All of my voice students spend part of each lesson warming up the head voice register and the chest voice register. I learned this as part of my Somatic VoiceWork training. It’s not optional, it’s mandatory. A strong, flexible voice includes a healthy head voice (think of angelic high “ooh” sounds) and a healthy chest voice (think of Santa saying a deep “Ho Ho Ho.”).
Relying on one register while disregarding the other is a recipe for frustration. I know, because for the first decades of my life, that’s exactly what I did. I took traditional classical voice lessons from the age of 13, and I developed a great stratospheric head voice — my natural range and easy for me to use. But, whenever the melody descended towards middle C, it got difficult for me. I noticed it when I sang solos and when I sang in my school choir. I just couldn’t figure out how to move from head voice to chest, let alone how to get back up. I carried my head voice down too far, and ended up with a tiny breathy low sound at the bottom of the staff. No one talked about it with me when they heard it, and I didn’t know enough to ask.
I was taking voice lessons with Professor Hickfang, who was a great classical teacher. But I didn’t have a clue about registers, what they were for, or how anyone actually sang anything. If any teacher gave me advice about it, I forgot it instantly. I just knew I was great at high notes and lousy at singing in chest voice and I could never unite the two. When it was a matter of musical life or death and I had to be heard, I would shout and squeeze out the lowest notes in my chest voice. It didn’t feel good, and it was more difficult for me to reclaim my head voice afterwards. Like anyone else with one overdeveloped range and one underdeveloped range, I had a noticeable break. I knew my chest voice and head voice were as different as Jekyll and Hyde, and it embarrassed me. So, I gravitated to songs that showcased my high range. I embraced opera and 1940s and 1950s girl singer repertoire. George Gershwin’s “Summertime” – in the original key — was my jam! I loved Eydie Gorme and Peggy Lee, crooners who exhaled into the microphone, did not push or strain in chest register, and rarely ascended to head voice. The chanteuse Sade had a breathy dominant chest register, a big break, and an even weaker head voice. Ironically, that made it easier for me to imitate her so I became a big Sade fan.
In the absence of any instruction to the contrary, I convinced myself that I couldn’t sing notes below a certain pitch. I might as well have admitted that I couldn’t turn left.
I spent a frustrating year in Shillelagh, my high school’s show choir. I had auditioned as a singer, but my break and breathy low range was obvious. Then I made the mistake of showing our teacher Mr. Reardon that I could play keyboards, so naturally I became the keyboard player. I watched the backs of all the beautiful girls as they sashayed through each show, doing jazz squares in sparkly red leotards and black wrap skirts. Meanwhile, I was hidden behind the Yamaha DX-7, playing the accompaniment to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “We Got The Power,” keeping my mouth shut. I loved trying out new sounds on the keyboard and jamming with the rest of my bandmates, and I loved getting out of class to play for the Christmas parties of local businesses. But I wished I could sing with them, and sing like them.
Mr. Reardon was a fan of vocal jazz, so Shillelagh performed a lot of songs originally recorded by The Manhattan Transfer. All the performing girls were invited to audition for a short alto solo in “Birdland”. I begged to be allowed to try out, too, and after a lot of pleading, Mr. Reardon relented. I memorized Janis Siegel’s rendition, all expertly mixed head and chest. I thought I had done an okay job of blending the break between my registers, and making some chest sounds when required. I sang the solo, hands shaking with nerves, and I looked and sounded just like a 15 year old opera singer with an undeveloped chest voice. And so I played the keyboards for “Birdland”.
Finally, I got to perform a solo on one of Shillelagh’s final concerts of the year. I loved a torch song by Julie London (another breathy chesty singer), called Cry Me A River. But there was no way I could sing those low notes, even with a lot of breathiness and a microphone. So I rearranged the song to make it easy for another pianist to play, and transposed it six keys higher. (SIX keys higher??? *Smacks forehead*)
I took music theory the following year, sang Soprano 1 in choir, and someone else played the DX-7. I played Milly in Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (an alto role!) who never really sang high notes and didn’t have to sing beautifully in her lower range, either. I just emitted some chest voice sounds and left it at that. It could have been a golden opportunity for me to start learning how to balance my registers. Instead, I learned how to square dance.
It took me another twenty years to finally learn how to strengthen my chest voice so I could blend my registers and make all kinds of mixes, including a belt sound. Right after I learned to belt, I got an unexpected promotion from keyboard player to solo performer . . . more later.