When we think about singers we enjoy listening to, we tend to think of their voices as effortless, and that their sound is powerful and consistent throughout the entirety of their range. However, when the average, untrained person attempts to sing, they may have difficulty emulating the level of ease in register transitions that professional singers achieve. Expanding vocal range takes time and training, and a more in-depth understanding of the physical workings of the voice. Many voice teachers tout the merits of “mixed voice” singing, but few can easily define what that is. Herein, we will explore where the term comes from, and what it means in relation to vocal technique.
As singers, our bodies are our instrument. We make adjustments to the position of our mouth, tongue, and jaw, to change the shape and sound of notes we sing. We also use our bodies themselves as the resonating cavity that amplifies our sound. As we do this, we may feel a physical sensation of vibration occurring in different places, such as in our head or our chest. This is where we get the terms “head voice” and “chest voice”. In reality, these sensations are auxiliary, as the changes made remain within the pharynx. However, talking about them in the teaching of voice does help singers to identify the shifts between their vocal registers.
In classical singing, we reference the point between registers, or breaks in the voice, by using the term passaggio, which literally means passage. These points take extra care to navigate, as they require a shift in the internal space of the pharynx. When singers approach a musical phrase that crosses through their passaggio, they will often need to prepare for it by making adjustments on the inhalation to the phrase, before they even begin singing.
This is where many singers who have not had professional training run into problems. They may not be able to sing through breaks in their voice without a sudden, audible change in the quality of their sound. Vocal training teaches singers to create a consistent tone throughout the entirety of their range, from bottom to top, with smooth transitions between vocal registers, which some teachers refer to as “mixed voice” singing.
Making a Smooth Transition
Exactly how a singer accomplishes this transition will vary individually between singers, and requires the guidance of a teacher. However, there are some basic aspects of vocal technique that universally help in regards to making a seamless shift between vocal registers.
- Air flow. Vocal training teaches singers to support their sound with their breath, and to create an even, controlled flow of air through their singing. Making sure air flow is adjusted appropriately through changes in vocal register helps singers to create a consistent sound across registers.
- Internal Space Adjustment. Trained singers make adjustments to the space within their throat by changing the position of their tongue, jaw, mouth, and soft palate. The soft palate is a malleable area in the upper back of the throat, which can be felt making an upward shift when we yawn. Singers are taught, for example, to lift the soft palate prior to singing a musical line that transitions into a higher part of their vocal range, as a way to create more resonant space for the sound. If the soft palate remains collapsed, singers can run into the sensation of their voice feeling stuck, as if they’ve reached the top of their range and going higher would require forceful measures. Making adjustments to internal space helps singers to more comfortably access the full potential of their range.
- Alignment. In voice lessons, we talk a lot about making sure our posture and physical alignment are correct, so as to be able to create sound freely and effortlessly. If our alignment is off, it may cause areas of tension in our bodies, which can negatively impact our sound production. Tension may make the transition between vocal registers particularly difficult. Many untrained singers resort to supporting their sound with their jaw or tongue, rather than their air, which makes the internal adjustments necessary for register transitions even more challenging. Proper alignment leads to better air support, which leads to an easier time adjusting the space within the pharynx.
If you have studied classical singing exclusively, you may not have come across the term “mixed voice” singing. Navigating the passaggio is a non negotiable part of classical training, and developing consistency between registers is a natural result of building strong vocal technique. However, with other musical styles, such as those that require belting, the ability to create a mixed vocal sound may seem slightly more elusive.
The most critical advice for singers seeking to achieve mixed voice singing is to enlist the guidance of a professional teacher, who can help with their individual technical challenges. With help and guidance from a teacher well-versed in vocal technique and physiology, singers can create an effortless, consistent sound that will ultimately help them give more moving and powerful performances.