There is a surprising body of resistance in modern times to the traditional treatment of the female chest voice, in spite of the evidence from previous centuries of the necessity and efficacy of the chest register in women’s voices: evidence freely available to anyone with the curiosity to look for it, either in text, or in the music written for the voices of the past. Many modern practitioners either choose to ignore it, or remain in a state of blissful ignorance of such evidence. Today, there are teachers whose pupils are encouraged to take their voices as low as possible in head voice and ignore the chest voice entirely. Others inform their students that the chest voice will come naturally in time. Maturity will bring the hoped for result; by a somewhat mystical process which will be brought about by just waiting. Little guidance, if any, is given as to what to do when the moment occurs. The unfortunate students have no other recourse but to trust to luck and hope for a sort of vocal osmosis. Abandoned, as they are, in a technical limbo, there is no one to whom they can refer for help in their hour of need. No one to explain the many benefits that using the chest voice can bring.
The first, and most obvious, is a strong low register. Singing in head voice on bottom notes makes a forte sound impossible to attain. All registers are weak at the bottom and strong at the top in their natural state, the head voice is no exception. In the lowest section of the voice, the chest register is the fortissimo and the head – the piano; everything in between is a mixture of the two registers. Once the blending process has taken place, a new phenomenon will have occurred: the fifth above the chest will have filled out and become stronger. This fifth is often markedly weak in voices with an undeveloped chest register; not only is it weak, but very often its weakness is exaggerated by a thoroughgoing breathiness. This is particularly true of the voices of young beginners; commonly, a teacher’s first problem. Both the weakness and breathiness are banished by chest register development and subsequent register blending. The vocal cords, which are apart during breathy singing, are brought together by chest register action; the muscles involved being part of the arytenoid group which form the chest register.
The lack of this cord closing action in voices without a developed chest register is one of the commonest problems. Another is throat tension, which usually accompanies loud singing in these voices and leads to impurity of tone. A consequence of tension and impurity is that vowels, in particular the open vowels, are impaired and obscured. What is commonly referred to as open-throated singing is unattainable and close to impossible. Finally, the tone overall is impure, throat tension imparting a roughness which negatively prevents purity, both of tone and of vowel. Such voices are very inclined to be prone to singing sharp, as the tone throughout lacks depth and low harmonics. Also, the uneven tone divides into different zones, the voice changing quality every five notes or so; and the top in these voices tends to be thin, undernourished and, at worst, hard and shrieky.
After integration of the registers, the next notable gain to be observed is a marked improvement in evenness throughout the voice. This extends right up to the top of the voice, as it usually accompanied by a secondary benefit – greater freedom in the top as chest voice interference is removed. In voices where the chest register is neglected, its muscles often try to help out, as it were, at the top: causing a ‘clutching‘, which can result in a severe restriction of the top, or the common phenomenon known as ‘forcing’. Forcing is the result of an incorrect register balance in which there is too much chest participation, resulting in tones of great weight which cannot be diminished and, in consequence, are increasingly reluctant to mount upwards. The effect in female voices is a shortening of the effective range at the top of the voice – a stunting of the voice, in fact.
Evenness is the result of correct register balance throughout the voice, an ideal only achievable after chest register development. The ultimate test of such balance – and of complete technical mastery – is the study of messa di voce. Messa di voce depends on controlled alteration of the proportion of chest and head in the tone during the crescendo and diminuendo; without a viable chest register a singer has no hope of success in this exercise in tonal ‘plastique’.
Perhaps this is the place to draw attention to two drawbacks associated with the chest register, drawbacks which are among the biggest of bugbears prone to frighten those for whom the chest register is an anathema. Both are misuses. Both are rare but conspicuous. In a few exceptionally strong low voices, where the chest voice is naturally very powerful, the ability to produce an enormous sound is abused. It becomes an end in itself. Not enough care, if any, is paid to register blending, and the result is tones of almost frightening power in the entire chest register. Although technical in origin, this is really a failing of taste. Artistic discernment sacrificed on the altar of ego, as it were. The second drawback is largely restricted to the voices of certain dramatic sopranos, whose voices are naturally large in size and ample in weight; often they have a past history in the ranks of mezzos. In certain of these voices, through lack of careful blending in the passaggio, the powerful chest register drives too hard in the top of the voice, creating an imbalance which causes a very distinctive, characteristic slow wobble. Both these faults are so obvious, even to a casual ear – and the voices are generally so prominent and always have very strong chest registers – that many are repelled by the artistic failings and, not understanding the underlying technical problems, lay all the blame on the chest register.
The list of problems for voices with undeveloped chest voices, as can be seen, is long. Not only is the singer driven into a technical cul-de-sac, but also the result of the technical deficiencies means that a large part of the classical and romantic repertoires is ‘terra incognita’, because the composers wrote for singers equipped with strong, well-developed and well-integrated chest registers. The list of benefits, however, is of fundamental importance to the well-being and optimum development of all voices. No matter whether a voice starts with no chest register, or with the modern trend of a chest register taken too high in the pop manner, correct development and correct integration with the head register will put every voice on the road to technical success. The full potential of any voice depends on taking these steps; without them, no one can possibly predict what the ultimate potential of any voice may be.
© 2008 Neil Howlett