Fine Tuning the Sacred Machine Part 2

  • 08/3/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC
"Singing is speech a thousand times refined." Lamperti

Each of us has a place, a niche if you will, within the overall superstructure of our society depending upon our abilities, training, intelligence, and desire amongst other things. The place that we have created for ourselves defines us, if we allow it to, and we in turn may redefine ourselves and our place within the whole scheme of things from moment to moment, day to day, year to year. There are virtually unlimited directions that each of us can go in this process ranging from the banalities of academia, to the intangibles of spirituality, to the edification and acquisition of the unlimited power and beauty of music.

Consider this: a man can sit by a stream contemplating the nature of the universe and his place within it, strum his 6-string guitar gently in rhythm with the shushing blue-green waters and sing one note. Yes, just one note. Perhaps it's a B note, or maybe just maybe, it's an A#, yes, that's a nice note. It doesn't matter what the note is because this man has made a choice. His choice, at least for the present moment is to simply sing one note and no other. And regardless of the fact that he sings that one note with utter and abject passion from the very depths of his tortured soul, and likely sings that one note better than most of his fellow humans can sing that note, the fact remains that he has only reached for a single star and in doing so has defined his place within the universe.

But there are others not unlike him who continually strive to learn, changing the way they perceive themselves and in turn are perceived by others. These seekers demand more of themselves and aspire to climb to higher pinnacles, stretch to loftier peaks and sing higher notes. One way to do so is to learn to use the Falsetto voice, or Falso in Italian, which is defined as the voice or register that occurs just above the modal voice (also known as chest voice), or the region of our voices most associated with speech and song. The modal register overlaps the falsetto register by an octave (or so) and many can sing that particular range of notes either in modal or falsetto voice. When developed and used properly, the falsetto voice is capable of singing the highest notes that any human is capable of singing. But there are some who believe that it's possible to train the modal voice to sing just as high as falsetto and the use of the falsetto voice is really a matter of stylistic choice rather than necessity. Regardless of the various opinions amongst professionals in the field, all agree that falsetto is a breathier voice than the modal register and lacks the power and timbre that often characterizes the modal.

The head voice is characterized by the use of the top 5th or 6th of one's range to the top octave depending on the individual, and becomes more prominent as one is ascending in scale up from the modal register. Many confuse falsetto with head voice, incorrectly identifying the two as synonymous but the fact of the matter is that the two types of voice use differing amounts of area on the vocal chords. While the head voice tends to use about a third of the vocal chord region, falsetto voice occurs when so much air is passed through the chords that they separate and produce sound simply on the basis of vibration on the outer edges of the chords. Consequently, the two types of voices can be delineated by the sound that each one produces, modal being much more rich and powerful and falsetto having a thinner more breathy quality not dissimilar to a child's voice. In fact the falsetto voice is often referred to as the "child's voice" and is often used by voice- over professionals to emulate the voices of children in cartoons and other programs.

When viewed from a physiological perspective, it's easier to understand the mechanism behind the falsetto voice by looking at the inner workings of a piano. Lower strings have more mass in motion and are subsequently slower and less able to produce higher frequencies. The higher strings have less mass and are free to vibrate at much higher frequencies producing higher notes. The vocal chords are similar in this fashion and since the whole chord is not vibrating as it is in the modal voice, it is free to vibrate much faster in falsetto voice and produce higher notes. Of course something is lost since less of the chord is vibrating and the outcome is a thinner, less powerful note. Nevertheless, the falsetto register allows the voice to go higher and hit notes that are normally inaccessible to some singers.

Gender Based?

The capability to produce the falsetto voice is exclusive to neither males nor females but is rather a common characteristic capability of the human voice in general. Many professionals in the field hold fast to the notion that because the female voice has the capacity to sing high enough from the head voice they are consequently not able (or perhaps don't need) to access the falsetto register. Or when women do access the falsetto register, their voices are higher and more similar in timbre to falsetto and thus it's more difficult to delineate between the two registers. Others remind us that the male chest and head voices are usually so much lower and louder that it's more obvious that they are entering into the falsetto region. Again, there is some disagreement on this issue amongst professionals in the field but from a strictly physiological point of view, the same mechanism is seen to be in action in the vocal chords of both men and women when singing high notes and in the falsetto register.

So how do you locate and take advantage of your own falsetto register, you might be asking? I'll tell you but before I do I feel it's incumbent upon me to mention the importance of warming up your vocal chords before attempting anything strenuous. Singing in the falsetto range is the highest point you can reach from both a musical as well as physical perspective and thus requires a thorough warm-up period before attempting. If you aren't familiar with a good warm-up please refer to the voice and performance series on the site and spend some time familiarizing yourself with the process. Lack of proper warm-up can harm the vocal chords and substantially shorten your career as a singer. That having been said, one of the first steps in accessing the falsetto is finding where it's located in your voice. As mentioned previously, there is an overlap between the head voice and where the falsetto comes into play so you'll be able to sing certain notes both in the head voice and the falsetto. There are a couple of good ways though to locate the point at which you are transferring from head voice to falsetto:
1. Yodeling - This type of singing often incorporates the expression "ode de lay he-hoo" and most of us have heard this as we climbed ever-so-precariously through the Swiss alps. Try to sing "yode de lay he-hoo" and feel what your voice does as you sing the "he hoo" part of the lyric. You should be in the falsetto range as you sing this and should notice a tangible change in your voice. The "he-hoo" should have a thinner more airy feel to it that lacks the power that you normally have in your voice. Try to sing the ode again this time avoiding going into the falsetto (if you can). This exercise can help you to clearly identify the feel and sound of your own falsetto register which in time will help you to use it in a controlled and precise manner.

2. Sing an ascending scale but avoid getting louder as you go up. Try to sing more softly as you ascend and pay attention to where your voice "breaks" or changes over to the falsetto. You should feel and hear the change in your voice and the overall quality of the sound. If you feel any strain or pressure in your jaw, neck or throat stop the exercise and spend some more time doing the warm-up exercises. Singing in falsetto should not be painful or strenuous but should rather be comfortable and flow smoothly. Do both of these exercises in front of a mirror and watch your face for any odd facial expressions as this can be an indicator that you are straining to hit your falsetto range.
Passaggio - The Breaking Point
As you continue to recognize and develop your falsetto range you will likely find that there is a point or rather, a break where your voice reaches a transition point between your head voice and your falsetto. As you sing an ascending or descending scale, you will both feel and hear the break that will be obvious to you and this point is called your passaggio, or bridge. Unless a vocal coach can hear you singing and help you to identify your passagio, there is no accurate way to tell to tell exactly where that breaking point is in your voice. In other words, the passagio occurs in different places for different people, especially between men and women. There are four indications that one should be vigilant of that are often markers of where your break is located:
1. Change in the quality of a note - Notes in the vicinity of the break tend to be weaker, thinner or simply uncomfortable to sing.

2. Shift in register - Sudden changes to higher or lower notes, not unlike the crack in an individual's voice going through vocal changes often associated with adolescence.

3. Breaks in the voice or an unexpected loss of the note.

4. Difficulty blending notes - This is a common problem especially with singers in the initial phases of transcending the passagio.
Bear in mind that the above indicators can be caused by other physical issues, such as laryngitis or smoking-related infirmities, or developmental issues and may not be a function of your encountering the passagio at all.

Smoothing the Transition
The best way that I have found to negotiate the perils of the passagio is to make minute adjustments in the notes you are singing in your head voice, and in your falsetto range as well. In other words, singing slightly higher in your head voice to a point where you might "normally" be singing in falsetto, and lowering the falsetto range to where you might be singing in the head voice can help to bridge the gap between the two ranges. Doing this continually over time, and experimenting with your voice to locate the notes in each register that can be raised or lowered comfortably will help you to form a smoother transition between the two registers that will eventually become automatic for you. You will likely still be aware of the passagio but it likely won't be evident to your listeners any longer.

Because the falsetto voice tends to be weak in nature and lacking the power and timbre of the head voice, it can be helpful to exercise it and work to gain a certain degree of control. One way to do this is to work your way through your full vocal range, from the lower register in your modal voice to the upper notes in your falsetto range. Take your time, making sure that you're warmed up and simply work your way through the various registers. Then do the same thing only starting with the higher notes in your falsetto range and descending down into your modal or chest voice. You can use a guitar or other instrument as well to guide you through the scales and make sure that you are in fact singing notes and not tones in between notes. Do you notice where the passagio is occurring? Can you feel the transition point?

You may find that there are two different transition points, one when ascending and another when descending. This shouldn't concern you but should simply be a reminder that the head register and the falsetto register overlap and because of this you can ultimately sing notes in either depending upon your own personal choice in the matter. Falsetto shouldn't be a necessity although some singers treat it as such in order to get to notes they don't think they are capable of reaching in their head voices.

Avoiding Damage
Because singing in the falsetto range can put a great deal of strain on the vocal chords, it's important to adhere to certain rules to avoid doing any harm to yourself. As mentioned previously, make good and sure that you are doing a substantial vocal warm-up. There are various theories about which exercises are the optimum for any given singer and the internet is full of various vocal coaches who will give you tips as well. My vocal warm-up routine is based on exercises taken from choral and opera techniques that are time-tested and as stated previously, they are available in the voice and performance series here on the site.

Dehydration is also a key issue when it comes to using the falsetto voice in lieu of the fact that a high volume of air is necessary to set the vocal chords in motion. Consequently, they are more prone to drying out in the process of singing making them more prone to damage. The best way to remedy this problem is to always drink plenty of liquids and perhaps even take advantage of various products on the market geared towards voice moisturization. Make sure and inquire of a musical professional whether certain products are safe for vocalists as certain lozenges can actually dehydrate the vocal chords and/or numb the chords (e.g. cough drops) which can be extremely dangerous. Singing with a numb throat can cause irreparable damage to the vocal chords in lieu of the fact that "normal" cues like pain, strain and any discomfort will likely go unnoticed by the singer allowing the individual to continue singing in a manner they likely should not.

Falsetto for Style
As discussed previously in this article, using the falsetto voice is a matter of choice and can be used to introduce some very stylistic points to your singing. Many view the falsetto voice as quite provocative and even sexy adding a certain sassy, breathy sound. Others, like the Bee Gees made their living by being able to hit high notes that most were incapable of reaching within Pop music circles. Still other icons like Hawaiian native Bill Aiiloa Lincoln and even Tiny Tim have incorporated the falsetto voice into what many perceive as a unique and highly refreshing novel approach to singing.

Falsetto is simply another choice, another musical tool that can be accessed if one chooses to do so. And through practice and diligent, sometimes arduous labors you can reach to the highest of highs and fill your room with the echoes of a beautiful, lofty and ascending voice, your own.