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.