In this episode you will learn about vocal registers and why they cause the dreaded cracks and breaks in the singing voice. John also tackles some of the myths and misunderstandings surrounding vocal breaks.

Understanding why these breaks occur is one of the best ways to begin to correct them.

Episode Transcript

Episode 8 – Why Your Voice Cracks

Hey. Welcome back to another episode of The Intelligent Vocalist. This is where non-dumb singers like to congregate. So welcome, my intelligent brethren.

Today, I want to talk about crack. I could do the typical jokes here, just say no to crack, et cetera, et cetera, maybe a bent-over plumber joke, but I will refrain from that. I’m sure you appreciate that. What I want to talk about is why does the human voice crack? This is the problem that every singer has to deal with, well, unless you are singing very, very breathy, or in your whole register, or you’re more of a … Well, no, even female classical singers deal with the vocal break. They just deal with it in a different way than contemporary singers. I am going to be talking about the voice in contemporary. As a matter of fact, when I’m talking about the voice, unless I specifically state otherwise, I’m dealing with contemporary voice.

Not as big a difference for men, but a very big difference for women. It’s really a key difference. You use the voice completely different when you’re singing classically or when you are singing in a contemporary style. The main difference is you’re using more chord closure. There’s more intensity and, therefore, this break occurs in a very different way, and it occurs more intensely.

Let’s talk about why this break occurs. Well, the word, here’s your key word for the day, is registration, vocal registration. No, that’s not something you have to do at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Registration is actually taking the different registers of the voice. Many of you may have heard the terms chest voice and head voice, and these refer to different registers, how we feel the voice. Now, there are some who will argue that there are no registers in the voice, and so to look at that argument, we have to look at what it is that they’re talking about.

If you want to talk about registration at the physical level, well, I argue that it is still there because you’re going from the cords being in a shorter, fatter condition in your lower register, a lower part of the voice, to being longer and thinner in the upper register or the higher part of your voice. Now, you can argue, well, that’s not such a big change, all it is is just the cords stretching, and why do you have to break it into two different or even two or more parts of the voice? Well, the other part of registration is the acoustics, and this is the part where I don’t think you can argue as much.

Without going too much into voice teacher debates, which can get really long and really dull and really ugly and nasty, basically, unless you are looking to do a real, oh, I’ll call it old school, but the traditional shout belt, which can only go so far, if you wish to take your voice and make it so that it doesn’t crack and doesn’t change vocal quality, at least audibly to the average listener, then you are talking about a change of registers. Basically, when someone is in chest voice, if they don’t move out of chest voice …

(singing)

… they’re going to hit a point where …

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… they’re going to flip over. They’re going to get this crack between the chest register and the head register. What most singers are looking for is something like …

(singing)

… where you can go back and forth without that …

(singing)

… And there are some voice teachers that argue the connected one, that one that didn’t shift will see there was no break in the voice, so therefore this registration’s a myth. And that’s really not true. Just because you don’t hear something doesn’t mean that things are not occurring underneath the surface.

Here is the basics of registrations in terms of acoustics. We talked about resonators. You have a couple of main resonators. Your throat resonator and your mouth resonator. The back of the tongue acts as an acoustic separator. It’s like a little room divider, and this concept becomes very, very important when you’re dealing with vowels. And this concept becomes very, very important in being able to transition without your voice breaking. But let’s go through this, and some of this information I’m gonna repeat from other podcasts. I will repeat again in the future. But really, you almost can’t be exposed to it enough because it is kind of confusing at first. It confused me like crazy.

When I really started to delve into how registration works, I could hear it. I had tools to fix it. I was already teaching voice. It was explained to me in a way that made sense at the time, but was ultimately incorrect. Some people will still use this as a way to explain it and even if they know, if they know it’s incorrect, they’ll say, well it’s a good way to think of it. And what they’ll talk about is the vocal cords when you are in low notes, you’re on the full length of the chord is vibrating. And they’re using this, the guitar string, basically, as a basis for this idea.

And then as you begin to go higher, just as you fret the guitar string and make the vibrating surface length shorter, your cords actually zip up. They stop vibrating. Now I can’t even remember if they stop vibrating from the front or the back. I think they stop vibrating from the front. Only the back part is vibrating. That actually doesn’t occur. There are not, the muscles don’t exist for that to occur.

There is the idea that in very, very extreme high, almost whistle tones, that he cords become, they’re stretched out so much and they begin to stiffen, that they don’t vibrate along the entire length. But that would be along, in the extreme ranges of the voice. So the zipper thing, if you hear that and in your vocal journeys, you may hear this idea of zipping. If that kind of helps you think about using less vocal chord weight as you go higher, then I guess that’s a good image for you. Just know that it’s not true. Certainly don’t go on any, get into a debate and argue that it happens. I made that mistake many years ago and got pounded down, and I had to stop and go, wait, why are so many people telling me I’m wrong when I was told that this was right by this other camp?

And then I launched into looking into this and really beginning to study it. And coming back to the topic, it can be a little confusing. This chord zipping thing is really easy. It’s like, oh okay. I got long cords and zip, I got shorter cords. You know long cords …

(singing)

… and then they zip and go …

(singing)

… as opposed to …

(singing)

You know? And that’s where the zipping doesn’t occur. It’s just not true. What is happening is you are essentially going from one dominant resonator to another dominant resonator. While I’m talking to you or I’m singing, et cetera, I’m creating sound waves at my vocal cords. Again, my vocal cords close. They stop over the air. Meanwhile, my body’s still trying to push the air out. So the air begins to compress. It builds pounds per square inch of pressure. The cords eventually pop open and this compressed air explodes from the vocal folds. The opening there called the glottis, there’s another fancy word.

So the air, this compressed air, now the molecules bang the other way. Now the air is vibrating. Now we have a sound wave. A sound wave is air that’s moving. We’re taking these molecules and we’re moving them. And they’re moving quickly enough and in a regular enough pattern to become pitch. So we’ve created the sound wave. But now the sound wave has to travel through the throat and then through the mouth. A little bit goes into the nasal cavity, really doesn’t affect the singing sound unless you’re blocking the mouth and really making the sound go nasal. Having the back of the tongue get in there and obstruct things. But for the most part, the sound wave is being enhanced or bouncing around in the throat, and then it’s bouncing around in the mouth.

So the break occurs because you need to shift from one resonator to the other. Now the sound wave is always traveling through both. You cannot, well you can if I block the mouth with the back of the tongue. But when we’re properly speaking, properly singing, the sound wave has to travel through the throat and then it has to travel through the mouth and then past the lips and then out into space into the ear of the listener or in this case into the microphone and then into the ear of the listener. But I’m wandering.

Getting back to, so the sound wave through the throat then through the mouth. However, the energy boost, what’s happening when the sound wave comes out, because the sound wave when it first exits the vocal cords, doesn’t really sound like a voice. It kinda sounds like a sick duck. So it has to travel through these resonators. The first resonator, the throat, is the dominant resonator when it’s in low notes. Chest voice, it’s the dominant resonator when I’m talking. But if i try and keep it as the dominant resonator, I start to run into trouble as I start to sing higher because it doesn’t work very well on higher notes, and therefore, the larynx starts to come up, and the body starts to go into a swallowing condition. All these outside muscles.

And then we’re still trying to sing and the cords start to be under stress because we’re trying to keep it in this one resonator and it has to follow the pitch. Think about it. A bigger space is gonna resonate lower notes. That’s why a tube is bigger than a trumpet. Now the trumpet player, the same person can play a trumpet and the same person can play a tuba. It’s the same pair of lips, but we get very different sounds because it’s taking the sound wave and it’s interacting differently.

So when we are in our chest voice and we’re in this throat resonator and we’re boosting these lower notes, it works very, very well. However, as you start to go higher, well now we need to turn the tuba into a trumpet, which means we need to make it smaller. And the way to make your throat resonator smaller, one of the key ways the body knows how to do is to start to raise the larynx, that little bump there, its an Adam’s apple in a guy, that’s where your vocal cords are housed.

It starts to shrink. It starts to come up and you can feel it. Put your finger on that bump and do this for me. Take a deep breath and go [inaudible 00:12:16]. And now go [inaudible 00:12:16], like a panting dog, and you’ll feel it move up. And what happens is as we’re going for that higher note, it needs to start getting smaller in order to still reinforce the note. There’s acoustics going on that the body naturally understands because we’re hard wired to shout.

And I’ve talked about this before. We start going into a shouting condition, which is never good. That’s never, never good for the voice. So we’re going into this shouting condition. This larynx starts to raise, but it can only go so far. And now the voice is forced, if we continue to go up, it basically has to let go. And what you’re gonna get is you’re gonna get that break, that register shift. That …

(singing)

… And you’re gonna get that crack in the voice. Now some singers can use that crack for style.

(singing)

And they’ll purposely flip. They’ll go into a falsetto. If you’re, anything you’re doing in the voice, if you’re controlling it, and that’s what you wanna do artistically, then I have to tip my pretend hat to you and say, well done. But if things are happening that you don’t mean to do, that’s when we have a problem. And if things are happening that is causing vocal stress and causing vocal strain, then we definitely have to change what we’re doing.

So essentially, our voice is cracking because we are trying to stay in the lower amplifier, the lower resonator, the throat resonator too long. We’re trying to take it too high, and then it flips on over and it goes to this weaker tone. So the question is, how do we make it so we don’t flip? And the answer is, man that’s how myself and all my fellow voice teachers make a living. Seriously.

This is really the key to the voice is learning to blend through this. You may have heard the terms mix, blend, pass agios, the fancy classical term. And these terms, they mean different things to different people. Mix, at one time, really meant being able to sing through it powerfully. Now it’s kind of turned into a weaker version of belt. It’s kind of a more restrained version of belt. And then belt is more shouty.

And I will tell you, you can belt in a mixed condition. And what does mix mean? Well, let’s get my definition because you’ll find dozens of different definitions. It’s like you’ll hear someone say, I teach bel canto. Well bel canto means beautiful singing. So I teach beautiful singing. And because the true school of bel canto, which was founded in Italy a couple hundred years ago and was really kind of the basis for great operatic singing, it’s kind of just been diluted. They say it’s just kind of a term in search of a meaning. And mix is starting to be a term in search of a meaning as well.

But I’ll give you my version. It’s basically your ability, the ability of the singer to go from their lower register or their lower voice, smoothly into their upper register without a noticeable shift in vocal quality of intensity. In other words, you can get through there smoothly, without all the sudden your voice breaking, without your voice going to yelling or whatever devices, or the voice having to go nasal. That’s another little way people will try and get through this shift of registers.

But it’s being able to go through it smoothly and in a controlled manner. And the way you get through that controlled manner is you learn to move from your throat being the dominant resonator and hand over to the mouth being the dominant resonator and the sensation of the mouth being the dominant resonator is one that very few people truly feel. Even, there are professional singers who never truly get that experience. And when you get that experience of being able to move from a lower note and slowly move into a higher note, that’s still just as powerful and still sounds just as good is an amazing feeling. And the sensation of it is quite different than staying in your throat resonator as the dominant resonator.

Everybody feels that, everybody who’s talking, everybody who yells … They feel that. But to have the mouth become the dominant resonator, that’s a different feeling. And I have had more than one person begin to cry when they feel that because they’ve spent so many years, why can’t I sing? Why can’t I sign? How come my voice shifts? Why do I go nasal? Why am I straining? Why am I flipping? And they come in and we utilize some exercises and then suddenly the voice is able to now hand over and the mouth becomes the dominant resonator and they’re able to hit these notes cleanly and powerfully and yeah.

A couple of different, one reaction is, well the first reaction is, what was that? Whoa. And when I ask people how that felt, the number one answer is easy. I’ve had a number of people get angry because they weren’t shown how to do that before. And I don’t say that to brag because there are other teachers who know how to teach this. Some will claim it’s a secret. Again, that’s marketing. I’ve been known to use the word secret myself. It is no secret.

This middle voice, this passaggio, this transition, was written about in the voice literature well over 100 years ago. It’s not anything new. The application to contemporary singers and especially female contemporary singers, may be a little more new because females sang more classically. And now in contemporary singing, and in belting and Broadway, they have to sing like men. They have to sing kind of like tenors. It’s much more aggressive.

So women have to learn to do this. And the reason I say women, contemporary female singers have to learn to do this is because you have less chest voice than men do. Men can move keys around. If they really don’t wanna deal with this transition, they don’t have to in certain circumstances because they can move keys around and they’ll have enough range to make it work. But the female voice, there’s less true chest voice and they’re into this middle voice, this transition rather quickly. So you have to start getting a grasp on how to do this.

But just so you know, registers do exist. There are a couple of things going on. There’s a shift in what the vocal cords are doing, and go back and listen to the podcast on how the vocal cords work and you’ll get a better idea. But basically, they’re going from one pair of muscles that keep the cords short and fat. And then they start to give over to a pair of muscles that starts to pull and stretch the cords. So there’s that hand over number one.

And then the other one is the acoustic hand over from the throat to the mouth. When this is negotiated successfully, you don’t have a break. When this is not negotiated successfully, you do have a break. Now when you negotiate it successfully and it sounds smooth and no one can hear it, does that mean there’s no registers? No. Because they acoustics are still occurring. You’re just doing them skillfully. And a skillful singer, I will argue, is ultimately a smart singer.

Yeah you can not learn about your instrument and kind of plod around and go on your natural gift and your natural talent, but I have seen singers, and I’ll keep saying this … When they run on their gift, all the sudden they get into a situation where they don’t know what to do and suddenly a note doesn’t work. And they’re clueless. And I want you to understand your voice so you can fix your voice, do you have control over your voice, so you don’t have to run to a voice teacher every time you have a problem. Not that you shouldn’t study, but that you can analyze and stop and go, no I know what’s happening here. I know what exercise will help fix this. So why don’t I do this for myself since I can’t see my teacher for another four days and I have a gig tonight?

And that’s the power that I want you to have. Hey listen, go ahead. Send me your questions. [email protected] Happy to read them, consider them for upcoming podcasts. Go ahead, subscribe to the podcast. Leave a review on iTunes if you’re so inspired. Just go to iTunes store under podcasts, search for The Intelligent Vocalist, and you’ll see it there. And if you’re interested in knowing more, you can check out my site newscienceofsinging.com. And that is a course that’s gonna, will take you everything you need to know about the voice and then has special exercises at the end for you to work your voice. But you’ll know why the exercises work. And then you can apply it to whatever else that you’re working on.

Also if you are interested in studying with me or one of my associates, again you can just send an email to, actually my assistant [email protected] That’s [email protected] and she will be happy to set something up for you.

Hey thank you so much for listening, and until next time. To better singing. Bye bye.