The Key Ingredient for Singing in Mix

Weekly Teaching Tip – May 4, 2020
by Dean Kaelin

Many years ago, what would eventually become the core training group for teaching “Speech Level Singing” to the world was gathered at the home of Seth Riggs in Los Angeles for a training session. Seth began with a question, “What is the key ingredient for singing in Mix?” All of us were afraid to answer for fear we would say the wrong thing! After all, we were supposed to be the experts that were going to travel the world and teach this! What if we answered wrong? What if we didn’t even know the most important ingredient?

Many thoughts crossed our minds; round vowels, consistent vocal cord closure, not reaching up, no extrinsic muscle pressure, consistent airflow, relaxation, etc, etc. No one was brave enough to offer an answer.

Finally Seth answered his own question: a stabile, blanched larynx.

This experience came back to me a couple of weeks ago as I was teaching and I was reminded once again that he really was correct. The key ingredient that makes everything in good, relaxed, mix singing relies on the singer maintaining a stabile, balanced larynx. Everything we encourage a singer to do is to help them find, get comfortable with and maintain a stabile larynx.

If the larynx goes up (as it often wants to do as the pitch ascends) everything shuts down! There is too much extrinsic muscle tension, airflow is inhibited and the sound either becomes squeezed, pinched or completely shut down. It is impossible to sing in a mixed voice production if the larynx is not balanced and stabile. As the larynx rises the body moves closer and closer to “swallow mode”. And it is impossible to phonate and swallow at the same time. When someone swallows, sound production is impossible.

So, in essence, everything we do as teachers has the ultimate goal of helping our students find, get comfortable with and maintain a stabile, balanced larynx.

I realized long ago that I was very fortunate to have begun my teaching career in 1982. because the popular pop and rock vocal sound was that of an open throat and a lower larynx. This sound was largely a result of white singers trying to get a “black sound”. And the majority of the black singers had come from a gospel background where a deeper and heavier tone was desirable. In an attempt to get that sound, singers often imposed their larynx down a bit, creating more space and a deeper tone. As a result, the singer could also sing with a great deal of force and power. (Michael Bolton, Michael McDonald, Steve Parry, Lou Gramm, Ann Wilson, Anita Baker, Jeffrey Osborn, Luther Vandross, Regina Belle, Whitney Houston and many others) So it was very easy to be a Mix voice teacher during the 1980s. I could just give my students popular songs and tell them to imitate the original artist.

Currently, the popular sound is a more natural, speech-like sound. As a result the larynx sits a little higher. Because of this it is easy for the larynx to slide up too high and either make the sound tight or pinched or even close off the airflow entirely. It has helped a little that the popular sounds of the day seem to be mostly lighter and not as much power is needed. However, it is still true that the key ingredient in being able to sing in a mixed voice is to maintain a stable and balanced larynx. It becomes a real problem when a singer does attempt to sing louder (belt) and their larynx is in a raised position. Basically, the singer just tries to yell. Those singers of today that do sing heavier mostly still employ some of the old 80s strategies (like Jesse J, Kelly Clarkson, a little bit Carrie Underwood, and numerous male rockers).

I have had great success with my students “revisiting the 80s” and having them sing some classic rock and R&B songs to help them get the feeling of a stabile (or even a slightly lowered larynx at times) while singing powerfully. It is so much easier for them. Then once they get comfortable with this feeling all we have to do is allow the larynx to raise slightly into a more speech-like and natural position, but the singer has developed the ability to ascend into higher pitches, even with power, without allowing the larynx to rise.

Obviously, there are many factors that help this; good consistent airflow, good “centered” vowel production, etc, etc. However, keep in mind that the goal of most of these things is to help the singer get comfortable with the idea and the feeling that the pitch can go up and it can feel like the sound or resonance is “going up”, but that the larynx can “stay down”!

Keep singing!  Dean Kaelin

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