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The passaggio explained – part 2: How to change from chest voice into mixed voice

In my last post, we discussed what the passaggio is and why we should always use it to help us naturally change vocal registers to provide us with the greatest amount of freedom and ease on our voice.

In this post, I’ll explain the correct sensations that you should be experiencing so that you can practice with confidence and develop the correct vocal coordinations for changing registers in your voice.

A vocal register is defined as “a range of tones in the human voice produced by a particular vibratory pattern of the vocal folds.” Vocal registers are usually grouped by eight notes, which make up an octave. Changes between vocal registers can happen anywhere from 2-3 notes into an octave, to half way or three quarters of the way into an octave, depending on what range a singer’s voice will support.

🤓 Nerdy fact: Did you know that a normal, healthy, average singing voice is designed to connect up to a three-octave range?

The basic vocal registers within the human voice start with “fry” voice, then a low “chest” voice (which is usually quite soft in volume for most singers). Next, we have a belting register in chest voice, followed by either a mixed voice or head voice. Finally, we have two different kinds of falsetto; a “breathy” falsetto and a “reinforced” falsetto.

A reinforced falsetto is the desired falsetto to develop in a singer’s voice because it can connect up to the other vocal registers in the voice and provide us with additional range. This is typically applied to different styles, including by heavy metal, jazz and R’n’B singers.

The last register in the human voice is “whistle” register. Whistle register is the Mariah Carey effect, as heard in the song “Emotions”. Both male and female singers are capable of producing whistle tones, depending on their voice type.

This post is going to focus on helping you to successfully navigate chest voice into mixed voice and this builds a balanced middle-upper voice, which is essential for learning how to reduce the weight in your singing voice if your goal is to sing higher in your range without straining.

If you’re not already familiar with the anatomy of your larynx and its purpose, I highly recommend that you go back and read my previous post before reading on.

In our efforts to stretch our vocal range, the higher you sing in chest voice, the more stress and strain you will experience in your larynx. If we were to ignore the warning signs of all the impending stress that is building up in your voice, the result is that sooner or later your voice is going to crack, wobble or break. It is the most embarrassing thing that can happen to a singer when they sing live or in front of an audience, because the resulting break is clearly audible and does not sound like their previous vocal tone.

Due to the unexpected nature and effect that it has on our voice, many inexperienced singers subconsciously avoid their break area. Your break area is your best friend for identifying where your register changes will naturally take place.

Exercise 1: Identifying your chest to head voice break area

Try this simple exercise. Smile wide, then “yawn” at the back of your throat. In a comfortable part of your speaking range, vocalise on an “Ah” sound. Next, gently slide up in pitch until you experience and hear that crack, wobble or break in your voice. Get to know this area of your voice because this break is actually very helpful in helping you to identify where the chest voice naturally wants to hand off its big, wide vocal tone to the head voice.

The head voice tone is narrower and brighter. It has more of a ringing quality to its tone. The thyroid cartilage is starting to tilt forward, whilst on the inside of the larynx your vocal cords are beginning the process of thinning down and lengthening out. As singers, we want to encourage this activity and learn to isolate the correct micro muscles, tendons and ligaments, and exercise these muscles using specific vocal exercises to educate and encourage these muscles to develop additional strength. This strength will allow them to carry their own weight and this builds a stronger passaggio connection, making it much easier for chest voice to transition into middle voice, and ultimately head voice.

🤓 Nerdy fact: Understanding diaphragmatic breathing and support is essential for providing the correct vocal momentum and air support for register changes.

Gently repeat this exercise 10-15 times to help you get familiar with the sensation of your vocal break.

Once you have discovered where your vocal break is, we need to learn how to stabilise that sound so that the vocal break sound remains constant (your vocal break sound is audibly different to your previous chest voice sound). The vocal break sounds thinner and lighter, and initially may seem challenging to control. Quick tip: add lots of RVR “whiny bitch” (cry) to help you to support that sound. Once you’ve found that break sound, you’ve found the doorway to enter into your passaggio! Be patient and expect lots of trial and error before you can find this doorway to your middle voice.

Four steps to help you use your passaggio (bridge) to connect your chest voice to your head voice:

  1. Adopt the correct posture. Stand up straight, place your hands on your hips without raising your shoulders. This will trick your body into providing better diaphragmatic breathing support.
  2. Create an open airway support system. Smile wide and “yawn” in the back of your throat. You must be able to create and maintain an open airway throughout this exercise to successfully connect your voice between registers. Yawning and smiling are the two fastest things that we can do to trick the body into creating this open airway.
  3. Find your break area. Start with a comfortable pitch in your speaking voice and gently slide up in pitch from the bottom of your chest voice (or wherever you started from) until you hear the break in your voice. This will sound like a lighter register and may initially go from chest voice straight to a falsetto sound. When you hear and experience this break, you have discovered your initial bridging area (passaggio – Italian for passage).
  4. Reduce excess air pressure buildup. Use a diaphragm release to provide the breath support necessary to allow the vocal cords to change pitch. The diaphragm is the main respiration muscle in the human body and is responsible for actioning both the inhale and exhalation breath. We use the diaphragm to create a diaphragmatic support system (think of it like a “Whoopee” Cushion). Taking a correct diaphragmatic breath means that the diaphragm will actually expand to support our lungs, taking a lot of strain out of the voice. When we apply pressure to our Whoopee Cushion, we are stabilising the outgoing flow of air that the voice is singing on. If you don’t know how to release your diaphragm correctly while you are singing (and prior to singing), you are not breathing efficiently the way a singer should.

Once you’ve found the bridging area in your voice, you have discovered the passageway (passaggio) that is designed to thin down the vocal cords and safely transition your chest voice into a mixed voice, head voice, reinforced falsetto, and ultimately the whistle register. Your bridging area might initially feel very weak, unstable and shaky.

This is where it’s important to find a good vocal coach or singing teacher that can not only demonstrate what the passaggio sounds like and how to perform it, but also has an intimate knowledge of how the vocal anatomy works so that they can teach you to develop the correct coordinations for yourself, as well as address the psychological reactions that the brain experiences as we sing higher.

Better singing everyone!

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