Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The Female Primo Passaggio: A Survey of Its Physiology, Psychology, and Pedagogy

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The Female Primo Passaggio: A Survey of Its Physiology, Psychology, and Pedagogy

Article excerpt

THE FEMALE PRIMO PASSAGGIO is acknowledged with both familiarity and controversy. Adolescents and adults alike are plagued by issues of the "break": they grapple with the difference between chest and head voice (and if that elusive "middle" voice really exists); they wonder why one area of their voice is weaker than another; they balk at the cracks that expose themselves without warning. Voice teachers are constantly challenged to help the student either "discover" one register or unify both registers. Yet the very definition of registration is controversial, for as James McKinney explains:

The chief reason for the confusion is that the word register is used to describe so many different things ... (1) a particular part of the vocal range (upper, middle, or lower register), (2) a resonance area (chest or head), (3) a phonatory process, (4) a certain timbre, and (5) a region of the voice which is defined or delimited by vocal breaks.1

Indeed, if individuals rely on vocal breaks to define their registers, it is no wonder that the transitions become so conspicuous. This study aims to answer the following:

1. Should registers be acknowledged to exist at all?

2. If so, what happens internally to make each register so different?

3. Does the "mix" or middle voice exist as a separate technique or register altogether?

4. What are the origins of register polarization-both physical and psychological?

5. What teaching techniques would be most effective for smoothing this transition?

An idealized concept of registers implies that only one voice should be acknowledged. Rather than consciously altering her voice to navigate through registers, the student should aim for a natural, seamless sound throughout her entire range. After all, both sensation and sound will slightly shift every time she changes pitch. Even when remaining on one pitch, altering a vowel or a dynamic will produce a change in resonance. Rather than considering each pitch as a separate register-which McKinney grants is "taking an idea too far"2-it may be easier to completely avoid gear-shifting, instead aiming for a sound both fresh and free. W. Stephen Smith compares singing to driving an automatic transmission vehicle, one that effortlessly shifts gears by just driving. We should never sing like a manual transmission, consciously thinking, "I will now shift into a medium mix between speaking and airflow" . . . We simply allow ourselves to let the voice shift naturally on its own, without making it do anything.3

While these intentions are honest, they seem beneficial for students with minimal problems from the start. A student that needs retraining must be met on her level. If in the past she has related to her voice using "chest" and "head" terminology, it would be futile for the teacher to pretend that separate registers do not exist. Even if the student can take advice to "stop thinking about it," her newfound "naturalness" will not be flawless. The teacher's guidance is necessary throughout all the unfamiliar-and often uncomfortable-sensations.

No matter what the ideal may be, registration is a concept that must be recognized and defined. Most importantly, is it purely laryngeal or partly sensational? McKinney insists that registers are defined by laryngeal function-the vocal folds produce specific vibratory patterns that, in turn, produce a particular range of pitches and a characteristic sound.4 This writer, however, thinks that resonance should be included in the definition; the sensations that accompany each vibration are too strong to ignore. Scott McCoy acknowledges as well that laryngeal adjustments alone will not smooth the break; rather, singers must "modulate breath pressure through correct support, and skillfully manipulate resonance through formant tuning."5 More than two hundred years later, Manuel Garcia's definition still seems to be the most inclusive. As a revolutionary pedagogue, Garcia was the first to take an interest in both the voice's varying tone qualities and its physical mechanisms. …

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