Whistle Register

Countless singers and teachers are looking for ways to open the upper register of the voice. Some understand this process with positive results. Sometimes without knowing it, others teach damaging techniques that might seem to get positive results at the time but lead to eventual vocal damage. This article is designed to clarify healthy and unhealthy approaches to what many call whistle register, a term sometimes used representing both male and female falsetto. What are the advantages and dangers of teaching this vocal concept over time? Are there extreme considerations a teacher should observe? What are the warning signs of vocal damage on the horizon? Finally, what can be done to repair the damage if the false cord function is employed in the upper range of the voice? Does the instructor understand the damaging result of using the false cords? All of these questions are critical to the well-being of the singer and they are critical to the process of learning about healthy teaching of the upper voice. Sadly, the truth is that often the well being of the singer is overlooked to protect delicate egos. This needs to change as our understanding of the world of voice science grows and as we learn more and more about the vocal mechanism.

False Cord Function: Case Study: Dramatic Soprano

Several years ago I was contacted by a very talented dramatic soprano for vocal study. When she began to understand the Lindquest vocalizes, we were able to expand her upper range. However, her previous teacher had been working with what he thought was the female falsetto. In actuality he had trained her entire upper range on the false cord function. This singer had studied this incorrect technique for 6 years and by that time the damage had been done. Every time she would try and go to a higher note at any dynamic level, the voice would jump an octave higher than she intended. This would happen from around high A-flat and above. Of course this completely ruined her high register and it was impossible for her to perform standard repertoire. In desperation this singer had moved down to dramatic mezzo roles and even then she had minimal success. The false cord function would take the form of a high squeak tone and usually the voice would jump the interval of at least a sixth to an octave higher than the singer intended, ruining her ability to match pitch in the upper range. I have had 3 cases of this kind of vocal abuse in my teaching career and this kind of dysfunctional instruction is still going on because of basic ignorance about the vocal mechanism. The false cord function becomes active when a singer goes to the high range and allows hardly any breath through the cords. There is such a squeeze at the vocal folds that the false cords (Tissue directly above the true folds.) employ resulting in a high-pitched squeaking sound. If false cord function is developed, it can take years of study to rehabilitate the upper range and sometimes the damage is permanent. The neurological message is so strong for the false cord function to come into play that the singer is faced with an involuntary function over which he or she has no control. Virginia Botkin often spoke of these phenomena when I studied with her and had her teach in my New York Studio. She often warned against this damaging technique, which was practiced in some voice studios.

Case Study: Lyric Soprano

The main reason that I am writing this article is that recently a 25-year-old lyric soprano came to my New York Studio for an evaluation. At the insistence of her college teacher in the Midwest, she moved to the Northeast to continue her vocal study with a male colleague. Not only was this singerís new teacher vocally abusive because of his teaching of the false cord function, but he was also making inappropriate sexual comments in the voice studio. (This is psychological and sexual abuse clear and simply beyond the vocal abuse. Legal action should be taken in such a case.)

By the time I worked with this young singer, the false cords or squeak tone would abruptly come into her upper range involuntarily without warning. This function would take over as low as high A-flat and this was destroying healthy function in her upper register. When I heard this vocal abuse, my reaction was extreme and I could not believe that a teacher would remain so completely ignorant about the false cord function and the resulting long-term damage. I immediately worked with this young soprano on lip and tongue trills to engage the lower body (her support had been taught backwards as well). It was an intense session because I was determined to reverse the damage that had been done to this singer. With hard work and intense concentration she was able to vocalize to the high C without the false cord function by the end of the first hour. By the end of her second lesson, she could sing the E-flat above high C. Fortunately, this young soprano suspected that the instruction was abusive and came to me at the perfect time before this teacher had the opportunity and time to damage her voice permanently. Many singers are not so lucky and it takes years of hard work to reverse the damage. In some cases the damage is irreversible.

Case Study: False Cord Function and Incorrect Fach

About 2 years ago a young singer came to my New York Studio singing with tremendous throat pressure. In her previous study, she had been taught to over-compress the breath; a type of over-support making it impossible for the breath to move healthily or for the tongue pressure to release. After about 3 months of study, I decided to vocalize this singer in the lower register to study timbre, quality, and registration. As she vocalized lower, she sounded exactly like a mezzo-soprano even though she had been taught as a soprano throughout her university training. This singer was experiencing great difficulty getting into the upper register without tremendous push of breath pressure. If she did not a large amount of breath pressure, the false cord function would come into the upper register. Of course this function is of no use because it never blends with the other registers. In fact, in this singerís case, the false cord function had made it impossible for her to sing high with any degree of vocal freedom or control of pitch.

After working in the lower and middle range for a period of approximately 8 months, the false cord function disappeared from the high range. This reflects a concept about which many professional singers speak. ďIf the middle voice is exercised properly, then the high range will come in from the release of the throat.Ē I would not venture to say that this is always true, but sometimes it is. The mezzo-soprano described in this case study now sings healthily with a dark and ringing quality that is quite exceptional. She can now access her high range without the false cord function and with great vocal freedom. Her history reminded me of my own: singing tenor for years with a squeezed throat in the upper range without any awareness that I was actually a lower voiced singer. (See article on Vocal Fach.)

False Cord Function: Dramatic Tenor Singing Lyric Tenor

Another singer comes to mind in thinking about the false cord function and the damage that can be incurred. A dramatic tenor came to my New York Studio and he had been trained as a light lyric tenor. He had also been vocalized on the false cord function in the falsetto mechanism. The side effects were obvious; his throat was completely closed in the upper passaggio and upper register of his changed voice and he was suffering from singing with far too much breath pressure. This was due directly to the false cord training in the falsetto that had developed tremendous pressure on the throat. Also, this singer was over-blowing his cords in the middle register and over-squeezing his cords in the upper register: a double abuse. The resulting damage took the form of nodules that over time and with healthy vocalization disappeared. One negative result of a singer being trained in too light a fach is the over-compression of the breath in the upper register. This is a side effect of a high laryngeal position. Larger-voiced singers who are young in their development do not know how to sing softly and remain connected to the body. Most dramatic tenors are larger-bodied persons. If they are encouraged to over-compress the breath in singing through using a squeeze on the throat, then the result is that the singer is constantly singing on a gag reflex. This places tremendous pressure on the vocal cords. It also limits freedom and range in the upper register. The recuperative time period for this singer was approximately 2 years.

Characteristics of Healthy Falsetto: Copertura Function

What are the characteristics of the true healthy falsetto and how does it enhance the full voice? I remember when I worked with Alan Lindquist that he would work an exercise that employed this part of the voice and then he would apply the benefits to full voiced singing. Richard Miller calls this throat protection copertura in his books. After working with Lindquest, the benefits of performing this exercise were obvious and were directly related to the fact that the function was similar to full voiced singing: not too little and not too much air through the vocal cords. It also exercised the thin edges of the vocal cords that allowed the singer to release weight in the voice without squeezing at the glottis. Lindquest was such a master at teaching this concept that the singer always benefited. One idea that was always kept in the singerís awareness was the concept of the body holding back the breath pressure with the lower back muscles. This kind of back support always inspired the proper abdominal function, balancing the amount of breath through the cords and making it impossible for the false cord function to employ. It is critical that a singer work the falsetto with enough healthy flow of air without breathy tone. How is this achieved? What is a foolproof exercise that can teach this healthy function in the development of the falsetto? I can only speak from experience and what has worked at healing the damage done by the false cord function. Going back to the dramatic soprano that was mentioned in the previous case study, I remember well what finally worked to begin healing her vocal damage. There was a lot of focus on both tongue and lip trills to encourage the body to move a healthy breath stream through the larynx. I also remember that the squeak tone or false cord function was accompanied by a very high laryngeal position very early in Garciaís grand scale. If she performed sirening exercises with the concept that the larynx would move further down early in the scale (William Vennardís laryngeal pivot.), then the squeak tone would not come into function and the breath could travel through the larynx healthily.

Healthy Tongue Function in the Whistle Register

One of the major problems when a singer has been taught false cord function is that of the posture of the tongue. In order to force this function in the throat, the singer must bunch the root of the tongue and place tremendous pressure on the true folds. (Sometimes this results from extreme tension in the lips.) Of course this is a damaging approach to exercising the voice. I must make it clear that in all three case studies of singers that have been taught this damaging technique, each individual suffered from bunching of the tongue root. How is this solved? How does an instructor in such critical situations help the singer to release the tongue? The answer is quite simple; ask the singer to breath the ng posture of the tongue at inhalation. This will widen the tongue root and the pressure on the throat will be released. It may take time and practice to change the shape of the tongue posture, but the result will be a positive one. The healthy position of the tongue for all singing (See article on flat or retracted tongue.) is the ng position with the tongue root rather wide.

Healing Severe Damage

What is the proper approach when a singer comes to a teacher with such damage? How does one learn to care for the voice once false cord function has been employed over a long period of time? There are appropriate stages when the damage has been long term. First and foremost, the majority of these singers have been taught to choke off the healthy flow of air at the glottis. The resulting problems can take the form of pitch problems, registration problems, inability to attain balance of upper and lower partials within a given tone, or a situation whereby pitch is determined or controlled by tremendous throat tension. I have had letters from teachers asking how to approach such a situation and what exercises are suggested in helping to get the voice to respond in a healthy way.

The beginning approach: First of all the instructor must approach the situation with the attitude that the problem will be resolved successfully. With correct vocalization, the false cord function can be overcome within a few weeks if the singer is determined to solve the problem and if the damage has not been too long term. While long-term damage can be resolved with vocal health, the process takes longer. One important concept to remember is not to begin too high in pitch at first. Working the middle register is a good way to begin with success. The singer needs to get used to moving appropriate breath through the glottis using the lip or tongue trills. Another exercise that has shown great success is the lip and tongue trill whereby both lips and tongue vibrate simultaneously. This exercise is the most successful at releasing old pressure that has been taught at the root of the tongue. Most likely the tongue will freeze the breath flow at first, but with patience and diligence, the problem will resolve. Gradually move higher in pitch having the singer sit in a chair and lean forward the higher the pitch level. This will encourage the lower abdominal muscles to move a healthy breath stream through the larynx as the singer goes higher in pitch. Stay in the middle register and go only up to approximately high E or F the first few sessions.

More advanced stage: After successfully moving the singer higher in pitch on lip, tongue, or tongue/lip trill exercises, then it is time to approach going higher and to apply this freedom of breath to the vowels. A 5-tone scale is usually a good idea moving from the lip, tongue, or tongue/lip trill directly to a rounded vowel such as the o vowel. This vowel will encourage the mouth shape to remain in an oval position, which encourages a healthy form in the throat.

Advanced stage: Now the singer is ready to work with vowel changes. I suggest lip, tongue, or tongue/lip trill to o: then a, e, i, o, u. This can be done on a single pitch to start. Then learn to move through scales. As the singer becomes more accomplished at moving the healthy air stream, then it is time to introduce the consonants without the breath stopping at the consonants. For example: lip trill on a single note to da, me, ni, po, tu on a single note. Again remember that working in the middle voice first is a good idea. Then move gradually upward in pitch. A good approach is the da, me, ne, po, tu on an ascending 5-tone scale. This way the narrower vowel is at the top of the scale and a natural narrowing of the passaggio will result. Again the speed of the process must reflect the length of time the voice was abused. The longer the period of abuse, the slower the instructor should approach the process. Patience is the most important part of this process. Most likely, the singer will become impatient. But as the instructive leader, the teacher must take the process slowly enough that successful vocalization can result.

Further Advancement: After successfully vocalizing the middle and upper passaggio area, it is now time to approach the upper register that has been most abused. I strongly suggest lip and tongue or tongue/lip trills to start using octave swings or sliding up and down the interval of an octave. Keep in mind that the singer must accomplish a high and wide soft palate and a lower larynx function for this to work successfully. The stretch of the acoustical space is a reversal of the closed throat that has accompanied past dysfunctional training. The more the throat is opened, the more the vocal cords can perform in the fuller and healthier function. One extremely critical concept is that the head should slightly rise as the singer approaches high A-flat. I instruct the singer to bring the cheekbones higher as the pitch rises. This opens more acoustical space in the soft palate area.

Expanding Whistle Register to Full Voiced Singing

Many of us have heard the term whistle register, but what does it mean and what does it have to do with full voiced singing? During my study with Alan Lindquest, he used such an exercise successfully to train the high pianissimo. Caballe was trained on such a vocal concept in order to train her high pianissimo. Many singers try to imitate her approach without success because they do not have a solid concept from which to base their approach. The true and deepest concept to consider is that a singer must find the thin edge function of the vocal cords and learn to expand that sound to full voiced singing. All of this must be accomplished with full body connection on a small sound. Often singers and teachers are confused that young singers can float a high pianissimo yet the sound is not connected to the body. This type of singing or training is a huge mistake because eventually the throat will completely close when the proper body support is not employed. Again, I find that the tongue, lip, and especially the tongue/lip trill works well at training the body connection on high soft singing. If the singer disconnects from the body, the tongue will simply freeze in position and the trill will stop. This is a warning sign that there is not enough healthy airflow through the vocal cords. After training the high pianissimo on the tongue/lip trill, then the singer can then move into vowel function. Often having the singer move from a high tongue/lip trill to a vowel such as the Italian u or o is successful. Most of the time the singer will first experience a break in the voice at the transition from falsetto to full voiced singing. (There will always be a transitional change in the male voice.) With slow practice this will diminish.

Final note: remember that the vocal cords are designed to vibrate on a healthy flow of air without over-blowing or over-squeezing. Sometimes this is a difficult balance to find depending upon the singerís history of training. Some singers over-blow the vocal cords in one register and over-squeeze them in another. Slow and methodical work is the only way to get a singer back on track after abusive singing or instruction. The task of healthy teaching and healthy singing is a big responsibility. Hopefully you will find some answers within this article.

(c) David L. Jones/2002

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