Having been a vocal teacher in three University jazz courses, and helping other contemporary singers find their potential, there is something that has been bugging me for a long time.
When I started working with singers back in 1998 – reluctantly, as I didn’t consider myself an actual “voice’ teacher – I eventually came up with the concept of singing from the body, placing no strain on the larynx, and singing through the heart and the face, or the eyes. As it turned out, when I met an experienced vocal teacher who had studied vocal physiology, and told her this, she said that I was pretty much spot on, and merely hadn’t wrapped it in pedagogical terminology. She also said that this was how I myself appeared to sing. Yes, I had been forced to dig deep into the mechanics of what I was actually doing myself when I sang, and then explain it to my students. It was after this that I began reading a LOT of material and talking to many fellow teachers to gain more “proper” information, and have been learning ever since. I still work with my “gut instincts” a lot though.
So I knew then that my instincts were fairly good on the topic.
Teaching in one jazz course, where there was already a top pedagogist teaching the students, I was mainly assigned the role of teaching improvisation, arrangement, interpretation and style. While I loved that, and they were my strong areas, I didn’t get a chance to flex my muscles in vocal technique. I wanted to do the course in Pedagogy but was discouraged, as I was “needed for teaching” :) (My declining health at that stage didn’t allow much time to study either, and my colleague knew this.)
So, now! What is bugging me? Well, the main thing, it would seem, that every contemporary singer has to deal with is “bridging the passaggio” – or minimising the “gear change” that is inevitable and unavoidable in nearly every voice (except maybe the deepest bass voices). It’s about dealing with the transition between the registers, referred most commonly to as chest voice and head voice. These are also called Mechanism I and Mechanism II – very clinical terms I think, but possibly avoiding wrong imagery which can inhibit singers from getting the release they desire through that transition.
Singers are always wanting to get that passage area between the two registrations conquered, but often the lighter head voice is breathy and weak – hence my blog title “The Bridge to Nowhere”. If we are going to blend, mix or balance the voice so that the register break becomes less noticeable, my question is, do we want to blend a breathy, weak sound into our middle voice?
My own answer to this, and encouraged by reading Jeanie LoVetri’s blogs over the years, is that we need to strengthen the notes in all registers before we can have a super-successful “bridging”. If one register is developed, and the other is not, then what do you have to blend or balance? Your technique will never reach its full potential if you ignore the weak register. A lot of people get around this by just never going there – to the area that is weak, keeping everything in the strong section.
I believe it’s important to strengthen our weak register by working on it constantly. Single long notes are great – and make sure there is nothing straining or hurting.
Then to strengthen that awkward middle section of the voice between registers, we need to work the head register down past the break until it seems stable and can handle the breath pressure. Then we can work on bringing the chest register up over the perceived “borderline” – maybe to a G above middle C, and maybe further – and this has to be done without tongue pressure. Continuing to do this over and over every day will eventually bring about a natural mix voice where the muscles have adjusted to keep the larynx free.
I once asked Australian jazz vocal great, Vince Jones, how his working singing range seemed to be getting higher each time I heard him live. He told me quite frankly that he simply worked on it every day – pushing the limit without letting anything feel strained. He often did it by singing one of his songs a semitone or tone higher. He said sometimes it took weeks or even months to add another note to the working range. But he was always trying.
Of course, there are any number of things that can go wrong when someone is out there on their own trying to build their voice. Don’t be that person! Leave it to pioneers like Vince – and Paul McCartney, whom I once heard say John Lennon would come into the studio and say “You have to sing this” and Paul said “It’s too high!” John said “Work it out,” so Paul eventually got an image of his head opening up like a flip lid on the top, and his sound coming out of there! Well it worked for him I guess, but then we get into a discussion of pretty “out-there” ways of teaching voice! Not today.
If this is something you want to work on, book in with a reputed vocal teacher and make sure you’re on the right track. Also you might enjoy reading the books of Ingo Titze and Johan Sundberg. They are very much about the science of vocal function.