Manuel Garcia II and other past, great vocal pedagogues of the Italian School of Singing often called women’s middle voices – the mix of head and chest voice that begins between the Eb and F above middle C – as the “Female Falsetto. That was because this register of the voice was almost universally the weakest (and still is). Chest voice, being spoken in on a daily basis by most women, is usually quite strong and head voice, above the upper passagio, is also strong when the oropharynx is open. But the challenge of coordinating the two different sets of muscles in middle voice creates a lack of strength and sometimes airiness in women’s voices and it takes understanding on the part of the teacher to effectively address the problems of this register.
I have had a number of young women come to me with this particular kind of issue. Many are ashamed of the weakness in their middle voices and try to compensate by bringing chest voice too high. Of course, that just means they are avoiding exactly the type of work of coordinating the muscles that needs to be undertaken. So the first task is always to convince them that it is perfectly normal for their voices to feel weaker in middle voice at first and that it will improve.
Breathiness in particular can cause a great deal of confusion and embarrassment for young women. Without the proper coordination, the vocal folds can not adduct enough and too much breath escapes through the cords during phonation. However, if they are able to learn how to relax the larynx down and achieve the laryngeal tilt, they can experience a much healthier cord approximation. Below are my experiences with two young sopranos with breathy middle voices.
A young soprano, a full lyric soprano, came to me with a weak, breathy middle voice and the tendency to carry chest voice up too high to compensate. She also had a lowered soft palate and a pronounced nasal sound, which went hand in hand with the extended chest mechanism. After I explained the importance of utilizing a mix of chest and head in her middle, she was willing to try and became resigned to a breathy middle voice, though she was far from thrilled about it. I had her work on several cord closure exercises, which would help temporarily, but were not able to fix the coordination alone. Since she was relatively new to studying voice formally, I had to introduce a variety of different concepts to her – breathing for singing, thin edge function, releasing the tongue forward and correct nasal resonance with a high soft palate, which was crucial for her. After allowing her to get comfortable with those concepts and the process of working on her own voice over several months, I broached the laryngeal tilt.
I had her gently monitor the position of her larynx first with her mouth closed and then as her jaw swung open and the larynx automatically dropped down. Then I asked her to notice the larynx dropping with the jaw and to try to allow it to stay in that lower position vs. rising while the jaw slowly closed. I verified that her lowered larynx position felt akin to the beginning of a yawn for her and was not tight or held down in any way. From there, she was able to release the larynx down on inhalation and learned over the course of three lessons to release the larynx a little more when ascending and descending in simple exercises to achieve the laryngeal tilt. I combined this with expansion of the back wall and sides of the mouth to increase her oro-pharyngeal space. The results in her middle voice were startling. The airiness disappeared and a firm, healthy tone took its place. Her voice also had significantly more color and depth to it. She was soon able to sing different consonants and vowels in phrases, allowing the larynx to rise quickly for the consonants and release immediately back down again for the vowel. The laryngeal tilt allowed for a healthy approximation of the cords and rectified the registration issues in her middle voice.
Another young woman, a high lyric soprano, came to my studio with very little voice in evidence, but with a great deal of motivation, intelligence and discipline. Over five months, her voice changed and opened up dramatically and the real instrument emerged like a butterfly from a chrysalis. (I plan on writing about this transformation in detail at a later date.) But her middle voice was still airy and did not match up with the rest of her voice.
By using the same approach detailed above, I introduced the concept of relaxing the larynx down to her. It was more difficult for her to grasp until I likened the sensation to that of the beginning of a yawn and she used that gentle sensation to achieve a relaxed, lowered larynx upon inhalation. From there she learned to release the larynx down more to achieve the laryngeal tilt. I also encouraged expansion in her oro-pharynx during the process. The results were the same – a clear, firm tone in the middle voice with no hint of breathiness and significantly more color and warmth in the sound.
Everything in singing is about balance and it is extremely important to be careful when doing laryngeal work. It is easy to the extreme and push or hold the larynx down too far, which has dangerous repercussions for the voice. Therefore laryngeal work such as this should be done with an experienced teacher who can hear the subtle differences in sound quality and ensure that the laryngeal tilt is being executed with ease and openness instead of gripping and controlling.
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