Vocal Technique: The Flex

By  | July 5, 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

  • john

    Hi Ian!.I just want to get some advice from you on how to restore my voice cause I think I ruined it.haha.I used to sing from G2-F5 in my chest voice and A5-C6 on my head.but now I can only sing from G3-B4 In my chest and C5-A5 on my head.please ian need some tips..

  • Joe Zainul

    Hi Ian,
    I have been trained as a tenor for almost 3 years but now I am switching to Countertenor after discussing with my vocal teacher. I’m currently taking up postgraduate studies in vocal performance in one of the conservatoires in the UK.
    When I was singing as a tenor, I was able to sing up to E6/F6 (with the assumption that a tenor High C is at C6). Thus, I felt comfortable singing arias by Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini.

    At the moment, I am learning Gluck’s Orphee et Euridice aria – J’ai perdu mon Euridice (in my Countertenor voice) and although I am able to reach the F5 in that aria but I feel strain especially in my upper palate. Is this due to incorrect technique as singing in my Countertenor voice is still something new for me? Is that a normal limit range for Countertenors? I know that building up the range takes time. Hope you are able to advice me on this. Thank you very much.

  • Julien Pajot

    Hi Ian, writing from Spain! I’ve just started to sing in a choir (with 28 years old it is never too late, isn’t it?), as a bass (bass bass). But from the age of 17 I’ve started to sing, as a total amateur obviously, in the range of countertenor, never forced on the voice or tried to accomplish foolish high notes. 
    I feel almost as comfortable as in my bass register, but I need more “warm up” to obtain a clear, good quality sound. Is it normal, am I stretching to hard? For some reason the D5 is the max I can obtain without forcing… The E5 seems out of question, and under A3 it is just a mess between head and chest voice :(
    Any recommendations or specific exercises would be welcomed :)

    Thank you

  • Justin

    Ian,

    You are an Angel to all Ctenors!

  • Jameskaplan70

    Herllo Ian, thanks a lot for this. I can really feel the fullness of lower notes after singing what you recommened. I’m also working on the other exc you recommended; it really helped with my support. But do you have any advice for me to remove breathiness when singing countertenor.? my voice tends to get airy…any advice? I notice that the airiness decreases after doing the flex and some other similar exc all gliding from chest to head in an even manner…but still, any advice? Thanks..

    • Anonymous

      Good morning James,
      Congrats on the success that you are having by working on these exercises!

      Breathiness in tone is an interesting issue.  The reason that it happens is that the folds are not closing well for the closed portion of the vibration cycle (our sound is caused by the rapid opening and closing of the vocal folds), so air is continually able to escape.  It can be caused by several things:
      1) weakness in the muscles that bring the folds together
      2) an excess of airflow, which holds the folds apart by force
      3) a pronounced glottal glottal ‘chink’ due to underdevelopment (problematic for some teenagers)
      4) a pathology of some sort (nodule, cyst) that is preventing good vocal fold closure.  

      If you are able to get good closure in your chest voice, your issue is likely not 4.  

      I would suggest approaching the issue from opposite ends.  

      First, sing 5-4-3-2-1 in head voice on ‘oh’ with a weak and breathy tone – conscious of continually and effortlessly exhaling – throughout a reasonable range (starting on G4, ascending to starting on D5).  The point of this is to offer little resistance to the airflow from the folds, which will tell you two things:  1) are you forcing too much air past the folds, and 2) are your cricothyroid muscles strong enough to stretch out the folds without the help of extrinsic muscles?  If the answer is no, work on the Stemple Vocal Function exercises that can be found on this blog. 

      Second, sing 1-2-3-2-1- on ‘eeee’  starting on B3, ascending to F4 or F#4, similarly aware of a continuous and effortless exhalation. If your abs are forcefully contracting, or you are actively trying to push up with your diaphragm, you are working too hard. The ‘eeee’ vowel [i] is very effective at getting the folds to close well.  Once that vowel feels clear and connected to an effortless exhale, sing the exercise on other vowels while “setting” 1 with [i] first.  ex.  [i] 1 ….. [a] 1-2-3-2-1

      Let me know how it goes,

      ~Ian

  • Nick

    Hi There! I hope it isn’t too late to get a response…
    Ian, I’m a fifteen year old in high school. I am usually singing bass in choir, but I have an amazingly large range. I can sing songs that well-known counter-tenors have sung (among lesser known), but my Choir teacher says that I should not sing countertenor because, ‘my voice is not fully developed, and if I attempt to sing countertenor prior to my mid-twenties’ it will ‘ruin my voice’. I wanted an opinion on this, because I really do like singing up there. My friend, a very talented soprano, has told me that I sound amazing when I sing high, and so I’m just wondering if it is bad for my voice.

    As another question, I note that my falsetto (which isn’t weak, but it is powerful) almost has multiple… areas(?) to it? I have my regular voice, then falsetto, and then another part to my falsetto that feels as if there is another break, almost. In that second ‘break’ range I can sing E6 and such around there (though I can’t seem to physically pass that E.) Anyway, there are certain areas within those falsettos (mostly where I feel that second break is) that just decide to not work. I’m not entirely sure why they don’t, and I’m wondering if you might offer some advice to strengthen that area of my voice. Thanks, Nick!

    • Anonymous

      Hi Nick,
      How nice to hear from you.  I’m impressed that a 15 year old is taking the time to read technical articles like this!  Good for you :-) .

      The sad fact is that without hearing you sing, there is no way to know whether you are using your mechanism in a healthy or damaging manner.  The human voice is very good at functioning in poor conditions, right up to the point that it fails.  Being so young, your voice will take a lot of abuse and still work.  This makes the fact that you sound amazing and powerful mean very little; maybe you sound amazing and powerful in spite of the fact that you are shredding your folds :-)

      Frustrating, I know.  

      If you like, I could give you a 10 minute skype consult for free.  I’m always curious to hear voices.

      Regarding your second question, it is possible that your voice is physically too immature to function smoothly through the transitions that most people call registers.  There are muscles that do not finish developing until you are older (your young female colleagues’ likely breathy sound is due to such an issue, called the glottal ‘chink.’)  My voice didn’t feel settled until my 30s (although I was well into a performing career by then!) It is also possible that you have a poor technique that functions acceptably in certain frequency ranges, but fails in others.  

      So…  again, it is hard to know without hearing you :-)

      Go to the contact button in the blog menu, and send me a private message to set up a time. 

      Take care,

      Ian

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  • matt

    Hi Ian,

    I ‘m a 17 year old in highschool. I have a typical baritone range, but when I go into my head voice I completely soar. In my head voice I’m more powerful, more comfortable, and in tune(unlike when i’m in my chest voice). Does this mean i could possibly be a countertenor or just a baritone with a pretty head voice?

    • Todd Kendall Gregory

      Matt – I know Ian hasn’t replied yet, but I wanted to share my perspective as it seems relevant. I spent decades singing tenor and struggling. My tenor sound (in modal voice) was often out of tune and raspy. When I started singing countertenor, I discovered that my upper registers had distinction and presence that my tenor singing lacked. These seem good indications of a future as a countertenor. Good luck!

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

        Hi Matt (and Todd),
        I would definitely encourage you to continue working in your countertenor range. I think that we all have human voices, and that working the full range of our vocal muscles only improves whatever range we choose to sing in!

        If you do decide to pursue singing as a countertenor more full time, just don’t let any of your teachers discourage you from working on your Baritone range. There is too much good that can come from that part of your voice, especially in terms of strengthening the muscles that engage when you sing as a countertenor.

        Good luck, and keep us posted!
        ~Ian

        • matt

          Hi Ian,
          thanks for the encouragement! you are the only person encouraging about my counter tenor range. my choir teacher is completely against me exploring that part of my range. she keeps confusing me and telling me that its not physically possible for me to be a countertenor unless i can chest the notes i can hit in my headvoice. is that true?
          ~matt

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

            Hi Matt,
            I’m a little confused about the terminology that you are passing on from your choir director. The words “chest” and “head” voice describe, I think, the intersection of a few muscular choices, notably the balance of antagonism between the cricothyroid and thyroarytenoid muscles, and the vibrating length (and therefor mass) of the folds. If your teacher means that you can’t be a countertenor without singing higher pitches is a head voice with the “chest voice” quality of the CT/TA antagonism, they are possibly correct. If they mean that you have to be able to sing in your countertenor range with the same vibratory state used in the chest voice, I think they are wrong. :-) .

            But what they mean with their words is important. Can you listen to recordings of good countertenors with them and talk about how you think they are making the sound?

            ~Ian

          • matt

            Sorry! let me reword that hahaha! my teacher told me that i can’t be a counter tenor. she told me the notes i can hit with my pf mechanism, i should be able to hit them with my full fold mechanism. if i can’t do that then i’m not going to be able to be a countertenor. sorry for the mix up in words. ~matt

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

            Well… Matt, I’m not going to say that your teacher is wrong, since I’m not chatting with your teacher here, but the information you are providing is incorrect. :-) If that is because you are not understanding their point…? have you read my article on the fundamental concepts of a countertenor technique? http://blog.counterpointspublishing.com/2011/04/countertenor-technique-an-introduction-to-concepts/

            Be well,
            Ian

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  • Todd Kendall Gregory

    As both a countertenor vocalist and coach, this is *exactly* the kind of article that is most helpful to me. Thanks for the detail and the clarity, and especially the notes for the coach, Ian.

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