Monday, May 7, 2007

Setting the record Straight about Countertenors? Or, how we sing so high...

From a discussion on one of my Youtube pages:

Jeffster09 (2 weeks ago)
Wow. is this man using falsetto?

loosthong (5 days ago)
No ! countertenors have no use for falsetto, there voice is naturally high and can hit the same notes as falsetto using there tenor voice

music13732 (20 hours ago)
I am a counter tenor, have been my whole life. I use nothing BUT falsetto to achieve the range I need to sing. So You might want to check your facts before stating something like that!

joewaggott (4 hours ago)
Yeah, the whole point of countertenor is that it's an expertly developed falsetto voice so that it becomes as useable as a 'normal' voice. Although there are some countertenors who do have the high notes in their 'normal' voice they're incredibly rare!

To falsetto or not to falsetto...

This is a hairy issue for countertenors, those who encourage countertenors, and those for whom the whole concept of a man singing high is a crime against nature. The very fact that words such as "Normal" are being thrown around indicates that, for some, discussing the phenomenon in the 'right' way can justify or explain the choice.

I want to argue that all of you are wrong... in that you may have a point but are using archaic words that fail to accurately describe what a countertenor does. More than that, though, the words we use determine what we think is possible, and therefore engender prejudice before a note is sung. We must be careful with our words.***

First of all, let's set some terminology ground rules. There are several broad categories of 'men who sing high' as determined by the physical manner in which the tone is produced. I divide them into three groups:
1) An haut-contre: a tenor with an unusually high voice, most likely the result of a smaller than average larynx. These are the guys who can sing high, and have a naturally high speaking voice.
2) An endocrinologically challenged countertenor: Those who through surgery (almost none), disease (some), or wild boar accidents (yeah right Senesino) never experienced the hormonal effects of male puberty.
3) What is commonly know as a 'Countertenor,' sometimes incorrectly labeled a 'Falsettist': These are the guys who sing as altos/sopranos, but do not sing with a full length of vibrating vocal cord. Their full voices are usually lower (bass/baritone) and they speak at a naturally lower pitch.

I am one of the third group. That's all I have experience being, so that's all I'll talk about.

So... falsetto... means 'false voice.' What it describes is the vibrating of just the edges of a short length of the vocal cords. That's why the sound is so quiet, breathy, and weak; as I'll explain below, not enough mass is vibrating to produce a bigger sound. One could argue that it is just one more color in the palette; it works for Justin Timberlake (he is the future of sex, it would seem?) Where most folks get tripped up is believing that falsetto is the only way for a man to produce sound in that higher register. We are trapped in the paradigm of head voice/mix voice/chest voice. These are labels that resulted from a vocal pedagogy that predated modern scientific investigation, and they were based on the location of the sensation of resonance (vibration) as perceived by the singer.

What actually happens in the throat is much more interesting. When a man sings well in the Countertenor range, his larynx is stable. That is to say, his larynx does not move up and down as he changes pitches. If you have any doubt about whether you do this well, look at your Adam's apple in the mirror while you sing. In fact, go do it now. I'll wait...

Humbling, isn't it?

Stable singing requires a great deal of work and diligence (and no small amount of actual strengthening of the proper laryngal muscles). Voice technique is voice technique, no matter where we sing in our range. I can sing low a's (baritone) and do every time that I work on my technique. As I sing in the higher range, all that happens is that coordinated pairs of muscles that are incorporated into my vocal cord tissue close off in little segments, thus shortening the length of vibrating vocal cord. Imagine an open guitar string. Strike it. Now fret it half way and strike again. The pitch is higher because the mass of the vibrating portion of the string is less than the full length. Same idea (but much more interesting) in your throat. Why does a baritone sound horrible and crack when he sings too high in his 'chest' voice? He's using too long a length of cord and that amount of mass cannot vibrate at the intensity of frequency required to produce that pitch. Why do most countertenors sound weak towards the bottom of their alto range? Because they are using too short a vibrating length to clearly produce the tone.

So, what we are moving towards is a model in which the human voice is no longer like a flute, with definite registers determined by thumb holes and over-blowing techniques (head/mix/chest). Training the human voice well involves finding the optimal vibrating length for each area of frequencies (perceived as pitches), and these optimal lengths each cover about a tri-tone of range. The closures take place around Bb and B and E and F across the entire range. The overall goal of what is called 'classical' voice technique is to produce a beautiful, clearly audible, and even sound across the entire range. Much like, I think, a fine wine, you can't have any part of it be too brash or too subtle. That distracts from the message the singer wants to convey (the words!) What you need is balance.

The point that I am winding up to is... Falsetto is a choice. It always has been. I do not use falsetto when I sing... most of the time anyway. I sing in a way that doesn't fit into the inaccurate definitions that we are used to. I sing with a fully engaged larynx in a relaxed, low position. This allows me to sound remarkably full while singing on a shorter length of vocal cord than a baritone or a tenor does. I do, however, use what some people incorrectly determine to be falsetto. See how important words are?

Thanks to wonderful Countertenors who are tearing it up on stage and in recorded media, we are slowly lifting out of the cultural prejudices surrounding this voice type. Do most people who sing countertenor sing well? No. They substitute the ability to squeak out a high note for craft. But... the quality level is definitely rising. Can we stop talking about head voice and chest voice as though the terms made sense? The whole idea limits us and the choices that we give ourselves permission to believe that we have.

Now go practice :-).

*** Ok, moment of honesty, in this essay I mention 'higher and lower' to reference pitch. That is an incorrect use of those terms. What happens is that the frequency of vibration increases and decreases. We perceive that change as producing higher and lower pitches. To avoid confusion, I used these terms in their familiar, though incorrect manner.


ChristopherGKeene said...

That was a very enlightening post. I'd love to hear more from you about how you've developed the use of this range and any specific exercises or images you use or recommend for training the muscles necessary to shorten the vocal folds to the appropriate length.

Ian Howell said...

Hi Christopher,
It is a little complicated to explain in print. I will be posting a video clip from a recent masterclass soon that will cover some countertenor specific issues with demonstrations.

check back soon!


David Gordon said...

What a fabulous and lucid explanation of something that is usually so surrounded by misunderstanding.

essi said...

I am a countertenor enthusiast and I see with great interest and excitement that, some time ago, you were considering posting a video clip from a recent masterclass relating to countertenor technique etc. If you have managed to, could you please provide the "address". Thank you very much, indeed!

Christopher said...

Hi there,

I noticed you talked about warming up down to a bottom A.

I'm curious - I have read an interview with a countertenor who said that they cannot switch between their baritone voice and countertenor voice because it would weaken their countertenor technique. Is this true?

I have often wondered why countertenors don't do this and why there isn't any new operatic roles written with some ridiculous ranges.

I am a professional tenor and therefore have no idea how the countertenor voice actually works :).

Christopher said...

Hello there,

First thing I should say is that I love your recordings and your voice. I read your post and noticed that you say you warm up to a bottom A.

I read an interview with a counter-tenor who said that they will not sing in their baritone range because it will weaken their technique and that no counter-tenors will attempt to sing in their lower range.

Is this actually true? Is there any repetoire that takes the baritone and the counter-tenor range into account?

I have never found anyone talking about this anywhere. And this might sound strange, but if it is the case then it seems a waste to use only half your range.

Hope this post isn't too long!

Ian Howell said...

Hi Christopher, Thank you for your comments and your kind words. I actually just posted a new and updated article about countertenor vocal technique that I would suggest you read. An excerpt can be found on this blog, or you can read it at The Countertenor Voice: An Online Journal.

Take care, and let me know if you have further questions.