Training the Contralto Voice
by David L. Jones
How often have you attended a concert and felt the excitement of the audience, as a real Contralto was about to take the stage? Whether in opera or oratorio, the sound of a true rich and ringing Contralto can be a special musical experience. Many teachers and singers have a desire to learn more about the Contralto voice and how it should be appropriately trained, but there is not a lot of available information on the subject. One major question: “What defines a true Contralto?” Many would agree that while the Contralto voice can be confusing, it is a fascinating voice, often reflecting a haunting and unusual color or vocal quality.
Due to the rareness of the voice type, more often than not, Mezzos or Counter Tenors cross over into the Contralto repertoire. While Mezzo Sopranos make their own unique contributions to the world of singing, the Contralto experience is quite a different one altogether. And while Counter Tenors are often hired in place of Mezzos or Contraltos, especially in oratorio, they offer yet another auditory experience beyond the true Contralto.
Characteristics that distinguish the Contralto from other voices are specifics in timbre, color, and intensity of power in the middle and chest registers. Some vocal professionals may find it difficult to determine whether or not a singer is a true Contralto. The confusion about this voice type sometimes leads to a true Contralto singing in an incorrect vocal fach, a mistake that can be extremely damaging to the singer’s vocal health, and often to her self-esteem.
Beyond the basic qualities of the Contralto, what are the specific characteristics of this voice? What tessitura is comfortable for the Contralto? Why is it sometimes so difficult to release the upper range? And finally, how is this voice properly exercised to develop correct or healthy vocal balance? Understanding the distinct differences between the Mezzo or Counter Tenor and the Contralto may assist those who are dealing with the issue of determining vocal fach. Typically, the basic elements that define vocal fach are (1) timbre, (2) individual color, (3) specific tessitura, and (4) personality or temperament. (Personality and/or temperament are critical factors because many singers have a deep inner instinct of their voice.) A dedicated vocal instructor works toward assessing and balancing these factors, which leads to making a careful diagnosis of vocal category.
However, many Contralto singers become frustrated after years of study because they have not been placed in the correct vocal fach. As a result, they often suffer long-term vocal problems that make performing difficult or intimidating. The purpose of this article is to attempt to clarify the specific characteristics of the Contralto singer and offer exercises with which to guide the Contralto’s technical health and growth.
Characteristics of the Contralto Voice
A true Contralto experiences similar register changes as a Bass. (See article on the Bass Voice.) Some of the common characteristics of the Contralto include (1) long chest register extension in the low range, (2) need for larger expansion of the pharyngeal space in the middle register in order to phonate fully, (3) a unique dark smoky color in the middle and chest registers, (4) use of chest register higher in pitch than many other voice types, (5) short middle register, (6) overly bright upper register or disconnected head voice, and (7) tongue tension in the middle and chest registers, accompanied by a thicker function of the vocal folds.
Excellent instructors realize that within every vocal fach, there are individual vocal characteristics. Every singer will not work in exactly the same way mechanistically, making the responsibility of determining vocal fach an even more daunting task. The following section of this article offers concepts that may assist in achieving healthy vocalization and assist the professional instructor in determining correct vocal fach.
Important Factors in Training the Contralto SingerBasic Registration in the Contralto Voice: Proper understanding of registration in the Contralto singer allows for an understanding of how to vocalize this voice type in a healthy manner. As stated before, the Contralto has similar register transitions as the Bass singer. Head voice often transitions at F4, up to a minor 3rd lower than the Lyric Mezzo Soprano. While taking the chest register higher in pitch could be detrimental for other voice types, the Contralto often feels quite comfortable singing as high as F4 in chest register (heavy mechanism).
Chest register: D-3 to F-4
Middle Register: F-4 to A-flat-5
Head Register: A-5 to D-5
Upper Range: E-flat-5 to B-flat-6 (Some Contraltos have the high C, but this is a rare occurrence.)
NOTE: The registration description above represents most Contralto singers. There are always exceptions. EVERY singer is different depending upon the length, thickness, and shape of their vocal folds and other physical differences. There are almost as many types of voices in a single vocal fach as there are individual singers. I strongly suggest that vocal instructors consider the individuality of each voice and allow for tailored technical instruction. The singer may be dependent upon the instructor’s diagnostic ear in determining specific registration changes.
Careful Training of the Middle Register: Usually the middle register of a true Contralto is quite short in range, often involving only about 2 to 3 steps of transition range before head voice dominates. The head voice may come into play as low as F4 or as high as G4. The Contralto (like the Bass) MUST develop a large acoustical stretch of space in the pharynx (with tongue forward) in order to expand the ring factor in this short middle register with proper cord approximation. Most singers (of other vocal fachs) need a certain amount of relaxation of the stretch as they approach the middle register in order to keep the ring factor in the voice. While it is true that ring comes from the open pharynx, many singers cannot keep a full stretch in the pharynx in the middle register without tongue tension developing. In the Contralto singer, the more stretch in the middle register, the more presence and fullness of sound. Then the ability to crescendo in the middle register develops, another important characteristic of the Contralto voice.
Use of Laryngeal Pivot Concept in Middle Register: The laryngeal pivot exercises found on my instructional CD can, with proper understanding, help any singer to balance his or her middle register. The Contralto is no exception and the laryngeal pivotserves to build a stronger vocal fold approximation in the middle register. Working with the laryngeal pivot also assists a singer in achieving pharyngeal vowels instead of just mouth vowels. Specific exercises for the proper laryngeal pivot can be found on “An Introductory Lesson with David Jones: A Resource for Teachers and Singers”. (Sound bites can be accessed and the CD may be purchased atwww.voiceteacher.com or www.cdbaby.com.) Renowned pedagogue William Vennard speaks at length of the laryngeal pivot, or rocking motion of the larynx, in the middle register. This pivot is critical to healthy singing in the middle voice and it helps the Contralto especially to achieve a fuller sound in the middle register. (Note: A singer cannot access the pharyngeal stretch without the use of the laryngeal pivot.)
Exercise: Laryngeal Pivot
Place a fingertip at the base of the larynx. As you sing from the lower note to the upper note, imagine that the vowel drops deeper in the larynx, keeping the tongue in the NG position. Remember to make the NG with the middle of the tongue, NOT the back of the tongue. As you slide upward from the lower pitch, feel the larynx slightly drop down and forward. This is the laryngeal pivot. After achieving the exercise above, stay on the upper note and sing the 5 Italian vowels, keeping the depth of the larynx. This will train the proper larynx position after every consonant in pronouncing text.
Use of the Chest Register at Higher Pitch Level: The Contralto’s comfort in using a chest mix (light chest) up to F4 is not often shared with the Mezzo and/or Soprano. Often the Contralto must use a fuller chest mix in order for the middle voice to speak with a fuller sound. (Note: Although the middle voice can be quite short in range, it is important to exercise this mechanism as low as possible.) While it varies from individual to individual, many Contraltos will downshift into chest register quite a bit higher than many other singers. In fact, they are typically much more comfortable with slightly higher chest function than with bringing the head mechanism lower.
Like the Bass singer, the Contralto is often a thicker voice. One factor in achieving register balance is accomplished by training the thin edges of the vocal folds in the middle and chest registers, and is especially important in the higher chest register. Training the thin edge function in the upper chest register often requires a lighter feeling as in speech. When a Contralto vocalizes from middle voice down into chest register, she must feel a ‘drinking sensation’ at the transition of registers in order to smooth the break or transition point. At the same time, as the singer transitions into the chest register, there must be a feeling of tremendous lift and width in the soft palate. Working the thin edge function of the vocal folds makes for a smoother transition from chest to middle register when descending or ascending in music, a goal that most female singers wish to achieve. (Note: When working with the thin edge function, it is critical to keep the pharynx or acoustical space very open.)
Exercising the Thin Edge Function of the Cords:
The Contralto too often sings on the thicker edges of the vocal folds rather than the thin edges. The thin edge function is critical in balancing registration for all voice types. If the thin edges are not employed, the singer pushes more air pressure through the vocal folds than is necessary, which cuts the high range by driving the larynx up in a higher position. This driving of breath pressure disturbs the healthy adduction of the vocal folds.
Exercise #1: Thin Edge Function
Perform the following exercise using the image that you are going to barely touch the finest edge of the vocal folds. The first 4 notes should be staccato and the following scale legato, keeping the thin edge function and the strength of the vowel in the pharynx (and not in the mouth). In the following exercise, feel an ‘o’ or ‘uh’ vowel behind the ‘a’ vowels.
. . . .
Exercise #2: Working the thin edge function in the upper chest register is critical to registration balance, especially in considering proper alignment of the lower passaggio. The following exercise is to be performed with very little breath pressure and the vowel will feel lighter and higher in the head as the singer ascends.
Perform the above exercise using a light chest register feeling. One concept that may assist the singer in achieving head resonance in chest mechanism is using the concept of light speech, especially when approaching D4, E4, and F4. The singer will feel as though there is a slight gearshift going from middle into chest. If there is a sudden feeling of lift in the soft palate in the high chest voice mechanism, then this transition will be smooth. It is also important to use very little air when transitioning between the two lower registers.
Role of the Tongue-tip in Proper Vowel Production and Register Balance: It may sometimes seem that every singer who walks into a vocal studio has tongue tension. The causes can range from speech issues to incorrect body posture. (Alexander Technique can assist a singer in defining blockages.) Neck tension is often a large factor in tongue tension, especially in the root of the tongue, and is often sourced in the lower back. Corrected posture can play a large role in releasing tension at the root of the tongue. But there is another factor that is especially critical for the Contralto (and every voice type, for that matter). This is the proper training of thetongue-tip (front of tongue) in vowel production. The following list describes the correct placement of thetongue-tip for correct vowel production. There may be slight variations due to differences in physical structure, but for most singers, the following list is accurate.
Tongue-tip Exercise: This exercise teaches the correct placement of the tongue-tip for the 5 Italian vowels. Speak the 5 basic Italian vowels with an unhinged jaw. Make the tongue responsible for the vowel changes with a stabilized jaw. Then feel where the tongue tip is for each of the vowels. For the Contralto (and for the Mezzo with a weak middle register) this is a crucially important training, one that is necessary for a full and healthy middle register.
Types of Contraltos
Different types of Contralto singers range from Wagnerian Dramatic Contralto to Lyrical Contralto to middle weight Contralto. It is most important that as teachers we do not generalize in terms of singers and their voices. Embracing the unique characteristics of a singer’s voice allows that singer to explore the individuality of their instrument. This then inspires a singer to find their own timbre, color, and range. It can be a good exercise for confirmed or confused Contraltos, to listen to recordings of other Contralto singers. (It is quite easy to find examples on the Internet, but remember to listen without imitating the sound of any given singer.) Listen with specific questions in mind, i.e., where does the singer go in and out of chest register? How much sound is used in the middle voice? How much intensity is used in the middle register or chest register? Does the singer demonstrate flexibility? Is there a common color or timbre between the different singers? These questions will educate the listening ear. (Some suggested singers to study: of the earlier singers, I recommend Clara Butt for registration, color and timbre; a later singer to study would be Kathleen Ferrier; a contemporary Contralto is Ewa Podles, a singer with great flexibility and color. (Each of these women has a distinct and individual sound.)
Vocal Traps of the Contralto SingerThere are vocal traps for the Contralto singer just as there are for other vocal types. I would like to warn both teacher and singer about two vocal traps into which Contraltos may fall. While I have witnessed these vocal issues in many Contralto singers, they can easily be corrected.
(1) False Color: The first trap is that of false color. MOST Contraltos (and often Mezzos as well) create a false color, often by bunching the root of the tongue. This vocal problem is a direct response to the belief that a lower voice MUST have a lot of color. Alan Lindquest once told me that, “A singer’s color comes from the ring!” At the time, I found that statement confusing. It took time for me to understand that if the singer relaxes the tongue and the lower laryngeal muscles, it will be possible for the singer’s true color to be realized. (Or, the color is in the overtones. Overtones are achieved when resonance is unfettered by muscle tension or a crowded pharynx.) False color with the back of the tongue can be corrected by using the correct placement of the tongue-tip (as discussed in the previous section of this article) in conjunction with an awareness of width at the root of the tongue. NG exercises also help in correcting this problem with many singers. It is important to realize that a singer may develop an emotional attachment to this false color and it may take time to convince them to give it up. I know a singer who called herself a Mezzo-Contralto. This New York based singer displayed little of her true color because she was really a Soprano using the back of the tongue to produce this false color. She had to increase her breath pressure to force phonation. The result was consistent vocal fatigue and very little resonance in the voice.
(2) Over-singing the Middle Register: The second trap for the Contralto is that of pushing too much breath pressure through the middle register in order to create more sound. Because a singer only gets about half as much sound as the audience in their inner-hearing, the singer must develop a trust that the resonance will help the voice speak sufficiently. Developing this trust can be difficult, but every singer must be trained to feel and NOT listen. Besides the disturbance of proper vocal cord closure, another negative result of too much breath pressure can be a fast or uneven vibrato. If the singer is taught to diminish the amount of breath pressure used in the middle register, then the cords will approximate more efficiently, assisting in correcting any vibrato problem. Remember the previously discussed tongue-tip training. If the tongue-tip speaks the vowel correctly, then the back of the tongue can relax. When a singer experiences tension at the root of the tongue, he/she will compensate by using too much breath pressure in order to phonate in a given range.
Perfect Onset or Vocal Cord Approximation:
Healthy vocal cord approximation is not only dependent upon proper depth of pharyngeal vowel forms, but also upon the closure of the vocal folds after inhalation. Too often, the folds do not close properly after inhalation. This is a difficult concept to teach . Alan Lindquest used two helpful images in order to teach this concept: (1) “Take your breath as though you are about to jump into a swimming pool. You will feel the throat open and something cap the breath. This is the healthy closure of the vocal folds.” (2) “Imagine you have just taken a quick breath as though you are about to say something to a friend, then you lose the thought of what you were about to say! Again you will feel something cap the breath resulting in the healthy closure of the vocal folds.” Singing without healthy closure of the folds usually results in vocal fatigue. For the Contralto it can mean an inability to access the high voice. If the cords do not come together appropriately after inhalation, then the singer has no choice but to push air through the cords, making healthy access to the upper range impossible.
Causes of Improper Adduction and Subsequent Over-Blowing the Vocal Folds:
In order to hear the purity and clarity of any voice it is critical to release the larynx without depressing it with the root of the tongue. This is accomplished by developing the singer’s understanding of vowel origin, or the pharyngeal vowel stretch. The vowels must feel as if they originate below the vocal folds, as Caruso described to Alan Lindquest in 1914. When the singer inhales, the base of the larynx and the surrounding muscles need to widen, attaining a broad feeling at the base of the larynx. The tongue should move forward toward the NG position to discourage any depression of the larynx with the root of the tongue. At phonation or the onset, the singer then needs to image the down and back vowel space without depressing the larynx with the tongue. (This can be accomplished using a hum with the tongue between the lips.) As the singer approaches the upper passaggio, the vowel space may transfer toward a ‘back and up’ sensation. The singer must also hold back the breath pressure with the lower back, while fueling a small consistent breath stream. (This duality can be achieved by using a sustained ‘hiss’ exercise.) If this depth of the vowel forms is achieved, then the singer will most likely automatically feel the body expand in order to hold back the breath pressure.
The High Range: Contralto singers often speak about difficulty in expanding the high range. A free high range is dependent upon the open pharynx in the middle voice and chest voice registers, especially for the Contralto. Achieving proper depth of vowel formation is the basis for healthy singing, but for the Contralto it is critical. A complete understanding of the middle register is the platform for the high range. For example, when the vowel lacks proper pharyngeal space and the larynx is slightly high in the middle voice, the vocal cords cannot approximate properly, making it impossible to phonate correctly in the high range.
A master of cord closure, Caruso spoke of a slight ‘cough function’ under the vocal folds to feel the depth of the vowel. This was a cough function with hardly any breath coming through the folds. We all know that coughing is abusive to the cords, but with little or no breath through the cords it simply offers the singer the feeling of proper vowel depth at the base of the larynx, necessary for proper formation of pharyngeal vowels. I often speak of Lamperi’s statement: “A singer’s pronouncer is in the pharynx, NOT the mouth!” What he is saying is that the singer must accomplish pharyngeal vowel forms in order for true resonance to be properly realized. Today we know that voice science has proven that the primary resonator is in the pharynx, not the mouth. Many instructors strive to help their singers achieve an open pharynx without the tongue pulling back. The following exercises are suggested in order to help the singer achieve pharyngeal vowel function.
Exercise #1: Place fingertips under the base of the larynx. Then using hardly any breath, create 3 small cough reflexes. You will feel the larynx widen and drop and you will feel the depth at which the vowels need to feel in origin. Then speak and sing staccato ‘i’ vowels without losing the opening that the slight cough feeling created. This was one of Caruso’s tools to feel the base of the larynx release. The cough reflex lowers the larynxgeal position automatically. Remember that this exercise should only be done with VERY little breath. Then go from staccato ‘i’ vowels to a legato 5-tone scale. Keep the depth of the vowels as you sing this scale.
The final part of this exercise is designed to align all the vowels in a similar depth. Again produce 3 small cough reflexes under the cords using hardly any breath. Then perform the next step: the staccato on the ‘i’ vowel. Then go from the staccato ‘i’ vowels to sustaining a single note, going through all the vowel changes. The singer will experience a similar resonance between staccato function and legato function. The singer will also feel a similar resonance in the voice through the vowel changes. Then sing the 5 vowels on an ascending scale, feeling the sensation of narrowing the ring under the bridge of the nose.
. . . .
i…..i….i….i….i…..e….a…o….u (make the first 4 notes staccato, then sustain with lower vowel feel).
Exercise #2: Laryngeal Pivot Exercise
In this exercise, feel the base of the larynx with the fingertips once again. As you ascend to the upper note, feel a slight dropping down and forward of the larynx. William Vennard speaks about the laryngeal pivot in his book in order to align registration. This is a wonderful tool to use with singers who suffer from a history of high-larynxed singing. While performing this exercise, remember that the tongue must remain generally in the NG position, making it difficult to depress the larynx with the root of the tongue. It may also be helpful to widen the root of the tongue in order to free the resonance.
Exercise #3: Depth of Vowel Form on Descending Passages: When performing the following exercise, make sure that the strength of the vowel is kept stable at the base of the larynx. Again use the fingertips below the larynx to feel a deep and wide sensation in the muscles.
Make sure that in this descending passage that the vowel-stretch remains and the strength of the vowel is kept in the pharynx at all times. Keeping the strength of the vowel on a descending passage may seem easy, but most singers relax the stretch too much as they descend, which allows the larynx to rise too much.
Case Studies: Five Contralto Singers:Case Study #1: German Contralto: This singer forced too much air through the folds. She suffered from neck issues after an accident, which shortened the muscles in the front of the larynx. As a result of the injury, the lifting of the larynx was disturbing healthy vocal fold phonation and made proper approximation difficult.
After having a long successful career, this singer was having great difficulty performing. The upper range had become difficult, mainly due to the shortening of the muscles in the front of the larynx and the loss of vowel depth. We worked on the vocal cord approximation exercises and the laryngeal tilt in the middle register. In approximately 12 sessions this singer was singing in a balanced function and with a greater understanding of her instrument. Knowledge is powerful and when a Contralto understands how to vocalize with proper vowel forms, the result is success.
Case Study #2: New York Contralto: This singer came to the New York Studio approximately 2 years ago. Her main problem was a registration imbalance. A graduate of a major Conservatory, she had NEVER been instructed about registration or vocal cord closure. Her voice had been categorized improperly and her teachers had attempted to train her as a Mezzo Soprano, a mistake that sacrificed her lower throat space, the basis of healthy singing for the Contralto. This singer suffered from a large imbalance in registration and cracking of the voice in the upper passaggio. She also had little understanding of the Italian appogio or connection to the body. Because she had never been taught proper cord closure, she suffered breathiness in the middle register, especially in the low head voice function. This breathiness was a weakness in the cords and they had to be strengthened through cord closure exercises and through teaching the body to hold back the breath pressure. Using the NG-to-vowel exercises helped to close the cords in the middle register. Also we worked on narrowing the embouchure to avoid spreading. We also used the sunken cheek posture (sinking the cheeks at the back teeth), which allowed for more resonance in the middle register.
Case Study #3: British Contralto: I first met this singer three years ago while she was still singing as a soprano. She had been singing soprano for about 25 years and suffered from a lack of vocal control and she could never sing high and soft. This should be a big concern for any singer and/or teacher. There was a lack of proper phonation in the lower middle register, a problem for many lower female singers. In her last visit to the New York Studio, I worked with her on the proper placement of the tongue-tip for the 5 Italian vowels. The change in phonation was dramatic. By offering the tongue-tip the ability to move, the tongue-root released, making natural phonation possible. The lower head voice began to speak in a much fuller sound. After she achieved proper tongue-tip placement for each vowel, we moved on to the upper chest register using thin edge exercises and high palate exercises. This allowed her to match the color and timbre between chest and head registers. We accomplished this by using a descending 5-tone scale on the 5 Italian vowels (i,e,a,o,u). Making sure that the tongue-tip was in the proper position for each vowel allowed the lower head voice to be fuller and the upper chest register to lift and lighten as she came across the transition between the two registers. A Contralto must feel a dramatic lift in the palate in order to match the upper chest voice tones to the head voice sound. The result of this exercise was amazing. The middle and lower voices became much more clear and were both dark and ringing.
This singer had a short chest voice register, making her appear to be a Mezzo or Soprano. When the middle and chest registers were matched, the lower chest voice opened.
Case Study #4: Dramatic Contralto: Several years ago, a singer came into my studio who had sung in major opera houses (including the Metropolitan Opera) and was suffering from problems in the middle register. She was of Swedish descent and had a huge voice, and like many with large voices, she was suffering from imbalance in registration. Her major issue was breath pressure, and the cause was a lack of the thin edge function of the cords in the middle voice. In fact, she had never heard the term “thin edges’ in her history of vocal study. I immediately placed her on staccato thin edge exercises in the middle voice and chest registers and suddenly her registers began to blend. Almost immediately her wobble or wide vibrato began to disappear, something that had plagued her for years. Then we began the process of balanced cross registration exercises or speaking from chest register through middle register and into head register. This had previously been a daunting and threatening concept for this singer. But after having felt the thin edge function and after removing the tremendous breath pressure, the instrument spoke perfectly through the registers.
Case Study #5: Dramatic Soprano to Contralto: This singer demonstrated tremendous over-compression of the breath, which resulted in pushing too much breath pressure through the folds. After switching from Dramatic Soprano to Contralto, the cords began to speak with better approximation. She then was able to release the over-compression and musical phrasing became much easier as a result. This singer now performs with regional opera companies in the U.S. Most of her vocal difficulties were connected with singing too high a tessitura, in the wrong vocal fach.
Final Thought: The Contralto voice is one of the most misunderstood because it is so rare. Contralto singers often have been trained as Mezzo Sopranos or even Sopranos. Many Contraltos suffer from low vocal self-esteem because their voices have not been trained correctly. They, as many singers, begin to think the problems are their fault, or that they are flawed as a singer. Every singer and every teacher must realize that every voice has physical and acoustical advantages and disadvantages. Each voice has physical and acoustical limitations, yet every voice is trainable. Even though the Contralto voice can be difficult to diagnose, hopefully this article will clarify concepts that can be helpful for both teacher and singer.
Many of the concepts and exercises described in this article may be found on David Jones’ instructional CD,“An Introductory Lesson with David Jones: A Resource for Teachers and Singers”, which may be purchased at www.cdbaby.com or on the link at the homepage at www.voiceteacher.com.
© David L. Jones 2007
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