Welcome to the first installment of ‘ASK MTR’. In this series, readers can ask MTR founder Kevin Michael Jones any pressing questions they have about voice training, vocal styles, repertoire, and more. Use this contact form to ask a question.
Q: “I’m a classically-trained soprano. Will ‘chest voice’ exercises hurt my high notes?”
A: I love this question! Providing a firm answer here is a bit complicated because there are many factors to consider. First, it is important to acknowledge that practically any vocal behavior can be harmful if done incorrectly for long enough. That said, working on ‘chest voice’ as a soprano is not inherently dangerous or destructive to a portion of one’s range. In fact, it can be quite helpful for the singer’s overall vocal development. You see, the vocal folds are primarily driven by two sets of laryngeal muscles: the cricothyroids (CT) and the thyroarytenoids (TA). Here is why that fact is extremely important in the context of this discussion:
- When singing in TA-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-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.
In practice, both ‘head voice’– AKA cricothyroid-dominant production– and ‘chest voice’– AKA thyroarytenoid-dominant production– actually utilize the CT and TA laryngeal muscles to varying degrees. Thus, even when an operatic soprano sings with CT-dominant production, the TA muscles still activate and stretch somewhat. This means there are physiological/functional benefits for her to strengthen those muscles through ‘chest voice’ exercises. 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 (ex. lower and mid-range notes will often be weaker and ‘dull’ sounding). On the other side of the spectrum, voices with too much TA-muscle involvement can be problematic as well (think ‘shouty’ mid and high range notes).
Another benefit of working chest voice with sopranos is that it facilitates firm vocal fold closure. This can be especially beneficial for sopranos who are trying to overcome a ‘breathy’ sound in certain areas of their range (NOTE: for some young sopranos, a breathy sound can be partially caused by a ‘mutational chink’). If the vocal folds are not closing properly, the sound will suffer. By assisting with fold closure, ‘chest voice’ exercises can help add brightness and fullness to an otherwise lackluster CT-dominant sound. NOTE: Changes in ‘resonance’/’placement’/vocal tract shaping will only get a singer so far if the underlying laryngeal musculature has not been developed enough to support a desired sound.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, cross-training the voice allows a singer to have options. For example, a director or music director may ask a soprano: “can you give me more volume and strength on those lower notes?” If the TA muscles are weak, that will be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. A good analogy here is to think about the close relationship between the biceps and triceps. While it is possible to primarily target one of those sets of muscles during workouts, BOTH should ultimately be strengthened and conditioned for optimal, overall strength and flexibility. You never know when you might need that extra bit of strength and flexibility. As performers, we should always strive to be prepared for anything that gets thrown at us (to the best of our abilities).
Some additional reading on this subject from around the web:
- Musical Theatre Resources – “Broadway Actresses Who Demonstrate the Importance of Vocal Cross-Training”
- Musical Theatre Resources – “Myths About Musical Theatre Singing Part 2”
- Edwards Voice Blog – “The Benefits of Using Chest Register When Training Sopranos”
- Edwards Voice Blog – “The Benefits of Using Falsetto When Teaching Men”
- Journal of Singing – “Training the Next Generation of Musical Theater Voice Teachers”
- Journal of Singing – “The Necessity of Using Functional Training in the Voice Studio”
- NYSTA VoicePrints – “The Confusion About Belting”