By Tim Carson
Every singer has two main functions of their voice: head voice and chest voice. These terms don’t just describe aesthetic nuances or colors that the voice is able to produce – they describe two significantly different physiological adjustments of the voice. The voice is constructed of a miraculous combination of muscles and cartilages that coordinate to produce these two different vocal “gears.” These very different functions of the voice create some wonderful opportunities for the vocal artist, but they also create some of the greatest challenges singers face as they strive to coordinate these two separate functions into one unified instrument.
Most singers are aware of these two different functions (registers) of their voice. For many, the relationship between the registers is a static one – like a jar of settled sand and water, you can see the line that separates the two. Many singers know this “line” in their voice all too well, and often times it has a note name attached to it. They receive a new piece of music and the first thing they do is scan through the music to see where they are going to have to navigate the awkward transition across the line.
Every singer has the potential to move beyond this line of separation between the registers, and experience the liberating freedom of true interplay between these two separate functions of the voice. How does a full octave overlap between the two sounds? No longer do you have this rigid line to awkwardly navigate around, but rather a full octave in your voice that you can sing equally well in either register. And even beyond that, what if you were able to “mix” and coordinate the function of the registers, so that in essence, both parts of the voice were working at exactly the same time? This potential is not reserved for the vocally elite, but is a reality that nearly every singer can achieve.
What type of singer are you?
Chest Voice Singers
Chest voice singers account for about 40% of the females and nearly 90% of the males that I’ve worked with over the past 15 years. Chest voice singers are singers that prefer to sing in chest voice, and usually avoid at all costs ever entering into head voice (also referred to as falsetto). I’ve literally seen chest voice singers turn bright red with embarrassment the first time they accidentally “cracked” into head voice. Chest voice singers usually suffer from severe vocal fatigue (they are often hoarse after only one or two hours of singing) and experience strain in their upper range. They often sing flat, especially on higher notes, and are the most common candidates for vocal damage (sometimes permanent). Chest voice singers, especially those that sing primarily in contemporary/modern styles, are often reluctant to try developing the head voice because very little (and sometimes none) of the music they perform uses the head voice. (This is particularly true for male singers that sing primarily worship music). However, when contemporary chest voice singers develop their head voice, they see benefits in both tone quality and vocal health. In regard to tone quality, the chest voice singer who has not developed balance in strength with the head voice will often sing too “heavy” because there is no assistance coming from the head voice. The tone is pushed and forced on the higher notes, causing the voice to sound strained. This has implications for the singer’s vocal health, as it is exhausting for the voice to be forced to function with only half of the muscles available to it. Imagine running once around a track, let’s say a quarter-mile long. Piece of cake, right? Well, imagine going around that same track hopping on only your right leg. A whole different endeavor, isn’t it? The same principle is true for the voice. When the registers are balanced and the singer is able to “blend” these muscles together, not only does it sound exponentially better, it’s also a lot healthier on the voice. The chest voice singer needs to spend as much time as possible practicing the head voice outside of rehearsal and performance. This is especially critical if you are a contemporary singer because you will rarely (if ever) be required to sing in head voice in your songs. To get these necessary “reps” to develop the head voice muscles, nothing replaces good, old-fashioned vocal exercises. In addition to a solid foundation of vocal exercises, consider supplementing your head voice workout by singing along with a CD that challenges you to sing in your head voice. Guys, sing with an alto (almost any contemporary female singer will work), and sing along up in her octave in your falsetto. Ladies, get a CD of a tenor and sing a full octave higher than he does in your head voice. The more you use the head voice, the stronger it will become and the more benefit it will provide for the rest of your overall vocal ability.
Head voice singers
Head voice singers are always women (accounting for about 40% of the female singers I’ve worked with), and are usually those who have been classically or chorally trained. I’ve never worked with a male singer that exclusively used falsetto and had trouble accessing the chest voice. Head voice singers have often been convinced by a vocal instructor that to use their chest voice will ruin their voice, or at least limit their vocal potential. While I certainly believe that it is critical for a singer who has rarely (or never) used chest voice to exercise caution as they develop this new part of their voice, I believe it is nonsense to say that it should be avoided at the risk of ruining the voice. The journey to safely and effectively developing the chest voice begins by realizing that if you’re just beginning this process, the only option you have is “loud, obnoxious, pedal-to-the-metal, all-out chest voice.” The mark of a developed chest voice is not in how loud you can sing in it, but rather in how softly you can sing in it without “cracking” over to head voice. When you first start out and your only option is to sing with this “full-on” approach, it is exhausting on your voice. Practice in short increments (maybe just a few minutes at a time), gradually allowing this new part of your voice to develop. The other key to safely developing your chest voice is to never carry pure chest voice (without any blending from the head voice) above “the break” (the point of separation between the chest voice and the head voice). So where is the break? Is there a pitch beyond which each singer should avoid carrying the chest voice? The actual break is different from one singer to another, but the constant for everyone is that you will know when you’re approaching the break. It becomes increasingly difficult to go higher without extreme vocal force and strain. You don’t have to worry about accidentally carrying the chest voice above the break. You will know it when you reach it, and it’s best to wait until you’re ready to “blend” the registers before carrying the chest voice sound any higher.
Locked Register Singers
Locked register singers account for only 20% of the women and 10% of the men I’ve worked with. These singers usually come from a vocal training background that has taught them to sing only in a blend – to always use a mix of both head voice and chest voice. Locked register singers experience a dynamic in which the registers are stuck together. They are always singing in this blended production. Typically, their top range is pushed and tight, because the chest voice is still engaged and is unable to “release,” and allow the head voice production to take over and carry the tone. Equally, on the lower end of their range, they are unable to truly “belt” because the head voice is still involved and prevents this lower range from truly expressing its full strength, volume and intensity. For a locked register singer, the first step in increasing vocal range is to “pull the registers apart.” The best way to do this is to use a series of “register separation” or “yodel” exercises. Once you are able to isolate the two registers from each other, you can determine which register is underdeveloped, and then refer to the appropriate category above to explore your next step.
The Mysterious and Elusive Blend
The blend is one of the most difficult techniques to truly master, but is one of the most useful and rewarding skills of the vocal artist. The blend is impossible unless there is balance in strength between the two registers (chest voice and head voice) on the same pitch. You can’t blend something you don’t have. The best way to develop this balance in strength is to first isolate each register in its purest form, with no blend whatsoever – 100% pure chest voice and 100% pure head voice. The next step is to build overlap between the two (ideally a full octave). Then, finally, to begin the process of blending and coordinating the two registers together, not in a way that sticks them together, but in a way that allows each to move freely in and out of the vocal production at the will of the vocal artist. There are two blended registers – chest blend and head blend. Head blend is head voice with some of the muscular adjustment for chest voice also engaged. It is still primarily characterized by the lyric and ethereal quality of the head voice, but with some of the fullness and power of the chest voice blended in. The chest blend is the exact opposite – it is chest voice with a little bit of the muscular adjustment of head voice blended in. It sounds quite like chest voice, only slightly quieter and not as forceful (and strained) as pure chest voice, especially in the upper range. To develop the head blend, try getting louder on a sustained pitch in head voice, or vocalizing on an exercise in which you sing down a scale in head voice, and crescendo as you go lower (without switching to chest voice). To begin working on the chest blend, try an exercise in which you go up the scale in chest voice, and instead of getting louder the higher you go, get softer. I had a student who discovered the chest blend for the first time and described it as “decaffeinated chest voice.” This is exactly right – it’s chest voice, just without all the jolt, energy and overbearing volume.
Every singer possesses the ability to expand their vocal expression by developing the full potential of their registers. Regardless of which of the above categories describes you, you can move beyond the limitations holding back your range. But it’s going to take hard work! Just like an athlete, you will only improve by consistently exercising your voice in the areas it needs to grow. Vocal Artistry has a full line of resources designed to help you develop the full potential in your voice. The Strength CD contains head voice isolation exercises, chest voice isolation exercises and register separation exercises. You can learn more about this CD and other resources, as well as the National Tour of Vocal Artistry (which offers vocal training events throughout the U.S.), by visiting www.VocalArtistry.com. All God’s best to you and your ministry as you develop the full potential of the talents He has given you!