Chest Voice, Head Voice, WTF?!
Without a doubt, the most common vocal issue that singers come to my studio with is the desire to extend their range. Usually the difficulty is in accessing higher notes, but not always.
Over time it has become clear to me that the root of this issue isn't entirely to do with the way a person is using their muscles or their breath. Of course on many occasions there is a physical reason as to why a singer doesn't have control over their whole range, however more often than not, it is a person's conceptual understanding of how their voice is supposed to feel that gets in their way of smashing those high notes. One of the most common manifestations of this that I see is through the interpretation of the terms 'Head Voice' and Chest Voice.'
Before I launch into this in more detail, let me be clear. I have absolutely nothing against these terms. I have used them, taught people them, and at times found them helpful as a singer myself. You may well hear me use them in a lesson or in a video at some point. However, if you have ever trained with me you will probably have noticed that I am very careful when using these terms, and this is why.
N.B. For the sake of this article I will risk a bit of oversimplification. The term 'Chest Voice' is usually referring to the lower part of your range, and Head Voice is usually referring to the higher bit.
- In the voice training world, there is absolutely no consensus when it comes to terminology. Read that sentence again. Say it out loud, or even write it down. I honestly can't stress it enough. The voice is so ridiculously complex that even the experts disagree when discussing how it all works. When it comes to Vocal Coaches and Singing Teachers there are a myriad of schools of thought. There is Speech Level Singing, The Estill Model, Bel Canto, Complete Vocal Technique and SO many more. Within these schools of thought there are differing concepts, ideals, and terminology. Sometimes they refer to the same principles but use different language to describe them, but sometimes they just completely contradict each other. Anyone who claims to 'know how it all works' is either one of the top vocal scientists in the world, or wildly overestimating their knowledge.
- The terms 'chest voice' and 'head voice' are descriptive and therefore invite interpretation. Lets talk common sense for a second. We have one voice, and it 'comes from' our larynx. It doesn't come from our chest. Ever. Nor does it come from our head (or our diaphragm- but don't get me started on that one.) These terms are supposed to describe where most people feel sympathetic resonance when singing in a particular part of their range. However, we all experience sensation in our bodies differently so this is not always a good guide. I've worked with many vocalists who are already singing in their chest or head voice, but who are baffled when I ask if they can feel the sympathetic resonance in their chest or head. More often than not, this completely throws them off and they then spend the next few months trying to 'put it in their chest' despite the fact they were singing brilliantly to begin with. Ugh.
- Low notes and high notes do not feel the same. Most people feel pretty comfortable in their chest voice and find it easy to get a decent amount of volume there. However when it comes to singing higher notes, many people feel a sense of strain and discomfort. Some singers even experience a 'break' where they lose control of their voice and end up stuck in a much lighter set up. (There are many reasons for this but that's a whole separate blog topic.) This is one of the most common issues that I help singers with. On finally overcoming this difficulty, one particular singer exclaimed to me "I thought it was all meant to feel the same!" When I asked what he meant he explained that he had been trying to pull the sensation of the lower notes upwards into his higher register in order to make it sound and feel the same. I will tell you this now to save you some time. This will NEVER work. Freddie Mercury's high notes might sound equally as powerful as his lower notes, but this doesn't mean that they all felt the same to him, or that they were all in his chest voice.
- Head Voice by definition is NOT weak or quiet. I can't tell you how often singers will say variations of these sentences to me. "Am I allowed to sing that in my head voice?" Or "But isn't it cheating to use head voice?" and even "I want to sing a high C in my chest voice." All of these sentences prove to me that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of these terms. In fact as someone who has been training their voice for some years, my upper register or 'head voice' is way stronger, louder and more resonant than my chest voice. I absolutely LOVE singing up there. This hasn't always been the case, so I do understand where the authors of the above sentences are coming from. However if your 'Head Voice' feels weak, there is probably something wrong with your current strategy for singing high notes.
More often than not, difficulties with singing are caused by people asking their voice to do things that just aren't humanly possible. At the risk of being a tad over the top, imagine trying to smell things by using your elbow… Its just never going to happen. My aim as a Vocal Coach is to guide singers towards powerful, flexible and stylistically relevant singing and I am finding more and more that terminology confusion is getting in the way of that.