What’s the point of falsetto?

On a singers board recently, my advice to a tenor with squeezing and pushing problems that he needs to work with falsetto exercises has met with a lot of resistance. What I heard from a couple of other tenors (I am also a tenor) was that they found no use for falsetto exercises and that they developed their head voice without them. One called falsetto a “dead end”. Apparently he was making falsetto sounds without any idea of their purpose in the big picture. After several more anti-falsetto posts, I realized that in these cases, there had been no explanation of what training purpose falsetto vocalizing can serve.

To give a little bit of context, I’d say that my work with falsetto exercises comprises about 2 minutes of a typical male’s voice lesson, and is followed up by coordinative (full-voice) exercises.

“What does falsetto contribute if we don’t actually perform with it?” is the question. The cricothyroid group of muscles (CTs) which stretch the folds to create pitch are easily overpowered by the thyroarytenoid group (TAs) which bring the folds together to make the “full voice” sound, especially in men. A separated, uncoordinated, operatically-useless falsetto allows pitch-making to happen without stress. With the TAs out of the way, the CTs are able to contract and release without interference. We thus send signals to the body that pitch-making is a function of the voice that CAN happen without force.

Look at sprinters getting ready to start a race. So many rituals of stretching, loosening, setting their feet and arms just so – they don’t run with stretching and loosening movements, but they feel that those help them with “the real deal”. Falsetto and lip trills are like that – two of many possible types of vocal activities that are used for training, and not used for performance.

I was in a dressing room once with another tenor who was making awful sounds. I asked him what he was doing and he said “It’s a falsetto warmup from Cornelius Reid”. It was nothing like the falsetto exercises I learned from a Reid teacher, and he had no idea what to do with it. There are a lot of flavors of falsetto. The ones that help open the throat and lead to easier pitch-making in real, full-voiced singing have to be demonstrated, and the student and teacher have to understand why they’re doing it, or they shouldn’t do it.

7 thoughts to “What’s the point of falsetto?”

  1. โ€œWhat does falsetto contribute if we donโ€™t actually perform with it?โ€ Well, it’s an isolation exercise! Have these folks never watched dancers at the barre? Or seen a sports team training? All of those short repeated exercises are used to a) isolate and strengthen muscle groups, b) strengthen neural pathways to those muscles c) coordinate precise movements of those muscles without interference from other muscles.

    Sheesh… I’ve seen these falsetto exercises fix uncoordinated upper range problems in SO many singers of all voice types and genres!

    Thanks for a great post Brian!

  2. Hi Brian,
    could you give some examples of falsetto exercises that you use to thin out a tenor voice that is too chest-dominant?
    My high notes are always somewhat forced and I can’t seem to find a way to counteract this.
    Thank you!
    Great blog by the way! ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Hello Komyo,
      Thanks for your message. I am hesitant to prescribe without hearing you, but one basic exercise that can help you to get more head voice into your high notes is this: /a/ /u-a/ /a/ /a/ on the intervals 1, 5-, 3, 1, in fairly slow quarter notes. Sing one beat of /u/ and glide directly to one beat of /a/ on the top note before coming down the arpeggio. Sing this fairly softly at first, then gradually get louder on the first note before jumping the fifth, and then later doing more volume on all the notes. The /u/ vowel can “teach” your /a/ vowel how to be more heady. /o/ may be used instead of /u/ for a similar effect.

      If this makes no sense, I can do a video of it sometime. There are MANY other exercises for this issue as well. Sometimes the issue isn’t exactly what it seems, so I would need to hear you first to know what to suggest next.

      Cheers,
      Brian

      1. Hi Brian,

        Thank you very much for this exercise. I experimented with it a bit and I have a couple of questions.

        First, what would be the suggested range for this exercise? Also, should I stay in falsetto for the whole exercise, or am I allowed to mix with chest at the bottom?

        I’m asking this because my falsetto becomes pretty weak at around C4 and below, and eventually it will desintegrate (cords blowing apart) at higher volumes.

        Finally, is this exercise typically followed by a full voice exercise, or does it stand on its own?

        Again many thanks for this!

        Have a great day,
        Komyo

        1. I am probably going to need to show rather than tell, but I’ll try. The bottom note needs to be fairly firm and definitely in chest voice, the upper note needs to be whatever comes out without strain. So if you do the 15—31 version, I would use around G3 up to about Eb4 for the starting note, so the upper note is between D4 and Eb4, always sung more softly than the bottom note. If you can’t sing the top note more softly without cracking then you either need to increase the volume on the bottom to match or you aren’t ready to go that high yet. You can also do the exercise over an octave 18—531, with the first note being a firm /a/ in the range given above, and the rest of the exercise on /u/ or /o/. How loudly you sing the top note and how strong your intrinsic muscles are will determine whether the top note is coordinated head (or mixed), chest, or falsetto. The action of the exercise is going from chest to another thing, either a mix or falsetto, but not chest on the highest notes.

          Singers who have sung high notes with all-chest all the time will need to allow themselves permission to slip over into falsetto many times as they learn how to find another coordination.

          It is extraordinarily hard to write about this, keep nagging me to make a video and I will!

          1. Thanks for taking the time to explain it in detail.
            I can see it is very difficult to put into words and even after reading your detailed explanation I still have more questions to ask.
            So yes, a video would be really helpful… ๐Ÿ˜‰

            By the way, “whatever comes out without strain” seems to be the main problem. I don’t necessarily think I sing in all chest in the passaggio area and above (I guess that’s not even possible without _excessive_ volume), but I have conditioned my voice to use the outer laryngeal muscles to help in the tonemaking process, as I ascend the scale.

            The result is a closed throat, high larynx, and a squeezed sound – definitely not a pleasant sensation. I sing mostly in contemporary styles so I can often get away with that sound, but it feels incorrect and it’s also pretty limiting.

            So I guess what I need to do is strengthen the intrinsic laryngeal muscles without engaging the external muscles. First by finding the middle ground between chest voice and falsetto (the true mix or head voice) in an easy and controlled manner, then building on that. That’s obviously easier said than done…

            I can produce strong falsetto tones without strain, no problem, but once I go into “connected mode” the constriction kicks in.

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