Countertenor Technique: An Introduction to Concepts

Mamma Said There'd be Days Like This

Mamma Said There’d be Days Like This

Note: Throughout this article the designation C4 is used to indicate middle C. D4 is a whole step higher, B3 a half step lower, C3 and C5 an octave lower and higher respectively. Serious voice scientists/pedagogues might be slightly annoyed by my over-simplification of some of the muscular actions of the voice. My intent with this article is to introduce some large concepts that might begin to change people’s thinking about what the human voice is capable of – without overwhemling them with information.

***Update July 5th, 2011: After you read this article, read Vocal Technique: The Flex for a step by step introduction to a specific exercise that is particularly useful for countertenors.***

Is countertenor technique different from standard classical vocal technique? Should a countertenor train like a male or female voice, and what pedagogical approach and conceptual model best elicits a healthy countertenor sound? Is a countertenor merely the intersection of gender and tessitura, or is there something specific to the technical approach and musical context that limits the definition? 

Dr. Peter Hennen’s article, Nature’s Way: Vocal Production in Social Context (which we published in February) raises the interesting idea that gender association with specific sung pitch ranges is both an historically recent construct and a pervasive normative lens through which we subconsciously find our place in the musical world. In other words, there are basic assumptions that we have inherited with respect to what an appropriate singing range for a man is. These assumptions are so entrenched that we could live our entire lives influenced by them without ever challenging their validity.

So widespread are these cultural norms that many of the best and brightest pedagogues and researchers of vocal science similarly do not question the basic assumption that men should sing lower and women higher tessiture. The manner in which a classically trained tenor, baritone, or bass phonates in the alto range is often presented as the only manner in which such pitches could be sung. Countertenors (especially the good ones) have been, for a long time, treated as abnormal, unique, and otherwise ‘outside’ mainstream thought on vocal pedagogy. It is easier to defend a system that ought to preclude the existence of countertenors by labeling them as somehow ‘special.’ I would strongly argue, however, that while certain men may be more or less genetically predisposed to succeed as a countertenor, the technique is fundamentally based on sound concepts that can be learned and adopted by most any male singer.

Let us broaden the question to “what is a soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone, or bass?” Or to put it another way, what defines someone as a “classical singer,” and how do they pick which part to sing? Certainly there is a physiological component. The inherent mass, dimensions, and flexibility of the vocal folds and their surrounding musculature do have a direct impact on a singer’s range and tessitura. However, a singer’s choice to train in a specific manner is perhaps paramount to their inherent physiology. The same human voice could be trained to sing in a variety of styles (Broadway belt, pop, thrash metal, choral, operatic, tuvan overtone throat singing, Bulgarian folk belt, etc…). We are not inherently made to sing in one way, but each style does require a slightly different physical approach. Excellence in one style often requires closing off other physiological possibilities. The fact that one woman may sing as a soprano and another as a mezzo is based primarily on genetics, but assumes that the singer has chosen to train for a style of singing that makes such distinctions.

Stretch it…

The human vocal mechanism is a remarkably complicated thing, allowing for a wide variety of sung and spoken timbres throughout a large frequency range. Any sound made by the human voice is the result of many muscle groups acting in a coordinated manner, and I will be the first to admit that the description that follows is a simplistic overview meant to introduce concepts without overwhelming the reader. How (or whether) we apply this information to vocal pedagogy is a separate topic for another day.

I believe that today’s classical singers use an Optimally Antagonistic Vocal Technique (TM). The human body is able to move by use of a muscular system comprised of – in the most basic sense – pairs of opposing muscles. Your biceps, for example, lift your forearm. The triceps, however, are required to perform the opposite action. You can engage (shorten) the biceps with anywhere from no resistance to a prohibitive amount of resistance from the triceps; they act as an antagonistic pair.  This grouping of muscles into antagonistic pairs is found throughout the body, including the muscles of the larynx itself. The vocal folds are a part of (some say a portion of the outer surface of, some suggest they are unique structures… whatever) the Thyroarytenoid muscles (TA).

vocalfolds

The TA muscles originate at the front of the larynx (at the inner surface of the thyroid cartilage – a fixed structure) and insert at the back of the larynx (into the Arytenoid cartilage – a mobile structure). That means that when the TA muscles contract, the vocal folds are made shorter and thicker as the posterior (back) end of the TA is pulled forward. The Cricothyroids (CT) act antagonistically against the action of the TAs, lengthening the TAs (and thus the vocal folds) by pulling back. The CT muscles also slightly change the orientation of the thyroid cartilage to the cricoid cartilage, providing even more of a vocal fold stretch.

Optimal Tone Quality = Optimal Vocal Fold Mass for the Given Frequency

Here is where the process gets interesting. The TAs want to make the vocal folds short and thick while the CTs want to make them long and thin. Shorter and thicker vocal folds are better able to vibrate low frequency pitches as more of the vibrating muscle’s mass is involved. Longer and thinner vocal folds are better able to vibrate high frequency pitches for the opposite reason. Without the balanced antagonistic effort of the opposing muscles, however, both actions would lack sufficient tension to produce an efficient, loud, and pleasing sound. Think of a guitar string: If the tension is too low, the sound is loose and inefficient. Likewise, in an Optimally Antagonistic Vocal Technique there is always an element of the opposing muscle group involved regardless of whether the vocal folds are long and thin or short and thick. This added tension keeps the vocal folds taut, allowing them to form a tight and efficient seal when they approximate (come together) and touch as they vibrate – this touching of the folds occurs hundreds of times per second (faster as pitch frequency increases). The relationship of dominance between these muscles determines the specific length and consistency of the vocal folds, thereby directly affecting their mass. Were one to hold this antagonistic relationship in a static proportion, their functional singing range would be quite small. As pitch frequency increases (higher notes), the TAs must cede dominance to the CTs and vice versa. For every pitch there is an optimal balance between these two muscle groups. There are also sub-optimal balance choices that are sometimes quite expressive and musically useful.

A singer, however, has very little active control over these muscles and the efficient balance between the TAs and CTs is primarily the result of an indirect technical approach. I introduce this manner of thinking to illustrate one of the major impediments to countertenor singing, innocently wrapped up into the language of our current vocal pedagogy: The thought that the male chest voice is strong and head voice (or falsetto) is weak. If that basic assumption underlies the indirect approach taken, the result will be exactly that. The chest voice will exhibit an optimal CT/TA balance while the head voice will not. Strong and weak are, to a large degree, measures of the efficient management of the mass and tension of the vocal folds, not qualities necessarily tied to vocal registers. I think that Dr. Hennen’s research would bear out the statement that a women’s ability to more easily bridge the gap between chest and head voice is due, at least in part, to a lack of shame felt at making a “culturally feminine” sound. It is interesting to note that a higher percentage of countertenors are gay than the ratio of gay men to the general population. I suspect that research will eventually show that there is an element of the way that gay men relate to our current gender norms that gives them the freedom (permission?) to experiment with making non-gender appropriate sounds. In other words, there is nothing physiological that links gay men to the countertenor voice, it is just that more of them try in the first place.

But What is a Vocal Register?

Much of the language of our vocal pedagogy comes from the time before invasive scientific tools. It was as recently as 1854 that Manuel Garcia first viewed the vocal folds (his own, actually) in action with the use of a dentist’s mirror. By that point, words like chest, head, mixed voice, and falsetto (terms generally based on the location of the sensation of sympathetic vibrations) were so ingrained in the minds of 19th century voice teachers that the new information revealed by this direct scientific observation was made to conform to that basic conceptual system. Don’t get me wrong, those words – paired with examples from a good teacher – generally work to educate standard voice types. The number of great singers today attests to that fact. However, I would suggest that each of those words actually describes the intersection of two phenomena: The balance of dominance between the TA and CT muscles, and the vibratory state of the vocal folds (the ‘register’ if you like).

There are four basic ways that a singer can vibrate their vocal folds. Each of these vibratory states allows for a wide frequency range of sung pitches without changing the basic organization of the CT, TA, and surrounding muscles. From the lowest to the highest frequency pitch ranges these are the fry, full fold (my term), partial fold (my term), and whistle (generally only women). I use the term partial fold to describe what is ambiguously called head voice or falsetto (in women’s voices the phrase ‘middle voice’ is often thrown around as well), as the term indicates the physical state of the vocal folds and carries no indication of intensity or efficiency. As interesting as the fry and whistle registers are, they are not particularly relevant to the countertenor voice. (If you would like to read more about them, there are decent articles on Wikipedia: Fry & Whistle).

Partial Fold Vibratory State

Partial Fold Vibratory State (a countertenor voice in action). Note how taught and parallel the folds are.

 

The vibration of the full length of the vocal folds, as you might guess, characterizes the full fold vibratory state. This is the vibratory state that most of us use when we speak. It is most generally called chest voice, modal voice, or in a hideous display of prejudice through word choice, normal. In both men’s and women’s voices this vibratory state can be optimally used up to about E4 or F4  (above middle C). Some schools of thought separate this shift-point of efficiency by voice type, but that is a good approximation. To efficiently sing higher frequency pitches, classical singers (Optimally Antagonistic!) switch to a second vibratory state: the partial fold. This is accomplished by means of a few observed mechanisms. Generally, muscles either come together to close off (adduct) a portion of the back of the vocal folds (see photo above), or the back of the folds are held apart, again leaving only the less massive front portion of the folds vibrating. The second option is observed in female singers in particular. Whatever the mechanism, the result is that the now shorter vibrating portion of the folds is able to vibrate much faster (higher pitches) than the more massive full length of fold. The degree of shortening of the length of vibrating fold also changes to accommodate higher and lower frequency pitches. The balance between the CT and TA muscles is still very much in play in this vibratory state, creating a multi-variable environment for eliciting the most optimal length of fold and degree of CT/TA dominance. (Actually, it is even more complex than that: There is the additional variable of the depth of the vibrating surface of the folds. The full fold vibratory state tends to elicit the greatest depth (called vertical phase) which results in a rich and loud sound. Vertical phase decreases in the partial fold vibratory state, though in most male voices it decreases far more significantly than is physiologically necessary.)  If you want to experience the difference between these vibratory states, try this simple exercise. Sing a crescendo and decrescendo over several counts (a messa di voce) on a G4 or A4 in your full (chest) and an Eb4 in your partial (head) vibratory states. Play around with crescendoing until the action fails and you have a yodel-esque break. The voice will switch vibratory states in an attempt to let you continue vibrating on that frequency without hurting yourself.

Obviously E4/F4 is just an approximate optimal pivot point for switching vibratory states (registers), not a hard wall. The balance of CT/TA dominance appears to be similar enough at this pitch frequency that a trained singer can switch vibratory states without much of the yodel flip. This is one of the wonders of – and from the perspective of a pedagogue, somewhat annoying qualities of  – the human voice: It is amazingly tolerant of inefficient use and will function expressively right up to the point that it catastrophically fails. One can sing super-optimal frequencies with a full fold (think a dramatically loud high Bb for an operatic tenor or G for a baritone). The opposite is also true: one can sing pitches below F4 on a partial length of vocal fold. In each of those cases, the CT/TA dominance is dissimilar enough that it is difficult to fluidly switch vibratory states mid-phrase. The implication of this for countertenors is very interesting and illuminating of the typical short comings of the voice-type. It is generally accepted that countertenors sing the range from B3-E4 in a sub-optimal manner, which is to say they sing on a less massive, partial length of vocal fold. If one is taught to believe that an optimally antagonistic relationship between the CT and TA muscles only exists in a full fold vibratory state (chest voice), it will be tough to make the partial folds vibrate with the CT/TA balance necessary to create a loud, clear, and consistent sound. Some countertenors are able to sing as low as a G3 on a partial length of fold (Andreas Scholl and I come to mind). Others have to figure out how to switch back and forth between a full and partial vibratory state at what is a sub-optimal frequency for the change. This is easier when the low pitch is isolated – a note that you can pop down to (L’empi-o, slea-le, indegno); it is much more difficult as a part of a legato line, or in the midst of step-wise coloratura. I would suggest that all countertenors experiment with building a more optimally antagonistic action into this lower partial fold range. It will save both singer and audience members the struggle of constant gear changes.

Right… But How Do You Sing So High?

As challenging as the lower end of the male alto range is to master, what most people remember is how high a countertenor can sing. There is nothing particularly interesting about how we do this, as the mechanism is very similar to how women sing in the same range. In an optimally used partial fold vibratory state, as pitch frequency increases, the vibrating portion of the vocal folds further shorten. There is a drop off in the air pressure required that corresponds with this phenomenon, and countertenors would be wise to learn to incorporate this. (Do not confuse this shortening with a release of the CT/TA antagonism. The CTs are often pulling quite hard in this range.) Empirical evidence suggests that these shortenings take place around Bb4/B4 and E5/F5. Many countertenors ‘top out’ at one of these frequencies, or just beyond. Some singers are limited by the mass of their folds – no matter what, they will not be able to optimally vibrate higher frequency pitches. Others could increase their range by fixing inefficiencies in their technique. Some countertenors are able to sing remarkably high frequency pitches (C6 and beyond). My theory on these men (having sung with several of them in Chanticleer) is that their vocal folds are simply significantly less massive than the average tenor or bass’. Their speaking voices tend to be higher in pitch, and their full fold singing voices tend to have a lower frequency pitch limit similar to a female’s. Other countertenors are able to sing very high frequency pitches early in their careers, but they slowly lose that range over time. This is caused by two aspects of the aging process: 1) The human larynx doesn’t fully mature until the mid 30s, and 2) later in life the CTs are eventually unable to pull hard enough to vibrate that fast. Parts of the voice can burn out over time, especially (but not necessarily) if the singer’s technique was sub-optimal.

Conclusion

This is a very simple overview of countertenor technique. Further posts will outline other equally important elements of the technique such as breath energy (I like that word better than support), cultivation of the singer’s formant, the depth (not just length) of the vibrating portion of the vocal folds, and the low laryngeal position needed for the CT and TA muscles to efficiently function.

So, what is a countertenor? I believe that all classical singers strive to accomplish a few basic things, and that to be a countertenor means that you are striving for these things too. In no particular order:

  • The ability (though not the obligation) to make a consistent sound throughout a wide range of pitches
  • An approach capable of producing (though not always obligated to produce) an aesthetically pleasing sound
  • The ability to sing quietly, crescendo, and decrescendo without a change in fundamental tone quality or physiological setup
  • A generally optimally antagonistic approach
  • The amplitude required to be heard over a group of instruments, usually achieved through the cultivation of the singer’s formant, a frequency range between 2800 and 3400 Hz that is generally absent in the spoken voice and the singing voice of untrained singers (and notably the frequency spectrum of an orchestra)
  • X-factor – the result is something that is athletically revelatory of the best in the human spirit. It can be graceful; it can be raw and powerful. It is super-normal by definition.

Of course, there are gradations of this. A man singing alto in a mixed choir, or one who uses a microphone with a new music ensemble may never have to develop the amplitude and associated vibrato necessary to cut over an orchestra. Is this man a countertenor? Certainly choral sopranos are sopranos regardless of whether they ever opt for the most efficient and antagonistic approach available to them. But, every man who sings some pitches in a partial fold vibratory state is not necessarily a countertenor. In such cases, I would ask that we expand our definition of what a male voice is generally capable of to include a strong partial fold vibratory state.

Should a countertenor train like a male singer or like a female singer? There are aspects of both approaches that are worth incorporating into a countertenor-specific pedagogy. As I mentioned above, optimally antagonistic female singers spend a good deal of time utilizing a partial fold vibratory state, and it is useful for countertenors to mimic the manner in which the vibrating portion of their vocal folds further shorten as pitch frequency increases. On the other hand, a countertenor usually has access to a much more massive full fold mechanism than a female singer does. This can be advantageous when trying to get feel for a balanced CT/TA antagonism in the partial fold vibratory state. Exercises can be crafted that elicit this balance with the full folds, immediately sliding up an octave to the partial fold with the goal of preserving the same set up in the new vibratory state. More fully understanding the vocal mechanism in this manner – and critically questioning what we mean when we talk about singing – can lead to an approach that is well crafted specifically for countertenors. Success as a countertenor is no more or less physiologically likely than for any other voice-type, provided we have conceptual models that encourage singers to believe that it is possible.