Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
Last week I wrote about the benefits of using falsetto when teaching men. This week I am going to focus on the opposite register and gender – chest voice for women. This topic always stirs debate, but as long as it leads us towards a better understanding of vocal function and optimal training protocols, it is a good debate to have. The term “chest voice” has been dated to at least the 14th century in the writings of Jerome of Moravia (Miller, p. 100). However, teachers and singers tend to be more familiar with the writings of Manuel Garcia and his definition of vocal registers:
A register is a series of consecutive homogeneous sounds produced by one mechanism, differing essentially from another series of sounds equally homogeneous produced by another mechanism, whatever modifications of timbre and of strength they may offer (Garcia, p. 8).
The term chest voice refers to thick vocal fold production (often called TA dominant), when the vocal folds come firmly together and produce a strong series of harmonics during phonation. The most extreme version of this is what Richard Miller calls “open chest” (Miller, p. 129). It is a heavy, vibrant quality that resembles male vocalization and is primarily used for dramatic effect in the Italian school, but rarely if ever used in the German and French schools of singing (Miller, 129-130).
While the quality may not be aesthetically pleasing for some listeners, there is a functional advantage to singing in this mode. In “Singing: The Mechanism and the technic” William Vennard discusses a problem commonly encountered in the voice studio – the breathy young female voice. He states that there is often a posterior gap between the vocal folds called the “mutational chink.” This is common in singers whose voices are changing and is a result of weakness in the interarytenoid muscles (Vennard, p. 65). While Vennard says that this chink will go away with maturity and constant vocal exercise, he also says later in the text that women who have a breathy tone will find the ring in their voices the moment they discover their chest voice (Vennard, p. 121). Based on what we know about the source filter model of vocal production, this makes a lot of sense. The vocal folds (the source) produce harmonics which are then boosted by the vocal tract (the filter). If the vocal folds are not creating strong harmonics, the filter can only do so much to amplify the frequencies responsible for vowel quality, timbre, and ring.
In “Hints on Singing” Garcia answers the following question about the female voice – “What register is it best to commence?” Garcia goes on to state “unless one of the registers requires special care (as when the medium is particularly weak) the singing of tones may begin on the chest or medium.” To develop the chest register he suggests sustained pitches beginning on Bb3 on /a/ or /e/ and switching to /i/ if the other vowels fail to produce the desired result. After sustained pitches are successful, he recommends progressing to step-wise exercises. He suggests working the voice in chest register from G3 to E4 (Garcia, p. 14-15). Mind you, Garcia was teaching in the 19th century – this is a purely “classical” approach to training the soprano voice.
Other noted pedagogues of the classical Italian school also talk about utilizing chest voice in female singers. Mathilde Marchesi, a student of Garcia’s, believed that of the three registers, chest was most important. She believed development of the chest voice led to security and solidity of the head register (Leborgne and Rosenberg, p. 205). In the 20th century, pedagogue Douglas Stanley and his pupil Cornelius Reid developed methodologies around the idea of separating and strengthening chest and head for all genders and voice types in classical styles. You will also find coordinating the use of both registers is an accepted practice in singing voice rehabilitation (see Manual of Singing Voice Rehabilitation by Leda Scearce, CCC-SLP).
This discussion could go on and on and it does every summer at the CCM Institute when we delve into registration in sessions one and two. What I want to communicate today is there is a historical basis for the idea that sopranos should learn to sing in chest voice as it improves vocal fold closure and gives the filter more harmonic information to enhance, thus creating a fuller sound.
In my own teaching I have always seen huge improvements when developing the chest voice of sopranos, both classical and CCM. I begin with sustained pitches and then grow from there as originally suggested by Garcia and detailed in this past post. I then work on the various mixing exercises I have mentioned before (here and here). My philosophy with classical singers is to get the voice functioning optimally at the vocal fold level and then begin layering on the fine nuances of Italian, French, and German vowels. My thought is if the vocal folds are not producing the proper harmonics, the filter cannot do its job. Of course every student is treated as an individual and we never drive the chest up in a manner that is uncomfortable or causes vocal fatigue.
I’m not sure how or why developing the chest voice has fallen out of fashion in many pedagogical circles. It clearly has its roots in classical training and the results are significant. If you have any historical insights, I would love to hear them in the comment section below. As always, I would also love to hear how you integrate these concepts into your own teaching. If you are not already following the blog, please enter your email on the bottom right of this page to receive a message when there is a new post. If you want to learn more about functional voice training, please consider joining us at Shenandoah Conservatory this summer for the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute.
As always, thanks for reading! ~ Matt