Teachers of voice that work with registration as their foundation use what might be called functional voice training. For those unfamiliar, this system was so named by New York pedagogue and teacher Cornelius L. Reid. Its purpose is to give a rational basis upon which to teach whereupon instruction moves from the area of aesthetics into actual physical function. It in itself is not a ‘way’ of singing but merely observation and correction of vocal responses to stimuli comprised of pitch, intensity, and vowel.
The goal of functional voice training is to improve the muscular movements at the source of the sound (the larynx) allowing the voice to function more freely so that it can express freely what the singer wants to say, the WAY he wants to say it.
For those committed to training a voice in a functional way, understanding a path of progress is enormously helpful in developing lesson plans and goals. While the voice cannot be imagined upon a linear plane (first A, then B, then C), having an idea of the larger development process can help the teacher and student understand where the training is going, and how to go about achieving it.
To go toward a destination, we need a map. Maybe a ‘Functional Voice Training Road Map’. I am freely adapting this from Cornelius Reid’s book “The Free Voice.” Teachers interested in this way of working are encouraged to research Reid’s work as a foundational approach to functional voice training.
Every voice has some kind of register balance, whether they are aware of it or not. Functional listening requires that the teacher be able to hear the differences in register balance and resonance adjustment to develop a training program appropriate for the functional needs of the individual voice.
In functional voice training, acknowledgement is given to a two-register theory of the voice (chest/falsetto). This is based upon the logic of available laryngeal mechanisms controlling the dimensions of the vocal fold depth (chest register or thyroarytenoid activity) and longitudinal tension on the vocal folds (falsetto register or cricothyroid activity).
There are seven conditions of registration of the voice.
CATEGORY 1: Registration
- Improperly Mixed or Blended Registers: This is the least ideal registration of the voice, and can be the most challenging to correct. In this coordination, the two registers work at cross-purposes. In an improper mix, the two registers are blended but with too much falsetto register action where chest should be, and too much chest register action where falsetto should be. The aural perception will be voice of limited high and low range, as well as a too-thick middle voice or passaggio.
- Chest register alone: This register balance is most common in male voices, although female voices are not immune depending on the repertoire they sing. In this balance, only the chest voice is used in the singing voice.
- Falsetto register alone: This register balance is found most often in young girls and some women. Here, only the upper mechanism or falsetto is being used in the singing voice. The singer has no perceptible chest register action in her singing voice.
- Isolated registration: In an isolated registration, both registers are present and functional, but are separated by a gap or break between them. Many popular music singers manage to sing in this coordination for their entire career.
- Chest Dominant: In a chest register dominated voice, both registers have been blended, but the action of the chest voice prevails throughout the scale. This is very common in talented male singers, and some female pop and Broadway singers. Still, this register balance is not ideal.
- Head Dominant: When the falsetto action combines with the chest register action with the ratio of tension taken more by the falsetto register, a sound perceived as head voice prevails. In this balance the upper register is coordinated with the lower, but only a minimal amount of chest register action is present. This sound is very prevalent in lighter soprano voices. As with the chest dominant singer, this voice is still lacking participation of its opposing register.
- Perfect Mix: This is the most rare situation of all. Many singers can have long successful careers and still not sing with perfect balance between the chest and falsetto registers. This registration could be seen as the ultimate goal of all voice training. The voice would exhibit not only even color and timbre from bottom to top, but clear vowels, flexibility, an even vibrato rate, a range of two and a half octaves (for men) to three octaves (for women).
In addition to these registrational factors, other areas of attention should also be examined in the singing voice. Paramount among them is the resonance adjustment evidenced by the positioning of the larynx in the throat by the suspensory mechanism (elevators and depressors of the larynx), along with the activity of the superior, medium, and inferior constrictors of the back wall of the throat. After assessing registration, this category is the next to be assessed.
Category 2: Resonance Adjustment
- Severely constricted: In a severely constricted voice, the back wall of the throat is hyper-functional, and the muscles that suspend the larynx (elevators and depressors) are thrown into conflict. The elevation of the larynx can be too high, giving the perception of a ‘choke’ in the tone. The sound will be shrill, narrow, tight, and be heard to possess qualities of tonal imbalance. Additionally, a too-low larynx can also be a sign of severe constriction, where the depressors of the larynx are overly active and the sound might be described as dull, woofy, too-open, depressed, dry, or ‘old.’ The manifestation of these sounds will be most readily apparent in the tone conveying mechanism of the voice: the vowel. In a constricted voice the [a] vowel may sound like [ae]. Vowel purity in a severely constricted voice is impossible.
- Moderately constricted: In a moderately constricted voice, all of the above properties mentioned are present, but to a lesser degree. Slight vowel disturbance is present along with laryngeal elevation or depression.
- Mildly constricted: Constriction is still present but the tone ‘sounds good.’ Many teachers will stop here with a mildly constricted tone because the voice will sound ‘market ready.’ This is a great danger for the student, because the efficiency of the voice and ultimate freedom has still not been achieved.
- Open throated: This is an arrangement where the throat is completely free, the larynx suspended properly in the throat, not drawn up too high, and not drawn down too low. The vowels are balanced throughout, and the purity of each phoneme is present from the lowest tones to the highest. The tone is free, clear, and the singer feels a total sense of freedom in the throat. The Italian phrase for this was often ‘L’italiano non ha gola” – The Italian (singer) doesn’t have a throat.
One might think we’d have enough information to go on to make a qualified assessment of the voice, but there is still a third category that must be considered in the training of the human voice. These factors are just as vital as the previous two, and also determine the training path to be taken.
Category 3: Qualities of the Personality
- Anatomical Structure: The student’s physical makeup plays a vital role in the training process. Understanding the capacities of strength, flexibility, and general physical condition is a vital role in the selection of training modalities for the singer. A singer that presents with a slight build and gentle bone structure may not get the same regimen as a robust larger person with a strong muscular build and development. The voice, too, will have its anatomical limits – a fact any serious voice trainer must consider.
- Intelligence, Temperament, Musicality: This is the student’s intellectual makeup. Is the student musical? This doesn’t mean they are literate musically – many musical performers don’t read music. How does the student phrase? Think about singing? What is their temperament? Are they flighty? Stand-offish? Aggressive? All of these factors will determine how they go about making sound.
- Emotional Identification and Tone Color: How does the student identify emotionally with the sound? Are they emotionally blocked? Can they become expressive in simple songs? Do they connect with music in a way that is readily apparent? How do they feel when singing? These factors can either liberate or lock a voice, and the element of fear can always be present in this particular pathway.
These three categories form a vital framework for the assessment of any singer that walks into the studio.
Selection from each can be made and a training program enacted that is suited specifically to THAT singer. It gives the teacher a handy diagnostic framework upon which to work in a logical and rational manner, and saves energy and time working in irrelevancies that only lengthen the training process needlessly.
In Part 2 of this post, I will go over different ‘case studies’ using these categories to show how effective they can be when structuring a training program for any singer. I will use singers from my own teaching experience and show how these categories can be useful in the training program of any teacher.