Premature Mixing

I’ve spent the past decade learning the ins and outs of vocal registration. My education has come largely through extensive reading, personal experience, and study on the subject from various pedagogues who take a more functional view of the voice, including Seth Riggs, Cornelius Reid, and Jeannette LoVetri. Coupled with the current knowledge, I’ve also found similar strains of thought in writings of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries which share these directives. Much of this knowledge I have imparted directly to this blog, as a way of not only sharing this information, but using it as my own sort of ‘library’ of knowledge when I find something of merit.

One of the conclusions that I have reached is that teaching a student to ‘mix’ before developing WHAT IS BEING MIXED is a recipe for vocal imbalance.

For example, if a student possesses a weak chest voice, and your aim from the first sessions is to get the voice into a mix, then you are in fact ‘sealing’ in the registrational balance of that voice before its registers have been developed.

You’ve taken 10% olive oil and mixed it with 90% balsamic vinegar.

One illustrious pedagogue asserts you must ‘get ’em in a mix’ in the very first lesson. Yet how can the singer feel a successful mix if the registers that provide this mix are atrophied or undeveloped?

Each teacher must decide upon pedagogical directives and principles when setting about their work with a student. In a pedagogy based on registration, there are seven different types of balance that a student will present with in a lesson. These balances can be easily assessed with the simplest of scales and a ear attuned to listening functionally and not aesthetically.

  1. Improperly mixed registration. This is the most dysfunctional voice balance. The registers have been joined but in an improper relationship. The voice lacks range, and features a rather ‘thick’ middle range. This can be remedied, but the work will take TIME. The student must be made aware of this from the beginning.
  2. Head/Falsetto alone. Most common in women’s voices, this balance has the upper mechanism operating alone, without the lower register. Voices of this type tend to be younger, and occasionally female chorus singers who have not studied voice. The voices will be sweet but thin-bodied. Occasionally, there will be a greater admixture of breath in the sound. Range will also be limited in most cases.
  3. Chest alone. This balance is most common in men’s voices, and some women that sing musical theater, pop and rock. These voices will be powerful, strong, and able to sing well at more forte dynamics. These voices will usually be able to sing successful to E4 (men) and A4 (women). Men can manage quite well in this category, depending on the demands of their repertoire. However, the voice has been functionally divided, and will cause issues if the upper register is not introduced at some point in the training program. Women who sing exclusively in chest can do so successfully up to about A4 on the scale, after which point the throat begins to constrict.
  4. Isolated registers. This registration, while not to be considered complete, is still more functionally developed than the previous categories. There will be a gap separating the lower register from the upper. Many classical women will sing quite successfully in this register balance. Several singers in many genres of music, including classical, fare quite well with this register balance.
  5. Head dominant registration. The two registers have been combined in a balance that is dominated by the upper register.
  6. Chest dominant registration. The registers have been combined in a balance that is dominated by the lower register.
  7. Perfectly coordinated registration. When most current teachers talk about ‘mix,’ this is the category to which they are referring. It should be noted, however, that even in the most advanced singers, this coordination is RARE. Signs of this balance would be a lengthy range, clear vowels, and supple execution of the messa di voce throughout the scale. Very few singers of a high professional standard reach this category. However, it is still the standard to reach for in the teaching studio.

Based on these categories (combined with additional considerations of resonance adjustment, factors of personality, personal sound-identification, and musicianship) teachers can establish a training program that is individualized to each student.

Unfortunately, for a singer to skip from a category 1 to category 7 would be a grave pedagogical mistake, not to mention a physical impossibility. This is the “Get ’em in a mix” ideology writ large. It would be a superhuman feat of physical function for a student to jump from an improperly mixed registration to one of perfect coordination. Steps 2 to 7 help pave the way for a path to greater functional ability in the voice.

A singer that presents a head register alone should be immediately introduced to the action of the chest register, and the training program should be directed to its development. Once developed, the singer might graduate to another category once the chest register becomes an active participant in the vocal technique. Simply stated, a student in category #2 should expect move into category #4. Training programs thus structured become vibrant, original, and catered to each student’s functional needs. While the teacher and student are headed in the direction of perfect coordination, they can understand and appreciate the specific functional abilities gained along the way.

A teacher that attempts to ‘seal in,”mix,’ or join the registers before each has been properly developed is setting the stage for register imbalance. It is a mistake that can only be remedied by register isolation, development, and subsequent re-integration, wasting even more time and resources the student might have spent in better pedagogical hands.