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Voice Registration
By Daniel K. Robinson
(2009)

One of the hardest areas of voice teaching, and therefore learning, is the ability to describe in words that which the singing student is experiencing. As singers, we dont have tangible instruments. The larynx is housed inside the neck and this can hinder our conceptual realisation of what it is or isnt doing. Add to this the need for singers to describe the sounds their voices are producing and it can get very confusing. As a young singer I remember first coming into contact with the terminology, Head Voice and Chest Voice. This terminology, I soon learnt, was a way in which singers went about describing the sounds they were making. For example, if the notes where high and light a singer might describe this placement of sound as Head Voice. Vice versa, if a sound was sung in the lower part of the singers range and exhibited a full body of timbre then the singer might describe this sound as Chest Voice. This descriptive analysis of the voice and its production comes from century's past when the singing teacher fraternity held the view that voice production was either housed in the head or the chest - depending on the type of note the singer preferred. Of course recent developments in anatomical knowledge have assured us that phonation happens at the level of the vocal folds which are housed inside the larynx. Any sensations experienced in the head or chest are therefore sympathetic and do not represent the origin of the sound. Whilst the scientific revolution of singing teaching has yet to fully permeate the singing community there have been some definite movements of thought and manners in which these movements describe the voices activity. One of the first changes to our description of the voice and its production came from Jo Estill who recognised that Head Voice/Chest Voice was not only anatomically incorrect but also limited in its ability to accurately articulate what was going on. For example, if a student was singing in the upper reaches of their range (head voice), but did so with a full body of voice (chest voice) how did one describe that sound? Estill started to use terminology such as Thick Fold/Thin Fold. Simply, Thick fold/Thin fold descriptors addressed the anatomical question over timbre. Using the previous example, when a student is singing in the upper reaches of their range that student can apply a thick fold or thin fold (anatomical description of the vocal fold activity) depending on their artistic preference. This was a giant leap forward, especially for contemporary singing teachers, because it suddenly allowed for descriptive analysis of voice qualities such as belt. To extend the previous example, if a singer is singing in the upper reaches of their range and they are applying a thick fold activity the
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sound will often produce a sound akin to the contemporary power ballad of the 1980s and 90s. Of course multiple combinations can be achieved with the Thick fold/Thin fold descriptors. I commenced using the Estill terminology in my teaching studio during the late 90s and it opened up a world of realisation and communication for me and my students. However, after a couple of years I came to find shortcomings in this manner of description. What about falsetto in male voice? How would I describe an even mix of thick and thin fold? Even more confusing - how do I address the break mid-way through a students voice? The Estill methodology had descriptive terms for some of these areas, but did they suffice? Were they student friendly? As far as the Estill descriptors had come...had we come far enough? Head Voice, Chest Voice, Thin Fold, Thick Fold...it was all becoming a little confusing. It was around the turn of the century (2001) that I was introduced to a new book, BodyMind and Voice by Leon Thurman and Graham Welch. This book is revolutionary and presents sound research into the mechanics and artistry of the human voice. One chapter of particular note, The Voice Qualities that are referred to as Vocal Registers unpacked voice registration in an anatomical, yet easy to understand manner. Below is a visual representation of the 4 Register Model as presented in BodyMind and Voice. This understanding of the voice soon produced clarity for myself as well as my students. Your basic voice quality families are all intermarried with another family tree of voice qualities that are commonly called vocal registers. These vocal register families are created primarily (but not exclusively) by different degrees of contraction intensity between your shortener and lengthener muscles, working in agonist-antagonist relationships. These are the same muscles that produce your capable range of vocal pitches. So, within your entire capable pitch range, there are several pitch regions that have distinct sound qualities. (Thurman & Welch 2000, p422)

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To simplify, it might be suggested that the Thurman and Welch model loosely combines the old Chest Voice/Head Voice model with the Estil Thin Fold/Thick Fold model and delivers it as 4 Registers: Pulse; Lower; Upper; Flute/Falsetto which in turn interact with muscular activity: Shorteners and Lengtheners. In practical terms, a pop singer will often find themselves singing predominantly in the Lower register with occasional transitions into the Upper register. The singer can determine the timbre or colour of the notes by controlling the shortener/lengthener balance. Specifically, a female vocalist singing a 1980s power ballad would predominantly sing with shortener dominance in both the lower and upper registers. If the same singer is wanting to present whistle tones (very high notes) as exemplified by pop divas such as Mariah Carey then the shortener muscles completely disengage to allow the lengthener muscles to access the Flute register. Similarly, a male singer who is accessing the Falsetto register does so by disengaging all shortener muscle activity. Of course a myriad of combinations can be formed by the singer according to their artistic flow. The 4 register model also allows for the muscular transitions which take place when moving between the registers. Beginner students often have a definite break in their sound between the lower and upper registers. This primary transition; lower-upper will require attention if a student is looking to move smoothly between the registers without jarring or missing notes. The secondary transitions; pulse-lower and upper-flute/falsetto might also prove problematic. Transitions are essentially the coordination of the muscular activity and should be worked on in team with your singing teacher. The four register model is now being used widely in both tertiary institutions and suburban studios. It is important to note that if your singing teacher is using a
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model other than the one outlined in BodyMind and Voice you should not be concerned. For example, I have many classical colleagues who continue to use the language of Head Voice/Chest Voice effectively in their studios and they continue to find it sufficient for their teaching practice. The important thing is that you can communicate clearly about the voice and its mechanical setup with your teacher and fellow singers. Finally, it might be argued, We havent yet arrived!. To this I whole heartedly agree...it may be that in ten years time I am lauding the praises of a new registration model. Nevertheless, to date, I have found the BodyMind and Voice: 4 Register Model to work in both practice and communicationand so have my students.

Daniel K. Robinson - 2010

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