[Author’s note: This post remains one of the most popular on this blog 5 years after it’s publish date. Since then, I’ve developed these ideas into Sound Affinities, which you can use to Create Your Own Vocal Exercises.]
A well-developed mix means we don’t have a noticeable break in the middle of the voice. It means we can sing with exactly the volume and clarity and vowel we want on any pitch we want. Mix is what we need when we’re not singing at our loudest, or softest, or highest, or lowest, which means we need it most of the time.
Two opposing muscle sets coordinate together to make many different combinations of volume and pitch. Generally, the cricothyroids (CT’s) help control pitch and the thyroarytenoids (TA’s) help control volume. They have to work together to make a certain pitch at a certain volume.
The cricothyroids (CT’s) make the vocal folds thinner and longer, which raises the pitch, like what happens when you make a guitar string thinner and more tense with a tuning peg. The more they contract, the higher the pitch goes. The less they contract, the lower the pitch goes.
The TA’s make the vocal folds thicker, stiffer, and shorter, which makes the sound louder and clearer (less breathy), and also helps us hit lower notes. The more they contract, the louder the sound gets. The less they contract, the softer the sound gets (except on very high pitches…F5 and up…where the vocal folds get stiff because the vocal ligament has stretched so much).
(There are also muscles that pull the backs of the vocal folds together to help with volume and clarity, but in order to keep everything simpler, I’m going to leave them out of the today’s discussion. Please read more about the vocal fold adductors in other resources to learn more.)
There is a point on the spectrums of pitch and volume when the CT’s become more dominant than the TA’s, or vice versa. That midline is what most people call the “big break” in the voice. On each side of the “big break” are head-dominant sounds (above the break) and chest-dominant sounds (below the break). The CT’s are most active when we sing above the break in head-dominant sounds, which are more soft, sweet, round, and etherial and usually happen most naturally on higher notes. The TA’s are most active when we sing below the break in chest-dominant sounds, which are louder, edgier, brassy sounds and usually happen most naturally on low notes. When the TA’s give up a bit, but are still dominant, the sound qualities it creates are still there, but with a little of the CT’s sound qualities mixed in. You can think of the sounds like colors with TA as red, CT as blue, and their mixes (the violets) being more blue-ish or red-ish depending on the muscle set that’s still dominant:
The CT’s and the TA’s do things that make each other’s job harder. For instance, the more the CT’s stretch the vocal folds to take the pitch up, the harder it is for the TA’s the make them thicker for loud, clear sounds. So, in order to sing whatever pitch we want at whatever volume we want, we have to train the CT’s and TA’s to make compromises with each other. One has to relax enough to let the other do its job based on the volume and pitch we want. But if it relaxes too much, we lose the things it was contributing to the sound. For instance, when we want a loud, clear note that’s medium high, the TA’s have to relax enough to let the CT’s stretch the folds for the pitch, but if they relax too much, the sound will be soft and breathy. If the TA’s are too weak, they won’t be able to stay contracted while the CT’s are stretching them. But if the CT’s are too weak or the TA’s won’t relax at all, the pitch will be flat or the singer will hit a pitch ceiling.
Building coordination between these two muscles takes a lot of time. Singers generally come into a lesson with one muscle set more dominant than the other. If their CT’s are dominant (they tend to use more blue), their voices will be softer and breathier, they’ll have an easier time with higher notes, they’ll have a tendency for sharpness, and their big break will be lower in their range. If their TA’s are dominant (they tend to use more red), their voices will be louder and clearer, they’ll have an easier time with lower notes, they’ll have a tendency for flatness, and their big break will be higher in their range. In rare cases, both muscle sets will be strong, but they just won’t coordinate well (or at all) across the big break.
All voices need to make some sort of transition…going from one shade of violet to another…at approximately every B/C and E/F throughout their range. As they go up, the TA’s have to relax just a bit more at each point while the CT’s contract more. As they go down, the TA’s have to contract just a bit more as the CT’s relax more. If the TA’s are very active, a transition point may go between different degrees of chest and chesty mix…like adding just a touch more red into a red-violet. If the TA’s are less active at the transition, a transition point may go between different degrees of head and heady mix, like adding a touch of blue into a blue-violet. These little transitions where the CT’s and TA’s coordinate well are a sign that the larynx is free of excess tension, which will be necessary if we want to access a wide variety of volumes and pitches.
The transition point where the big break should happen varies from style to style. Female CCM singers generally need to push the big break up to at least B4/C5, and some will push it to E5/F5. Male CCM singers have to take it to at least E4/F4, and usually up to B4/C5. Again, singers should be making some kind of transition at every B/C and E/F, usually a very tiny one, but the big break…going from TA-dominant to CT-dominant…will happen at a higher transition point than, say, a classical soprano. In some styles, the big break is supposed to be noticeable, like yodeling and some moments in country and pop music (think the chorus in LeeAnn Rimes’ “Blue” or Alanis Morisette’s “You Oughta Know”). To do this, the TA’s suddenly go from being very contracted to being very relaxed…like going straight from red to blue with no violets between. This specific muscle action has to be trained, as well. But today we’re focusing on smoother transitions since most styles require a smooth mix at least somewhere in the range…one where we hit every shade of violet between…and that requires the TA’s and CT’s to gradually contract and relax as we go up and down and get louder and softer. This isn’t easy.
To train mix for the singer you’re working with, you have to know where the big break is supposed to happen. Since this is a commercial singing blog, I’ll assume that our readers are wanting to train the big break to happen higher in the range since that’s what essentially all CCM singers have to be able do.
To get the big break higher, both the TA’s and CT’s have to get stronger. The TA’s have to keep the sound loud and clear while the CT’s have to be strong enough to take the pitch up. Exercises that strengthen the TA’s will be very different than exercises that strengthen the CT’s.
- When the TA’s are most active, the sound will be low, loud, and clear, so you’ll want to do exercises in the lower part of the range at loud volumes. Get as much hiss (breath flow) out of the sound as possible. Play with vowels to see whether dark (woofy, yawn-y) vowels or bright (nasal, nasty, buggy, meowing) help them get loud, low, clear sounds. It will vary. I often ending up doing some of both. CT-dominant people will often try to blow more air to get louder. They have to feel like they’re gently grunting or holding their breath while they sing instead. Glottal attacks can help CT-dominant people, too.
- When the CT’s are most active, the sound will be high, soft, and breathy, so you’ll want to do exercises in the higher part of the range at soft volumes with lots of airflow. Again, play with vowels to see what helps the student get the sound that tells you the CT’s are working well. TA-dominant people will often want to squeeze or get louder to hit high notes. You’ll have to remind them to get softer and exhale a lot on each note to encourage breath flow. Putting an [h] at the beginning of sounds will help.
In addition to each muscle set getting stronger in its natural habitat, the CT’s and TA’s now have to coordinate in the middle of the voice. This is the hard part, and can take a very long time.
- First, you have to see whether the student can even get the muscles to switch dominance to begin with. For people with low coordination, this will be insanely difficult. Create exercises where they’re going from low pitches on loud volumes to high pitches on soft volumes. e.g. 1-3-5-8-5-3-1 at f-mf-mp-p-mp-mf-f. The voice should go over the big break somewhere in the middle. If it doesn’t, they need to be louder at the bottom and/or softer at the top. As the TA’s and CT’s coordinate better, you may also hear the voice making smaller transitions between different degrees of chest (below the break) and head (above the break), indicated by a different volume and clarity/breathiness level on each note…accessing different shades of red-violet and blue-violet. For CT-dominant people, you’ll have to remind them to start loud at the bottom and get louder on the way back down. For TA-dominant people, you’ll have to remind them to get softer on the way up and wait a little to get louder on the way down. I recommend a sound that requires some tongue and jaw movement to encourage laryngeal movement: yeah, glah, etc.
- Once they can do #1 with separate pitches, try slides. Not too big an interval. Bright, closed vowels (ee, ae) tend to work best. Just like before, start loud at the bottom, gradually change to soft at the top, then get gradually louder on the way down. This will be more challenging than the first one. The big break will be clunky at first for many. Ask them to slide more slowly at the point where their voice wants to break. Again, you’ll have to ask TA-dominant people to get softer on the way up and wait a bit to get loud on the way back down. You’ll have to remind CT-dominant people to start louder at the bottom and get louder on the way back down.
- A key to taking chest up is the use of bright vowels. If your student has trouble with bright vowels, they will have trouble raising their big break pitch level. If the vowel wants to get darker (even slightly) as they rise in pitch, the TA will give up too soon and they’ll flip to head. Before you can do #3, you’ll have to first do vocal tract exercises to help them access brighter sounds throughout their range…sounds like nyeah, [i] like a bug/mosquito, meow, super-nasal sounds, etc. Once they can make these super-bright sounds, you can take the same sound from below the break to above the break and back down.
- Once you’ve done exercises 1 and 2, and your student can take bright vowels up high, you can start taking chest up higher, too. If your student needed exercise 2.1, you will want an ascending pattern that goes up with a very bright/nasal vowel to the top note, open to [ae] at the top, maintaining the very bright/nasal/pingy/tiny feeling from the beginning sound, and come back down. If the vocal tract changes too much when they open at the top, the TA’s will likely relax too much (you’ll hear too much hiss and loss of volume) and the vowel will also get too dark. I like slides, but you can try other patterns to see what works best for your student. If a student didn’t need exercise 2.1, then you can just use [ae] the whole time. You can graduate to [a] once they can do [ae], then on to gradually more open and dark vowels as they master each one. (The darker, the more challenging to mix.) CT-dominant students will need to be encouraged to keep the sound loud and bright on the way up to prevent flipping to head. TA-dominant students will need to be encouraged to get just a tiny bit softer on the way up to prevent straining/squeezing/pressing at the top, and to let them flip to a lighter chesty mix. When they flip, you’ll hear a tiny change in the sound. It won’t be big like flipping to head or heady mix. It will still be TA-dominant…edgy, loud, clear…with a negligible amount of softness, roundness, and hiss mixed in.
Healthy mix is very complex, and this is a very, very simplified overview. There are so many shades of gray (or purple) to listen for in the singer’s sound, and there are other elements to keep in mind like tension and alignment. However, some people will naturally start to release jaw, tongue, and neck tension when their CT-TA coordination improves. Be patient with your students as they do this. It can take quite some time to get from the various intensities of breaks to the smooth mix stage. The difference between seamless mix and a very noticeable break can be a very, very small adjustment.
One way to help mix is to use what I call Sound Affinities to help imbalances in the instrument. Here’s my article on that concept.
Please continue to learn about mix from other resources. This information is pieced together from my own singing and teaching experience, which is heavily influenced by Jeannette LoVetri, Cornelius Reid, Scott McCoy, Matthew Edwards, and the books The Vocal Athlete and What Every Singer Needs to Know About the Body. I highly recommend observing other teachers work with singers on mix in live settings. Check out the recent Journal of Singing article about teaching mix with four anonymous musical theatre master teachers and their students (summary here).
What exercises do you use for taking chesty mix up? Share in the comments below.