Sunday, November 22, 2009

Flute, or "Falsetto" Production

"Lighten that sound up.  Don't bring up that dangerous weight!  People bring up that weight when they want to show off.  You want to keep it very very light for this exercise, and for choral singing"

These are words from a talented singer and music teacher who was asked to warm up our choir's high notes.  I cut out of an exercise like that because my big voice not want to change to that "flute-like" or "falsetto" register.  Not only does the voice not want to sing in just that way, but it also cannot do that flute voice thing very well. This puts me in a dilemma at choir, however.   If I do use my full voice, or "modal voice" for the exercise, it will sound like I am showing off and ignoring the instructions.  If I don't sing at all, it looks like I can't do what she's asking.  Well, actually, that's right.  I can't do what she's asking.   I do not participate in this exercise and everyone has to think I don't have high notes at all. But it so totally does not matter what everyone thinks.  So, I warm up my high voice at home.  An alto doesn't do high singing, but warming up the high voice is important all the same because I believe that the entire voice is contained in each pitch in some way, and that the work done in the high voice benefits the low.

But it bothers me that I couldn't sing along with the others, and I begin to wonder once again why my voice cannot do the flutey staccato exercise the choir teacher is requesting.  This wondering prompts me to dig out a book I read a few years ago, a classic one,  The Diagnosis & Correction of Vocal Faults: a manual for teachers of singing & for choir directors by James C. McKinney.  I wonder what he says about this.

I find his chapter on "Registration," and within that chapter, just after the section where he talks about "modal voice register," there is a section on "falsetto."  I read this book 4-5 years ago, and refer to it from time to time.  I see that the chapter has my underlinings in it.  At the time I was reading those pages, I probably barely understood what my eyes were seeing.  Now, five years of voice lesson later, and thousands of articles and discussions on vocal science and technique later, I understand these passages only a little better.  That's why it is so good to go back and read what you thought you already learned again.  And again.  And again.

I read what is written here in the text:

Most trained singers have at least an octave of range which they can sing in either modal voice or falsetto.  In this overlapping area a given pitch in modal voice will always be louder than the same pitch sung in falsetto.

So, the singer warming up the choir is asking us to sing in the falsetto voice, and not the modal voice when we do her light staccato exercises.  It seems like I should be able to sing in this "falsetto" voice, if "most trained singers" have an octave where they can sing in this voice, but I can't.  I"ve always had trouble with it.  Why?  Is it because my voice is "heavier?" "bigger?" "dramatic?"

Mr. McKinney writes:
Many teachers advocate the use of falsetto exercises to aid n the development of the upper portion of the modal voice.  Here falsetto is not a substitute for the modal voice, rather, it is a means to an end.  The ultimate goal is to free up the modal voice and strengthen it ...

Should I be using falsetto exercises in my training then?

While composing this blog post, and all my blog posts, I always have another tab open where I can google.  A quick google of "dramatic singers and falsetto" brought up one of my favorite blogs about vocal science, one written by one of the most knowledgeable people out there on these subjects, Jean-Ronald Lafond.

I am sure I read this post when it was written a year ago last July, but like the words in McKinney's book, I did not fully understand the significance.

JRL writes, in his piece, "Why falsetto (flute voice) is important in vocal pedagogy: an issue of muscular balance.":

As previously said, not every singer can produce a falsetto and this is a sign of malfunction, at very least weakness in Crico-Thyroid and lateral Thyro-arytenoid muscles. These muscles mainly are responsible for the lengthening of the vocal folds. It could also mean that the vocalis is relatively muscle-bound, so rigid as to resist Crico-thyroid activity at a given pitch range. The ideal at any pitch level should be a possibility of variable interaction between the two muscle groups in question; that one is not limited to a single state on any given pitch. If the vocalis is so inflexible as not to allow falsetto, this must be seen as a relative dysfunction. This lack of falsetto ability is observable in many tenors referred to as possessing "robust" voices, and often in baritones who train as basses, and natural sopranos who train as mezzos. There is indeed a relationship between "pushed" down voices and inflexibility of the vocalis. [emphasis mine]
So then, is my inability to do the flutey choir exercises a sign of malfunction and imbalance?  Do I need to explore this voice in order to free up my instrument?  Is there yet still more imbalance after all this concentrating on trying to get the vocal instrument balanced?

JRL suggests:
Developing and maintaining a healthy falsetto range is one of the necessary characteristics of healthy vocal production.
Although my crico-thyroid muscles are much more activated than they had been, they still are underdeveloped, I'm sure, compared to the thyro-arytenoids.  I often called my voice the tyrannosaurus rex with the TA muscles being like the legs and thighs of the tyrannosaurus rex, and the CT muscles being like the puny helpless arms.  My tyrannosaurus rex voice has been doing pushups, and the arms have developed some functionality, and this has been exciting, but they need to do a lot more.  Isn't it funny, this analogy, because in my real life I have always been very strong from my waist down, but a little weak in upper body strength.  I remember it was hard for me to do chinups on the bar my dad hung across the doorway for that purpose when I was a kid.

You know, when I started this post, I had originally planned to argue for doing the choral exercises in modal voice.  In order to make my argument, however, I had to start doing some research.  In the course of doing the research, I learned that doing the exercises the way suggested by the choral teacher might be just something I need in my vocal development right now.  It is really important for me not to cling so hard to something that I think I may know.  I must always remain open to learning more and more deeply.  My singing teacher often says to me that my writing this blog is good because the ability to put what you know into words helps you really grasp the concepts.  I am experiencing an example of this now.  In order to put into words what I had planned to say, I had to begin a search to understand it more deeply, and in the process, my understanding changed. This is a wonderful thing!

No doubt you will be hearing Frescamari try out some flutelike exercises in her practice room in the near future.  Maybe I'll start with the ones from choir.  It defnitely won't be pretty.  But I'm not here to show off  I'm here to do the work I need to do to have a little something later.  I must believe I can do this!
Check out Frescamari's Practice Room:  "The Flutey Hoo Hoo Hoo Exercises from Choir (that I can't doo doo doo)"


  1. I know exactly how you feel as I have been there too! Light singing on high notes was always hard, but became much more difficult when I reached my late forties. That kind of singing requires a good deal of flexibility, which is something that gets harder to maintain as we age and our muscles and tendons lose some of their elasticity. If it were possible to prolong one's prime indefinitely, we'd have sixty-year old ballerinas and athletes and we'd never get arthritis! My policy now is to sing alto in choirs rather than soprano, and to work with the voice I have now, rather than try to regain the one I had in my youth. On the subject of vocal weight, it is worth reading David Jones' article:

  2. Thanks for the information, Arachne. I have found the articles on David Jones' site informative and will check out the link you've posted.

    Being 48 years old right now, it is of concern to read that the loss of flexibility might mean that the task of accessing that light voice may be formidable. It is worth trying, because even if one's ability to achieve mastery of it is limited in some way, the attempt is worthwhile because it adds whatever level one can achieve to the health of the voice, I would imagine.

    Sadly, I did not develop this while I was younger, and have only now to experiment with it.

    Working with the voice one has now is the best advice for any singer at any age and any category. We only have what we have!

  3. P.S. Regarding stiffness of muscles, tendons, etc ... I have been taking glucosamine/chondroitin for stiffness in the joints I had been experiencing because of my Kung Fu and athletic pursuits. After having taken it for almost a year, I have noticed considerable improvement. It takes a while to build in one's system.

    I only had the thought this past week that this might help with aging issues in the flexibility of the voice too. It's not a cure-all, but can help. I just asked my teacher about it this week, and it sounded like the idea was new to her, but now that she thought of it, there might be something to its being beneficial to the voice.

  4. Just wanted to add that the "light" singing I'm talking about is not just soft singing, because one can and should sing softly in "modal" voice (modal voice is where the thyro-arytenoids are participating in a counter way to the crico-thyroids. I am talking about the light voice where the thyro-arytenoid is relaxed and the tone is produced with the stretch from the crico-thyroids, and using this way of producing the tone as an exercise to enhance that flexibility which will be beneficial to the entire voice when it is operating in modal capacity.