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Older adolescent male transition from chest to head, etc.

I have a 17-year-old boy with a beautiful bass voice who wants desperately to learn how to transition more smoothly between his head and his chest voice. He really wants to know the physical aspects and what he can/should do physically or perhaps exercises that he can do.  Ideas? Resources? This is NOT a middle schooler- this is a young man who has an extremely wide range but wants to develop facility throughout it.
on March 18, 2014 5:34am
From the way you phrased your question it sounds as though he understands the difference between chest and head voice, but has a clear difference in quality between the two that he would like to smooth out. In voice technique terms, he wants to strengthen his passagio. I would suggest working from the top down, so to speak. With my men's chorus, I start them on an A above middle C to ensure they are all in pure head voice. I have them sing the syllable "Hoo" with a focused sound, then bring them down by half-steps. There are usually a few notes in the middle that he will identify as being a little too high for chest and a little too low for head voice. To sing those effectively, he needs to work on using both resonance areas along with lots of breath support. Once he catches on to that, he should begin to expand the range of the passagio a few notes in each direction which will then smooth that transition out. I'm sure there are other directors and voice teachers out there with more specific exercises, but that should give him a start. And bravo to your young man for recognizing that he needs to expand his technique! I once had a very low bass that insisted on singing second tenor for a couple of years in order to strengthen his head voice. Those kinds of conscientious teenagers (particularly guys) don't come along very often! Good luck to both of you!
David Headings
on March 21, 2014 7:21am
Congratulations on having such an interested and dedicated student!
Let's begin by determining what we mean by the term "register." According to Manuel Garcia, the most famous and arguably most important voice teacher/scientist of the 19th century, “By the word register we mean a series of consecutive and homogeneous tones going from low to high, produced by the development of the same mechanical principle, and whose nature differs essentially from another series of tones, equally consecutive and homogeneous, produced by another mechanical principle. All tones belonging to the same register are consequently of the same nature, whatever may be the modification of timbre or of force to which one subjects them."
We can understand the phrase "same mechanical principle" as the manner in which the anatomy is functioning. In this case there are really only two registers - chest and falsetto - based on whether the vocalis muscle, the muscle within the vocal fold itself is engaged ("making a muscle") or not. When it is engaged the singer is in "chest" voice, when it is not the singer is in falsetto. (In this case the male falsetto and female head registers are very similar.)
We can understand the phrase "modification of timbre" as relating to acoustics. Garcia spoke of two timbres: sombre and clair. A somewhat simplified description is that timbre sombre is that warm, rich sound we get from singing with a comfortably low larynx, while timbre clair is that bright, open sound we get from singing with a larynx that will rise with the pitch. Acoustics is also related to vowels, more specifically the formants ("resonant frequencies of the vocal tract") which create the perception of vowels.
We can understand the phrase "modification of force" as relating to dynamics. A more forte sound will engage the vocalis more than a more piano sound. When we are singing forte or in chest voice the vocal folds are in a more short and thick form, when we are singing piano or in head voice the vocal folds are in a more long and thin form.
Acoustically, "chest voice" is the sound we hear when the overtones of the sung tone interact with the formants in one manner, while "head voice" is the sound we hear when the overtones interact with the formants in another.
What does all this mean? "Head voice" can be thought of as primarily an acoustic phenomenon!
How does all this help your bass?
     1. Make sure he is singing with an open throat and comfortably low larynx. We can get this from the sensation we have at the beginning of a yawn.
     2. As he is transitioning into his head voice, tell him to keep the same vowel shape - do not open it! The acoustics will do the work for him.
     3. Depending on how easily he then gets into head voice, you may need to tell him not to crescendo too much as he is transitioning so that the vocal folds will elongate as he needs. 
I believe the best vowel to begin working on for this is the "oh" vowel. It is a natural larynx lowering vowel and its formants are low enough to interact with easily. Once he can get into the head voice through the "oh," have him do the same with the other vowels, but with the same sensation he had with the "oh," or through the "oh sleeve" (if that idea helps).
The easiest exercise I have found for this is a simple 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1. If he starts to feel a "closed" sensation as he goes into head voice, that's ok. That's called the voce chiusa, or closed voice. Remember, we're talking about sound waves traveling, not air. Sound waves travel at about 1100 feet per second. If you have air traveling that fast you have a tornado!
Good luck, and let us know how he does.
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