By Camille van Niekerk
Most students can easily find their chest voice and head voice placement. But where many struggle is in transitioning between the two, resulting in an inconsistent tone quality with noticeable points of weakness, strain, and/or “cracking”. What can we do about this? Read on for some practical tips and application.
Shifting registers within warmups
1. Don’t worry about maintaining a completely consistent tone, and let the warmup do the work for you!
Singing on a lip trill or MUM is a great way to let your voice “shift gears” where it naturally wants to do so, without much conscious effort on your behalf.
2. With arpeggiated patterns, use each interval as an opportunity to “reset” if needed.
In other words, anticipate what your voice wants to do, and determine whether you’ll do what your voice wants or extend past it.
What this looks like practically (for me) is this: let’s say I’m singing an arpeggio on the pitches C4-E4-G4 (1-3-5 in scale degrees, or a major chord). My passaggio (the point at which my voice naturally lightens or “flips” into head voice) is around Eb4-F4. So I have a decision to make on that E4 within the exercise: do I exert a little more vocal effort to stay in chest voice, or do I “lighten” and use more head voice there? If I don’t make that decision, I’m in danger of cracking, as my voice doesn’t know which registration to use for that specific pitch. Planning ahead mitigates the uncertainty of those tricky passaggio notes!
3. Let your tone adjust as the pitch changes.
For low to high patterns, gradually let your voice thin, lighten, or slightly nasalize. For high to low patterns, gradually let your voice get a little heavier or darker. This can help you anticipate using more head function for higher pitches, and more chest function for lower pitches.
4. If it’s impossible for you to lighten your tone on a low to high pattern: start with top-down registration.
It’s typically easier to “add weight” and get back into chest voice from head voice for many beginning singers.
5. For a challenge: slide over your passaggio from a more open vowel (in chest voice) to a more closed vowel (in mix) to train lightening/thinning as you ascend.
For my range, this would look like sliding from C4 to G4, singing on an OH for the C4 and shifting to an OO as I move to the G4.
Shifting registers within songs
1. First, put the song in a key that makes your job easier (if the original key is entirely too high or low for you to sing comfortably).
Look for a track including the terms “higher”, “lower”, “male key”, “alto key”, etc. If you don’t easily find one, you can purchase a customized karaoke track at https://www.karaoke-version.com/mp3-backingtrack/karaoke.html in any key.
2. Plan your registration ahead of time: don’t leave it to chance!
Particularly for notes that cross your passaggio, your voice can easily be “confused”. Use the original artist as a template in planning your registration, but deviate from that as needed for your voice!
3. To train smoother register transitions, remove the lyrics and use warmup syllables that help you find your desired placement. Then, maintain that placement when you return to lyrics.
You might use the syllable WUH or BUH for chest voice, NAY or NO for mix, and HOO or WHEE for head voice.
A real-life example: if you’re learning “Someone You Loved” by Lewis Capaldi, you’ll want to train a quick and smooth transition between chest voice and head voice on the lines “I need somebody to heal, somebody to know, somebody to have”. Those lines use mostly chest voice, but you can hear Lewis switch to head voice for the lyrics “heal”, “know” and “have”. If this is difficult for you, try singing on a strong chest-voice BUH and a light head-voice HOO for those high notes. Once you’ve found your ideal placement, you can return to the lyrics and maintain that placement more easily.
4. Identify problematic consonants or vowels (that cause you to crack) and modify them!
For example, OO and EE are falsetto-friendly vowels, and they'll naturally go to head voice in your upper register unless you keep them more open, with a dropped jaw. Modify any problematic OO vowels to more of an OH, and any problematic EE vowels to more of an IH.
As for troublesome consonants: consider replacing unvoiced consonants with a similar version that is voiced. This helps your vocal folds stay together so you’re less likely to crack. See below for some common “unvoiced to voiced” consonant substitutions, from one of my favorite vocal coaches in Los Angeles, Gerald White (Music 1 on 1 & LA Sightsinger):
5. Know your limits and how much “vocal effort” a specific section will take.
If you’re in a less comfortable range and you know that you’re more likely to crack there, everything has to be on point! Posture, breathing, mouth position, and vowel/consonant modification can all make a huge difference in your tone and ease of production.
Another skill that will help you transition smoothly is the development of mixed coordination. See our blog post on mixing and get an intro to mixed voice here.