Updated: Jan 18
It’s obvious that the use of registers – their different colors and textures – differs between classical, music theater, and popular styles. (By popular styles I’m encompassing all styles sung into microphones. Band singers, singer/songwriters, and some contemporary music theater.)
While stage singing, like opera or music theater, has prescribed norms for how it should sound, microphone singing does not. That’s not true if you’re in a Blondie tribute band, because then yes...you have to know how to sound like young Debra Harry. But if you’re in a cover band, or you’re a singer songwriter, then, overall, you make your own rules.
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Everything we refer to as style in microphone music originated as a musical or vocal response to a certain genre, or can also be a combined result of compensatory behavior. Take the vocal scoop. It’s part of every genre of microphone music as well as contemporary music theater. Did it come from the inabilities or insecurities of certain singers during a certain time? Maybe. Or maybe it’s a melding of musical styles from faraway shores. We’ll never know what made that particular vocal behavior ubiquitous in popular styles, but it is. And, except ever-so occasionally and very deliberately, it is decidedly not used in choral music or classical music.
Keep that in mind when you’re thinking about registers. Specifically head register (or CT dominant phonation). Shifting your perception of the head register or falsetto can help you negotiate register breaks and begin learning to blend. (I avoid the use of the word “belt” because it seems to come with baggage for most people. It can have a vocally limiting effect.)
If your student’s goal is to be able to sing in an extremely deft and facile way, able to express many different tones and textures anywhere in their range, like Beyoncé or Justin Timberlake, for instance, then they need to learn to blend high in a healthy way. But in the meantime, before they’ve learned that, you can teach them the same thing that you can teach your younger singers, and the same thing you teach your band singers or singer/songwriters. The magic is in the head register.
Many singers identify with their chest register – or TA dominant – sound, and are reticent to use their head register or falsetto. Their head register can feel and sound foreign to them, and they’re uncomfortable with that. I believe it’s important to recognize and honor that before introducing them to their head register. Further, I believe voice teachers should accept whatever sound such a singer is able to access in their head register, without trying to shape it too quickly. Let them get the feel of it.
Having got the feel for it, it’s then time to teach them to use it in a comfortable way. The thing that tends to make the switch from chest register to head register awkward is not so much the switch itself, but the placement of it. If you’ve been trained classically, you have an expectation for a rounded, back-and-up-and-over kind of feeling for your head voice. Even music theater singers may shift registers in a way that also shifts placement.
Yes, placement. Using the concept of placement to feel your head register in
smaller, more forward place - even if it seems a little nasal to you – will get you a sound that is more true to popular styles. Think of how Kristin Chenoweth, Sara Bareilles or John Legend access their head registers. It may be focused, nasal, or airy, but it is decidedly not the full-throated head register of a classical singer. When the singer shifts into their chest register, the consistent placement of the sound allows the sound to remain basically cohesive.
Aside from the less jarring register switch, your student will gain a sense of how a high chest blend, when they learn it, will need more breath support than they’re probably accustomed to providing!
Learning to keep the head register forward like that will not only provide the “vocal camouflage” they can use while they’re learning to blend high, it will teach them to anticipate a true pop sound and give them access to different vocal textures.
Blending cohesively might not be what your singer wants. For many artists, head register is a source of vocal texture. They insert breaks deliberately, or they may create an incomplete adduction in order to have that inefficient breathy sound that microphones love.
Registers in popular styles are tools to access range, volume, and textures.
Does your student have the range they need for their artistic expression? Your student may want to learn to blend their chest register high. The styles they love may call on them to be as loud or soft as they want to throughout their range. If your student sings in a metal band, that student probably doesn’t care about singing softly, but if they’re a country singer, they will. Different styles call up the need for textures inherent in the genre. Does your student’s style make them want to be edgy, dark, whispery or whistle-y, do they like to use register breaks or glottal scrapes? Those aren’t generally part of classical technique, but they are a lot of the fun of teaching popular styles and contemporary music theater!