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Help, My Student Wants To Sing John Mayer

This post is designed to assist voice teachers and will briefly discuss how to address the male passaggio in singer/songwriters.

Level: Advanced

"Hey Mitchell!

So, I have a brand new male student. He is currently in school and just wants to sing for fun. His range is currently from a G3-G5, and transitions to falsetto around the passaggio. My question for you is: how do I navigate the passaggio with him initially? In graduate school I was taught to encourage a lofty/hooty feeling right around E4 and above. However I know that it’s still going to be TA dominant in male singers, which is something I can’t relate to. I also feel that that’s more of a classical approach, which he’s not interested in. He wants to sing John Mayer, and I’m finding that all of his songs seem to sit right in the passaggio area... Thank you so much for your help and taking the time to read this. I hope it all made sense!" -Anonymous Voice Teacher

How do I navigate the passaggio?

Let's first define what the passaggio is. The literal translation from Italian means "passage," but depending on the teacher or coach, this term can mean a couple of different things. It is used most often to describe the transition, or registration shift, from middle voice to head voice. Many singing teachers believe there is a primo passaggio (a lower-pitched registration shift) located between chest voice and middle voice and a secondo passaggio (higher-pitched registration shift) between middle voice and head voice. Other singing professionals describe the entire middle voice as the zona di passaggio because the middle register acts as a bridge between chest voice and head voice. By this point, it is probably obvious that this terminology can get confusing. Do not give up yet. When a singer or teacher mentions "THE passaggio," they are more often than not referring to the secondo passaggio, or the registration shift, between middle voice and head voice. The terminology used for the remainder of this article will refer to this place as the secondo passaggio.

What Anonymous describes above as "E4" is a typical spot for the secondo passaggio in a medium-voice male singer--likely a baritone.

With this kind of singer, in particular, we do not want to train them to sound like a classical artist. However, they should have the freedom to sing whatever song they want within a reasonable range and, to accomplish that, some classical approaches may be merited. The thing I see over and over again in my teaching with new singer/songwriter clients is the tendency to have either a breathy tone in chest voice or a squeezed tone around the secondo passaggio. The singer described above sounds like they produce a tone that leads to a sudden shift into falsetto in the secondo passaggio. This most likely means that the singer ascends pitch from chest voice, remains in this register too long (around A3 -- E-flat4) where they should transition to middle voice, and, at the point where the sensation of weight becomes overwhelming, flips into falsetto. When a singer skips a register--in this case, middle voice--the tone can become unbalanced, often weighted, the vibrato (if present) becomes uneven, and intonation will suffer from the pitch hanging just under the center.

Remember our friend the larynx?

In a previous post, we learned that the larynx is a valve. This valve needs to maintain a balanced ratio of air flow vs. resistance during singing. Too much resistance and the throat is strained; too much air flow and the tone is breathy. Keep in mind, this ratio is subjective, especially when considering different styles and genres of vocal music.

What is the solution for an unwanted and sudden shift into falsetto?

As this singer approaches the middle register, try encouraging the concept of air flow as opposed to air resistance. Experimenting with this balance, or ratio, usually gives the singer the sensation that they are about to crack, so they will likely hate it, try not to do it, or consciously release resistance altogether. Encourage them to focus on the air flow vs. resistance ratio, and, as pitch ascends, give extra emphasis on constant air flow with an incremental relaxation of the valve. If the singer is mimicking the sound of other artists and squeezing the throat in this area of the voice, this new approach may take a lot of time. Squeezing is muscle tension covered in the security blanket of muscle memory. Asking a singer to release tension, or squeeze, like this is asking them to give up a vital component in their current technique. As a teacher, understand that this transition will probably take a lot of trust between the both of you.

What are some exercises I can try?

Whatever exercises you currently use, try incorporating pitch slides. This will help relax the resistance in the larynx. Help them focus on that air flow to resistance ratio. You can tell the client "more air flow" or "less resistance," whatever feels natural in relation to the outcome you hear in a given exercise.

Another exercise that seems to work tremendously well among artists performing covers is to strip away the inherent vocal timbre that they heard in the original song. When performing covers, many artists place greater importance on the color of the voice rather than the pitch. Stripping away the timbre/color using a technique I call "choir voice technique" can do wonders. Make the tone boring and focus more on the pitch than timbre with the client. Tell them to practice the song with a "choir voice" first and get the technique and pitch right before adding color, grit, or spice. This approach addresses more of the functional voice and allows for a nice compromise between classical technique and commercial music.

For the record...

John Mayer's "Your Body Is A Wonderland" is a great commercial song. Mayer has a distinctive commercial voice, and, in this video, for example, his vocal color is accompanied by a constant flow of air. This technique is effective for the genre and style. For a cover artist, however, the moment that air flow decreases while a vocal affectation is applied is the moment the throat would likely be laden with tension.

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