginning.
The reason for the difference is the outside listener hears the full realization and intensity of the acoustic energy. That doesn’t happen inside our head so we only hear the basic source of the sound, which is the vibration of the vocal cords. These should be intense but small because the high voice requires an adjustment of register. That is why it sounds like head voice inside, because essentially it is. It just is more stable and connected to the strength of the torso to balance the increase of air pressure to produce the full high voice sound.
It is this connection that creates the full voice quality, not actually singing big or loud. The basic vibration has to be determined by the pitch. And this is the same whether singing full or singing small and intimate. So the properly tuned vibration of the gentle head voice (that actually would be inconsequential as a performance expression) is the proper basis for the full voice high note.
The next step is the key. After there is a consistency in the proper tuning of the high pitch we can start to establish the connection necessary to complete the tone. This “connection” is a stabilizing of the larynx, and really the whole trachea, to oppose and balance the increased air pressure to create the full sound.
Without this stabilizing connection, the increase in air pressure necessary for full voice high tones will cause the glottis to enlarge creating a larger vibration. This larger vibration will be inappropriate for the pitch being sung and will require then even more air pressure. This is a bit of a catch-22 and a downward spiral situation.
The escaping breath from the excessive air pressure can cause irritation to the vocal folds resulting in fatigue and risking injury. That is why some singers only have a few high notes in them before they have to take a break.
It is critical that you learn the proper coordination of this before you get too far into being a tenor. Because without good coordination you will be forced to find ways to compensate which will become habitual. Once that happens it is more than twice the work to retrain it.
The differences in experience and the lack of proper coordination of the other elements can act as a major road-block in developing a free and comfortable high voice. I hope these give you something to get started with.
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