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February 5, 2010

The perfect vocal exercise

In a recent post, I defined what I mean by a register and described the qualities of both the falsetto register and the chest register.

One of the big challenges of singing, in fact, the main technical challenge, is to get these two registers functioning together well throughout your entire range. Most vocal faults can be traced to an over- or under-active register participation or to an awkward combination of the two, in which, instead of supporting each other, they conflict and produce tension.

It's possible that your registers are already well developed and healthy, but haven't figured out yet how to coordinate. In this case, we have to get creative in your lessons--we have to find out a way to "trick" them into coordinating better. Once your muscles have experienced an efficient coordination, which feels good, they are more likely to continue to respond efficiently in the future.

With his more than six decades of teaching experience, my mentor Cornelius Reid was able to come up with a whole battery of exercises that would effectively trick a singer's vocal cords into a better response. He knew how to set up conditions in an exercise that would make a successful coordination of the registers likely. One of his cleverest exercises--deceptive in its simplicity--is the octave leap from loud to soft with descending arpeggio.

Octave by michaelhanko

The genius of this exercise lies in its capacity for eliciting just the right degree of chest register participation in high notes. Too little, and the note goes into falsetto.

Toofalse by michaelhanko

Too much, and the note becomes forced.

Forced by michaelhanko

Here's how we use this exercise in your lessons: First, we establish the chest register by having you start on a lowish note taken at a loud dynamic level (forte). Then you move smoothly to a note one octave higher, taken softly (piano), before descending in a major arpeggio. When I hear how your vocal muscles respond to this exercise, I may tweak the set-up by altering pitch, volume, and/or vowel until we get the freest, most efficient response from your voice. When you can consistently succeed at this exercise, we will begin to train your vocal coordination to tolerate increased loudness on the upper pitch.

As always, it's crucial to maintain the integrity of your vowel during the whole exercise, so as not to introduce unnecessary complications. A common fault is to sing the first two notes as [ah]-[uh] (sung first in the following sound clip) instead of [ah]-[ah] (sung second).

Ahuh by michaelhanko

Your voice responds most freely when you perform the opening octave of this exercise spontaneously, with rhythmic élan.


  1. Michael, I'm reading all of these from my very-distant non-professional barely-habitual singing location. I used to teach pre-school music through a program (which I love)called Music Together. They give teachers warm-up CDs that run us through some body and voice exercises to warm up before teaching classes, and that's all the exposure I've had to any of this. I'm also a Mariachi Mother - my kids sing and play mariachi through a school program. I was listening to G today as he was singing something that drew out some of this head/chest voice register business. When I sang the same part of the song, he told me I was doing it wrong. When I sing it and it goes up, I blend it from one register to the next. He told me, "No, you BREAK it" and he demonstrated a very "mariachi sounding" note change - a clear break as you go from chest voice to head voice. I understand that this is a musical style that is admired in mariachi, but it also interests me in context of what you have been writing about.

  2. Nanette, that IS an interesting take on the registers! Your son is right--in some styles of music, like yodeling and (apparently) Mariachi, it is stylistically desirable to showcase the contrasts between chest voice and falsetto. And even from a more "classical" pedagogical perspective, if a singer CAN'T separate her registers, it indicates a problem. It sounds as though your son has this stage well in hand! If he eventually wants to add a more "legitimate" sound--I put that word in quotes to indicate my disgust with its condescending tone, but we unfortunately don't have another word for singing that coordinates the registers--he may have to get some guidance linking the registers up through his break. Or he may be a Caruso, needing not a single lesson to have a well-coordinated voice. (Me, I had to work my butt off!)

    "And a little child shall lead them...."