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Vocal Passageways

Loss is Gain
Now that fall is officially here, thoughts of winter and the holiday season are soon to follow. Unfortunately, it tends to also be the season for gaining those extra pounds! As I age, I find it much more difficult to take off the weight than to put it on! So why am I talking about this in a voice newsletter? The battle of the bulge reminds me of the struggle singers face in singing up and down the scale without experiencing those notorious register breaks.

What actually is a register break? It is an abrupt change in the quality of the vocal tone that occurs around a certain frequency area. It sounds and feels as if we are flipping into a whole new voice, one usually stronger than the other. The remedy for this vocal dilemma combines muscular coordination, proper breath pressure and resonant tuning. At these “breaks” we need to be conscious of matching our phonatory adjustments (laryngeal machi-nations) to the shaping of our resonating cavities (mouth and throat) while at the same time, monitoring our airflow.
In order to ease in and out of different registers, singers need to learn how to incrementally alter the vocal folds to make sure the highest pitch of one register is close to the vocal adjustment needed for the lowest note of the next register up and vice versa. The voice needs to lose “weight” on the way up by reducing activity of the thyroid-arytenoid (TA) muscle and then add “weight” on the way down allowing the TA to again become more dominant.
Low tones are produced by short, thick vocal folds whose cover tissue (mucosa) is lax and flabby. This allows it to vibrate more fully, giving off multiple rich overtones. As we continue up the scale, less and less of the TA and its cover take part in the vibration as the vocal fold is thinned and tensed by the cricoidarytenoid (CT) muscle in readiness to raise pitch. Descending the scale, the vocal folds release back to their loose state, the deeper layers of the cover jump back into the vibration game and we once again have a fuller, “weightier” sound.
This negotiation is accomplished not just through manipulation of the laryngeal muscles, but also by monitoring the breath pressure; it must match the requirements of the register. Because more air pressure is necessary to move the thick folds of low notes, we need to gradually back off as we venture higher to find the right mixture of breath pressure to support, but not over-whelm the lighter vocal fold adjustment. To reenter the lower range, the airflow is increased gently to prevent a sudden “clunk” into a full chest sound.
And as if this is not enough to think about, there is resonant tuning to consider. Remember those sound waves produced at the vocal source, the vocal folds? Well, they travel up through the vocal tract (throat and mouth) and out the lips before they are heard. Unlike most instrumentalists, singers have the power to change the shape of these resonating cavities to influence the color and strength of the emerging sound; to enhance or dampen certain harmonics that make up a tone. We have the choice to work towards a full, rich, warm sound or a more shallow, brighter production. These are not right or wrong decisions, just available vocal options depending on what style of music we are singing and what type of sound we want to make. We can use this “coloring” technique to make our voices sound heavier or lighter without the muscular struggle.
Voice breaks occur in similar locations for men and women, covering a bandwidth of frequencies (zona di passaggio) versus a single pitch. Their location in individual voices depends upon voice structure and type. The two most common register transitions or passaggi (Italian for passage), are the primo and secondo passaggi.
For women, the primo passaggio occurs around E4 to A4 (right above middle C on the piano). Males first transition area ranges from A3 right below middle C (basses) to A4 (tenors). Women have a noticeable second passaggio in the frequency range of E5 to A5, an octave above the first one. The men’s secondo passaggio runs from D4 for basses all the way up to B4 for tenors.
Whew! What does all this mean!! Well, a lot of vocal training centers around this physiological and acoustical information.
For some women, approaching the lower passaggio can be akin to entering a dark hole. In order to ease into a fuller, weightier sound without suddenly clicking into full chest voice, “narrow” or closed vowels such as “ee” “ay” and “oo” are used in descending patterns. Singing top down into the lower register fortifies the head voice, making it less liable to lose its footing when the TA action (weight) is slowly added. Lip trills, humming and the use of other nasals with these vowels work well to balance the air flow requirements in register transitions. Because of their obstructing nature, they cause a back pressure that actually facilitates vocal fold vibration, reducing the need for a big increase in additional breath pressure, therefore, preventing the TA muscle from engaging too much too quickly. All these vocal exercises strengthen the head voice in the low range, aid in the projection of the voice and lessen air pressure demands, providing a balanced adjustment that will more easily negotiate the passaggio.
In the secondo passaggio, more mouth and throat space is required to enhance those harmonics that give us the hooty sound we have come to associate with the head voice. This register transition is achieved via resonant tuning versus muscular manipulation. In this part of the vocal range, the TA plays a minor role while the CT continues to thin the vocal folds to raise pitch. Lip rounding and puckering on the vowels “oh” and “aw” and a lowered jaw create acoustical shapes for optimal resonance at these frequencies.
The primo passaggio for men is an acoustical versus laryngeal event. The change in tone quality results from the relationship between the changing harmonics of each tone as the pitch rises and the stable vocal tract con-figuration, i.e., the shaping of the resonators. In order to travel smoothly through this “break”, men need to cover their vowels by rounding and puckering the lips, similar to how women work through their secondo passaggio. Not only does this help to facilitate the singer into the upper register, it produces a beautiful, warm sound that embraces the best of chest voice richness and the brilliance and lightness of the head voice. If an open vowel such as a bright “uh” is carried too high, the result is a shallow, yell-like quality that sounds and feels strained and cannot blend into the higher register without great difficulty. An example of a blending vocal exercise for men is to leap up from a low chest voice “ah” to an “oh” vowel in their head voice and then descend stepwise. The TA muscle reduces its involvement (weight) on the higher “oh” vowel and allows the singer to bring it back into play as needed on the descent.
To be able to detect when the air pressure needs modified, to direct the shaping of resonators for acoustical advantage and to make sure the vocal folds are functioning in a healthy, efficient manner is no small feat. It takes years of target practice ( and a good voice teacher!) to train our habitual neural networks to know what to do when. However, knowing how to use vowels and employing downward moving vocal patterns will go a long way in successfully “battling the bulge”!
Miller, Ricahrd. The Structure of Singing. Schirmer, 1986 McCoy, Scott, DMA. Your Voice: An Inside View. Inside View Press, 2004. Leon Thurman & Graham Welch, co-eds. Bodymind and Voice: Foundations of Voice Education. Voicecare Network, 2000.

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