Lesson dialogue from a recent lesson:
Me: So, I see you’re working up a lot of Musical Theater repertoire for auditions. That’s terrific!
Student: Yeah, I love music theater! I really want to pursue it. I just love (insert any recent musical here).
Me: Fantastic! So, let’s get started in a warm up and we’ll see where we’re at.
Student: Great! (Vocalizes on a basic scale pattern. It’s a very pretty sound. Up and down the scale we go, but chest voice is NOWHERE to be found. The student has a highly developed soprano head voice with no access to chest whatsoever – )
Me: Great! You sound wonderful, but I noticed that you don’t have a particularly sturdy chest voice. (Inner monologue: How in the HELL are you going to sing ANYTHING Music Theater without a viable chest voice????)
Student: Oh, yeah. My opera teacher told me that if I sing in chest I would lose my voice by the time I was twenty.
Me: (After a protracted silence) Ok then.
What GIVES with the TERROR of the female chest voice? Its obfuscation is so prevalent in the training of young women these days by ‘classical’ teachers. The male version is the teacher who is also MORTIFIED by use of falsetto in training the male singing voice. (For a recent article by my colleague Brian Lee on the subject of male falsetto, click here.)
This HORROR of chest voice is NOT a new trend, historically speaking. As early as Manuel Garcia, teachers were running away from the chest voice in droves as a sound that was ‘unwomanly’ and ‘crude’ and ‘raw’.
The wisdom of the Old Italians, however, saw equal relevance in BOTH registers, the chest voice AND the head/falsetto. They were both two parts of a whole, and were to be trained together in the pursuit of a perfected technique.
Here are some quotes from Giambattista Mancini’s “Practical Reflections on Figured Singing” from 1774 (emphasis mine):
“This chest voice is not equally forceful and strong in everyone; but to the extent that one has a more robust or more feeble organ of the chest, he will have a more or less robust voice.”
“It remains for me now to speak of those voices which are slender and weak throughout their register…One observes that these voices are very weak in the chest notes, and the greater majority deprived of any low notes, but rich in high notes, or head voice.”
So, NO CHEST = weak voice. I find this to be true universally in female singers. The avoidance of chest voice creates a very pretty, but DEVITALIZED vocal sound, free of dramatic capability or true dynamic contrast.
What was Mancini’s solution?:
“There is not a method more sure to obtain this end (chest voice), I believe, than to have such a little voice sing only in the chest voice for a time. The exercise should be done with a tranquil solfeggio; and as the voice enriches itself with a greater body, and range, one may blend it as much as possible with the low notes.”
Manuel Garcia, II, writing in the nineteenth century, also commented on the current trend of chest-voice avoidance:
“As we have said, the chest register is generally denied or rejected by teachers, not that one could not draw from its application an immense advantage, nor that the suppression of the range which it embraces would not deprive the singer of the most beautiful dramatic effects or the most favorable contrasts.”
So, why the fear?
There are a lot of theories about this in the pedagogy, but one of the more interesting ideas I’ve found is the idea that the chest voice was somehow “manly”, and in a patriarchal society, women were expected to only make “lady-like” sounds, especially in the rigid Victorian/Edwardian era. I find this idea particularly compelling as a sociological and cultural influence into vocal pedagogy. But culture is not function, and nature isn’t bound by our cultural ‘zeitgeist’. When teachers say, “My dear, DON’T sing in chest voice, that’s VULGAR/UGLY”, these are AESTHETIC judgements, NOT functional ones.
Voice teachers OF ALL STRIPES need to embrace the chest voice as a powerful voice building tool and vital to developing a voice that has strength and power, in whatever style of music to be sung.
As Zelda might say in Poltergeist, “Go toward the CHEST VOICE, Carol Anne!”