The passaggio is a really hard thing to master for all voices. Why? Because it is too high for the register you are ascending from and too low for the register you are entering. In other words tenors, when you sing a G, that is pretty low for the head voice, but it is also way too high for the chest voice. Finding the balance of the registers is much more counter-intuitive than students imagine. Passaggio singing is like a heightened vocal tug-of-war. The opposing forces are chest voice and head voice, each with their relative muscular groups.
For example, Tenor A has lots of chest voice active even after the passaggio. This has a negative impact on the sound because even though he correctly turns the voice, he has to hyper-activate the muscles that balance the registration. So as he ascends the “letting go” process where the head voice is supposed to gently start dominating, allowing the chords to stretch (laryngeal tilt), doesn’t happen easily. The ascent becomes a huge labor, often causing excessive damping where only a portion of the cords actually vibrate, causing the voice to flip into more of a falsetto.
Tenor B: this is another set of problems emerging particularly right around E and F where the voice is so chest dominant that the tenor is unable to sing easily with cavita’ because the OO position is constantly compromised by excessive chest.
Tenor C instead sings his F# , G, and G# with insufficient chest, so the voice disconnects from the breath and moves more toward a falsetto, picking up steam eventually as he gets higher.
One thing is valid for all: when the balance is wrong, it is very difficult to get a highly harmonic sound. The voice cannot become “chiusa” or in other words, the voce finta mechanism that produces a very refined, laser-like sound cannot emerge.
Let’s take Tenor B. He has too much chest on the E and F, so how do we get him to let the chords stretch and find more cavita’ – more of the OO throat? The solution is to seek a deeper sound origination in the chest, that also lives above the mouth, and forward. But wait! Isn’t singing deeper in the chest “chest voice?” This is where things get counter-intuitive. The answer to that question is mostly NO. To get the real chest voice to rumble in the chest on a middle F would be DISASTROUS for the voice. Most of the time, excessive chest just causes the voice to “crush” in the mouth, meaning that it loses depth and feels like it is very much in the mouth. Getting a deeper resonance in the chest on a middle F brings a darker, more hollow feeling, and is linked to heightened head voice function.
Here is a wonderful explanation and example of this from Carlo Bergonzi. He shows how the phrase Celeste Aida (going to middle F) often is sung in the mouth. Listen to the first few phrases. He demonstrates how often tenors sing more of an AH, pulling more chest, and the sound crushes in the mouth. This is too much chest. He then demonstrates the correct way, where he introduces more of the OO throat (head tone mechanism), balancing out the F wonderfully with “morbidezza” (taking out the tensions of bad registration). So Tenor B needs to learn what Bergonzi is doing more. What is counter-intuitive is that getting this sense of cavita’ on the F will feel like the voice is rooted more in the sternum… but that is more head voice not chest. Here is where language becomes a problem. This is why Italians don’t use the phrase “piu’ petto,” or more chest, even though it feels connected to the torso. They would say something like “piu’ rotondo”, “piu’ cavita'”, “piu’ sulla OO”, “meno in bocca”, or even “piu’ profondo.”
Tenor A, here is the issue: if a tenor doesn’t let go of chest in the ascent, the cords will not stretch and a flowing resonant top will be impossible. What tenors with this problem often do is get more pressed and bright. I think this brings about a smaller portion of the length of the chords vibrating (damping?) while the other part is glued together, effectively raising the pitch, but often sounding like a reinforced falsetto and not a full voice.
The solution is to think of a darker core (first layer) that acts as a shock absorber to this pressing. Here is the counter-intuitive part: to get bright you have to think dark at the center of the tone. The brighter and more forward you think while you are in this conundrum and the more the chords will press to get squillo. The solution is to think of a bright sound surrounding the dark core (see my posts on the first layer of the vowel).
Tenor B, start your tone in a very specific type of deep hooty “vertical” falsetto and feel the shape of the throat. Sing on an Eflat, and then gently just go right into a “wuuaahhh” sound without losing the shape of the throat and the sense of depth and length. If the sound crushes you will sense that the “stretch” of the head tone is diminished. Again, go back to what Bergonzi is doing in that masterclass clip in the first few seconds to hear the difference of the stretch compared to the collapse.
Tenor C, you need to think of the passaggio as though it were open. If you go into excessive head tone on an F# or G, it is way too low for that tone to be able to properly connect to the breath pressure effectively. You cannot get a “voce chiusa” or “suono raccolto” (a correctly focused sound connected to the breath pressure) this way. You have to think that when the voice turns it is remaining much more open than what you think it should. This is where things are counterintuitive: in order for you to turn the voice and “cover” the sound, you need to “open” it. I am not talking about vowels, and I am not talking about position in the mouth. I am talking about the function of being more linked to the qualities of phonation that dominate when you are in the C-F range (when done properly). The switch between the open and turned voice then becomes much more nuanced than you would imagine, though very significant and exact.
In my studio we address all these issues through a series of very specific exercises meant to gradually move the voice from middle to cover. It is a very simple exercise: 1-3-5-6-5-3-1, 1-3-5-6-5-6-5-6-5-3-1, and 1-3-5-5b-5-5b-5-6-5-3-1. Sometimes one has to bring up more of the middle voice qualities, sometimes the turned qualities have to be brought down. Depends on the issues of the singer. One thing is certain: it is essential to let the very specific focused ring of the squillo guide the process. It is not enough to have a relaxed phonation. One must have a relaxed, balanced phonation that also has squillo.