This issue I am going to look into how a singing teacher might approach a voice that hasn’t got a strong chest/lower register. This is the lower region of our range (Below ~G4 in females and below ~D4 in males), often associated with the speaking voice. Assuming that the singer’s speaking voice is balanced we would expect that when he or she sings the lower register has a full, rich, and clear tone.
There are a couple of common scenarios when this is not the case. The first one is in females with a history of classical training or choral singing; the other is female or male untrained singers who are using this vocal quality as part of their vocal identity. In the first instance we may hear a strong head register, but as the voice descends in pitch to the lower regions the vocal folds only close in the upper region and we get a thin, almost disconnected sound. The tone is light and lacking in the bass frequencies. In the second scenario it is likely that the head voice is also breathy and lacking in tonal and sonic substance. Two good examples of this type of singer are Norah Jones and Antony Hegarty from Antony and the Johnsons.
In all cases, as the teacher, the first thing you need to establish is do the singers want to change their vocal tone. Obviously if they are seeing you because they are experiencing voice problems or have been referred by an ENT then this may well be the case. Vocal problems occur from too much airflow over sustained periods. This tires and irritates the vocal folds. They may swell making singing effortful and unsustainable. Sometimes classically trained singers will go to a contemporary teacher because they want to sing contemporary repertoire without sounding like a ‘classical singer singing contemporary repertoire’. This can be quite a difficult transition for them mentally as they may have been told singing with chest resonance is ‘dangerous’, ‘ugly’, or ‘evil’—I kid you not! Physically it may take time for the nervous system to get used to vocalising in a different way and there may be a period when they cannot control their pitching or their voice. You will need to take it slow, offer reassurance, and good explanations to maintain their confidence.
How long does it take to make changes?
The transition to being comfortable and in control of a chestier register may take days, months, or years. (Yes it’s that proverbial ‘how long is a piece of string’ answer.) I have had all three experiences in my studio over the years. Each situation has its challenges, and I do love a challenge. Don’t expect a one-size-fits-all approach. Make sure you are taking into account not only the relevant exercises needed to develop a chestier resonance but ensure you are maintaining motivation and setting realistic goals for singers to achieve. Their progress will also be dependant on how much work they do away from you. 30-60 minutes a week can only do so much to change the habit.
Here is a female student I worked with who wanted to gain more chest register in order to sing jazz and contemporary songs. She is an amateur singer who wants to have fun with singing maybe get to a point where she can put on a concert for friends. She started with classical lessons at the age of 26 and took them for a few years, then had a break for several years, and last had lessons of any sort 8 years ago. She wants to sing with a stronger voice, without croaking. Her day job is as a counsellor so she talks a lot.
Here are a few extracts from our 1-hour lesson.
Assessing the spoken voice
It is a softly spoken voice, slightly breathy in tone, slightly elevated pitch but not much fluctuation in pitch or dynamic, larynx slightly elevated. No glottal attack or hard onsets, tone is clear i.e. no hoarseness or raspiness, no nasality. Neutral British accent.
I used a 5 Tone/Note scale on the sound AH. Here we can hear a lack of chest resonance, breathy tone with lots of air leakage over all, poor laryngeal stability causing pitch instability, vocal folds flip apart even more from E4. I didn’t go any higher as I knew (from experience) nothing much more was going to change and also because she had said she hadn’t sung much in the past few years so muscle tone would be poor due to lack of use.
Experiencing vocal folds closure
Most singers (in fact most people) do not realise that the vocal folds open and close thousands times a day; when we swallow, lift heavy object, cough, and bear down.
It is possible to voluntarily open and close the vocal folds. In this video my student is doing such an exercise.
The instruction is to do a HUH as if you’re pretending to do a karate chop. Do not linger on the ‘h’ for too long as then too much air will be expelled. Get to closure quickly and without over- compressing the vocal folds. Don’t need to do too much of this exercise, just enough to get the concept across. In this video the student is over-compressing a bit and the larynx rose a bit too much in the first few tries. Dropping the jaw will help alleviate this issue.
Once closure is experienced we quickly move to create a sound from the closed position here we used AH and MM. Watch for students who get good closure but then open their vocal folds again before creating the sound.
Create the MM sound with a whining or pleading effect. Anatomically the only way to get a creaky sound is to close vocal folds. Sometimes we have to ‘trick’ the body into doing what it needs to do. Following through to an AH allows the singer to experience more vocal fold closure on an open vowel. If it falls apart and the vowel gets breathy ask them to maintain the creakiness in the vowel as well. AH is a good vowel in this instance as it has a chestier resonance, a better option than OO or OH, for instance.
In this video the student has a bit too much or not enough tension on the vocal fold muscles hence the wobble. Can take a few tries to get right so be patient. It may take a few weeks for the voice to get used to this and to take it up pastsed the passaggio.
Second attempt MM-AH
Here we are a bit later in the lesson. We had a break and did some other exercises then repeated the MM-AH exercises. There is a definite improvement; she has better control over the closure and into the vowel resulting in a more stable delivery. We can now hear the potential of a rich, full chest register.
Revisiting exercise 1
Now to check if this has improved from the first exercise we did. Yep, she’s figured out how to maintain better vocal fold closure…much improved. I chose not to go any further with the scale on the open AH, I just wanted her to have a sample comparison.
Go back to video 2 and compare the results.
Moving on up
We want to see if we can take this concept of a chestier resonance a bit further up the scale, but with a safer sound. I have added a ‘B’ in front of the AH to help stabilise the sound for the singer. I don’t want her to have a negative experience at this stage; an open vowel is very difficult when the vocal fold muscles aren’t strong or coordinated. The ‘B’ will add a bit of backpressure and stabilise the vocal fold closure. Note we don’t go too far up the scale. Once the voice gets to G4 we are in the transitional area and the muscle coordination will change. For the moment I don’t want to add too many variables into the exercise as it reduces the successful experience. I would expect with time and practice the student will be able to deliver this sound more consistently and then take it higher in her range. Whilst it’s not perfect I am very happy with what she has achieved in our lesson.
Check the speaking voice now
So here is the student talking at the end of the lesson. There is a stronger lower resonance now with good vocal fold closure. Nice! As I have said in the past there are many ways to skin the proverbial cat. I could have tried a number of exercises or strategies and still had success.