Countertenor Technique: An Introduction to Concepts

By  | April 12, 2011 | Filed under: Features, Vocal Technique

Ian Howell

About

Ian Howell is a countertenor based in Boston, Massachusetts. He regularly performs as a concert and operatic soloist all across North America and writes from time to time. He was educated at Yale and Capital Universities, sang with Chanticleer from 2000-04, and is currently a Doctor of Musical Arts student at the New England Conservatory of Music. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

http://www.ianhowellcountertenor.com

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  • Diego

    Dear Ian! Hello!

    My story is long, I’ll try to make it short. When I was around 14 the elementary school choir teacher asked me (in junior high) to join his choir even tho I was older because according to him my voice wasn’t going to change really much. That scared me for life. I’m recently 22 and I love singing since forever (to contribute to your article I did always liked to sing along tunes by mezzos when I was growing up and I have to press really hard to feel my Adam’s apple, I literally don’t have one to the naked eye). I’m really ignorant when it comes to musical theory but the little I know about my own voice seems to meet pretty much all the descriptions you made in this article, my limitations, etc.

    I’ve never tried to even get close to operatic music or classical training, I’ve been too chickened to do it. And I think the result of it all has made me “acquire” the voice of what some people have tried to call “male mezzo” haha. I can reach some highs in the 5th octave, but this are pretty weak and unsustained. I can go as low as A2 if I whisper (and I just discovered that recently). My “comfort zone” resides pretty much inside the 4th octave and I have horrible problems with staying on right pitch and singing falsetto. The only teacher I’ve had. almost 6 years ago, (the one I mentioned above) used to say my pitch problems are derived from my hard to control-vibrato and that countertenors very rarely have a useable falsetto. So I coped with that. But I just really wanna know… what really am I at this point? What can I become? How can I do it? etc… is not like I honestly have the money to afford a vocal teacher etc. So I’d be forever thankful for your help.

    Here’s my souncloud https://soundcloud.com/diego-a-m and being the shy person I am I would like you to listen those recording I’ve gotten more positive feedback from, like “Stomach tied in knots”, “Hysteria” but please listen to whatever you think you may like, haha. That is, if you can.

    And to be completely honest. I used to be really self aware of me “singing like a girl” because of bullys and stuff but at this very moment I would like people to like the voice I really have, even if it’s “girly” I really like it and I really passionate for singing. And I would never change it for a bass/baritone/tenor voice if I could.

    Thanks for your blog. It’s seriously one of the very few (if not the only) place on the net with info about counters and it’s really a great one.

    -Diego.

  • Nicolas Orjuela

    Hi i’m 18 years old and I can reach a G5 in CHEST VOICE, i was training with some Mariah Carey’s songs and i developed a technique to reach tht notes effortless, at the beggining it was difficult but with some coach help i started to reach that notes.
    I know that i’m a counternor but i want top know why i can go higher with my head voice,with falsetto i can reach til A5 but higher i can’t, I’ve been trying with opera technique but is useless for me.
     I hope you answer my doubts

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WWKNK6TCFZ4NVZJ3B7JIOHKO5M Anto

    @Nick Mains.
    while waiting for Ian’s response (I’m also curious) I may tell you my impression, based on what I know and what you told here.
    You
    say you have two falsettos, this is not so unusual as falsetto is very
    broad as definition, as it is tied to sensation and perception of
    lighter sounds than usual “full” voice and not necessarily true reality.
    Example: Full pure modal G3 of Adam Levine sounds much more falsettoish
    than a good mixed C5 of Adam Lambert or Pavarotti, yet one is fully
    modal the other one doesn’t, the vibration has more vertical phase or
    such in mixed.
    If your higher falsetto can go up to E6 and the lower
    one that overlaps chest voice only goes up to C5, probably the lower one
    is “mixed” head-chest voice, I don’t know if yours is a full fold
    mechanism or partial, but given that a good control of partial folds
    might take you above high C even if you were a baritone, you might be a
    tenor going up to high C with his resonating and connected voice,
    depending on how this higher falsetto sounds and feels, it might be head
    voice or partial folds and you still have trouble connecting it to your
    lower falsetto, how you call it.
    If at a certain height of pitch you
    have trouble producing consonants, you might be already on your whistle
    register, which sounds like the extreme Pf mechanism where most of the
    fold is blocked and only air can pass through a little hole between
    them,
    Less extreme graduation, probably mimick an extremely short set of folds for very high notes like the ones you are doing.
    Ian, how do you feel about how tenors do their High notes approaching high C, is that partial fold?
    If
    not the old terminology might be still valid as the tenor voice passes,
    once getting past its pivotal points, retaining undoubtful intermediate
    characteristics between pure modal voice and pure head voice,
    definitely not pure chest voice however full sounding but also not head
    voice. Maybe this depends on projection. Also Ian sounds like your PF
    voice starts to sound powerful, rich and  more convincing* only past A4
    or such, below it it sounds like she (the voice) just wants to meet your
    natural chest voice but you prevent it for theatrical and canonical
    exigencies :) . That I know you don’t need amplification to do your
    performance isn’t it?
    I’m curious on this, if you wanted could you
    give your alto – soprano range a more pop sound to sing women songs on
    that range, sounds like Nick Pitera, Adam Lambert, Geoff Tate, do
    something similar to your technique for their very high notes, still
    retaining the edge of full voice, without being really “full”.
    The
    latter two mix seamlessly with their chest voice, when on the middle of
    their traditional “high” range, could you also do that if you wanted,
    when not having to keep the light baroque tone?
    Could you use a
    middle light graduation, of the partial fold mechanism, plus the heavy
    projection to imitate the tenor in his high notes? I don’t mean in an
    expert proof way, but I guess it would “just” warrant a middle
    arrangement between the configuration of your alto and your baritone
    range.

    *by convincing i mean veristic, full powered close to your
    real capacity, but as you said baroque repertoire needs you to feign
    feminine quality even where your full voice would otherwise mix in, and
    it’s convincing in that respect.

  • Nick Mains

    I think that I have posted before, but I can’t remember or find it, so I’d like to ask…

    I’m a baritone singer, but I have a very powerful falsetto and mix. I can sing up to E6 (usually only D6 but sometimes I can hit the E) and it doesn’t sound bad, or so I am told. I’m very curious because I have an issue that feels to me like I have two falsettos. I have what I refer to as my lower falsetto which overlaps with my chest voice range, and goes up to ~Tenor C. Then I have another falsetto, which feels a completely different part of my voice and goes to that E/D area. It doesn’t go very low, though, so there’s an area that I believe I don’t know how to hit. (I assume I physically can, but I don’t know how to sing within that range. If you could help me with that, that would be awesome, but my true question here is…)I can’t seem to produce consonants. If I try to sing words in that higher falsetto, the sound falters and goes away and I would really like to be able to make use of those high notes.Thanks, Nick.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WWKNK6TCFZ4NVZJ3B7JIOHKO5M Anto

    How do you keep your great volume dynamics with the partial folds? I ask this as they are a result of hyperabduction (the arithenoid pic) and as apparently low volumes comes from a mix of voluntarily scarce abduction, that i know, how do you avoid flipping as you unabduct your folds?

    As for the age limit I think that however genetics may help, a good technique helps more.

    A F5 at  70 during a lesson.

    La donna è mobile very recently,  at over 90.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w80Sq_cDHJ8

    Sounds like his CT still really pulls more then enough.
    In the lessons he says something about thinking about falsetto, depending on what we mean with falsetto this might not sound correct, especially when he says soprano use falsetto, this is not obv relevant on how good he teaches, especially talking about 20 years ago and from a generation like hi’s. But probably his falsetto example is just “mezza voce” or “messa di voce”, not the usual falsetto people usually break into when attempting like notes, that kind of falsetto can definitely be pushed, while only a correct “messa di voce” is not pushed by definition. What do you think about all this?
    Thanks so much

  • DinDanMee

    If I may just try to check if I understand what you write correctly…

    So, while we do associate the vocal balance with the balance of chest/head-falsetto (TA/CT muscles) the fact is they can be balanced in two ways, (inside) the full fold and the partial fold function. A countertenor uses the balance in the partial fold function. While a let’s say baritone uses the same balance (or muscular development) but full fold…Am I correct?

    So basically you can produce “two types” of head voice (if one wants to use the old terminology – CT dominance)…The full fold head voice and the partial fold head voice? (Same with chest…) 

    Another question…How rigid are the full and partial fold phonation? Are they deffinitely two different phonation modes, or are there certain mixes between them? Or to put it more colorfull…is it all black or white (either ff or pf), or are there shades of grey between them? 

    So all this has been scientifically backed up, observed and so on? I am fascinated! Because it almost seems some teachers almost *want* to stay uninformed.

    Also, what is with women? There are numerous cool recordings by the amazing Eileen Farrell where she sings both opera and jazz. (For example Wagner vs. My Funny Valentine) She is obviously vocally balanced and excellent in both…But is she singing with full fold function in My funny Valentine and partial fold in Wagner?

    Would it then be possible for a countertenor to train to sing both as a lets say baritone and alto? Or concentrating on either ff or pf excludes the other for whatever reason. (Muscle memory and pitch memory…if you get used to sing a pitch in one way, it might be confusing to switch to the other)

    Thanks for clarifying and keep up the good work!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=307364 Ian Howell

      Hi DinDanMee,
      Thanks for this comment. I don’t think you quite have it. The ff and pf describe vibratory states. Many pedagogues would describe the difference in terms of vertical phase alone, and others incorporate vibrating length as well. Within any given vibratory state you can sing with any degree of optimal or suboptimal vocal fold engagement. The vibratory states themselves are consistent, and are not the same as saying “head voice” and “chest voice.” The qualities of head and chest are an intersection of the vibratory state and the degree of optimal antagonism.  Although… it is, of course more complex than this :-) .

      My experience is that countertenors tend to not make great baritones, perhaps because of something inherent to the instrument, but likely because of choices made over time.  

      ~Ian

      • DBlue One

        Hi and thank you for your answer…my confusion was because some consider the degree of antagonism where CT is dominant head voice, and TA dominance chest voice. Independent of the vibratory state itself, ff or pf. I know that in another place you wrote that some wrongly link pf as head, and ff as chest…But there are also those who link the muscular dominance alone with head and chest, independent of the vibratory state they are usually unaware of. (the school I come from) That is why I had a difficult time to explain to my (ex) voice tecaher that I feel the lower region of my countertenor voice (the partial fold) as chest voice as well (but a different one from the full fold one which I use during speaking), because inside the partial fold, the lower region has optimal antagonism where TA is dominant. Or at least I feel it as dominant. And in this school of thought, the TA dominance = chest, independent from vibratory state.

        A baritone or tenor would I suppose need to stay in the full fold in ascending, but just change the optimal antagonism, the so-called covering…What keeps the sound of the chest voice all the way to the top. 

        And in that light some call the male pf falsetto…because of what, it might become understandable why some have said that falsetto can “damage” your full voice, if you’re lets say a baritone. Because it would make you constantly switch between the ff and pf function, in the range you want to have ff, but with CT dominance (covered). For the same reason why making a countertenor sing as a baritone in the upper range might interfere with their progress singing as a countertenor.

        It’s I suppose just the question of how you choose to sing – as a countertenor or as a baritone for example.

        But I agree that the old system is sort of confusing, because it is not precise enough to explain what happens. And because the same term, like head, can mean a few very different things.

  • Hoyt

    Hello, Ian!
    Great article! In your experience, is it possible for a CT to regain their upper head range post smoking. I know I am telling on myself, but my concern outweighs my embarrassment. I used to have a very pleasing extension up to F6 (when I was a late teen), and although I know I will never get that back, is it possible to rehabilitate back to a “healthy” CT range? I am still capable of C5/D5 notes, but they have a more chesty, tenor, and almost forced sound to them. Any advice/tips you could provide would be greatly appreciated! Thank you for your time.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=307364 Ian Howell

      Hmmm… That is an interesting question that I have not thought about before.  If there are any voice doctors lurking around here, I would defer to them, but I assume that given enough time (and assuming good training), one should be able to heal from smoking damage.  

      The real question would be whether you are training the range through c5/d5 in a healthful manner.  If you perceive it as “more chesty, tenor, and almost forced…” I would assume that you are pushing the folds together too hard and using too much sub-glottal pressure.  

      Can you try to do low to high sweeps placing the back of your hand over your mouth?  The goal is to allow only a small amount of air to escape around the sides of your mouth.  This will create ‘back pressure’ that prevents you from pushing too hard :-) .

      Good luck,

      ~Ian

  • Eliezerabello

    Dear Ian!
    I am a fellow countertenor and enjoy very much your article, it is about time for people to hear from the real countertenors what is and what to feel when you sing as such. I am studying voice right now, although I am older (41) I still sing on the range of a mezzo. At school (San Bernardino Valey College, California) I have run into many young men that heard me singing and want to know what they can do to learn such a technique, this article is for sure a great source of information. Question: Do you have any school that you would recommend for futher studies as a countertenor? a place where one can learn from other countertenors?
    Thank you again! by the way, love your work!
    Eliezer Rabelo

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=307364 Ian Howell

      Dear Eliezer,
      You raise an interesting question, one worth thinking about.  Namely, is a countertenor necessarily best served by a teacher who is a countertenor?  

      My sense of it is that one shouldn’t immediately presume yes.  It would depend on whether the teacher has a solid sense of pedagogy and understands the subtle ways in which a countertenor should train differently from standard optimal vocal technique.  I have taken lessons from a few countertenors, but all of my long-term teachers have been women.  That being said, if you want to be in an educational environment that would surround you with other countertenors, Indiana University & McGill University come to mind.  At various times Westminster Choir College has had a number of countertenors, but my sense is that the voice type isn’t particularly courted there.  I am going to be doing doctoral work at the New England Conservatory starting this fall, and there are always a few countertenors going through the undergrad and grad programs there.  

      Does anyone else have suggestions?

      Thanks for reading :-) ,

      ~Ian

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WWKNK6TCFZ4NVZJ3B7JIOHKO5M Anto

    I know this mechanism under the name of Stop Closure Damping. Would you say that by shortening just a bit of the vocal tract a bass may emulate a a sound similar to the one of a tenor in the high C? Note that i simply said “similar”.
    But you said ”
    Some singers are limited by the mass of their folds – no matter what, they will not be able to optimally vibrate higher frequency pitches. ” but you also said a counter tenor can even be a bass or baritone, I heard of bass people able to sing queen of the night.
    I think I am a baritone, maybe even a light one, I am just curious about this.

    • Anonymous

      Dear Anto, 
      Many thanks for reading this piece and for asking your questions.  I want to make sure that I understand what you are asking, so if my answer seems off-base, please chime in :-) .  To your first question about a bass making a tenor-like sound in their upper chest voice, I am unsure how shortening the vocal tract will help?  Are you talking about raising the larynx?  Even in a generally stable laryngal position, there will be vertical variance, but intentionally raising the larynx falls outside of my school of technique.  I know that some musical theater pedagogies encourage raising the larynx, but remember that they are training voices to use microphones.  Perhaps you could refine what you mean by “similar to a tenor’s high C?”

      To your second question, remember that the inherent mass of your folds can still be dramatically decreased by singing in an alternate vibratory state (head voice).  Within your chest and head vibratory states, you will be able to find a point past which you can vibrate no faster (preceded by the point past which you cannot vibrate faster in a healthful manner).  So, it is not paradoxical to me that many countertenors are basses or baritones.  

      Be well,

      Ian

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WWKNK6TCFZ4NVZJ3B7JIOHKO5M Anto

        Thanks for your very fast answer, I’m glad of it. Oh, I said “vocal tract” my bad, what a lapsus.
        Well I meant vibrating tract, shortening of the vibrating portion of the fold you illustrated, that matches the “damping” description.
        So, i asked if by shortening this tract just a little bass can achieve a high C similar to that of a tenor, just like when he usually sings high in the “mezzo or alto range he achieves a similar quality with your method, because he shortens the vibration more. So I figured he could “match” a tenor if he zips up the cords less than it.
        2.
        So now I get what you meant. Yes you were referring to the voice achieved with just TA-CT antagonism, obviously that way most basses will have hard time going above E4 above middle C, F4 maybe with “mixed” voice.
        I agree, so, they will have to reduce the mass zipping up the cords as you said. 

        I have some doubt about “mixed voice” though, that i know there are different gradients of mixed voice as you ascend, once you ascend simply by increasing the antagonism TA-CT, you start to dial down the TA and give less chest, the cord vibrates still in its entirety and this is optimal until you approach the canonic highs of you voice type.
        Then it is wise to transiction in “damping”, am I right? 
        With mixed voices i read the two armonic components of the voice, muscle and cover start to get offset, the muscle contributes less and less.
        Do you know Joseph Shore? He is a verdian baritone, and given his timbre I have little reason to doubt he’s a closet tenor, he is capable of easy high A-B-C-D! I’m authorized to suspect your damping system is involved.

        I’m also doubtful women have the same passage point, maybe the Altos with the Tenors, but take a soprano or a light mezzo, high C is nearly central, especially for a soprano, I take that they have a easier transition as smaller cords require less blow pressure to vibrate, (like a smaller lens of a microcamera has little need for focal accomodation) so that I may think they have difficulty with their chest register, hence the trouble in singing lower than C4 with volume. But Soprano’s tenor C is almost only “chest” to me reachable with simple antagonism, the muscle part of soprano’s voice is high in itself, that i know, unlike lower voices. So I’d say their really need for mixing is just above this note.

        • Anonymous

          Dear Anto,
          The term “mix voice” is a strange one to me as it seems ambiguous with respect to vibratory state.  I think that what is meant is either a full fold CT dominated or partial fold action with a proper CT/TA antagonism.  I don’t use the term to describe my voice, and I don’t use it to teach.  

          I do think that men and women have the same passage point, but women’s voices simply “fail” better above it.  This is just a matter of mass management. 

          ~Ian

          • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WWKNK6TCFZ4NVZJ3B7JIOHKO5M Anto

            Thanks, you’re very kind. I grasped the dinstinction, you can go up to A4 with CT dominated full fold, or optimal CT/TA antagonism with shortened vibrating fold. I’d like to be able to do so. But take thise examples, is late Pavarotti high C full or partial fold, for example Tito Schipa had a much more relaxed high range, Pavarotti is the display of force, but sounds full. Stevie Wonder sounds very easy and also sounds like he shortens, Adam Lambert sounds like he shortens too and can sound full up to B5. They are all tenors “unfortunately”, though.
            What I mean that antagonism may be variable even with proper relationship with CT-TA, “chest” voice has an optimal relationship between the two, but as the pitch raises the antagonism increase, so it is the time to begin dialing down a bit of the TA to keep the antagonism at bay, this might happen as soon as B3. So the mixing is a compromise to keep the full chords from excessive antagonism. I’m a haigh baritone, I think. Do you think that when I sang that round, full, effortless G4 I may have used a bit of that partial cord mechanism without knowing? If I didn’t, I’d say that dialing down the chest up to that point still delivers a good balancement and then full fold mix may sound good to that point.
            You said everyone can get to B4 without switching to partial folds, I’m not so sure, you mean with excessive effort and with bad sounds? But as I understood, you don’t have to wait to B4 to engace partial folds, especially if you are in the bass-baritone category. Some can be in “stop closure” as low as G3. 
            And I know it is not “your” mechanism or “your” voice, luckily you are not the only one, even as good as you are.

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  • zwingli montenegro

    Marcelito Pomoy just won Pilipinas Got Talent Season II with his rendition of The Prayer. I just would like to know from the experts if he sings in Falsetto or Countertenor. here is his rendition of “What kind of Fool I am”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNwr5h6jjYI

    thank you

  • A.C.

    Inspiring stuff Ian. I’m a self-taught Baritenor (I find I’m comfortable somewhere in the middle, though mostly tenor) whom performs at my community theatere, and I was told to audition for Mary Sunshine after some directors witnessed my powerful falsetoo in another show.

    It blows my mind though-people keep telling me I have the potential to sing CT, but I find I can’t sing really high notes quietly though-hence the word “powerful”. Is this something I can remedy?

    Are teachers easy to find btw? I haven’t ran into a single CT in my area.

    • Allan McPherson

      A.C. it gets easier as you improve your technique. I found the same thing when I started. My upper range was limited and my highest notes could only be produced at one level — loud! As I’ve improved my technique the high notes start to feel less high with greater dynamic control and more notes become available higher up.

      At this stage in your development I would recommend focussing on finding a good voice teacher who is willing to teach a countertenor and willing to learn as well. My voice teacher was a soprano who had never taught a countertenor before and I learned a great deal from her. In the beginning, it’s most important to have someone who really understands voice and how to teach it and with whom you work well. You can worry about training with a countertenor later, if you feel you want to.

    • http://www.ianhowellcountertenor.com Ian Howell

      Dear A.C. I concur with Allans comments; awareness that you wish to sing high/quiet is often the first step towards acquiring the technique. You may also wish to read this article: http://blog.counterpointspublishing.com/2011/07/vocal-technique-the-flex/ It covers a specific exercise that can build stability and ease into your countertenor voice.
      I also agree that countertenors are not always the best teachers for countertenors :-) . I don’t think that I have ever seriously studied with one (outside of masterclasses). If you can find someone with a solid understanding of breath, onset, and clarity of tone, who is also willing to learn how to teach a countertenor, you’ll be fine.

      Where do you live?

      ~Ian

      • chris sparks

        I am not able to find any suitable teachers where I am at. Most women don’t want to teach men because they feel that they are hurting our voices. Men will typically try to sing me down in my tenor range. I have given up with teachers so far. We have no professional countertenors here in Arizona that I can tell. I try reading your articles and I get lost on the musculature discussions.

        • http://www.ianhowellcountertenor.com Ian Howell

          I feel for you Chris. It is hard to find a good teacher, even in major cities. I have emailed a singing friend who just moved from Arizona to get some suggestions for you. Can you send me a message through the contact link above and give me your personal email address? I would be happy to pass along whatever suggestions I get.

          The musculature is confusing! This article is meant to lay the conceptual groundwork upon which my subsequent articles are based (have you read my flex article?). We have to change our thinking about the voice before we are able to use the instrument in a new way. Simply understanding the musculature does not make you a better singer, but it can give you information that allows you to make better choices in the future.

          I remain unimpressed with the quality of Skype/iChat for teaching lessons online, but I could give you a consultation through those means if you are really stuck for a teacher.

          • chris sparks

            Hi Ian,

            I just sent you my email address.

            I tried to read through some of flex material but either I am having an issue understanding it all or I am just overwhelmed by all of it. I would think that singing would be easy but from what I have seen out there, it isn’t. My favorite is to sing from the diaphragm. I tell those people if your diaphragm could sing then it would work, but in reality your cords do all the work. The diaphram controls only the air flow and amount of air.

            Skype is not great in quality but it is still a good resource. I would consider doing a video lesson with you but we need to discuss cost. You can email me and let me know.

            Thanks,
            chris

  • Braeden

    Thanks for this article. I’m an aspiring composer and countertenor, and this definately helps me make the decision to switch up to countertenor from the baritone that I sing in in modal voice.

  • Chris Sparks

    Hi Ian,

    You mention above about doing the “reverse” phonation technique (i.e. breathing in while phonating). I have done this before and have gotten from G6 to G7. I would like to be able to squeak these notes out the normal way.

    chris

    • http://www.ianhowellcountertenor.com Ian Howell

      Hi Chris,
      Hmmmm… where did you see a note about reverse phonation?
      ~Ian

      • chris sparks

        Don’t know now! I am sure I must have read something to that effect. Basically breathing in while producing a sound.

        • http://www.ianhowellcountertenor.com Ian Howell

          Sure, sure. I had a teacher that had me briefly inhale and phonate on [ü] before executing other exercises. Here rational was that doing that ‘sits’ the larynx into a low position. I’ve since stopped doing that, but it was interesting for a while. How are you using it?

          • chris sparks

            When I first learned of this technique it was in High School. An American Indian friend showed me this and it was amazing at the wall of sound he produced! It was only about a year ago I tried it for singing. At first I was able to hit notes above F5 and now I can sing notes normally above F5. I do it now and I get squeaks out at G6 and once I got over C7. I think it helps train the musculature to position the cords without pushing too much air. In order to accomplish these notes, now, would require me a lot of air and that would probably not be good. That is how I use it.

  • Allan McPherson

    Ian,

    I am wondering if you could clarify something for me. I would like to know more about the relationship between the male “falsetto” and a woman’s “head voice”. I know the four vocal registers of the human voice recognized by speech language pathology, and I’ve found people saying that they occupy roughly the same ranges for everyone, and other sources saying they don’t. I’ve found people saying that the male falsetto and the female head voice are the same vocal function, and others saying they aren’t. Can you shed some light on this?

    • http://www.ianhowellcountertenor.com Ian Howell

      Dear Allan,
      Thanks for this great question, whether male “falsetto” and female “head voice” are the same. I think that the reason that you’ve found so many conflicting answers is that the word “falsetto” is imprecise and is used to describe a variety of physical actions, most – but not all – of them inefficient and weak. Some people will use it to describe an airy sound produced without much TA engagement. Some people use it to describe any sound made by a man on a shortened length of fold. I think that a man can train his voice to sing in a manner physiologically similar to a woman’s “head voice,” and that is what good operatic countertenors do. There will tend to be more laryngal tension involved for the man, as he likely has a more massive larynx, but the vibratory state of the vocal folds is, I think reasonably similar. Remember, there are a variety of approaches used by women when singing in their “head voice” as well. To label a man singing in this action “falsetto” just because he is a man is, I think, pedagogically useless. That is why I advocate describing the vibratory state of the folds separately from the degree of CT/TA engagement and vertical phase. I would ask the question, “Is a partial fold vibratory state the same for both men and women?” I think that the answer is yes, but most men either have too much laryngal mass or have never properly trained the muscles to produce a healthy sound in that range.

      Your other question is about whether men’s and women’s vocal registers change at the same pitch points. I believe that the answer to this is also yes (although as the article suggests, these pitch points are only suggestions… the voice is capable of stretching those limits), but that the inherent mass of the vocal folds dictates whether any given singer will be able to phonate well in any specific part of their range. As I wrote above, men often have too much mass to vibrate fast enough to produce extremely high frequency pitches, even if they were to use their vocal folds in the most optimal manner possible. So, there are a number of factors, each with its own possible range of variables, that contribute to how men and women are able to use their voices. Though the fundamental physiology is very similar, the results can seem quite different. For example, both men and women can ‘belt’ up to Bb4s without shifting to a partial fold approach. A woman will often sound better doing this than a man because her less massive vocal folds are better able to take the strain. That doesn’t mean that her “chest voice” is higher, just that it is better able to function in a super-optimal manner.

      Does that make sense?

      ~Ian

      • Allan McPherson

        I have to say that seems like the most consistent approach I’ve seen to this. This matches with my own experience and makes sense to me. More than anything as a singer and a teacher, registers are the bane of my existence. I must say that the view you take matches closely with what I already thought. I just needed confirmation that you were saying what I thought you were saying. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone in this.

        I also wonder about the reduction in pressure you talk about. Does this have anything to do with the abdominal support, or should those muscles remain firmly engaged? How would you train this? I can sing up to about an A flat (about a G if I need to sing it for any length of time) and my voice teacher (I’ve moved and can no longer take lessons) said that she can even hear the possibility of the whistle register in my voice. I feel like there’s a lot of pressure as I get into the very top of my range, so I wonder if this is the next step for me to work on. I’d like to, but I’m just not sure how to go about doing it.

        • http://www.ianhowellcountertenor.com Ian Howell

          Dear Allan,
          This is a tough question to answer as I don’t buy the assumption that one should actively manage breath pressure 1) really at all and 2) via actively engaging the abdominal muscles. I am working on an article addressing issues of “source” versus “results” oriented technique, and this is a great example of how focusing on the latter can produce inconsistent results.

          When we breathe in, several parts of our torso are engaged. Intercostal muscles in the rib cage lift and expand the rib cage, the lungs respond by filling with air, the diaphragm drops to accommodate the filling lungs, and our abdominal organs shift down in response. This is one coordinated action caused by the mental impulse to breathe in. In a coordinated and efficient exhalation optimized for athletic singing, several parts of the torso are similarly engaged. Most notably, the intercostal rib cage muscles responsible for inspiration remain antagonistically active in opposition to those that want to squeeze the air out of your lungs. Some people call this “suspending the breath.” The diaphragm and muscles of the abdomen will react to this antagonism; they will have what is called “muscle tone;” they will be ready to act and slightly engaged, but they are not causing the exhalation. This is what I mean by source versus result. As a result of a coordinated exhalation you will experience activity in your abdomen, but that activity is not the source of the exhalation. Focusing on it as though it were only confuses the body.

          Many countertenors of generations past have described the experience of “having to hold back large quantities of air” as they sing. I think that this describes to a certain degree the phenomenon I mention in this article, that as we increase in pitch frequency, there are paradoxical moments when the required amount of air pressure drops off. I think that describing it in the language of “holding back air” unfortunately energizes beginning with an over pressurized approach (which you then back away from). This ties into my recent article on how to practicing practicing, especially #s 2 and 8. http://blog.counterpointspublishing.com/2011/06/vocal-technique-how-to-best-practice-practicing-singing/

          So I can’t really address your specific issue without knowing whether the over-pressurized experience you are having is 1) something unique to those higher frequencies, or 2) indicative of a breathing issue that your voice is tolerant of at lower frequencies. You may have the ideal vocal mass to optimally phonate higher than G5, but your sub-glotal air pressure is not allowing your folds to further shorten to accommodate those higher frequencies. Have you tried the exercise where you breathe in and phonate quietly on [a] with no compromise. In other words, just let air pass until the [a] happens. Do not force it, do not compromise to make it happen. You should be able to sing those high frequency pitches quietly in this manner. If you can’t, this exercise will show you what you are doing to try to force the action, thereby indicating what technical issue you need to work on with a teacher.

          ~Ian

          • Allan McPherson

            Ian,

            I suppose I oversimplified my question by just saying abdominal musculature. I have made a fairly significant study of breathing, so much of what you had to say I already am familiar with and agree with. I get the impression that this is an issue that is very difficult to deal with in words, but I appreciate your attempt. I think I have a better sense of what you mean now. I hope that others will also find this enlightening.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WWKNK6TCFZ4NVZJ3B7JIOHKO5M Anto

        Shame I can belt without “mixing” at most to D4 without starting to strain :D  
        That I know I had vocalized a surprisingly effortless, round and forward G4, I am sure I was mixing though. The teacher (of a choir :) ) thought i was a tenor but I’m almost sure I’m not.

      • Joam

        Hi Ian, I’m also a countertenor, a sopranist to be more specific.  Although I’m training with my vocal coach I would like to ask you, do you think there would be a problem by starting singing as a countertenor-mezzo and then shift into a sopranist?

        Could we exchange some musical sheets?

        • Anonymous

          Dear Joam,
          As with many people who comment here, I’m unable to diagnose possible technical issues without hearing you.  
          Generally, though, if you are able to sing well above F5, your challenge as a countertenor is likely going to be a weakness in the B3-E4 range.  If you are pushing to make the pitches about F5 happen (and your B3-E4 range is nice and full), you likely need at address the transition between Bb4-C5.  If you carry too much tension through that range, you are ‘set up’ poorly to sing F5 and above.  

          If we can find a time, I could give you a little free 10 minute skype diagnosis?  We could talk about exercises  then too.  I’m a little hesitant to just give people exercises as what matters is “how” you practice, not “what” you practice.  You can contact me through the link in the menu bar above.  

          ~Ian

          p.s. to answer your question though, I think that everyone should train their entire range everyday (including your baritone low range!)
           

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WWKNK6TCFZ4NVZJ3B7JIOHKO5M Anto

        Hello again.
        I agree about falsetto it’s too much of a broad term, I might suggest it to be only used when voice breaks abruptly in a higher weak and airy note, this is wrongly identified with the limit of the optimal voice, but we know it’s just lack of training.
        But I have some doubt about this ” As I wrote above, men often have too much mass to vibrate fast enough
        to produce extremely high frequency pitches, even if they were to use
        their vocal folds in the most optimal manner possible.”

        or
        “For example, both men and women can ‘belt’ up to Bb4s without shifting
        to a partial fold approach. A woman will often sound better doing this
        than a man because her less massive vocal folds are better able to take
        the strain. That doesn’t mean that her “chest voice” is higher, just
        that it is better able to function in a super-optimal manner. ”

        And doesn’t this mean that the voice is just phisically lower having more mass? Isnt’ it an acoustic law that bigger masses require higher tension than smaller masses to vibrate at the same pitch? Hence why they strain more, the full folds of medium/high female voices at Bb4 aren’t definitely enduring the same strain better, they are just less rigid, like a G guitar string (letting alone fretting) will be far less strained if you tighten it via the key up to a Bb3 than the, the A2 or D3 string will be tight.
        A soprano full fold (no CT – TA balance shifting aka mixed full voice) might be as strained only at F-F#5. So i have to think their chest voice is actually higher.
        This is why I think every voice has a different shifting point talking about passages, maybe I’m wrong but apparently phisics says so.
        While I agree about the increased ease of higher voices especially females and *some* gay men (the latter two more for cultural reasons, as you said) ease to shift to partial fold mechanism. Also the bigger the voice the bigger the difference in mass between the vocal body and the cover (that apparently only vibrates in pure falsetto) and this is also a factor.
        I read that earlier Pavarotti gradually switched to partial fold mechanism to have easier high notes, the same for Tito Schipa. Pavarotti later abandoned this in favor of the mixed full fold mechanism.
        Is there an inbetween with partially shortened vibrating tract? Because there can be a smooth transition, see Geoff Tate (baritone), apparently.

  • gera

    hello!
    im bass, can i train to develop a “female” sound? (i dont know if i could call it “countertenor” because i am totally not a tenor, either baritone haha)

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  • Schoeman Smit

    Wow what a wonderful article . I’m a Countertenor from South Africa here in my country our voicetype is not heard very much and of course because we can find very few teachers train us properly . I’m one of the lucky ons your article make it easier for research

  • Allan McPherson

    Ian,

    I concur. This is an excellent article. I am a music teacher and an aspiring countertenor. This really helped to clarify some of the things I’ve read before.

    I wonder if you’ve ever thought about writing a book on the subject of training the countertenor voice. It seems like the most treatment I’ve ever been able to find (such as in Richard Miller’s The Structure of Singing) is a brief mention, basically acknowledging that we exist and that we are not freaks.

    • http://www.ianhowellcountertenor.com Ian Howell

      Dear Allan,
      I am so glad that this article was helpful. I think that eventually I would like to expand this topic into a book, most likely with a medical doctor’s research help. In addition to the Miller, Peter Giles is the only person currently published on the topic. For my taste his approach is geared towards creating cathdral choir altos (and it is overly muddled in pseudo accurate science and metaphor).
      I will continue to work out my thoughts on this blog, so stay tuned!
      ~Ian

  • http://www.karenrclark.com Karen Clark

    Well said, Ian. This is a very well-written apt description of the functioning of the voice. I especially appreciate your widening the field of possibilities / options for the human voice.
    Bravo! Indeed.
    Thanks you and Congratulations.

  • Robert Lee

    Thanks, Ian. I’m always struggling with partial fold singing in that transitional range between B3 and Eb4 – specifically, making it speak enough down there as I sing higher more naturally. This helped me understand the physiognomy a bit better.

    • http://www.ianhowellcountertenor.com Ian Howell

      Dear Robert,
      I’m so glad that this is helpful!

      ~Ian

  • Janice

    Thanks, Ian. I think I understood a lot of it. You are a good writer.

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