Registers, the Messa di voce and the Coup de glotte

The following post is excerpted from the essay of Edward Foreman, “Another Question or Six,” unpublished.

The joining or unification of the registers was important enough to be mentioned by TosiMancini and Manfredini, but only Manfredini comes close to giving any instruction for accomplishing it beyond holding back the stronger of the two and strengthening the weaker register before effecting a juncture.

There are no indications of the manner in which the strengthening of the registers was to be accomplished, and this is where speculation about the nature of the messa di voce may be helpful.

Most of the later instruction books—Aprile/Tenducci, Corri, Celoni, and Nathan—provide exercises and solfeggi, which are lacking in Tosi and Mancini, and only rudimentary in Manfredini. The preliminary exercises all begin with long notes with the indication of a messa di voce—the complete swell and diminish—on each one, over the range from a sixth (Celoni) to an octave and a third (Aprile/Tenducci).

Nathan gives a set of various shapes which the swell and/or diminish may take:

The remarks which accompany this table indicate that the swell and diminish were to be practiced separately before being combined into the complete messa di voce, and herein may lie the most complete explanation of the treatment of the registers as practiced in the Porpora school.

The Characteristics of the Registers

The mechanism of the registers, their number and their character, have become subjects of considerable controversy since Manual Garcia II decreed there were three: chest, falsetto and head.1 His assertion was unsupported by explanation, and the whole section in the Traité which deals with registers is a bit muddled. The only description of the falsetto—which Garcia places in the middle of the voice between the chest and head registers of traditional Italian pedagogy—is that he was referring to that section of the voice as “artificially created by the blending of the registers,” hence a “false” voice having its origins in mechanical training and not in nature. Garcia does not make this clear, leaving us with the inference that the falsetto is a separate register function, albeit one which does not have a mechanical explanation.

It is generally agreed that there are two sets of muscles involved in every muscular action of the body, including the voice. While this is true of the voice, the larger conception of two sets of muscular movements must take notice of the actual number of pairs of muscles involved in forming a long range of sounds. Since the several different muscle sets are not susceptible to localized or individual control, the image of two complementary muscle systems can stand for the whole.

This being the case then, there are three potential register sounds available to the voice:

1. The chest dominated;

2. The head dominated;

3. The combined, or blended action of (1) and (2).

Examples of all three types can be found in trained and untrained singers alike.

Further it can be observed that there are two elements involved in the production of a sound:

1. Breath energy;

2. Vibration in the vocal folds.

Each of these expresses itself differently in terms of the registers. The chest register partakes much more of the vibration of the vocal folds; the head register of the action of the breath, facts which are supported by the pictures of the vocal folds in these two registers. In the chest register the vocal folds are parallel and vibrant; in the head register there is an aperture between the vocal folds and less of the body of the folds vibrates.

In the combined, or blended, activity of the voice, where both registers are functioning at optimal coordination, the chest register provides the body of the sound, and the head the ductile, fluid and motile activity which enables the singer to master florid singing with ease and accuracy. In addition, the head voice liberates an upper overtone spectrum which results in easy intensity and focus which is sometimes fancifully described as “high placement.”2

Developing and Combining the Registers

The image of the finished voice ought to be that of one long, unbroken range without noticeable register breaks or significant and sudden changes in color, volume and flexibility. A more primitive, less-developed image is of the two registers somehow welded together so that an easy transition from the one to the other may be made, but with differences in color, volume and flexibility noticeable.

The commentaries by writers of the early 19th century outside the strictly pedagogical materials suggest that tenors in particular were prone to this kind of combination. If we probe a little more deeply into these comments, we find that in reality the transition might be almost imperceptible, but that the upper range was still sung in a head voice without much substance, so that when Gilbert Duprez introduced the “ut de poitrine” (“chest high C”) to Paris in 1837, it was a sensational and significantly different kind of upper range sound from that of the prevailing tenor style of Nourrit and his teacher Manuel Garcia I.3

In order that the registers become capable of combination, they must be equal in muscular strength—not to be confused with volume or intensity—which can unfortunately only be measured by their ability to combine, if the characteristics of the registers are kept separate. By this I mean that the action of the chest register must be kept to a minimum in exercising in the head voice, and vice versa, until they are able to blend, which can only be determined by trying to combine them.

To achieve this, swelling and diminishing must be practiced in a form appropriate to the nature of the registers. Thus the chest voice will strengthen most rapid using a crescendo:




on [a]


The head voice will strengthen most rapidly on a decrescendo:


on [u]



The chest voice vowel must be kept firm and centered, without vibrato or wobble, without a “singy” kind of sound, in order to take the greatest advantage of the vibration of the vocal folds.4

The head voice vowel must be treated in just the opposite way, a breathy, open [u], the shape maintained even as the vowel uses up all the breath.

When the two registers have been exercised enough in this manner, it is time to attempt to go from a head voice decrescendo on [u] to a chest voice crescendo on [a]. This should be first attempted on the “F” above Middle C:

The transition between the vowels must be done very carefully to avoid a sudden shift into a chest dominated sound on the [a].

Once this blending can be done successfully and easily, it may be extended to a few pitches either side of the “F,” although the important point is for the singer to experience and learn to hear the blended sound quality.

When the sound quality is well-established in the center, it will be possible for the singer to begin practicing the complete messa di voce on all the pitches of the range, beginning in the comfortable lower-middle part of the voice.

This is the moment in training at which we begin to find the pedagogical literature fairly specific about progressive exercises.

The Coup de glotte

In the chest voice, the vowel should be started with a coup de glotte as Garcia understood it, not the vicious hard “stroke” of controversy.5

There are only two ways to begin a vowel sound:

1. As an aspirate, preceded by an “h”;

2. With a coup de glotte, which exists in two forms:

a. The hard “stroke” which is actually a plosive at the vocal folds;

b. The balanced coup de glotte in which the breath is present at the vocal folds at the exact moment that vibration begins.

The result of (2b) above is a neat articulation of the vowel in the presence of breath which avoids forcing or spreading of the vowel, and involves “singing in the throat” as opposed to attempting to “bring the voice forward,” or any of the 19th and 20th century nostrums which have created such havoc.

Since the vocal folds are located in the throat, and the action of phonation takes place in the throat, to speak of singing from or in any other location is to avoid the facts, mislead the singer and produce a sound which is not firmly grounded either in reality or in the actual mechanism of phonation.

The locate the vocal folds and initiate the coup de glotte, we have only to follow Garcia’s description, that it is like a small cough which becomes a vowel ([a] is to be preferred) and then can be sustained at the vocal folds. This will inevitably result in establishing a clean and clear chest voice free from the pernicious throatiness which so ubiquitously affects modern singers.

The coup de glotte is not useful in the first stages of developing the head voice, since it is the absolute opposite of the desired “open” quality of the [u] vowel.6


This is only my personal, theoretical explanation for the foundation work in blending the registers, based on the literature at the point at which we join it, with the foundation work already accomplished. Others have written just as persuasively on this topic, with somewhat different approaches.7

It must be noted that in the traditional Italian method, the laryngeal position was allowed to respond to the pitch, rising and falling in correspondence, and this must be allowed if the above approach to blending is to be successful.8

There is no correspondence between laryngeal position and the use of the coup de glotte in the chest voice.

The useful analogy is that the breath and the vibration in the vocal folds should be similar to the relationship between the bow and the string on the violin: precise, specific, but unforced and gentle.



1 Traité, passim.

2 Hours of listening to old acoustic recordings from the first 25 years of the 20th century reveals this characteristic in the majority of the voices, particularly those whose owners enjoyed lengthy careers. It is missing in many contemporary voices, as are skill and ease in florid singing.

3 Duprez accomplished this sound through the use of the voix sombrée or timbre oscure, which is based on the lowered laryngeal position which Garcia II claimed he had been teaching for some time before 1837. It is interesting to suggest that the lowered laryngeal position—in direct contrast to the mobile larynx of the Italian tradition—may create the third, or middle, register phenomenon which Garcia mentions. On the other hand, Corri and Nathan both mention three registers (Nathan four), and the laryngeal position is not discussed by either of them.

4 This is by way of being an isometric exercise for the vocal folds, producing precision and neatness of approximation.

5 Discussion of the controversy is out of place here; let it suffice to say that both vocal physiologists and teachers misunderstood the concept through an inadequate reading of the Traité.

6 The coup de glotte in the head voice is the route to follow to develop the male alto, however, who wants a focused head voice at his disposal. See note below.

7 It is sometimes suggested that the head voice should be strengthened to sound like that of the male alto, but I find this particularly difficult to blend with the chest voice, since it incorporates a kind of cooperation between the registers which is at odds with the independent development of the registers.

8 The French pedagogy of Jean Baptiste Bérard also incorporates the motile larynx; he has a rather lengthy discussion of this, and apparently had some Italian tuition.