In this blog I will discuss how a singer can learn how to sing better in the chest voice, and why the chest register is so important for singing.
In my blog posted on June 12, 2012 you will see a chart that I created called “Your Path to Vocal Development”. You should refer to that chart for the next few blogs, in which I will elaborate on the chart and discuss each step on the path to becoming a good singer and learning to sing with confidence.
In step 1 of the path to learn how to sing, we are focusing on the chest voice- the bottom half of the singer’s range. The chest voice is where most of us in Western culture tend to speak, shout, laugh, etc. We feel comfortable with that part of our range because we are used to living there vocally in daily life. Strangely, though, when some singers attempt to vocalize, they think they should do something entirely different when they sing. So they end up producing a very airy sound on the lower notes because they are trying to produce their voices in a different way for singing, than they do for talking. This is often due to incorrect instruction, or participation in choral settings where the use of the chest voice is discouraged. Most choral directors are brainwashed into believing that the chest voice should be avoided completely, and therefore they set their students up for a lifetime of vocal weakness and an inability to sing anything in the popular music realm.
For the lower notes, the adage “sing like you speak” is in some ways, correct. We should be producing the sound in much the same way as we speak- that is: clearly, easy to understand, not breathy or airy, with power if needed and appropriate for the musical style.
When we sing correctly in the chest register, two things are present to create the sound. The first is that we are using the entire mass or vibrating element of the vocal cords, and the cords are appropriately adducted, (without being overcompressed). Secondly, there is a “sympathetic vibration” felt in the chest cavity, where the sound waves are reinforced. If you put your hand on your chest and say MMMMMMMMMM, in your speaking voice, you will feel the sympathetic vibration occurring in your chest cavity, as that is where lower notes are reinforced. If you leave your hand on your chest and then say WOOOOO (like an owl) in your upper register, you will notice that you no longer feel the same vibration in the chest cavity. This is because the higher notes are amplified and reinforced in the cavities of the cranium (head). That is how the terms “chest voice” and “head voice” came to be used- they are mostly a description of what the singer feels when they sing lower or higher.
To see what happens to the vocal cords when you go from a low note to a high note, visit this link:
You can see that the vocal cords change shape for the higher notes, elongating and thinning out, while for the chest voice lower notes, the cords are shorter and fatter.
When the vocal cords do not come together or adduct properly in the lower register, we have to help the student feel what it is like to experience a feeling of adducted vocal cords. We often have to use sounds or exercises that don’t sound like beautiful singing at first, to encourage the vocal cords to work correctly. A great way to experience the feeling of a correctly produced chest voice is to stick out your tongue as far as possible, and say “a-a-a” (like the vowel in “apple”). This will bring the vocal cords closer together and they will stay together if you make the sound with enough energy.
One of the challenges of working with singers who are not used to using their chest voices is that they tend to sing with little or no energy, somewhat passive and timid. You do need to sing with a certain amount of energy to create a good sound, and so these singers have to get used to the idea of the sound being louder than what they are used to. Sometimes I used the example of a baby crying, to illustrate this point: a baby can cry (very loudly) for long periods of time, and yet, they don’t lose their voices or experience vocal problems. Why is this? It’s because they are engaging their bodies to make the sound, and their vocal cords are coming together very well on the waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah sound. Nature has babies making sound this way to develop the vocal cords. You will never hear a baby making a breathy, weak sound when they want attention or need something. So why should we change things when we are a few years older? The aaaaaaaa sound (like apple) which looks like this in IPA [ae] (international phonetic alphabet) is a great sound to encourage good vocal adduction.
After the singer has experienced the feeling of correctly bringing the vocal cords together, we then want to develop that skill a bit by moving on to other vowels, consonants, and words. In this way, we increase skill level at maintaining good vocal cord adduction in the chest voice.
If you are trying this on your own, remember you never want to take this coordination above the first bridge, (Ab above middle C for females, and Eb above middle C for males) because then you will be “pulling chest” and we don’t want that either. We are looking for balance between the lower and upper registers. At this stage our goal is to develop some strength in the lower register, including the ability to hold the cords together when we hold out pitch, or sustain. Once the singer becomes stronger with this coordination, we then want to connect this new coordination to the upper register, and that is Step 2 on the Path!
So to recap, in order to learn how to sing in the chest voice, a singer needs to experience good vocal cord adduction, and this is accomplished by the right kind of vocal training, which develops the chest register, but does not take it too high.
For professional singing lessons in the Atlanta, Marietta and Alpharetta GA area, or to register for voice training online by skype, facetime, or speakerphone, please visit the website at www.singlikeastar.com, and click on the GET STARTED tab to register for a professional vocal evaluation and consultation.