Riva Capellari

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Located in Brookside in the heart of Kansas City

Vocal “Gears”

News of Note
The Vocal Organ
I’ve been driving for so long that I forget how ill-prepared I was after my high school drivers’ training course to handle my second car, a stick shift. Someone in my family took on the arduous task of teaching me how to smoothly move the gear shift in tandem with the clutch in order to keep the car from lurching and bumping along. Why do I bring this up? Because this month’s topic, vocal registration, has something in common with the ability to move smoothly from one “gear” to the next in singing.

In use as vocal terminology since the 13th Century, registration originally referred to the different “registers” of the organ (hence the title). Historically, the identification and naming of vocal registers was dependent upon sensation (chest and head voice) rather than function. The definition most often relied upon was developed by Manual Garcia in 1847. A singer, voice teacher and amateur scientist, Garcia used mirrors to study his own larynx. According to Garcia, a register is defined as “a series of consecutive and homogeneous tones going from low to high, produced by development of the same mechanical principle and whose nature differs essentially from another series of tones, equally consecutive and homogeneous, produced by another mechanical principle.” Three characteristics are important to point out here: 1) registers are made up of adjacent pitches; 2) the pitches in each register are produced the same physiologically and biomechanically; and 3) the tone color or timbre of the pitches of a register are alike. Don’t worry, this definition will become clearer when I discuss this phenomenon in our own voices.
If you have sung in choir or taken voice lessons, you most likely have heard the terms chest and head voice. Over the years, teachers and scientists have coined various names for different vocal registers. Below is a list of just some of the terms you may come across to describe them.
Lowest/Low Tones: fry, pulse, strohbass, chest, modal, heavy, voce di petto.
Middle Tones: mixed, head, transition, voix mixte.
High/Highest Tones: head, light, loft, feigned, falsetto, bell, whistle.
As you see, there are many ways to identify the diverse tonal areas of your voice. Unfortunately this array of choices can create confusion, especially among beginning singers or even among trained singers who work with several instructors. In this article, I am focusing on the laryngeal function involved in generating these registers. For clarity, I have designated registers by the muscle most dominant in its production.
One of the best ways to experience these register events is to sing scales, starting from the lowest part of your range and continuing to the highest. Most amateur singers notice “shifts” along the way. Sometimes, to get through these trouble spots, more breath pressure is applied. Eventually however, sheer force causes a major break in the sound, resulting in a new vocal quality and production that will enable us to sing up through the remainder of our range. These breaks happen in more than one location and are in relatively the same place in most voices. Part of vocal training then, is to work towards a blending of sorts between these sections, subtly maneuvering the upper end of the preceding register (usually the strongest part of a register) into the lowest notes of the succeeding one (usually the weakest point within a register). It is very similar to learning how to gradually release the clutch as you change gears in a manual transmission.
So how does all this work physiologically?
Remember the CT (cricothyroid) and the TA (thyroarytenoid) muscles? These two laryngeal muscles are the primary contributors to the vocal fold configurations that produce these distinct registers or tonal areas.
Before I go on, a short review: The TA muscle is actually part of the vocal fold structure and is responsible for shortening and thickening the folds in preparation for the production of low tones. The CT attaches to and pulls together the thyroid and the cricoid cartilages. It lengthens and tenses the vocal folds, adjusting them for the higher pitches.
In last month’s issue I discussed the constant balancing act required between these two muscles to maintain pitch in the face of increased breath pressure. It should come as no surprise then that they are also involved in the blending of registers as we sing up and down our range. The give and take of power between these two muscles can be referred to as TDP and CDP, thyroarytenoid and cricothyroid dominant production. Each sung pitch incorporates participation from both these muscles, but in a different proportion of power, the dominance of one muscle over the other. These continuous adjustments happen incrementally. Making them happen correctly is a skill learned over a long period of time. In fact, singers constantly have to fine-tune this power struggle as their voices mature and develop throughout their lifetime.
Although registration events are universal experiences, there are dissimilarities between voice types and gender. Women generally shift out of the TDP to the CDP somewhere between middle C (C4) and the F an interval of a 4th above it (F4). However, female belters, commonly heard in musical theatre, can carry the TDP much higher. The resulting loud, brassy sound is the work of the TA muscle that typically produces strong high harmonics and larger amplitude (increased intensity i.e., volume).Once women move into CDP, it carries the voice up through the rest of the vocal range.
Men’s voices remain in TDP for most of their singing, using it up into their highest pitches. Falsetto singing, popular with male pop singers (remember The Four Seasons and The Bee Gees?), is also used by countertenors, Barbershop singers and impersonators (Mrs. Doubtfire). This utilizes CDP positioning.
It is important to know there can be variations in the distribution of power on a pitch. One of the best examples, already given, is that of the female belter. She carries the TDP much higher than a female classical singer. But even classical singers may choose to “weight” the sound for dramatic purposes by adding more TA muscle to the production of a specific pitch. Men can also make choices between TDP and CDP on certain notes, but generally do so to achieve softer singing. This is especially useful in choirs where blending with other voices is crucial.
Because there is much more to vocal registration than what is presented here, in following issues, I will discuss the biomechanical actions of each register, their unique characteristics and how teachers and singers go about learning to keep the “bumps” out of their singing!
Your Voice: An Inside View. Scott McCoy, DMA. Inside View Press. 2004.

See You in September…..
reVoice will officially be closed during the month of August so I can stay abreast of current vocal research and findings. Gift certificates will still be available however and I would be happy to visit with anyone over the phone or by email about private voice lessons or upcoming classes. I look forward to being back in full force in September for a renewed year of teaching and a growing roster of clients. And….I am always looking for new ways to help others “re-discover” their voices so feel free to offer suggestions to add to my services!

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