More on the Pharyngeal Voice

I thought I’d throw in a couple of historical connections regarding the pharyngeal voice.

The first person to coin the actual word in print was Edgar Herbert-Caesari, but he also acknowledged in May 1950 in the Musical Times that there was no such thing as a pharyngeal voice. (Semantics, semantics!)

Herbert-Caesari asserted the idea came from the Italian term voce faringea and was taught to him by Riccardo Daviesi. According to Herbert-Caesari,

The discovery of the pharyngeal dates back about three hundred years (c. 1650) and was employed by church tenors all over Italy. Subsequently, it was taught by all exponents of the old Italian school. Riccardo Daviesi, my singing teacher in Rome, was the greatest Sistine Chapel ‘contralto’ of the nineteenth century.
Herbert-Caesari goes on,
When properly developed, either as a natural gift or as a result of considerable exercise, the pharyngeal mechanism dovetails perfectly into the basic or chest mechanism-just like gears and can be engaged in exact percentages at the will of the singer; at the same time he can also introduce small percentages of falsetto if he so wishes. The quality of such mixed tones is remarkable. The falsetto by itself is a windy, anaemic, stupid tone; mixed, however, with goodly percentages of pharyngeal it becomes a living entity. In tenors (not in female voices) the pharyngeal is inclined to be ‘ steely’ in timbre; but when it is mixed with a small percentage of falsetto we get a highly attractive tone-a glowing centre with a softened rim, and of great carrying power. The so-called chest voice, when mixed with well-balanced percentages (according to the pitch) of pharyngeal, acquires brilliance, quality, and carrying power.
Rather tellingly, Herbert-Caesari credits the neglect of the pharyngeal voice to Gilbert Louis-Duprez. Duprez is considered (perhaps apocryphally) to have sung the first do di petto, or high C from the chest in Rossini’s opera William Tell.
The breakaway from the aforesaid tenore di grazia tradition was initiated by the French tenor Duprez; credited with being the first tenor to sing all head notes up to C with unmixed chest, his ‘ Do de poitrine ‘ (high C in chest voice) became famous; but his success was short-lived. Rossini shed tears when he heard him in 1837 in ‘William Tell’ because ‘ poor Duprez won’t last long’. Duprez gave up singing when he was about forty. Panofka, celebrated teacher of singing in that period, wrote of ‘ Duprez’s brute force in singing ‘ and said that in imitating Duprez and his new method tenors ‘engaged in an athletic contest with their voices, and subsequently sopranos, to compete with these new tenori di forza, were obliged to force their voices beyond the normal’. That was one hundred years ago. Today, the universal wobble is a symptom of forced and bad production everywhere.
Herbert-Caesari’s pronouncements are worth lengthy consideration by voice teachers, as they do suggest a pedagogical historical “bifurcation” in training the upper voice. But that’s a post for another time.

Continuing on, we might ask if there are earlier connections to this pharyngeal voice in historical writings?

I believe there are, and I’d like to dive back into the past and see if we can find some answers.

In his book Misurgia Vocalis (1836) Isaac Nathan describes a particular quality of voice that he calls voce di finte, or feigned voice. It is very important to know that the term existed PRIOR to Nathan but he clarified his definition,

I am aware that the falsetto is considered a feigned voice – but the quality of the sound to which I allude is not that which is produced in the throat, and already distinguished under the name falsetto; nor is it the voce di testa.
Nathan asserted that the two registers of the voice had to be joined through ‘il ponticello’ or the little bridge, and that this joining of the registers
cannot be accomplished without the aid of the feigned voice, which may be justly considered the only medium or vehicle by which the falsetto can be carried into the Voce di petto.
So, if we can understand Nathan’s particular definition, we may have a technique of voice training that connects to the Old Italian School of Singing. For that, I looked at the writings of one of the earliest Italian Masters, Pierfrancesco Tosi. His definition of the voce di finte mirrors the wording of Isaac Nathan 93 three years before:
Whoever would be curious to discover the feigned Voice of one who has the Art to disguise it, let him take Notice, that the Artist sounds the Vowel i, or e, with more Strength and less Fatigue than the vowel a, on the high Notes.
The selection of these vowels [i] and [e] is telling, because they are the same vowels that were advocated by Nathan as well as Herbert-Caesari.

In our modern times, pedagogue Cornelius Reid in his Dictionary of Vocal Terminology (1983) defined the term as follows:

The term “Pharyngeal Voice” was coined by the twentieth century Englishman E. Herbert-Caesari to describe the tonal quality that results when the falsetto is in the process of being transformed into the head voice. Herbert-Caesari accurately believed the so-called “pharyngeal voice” to be the combined product of a special type of vocal fold formation and a “tuned” oropharyngeal resonance adjustment.
Reid connected the dots between Tosi, Nathan, and Herbert-Caesari:
The concept of the pharyngeal voice as formulated by Herbert-Caesari would seem to be identical with the ‘feigned voice’ described by Isaac Nathan in his Misurgia Vocalis, and is quite clearly a device for combining the two register mechanisms, the chest register and the falsetto. Pedagogically, the development of the coordinated falsetto or “pharyngeal voice” is most desirable, since the combined activity of the register mechanisms significantly reduces the amount of energy needed to produce the upper tones, greatly enhances vocal flexibility, and ultimately leads to upper tones of rare freedom and beauty.
Today, we know the pharyngeal voice mainly through the teaching of Los Angeles pedagogue Seth Riggs, who worked with Tito Schipa, Helge Rosvaenge, John Charles Thomas, and Robert Weede. Through his work teaching, pharyngeal voice training has gone into studios throughout the country and has been especially adapted for training in popular music styles.

In his book Singing for the Stars (1985), Riggs doesn’t use the term pharyngeal voice but does describe the sound as a “high larynx exercise”. He asserts that the sound is aimed at coordination of the air and muscle at the level of the vocal cords, in order to connect the chest and head voices together as a functioning unit.

It’s important to note that Riggs used pharyngeal voice training in conjunction with low larynx exercise as well. His cyclical approach to high and low larynx mirrors an approach advocated by Frederick Husler and Yvonne Rodd-Marling in their book Singing: The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ (1965). Husler and Rodd-Marling were some of the first writers in voice pedagogy to explain the importance of vertical laryngeal height through discussion of the suspensory mechanism or ‘elastic scaffolding’ – the extrinsic muscles of the larynx that inspan the larynx.  For them, the larynx had to be exercised both in high and low positions, but only as way to innervate and strengthen musculature of the singing voice, not as an end result.

One of Riggs’s pupils, Randy Buescher, a Chicago-based voice teacher, has written on the pharyngeal voice in the training of the female pop singer. His article, written with Steven Sims, is entitled “The Female Pharyngeal Voice and Theories of Low Vocal Fold Damping” and was published in the September/October 2011 Journal of Singing. Buescher conclusions were that:

Because all three singers had received extensive training in the pharyngeal voice, it is reasonable to conclude that the common behavior pattern observed was a result of the training. It was also evident that the use of pharyngeal constrictors helps create a longer closed phase, increasing subglottal pressure, which would be in line with Smith’s observations. This accounts for the edgy quality necessary for singing certain styles without resorting to pressed phonation. Because of the ability to create a longer closed phase, the pharyngeal voice would also be useful in situations where improper closure is an issue, such as vocal fold bowing, paresis, muscle tension dysphonia, and postoperative posture/gap memory. The study also shows that the pharyngeal voice is truly pharyngeal in nature, in that the trained use of the pharynx helps create the sound and keeps it present even when twanging was not observed.
Speaking as a voice teacher and singer, I have found an enormous benefit in using the pharyngeal voice. I agree with Herbert-Caesari, Reid, Nathan, Tosi, and Riggs in its usefulness. It has helped my students find a connected sound from chest to head and vice versa. I have also found it helpful in eliminating weight out of a too-robust chest voice. It can be sung at various dynamics, and this also helps the singer to understand the connection of the registers.

Finally, Herbert-Caesari’s description of its usefulness as an exercise sum it up nicely:

1. The full messa di voce in its purest form (on the tenor’s high notes), starting from a pinpoint pianissimo and developing with perfect graduation through crescendo to forte, and back again with graduated decrescendo to pianissimo.

2. The half messa di voce, i.e. (a) a graduated CRESCENDO from piano to forte, or (b) a graduatedDECRESCENDO from forte to piano.

3. Greatly facilitating the production of, and strengthening the tenor’s high notes.

4. Creating perfect attacks, particularly of the tenor’s high notes.

5. Revitalizing the vocal cords (of all voices possessing the mechanism).

6. Correcting the tremolo or wobble, in tenors, sopranos, mezzos, and contraltos.

7. Rehearsing, as it saves the wear and tear of constant repetition of high notes that is so fatiguing to the tenor’s normal or basic voice.

The Interrelationship of Function Through Registration


Understanding the unique role of registration to the suspensory mechanism (or ‘elastic scaffolding’ of the larynx) is an important part of voice building and training.

If you are in, say, the lower register and push the voice up in pitch, at a certain point you will not be able to go any further in chest voice but must all of a sudden shift, not only to a different vocal cord thickness but, in keeping with what we’ve said, to a new arrangement of tensions to create this shift. The vocalis muscle abruptly lets go while other muscles are forced to compensate by tightening; the result of this sudden shift is an abrupt change in the vibratory pattern, often with a kind of momentary stoppage of vibration, both of which we hear as a break in the voice. When we yodel, we are deliberately causing the voice to violently shift from chest to falsetto so that we hear the break, and the transition from one extreme to the other, as a kind of gymnastic vocal display.

Learning to overcome this break in the voice by producing a more balanced and coordinated use of the larynx and throat muscles is one of the central problems in vocal training. We saw earlier that the larynx is supported within a network of extrinsic muscles that form its elastic scaffolding and assist in supporting and stretching the vocal folds. In the average untrained singer, this elastic scaffolding is inactive in chest voice, forcing the singer to shift between one register and another by abruptly altering the arrangement of muscular tensions in the larynx. If, in contrast, the larynx is antagonistically supported within this suspensory musculature, this brings an overall improved support for the larynx so that both the lower and upper register operate within the context of a supportive network that makes the shift from one to the other not just imperceptible but also functionally continuous.

To use an analogy, imagine if, when sitting, you are rather lazy and collapsed, which is how most of us use our voices when speaking. You decide to get up, coming forward in the chair rather heavily until, at the last moment, you grip and tighten your leg muscles in order to heave yourself out of the chair. This is precisely what happens with the voice. We ascend in pitch in a heavy, unsupported chest until, when this arrangement no longer serves our needs, we are forced to make a sudden and abrupt shift into an equally unsupported falsetto. As in sitting, we need more overall support in the system, so that we have more activity in rest and more rest in activity – a kind of vocal poise that makes it possible to use each register in the context of a larger supportive network.

When the vocal organ is supported in this way, the chest voice is lighter and less collapsed, and the elements of suspension tend to be present even before going into falsetto range, make the shift from chest to falsetto much less abrupt. The falsetto, in turn, is supported so that the shift from chest to falsetto is less noticeable. This produces a balanced working of the larynx – a kind of increased antagonistic activity that makes for healthy, integrated functioning of the different vocal registers. When these conditions are present, the falsetto can then develop into the full-fledged “head” voice, which is the higher register sung with more “chest” voice activity, volume, and fullness of tone.

In order to avoid the break between registers, some singers try to blend the two registers – that is, to bridge the passage between the two registers so that there is no obvious shift in tone. Many teachers go even further and deny the existence of registers, shunning any use of the falsetto voice in men and arguing that it is simply necessary to sing low and high notes cleanly. But the real problem isn’t to produce a smooth transition from low to high notes or even within a single register, but to achieve a functional integration of the voice in which the voice is actively supported, whatever register is being used, producing a balanced working of the whole. Underneath the problem of blending registers, then, is a functional issue: how to support the larynx so that its functions are balanced, based on the antagonistic action of the supporting musculature. When this system is working properly, each register operates as part of a functionally integrated whole. This not only represents a more complete command of the vocal instrument but also protects the voice, keeps it toned and healthy, and maintains its flexibility and balance.

Because a normal, thin falsetto cannot be altered or developed in any way, the falsetto is sometimes shunned by singing teachers, who regard it as a sort of breathy, collapsed, and inflexible use of the voice that has no place in vocal training. This kind of vocal usage is indeed questionable because, as we just saw, it can eventually lead to a divergence of registers in which some functions become overused and others become atrophied. A supported falsetto, however, is a different matter entirely. This type of falsetto serves as a crucial foundation for developing a fully integrated voice in which there is no register divergence but one coordinated usage in which registers virtually disappear. This is one reason why the oldest traditions in singing, from bel canto to the present, emphasize the importance of the falsetto register as a crucial element in vocal training; in fact, a voice that lacks the falsetto register is a ruined instrument that can never be fully developed. The functioning of separate registers, then, far from being harmful or unimportant, is a crucial element in vocal training and represents a basic function out of which a full voice can be developed.

Dimon, Theodore. Your Body, Your Voice: The Key to Natural Singing and Speaking. North Atlantic Books, 2011.

Quote of the Day

The old adage that a house without a good foundation must fall to the ground, is not inapplicable to the formation or building of the voice; for, if the more substantial sounds (the lower tones) are not carefully cultivated, there can be no dependence on the upper tones; they will be uncertain both in strength and truth of intonation.

Nathan, Isaac. Misurgia vocalis. British Library, 1836.

Herbert-Caesari on Chest Voice

But first, an aural example:


The “rumble” in the region immediately below the larynx detected in every voice by the investigators [the Old Masters], and of course in their own voices too, they promptly called voce di petto, chest voice. (This is readily noticed when holding a low note, produced naturally without overloading, and lightly tapping the bone structure just below the larynx with the tips of two or three fingers.) It is present on the low notes of all voices, male and female, and the series of notes concerned are the so-called chest tones because of their characteristic timbre. As the pitch rises so the laryngeal rumble gradually tends to fade away completely – because the mass of the cords gradually lessens. On the medium and high notes there is no rumble; tapping of the chest brings no response. Little or nothing escaped the ardent attention of our investigators. They concluded (rightly) from the above phenomenon that for the lowest notes, all voices, the whole of the vocal cords was engaged in length and depth, and the considerable fundamental vibrations communicated themselves to the bone structure near at hand with a resonance, or resounding, effect. N.B. It is incredible how the most unreasonable ideas about vocal technique and tonal colouring are spawned! For instance, certain teachers specialize in never allowing their female pupils  to produce the lowest notes – from E, first line, downwards, with the so-called “chest” quality, and instead get them to drag down the relatively poorer medium voice to overlap the “chest” (Puritanical modesty?). And to produce what? Just a miserable, weak, colourless hybrid sound. Thus ignorance abolishes one of the richest of natural tonal colours in the female voice. “It’s vulgar,” they say. Admittedly, but only if overdone. (So is lipstick and make-up, if slapped on.) Why not abolish the “chest” tones also of baritones and basses, and get rid of the lowest string of violins and ‘cellos. The whole idea is too stupid for words! For purposes of expression the greatest composers have always included certain low notes in songs and arias to be sung with this “chest” quality.

Who is right?

Herbert-Caesari, Edgar F. Tradition and Gigli: 1600-1955: a panegyric. R. Hale, 1963.

Put the parts where they belong

There’s been a lot of recent talk about musical style and chest voice and head voice as they relate to CCM (Contemporary Commercial Music). It’s an interesting discussion, and I wanted to throw some video clips onto the fire. For some classical teachers and singers, just singing the song in your classical voice is fine as an approach. “Don’t worry! Just use your Classical Technique™ on this music and you’ll be fine.”

So, we get young sopranos singing any number of musical theater or pop songs in some version of a classical head voice. (Men generally tend to fare better in these genres, as their chest voices are usually the dominant register.)

As early as 1936, Jeanette MacDonald sang the title song from the film “San Francisco” with hardly a trace of chest voice, despite the fact that this song takes place in a burlesque and casino. In general, singers who appeared there usually favored chest voice as their means of musical expression. Sophie Tucker is the first example of a singer that comes to mind.  MacDonald’s vocal approach is explained in the film that she ‘got work’ at the Paradise Casino because she was REALLY looking for work as an opera singer. MacDonald ‘sells’ the song, even though she never drops into anything resembling a chest voice.

If you were ‘classically trained’ this was the EXPECTATION of your approach to any non-classical style.

In 1961, Judy Garland paid tribute to MacDonald’s version at her Carnegie Hall concert and later on in her television specials. Garland, by contrast, sang the song entirely in chest voice. Garland does not “MIX” in this excerpt: she BELTS. This is a completely different mechanism, and reflects the then-and-now approach to CCM styles: chest dominance.

Garland’s approach is truer to the STYLE of the music. MacDonald’s approach, while fitting into a narrative of the film is not stylistic outside of this cinematic context.

In fact, Garland and her cohort Deanna Durbin vocally duke it out in what amounts to the bifurcation of musical styles expressed entirely through registration of the voice: chest versus head.

Another example of ‘classical singing’ in popular music (albeit done for more comedic effect) is Cathy Berberian’s version of the Beatles “Ticket to Ride”.  It’s hard to imagine THIS version making any mark on the Billboard charts, as the original Beatles tune did in the 1960s. This is a POP song being sung in HEAD voice. Even someone who wasn’t trained musically would recognize the vocal ‘falseness’ of this version as incorrect. In the clip Berberian says “I couldn’t do the song as THEY did it.”


Because you’re a classical singer and you can’t use anything but your head voice?

I worry a lot (altruism here) about classical singers that can’t ‘get out’ of their classical sound when trying music that is NOT classical. When I hear “It Don’t Mean a Thing” or “Ain’t Misbehavin'” sung in head voice, I want to scratch my eyes out. To equivocate is to say that it’s okay to be fundamentally illiterate of other musical styles.  From a vocal perspective, it speaks more of MUSCULAR SPECIALIZATION. What I mean by that is that a certain vocal ‘setup’ has been built INTO the voice when approaching ‘singing’ and this sound cannot be turned off when moving into other genres of music that AREN’T classically derived.

Classical singers that I know occasionally take much glee in tearing apart singers who sing classical music out of ‘style’ that aren’t opera singers: Sarah Brightman, Paul Potts, Susan Boyle, Michael Bolton.  Yet these selfsame singers see NO issues with the inverse of this musical equation?? Why?

In the clip below, ONLY René Pape (who has an enormous classical bass voice) can pare down his instrument to the true style and character to what in my estimation are classic American folk songs (and HE’S at least in the right REGISTER!) There is no operatic grandeur in any of Denver’s music, nor is it stylistically correct to sing it this way and call it the same thing.

Seth Rudetsky plays up this head/chest issue to comedic brilliance in the clip below. You cannot put HEAD where chest should be and call it the same thing musically. They are NOT the same, and singing something with your Classical Voice without making these adjustments is MUSICALLY and INTELLECTUALLY dishonest. If you sing anything outside of classical music, then you better find a way to get a chest voice and learn to use it in a way that can be musically advantageous and correct in CCM styles.

TEACHING students to sing CCM repertoire in head voice ONLY is musical and pedagogical charlatanism of the highest order, and the student should FLEE any studio where that is the approach to CCM music.

La scuola del bel canto/The bel canto school

I am including the below essay in Italian and English from Luigi Leonesi as an example upon which the bel canto school was primarily focused: register unification. Leonesi derided the modern singing of this time (1904) as functionally inferior to the vocal precepts of an earlier time.

It is interesting to read here an Italian speaking of these things, as the veristic school of Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and the Germanic approach shifted the pedagogical territory to an air of almost moral superiority in loud (not necessarily big) singing. For Leonesi, register unification was the hallmark of the Old Masters, and once this was accomplished the fullest extension and capacity of the instrument was available for the purpose of EXPRESSION. He notes that those without registrational unification are doomed to a limited palate of choices in their artistry. I often describe the registers as giving the singer the fullest palate of color possible. This way, they are able to paint whatever they wish. To focus on one register is to give a singer one jar of red paint and wish him or her luck in figuring out how to get blue.

Leonesi describes what might be described as a ‘pulled-up’ chest voice all the way to the top of the range, which without the benefit of register unification takes on a screamy, yelly, belty quality. This assertion tracks with much of the literature of Tosi, Mancini, and Garcia as well, and touches upon the point I made in an earlier post on the faddism of vowel modification as the only route to bridging the passaggio, instead of an equitable muscle balance in the larynx.

We have to remember that the pervasive idea of ‘vocal miniaturism’ so prevalent when thinking about anything pre-1830 or so, is patently false. Voices were large and penetrating as well as flexible. The A-B-A form of Handel’s arias exemplified this demonstration of agility coupled with dramatic sustained singing. The arias of Broschi, Vivaldi, and Handel demand register unification and phenomenal breath control (as a result of this unification). They’re also NOT short on DRAMA. Later on this musical (ABA) form mutated into the cavatina/cabaletta in the high cult of bel canto in the early 19th Century. The poles of bel canto (agility/sustained singing) were the RULE not the exception as they are today.

To disregard the registers of the voice and believe that breath or resonance alone are the focus in training (especially for those teachers who wish to understand bel canto schooling) is to prefer a latter school of thought on the voice, and not the empirically tested (tried and true) ideas of the earliest Masters of singing. To deny the primacy of head voice/falsetto and chest voice in training is to misconstrue the extant writings that we have and shoehorn modern ‘square’ aesthetic preferences into a 19th Century ’round’ hole. It is also lazy scholarship.

From Leonesi:

Le condizioni in cui ci troviamo sono molto peggiori del primo periodo, chè, se allora abbandonarono lo scopo del canto, conservarono però la perfezione del meccanismo, mentre noi oggi abbiamo abbandonato e smarrita e l’uno e l’altra.

Per dar qui un esempio, dirò che la voce naturale cantata senza sforzo dà poco più di un’ottava d’estensione, mentre per l’arte del canto ne occorrono quasi due. Quindi come procurarsi gli altri suoni?

Gli antichi maestri, con una trovata di genio, che può dirsi più miracolosa che famosa, riuscirono ad unire la voce naturale con la voce di falsetto o testa, in modo che non distinguevasi l’una dall’altra, mentre noi ora sforziamo la voce naturale, più o meno chiusa, a salire in alto, credendo così, in buona fede, di essere tecnicamente eguali alla scuola antica.

Con l’unione dei registri, come l’intendeva l’antica scuola, era possibile ottenere dalla voce umana una grande espressione insieme alla purezza di suono e d’intonazione, con il più lungo fiato possibile. La voce piegavasi facilmente a tutte le esigenze del bel canto, non che agli abbellimenti: messa di voce, portamento, agilità, trillo, ecc. ecc. Col sistema moderno, facendo doverose eccezioni, regna lo sforzo, anzi la violenza, ed in breve lo sfiatamento. Chi resiste a tanti conati può disporre soltanto d’una espressione e d’una intonazione appenna approssimative, una pronunzia impossibile ed un’enorme differenza di timbri impiegati senza concorso della voluntà, fiato cortissimo, tralasciando di parlare degli abbellimenti del canto, che riescono ineseguibili. 

Qui nasce spontanea l’idea che per rimediare a tanto sfacelo nell’arte, non rimane altro che ritornare all’antica scuola, e su questo son tutti di accordo.

(The conditions in which we find ourselves are much worse than in the first period, which, if in abandoning the scope or purpose of the song, conserved the perfection of the vocal mechanism, while today we have abandoned and lost the one for the other.

To give an example here, I will say that the natural voice (ed. or chest voice) without effort gives less than an octave of extension, while the art of singing demands at least two octaves. So how do we get these other sounds?

The Old Masters, by an invention of genius, that can be said to be more miraculous than famous, managed to combine the natural voice with the falsetto or head voice, in a way that one could not distinguish the one from the other, while now we strain the chest voice, more or less “closed”, in going from the bottom to the top of the voice, believing that, in good faith, this is the technical equivalent of the Old School.

With the union of the registers, as the Old School intended, it was possible to obtain from the human voice a great expression along with a purity of tone and intonation, with the longest possible breath. The voice bent itself easily to all the needs of the bel canto, not only to the embellishments: messa di voce, portamento, agility, trill, etc. With the modern system, making dutiful exceptions, effort reigns, as well as violence, and in short “blowing off”. Those who withstand such retching only have one expression and a hardly approximate intonation, an impossible pronunciation as well as an enormous difference of timbres employed without contest of will, very short breath capacity, prohibiting us to speak of the embellishments of the song, which cannot be performed.

Here arises the idea that in order to remedy such destruction in art, nothing remains but to return to the old school, and I am in agreement on this.)

Notes from Luigi Leonesi from “Scuola di Canto dell’epoca d’oro: Secolo XVII), Opinioni de’ Cantori Antichi e Moderni“, published in 1904.

Night of the Living Chest Voice

Lesson dialogue from a recent lesson:

Me: So, I see you’re working up a lot of Musical Theater repertoire for auditions. That’s terrific!

Student: Yeah, I love music theater! I really want to pursue it. I just love (insert any recent musical here).

Me: Fantastic! So, let’s get started in a warm up and we’ll see where we’re at.

Student: Great! (Vocalizes on a basic scale pattern. It’s a very pretty sound. Up and down the scale we go, but chest voice is NOWHERE to be found. The student has a highly developed soprano head voice with no access to chest whatsoever – )

Me: Great! You sound wonderful, but I noticed that you don’t have a particularly sturdy chest voice. (Inner monologue: How in the HELL are you going to sing ANYTHING Music Theater without a viable chest voice????)

Student: Oh, yeah. My opera teacher told me that if I sing in chest I would lose my voice by the time I was twenty.

Me: (After a protracted silence) Ok then.


What GIVES with the TERROR of the female chest voice? Its obfuscation is so prevalent in the training of young women these days by ‘classical’ teachers. The male version is the teacher who is also MORTIFIED by use of falsetto in training the male singing voice. (For a recent article by my colleague Brian Lee on the subject of male falsetto, click here.)

This HORROR of chest voice is NOT a new trend, historically speaking.  As early as Manuel Garcia, teachers were running away from the chest voice in droves as a sound that was ‘unwomanly’ and ‘crude’ and ‘raw’.

The wisdom of the Old Italians, however, saw equal relevance in BOTH registers, the chest voice AND the head/falsetto.  They were both two parts of a whole, and were to be trained together in the pursuit of a perfected technique.

Here are some quotes from Giambattista Mancini’s “Practical Reflections on Figured Singing” from 1774 (emphasis mine):

“This chest voice is not equally forceful and strong in everyone; but to the extent that one has a more robust or more feeble organ of the chest, he will have a more or less robust voice.”

“It remains for me now to speak of those voices which are slender and weak throughout their register…One observes that these voices are very weak in the chest notes, and the greater majority deprived of any low notes, but rich in high notes, or head voice.”

So, NO CHEST = weak voice.  I find this to be true universally in female singers. The avoidance of chest voice creates a very pretty, but DEVITALIZED vocal sound, free of dramatic capability or true dynamic contrast.

What was Mancini’s solution?:

“There is not a method more sure to obtain this end (chest voice), I believe, than to have such a little voice sing only in the chest voice for a time. The exercise should be done with a tranquil solfeggio; and as the voice enriches itself with a greater body, and range, one may blend it as much as possible with the low notes.”

Manuel Garcia, II, writing in the nineteenth century, also commented on the current trend of chest-voice avoidance:

“As we have said, the chest register is generally denied or rejected by teachers, not that one could not draw from its application an immense advantage, nor that the suppression of the range which it embraces would not deprive the singer of the most beautiful dramatic effects or the most favorable contrasts.”

So, why the fear?

There are a lot of theories about this in the pedagogy, but one of the more interesting ideas I’ve found is the idea that the chest voice was somehow “manly”, and in a patriarchal society, women were expected to only make “lady-like” sounds, especially in the rigid Victorian/Edwardian era.  I find this idea particularly compelling as a sociological and cultural influence into vocal pedagogy. But culture is not function, and nature isn’t bound by our cultural ‘zeitgeist’.  When teachers say, “My dear, DON’T sing in chest voice, that’s VULGAR/UGLY”, these are AESTHETIC judgements, NOT functional ones.

Voice teachers OF ALL STRIPES need to embrace the chest voice as a powerful voice building tool and vital to developing a voice that has strength and power, in whatever style of music to be sung.

As Zelda might say in Poltergeist, “Go toward the CHEST VOICE, Carol Anne!”