Monday, July 10, 2006

Falsetto Anyone?

I gave a great voice lesson today. It's one of my rules that every lesson must have an "aha" moment, a realization of some concept previously unknown. Normally the "aha" issues from the mouth of my, ah...student. Today, however, in attempting to explain the physical process called "Falsetto" by some and "Head Voice" by others, I simply was not making myself understood. I was pulling out all the stops, using every abstract image I could muster, and I was coming up short. And all at once, as I scribbled pictures on a legal pad..."AHA!" The fog lifted and the simplest, most logical explanation of my concept of the Falsetto fell together like a reverse film of a building implosion. And I owe it all to my girlfriend, the designer.

Well, I suppose a bit of explanation is in order. In very simple terms, we speak every day, in what I call the chest voice. That is also the register that is used for the bulk of singing in most cases, aside from the pure soprano voice. When we say "oopie doopie, what a cute little hootchie kootchie" to the neighbor's new tea-cup chihuahua in a little baby voice, chances are we are using the Head Voice or Falsetto. Increasing the range of the singing voice upward is a very misunderstood process and one which, if not done properly, can have disastrous results. The vocal mechanism is not something to be weightliftingly trained into submission.

If you can picture the vocal cords as parentheses, connected at the top and bottom, you have a rough idea of the physical form of the mechanism that vibrates to make sound in your throat. The gap between the parentheses is called the glottis and through this gap passes all of the air which comes from outside our bodies to fill the lungs. A fragile little machine but meant to last a lifetime. As we raise the pitch of a note, the vocal cords stretch like a rubber band and they vibrate faster. After a certain point, they simply won't stretch any further and the voice "breaks" or cracks and out comes the "how cute is your doggie" voice.

Extending the vocal range by trying to extend the lower voice higher, one note at a time, will not only be frustrating, but damaging as well. The only way to extend the upper register is to build the upper voice by patient, dilligent exercises after which exercises should be done that bring the upper voice down in pitch over the break. The goal is to build a voice that passes through the registers effortlessly and imperceptibly. only after extensively exercising the upper voice is this possible.

In explaining this concept to my student today, I saw that I was not making myself understood. None of my metaphors or picture drawing was making sense to her and I began to get bored with it myself. My mind drifted to my girlfriend, whose image is my default when my mind wanders. And then my thoughts drifted to a design she had been working on and how powerfully a slight graduation in color could affect a visual "aha" moment.

I told my student to think of her lower voice, her chest voice, as being the color blue. And her upper voice, her head voice or falsetto, as being the color yellow. Now, what we had to do is strengthen the yellow voice and bring it down in pitch over the range of the blue voice until the entire voice would consist of slightly graduated shades of green. The lowest note she could sing would be pure blue, and the highest note she could sing would be pure yellow. But as she sang up or down the range of her voice, the color would change so impeceptibly that the break would no longer be obvious. My student was able to grasp the color-coded concept immediately and we were able to get a good start on what would be needed in the coming lessons to prepare and train her upper voice.

I don't know how exciting this is for the reader, but i'm nuts about having such a simple way to illustrate a confusing concept. And the best part of it came to me as my mind drifted to images of a pretty girl. that's education.

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