Percentage Play in “Petto”

My work in the studio this week has added in a fun exercise taken from Pamelia S. Phillips’s humorous and very practical book Singing Exercises for Dummies, published by Wiley Press.

This light-hearted book, while named tongue-in-cheek as part of the “Dummies” series of books, is a tremendously useful and PRACTICAL pedagogical resource for the singer and the teacher of voice. In fact, this author would posit that this hidden little “Dummies” book is as close as we’ve gotten to a mirrored text to those old Italian books of old.

Phillips covers a broad scope of training practices that run the gamut of ALL aspects of what could be constitute good voice training: breath, vowel work, consonant work, intervals, rhythm, head voice, chest voice, mix, and even belt! There is much common sense and direct language in this book which for this blogger gives much to admire.

I definitely enjoy this text and would place it as one of my favorites for its usefulness and its creative exercises. Some of the vowel work done in the text is similar to the vowel work done in the work of Walter Foster.

To get back to my original intent, the exercise that I have been playing with this week is Phillips’s percentage of chest register. For Phillips, chest register work is a vital part of voice training because:

Working out your chest voice is important because you need to know its limits so you don’t expect the same heavy sensation when you sing in other parts of your voice.

Pamelia S. Phillips, “Singing Exercises for Dummies”

I love the simplicity of Phillips’s quote. Discovering registration in this way teaches the singer the balance of the voice throughout its range and the feelings and sensations that should occur when the vocal folds are responding accordingly.

Phillip’s ‘percentage’ exercise below is intended to help the singer learn that they do not want a heavy chest voice for everything that they sing. Some phrases of music will require a heavy chest register, and other phrases a lighter registration.

Figuring out percentages of chest registration can go a long way to help a singer and teacher understand the limits of chest as well as begin the process of ‘mix’ coordination of the voice. It is also helpful for the teacher to assess how the singer is evaluating how they’re singing.

A fruitful conversation might go like this:

Teacher: Great! How much chest register do you think you’re using in that scale right now?

Student: Hmm….about 50 percent.

Teacher: Okay, can you try for 100 percent?


Teacher: Great! Now, compared to THAT, can you now vocalize a 50% of that sound that you just made?


Teacher: Now, what do you think about that sound?

Student: Yeah, I think that’s much closer to what I would consider to be a 50% chest sound.

Teacher: Do you think maybe that other chest was just under-energized?

Student: Yeah, I think you’re
right, I was thinking my 50% wasn’t my 50%.

There’s a LOT of fun explorative play that can occur in lessons by experimenting with levels of chest so the singer can understand their own voice.

Here’s another benefit: it can allow the teacher to control the warm-up process as well. We don’t want their 100% chest register off the bat. We can gradually get them there over the vocalization session.

I’d say that I DO want singers to STRENGTHEN their chest register by singing 100% every once in a while, but normally, 75%-80% for average vocalization. For the weak voice, what feels like 100% chest to the singer over time may be their eventual 75%. 100% is a STRENGTH builder, but remember Richard Miller’s adage:

Power either builds or destroys.

Richard Miller

Cornelius Reid alluded to this phenomenon of percentages of registration from the Old Italian school of singing. Apparently, it was called mezzo petto (half chest), and was used to unite to the mezzo falso (half falsetto). Of course this begs the question: If it is HALF chest or falsetto, what is the OTHER half? My answer to that depending on the register being sung, the other portion is the opposing register. (Even if this is a lie, it is a useful lie for the singer working to discover ratios of balance in their voices.)

Here is Phillip’s exercise and its variations. Hopefully the singer and teacher will find much to play with in this exercise, especially in the mid-range of the female voice.

Phillip’s 3-note exercise can be mutated into various permutations, including two note, four note, or five note scales.
  1. Sing the pattern, using the fullest, heaviest chest voice sound you can make — that sound and sensation make up your 100 percent chest voice.
    I like to use a percentage to describe the chest as you sing higher in pitch you feel a tightening sensation in your throat from the pressure of the heavy chest voice.
  2. Sing the pattern again and aim to use just 75 percent chest voice by allowing the vibrations of resonance to shift higher and by opening the space in your throat to create less pressure or weight.
    Don’t worry about exactly how much is 75 percent; just try to make a lighter sound than you made for 100 percent chest voice. The difference between 100 percent chest voice and 75 percent chest voice is that 75 percent feels lighter; in other words, the sensation is of less weight and pressure in your throat. Sing a few repetitions of the pattern again and compare singing with 100 percent chest voice to singing with 75 percent chest voice.
  3. Sing the pattern a third time and use 50 percent chest voice. (Bloggers note: This particular quality of registration could be described historically as the ‘mezzo petto’ or ‘half chest,’ which was the means whereby the two registers (chest/falsetto) were brought together, then strengthened over time) Be careful not to flip out of chest voice; instead concentrate on using only half of the weight of your heaviest chest voice sounds. To sing with 50 percent chest voice, open up your throat more and allow the vibrations of resonance to move higher. If you compare the sensation of singing with 100 percent chest voice to the sensation of singing with 50 percent chest voice, you should notice that the resonance for 50 percent feels taller or has high and low vibrations of resonance. When you sing in 100 percent chest voice, on the other hand, the vibrations of resonance are only in your chest, not to mention more pressure is in your throat when you make the sound.
  4. Sing the pattern again, this time using a head voice–dominated mix. (Blogger’s note: We could consider this 25% chest, and 75% head. Once chest register falls under 50%, logic would say that is the tipping point where the upper register begins to take control of the majority of the tone). Singing with a head voice–dominated mix means singing the same notes you sang in chest voice in Steps 1 through 3 by using more head voice in the mixture. The pattern is low enough that you can’t sing it in a pure head voice, but you can take out most of the chest voice. When you sing with the head voice–dominated mix, notice that you feel the vibrations of resonance in your head rather than in your chest.

    After you explore the differences in the amount of weight in chest voice or the change of percentage, sing the pattern again, using 50 percent chest voice on all the repetitions. When you feel confident about using 50 percent, sing again and use 25 percent (head voice–dominated mix) on all the repetitions. When you know the sensations of the four percentages, you can choose how you vary the percentage in different phrases in your songs.

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