Female Lower Passaggio

I have received so many questions regarding the soprano and especially the mezzo soprano lower passaggio that I decided to write an article addressing this vocal issue. So many of us have observed singers in performances and master classes struggling with what some call the 'lower break' or the lower passaggio. The problem sometimes seems even more pronounced in oratorio and concert repertoire, especially when sung at baroque pitch. This requires the singer to negotiate the lower passaggio and travel through it over and over during a given piece of music. How does one accomplish this smoothly? What vocal concepts make this transition of registers easy? What exercises do you give a singer to help in accomplishing a smooth lower passaggio? How do you blend the chest register and the middle register so they match in color and timbre?

The Severe Break in Lower Passaggio: Defining the 'Lower Break'

Most of the singers who are deeply interested in smoothing the 'lower break' or lower passaggio are the mezzo-sopranos. However, this issue is one of great importance to the high soprano as well. This is especially a concern when having to make the transition into heavy mechanism or chest voice on one or two notes and then come out of it into the lighter mechanism or head voice. One such example is in Suzanna's Aria from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. But this problem seems to plague the mezzo-soprano much more because she has to negotiate the lower passaggio more often and sustain a lower tessitura. Many vocal professionals define the lower passaggio transitional note as low E-flat on the lower line of the treble staff. One question which is often asked of me as a teacher is, "When do I use chest and when do I use head voice?" The answer to this question is actually quite simple. Usually it is easier to keep a lower tone in head voice if it is a closed vowel such as 'i' or 'e'. This is also true of the Italian 'u' vowel. However, on the more open vowels such as the Italian 'a' or 'o', a singer might need to go into chest register earlier. This is also true if the low note is at the end of a phrase and one is running out of breath. Another determining factor is the intervalic relationship. If there is a large leap downward, then it is usually easier to use chest voice on the lower tone if it is below E-flat or D . This process of balancing which register to use in a given phrase is called 'orchestrating for the voice': vocalizing each phrase and learning when it is easier to use chest voice (heavy mechanism) or head voice (light mechanism).

Embrasure and The Effects on Lower Passaggio:

The Italian School often speaks of 'narrowing the vowels' at the passaggio. It takes an oval shape of the mouth to accomplish the narrower feeling Usually this is regarded as an important factor in the upper passaggio around high E or F at the top of the staff. However, it is also true in the female lower passaggio. Wide open vowels will create what Alan Lindquest called 'crashing the registers'; a term I use quite frequently in my teaching. This simply means that there is a severe break in registration when the vowels are too spread. The chest and head registers become very different in coloration and timbre. The 'narrower mouth opening' with the corners or the mouth rounded into an oval shape will give a singer a much cleaner transition of these registers. The reason for this is simple; the larynx assumes a lower position and the soft palate assumes a higher position. This allows the vocal cords to stay closer together creating a fuller and more balanced sound in the lower passaggio. Any time a singer 'spreads the mouth opening' while singing on the staff, that singer is asking for trouble. The result of the 'smile technique' is a thin throaty sound with very little true warmth of tonal quality. Musicianship in the soprano or mezzo-soprano is then sacrificed to a great extent because the singer feels as though her voice is about to break at any moment. This 'dangerous feeling' is caused by a lack of adduction or 'vocal cord closure'. So often I have watched singers in concert performances who have this wide mouth shape, what one would call a spread position. The result has always been problems in balancing registration.

Solution: Practice while watching in a mirror. The best situation is to have two mirrors at a 45 degree angle so that both the front facial posture and the profile posture can be observed simultaneously.

Over-stretching in the Middle Register:

One very critical vocal problem for the mezzo-soprano to consider is that of over-stretching the throat space in the middle register. One might find this a strange statement, however, if the singer has a feeling of a 'hugely open throat' in the lower head voice mechanism, then the result will be a 'crashing of the registers' or a huge break between lower head voice and the chest register. The reason for this is that when one feels a 'huge throat space' in the middle register, that singer is often 'depressing the root of the tongue' which puts pressure directly on the vocal cords. The cords are not designed to handle this kind of tongue pressure and the result is a 'break' (splitting of the vocal cord approximation) at the transition of registers. The solution to this problem is to have the singer think less space in the middle register so she can stretch in the upper passaggio and above. A high soft palate needs to be sustained while singing in this range even though the throat space does not feel as open as in the upper head voice, upper passaggio, and range above the staff. If the throat space feels somewhat like the act of speaking in the middle range, then the chest register will match much more readily.

Solution: When a singer is having difficulty in the middle register and the vowels are becoming distorted, have the singer vocalize the phrase on the 'ng', then add the text while keeping a similar 'feel'.

Breath Pressure Management and the Positive Results:

Another major factor in blending the lower passaggio is the proper use of breath in the lower passaggio. Many singers feel so vulnerable in this range that they 'hold the breath' too much at the glottis, allowing very little breath movement. This can rob the singer of a large portion of their sound and in concert work the singer may not be heard in the lower passaggio at all. 'Fear of the voice breaking' is 90% of the reason that singers 'over-lock' the glottis. This 'false sense of security' is the source of why one 'holds the breath at the glottis. The healthy 'small and even breath flow' through the cords makes for a much better coordination of the lower passaggio transition. We only 'hold back the breath pressure' with the body, NOT at the glottis.

Solution: Vocalize on a 'voiced v', tongue trill, lip trill, or tongue and lip trill on a 5 tone descending scale. All of these sounds will thread the appropriate amount of air flow in the middle register. Then use these sounds to a vowel function. Try to keep the same 'feeling'. Remember healthy singing is 90% feel, not too much listening.

Correct Head Posture:

Most of us have witnessed the 'oratorio mezzo' posture. This is a situation whereby the singer 'depresses the larynx' with the jaw or chin. The result is a non-resonant 'hooty and dark' quality that is not only unpleasant, but also does NOT carry in a concert hall. I personally cannot count the oratorio mezzos who bury their chin into their larynx thinking they are getting more color or darkness in the voice. (This also creates a false sense of making more sound; quite the contrary. The sound is cut by 30 to 40%.) True color comes from 'ring' or 'resonance' in the voice. A 'depressed larynx' technique makes for an extremely limited vocal production that can never be heard to the extent of a resonance tone. The only way to produce healthy darkness in the voice is with the 'rounding of the vowels'. (The oval mouth shape.) This lengthens the vocal tract and allows for a rounder and warmer color to come into the singer's vocal production.

Solution: Monitor posture using a wall, the head looking straightforward keeping a slight curve in the back of the neck. This will offer you the correct head posture for singing in the middle and lower register. Remember, you will NOT get so much of your own sound. Singers bury their chin into their larynxes which 'bounces their sound' off the sternum. The audience is NOT getting the sound in this posture.

Filling out the Middle Register:

I make it a point to study singers and their vocal technique. In 1980, PBS broadcast the Horne, Sutherland, Pavarotti recital. In the intermission, each singer was interviewed on their specific technical expertise and how they vocalized. It was extremely interesting to hear Marilyn Horne speak of the middle register and how she 'expanded her sound' as she went down into the lower head voice. First of all, her vowels took an oval shape, NOT a spread shape. As I said before, this alone makes for a longer vocal tract that produces a warmer, richer tone without sacrificing correct vocal production. However, another point which I have found to be critical to a female singer's middle register is the feeling of the tone 'dropping deeper onto the body' on the descending scale. There is a sense that the tone drops lower and lower on the sternum without dropping the height of the soft palate above it. The result is simply a more engaged body support system on the descending scale; a concept that most female singers have difficulty achieving at first. The voice grows larger and darker in quality when this concept is achieved without any loss of nasal resonance or higher overtones.

Solution: The exercise that Marilyn Horne used was one that William Vennard learned from Alan Lindquest:

Using a descending 5-tone scale, do the following exercise:

5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 

The singer is to use the concept that the voice drops deeper into the body on the descent engaging the lower body support system. (The lip trill will give the singer the proper feel of 'support' in the lower body muscles.) This achieves a lower larynx position and therefore makes for the warm, dark, and resonant sound. The mouth position during this exercise is oval and the jaw is slightly back and NOT very open in this range. This exercise allows the singer to pick up chest resonance on the descending scale without shifting into chest mechanism.

Negative Results of the Jaw Thrust:

No singer every makes a healthy sound with the jaw protruding forward. In the female lower passaggio, this becomes an issue that must be dealt with on a regular basis. When the jaw comes forward, the larynx lifts and the tongue goes back into the back of the throat. This 'thins out' the voice and makes for a large 'break in the voice'. It also cuts out most of the healthy high overtones in that lower passaggio area. The reason for this huge break is that when the jaw is forward, the vocal cords do not approximate completely. This can result in a breathy tonal quality as well as a large break.

Solution: Vocalize the female lower passaggio area monitoring the jaw position so that it is 'back' NOT forward. The jaw also cannot be very open in the lower passaggio area of the female voice. Use the fingertips to monitor the jaw 'slightly back' so that the vocal cords will come together in an efficient manner. (Remember: the jaw is never 'forced' or 'jammed' back into the back position.)

Learning NOT to Listen:

One of the most difficult feats of all to achieve in healthy singing is for the singer NOT TO LISTEN, but to FEEL. Alan Lindquest would speak of this over and over in each lesson. I believe this to be the most difficult feat for any singer, including myself. I compare it to the training of a dancer; at some point the dancer must feel the position instead of looking in the mirror. Singers can NEVER listen to their own sound except on recordings. In the female lower passaggio, the singer gets an extremely small sound in the inner hearing even though a resonant and present tone is going out into the audience. This discipline of believing that enough sound is coming out into the audience is a lifetime struggle for many singers. The female lower passaggio will always sound soft inside the singer's inner hearing no matter how much sound is coming out front.

Solution: Even though I teach singers to feel and not listen, sometimes there is a way to get one's sound on occasion without distorting technique too much. Place the hands in a flat shape directly in front of the ears, NOT in back of the ears. The internal sound will be much as one on recording without listening for a large sound. This can be a tool in practice whereby a singer can learn to believe that a sound is actually coming out. Tape recording is essential. So many singers are resistant to recording lessons and coaching. This is the ONLY way a singer can really learn their voice and how it works.

Healthily Expanding Middle Register on 'NG':

There are several concepts that have been discussed that will expand the singer's sound in middle register. I make a checklist that consists of several concepts. Remember: correct head posture, jaw slightly back, mouth open only slightly, NOT too open, larynx down, palate up, tongue in the 'ng' position, oval mouth shape, and sense of the narrow Flagstad 'ng' ring. The only concept I added to the list was the use of the Flagstad 'ng' which simply keeps the 'ring' in the middle register. It is always imperative that one's singing sound resonant and not 'hooty' or 'overly-dark'. This 'hooty quality' can be eliminated with the use of the 'ng' ring. Every register needs 'ring' to be present in order to carry in a concert hall or on the operatic stage.

Solution: Take each middle voice phrase and vocalize it on the 'ng' with the root of the tongue wide, not bunched, and the soft palate high. The result will be of a 'ringing tone' which will expand the sound of the middle and lower registers. Keep this feeling while putting the words back into the phrase. The high palated 'ng' will also smooth out the transition from lower head voice into the chest voice.

(c) David L. Jones/2000

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