Cher Public

pec dame

Let’s talk about chest: theories, recollections, examples, caveats… All about chest, in fact.

To start the conversational ball rolling, here’s what some celebrated mid 20th century divas have to say about the subject of chest voice.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/j2hd_2m1qXE" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Chest nut Charlie Handelman has so much to say on “voce di petto” that he devoted two podcasts to the topic..

Your doyenne recently babbled:

The big Verdi roles are written to include phrases that call for chest resonance. If Verdi had been writing for singers who didn’t have access to chest voice, he would have written the music differently. As, for example, the “Miserere” in Trovatore where the specific sound of chest tones is necessary for the correct sonority.

. . . .

Verdi soprano roles cannot be sung “effectively” without some use of chest resonance, because by definition a part of the “effect” of low-lying passages depends on the change of color attendant on the change of resonance.

And now, your opinions, cher public?

  • Constantine A. Papas

    Slkinsey,

    Lung capacity is the amount of air that is stored in the lungs when they expand. No human being can sing or even talk without air in his lungs. If an opera singer breaks a rib will be out of comission for a while. The pain in the ribcage will limit expansion of the lungs and air movement. Thomas Quasthoff is limiting his recitals because the worsenig of his chest deformity has affected his lung capacity, the amount of air the lungs can accommodate.

  • Don’t forget Stella’s “Head Register, Chest Register. . . Cash Register” podcast where three of NY’s exclusive voice teachers explain it all.

  • balabanov11

    re 68 -- Dearest Bianca, I’d love to touch the hem of your dress, and then work my way up north and see what happens. As to the legendary Bumbarina, while I don’t know if she called in or was a scheduled guest, I heard most of that famous conversation myself (I had tuned in late to the broadcast). The only thing I remember is that he got her to talk about a recent bad patch in her singing, in which she admitted to having been steered in the wrong direction by some coach, and was singing again in her old way. He asked what that was, and she said “like the Italians -- everything in the front” (paraphrased from memory, of course).

    More from LaGrace -- during the ill-fated season where she sang Nabucco and Medea at NYCO -- she was talking to a company member in the elevator, and he commented on the fabulous fur she was wearing, and jokingly asked her if she bought it her CityOp fee. Her response was “Honey, I sing here for my lunch money!”

  • Lucky Pierre

    la cieca,

    and miss out on all this fun?????

  • MIO DIO!!!(In chest!!)…I am so thrilled to read these brilliant comments..They remind me of the kind of thing you might read in a J.B.Steane book..or an article by Conrad Osborne….I am grateful to dear chesty La Cieca (who hangs around with lots of chests,according to the photo) for putting my chest podcasts up…and I will read with interest all the informative comments above.
    BTW..One singer SWEARS Zucker was born with only ONE vocal chord..(maybe she means with un cojon????)

  • slkinsey

    @Constantine A. Papas: Of course decent lung capacity is needed for singing. But you assert that “the trick of chest voice is to increase the lung capacity to accommodate more air.” This is not correct. Lung capacity and vocal mechanism are not related.

    Quasthoff’s increasingly diminished lung capacity I am sure makes singing more difficult, but it does not inhibit his ability to employ chest mechamism singing (indeed, as a bass-baritone, most of his singing is chest mechanism-dominant). More to the point, issues such as Quasthoff is experiencing are not extensible to singers who don’t have diminished capacity.

    Here is perhaps a good example. Let’s compare two tenors: Alfredo Kraus and Carlo Bergonzi. I have had the privilege of meeting them both at one time or another. Kraus had a very slim build, relatively narrow chest, etc. Bergonzi, on the other hand, had the stereotypical barrel chest (this is clearly present from photographs even before he started putting on weight). Bergonzi’s chest was probably 50% bigger around than Kraus’s, and from this we can intuit that he probably had a greater total volume of lung capacity. And yet, if you listen carefully to their recordings, it is quite clear that Kraus employed far more chest mechanism on high notes compared to Bergonzi.

  • Constantine A. Papas

    Slkisey,

    Lung capacity-air stored in the lungs-does not always translates to a bigger chest. Look at some athlets, like long-distamce runners. They are skinny and small built. It’s true that forcing more air -chest mechanism- can sustaine a vocal line longer regardless of the pitch- high or low notes. The length and thikness of vocal cords influence the pitch. If an opera sunger can shorten and tense the vocal cords, through special excercise of muscles of the larynx that contol the vocal cords- Correlli had mastered that- he or she can hit highier notes.

  • slkinsey

    @Constantine A. Papas: I hardly know where to begin, but am starting to sense that this may not be a productive conversation to continue. Much of what you say either does not make sense or reflects a mistaken understanding of how the voice instrument works.
    .
    “It’s true that forcing more air -chest mechanism- can sustaine a vocal line longer regardless of the pitch- high or low notes.” What does this mean? If you mean increasing subglottal pressure, this would mean that the vocal apparatus would have to respond with greater activity of the vocalis muscle (“chest mechanism”) in order for the vocal folds to approximate. This has no relationship with “sustaining a vocal line longer.”
    .
    “The length and thikness of vocal cords influence the pitch.” Yes, this is true. Shorter and thicker vocal folds correspond to lower pitches. This is easy to see using a laryngoscope when you phonate over a range of pitches.
    .
    “If an opera sunger can shorten and tense the vocal cords, through special excercise of muscles of the larynx that contol the vocal cords- Correlli had mastered that- he or she can hit highier notes.” This is the opposite of what singers do. The trick to singing “chesty” high notes is to allow the cords to be stretched long and thin, which is required to phonate these pitches, but also to activate the vocalis muscle (“blend in some chest mechanism”) to the extent required in order to create a more muscular sound. Vowel modification, placement, “covering” and other resonant-space tricks of the trade (Corelli and others sometimes lower the larynx from the “normal position” for high notes, some tenors slightly unseal the soft palate for a touch or nasal resonance, etc.) on these notes further reinforce the impression of a “chesty tone.”
    .
    The idea that there are “special larynx muscle exercises” to shorten and tense the vocal folds which result in high notes… well, that’s just not the way it works. Singing is a lot more complicated than that.

  • Oralia Concepcion

    This stuff in #23 about vocal folds--it’s bosh.

    The differences in timbre at different pitches results from different resonance. That’s all.

    And when that awful Donizette performance comes to pass, we will all say: “Anna Netrebko makes Anna Bolena sounda like Anna Russell” (with apologies to Chico Marx).

  • Constantine A. Papas

    Slkinsey,

    I suggest that if you refresh your anatomy of the larynx and the vocal cords, you will discover that there are several minuscule muscle that control the vocal cords. And phonetically, the thinner and shorter the vocal cords the higher the pitch.
    Castration arrests the growth of vocal cords which remain childlike: short and thin. Let’s leave it at that.

  • slkinsey

    @Constantine A. Papas: Yes, of course there are several muscles that control the action of the vocal folds. However, you still don’t seem to understand how the voice instrument works. Have you ever seen laryngoscope video of phonation?
    .
    You are correct that length of the vocal folds corresponds to the natural pitch of the voice. Women have shorter vocal folds than men, and their natural range is pitched higher. However, once the voice is fully mature, the length of the vocal folds cannot be changed without also changing the tension of the vocal folds. Imagine that it is like a rubber band. When the rubber band is short and thick, it produces a low pitch; when the rubber band is stretched long and thin, it produces a high pitch. Here is a video where you can clearly see the relationship between pitch and vocal cord length (it’s not as dramatic as it could be, because the patient does not explore a particularly wide range of pitches, especially low ones):
    .
    youtube.com/watch?v=fw8M3yn8928
    .
    It is true that the vocal folds are slightly shorter for high notes with a greater proportion of chest mechanism compared to those same notes executed with a smaller proportion of chest mechanism. This is due to tensioning action from activation of the vocalis muscle. Still, overall the vocal folds will be longer on a high C than a middle C, and overall longer for a “head dominated” vocal production compared to a “chest dominated” production (there is no such thing as “chest dominated production” above about G4 for any singer, give or take a few pitches depending on how naturally high or low the voice may be). Too much activation of the vocalis muscle and to much thickening/shortening of the vocal folds, and it becomes impossible on a physiological basis to phonate the pitch. We’ve all heard what happens when male singers go for a high note with “too much chest voice.” This is why it is important to balance these effects of chest mechanism with an appropriate “amount” of head mechanism. The end result (hopefully) is that the vocal folds are thickened to an extent that produces a muscular “chesty” tone and they are also stretched and lengthened to a sufficient extent for the tone to be phonated and “free.” This really only applies to male singers to the extent I am describing here. Female singers don’t employ nearly as much chest mechanism in 80% of their range.
    .
    @Oralia Concepcion: It is only partly true that differences in tone at different pitches are due to differences in resonance. It is quite easy for a trained singer to execute two tones on the same pitch into the same resonant space and achieve a different output due to the the amount of chest mechanism present. All of which is to say that the resonators are very important — the resonant qualities of the voice instrument change with pitch, and trained singer also reconfigure the vocal tract to manipulate the resonance in response to differences in pitch, vowel, etc. But the source sound is important as well, and that is created by the vocal folds.
    .
    This is basic acoustics, and is familiar to most any singer who spends a significant amount of time singing with both head-dominated and chest-dominated vocal production (e.g., tenors). For most women, this only comes in to play on the lowest tones in their range, which are the only ones where a truly chest-dominated production is possible. Many, perhaps most women singers choose to never transition to a chest-dominated production. But all you have to do is listen to someone like Cossotto sing F4 in open chest and also in mixed voice to understand that most of the difference in tone is due to a difference in the source sound (which results from a difference in the action of the vocal cords).

  • Constantine A. Papas

    Slkinsey,

    I don’t see what the argument is. In your last post you confirm what I’ve said in my previous post. BTW not only I’ve seen a laryncoscope but I’ve used one. I’m an MD, fascinated with the miracle of singing, albeit not an ENT specialist.

  • slkinsey

    @Constantine A. Papas: I guess perhaps I misunderstood what you were saying when you wrote things such as “thinner and shorter the vocal cords the higher the pitch” which is not factually correct.
    .
    Overall we can say that (1) above about G4 the muscular action of the vocal instrument is dominated by “head mechanism” and its lengthening/thinning effect (“chest mechanism” dominated production being a physical impossibility on these pitches); (2) sung pitches in this range that incorporate a greater proportion of “chest mechanism” will be somewhat shorter/thicker than the same pitches sung with a lesser proportion of “chest mechanism” due to activation of the vocalis muscle; and (3) all things being equal, the vocal folds are longer for higher pitches than they are for lower pitches. We can also say that lung capacity and the ability to produce or incorporate chest mechanism are not related.

  • Constantine A. Papas

    Slkinsey,

    The shorter and thinner the vocal cords the higher the pitch. Why castrati had high pitch? Because castration stopped the growth of vocal cords that remain at the boy soprano size. A soprano has shorter and thinner vocal cords than a mezzo. The same analogy applies to tenors, baritones and bassos. It’s the same thing with strings instruments. They all have four strings and can play the same line, but the length and thickness of the cords are different. A base can play the same line but will never reach the pitch of a violin. Of course the body-resonator- has to be bigger. Your comments are rather broad, and my comments are specific which you never addressed, like castrati and long distance runners. You’re entitled to your opinion but facts are facts. Why older tenors transpose their line to a lower range? Because the vocal cords have become longer and thicker.
    Talk to any ENT specialists who follow opera singers. I’ve talked to one who followed Met singers, while touring where voices were exposed to unusual strains. A minuscule swelling of the vocal cord can lower the pitch, making a tenor sound like a baritone and out of the perfomance.