When a boy’s voice changes, the larynx’s sudden growth brings in new low notes and upsets the vocal coordination that may have existed previously. It is not uncommon for a good treble singer to become discouraged at the loss of control and function that occurs during and after this time. Although the transitioning voice is a very big topic, today I am concentrating on a phenomenon I call “the missing octave.”
After the change it is common for the voice to jump octaves, especially in descending patterns. An example of this is when the singer attempts G4, F4, E4, D4, C4 on a slurred vowel starting in a falsetto* production, and is only able to do G4, F4, E4, [jump an octave] D3, C3. The singer will need to rebuild the ability to bridge that gap without jumping down that extra octave. Being able to flip from falsetto to chest between contiguous scalar pitches is a prerequisite to building a full, mature head voice or strong mix.
The falsetto needs to continue to be exercised, forever and always, whether high notes are connected to the bottom voice or not. Getting the coordination for a seamless transition to head voice usually takes a long time, but there is groundwork that can be laid that includes keeping the falsetto going, at least up to B4, but many boys can go much higher. The chest voice can be exercised and expanded as soon as it arrives, and will help the student to become acclimated to new vocal conditions.
I had one student whose voice would actually jump a twelfth (octave and a fifth) like a clarinet, rather than an octave, especially on ascending. He had particular interfering tensions that probably accounted for this anomaly. Most woodwind instruments will squeak an octave above the desired pitch if the fingering or air pressure is wrong. Only clarinets commonly overblow a twelfth, due to unique characteristics of the instrument. Sometimes the jump will not be a recognizable interval, or the sound will break up into nonmusical noise. All of this is normal, for a while!
The falsetto needs to be taken down to at least F#3 (below middle C). I commonly find a direct correlation between the ability to take falsetto down way below the break, and the ability to begin to build a real upper range.
Not every voice change is the same, but some or all of these events may occur in approximately this order:
- New low notes emerge, the beginnings of adult chest voice
- A “hole” develops in the range, as the new chest voice doesn’t go very high and the falsetto may not be low enough and strong enough to meet the range of the new chest register.
- A large discrepancy in timbre and power between chest and falsetto emerges and grows for a time.
- Falsetto range may stay the same as before puberty, or it may shrink some, but with exercise can be expanded, especially downward.
- The attempt to sing a scale across the break (somewhere between C4 and F4) results in the voice suddenly jumping an octave from the intended pitch, especially on descending.
- The singer learns how to sing a wider range in chest, and stronger in falsetto, so that a unified pitch range with two different timbres is possible.
- The singer is then ready to work on the coordination of chest and falsetto into a more unified whole (pitch, volume, and timbre). This is the building of a “full head voice”, “voce piena in testa”, or “mix” that will be evident by a gradual timbral change from bottom to top, and expanding dynamic ranges on each pitch.
I hope this will calm concerns that something is wrong with a voice that may avoid an entire octave of pitches in the performance of a scalar passage.
* Please feel free to substitute “pure head”, “heady head”, “disconnected head”, or “light mechanism” for “falsetto” if you prefer.