I read the answer to my question about the passagio, and it was extremely informative. I would also like to thank you for simply taking the time to reply to my questions and provide thoughtful answers.
It took me some time to reply to your e-mail because I was thinking of the right question to ask. In your response to my question of the passagio, you referred to the need to strengthen the upper register.
“The upper register needs to be strengthened and connected. Otherwise you will have to resort to muscling the lower register up. Which is strenuous and uncomfortable.” (From “Passaggio Question” http://vocalwisdom.com/311/passaggio-question)
Perhaps you could elaborate on exercises to strengthen the upper register?
I have done some research and I have came across two plausible exercises that are claimed to strengthen the upper register. One is from Maestro Anthony Frisell’s book “A Manual for Training the Baritone Voice”, which advocates descending scales with the [u] vowel and with the falsetto from the A above middle C and down. Unfortunately, I am incapable of producing a tension-free falsetto above the middle C, and thus using this exercise seems counterproductive.
Another is from Maestro Denes Striny’s “Head First: A Concise Study of the Head Voice”. He advocates also the [u] vowel, from the B descending (below middle C I presume) down to the E flat below middle C. I am not sure whether to use falsetto or sing with the inevitable constriction (pulled chest voice I presume).
Perhaps you could give your evaluation and opinion on these two exercises, and it would be absolutely wonderful if you could offer some exercises that would strengthen the upper register.
Both of the sources you quote are good examples. They are essentially describing the same thing. And they are based on the same approach I would recommend.
The first step is to simply identify the two basic registers. An obvious way of doing this is to speak a low note in a very male character. Most people speak in the lower register so identifying this is not too much trouble. To identify the upper register speak a higher note thinking of imitating a female. This will usually feel very weak to a male, and often times to a female as well. At this initial stage it is very helpful to just imitate sounds. For instance in this previous example imitating a male and a female. (We can also imitate animals. Like a bear for the lower register and an owl or a dove for the upper.)
The registers have a strong identification with male and female. This is part of the reason men have a hard time incorporating the upper register in their function, out of fear of sounding less like a man. But this is not what happens. You still sound like yourself, but the feeling is much easier and flexible. It may be weak at first, but through regular use the muscular coordination strengthens and becomes the foundation of the function. I should say that it does feel weak as long as it is separated from the rest of the voice. It has to be combined as a part of the complete system, then it retains the natural character of the individual. This is true for women as well.
The next step after identifying the two registers is to do simple exercises in each register. I prefer to do short ascending scales starting on a low pitch for the lower register. These should only be taken up to around the lower E on the treble staff. For the upper register descending slides or octave arpeggios on [u] are ideal. These should be taken down through the middle range to the point where the voice wants to transition to the lower register. This varies some for each voice, but generally I go until the same lower E on the treble staff for males and all the way to the lowest notes for the female.
It should be noted that the voice will adjust some on the lower portion of the pattern, this should be allowed. Don’t force the voice to stay in the same register balance all of the time. With repetition we start to discover the feeling of the voice migrating from pure upper register to a hybrid that has been termed middle voice or mixed voice by some. This is good. We just want to make sure we don’t fall into the trap of forcing the voice from the lighter upper register to a heavy lower register condition. This would include excess breath pressure and likely throat pressure as well. This is very undesirable.
Over time this type of exercising of the two basic register adjustments will condition the tuning muscles of the larynx to be more flexible so it can remain in the hybrid condition most of the time while singing. This gives the feeling of having one long register. It is the basis of some people’s assertion that there are no registers. When the voice is freely flexible in its adjusting and functioning it gives the impression of no registers. The opposite then is also true. When there are obvious register imbalances it is a symptom that the voice is functioning out of balance. This is where the belief that good function comes down to proper register balance originates. When this is found many of the more common exercises can be introduced, as well as repertoire.
As always, it is critical that the phonation not be diluted by the escape of excess breath. This will make register balancing impossible, just as excess tension or constriction will. It demands that we increase our level of awareness and sensitivity. We need the vocal mechanism free to make the necessary adjustments in order to accomplish these fine differences in condition. But the fine distinctions are just an outgrowth of the larger, more obvious differences. That is why we start with the big opposites and then work them towards each other.
The basic register conditions have three components that influence them. Pitch, vowel and intensity. We can use these to help us make sure we are exercising the registers properly. For the lower register we want these characteristics – Low pitch, open vowel (like ah), and full intensity. For the upper register we want higher pitch, closed vowel (like oo), and low intensity.
The registers act similar to vowels and colors. They behave like a spectrum, with possible gradations between the two extremes. Pitch is like that as well. We only really acknowledge the pitches that fit our western aural conditioning, but there are gradations of pitch just like with color. Dynamics or intensity behave the same way. So we have to become sensitive to, and learn how to balance, the infinite number of possibilities along the spectrum of each of these elements.
For the registers, it is this spectrum of gradations that allows the voice to physically execute the historical “messa di voce”, which is an example of the spectrum of dynamics. In order to have some degree of physical ease in executing a messa di voce the piano start requires the voice to have the balance tipped toward the upper register. Then as the swell, or crescendo, is performed the voice naturally brings in more of the lower register in order to stay balanced during the increase of dynamic levels. We can also use the influence of the vowel to assist in this skill. But I should point out that most of this adjusting happens unconsciously. What the singer needs to be thinking is to stay engaged throughout the entire exercise.
It has often been recommended by voice teachers that singers should exercise the voice from the middle of the range out. I disagree with this opinion. Starting from the middle is only effective if the middle is balanced and properly adjusted. What I have described here is the process of establishing a balanced middle voice. It is more sensible to exercise the voice from the outer extremes towards each other, overlapping the two basic conditions as much as possible. Then as I described, the hybrid condition starts to appear. This is when the voice is ready for more complete activity.
The proper register balance is the foundation of freedom of function. Comfortably easy singing is impossible without it, at least over a wide range of pitch, dynamic, and vowels. There is more to it, but this is as much as can be explained in words. Anything more can only be understood through experience. But this should give you a direction in your process.