Vocal Registration and the Messa di Voce

Pedro de Alcantara is a cellist, Alexander Technique practitioner and writer, whose book Integrated Practice has been one of my favorite recent reads. It is a book that I will keep handy as there is a lot of great information in it, and it is applicable to all kinds of music making.

In his book, he lays out a great overview of the mechanics of the vocal registers within the context of the Old Italian messa di voce exercise.

 

The point where one register’s pitch range ends and the other starts is called the break. Its location is variable depending on the condition of your voice and how you use it, but it lies (for women as well as men) in a compass of several semitones around E above middle C. Example 19.2 (shown below) is a schema established by Cornelius L. Reid, showing the registers, their respective pitch range, and the vowel and dynamic scope most likely to trigger their innate qualities.

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Let’s call the registers’ basic actions pulling and holding. One register holds its ground, and the other pulls against it, in an elastic and ever-changing opposition of forces. As you pass from note to note, from vowel to vowel, and from forte to piano and back again, the registers’ interplay of pulling and holding changes constantly.

Sing a note on the vowel “ah.” While holding the pitch, change the vowel to “ee.” This will alter the balance between the two registers in some way. Sing a low note on the vowel “ah,” and pass to a note an octave above on the vowel “ee.” The balance of registration will change more significantly. Sing a note on the vowel “ee” right around the break – on an F, for instance. Make it swell and diminish. You’ll use a certain register balance singing quietly and another balance singing loudly, making the falsetto and the chest voice dialogue and collaborate. The art of vocal registration is subtle and difficult, and it’d take a whole other book to lay it out in detail. What we can state unequivocally is that it’s not possible to be a good singer without a good control of the messa di voce.

In advanced stages of training, Reid writes,

the performance of the messa di voce must be practiced continually until there is an exact matching of both the quality and intensity at the point of transition. After this technique has been mastered the “break” disappears, and the singer is able to pass freely from one register to the other, from soft to loud and from loud to soft, without difficulty…This is the singing style known as Bel Canto.

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Example 19.3 is another schema established by Reid. It illustrates the collaboration between the registers and its result upon the vocal range.

When performed in the manner Reid advocates, the messa di voce is the ultimate voice-building exercise. It isn’t the only way in which singers can use the messa di voce, since in the vocal repertoire there exist limitless possibilities for swelling and diminishing tones that lie comfortably away from the break between the registers. In other words, singers can practice the messa di voce on all notes, but when they practice it on certain pitches and vowels, they’re using it in a singularly rewarding manner.

[…]

Do this for a few days and weeks, and undoubtedly you’ll see, hear, and feel wonderful results. But do it for years and the results will be dramatic. You don’t even have to devote yourself to the messa di voce out of duty; you can do it wholly out of pleasure. The vibrations of your instrument or voice when you perform a good messa di voce make daily practice a treat, not an obligation. Start every practice session with variations on the messa di voce, and you’ll always look forward to practicing, day after day, for the rest of your life.

De Alcantara, Pedro. Integrated practice: coordination, rhythm, & sound. Oxford University Press, 2011.

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5 thoughts on “Vocal Registration and the Messa di Voce

  1. Do you sing in the break in falsetto when singing piano? Say like an ‘ee’ vowel at E4 or F4 and same for ‘aa’?

    • It would depend on the particular approach of the teacher, and where the student lies in the spectrum of register balance. For example, if i was TRAINING a male voice, depending on how the voice was balanced (usually too chesty) I would vocalize the singer in that area on a pure falsetto. It’s important, however, to note that there are different several types of falsetto (pure, collapsed, coordinated/clear/supported/reinforced, pharyngeal). The pure falsetto is a breathy, hooty, vibrato-less tone with little to no aesthetic value. The clear falsetto, also called ‘supported falsetto’ (by Husler and Rodd-Marling), or ‘reinforced falsetto’ by other authors, demonstrates that the upper voice is being used well (in most cases), and is ready to play a more significant role in the unification of the registers. In messa di voce exercise, Manuel Garcia II seems to advocate a distinct and abrupt shift in the messa di voce, while other authors advocate a smoother registrational balance from loud to soft. SO there appears to be little consensus in its application (Titze has written on this as well).

      In all of this, it is the FUNCTIONAL condition and needs of the voice, and where it lies in relationship to its development that the teacher determines the particular choice of tone quality to be used. I will say this – for me as a teacher messa di voce exercises are the final stop in the unification of the registers of the voice in the passaggio. I would NOT advocate using them in the passaggio with beginners at all. They can be helpful to use in lower chest and upper head/falsetto, but in the area of the break I would not attempt them until there was at least TWO octaves of clean balance with accompanying free (i.e. unconstricted) resonance balance – in other words, a seamless registration over two octaves with a clearly resonant vowel that does not shift markedly throughout.

      I hope this makes sense?

  2. Garcia talks about this in the Traite of 1841. The following appears to start in one register, the falsetto, and then switch to the chest. Others, like Alexis de Garaudé, appear to advocate the messa di voce from a more unified registrational perspective.

    From the Traité of Garcia:

    “The student will begin the tone softly in the falsetto and in sombre timbre. As we have seen, this procedure makes the larynx firm and contracts the pharynx. Then, without varying the position, and, as a result, the timbre, one will pass into the chest register, fixing the larynx more and more firmly in order to prevent making the abrupt movement which produces the hiccough at the moment of the separation of the two registers. Once established in the chest register, one will raise the larynx again and will dilate the pharynx to clarify the timbre in such a way that toward the middle of the duration of the tone it will have all its brilliance and all its force. In order to soften the tone, the student will do the reverse; that-is-to-say, that before passing into the falsetto register, at the moment the voice is diminished he will darken the chest tone, again fastening the larynx low and contracting the pharynx in order to support it and to avoid the jerk of the change of registers. Then he will pass slowly from the chest register to the falsetto; after which he will relax the pharynx and extinguish the tone. I deduce this rule from the physiological fact that the larynx, being held low by the sombre timbre, can produce the two registers without being displaced. Now, the displacement produces the hiccough which so disagreeably separates the one register from the other.”

    James Stark in his book “Bel Canto” discusses the two ways of executing the messa di voce as well:

    “Garcia’s messa di voce thus involved a finely controlled coordination between glottal settings, vertical laryngeal position, and the contraction of the pharyngeal muscles. His messa di voce begins softly with the loose glottal closure associated with falsetto (middle register), and with a low larynx that darkens the timbre; the crescendo requires a ‘pinching’ of the glottis, which is associated with the chest voice, as well as a raising of the larynx and an adjustment of the pharynx to create a brilliant quality. Presumably the ‘force’ is gained by increasing the breath pressure. For the decrescendo, glottal closure is relaxed, and the larynx descends to again darken the voice quality. The messa di voce thus requires fine control of glottal closure, breath pressure, and the posture of the vocal tract. It is easy to see why the messa di voce is often considered to be the most difficult of all vocal manoeuvres.

    It is apparent that there was an important difference of opinion between Garaudé and Garcia regarding the best manner of performing the messa di voce. Whereas Garaudé advocated an even tone quality throughout the exercise, with no change of register or timbre, and no use of the voce di testa, Garcia required both a change of register and a change of timbre. This indicates that there were two ways of performing the messa di voce, and, as we will see, both methods continue to be taught up to the present time.”

    Hope this clarifies the derivation of the ‘switch’ from one register to the other.

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