The topic of vocal ‘cross-training’ remains somewhat controversial within the music and theatre worlds (though far less so today than even a decade ago). Frankly, this should not be the case. While cross-training is sometimes defined as simply ‘singing different styles of music’, there is a much broader, interdisciplinary definition that frequently applies:
cross-training – exercising muscles differently than how they are normally used in order to promote optimal performance levels and mitigate against injuries.
Again, this should not be a foreign concept to performers and teachers today. Professional athletes cross-train different muscles in their bodies all the time, and singers are vocal athletes. To that end, musical theatre actors and actresses are more like triathletes– those who do several sports at once– rather than those who do just one. Among other reasons, this is because the vocal folds are primarily driven by two sets of laryngeal muscles: the thyroarytenoids (TA) and the cricothyroids (CT). In order to produce marketable vocal sounds for specific styles, musical theatre performers must stretch and utilize these muscles in various ways. This makes them unique from many other types of performers. Musical theatre singer-actors are truly vocal chameleons who must adapt to the technical and stylistic demands placed on them for each role they’re cast in.
When singing in TA-muscle dominant production (sometimes called ‘chest register’, ‘belt’, or ‘chest-mix’), the vocal folds become thick and short, the full fold length vibrates, and they remain firmly touching for a longer period of time. When singing in CT-muscle dominant production (sometimes called ‘head register’, ‘head-mix’, or ‘falsetto’ for men), the vocal folds become thin and stretched, only the upper fold edges vibrate, and they remain touching for a shorter period of time. CT-dominant production generally requires more air-flow than TA-dominant production due to a greater amount of air escaping through the folds (the latter can typically be characterized as high pressure + low flow).
This delicate balance act between the TA and CT laryngeal muscles has a massive effect on the voice overall. Hence, a female soprano who has never belted a day in her life often cannot just wake up one day and decide to do so. In most cases, that singer’s voice would tire very quickly due to having not built up the proper laryngeal muscle strength, flexibility, and co-ordination for such a specific, high-endurance vocal behavior. Now, with the right teacher, a singer could certainly learn to belt healthily. However, just like weight-lifting, vocal cross-training takes time and dedication. We are talking about anatomical musculature here– it’s not just a matter of ‘placing’ the sound differently. The same goes for vice versa: a belter who has never sung in ‘head voice’ would need to develop the proper muscular strength and co-ordination to do so. Either way, this can be a very drawn out and involved process.
The above information is a long way of getting to the main point of this post. Below, I have compiled contrasting performance examples of six female Broadway vocalists. In each of these examples, the actresses are singing with different laryngeal muscle configurations. Yes, they are singing in different styles, but it goes beyond that. In order to sing these contrasting styles in marketable ways, these actresses have clearly strengthened and developed both sets of laryngeal muscles through various exercises and techniques. It’s not magic– it’s pure dedication to cross-training on their part (and on the part of their teachers). These women are high-level vocal athletes.
P.S. Need help finding appropriate musical theatre songs to sing? Check out my professional repertoire guides here.
1. JESSIE MUELLER (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Waitress, Carousel)
Legit/Head Voice/Head-Mix Example: “Mister Snow” from Carousel
Belt/Chest Voice/Chest-Mix Example: “Beautiful” from Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
2. SAMANTHA MASSELL (Fiddler on the Roof, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Aladdin)
Legit/Head Voice/Head-Mix Example: “A Place Called Home” from A Christmas Carol
Belt/Chest Voice/Chest-Mix Example: “But the World Goes Round” from New York, New York
3. LAURA OSNES (Bonnie & Clyde, Cinderella, Anything Goes)
Legit/Head Voice/Head-Mix Example: “If I Loved You” from Carousel
Belt/Chest Voice/Chest-Mix Example: “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad” from Bonnie & Clyde
4. KATE BALDWIN (Big Fish, Wonderful Town, Finian’s Rainbow)
Legit/Head Voice/Head-Mix Example: “Bill” from Show Boat
Belt/Chest Voice/Chest-Mix Example: “Country Bird” from Songbird
5. ASHLEY BROWN (Mary Poppins, Beauty and the Beast, The Sound of Music)
Legit/Head Voice/Head-Mix Example: “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music
Belt/Chest Voice/Chest-Mix Example: “A Change in Me” from Beauty and the Beast
6. SIERRA BOGGESS (Phantom of the Opera, The Little Mermaid, School of Rock)
Legit/Head Voice/Head-Mix Example: “Think of Me” from The Phantom of the Opera
Belt/Chest Voice/Chest-Mix Example: “I Don’t Care” from The Good Old Summertime
I LOVE these women and agree…but dude…..really? No women of color? Boo.
Dear Vasthy, thank you for your comment here. These six actresses were chosen simply because I felt they provided the best vocal examples for the topic at hand. I did not stop to think about the lack of diversity among the small group chosen, and that is, of course, on me. I will certainly be more considering of this fact in the future, and I thank you again for the feedback. – Kevin
A great read! Would this apply to someone who primarily sings in CT dominant music? Like would an operatic soprano benefit from exercising her TA muscles with a few warm ups thrown into her practice? Or would it weaken or confuse her muscles when singing opera? My fear would be that getting into a habit of singing with a more TA dominant style would weaken the strength of the CT muscles as a soprano descends down, which sopranos tend to work hard at strengthening the head voice abilities in their middle voices (creating a head dominant mix as opposed to chest dominant mix.)
Thank you for your comment, Evy. The answer to that question is a bit complicated because there has not been substantial research done to address that particular topic. What I will say is that both ‘head voice’ and ‘chest voice’ utilize the CT and TA muscles to varying degrees. Thus, even when operatic sopranos sing with CT-dominant production, the TA muscles still activate and stretch somewhat. This means there are potential benefits to strengthening the TA muscles through ‘chest voice’ exercises for those singers as well. Ultimately, it’s about balance. A voice with too much CT-muscle involvement will be limited in terms of what it can achieve in performances. For example, lower and mid-range notes will often be weaker and ‘dull’ sounding in those voices. Voices with too much TA-muscle involvement can be problematic as well.
A good analogy is to think about the close relationship between the biceps and triceps. While it is possible to primarily target one of those of muscles during workouts, BOTH should ultimately be strengthened and conditioned for optimal, overall strength and flexibility. You are correct that it is possible to overdo things either way. Every singer has different technical goals and needs. Here is another blog post about this topic from my colleague Matt Edwards: https://edwardsvoice.wordpress.com/2017/05/29/mix-it-up-monday-the-benefits-of-using-chest-register-when-training-sopranos/
Thanks for the reply and the article Kevin! Really interesting stuff and you’re right that we have to consider what a singer’s goal is. I guess an opera soprano wouldn’t want to push it too far playing around with her chest mix while a musical theater soprano may want to explore her TA abilities to broaden her role options. I like the analogy of biceps/triceps. If all parts are strong and flexible then in theory the voice should be balanced. Enjoying all these articles!
Reblogged this on biblebeltsite and commented:
This is the best. I had no idea that this fabntastic blog was on wordpress.
Thank you for this! It’s so striking to actually see/hear the difference. I work at Cornish College in Seattle, and will send this article to our private voice teachers, as I’ve no doubt they teach this. My question though is off the path a bit. A friend of mine and I were discussing how this possibly could correlate into ‘rock’ music and if SOME singers have employed any of this technique. One name that kept coming up was Steve Perry. I think he’s classified as a tenor, and would he have truly ‘belted’ those highest notes he’d sing? Probably not the right forum here and maybe you can point me to the right person – so very curious now! Thank you for this article, I learned so much!!
where is audra 8tony’s all your selections are great
I really love audra …..but she can’t do a proper high belting (chest dominant mix) …….. she always used a kind of legit technic .. head voice… she doesn’t be a good example for this article…….
Might also be interesting to look at the way vocal training and talents age, eg Christine Ebersole who still sounds like she did in her 30s.
I believe that if you have a good teacher that shows you how to breathe correctly, then you can maintain the voice for many years. The daily warm-up is essential.
I’ve spent a small fortune on vocal exercise recourses over the years. Lots of my students struggle with their mix and switching between chest and head mid song (or falsetto guys). My ‘break’ is audible and I show it to them as reassurance that most singers (including females) have this ‘yodel’ and it’s all about controlling it. But I would love any suggestions you have for interesting exercises as even the best ones become stale in time. Thx.
I am actually a composer. You will need Kevin, or perhaps another teacher of voice to answer that question.
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