On facing a new female student for the first time, every teacher must make a just assessment of the extent of the technique that the student arrives with: what is strong; what is weak; what is missing; and if there are things missing, where are the holes? Whether strong, weak, or missing, the chest register is always a candidate to be first in line for treatment. In tackling the problems inherent in developing and eventually integrating the chest register with the rest of the female voice, the teacher must find answers to the questions: where, when and how? Where should the chest register terminate in this particular case? When can the junction of the registers be commenced? How is the integration done?
The first seems self-evident, because the chest register is the bottom of the voice, but there is a crucial question within this category: how far up should it be taken? The rule of thumb is that the higher, and lighter, the voice, the higher the likely extent of the chest voice. The rule of thumb is, however, not quite so simple – nor so naive. Another part of it states: strong voices, whether high or low, usually have strong chest registers; and strong chest voices can range higher than weak ones. Another factor in the mix is the maturity of the voice under consideration. A fully mature voice will usually have a naturally stronger chest register than an immature one of the same size. An immature one will probably require judicious exercise of the chest register for a considerable period, in order to develop and strengthen it, before any decision can be taken about its upward termination. All these factors will have to be taken into consideration before the final decision is made.
Also there are other questions to ask and to answer. Is it a soprano or a mezzo? Mezzo or contralto? Is the voice dramatic or spinto, leggiero or lyric? The answers to every one of these will affect the final decision. And finally, there are two things a teacher should keep in mind: be open-minded and prepared to change your mind as a voice develops… and… there are always exceptions!
The nineteenth century vocal authorities vary in their recommendations for the highest note of the chest register, ranging from E flat (Eb4) through E natural (E4) to F (F4). Although this seems, at first to be confusing, one thing is absolutely clear: no one at all suggests that anyone should ever sing beyond F (F4) above Middle C (C4) in the chest voice. Everything from this note on is to be taken in head voice. On this there is universal agreement.
Today we are bombarded by singing which stems from another tradition entirely: that of the folk singer. Folk singing, almost universally throughout the world regardless of the culture, confines itself to the extended chest register. The pop singers of our time follow the same path, stretching it commonly as far as the C (C5) an octave higher than Middle C (C4), and even higher. In fact, those who put their vocal chords to this excruciating torture are among the most admired.
The five hundred year old tradition of classical singing originated from the premise that the spoken word could be enhanced by music. The music itself turned out to have a life of its own. Voices, very soon, had to increase their range and agility – to encompass the notes; and gain power – to be heard in large spaces. The singers and teachers of former times were, of course, well aware that the chest register could be extended upwards, but they also became aware that doing so would make a voice uneven and would weaken the head voice; thus, prejudicing all the voice above the termination point, in athletic ability, power and expressiveness.
It was, therefore, determined that in order to preserve vowel quality, a factor of paramount importance in an art form whose origin was the word, the chest register must avoid all risk of vowel distortion and be terminated at a pitch where all vowels are possible. In the upper reaches of the register, the jaw must drop, the vowels are distorted, closed vowels disappear, only loud sounds are possible and subtlety becomes a mirage.
The upper limit of the chest register is of paramount importance for both singer and teacher. Its upper note forms the boundary of the passaggio, the crucial area of the voice where the joining of the two registers, chest and head, takes place. The location of this upper note depends on several factors. First, the voice and chest register must be strong enough for the decision to be made. Immature and weak voices must wait. The weight and calibre must be correctly assessed: heavy and low voices do not extend as high as lighter ones. There are exceptions, beware! A good and fairly reliable yardstick is laryngeal stability. The note where the larynx cannot be kept stable is one semitone too high; the note below this should be the upper limit. As soon as the limits of the chest register have been established and its action is confident, the next stage in the process can be attempted.
Having established the chest register, the next task is to integrate it with head register, which itself must be exercised and strengthened if it is weak until it covers the upper five or six notes of the chest. This area of overlap of the two registers is the passaggio. Here the integration takes place: by alternating notes in both registers, first on wide intervals, then on ever closer intervals until the change is possible on the same note. The larynx must remain stable and the vowel shape must not alter with the change of register. When a degree of both competence and flexibility in passing from one register to another has been gained, scales, arpeggios, and other musical figures including eventually trills, should be practised across this area, until true ease and smoothness is achieved.
In this way, a voice can be set up and established for a healthy future. Strength, flexibility, depth of tone and clarity of vowel will all follow. With judicious practice and the exercise of common-sense, a good length of career should be assured. Without the development of the chest register and its integration, a voice is doomed to an uncertain future; it will never be even and richly sonorous, nor will be capable of easy power. Its expressive resources will lack the depth and richness of maturity and will be confined to a state of juvenile poverty of expression from which it will be unable to progress. No voice without a valid and active chest register can ever realise its full potential.
© 2008 Neil Howlett