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Intonation in the Passaggio

Ever notice that intonation problems occur much more frequently on certain pitches? There's a reason for that, and although it's tricky to fix this problem, there are ways to alleviate it. This mean's it's time to delve into the world of vocal registration.

The human voice has multiple registers that singers must navigate, just as a standard-transmission car has gears the driver needs to shift. Painting with a broad brush, we call these registers head voice, middle voice and chest voice. Singing in head or chest voice is relatively straightforward, but the middle voice, which serves as a kind of corridor between the two, is harder to navigate, particularly at either end, where there is a zone called the passaggio (Italian for "passage"). These spots are where the gears shift; the zone between chest and middle voice is called the primo passaggio, and the area of transition between middle voice and head voice is the secondo passaggio.

For most women, the most difficult passaggio includes that F Major triad smack-dab in the middle of the treble staff, where so much Orthodox liturgical music loves to sit! Without careful attention, dwelling in this vocal area may lead to a lowered soft palate, collapsed space inside the mouth and vowels that are way too wide. Remember that in correct singing, space is always vertical.

When I address this in rehearsal, I employ two remedies: first is to have everyone yawn to get their soft palates nice and high, and to establish vertical space in the mouth. The second tactic is to modify the vowels and make them more closed, For example, in this area of the voice, it's usually beneficial to close the [o] in the word "soul" so it's closer to the vowel [u] (as in the word "pool"). I use the phrase, "dial in a little [u] in that vowel", because it's not (usually) a complete substitution, but a change in that direction.

Closing vowels in the passaggio eases vocal navigation through it, helping singers maintain vertical space and vocal focus, so the sound is uniform throughout. Conversely, a rough ride through either passaggio results in each vocal register sounding like a different voice, which we don't want.

The biggest obstacle to closing vowels like this is always singer reluctance. Those who've never heard of this technique are very likely to be skeptical at first, because it feels foreign to them. They're going to worry about sounding silly, and that's understandable. They're likely to make tiny modifications, thinking it's a more drastic shift because it sounds and feels that way to them. I deal with this by asking them to overdo it. If they actually overdo it, I say "Now dial it back 10 percent," which usually achieves the desired result. More commonly, the "overdone" version is actually the proper version. This is an instance where it may be beneficial to record a few short snippets on your phone and then replay them for the choir, so they hear the positive change for themselves.

One final note: the term "closed vowel" does not imply a collapse of space in the mouth, or of the soft palate. The teeth must stay apart at all costs. What closes are the lips, which narrow, and the tongue may move closer to the front teeth (depending on the vowel).

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