© 2019 by GARY COWARD

5. Registers

If you think vibrato is a maelstrom of controversy, batten down the hatches for registers.

Virtually every book we read on singing, whether by singers, teachers or laryngologists tends to describe registers in different ways - how many there are, where they merge and how broad is the merging zone - usually known as the passaggio. Also, there is a lot of confusion regarding nomenclature. What, for instance, is the difference between head voice, head tone and head register?  Well, I have my views - but so does everybody else and they don't necessarily converge! In my experience, it's best to leave it to nature. But I will nail my colours to the mast in stating that there are basically two registers - chest and head. The sensations of vibration in the lower part of the instrument are predominantly in the chest and the upper part in the head. But there's also a portion of the range in the middle that seems to be neither one nor the other. This is sometimes referred to as the mixed voice, sometimes the passaggio and sometimes the middle register. Yes, more confusion......

I therefore demur at spelling out yet another approach to register management. There are so many pitfalls and so many subtle and nuanced physiological changes, that guidance is paramount for the uninitiated or confused. So with that guidance, it's best to let the student find out for him or herself where these physiological changes occur - acknowledge them, get used to them and allow the instrument to develop around them without interference. Preconceived notions can upset these fine-tuned adjustments. 
What I will say, though - and this might set the cat amongst the pigeons - is that in my view there is a general imbalance of registers in a large number of contemporary classical singers of both sexes. In male singers the head register can be insufficiently used resulting in an over-developed chest register. As a result of this, chest voice overwhelms the point where head voice would naturally merge, taking weight upwards and delaying the passaggio. The seductive element of this approach is an over-inflation of the upper middle voice, making it rather loud and powerful (baritones in particular are prey to this maladjustment). But it doesn't carry so well, weakens the lower notes, makes the top notes excessively effortful and also unreliable, tires the instrument and can only lead to trouble. And if that weren't enough, it cuts off too much of that portion of sound that provides brilliance, carrying power and a springy effortlessness that enables you to sing for higher and longer without tiring. With the right balance, you get so much more for your money.

Pavarotti was not only a wonderful singer with a mastery of registers, but also a warm, friendly, fun-loving human being. © 2033 from Getty Images

In the female voice, the opposite is the case. There almost seems to be a sense of fear and distrust of using chest voice in singing. And yet it is used exclusively in speaking! True, some over-sang it and took it too high, causing problems. But the vast majority of female singers have used it, merging with head voice at the right point and benefiting greatly in terms of range and power. Indeed, this avoidance of a whole reservoir of sound and of taking pure head voice down too far - way beyond its natural limit - cuts off an easy power base to the voice and, in my view, is one of the main reasons why there is now such a dearth of dramatic voices. The true Wagnerian soprano, such as Flagstadt and Nilsson and the dramatic Verdi mezzo, such as Cossotto and Simionato are all but extinct. 

So, having been rather coy about saying too much, I fear I already have..... But if anything of the above chimes in with your own predicament, I can't emphasize enough how confusing it is and how important it is to seek guidance. I'm not touting my own trade, but it's a very difficult thing to achieve alone. 

But after all this confusion, it wouldn't be right of me to leave you in the dark. Especially as you've been patient enough to get this far in such a long trawl through the vocal mysteries. So, as with Pavarotti and vibrato, I recommend listening to certain singers as paradigms of register mastery. For sopranos and mezzos, apart from the great ladies above, I would recommend going on Youtube and listening to Helen Traubel singing 'Suicidio'. It's almost impossible to tell where and how she comes in and out of the chest register. And that's exactly how it should be! There are so many examples for the tenors. Pavarotti, of course for everything. But specifically for register blending - Lauri-Volpi, Gedda and Kraus. For the baritones and basses, Battistini (born in 1856) is a true link with the bel canto era and is a model for every aspect of the art. If you want a more modern singer, Jose van Dam for me is a supreme example. Every pitch on every vowel in every language he sings, is a masterclass on how to move in and out of registers with ease and naturalness.
And when it all works, the singer senses the voice gliding up and down with perfect ease. The bottom end (especially in middle and lower voices) has a rich, dark-hued and grainy quality, while the top is springy, exciting and ringing - yet achieved totally without strain. This leaves the middle, with its combination of registers, to provide a more varied colouration, enhancing the spectrum of expression. It's no surprise then that most of the song repertoire and the bulk of recitative are mostly pitched in this zone.