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Famous singers discuss the use of chest voice

Jerome Hines. Great Singers on Great Singing. New York: Limelight Editions, 1982.

I don’t believe any topic comes up more often at Bel Canto Boot Camp than chest voice. At some point around World War II, chest voice went into decline in soprano and even many mezzo-soprano voices. Singers of all types used chest voice as it is discussed in all the 18th and 19th century treatises. Then suddenly they start avoiding chest voice in the lower range. I can speculate why, but I’d rather know that guess. In my research I am looking for statements from signers, teachers and perhaps critics explaining this change and why it was thought necessary. I am calling this The Mystery of the Disappearing Chest Voice. For my first stop, I thought of Jerome Hines’s Great Singers on Great Singing. The book consists of a series of interviews conducted by Hines with singers describing how they sang. I share these quotes without comment, in the hope that the lead to a discussion and to further research in the view in the mid 20th century on the role of chest voice in treble voices.  All ellipses and brackets are from the original.

Licia Albanese

“Did you use your chest voice?”

“Not too much. It’s dangerous and vulgar. If you do use it, you must use it with much expression. Sometimes you use it as a defense when you’re in bad voice, but you can cover it up with beautiful expression.”

“Then you never had to face the problem of the passaggio [passage] from the chest voice to the head voice?”

“No,” was her answer. (p. 23)

Martina Arroyo

“What does chest voice mean to you?” I asked.

“I have no chest voice!”

“Really?” I said, surprised.

“It’s true. I can’t even fake it. I use a bit of opening when I sing down, but I have never had a strong lower voice, by nature. I have pushed, trying to find it.”

“You said pushed. What does pushing mean to you?”

“Just more pressure than necessary. Using muscles you don’t need. But if you support low you don’t force of push.” (p. 32)

Fiorenza Cossotto

“That is why I have always paid very strict attention to not exaggerating on the low notes, but to keeping the voice even, not shoving down the chest tones like a man. Once in a while when a certain word requires a more dramatic intensity, or power, I darken the sound, but only for a moment.”

“Naturally on the low notes I use a little bit of chest, but I see to equalize it with the middle voice.” (pp. 71-72)

“Did you ever have a problem with the passage from chest voice to the middle voice?”

“No,” she said. “I used chest voice, but I use it lightly.”(p. 73)

“There is a chest sound that some singers use which is not focused; it is completely abandoned, but that is not the true beautiful sound. It is vulgar. I absolutely refuse to use such a sound. I keep the chest voice contained, always within certain limits, controlled by the breath, also in terms of volume. I never give all that I can, but I always try to focus the sound and I use it so all the way down.” (p. 74)

Régine Crespin

“You know that in France, years ago, everybody was against singing in the chest. We were not permitted to do it. And that’s why I had such a difficult time finding the way to balance and not have a break. For my type of voice I needed sometimes to have some chest, from A…where it was going almost naturally.”

“I understand,“  I said. “Since chest voice was taboo, nobody taught how to smooth out that troublesome passage; you were only supposed to use head voice, thus avoiding the problem.”

“But,” she went on, “if I wanted to sing on chest on D flat, D, E flat, E, F [above middle C], I had to work hard. But now I know how to balance that, because I put my larynx down and just let it go free. It will go, because the chest is a natural sound. When we talk, we talk on it. Chest voice is the speaking voice.” 

I said, “I have heard many mezzos really sound as if they were yodeling as they went from chest to head and back.”

“That is terrible.”

“How can they overcome this problem?”

“With strong attention in preparing to go into the head tone, leaving the larynx open, but being careful to keep the soft palate high.” (pp. 81-82)

“Do you feel that the chest voice is more relaxed, less placed in the mask?” I asked.

“Yes. But it has to be connected always with the mask. Chest voice is more relaxed. Sometimes I start in the higher register and the breathing is not so easy, and I immediately go back to the chest ton. Immediately the breathing is easier, and I have more breath. And it relaxes me for going up.”

“You can’t really sing chest without relaxing, can you?

“Absolutely not! Unless you push.” (p. 83)

Gilda Cruz-Romo

“One should begin with the chest voice as a base and then build the rest on it,” she began.

“What do you mean by chest voice?” I asked. 

“Oh, the chest voice is a meaty sound, it has a more open feeling. The talking voice is chest voice. When you teach a beginner you say, ‘Talk to me.’ Then: ‘Now sing that way.’ But with the chest we have too wide vowels. Then you must round the sound out, mellow it. It must be covered and made more beautiful. But you must not force on the chest. If you do, you will not be able to carry that force to the high notes. The voice becomes too heavy.”

I stopped her again. “I have heard some singers say that chest is too dangerous to use.”

“That is because they have never learned to mix the chest with the head,” she said emphatically. “Maybe it’s not for everybody but…”

“I know,” I laughed, “it’s your way of thinking.”

“Well, I’m a spinto, and when I sing with a big orchestra it is necessary to use chest voice mixed in to cut through the sound of all those instruments. Of course you mustn’t use chest beyond F sharp above middle C. Chest must be used gently, I can’t say it enough—carefully.” (pp. 91-92)

Cristina Deutekom

“Cristina, as a dramatic coloratura, do you use chest voice?”

“Yes, but never just chest voice alone, and I never use pure head voice alone. It is always a balanced mixture of the two. There are three registers in a woman’s voice: the first goes up to B or C above middle C, the second to E or F above this, and the third as far above this as the voice will go.” (p. 96)

Marilyn Horne

“I have the ability to color my voice in so many ways in the famous break area that I don’t even consider it a problem area. I can sing it all head resonance, I can sing it all chest resonance, I can sing it fifty-fifty, I can sing it sixty-forty. But I call that coloration.” (pp. 139-140)

“Many sopranos say they never touch the chest voice if they can help it,” I said.

“Which is crazy! They’re afraid of it because teachers don’t know how to teach it. The chest voice should be taught and sopranos should have it.” (p. 141)

Zinka Milanov

“All right. Now let’s talk about chest voice and head voice,” I said.

“I am personally against chest,” she said.

“Did you ever use it at all?”

“Yes, I did, but only when I had to. Never a chest note on F [she indicated the first F above middle C on the piano]. When you do this [sing chest] too much on E and F, then the next two or three notes are hollow [she demonstrated with a breathy, empty sound].I am against chest…especially for a soprano, you know. But for a mezzo-soprano too, it’s very bad, because of this hollow part…they start to push there.”

“How can a woman singer overcome this problem of the hollow sound just above the E and F?” I asked.

“With lots of breath, and connection…legato. I never used the chest. That’s why I lasted so long, and was so fresh. If I used chest, it was covered chest.”

“What do you mean by covered chest?”

“Covered means you do not open, like also the top [high voice], the slender sound on top.”

“Then you used a slender sound on the chest?”

“Absolutely!” She sang a blatant, spread chest tone, and then corrected it by singing a low, pure, floating awe. (p. 170)

Anna Moffo

“Do you use chest voice?”

“I do, but I’m more inclined to use the mixed,” she said. “The mixed voice has head voice in it. Chest voice has no head voice, no head resonance at all. I don’t think it’s very pretty. Chest voice I feel vibrate right here on my breastbone…as opposed to my nasal or head voice, which I feel right in the middle of my forehead, between my eyebrows…very high…a column of air going straight up through the top of your head, I guess. Basically, chest voice is not a good idea.

“They say people who use chest voice lose their top. Maybe you don’t lose your top, but you get very wobbly…a hole in the middle, and you get two big breaks in the voice.”

“Are there exceptions to this idea?”

“Jerry, there are people with extraordinary instruments…freak instruments…”

“I don’t regard these as freak instruments,” I said, “as much as freak techniques. We tend to limit ourselves by saying, ‘That’s a freak voice…I cannot expect to do that.’”

“No,” she disagreed. “We should know what we can do.” (p. 187)

Patrice Munsel

“Now, Pat,” I began, “you have successfully made the transition from Broadway to opera…” She broke in to correct me: “I sang both pop and classical from the beginning. When I first sang at the Met I got the ‘Prudential Family Hour’ with Earl Wrightson. I had to switch styles constantly at that time from classical to pop. When I had my own television show I would do ‘Un bel di’ and a jazz blues routine consecutively with only one solitary minute to change clothes, attitude, and vocal technique. Such a routine is really a schizophrenic exercise. You simply cannot mix classical and pop styles. I found the biggest problem was switching gears vocally as well as mentally.”

“Is there an enormous difference in vocal techniques between the different styles?” I ventured.

“Not really. The production is about the same—except belting is much more relaxed.”

“Now wait,” I said, proud that I, as an opera singer, had even heard of belt. “For the unenlightened, just what is belt?” As Pat prepared to show me, I interrupted. “Don’t demonstrate by singing. Put it in words. After all, I am producing a book, not a recording.” 

“But it’s hard to put into words. I can’t verbalize it.” 

“I bet you can,” I persisted.

“Belt is a flatter sound with no vibrato. It is high chest voice. I can belt to the C and D above middle C, but no higher without damage to my cords…and a possible heart attack. It has to be very forward—almost nasal (not French nasal). There is more space in the back of the throat. Oh, it’s hard to verbalize.” (pp. 190-191)

Magda Olivero

“Do you use chest voice?” I asked

“My maestro said, ‘On some occasions you might have to, but support it as much as possible. Use it once in a while, but don’t abuse it. At the end of your career you may permit more of such luxuries.’

“Sometimes now I permit myself this luxury, but in the moment I do it I have a sense of remorse, because my teacher’s words remain with me…’Don’t do it’…and I feel I am betraying something.” (p. 208)

Roberta Peters

“Well, then, do you use chest voice?” I asked.

“No, I don’t use chest voice. He always wanted it extremely even. He never believed in registers. You have to keep it as even as you can up and down. You’re not going to have the exact sam position of the throat on the top as you have on the bottom. You can’t have that. When I was descending a scale, he would tell me to think high…think up, and as I was going down, because if you think down, then you dig, and you’re pushing, you want to make it bigger and bigger.” (pp. 235-236)

Beverly Sills

“Then you didn’t use chest voice?”

“I didn’t begin to use it, “she continued, “until I sang Constanza in The Abductionand had to go to G below middle C. It didn’t bother me, because it was only touched, and wasn’t used for dramatic purposes. It was simply part of the scale that Mozart had written. When I went into the bel canto repertoire, I began to use my chest voice higher than I had ever used it before, up to an F or F sharp, which is very dangerous for a voice like mine, and probably shortened its life, but it was a deliberate choice: I wanted to make a dramatic effect, and I made it, period! I opeted for the shorter career, though when people say fifty-one is young to retire, it might be, but I’ve been singing since I was seven, so for me, it’s forever!” (p. 305)

Joan Sutherland

“Do you use chest voice?” I asked.

“I feel the chest voice should be used sparingly,” she said. “In a way, my chest voice has been underdeveloped.”

“Because it is not necessary in your kind of repertoire?” I asked.

“Oh no! A dramatic soprano needs it in Trovatore, Norma, and also Fledermaus. It is also necessary in some of the Handel operas which have such a great range. But I really have left it rather underdeveloped.” (p. 328)

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