How the Voice Changes in the Upper Register

In this post I will explain and demonstrate how phonation changes in the passaggio, not just the vowel, but the actual type of voice.   Great tenors had “blazing sword” high notes, like Filippeschi, Gedda, Lauri Volpi; as also today with Piotr Beczala (lighter) and Giordani (spinto).

The path to a secure upper register has much to do with skill in stretching and thinning out the vocal folds. The cry phonation – or what I like to call “voce magra” (literally “thinner voice”) or “voce allegerita” (or “lightened voice”) is weird.  It’s not going to be intuitive at first.  Why in the world would you phonate in this strange sound? 

In the following 1st clip I show what the cry sounds like, and how it can be present in both the speaking and singing voice.


The cry phonation in the “troncar suoi di'” was purposefully exaggerated to give you an idea of how it is incorporated into the middle voice. The feeling is very relaxed. It is not at all constricted.  DO NOT try to achieve this cry by tightening your throat.  Notice all the sighs?  I do that to give you a clue that it is not constricted.  The cords are closed and thin, but the throat is relaxed as in the beginning of a yawn.  Why would sing with that weird sound?  Can’t you just sing “normal”?  Building the cry into your upper middle voice makes the cry stronger in the passaggio, as we hear in Filippeschi, Gedda, and Bjoerling.  Many learn to sing this way in the top, but not in the passaggio.  Fact is we sing more in the passaggio than we do in the top, so we should know how to sing with this bright sound in the passaggio without losing the depth of the middle voice. 

In the following 2nd clip, I show the difference between cry phonation in the middle voice between high and low larynx.  The low larynx cry is darker and wider, but feels just like the sigh, easy and relaxed.

cry furtiva

Taking a deep breath and expanding the lower ribs helps tug the larynx down, and singing in the yawn position relaxes the throat open.  The tongue should be forward on the lower teeth.

In this position you learn how to sing full in the low voice up to around a middle D.  You will feel connected to the lower voice as you ascend.  That is the foundation. This is where you start. As you sing between D and F, vowels take on more of an UH or EU (as in the French “peu”) vowel position if your larynx continues to stay in a low range. In this area of the voice you can also insert characteristics of the EH vowel into that EU.

The EU/UH vowel is wide, and feels like an open tube of sound is headed straight for the space in the back of the throat – where your tonsils are, and above it.  The EH vowel is brighter and makes the voice ring more (higher resonance).  When you sing in this D-F range with an UGH vowel, insert an EH into the EU, but don’t lose the EU position.  You will notice the your tongue will want to move forward and the body of it raise just a little up front, while the back stays down. This is good. The EU is keeping your larynx relaxed low, while the EH component is closing your cords. 

The trick to the passaggio is to keep that EU deep while thinning the cords by “crying” – keeping the EH component as bright as possible.  This cry feels like cracking.  You are right on the verge of cracking, but your vocal folds learn to withstand the pressure. The most talented tenors, far more talented than myself, had laser-like sounds in this position in the passaggio and in the top. 

For your pleasure, here is a truly great tenor, Mario Filippeschi.  How some tenors are ignorant of Filippeschi is beyond me.  You will hear clearly the cry, the depth, and the amazing ring in the passaggio and upper voice.


Masters of the cry phonation are of course Caruso, Bjoerling, Gigli, Gedda, and many other greats.  All the greats incorporate a bright EH component in the upper register as soon as they turn the voice in the passaggio.  Sometimes, the EH is so bright that it overpowers the UGH. Listen to Caruso sing “l’ora e’ fuggita e muoio disperato” from E Lucevan.

Caruso passaggio vowels – E lucevan

Doesn’t it sound like L’ora e’ Fuggiteh? If you listen carefully you hear that it’s not an EH vowel, but the EH component is ringing so strong that the vowel is modified by it.  This causes the pressure of the voice to be very strong above in the mask. It becomes your job to balance the EU and the EH. This becomes a game, where you play with 2nd formant and singer’s formant harmonics.

The reason this way of singing the passaggio should be built from the middle voice is because it’s a sure way to train your vocal folds to keep closed even with higher pressures. The cry is compressed but the throat remains supple… Pavarotti would say the passaggio is “squeezed” but with a relaxed sound.  He insightfully stated that it is “the voice” that is squeezed, not the throat (Great Singers on Great Singing).  There has to be enough chest to give the cry strength to resist the air pressure. On a later date I will talk about appoggio, and how the sound resists the air. 

By singing strong in the middle and then inserting the cry into that middle voice, we learn how to sing with strong breath pressures on the cry.  Then when we turn the voice in the passaggio, we increasingly let go of chest, and the cry takes over more.  However, the EU has to anchor the voice low, so that it doesn’t thin out too much.  If it thins out too much and we try to maintain the volume, the cords will overcompress and the sound will get pinched and too narrow. We compensate for the thinness by compressing the cords.  What we should have done is carry a little more chest – more EU (2nd formant, release).  This is how we learn how to ascend to the very top range.

There are variations on this theme.  Some tenors are trained to have strong mask resonance, and so they incorporate a lot of the EH ring, like Gedda for example.  While others focus more on the width of the voice, like Corelli.

Just because I love Filippeschi’s – William Tell, I felt inspired to sing a few excerpts myself to show how the thin mechanism sets you up for the highest notes.

Voce magra Tell – Li Vigni

Did I give you enough to think about?


7 responses to “How the Voice Changes in the Upper Register

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention How the Voice Changes in the Upper Register | Tenor Talk Blog --

  2. Thanks for posting the recordings exhibiting the “cry.” I very often use spoken sounds as a guide and a corrective in my vocal practice, but hitherto I could find no mode of speech to provide me with a model for what I have to do in the upper singing range. This “cry” is the first thing that I have found that promises to be of help in that connection.

  3. I came upon these clips of Filippeschi I wanted to share, and analyze.

    First is Di Quella Pira

    Second is Celeste Aida

    Its obvious to everyone here how different the registration is he chooses between the two. I’d like to better understand those choices. Jack, care to comment on them? They are important for me to understand because I can do the same, but don’t yet understand the criteria on the WHEN. His F’s in the Celeste are a very classic approach, and something that is sorta fallen by the wayside. My coach wishes I would choose the same. Tell me why I would choose to please. The whole apparatus sits more baritonal in the Radames. I am very interested in trying to figure out why he chose what he did.

    As a note aside, just stumbled upon this clip of Tucker singing “crossover.”

    Every SINGLE Gnat on ah vowel, uncovered. And I would swear I was listening to Lanza at moments. My gosh, what an immense talent. Incomparable.

    • Great observations! Filippeschi is someone I have studied quite a bit. One of the things I will be doing on the blog is analyzing specific singers under “the microscope” – to draw conclusions about their technique and approach; and also their artistic choices.

      So, I am going to start off with Filippeschi.

      In the meantime, I think the approach is the same. What’s interesting to me is that in the Trovatore he purposefully leaves the Gs open. I think he does this because he is preparing for the High Cs and wants to make them as powerful as he can without overdoing it. Covering too much might weigh down the instrument. What I have found is that covering a lot the passaggio when one will be singing high makes us think very low with the larynx, and instead for the high parts we should be thinking “flexible” with the larynx. Some are successful both ways, like Pavarotti and Corelli. That doesn’t mean high larynx – it just means don’t aim to depress. To get a big sound in the passaggio while covered requires a lot of appoggio and often a pretty low larynx. Opening up allows us to lighten up and keep more flexible with the larynx.

      In the Celeste Aida the aim is legato. Also, he is always in the same position on top.

  4. The Tenor’s dirty little secret: “Covering too much might weigh down the instrument.”

    Over the years, I have gone at singing in the same way as I was brought up to view biblical doctrine: dogmatically. When something is right, it is always right. When wrong, there is no sorta-wrong.

    And the approach to the passaggio has been the same. The optimal F#/G being one that is not “yelly and open like Pippo’s.” For a long time I struggled with not being able to re-create onstage the disciplined approach of a burnished and covered passaggio onstage. There are so many variables onstage, that unless I chose to stand stock still for the entire onstage experience, my attempts were always thrwarted. Never mind I could hear Pav singing wide open Ab’s in the Karajan recording of Boheme. Never mind, I could hear Tucker or Caruso or Corelli singing wide open G’s in approaches to high notes. No, if something was right, I would righteously and rigorously attempt it.

    Then I figured out dogma and singing don’t mix.

    Since then, I have reconciled myself to what you say. Choices made while singing must be in relation to each other on a horizontal line. Not a vertical one. What is right can also be wrong. What is wrong can also be more expressive and liberating.

    One of today’s most beautiful and technically proficient tenors currently singing Romeo is criticized for being bland. And for what reason? Because he tirelessly chooses a dogmatic vocal approach. And I say more power to him. I admire his singing greatly. He’s all class.

    But for myself, I found I couldn’t operate in that world, that I would choose a path that lent (hopefully) greater expression, and that meant allowing the “wrong.” All this to say, I can come to understand in my own singing what I have heard in the great italian tenor I so admire: There is a balance, a ratio of covered to uncovered passaggio singing in any given nite. It’s about 70% covered to 30% uncovered. YMMV. Finally allowing this “wrongness” has freed up the top and lets me fly onstage, rather than worry about ‘maintaining.’ When I accepted what my ears and instincts were telling me, I found this blog and found the tools necessary to “hide” and beautify what I was doing, that the open throated Gnat did not have to sound like bad Di Stefano.

    -Uh in relation to ay.
    -Open throat does not have to mean yelly.
    -The Supported Sound can take many paths.

  5. Pingback: Is it always good to cover? | Tenor Talk Blog

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