On the “mix” needed for some nonclassical styles of singing

First: Laryngeal height

The way to balance a voice has often been described as a “balancing act” between the “stretcher muscles” (cricothyroid) and the “closer muscles” (mostly thyroarytenoid). This is a handy two-dimensional model, but the larynx, being a physical thing, has a third dimension, or it wouldn’t be a physical object. This other dimension of the larynx is the level of suspension, or “altitude” in the throat. The suspension of the larynx makes a big difference in the tonal quality of the voice.

When people put on a fakey “opera voice” they yank their larynxes very low, to emphasize the darkness we associate with that kind of singing. When people want to portray an annoying or whiny sound, they will often pull the larynx up. Now, these people are not saying “I shall now lower my larynx 1 cm”. They just do it! As singers in any genre we have to find the ways to “just do it” to get the right vocal style for the music we are singing. Consciously manipulating the laryngeal height because we know that that is one of the characteristics of good singing is not effective because other factors are at work, and altering one thing can mess up things that are not mechanically adjustable.

Second: Vowel Choices

Besides laryngeal suspension, the concept of vowel is crucial. Some vowels are possible with a lowered larynx, others with a higher larynx, some with both. The vowel “flavors” that we pick are a key element in singing in the correct style. The same vowel can have versions that are bright, dark, speechy, optimally resonant, etc. For certain effects on particular notes we can go beyond the norm for that style, if we want. But first, we must develop the main vowel vocabulary of the style.

Third: How to train

How then, are we to train to coordinate the chest with the head voice in order to produce the right “mix” for the music we want to sing? We must find the patterns of vowel, pitch, and intensity, delivered with effective rhythmic ideas, that will allow new responses to happen. This is very much the sort of thing that Cornelius Reid says in his writings on the subject. He was more geared toward classical singing, where acoustic volume is optimized, but the principles are the same for all singers. Conceiving of vowel, pitch, and intensity is much more effective than mechanical manipulation of larynx height and oropharyngeal shape because so much of the “action” happens at a subconscious level. The body responds to what’s needed in a more optimal way than mechanistically moving certain body parts can do.

With many women, I find that the lack of clarity about what chest voice is, to be a hurdle. It is the thyroarytenoids’ function to add clarity, brilliance, and volume to the entire voice. As we descend below the staff, however, where the pitch-making stretch of the cricothyroids is minimal, we start to encounter what some call “raw chest”. I like to explore this thoroughly, by insisting on it being big and bold. Downward scales with crescendo often lead to breaking through to a large, primal sound that can be taken WAY down. This is worth exploring because it often shows the singer that her low singing was previously rather “heady” after all. Full engagement of chest is what we’re after. This is our basis, and our source of power. It is the base of the pyramid. I call it the “Earth Mother (or Mama) Voice”. It is from this voice that we start to “mix in” head voice function.

I don’t think one can teach singing via writing, but what this means in terms of exercises is that with all women I start arpeggios rather low, and make sure that most of them bridge over the break area. We make them break (yodel), and we make them smooth (coordinate) by any means necessary in the beginning, and build the strength to have options from that point. Knowing how to coordinate and how not to coordinate is crucial for having lots of options available. Reduced volume levels are usually one very helpful adaptation to getting the first “mix” happening. So-called “closed vowels” can help too. More detail than that would be foolish to give here.

What emerges is that “beltier” styles may require a larynx that is suspended slightly higher than for classical styles, but the key point is that the larynx height does NOT change for pitch change. Wherever the base height is for a particular vowel, that is where it needs to stay throughout the range.

It should be noted that during the training, I don’t mind if the singer is actually still performing, as long as I am sure that she is not hurting herself. It is perfectly possible and enjoyable to continue singing while there is still a definite “break” in the voice. Some people make careers out of playing with this break (Whitney Houston comes to mind). There are times in a tune where the break can be a perfectly useful express device. It is what the voice wants to do after all. It is when we go against nature (as in straining or hurting) that we get into trouble.

3 thoughts to “On the “mix” needed for some nonclassical styles of singing”

  1. Well said Brian! That raw or open chest quality frightens most "classically" trained singers. They don't realize that once they've become friends with it all of their singing will suddenly be much easier and more colourful.

    Happy New Year!

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