What causes register break in the singing voice

Learning to sing is an extremely rewarding, fun and engaging activity that helps you develop lots of great skills outside of actually singing. It is common to see some emerging singers lack the confidence to be fully expressive performers because of either:

1. A limited vocal range; or

2. A “breaking point” that segments their range. Still, others have come to believe that the “breaking point” in their range, or register break, is a natural part of a singer’s voice. This belief alone causes them to invent ways of hiding or maneuvering around an aspect of their voice they wish was not there. But is it really true that this is a natural part of a person’s voice?

What is a vocal register break?

Let’s define “register break” as those few transitional notes that crossover from your lower to your upper range, where your voice suddenly cracks, becomes weak or is difficult to control. In classical voice training, this is called the “passage” or passagio (a passageway between two sections of vocal range). This is usually between one to three crossover notes which suddenly become weak or crack and are difficult to control.

Though there are some variations, this break is normally experienced from the E to F# above Middle C for men. For women, it is either those same notes an octave higher, or a Bb to a C# above Middle C. That said, it depends on lots of factors, including your voice type, age and anatomy. There is no hard and fast rule. Above these notes, the singer may be able to regain a sense of vocal control and recapture some vocal quality. The register of notes above the register break is often thought of by men as their “falsetto” range and by women as their “head voice.”

How anatomy influences vocal breaks

You need some knowledge of your larynx, more commonly called the voice box, to understand why the register break occurs. Your two vocal folds, incorrectly called vocal cords, lie horizontally side by side across the top of your windpipe inside the larynx. The front tip of the larynx is your Adam’s apple.

In order to achieve faster vibrations (higher pitches), your larynx tilts down into the center of the throat so that the vocal folds can lengthen. As they do so, the muscles of the folds become thinner. Simultaneously, the inner rims of the folds press together permitting only a shorter section to vibrate. As you sing lower, the larynx resumes its original horizontal position allowing the vocal folds to become thicker so that a longer length of them can vibrate. This is similar to fretting guitar strings (shortening them for higher pitches) and the various thicknesses of strings on a string instrument: thicker = slower vibrations and lower pitches, thinner = faster vibrations and higher pitches.

These small variations of movement need to be accomplished smoothly and to different subtle degrees, depending on the pitches intended. It is important to know that this tilting, thickening and thinning process will happen automatically. You don’t have to make this happen with your external throat muscles, jaw movements or tongue positions!

So, what causes the break?

The usual cause is too much air pressure under the vocal folds due to a lack of regulated breath support. Excessive air will push your vocal folds apart, preventing them from properly facilitating sound. Instinctively, your throat muscles tighten to hold them together. However, for your voice box to tilt downward (which it must do as you sing higher) your external throat muscles must relax. When they relax the excessive air blows your vocal folds apart and voila – register break! Those few transition notes will crack, sound breathy, or be entirely absent depending on how excessive the air stream is and how tense the external muscles are. Again, there is no ‘hard and fast rule’ as to how a vocal break ‘sounds’ or ‘presents itself’ to the teacher. For this reason, you need an experienced teacher guiding you during your singing lessons in Brisbane.

How to solve a vocal register break

The best ways to repair a vocal register break is relatively similar for both male and female voices, but again your trusted singing teacher needs to work closely with you, providing you exercises and activities that are specifically designed for your own voice, because no one-size-fits-all exercise will resolve a break in all voices.

In short, the solution is a regulated air stream that provides just the correct pressure to vibrate your vocal folds with no excess pushing them apart creating muscle tension.

So the keys to singing without register break are:

1) a properly regulated air stream is sent to your vocal folds; and

2) the tongue and throat muscles are relaxed and permitted to function naturally and automatically – not manipulated.

Your teacher should always be paying close attention to tongue, throat and other tension – this goes without saying. There are many kinds and variants of tension in your body which can inhibit your singing quality and comfort, so that’s a critical thing to watch out for. However, sometimes tension can present in very subtle ways. Ask your teacher to watch you closely to see if they notice any additional tension that you’re not picking up on yourself.

There are also two great exercises that you can do to help reduce strain and bridge the registers in your voice.

1) Blowing through a straw – yes, it’s that simple. By using your lower abdomen to support your breathing out in a consistent, non-pushed way and without any tension in your throat, you can start to train an even breath-flow. This will help bridge your vocal break, but it’s not enough on its own. Also, don’t breathe in through the straw – that’s not useful. Just exhaling and with consistent, smooth flow.

2) Singing downward scales – singing downward scales (in any type of key or tonality) absolutely help bridge vocal breaks in both male and female voices. I have done this for many years with students of all ages and skill levels, including some post-surgical recovery singers (after nodule treatment, or similar). It is, without a doubt, the single-handed most useful exercise you can do for a broken, cracky register bridge. I like to use a variety of sounds, but I find singing “Nay, nay, nay” on each note to be very effective, as is “loose” and “law”, but not to each note, rather sounding the word once and carrying the vowel downwards. Need help learning to sing in Brisbane? Get in touch with Dr Dan Jess.

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