The Counter-intuitive Passaggio

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.


7 responses to “The Counter-intuitive Passaggio

  1. Thanks for another profound post
    as I understand from this post :
    Tenor B doesn’t know how to turn the voice in the passaggio and consequently pulls more chest voice up in the scale and literally can’t Cover the voice.
    Tenor C introduces head tone too early in the scale and puts chest voice aside before the proper moment and therefore loses Appoggio as he ascends in the scale and disconnects from support.
    BUT what about TENOR A??? you say:” 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 my question is “how could one have lots of chest even when he has turned the voice or covered the voice? and if so, what is he doing physically or in terms of vowels that causes that CHEST DOMINATED COVERED SOUND? I mean what is he doing unintentionally that makes him to don’t let go of the chest even when he accurately turned the voice??
    finally please offer some exercise for TENOR A, because it seems that I am one of that type tenors..
    thank you

  2. This is awesome, thanks Jack. Now all i gotta do is figure out am I tenor A, B, or C…… hmmm… D? Actually it really just depends on day of the week for me I think 😀

  3. Thank you Jack, I just discovered your blog this morning for the first time. I am a young tenor who just received his first acceptance to a masters program in vocal performance. This post has great insight, but I was hoping you might offer some further advice or insight my way, as I feel I am equal parts of tenor A and C. I have only recently achieved some level of function in and above my passaggio, but I do a definite switch right at F#, from Tenor A’s chesty sound to Tenor C’s head dominant approach. Often times in repertoire when jumping from below the “turn” to above it, without passing through it, lets say on phrases like “d’une ame innocente” from Faust’s aria that sustains the passaggio Ab, I can sort of “fake” a legato within my singing by allowing the lower Ab to be less resonant or lighter and almost pushing the resonance in the higher Ab. I have never been corrected in this, but I feel I have much more depth in my voice I have not figured out how to keep consistent without sacrificing a legato or even a basic ability to sing smoothly through the passaggio. In the B section of the same aria (“O nature, c’est la’….”), there are two phrases that pass through the passaggio. My ability to sort of fake my way through it is very weekend by the simple fact that the drastic change from a chesty E and F climbing stepwise to an F# that is suddenly head-dominant is too drastic of a change. I’ve been critically told by one of my coaches that I give the impression of two different tenors singing rather than one, if you know what I mean.

    Is there any advice you may have other than trying to blend the two, so that my chesty middle contains more qualities of the head voice and vice versa? I’ve read all the interviews and several other posts now of yours in the last couple of hours because this blog is so thorough and backed by the highest quality of vocal technicians, and I’ve noted the necessity of maintaining a low relaxed larynx throughout the registers guided by a relaxed and deep inhalation and continued support, while allowing the feeling of squillo being reflected from the hard palate constantly as well. These are two/three ideas I will work on my own and address with my own teacher to hopefully smooth out the gap in my passaggio. Other than that, I listen to a lot of bjorling and pavarotti….

  4. Hi Jack, I’ve been following your blog. Truely a Tenor Treasure Trove!
    Maybe you could help me with my Passaggio. With me the second harmonic is dominant until Ab4, with an equal 7th hartmonic. The third becoming dominant from A onwards. though the singers formant region lessons as the third is enhanced. do you know what might cause this?

    Thank you!

    • Sounds like you have focused on relaxing and opening the throat, but have opened the larynx along with it. The sound should be felt originating directly above the cords and from their moving to the mask. The place where the voice meets the breath should feel like a narrow place. The anchor for the voice should be the ringing quality of the singer’s formant, not the feeling of space.

  5. LOL, Immediate improvement! need to work on it though! i can see that narrowing boosts the harmonics from the 3rd up with a big effect on 5-7.

    Have you noticed this; if i record my voice and use the spectrograph the fundamental almost disappears however if i look at the spectrograph live my fundamental is only about 10-25 DB lower?! have you seen this?
    My voice struggles at the moment with a hollow hooty even airy tone above G which is usually a characteristic of a strong fundamental. correct?
    Thanks again

  6. I should explain how i’m doing this i suppose.
    You see i have read through all of this blog and most of Kashu-do!
    and yet as my voice progresses i find myself going back and getting a different meaning and greater understanding as i go on my tenor journey.

    I am currently using the EE vowel to narrow the sound. This is giving me a very powerful 4th harmonic it can be 40db above the first 2 and often 20db above the 5-7th. from B4 (just now also Bb) i am now able to tune the second formant to the 3rd harmonic. The problem being the 2nd harmonic which likes to jump up and show off when i go for an open vowel!
    I think it’s coming though.

    The other thing is i am using this EE to feel the vibration in my mask(nose cheeks etc) and using this as a guide for all other vowels. this seems to boost harmonics 4-6 very well.

    So I am now getting greater squillo as well a great sense of second formant dominance. early days of course!!

    Thank you Mr Li vigni

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