You are on page 1of 4

Djarts Voice Coaching ~


In Practice: Transitions
By Dr Daniel K. Robinson

A transition, classically known as the passaggio, is the connecting channel that spans the registers. Thurman and Welch (2000) identify three points of transition nominating two circumstances which facilitate their occurrence:
1. Transitions that are the result of deliberate or habitual motor signalling for shortener-lengthener muscle adjustments; and 2. Transitions that are triggered by sensations that are produced by vocal resonance effects, that then trigger shortener-lengthener muscle reactions (p. 426)

For most singers the primary transition (between the lower and upper registers) and the secondary transition (between the upper and flute/falsetto registers) are troublesome points in the voice and often reveal themselves as ‘breaks’ or as missing notes1. The third (or tertiary) transition occurs between the pulse and lower register and generally requires little, if any, attention. As we proceed it is important to understand that not all contemporary genres require or desire a smoothing out of the register transitions. Dianne Hughes (2010) reminds us that “while vocal exercises aim to minimise passaggio events and stabilise transition areas within the singer’s vocal range, often the vocal delivery of PCM [Popular Culture Musics] necessitates exaggerated transitions” (p. 248). This being said, the benefit of learning to smooth out the transitions requires a high level of muscle-breath coordination and is therefore a skill worthy of developing; if not only to facilitate greater levels of artistic choice. In Practice: The first practical step in working towards a smoothing of the register transitions is the development of even and managed breath flow. Consciously and purposefully monitoring the flow of air through the vocal tract is crucial in “allowing the fine discrete manoeuvres within the larynx to take place free of unnecessary tension” (Chapman & Morris, 2006b, p. 92). I have found the methodology of ‘Accent Breath’ to be an excellent standard of breath management for my students. Chapman and Morris (2006a) describe Accent Breath Method as “diaphragmatic/belly-release inhalation…[that] does not recruit any expiratory muscles during the in-breath, but relies on a flexible abdominal wall which allows the diaphragm to descend quickly, fully, and efficiently” (p. 41). The second foundational work required for transitional exercise is the strengthening of the whole voice. During the 90’s contemporary singers were encouraged to develop their ‘shortener dominance’ (chest voice) almost to the exclusion of any ‘lengthener’ (head voice) activity. The fraternity of contemporary vocal discipline can no longer hold to such dogma, with many
The interested reader may benefit from a broader understanding of voice registers. A brief article, ‘Voice Registration’ can be accessed here - © Dr Daniel K. Robinson - 2012 Page 1 of 4

Djarts Voice Coaching ~

commercially successful popular music singers selling their vocal artistry on the basis of their lengthener dominant sound. Workshopping the ‘whole voice’ is therefore necessary. When I commence with new students in the studio I certainly start in the lower register (often with a shortener dominant activity) but I work the voice through the transitional area into the upper register. Importantly, I then return down the scale descending back through the transitional area. For most women (and some men) once the voice transitions into the upper register, and the lengthener muscles engage, the voice can find it difficult to reengage the shortener dominance (during descent) at the same point as it was engaged on the ascent. My encouragement to students at this point is always, “It’s alright to transition on the way up, as long as you aim to transition at the same point on the way back down!” Once the student singer has taken the opportunity to strengthen their registers I start to require the voice to maintain particular settings. For example, I might ask the singer to try and continue up the voice while engaging a shortener dominant activity. The moment the voice transitions (often experienced as a ‘flip’ or ‘break’) the exercise stops and restarts from a lower point (generally where we originally commenced) with the clear aim of trying to maintain the shortener dominance for one extra semitone higher. Notice here that it is only a semitone. Occasionally the student voice will achieve larger steps, but it has been my experience that when exercising and stretching laryngeal muscles ‘baby steps’ are best! The following diagram (Figure 1) illustrates what we are trying to achieve here: Once the voice is able to manage the breath flow (with sensitivity focused on Lengthener  subtle changes in sub-glottal pressure) and Dominance the student singer has spent some time (often months, not weeks) exercising the whole voice according to what I have described above, the challenging task of ‘smoothing’ begins. Daniel Zangger Borch Shortener  (2005) terms the smoothing of transitions Dominance as equalising stating “we can compare equalising with smoothly changing gears Figure 1: Overlap of transi onal points while driving. The idea is to do it as smoothly as possible by declutching, easing off the accelerator, engaging the next gear and slowly releasing the clutch pedal” (pp. 47–48). Regardless of the terminology (equalisation or smoothing) the goal is the same: reduce and/or eliminate the audible cue that the gears have changed. At this point there are innumerable exercises that can be used to help the voice navigate the transitions with increasing coordination and smoothness. Accordingly, the exercise I offer here should not be prescribed as the ‘only’ activity worthy of use; albeit tried and true.

© Dr Daniel K. Robinson - 2012

Page 2 of 4

Djarts Voice Coaching ~

Sirens Often described as the “sound of an emergency vehicle with its siren sounding” (Kayes, 2004, p. 7), sirens move the voice through pitches in a sliding pattern. The following exercise causes the voice to travel through the transitional areas without hitting specific pitches. Using a siren on an ‘ng’ (as in sing), require the voice to move across ever increasing ellipses (Figure 2):

Secondary Transi on

Primary Transi on

Start and finish in the pulse register
Figure 2: Siren ellipses

While sounding the siren, ask the singer to approach the transition points like a speed bump in a car: slow and smooth. That is, commence the siren, and as the voice ascends the singer should seek to consciously slow the melodic rate (not by much) while they work to reduce the kinaesthetic sense of pressure flowing through the vocal tract. Allow the voice to continue through the apex of the ellipses turning into the descending slide. During the descent the singer should aim to transition at approximately the same point as the ascent; using the same ‘slow as you go’ approach utilised on the ascension. When the voice starts to achieve relative coordination of the sirens, scales of increasing difficulty (that move through the transitional point) should be introduced. Additionally, conducting the scales with a lip bubble or a tongue trill may provide further stability to the muscle-breath balance. I would also suggest that you try the lip bubble on the sirens as outlined above.

© Dr Daniel K. Robinson - 2012

Page 3 of 4

Djarts Voice Coaching ~

The two points to monitor throughout the process are: 1. Body Alignment: ensure that all extrinsic muscular remains balanced, with no obvious exertion or protrusion of the head and neck. 2. Breath Management: breath flow and pressure rates, as is often the case, are the key ingredient here. Too much pressure and the larynx will want to brace (valve) against the increased subglottal pressure. Too little pressure and the voice will not feel secure as it moves through the registers and their transitions. Some voices will struggle at first to gain the balanced coordination that I am advocating here. Encourage the singer to step through the strategy with patience and diligent practice; it won’t happen overnight…you know the rest! References Borch, D. Z. (2005). Ultimate vocal voyage: The definitive method for unleashing the rock, pop or soul singer within you. Bromma, Sweden: Notfabriken Music Publishing AB. Chapman, J. L., & Morris, R. (2006a). Breathing and support. In J. L. Chapman (Ed.), Singing and teaching singing: A holistic approach to classical voice (pp. 39–58). San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing Inc. Chapman, J. L., & Morris, R. (2006b). Resonance. In J. L. Chapman (Ed.), Singing and teaching singing: A holistic approach to classical voice (pp. 81–96). San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing Inc. Hughes, D. (2010). Developing vocal artistry in popular culture musics. In S. D. Harrison (Ed.), Perspectives on teaching singing: Australian vocal pedagogues sing their stories (pp. 244–258). Brisbane, QLD: Australian Academic Press. Kayes, G. (2004). Singing and the actor (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge. Thurman, L., Welch, G., Theimer, A., Grefsheim, E., & Feit, P. (2000). The voice qualities that are referred to as 'vocal registers'. In L. Thurman & G. Welch (Eds.), Bodymind and voice: Foundations of voice education (Vol. 2, pp. 421–448). St. John's University, MI: The VoiceCare Network.

Who is Dr Daniel K. Robinson?

Daniel is a freelance artist and educator. In 2011 Daniel completed his Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the Queensland Conservatorium Grif ith University. He has served as National Vice President (2009–11) and National Secretary for the Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing (2006–11). Daniel is the principal Singing Voice Specialist for Djarts ( and presents workshops and seminars to church singers across Australia and abroad. He and his wife Jodie have three children and live in Brisbane, Queensland Australia.

© Dr Daniel K. Robinson - 2012

Page 4 of 4