Register Awareness: a Practice in Integration

Oftentimes, young singers are taught about “chest” and “head” voice. You might be familiar with those terms – whether a choir director mentioned it in 2nd grade, or a musical theater director told you to “belt it out,” delaying the switch into “head voice.” When I was young, I was told I had a beautiful chest voice but my head voice had no power or volume. That, plus my strong musical ear and ability to harmonize, led me to sing as an alto in choir. I didn’t know at that time that, just as we can develop awareness and change our bodies through yoga practice, I had the power to grow in awareness of the different parts of my voice through mindful practice.
Registers, or the different “gears” of the voice, is a big topic. If you study diagrams of the intrinsic muscles of the larynx, you will get a sense of just how much is going on in there. My general approach is to allow the student, through correct alignment, supported breath, and release of tension, to become aware of the subtlety of action deeper in the throat and through the resonators, rather than relying on more extrinsic muscles “helping.” In other words, I help my students sing “from their core!”
So my intention in this article is not to explain all the subtleties or different muscle functions, but rather to share what integrating one’s registers might feel like and what the benefits are. There are actually four registers in every voice, not just two! Below are some ways to integrate your registers, preferably under the guidance of an experienced teacher.
The first step is to develop healthy breath support. This is another huge topic, perhaps a topic for another blog or newsletter post (or several!), but it bears mentioning that this must come before other exploration. Again, a skilled teacher can help you develop your breath support.
As you vocalize in a range that is comfortable for you, observe the connection between your breath and the resonance, and simply notice where you feel the resonance (that “buzzy” feeling.) Is it in your throat, your chest, your head? If it is in your head, where specifically? Your third eye area, or crown, or soft palette? All of the above? I find it fascinating to ask students these questions and receive a multitude of different answers. Everyone senses things in their body a little bit differently. No answer is incorrect as long as you are not feeling discomfort in the throat.
Next, slide up and down in your range, all the time with breath supporting you. Try starting higher and sliding down, then inhale and try it the other way. This can be done on any vowel, but I recommend an “ooo” vowel to start. Notice where you feel the resonance – is it changing based on what pitch you’re singing? Start to mindfully observe, without judgment, these sensations.
As you explore, you might notice a part of your voice where there is a “shifting” sensation, or even a crack, break or “kaplunk” feeling. Observe this without judgment, and check to see that breath is still flowing as you traverse this area. It is important to let go of your fear around the break, and know that a change in registers is normal – let that switch happen! Stephen Smith has a wonderful phrase that he coined in his book, The Naked Voice: “Crack and stay cracked!” I love this because it gives us permission to move through those different gears in the voice, release tension, and stay in that released state. Slide back and forth through that cranky area, just as you might spend longer on your stiff side when you are in a yoga pose. Under the guidance of an experienced teacher, it is possible to eventually “smooth out” that transition in your voice (traditionally called a passage, or passagio) so that the registers more closely match each-other in tone quality and volume. Eventually it will feel smooth, even, and free – like you have worked through a stiff joint and found a new strength in that area.
I find it fascinating how every student is so completely unique in their relationship to their registers. Some high sopranos have a hard time dropping into their first registers and keeping the breath flowing, while other women get stuck when they are transitioning into their third register, those higher notes at the top of the treble clef staff. Many tenors, and sometimes lower male voices, have a large break when sliding down from their fourth register, or head voice, which is often called “falsetto.” I don’t like that term, because it implies the use of the false vocal folds, when that is not actually what is happening. Guys, that is a perfectly valid part of your voice which bears exploring – nothing “false” about it!
As always, there is something to be learned about yourself when you are facing those sticky areas, wherever your challenge is. Perhaps if the first register is a challenge area, you might have issues with speaking your truth or staying grounded. If your second register is a mystery to you, there may be issues around resistance to change, commitment, or patience. If your third register is hard to access, there may be challenges with staying centered during stressful times (non-reaction), or accessing your emotional body. If fourth register doesn’t want to come out and play, there may be a disconnect with spirit or your greater community. Those associations came to me intuitively and through my own experiences and experiences with students, but they may not be true to you.
The important thing is to investigate for yourself what comes up for you when you mindfully spend time in your “sticky spot,” and also observe what it feels like when you’re in a more comfortable place in your voice. Notice what is working, and remember those sensations when you go back to your challenge area. Slide back and forth with awareness, embracing with loving attention any emotions that arise. Consistent, mindful practice is the key – you’ll be surprised at how quickly your registers will start to integrate. I notice a shift after only about 4 straight days of regular, mindful practice. And not only are we building vocal skills, we are flexing our awareness muscles and learning important lessons about ourselves!