If it were possible for a vocal authority from the nineteenth century to reincarnate to our time and hear a cross-section of classically trained female voices, what a shock he would get and, probably – what a disappointment. By far the greatest surprise would be how few of them use the chest voice freely, fluently and correctly. Moreover, he would no doubt raise an eyebrow at how rarely it is exercised, embedded and integrated to vitalise the whole voice.
For the three hundred year period which separates Tosi from Mathilde Marchesi, every vocal expert had insisted on the development of the chest voice and its subsequent smooth transition with the head voice. In our time, however, we have the paradox of pop singers, who confine themselves almost entirely to extended chest voice – and for whom the head voice remains either stunted or non-existent. Performing at the same time are some college trained classical singers, who have been taught to avoid chest voice altogether – and even to regard it as an anathema. Tosi, a castrato, writes of the ‘natural voice’ – this would later acquire the title ’chest voice’, apparently referring to speaking pitch – the most natural use of the voice. It would seem logical to surmise an ascending scale of male speaking voices: bass, baritone, tenor, contraltino (ultra-high tenor), ending finally with the highest – castrato. Unfortunately, we cannot now put this to the test, owing to a lack of experimental subjects!
In contrast to men, women tend to speak in the area where the two registers overlap; pure chest in speaking is only natural for those with exceptionally low voices. However, all women are familiar with its use and are capable of dipping down into chest voice when necessary. It is, for the majority, by no means a strange and foreign phenomenon. Modern views on the chest voice, in contrast to the accepted and unified opinion of the past, are both varied and, at times, inconsistent with each other. Some examples of contemporary opinions vehemently opposed to the use of chest voice, can be categorized as follows:
- it is a wild beast – coarse and vulgar – to be avoided at all costs
- its use is crude, unladylike -and inherently inartistic
- taming it and successfully joining it to the head voice is difficult, precarious and takes time. Such time should be devoted to other, more pressing matters
Surprisingly, these views, sometimes strongly and sometimes subliminally held, are quite widespread throughout the teaching profession. Certainly, judging by results, there are a large number of trained female singers active today, whose knowledge of, and familiarity with, the chest voice, its use and proper position in a fully integrated vocal technique, is minimal, or in some cases sadly non-existent.
However, all is not completely lost, because alongside the doubters and resisters are a number of practitioners, teachers and singers, whose belief and practice links them firmly with the past. Their opinions mirror those expounded by their forbears of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whose precepts they follow, in some cases quite unknowingly. It is not necessary to have read the instructional tracts of former times, but what is essential in order to join this band, is that the following three tenets concerning the chest voice are adhered to:
- its use is the only factor which enables female voices to sing low notes loudly
- it is the masculine element in the female voice. No voice can be complete without its development and thorough integration with the head register
- the result of a correct integration will increase the range of any voice, at both ends
Interestingly, there is one opinion common to both camps, both for and against; but it is not necessarily held for the same reasons:
- misuse of the chest register, in particular singing too loudly or too high in it, is dangerous. Such actions will damage and unbalance any voice of any age – often permanently
The force of this caveat and its dire warning lie in the background of all teaching of a classical type. Simultaneously, however, in the parallel world of popular music, teachers and singers actively ignore, or even cock a snook in its direction. ‘Belting’, a word which itself implies a certain degree of violence, is the contemporary euphemism for forcing the chest voice up and singing loudly in it. In fact, in these purviews all forms of quiet singing are eschewed, only loud is welcomed. Of course, in the upper reaches of chest voice, only loud is possible, as the standard rule applying to all registers governs here as well: all registers are naturally weak at the bottom and strong at the top. In a technique which ignores blending with head voice, no other outcome is to be expected; and in a profession which accents only youth and ignores maturity, longevity of career is no longer a factor. Belters’ careers seldom last into the thirties and even more rarely beyond. The main reason for this is vocal chord deterioration – nodes and the like. This sort of damage seems to be accepted as normal and part and parcel of the hurly – burly of the profession. Otolaryngologists must be grateful for the bonanza which comes their way as a result of all this activity! In addition, the art-form, little concerned with nuance or subtlety, is not interested in delivering words in any other way than loudly. Emotion, or what passes for it, governs all. True vocal resonance, however, can be ignored, because voices only have to carry as far as the nearest microphone. Unless this changes and acting with the voice becomes a requirement, the dreary procession of belters with damaged vocal chords, on their way to the surgeon’s knife, will continue.
In the classical world, vocal cord damage can also occur, but only from bad teaching, mischance, illness, or lack of wisdom. Teachers of classical singing usually aim to produce pupils armed with a technique, which will protect their voices from risk and harm in the normal run of the profession. Healthy singing should be every teacher’s first and last objective. Everything else: efficiency, strength, clarity, beauty and artistry, should only be embarked on when measured against it. Of all the dangers that lurk to waylay a singer’s progress, misuse or abuse of the chest voice is probably at the top of the list. Nevertheless, ignoring it and depriving pupils of its benefits is nearly as profound an error, as voices treated in this way are left weak and undeveloped. Between the Scylla of the one and the Charybdis of the other we must all steer a course.
© 2008 Neil Howlett