The answer to healthy singing is one thing and one thing only, that pesky thing called registration.**
As my students have all heard me say, if you can’t sing high it’s the registration. If you can’t sing low it’s the registration. Fast, slow, no endurance, not enough breath. Whatever it is that bothers you, it is the registration. The human voice has two registers, low (chest voice) and high (falsetto). Two and only two. There is no middle register. There is no ultra high register (called many things) There are only two because there are only two mechanisms within the throat to produce them, chest voice produced by the airway protection system (arytenoid group – if you want the Latin) which closes the cords, and falsetto produced by the swallowing system (thyroid group) which opens the cords and stretches them for pitch. Head voice is a combination of two muscular actions which, when invoked, draw the cords together “just so” through the opposition of their competing actions. If you want to know more, ask. I can talk all day (as my very, very patient students know) about the voice.
** The old singing masters of the 16th-18th centuries knew little about the anatomy and physiology of the body. They named the sounds they heard and attempted to develop by how they felt in the body or the characteristics of the sound produced. So, when we sing that thing
called “Chest Voice,” we feel vibration in the chest, hence, Chest Voice. Voila! They determined the range of this register by working with voices and decided that the Chest Voice went from “Middle E” (sorta) downward, as low as the individual singer could take it. They named the register we call “falsetto” because it had a weird, hooty sound that did not appear to resemble a full singing tone. It became “the little false thing,” to translate the Italian word into English. Its range seemed to be from High C – or perhaps a little above – down to a few notes below Middle C. They developed these two sounds and taught singers to use them together, with the strength of the Chest Voice and the softness of the Falsetto, creating a third sound they called Head Voice, and observed that Head Voice caused a vibration in the front of the face, hence its name.
–Katherine Kaufman Posner
“Voice is a product of function and, except to the degree to which all tone must conform to acoustic laws, has no mechanical function of its own. It is the end result of a coordinative process involving a complex of laryngeal and pharyngeal muscles whose pattern of response occurs as a direct reaction to a mental concept. To train the ‘voice,’ therefore, is to avoid making contact with basic functional activities. The character of a tone is formed at its point of inception, not afterwards, and the point of inception is that moment when the vibrating cords set the surrounding air spaces into motion. All technical devices and training methods employed whose aim is to improve the tone after the coordinative pattern has been set are useless.”
–Cornelius L. Reid
Our brains direct the vocal mechanism in response to our concept of our sound, our personal idea of what our voices sound like, an idea we got when we learned to talk. Ever listen to yourself talk on a recording? “Oh, dear.” is my reaction to my speaking voice. So, if we are going to improve our singing, our task is to change our concept. This is no mean feat. It is a process that takes time and focus, persuading our brains to direct a different sort of sound making than they have done before.
That’s where the singing teacher comes in. Our task is to help our students arrive at
a different concept. This means setting up a condition where students can hear themselves make sounds that are not what they are used to making. Then this new and, it is to be hoped, improved sound will become the norm for the brain which will continue to direct the vocal mechanism toward this new sound. That is the process of learning to sing. This is what voice teachers do, or at least should do. Sometimes they do not. Sometimes they try to simply take the existing sound and build on it. But if the sound is faulty to start with, then there is nothing to build on. The faulty sound has to go and be replaced by a better sound.
–Katherine Kaufman Posner