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When do I teach mixed and chest voice?

Hello All!  I am a band specialist turned choir teacher and could use some help!  I know that the healthiest way for children to sing is in their head voice.  I teach middle school choir, and I am wondering when I should start introducing how to sing in chest voice and mixed voice.  Should I even introduce these concepts at all?  My 7th grade girls have all turned into self-proclaimed belters, and the sound of my choir gets forced and nasally, not to mention the fact that it is super unhealthy.  They really fight singing in their head voices, so I was thinking that it would be wise to teach them good technique for mixed voice.  What are you expert thoughts?  Thank you for your help!
Replies (6): Threaded | Chronological
on March 26, 2014 7:47am
Start in middle school, at the time of voice change. They need to know how to manage it.
Robert Russell
Portland, ME
on March 26, 2014 5:58pm
I'd say elementary.  Little ones tend to sing everything in chest voice unless they're taught about their two registers. 
on March 29, 2014 8:45pm
You are dealing with a few issues here all at the same time, perception being the most important. These girls probably do not have any vocally healthy models to emulate. The singers they listen to, with very few exceptions, are the belters they hear singing pop music. I would work on this issue first. Do not denigrate pop music! You will lose them the second you do, because they will believe that you are trying to take that music away from them. You are not trying to “take away”, you are trying to “add to.” Explain to them the concept of differing styles/genres, and let them know that what is appropriate for one style is not appropriate for another.

If you can, you might consider having some music playing in the background when your students come into the room. Don’t make a big deal about it – just have it playing. Alternate between various styles day by day. One day you may have vocal jazz playing (Manhattan Transfer, for example. Yes, I know they are belters but it is a different style from what your students are listening to every day, and you want to expand their tonal palate), a boys or girls choir playing the next (don’t start with “high” classical, your students probably are not ready for it), etc. I have just come across this video of the Australian Girls Choir singing two very different styles well. You may consider playing it for your girls.

Another issue you are dealing with is that your girls are in some stage of their voice change. Yes, girls’ voices change to. They don’t change in pitch like boys’ voices do, but they do change in timbre. Their voices may be on the breathy side while they are in the voice change which may lead to their wanting to belt because belting gives a stronger, although potentially unhealthy, sound.

From a technical standpoint, you’ll notice that as the pitch rises they will spread their vowels in order to create the sound of the belt voice. In order to help them get into a non-chest voice, have them keep the same vowel shape as the pitch rises. I find that “oh” is the best vowel to learn this. Have them sing a held tone on the “oh” vowel on the B-flat below middle C while you play a short chord progression (I use a I-IV-iv progression). Then have them repeat the procedure on each note of the B-flat major scale to the B-flat an octave above. Tell them to keep the same “oh” vowel shape (lips puckered, a little space between the back teeth, tongue flat and relaxed with the tip of the tongue touching the back of the bottom teeth). The change in acoustics created by the changing interaction of the ascending pitch overtones with the consistent vowel shape (keeping the vowel formants in the same place) with will help the voice go into head voice. Around the F above middle C you should hear the middle/head voice starting to come in. Singing sustained tones also helps strengthen their vocalis muscle which will ultimately give them a stronger, more mature but healthy sound. I would also have them sing the “oh” on a quicker 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 pattern starting on the same B-flat moving up by half-step. As the pitch ascends, after a certain point they will need to begin lowering the jaw – but keep the pucker! I would have them begin to gradually lower their jaw at the middle line B (treble clef) and have their jaw unhinged at the top line F and above. If you put your finger immediately in front of the flap in the front of your ear and lower your jaw, you will feel the unhinge I’m talking about.
Good luck, and let us know how things turn out.
on March 31, 2014 4:06am
I always find these threads fascinating. I run a professional ensemble. It wasn't always so. In the beginning most of the singers I had were untrained. I've never used the words "chest" or "head" to my singers then or now. Maybe its because in the USA you have large scale academic institutions analysing choral music to the enth degree. I find that the priorities for young voices should be :
- breathe correctly
- stand correctly
- relax their body in a manner that allows for the unimpeded flow of air.
- eliminate the word "push" from all vocabularly .
Now - if I had a group of highly competent adult singers in front of me with extensive vocal training, then I might listen to what they say about "head" and "chest". As long as the sound was relaxed and flowing unimpeded by strain then I am happy. It seems to me that most adult singers spend their entire singing lives trying to replicate the ease and flow that very young voices achieve naturally.  For kids over about 6 its pretty much the same. they have to unlearn sitting badly, standing incorrectly, carrying heavy bags on their backs from a very young age.
Probably this posting might be a bit unpopular with people who use words/phrases like "head" and "chest" and "push" and "press" and "push down" or "press out". Its not intended to offend, and I always say that if it works for you, well and good.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on June 17, 2014 4:40pm
I think you should teach according to your choir's age/education level to get your point across most effectively.
In addition, I think when one begins to make music overly technical, it strips the joy (& art) right out of it.
Yes, I completely understand that there is a right/wrong way to sing. There is good/bad technique.
I simply believe that there's a more appealing way to introduce/bring out good technique in young singers
without making it more complicated & less fun.
on June 18, 2014 7:24am
I really like Michael McGlynn's comments.  In addition, I'd say spend a lot of time developing the head voice before you teach mix or belt.  The reason for this has to do with the muscles inside the larynx.  (Details: the thyroarytenoid muscle is much bigger and stronger than the cricothyroid, and the two balance, or "oppose" each other.  The thyroarytenoid is dominant in chest-voice singing, and the cricothyroid is dominant in head-voice singing.)  Concentrating on the chest voice strengthens the muscle that is already strong, while ignoring the muscle that is naturally smaller and weaker.  I've had a few students who came to me after ignoring their head voices for years, and they couldn't access their upper ranges at all, couldn't mix, and had pain at the top of their chest registers.  It took a while to undo all that!
Of course,there are many methods, and I'm sure some people will have very valid differing points of view on this.  But for me, the bottom line is: spend a lot of time on the things Michael mentions, and develop the head voice.  Once both registers are healthy and strong, it will be time to talk about mix.
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