Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
When I began studying voice, I spent years of lessons focusing primarily on bringing my mix into the upper range. I had good results with this approach and over the course of several years my high notes got better and my upper range increased from a D4 to F4. However, topping out at F4 limited me from many roles and I knew I needed to find at least a G4 in my voice to be marketable. Eventually I worked with a teacher who insisted that I spend a lot of time in my falsetto to lighten my approach to high notes and relax my throat. It seemed weird, but he insisted that it would produce results where taking the mix up had failed. I embraced the new approach and quickly noticed a change. My high notes became less effortful and my range expanded. Within a few months I finally had a G4 and eventually I had a Bb4 and sometimes even a C5 (as a low baritone)! I was also able to bring the same sensations of freedom that I felt in falsetto into the rest of my voice. As I began to study vocal function, the reasons for this success became clear.
There is a ligament that runs through the thyroarytenoid muscle. Just like the rest of the muscles and ligaments in our body, the vocalis muscle and vocal ligament can become tight if not stretched frequently. If they become tight, it becomes difficult for the vocal folds to stretch and for the singer to reach their high notes with ease. When singing in falsetto, the vocal folds are lengthened and the muscle fibers and ligament are stretched. These leads to improvements in the upper range of the voice.
In regard to releasing throat constriction, when singing in mix the body engages multiple muscles to firmly close the vocal folds. Many developing singers will engage their constrictor muscles to help improve adduction. While it will indeed produce results, it will also create constriction that can lead to fatigue, loss of high notes, and in some cases vocal pathology. When singing in falsetto, the vocal folds cannot be adducted firmly. Therefore the constrictor muscles release and the vocal folds will usually vibrate more freely than in chest or mix.
In order for a stretch to be effective, it needs to be held for at least fifteen seconds. I apply
this in the voice studio by having my male singers sustain pitches in falsetto beginning at A4 and ascending as high as comfortable. The student should hold the pitch for at least fifteen seconds. If they cannot, I have them stop when necessary, inhale while thinking of the pitch, and then reinitiate. The tone should have a lot of exhale in it (flow phonation) and should be free of constriction. After the series of sustained pitches, I have the student sing a 5-4-3-2-1 pattern on /u/ making sure there is plenty of airflow and the constrictor muscles are not engaging. I descend as low as possible with falsetto and then switch to a piano or mezzo-piano in chest mix and take that up on a 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 pattern. As the student ascends in chest-mix, I ask them to recall the freedom of falsetto and maintain that freedom in their mix. If they get stuck, we go back to falsetto so they can experience a relaxed throat again, and then we switch back to chest-mix and try to find the same freedom. When we are working on a song, I will also return to falsetto from time to time as a way to remind the student that they can make sound without tightening the throat.
Do you have other ways to utilize falsetto in your work with male students? If so, please feel free to leave a comment below. If you are not already following the blog, you can enter your email address on the bottom right of this page to receive a message every time there is a new post. As always, thank you for reading!