Training the “Whole Voice”

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of adjudicating the local NATS student auditions.  It was wonderful to spend my day hearing so many talented young singers.  I was impressed at the overall level of preparation, as well as the commitment to the vocal and dramatic choices these young singers made in performance.

A few especially talented singers competed in both the classical AND musical theater divisions for their age group, and some of these even advanced to the semi-final rounds in both divisions.  This is truly impressive, not only because the vocal technique required for each style is very different, but because it also requires meticulous preparation of two sets of competition-worthy rep – in other words, hours upon hours of practice time.


Cross-training – singing in more than one style – is an important aspect of training the whole voice, especially for the young singer.  While most of us eventually go on to specialize in one style of singing or another, knowing how to sing in multiple styles has lots of benefits.  It makes us more versatile singers; it keeps the various areas of our voice functional and flexible; and most importantly, it ensures that we train every aspect of our voice – not just the parts that are most frequently used for our particular style.

Training the Whole Voice

When comparing and contrasting classical technique with more contemporary styles, one of the first things that comes to mind (or, to “ear,” as it were) is the differences in the voice’s registration – i.e., the use(s) of head voice and chest voice.  While breaking things down into a chest/head dichotomy is admittedly a bit simplistic, it can be a useful starting point for training the whole voice.

In my teaching over the years, I’ve discovered that most young singers have a “dominant register,” similar to how everyone is born with a dominant hand.  Most young singers will default either to head voice or chest voice in particular areas of their range, as feels comfortable and/or natural for their instrument.  Even those blessed with a natural ability to “mix” have either a head-dominant or chest-dominant mix.

Then there are those singers who feel that their “signature sound” is so firmly rooted in one register that they are hesitant to use the other.  I sound really good singing this one way, they think – why do I have to learn to use the other part of my voice?

How Do I Train the Whole Voice?

As singers, we must of course build on our naturally strong register; however, we must also work to strengthen whatever area of our voice is weaker.  For most of us, our weaker register is NOT where we enjoy singing, so we tend to avoid it.  However, it doesn’t matter how much we dislike it.  Ignoring your weaker register is ultimately to your voice’s detriment.

For, example, if you prefer to belt, you must cultivate your head voice.  Why?  It’s a myth that “belting” is just bringing the chest voice up as high as it can go.  High belting is really a chest-dominant mix.  The head voice muscles must be involved to produce a sustainable sound, especially the higher you go.  A good teacher will incorporate some folk songs or classical art song into the musical theater singer’s rep, in an effort to cultivate the head voice.

If you’re a female who prefers to sing classically, you should still exercise your chest voice and your mixed middle voice.  Why?  Because it will lend fuller resonance to your lower notes.  It’s a myth that chest voice is harmful or counter-productive to classical singing.   While classical singers don’t use a chest-dominant sound very often, their lower process can and should be involved if they are singing below or even near the bottom of the staff – those notes will not project otherwise.  A good teacher will incorporate some musical theater of varying styles into the classical singer’s repertoire, to ensure that the lower half of the voice is strengthened.

Getting the Proper Guidance

In order to train all areas of your voice, it’s essential that you find a good teacher and meet with him or her regularly.  Seek out a teacher that specializes in the style you prefer; however, be prepared to explore a myriad of different styles in your lessons, in order to train your whole voice.  In the process, you may even find that you really like a certain style of music that you didn’t before – it’s amazing what can happen when you approach something with an open mind!

If you are looking for a teacher, the NATS teacher directory is a good place to start.  There are also websites like,, and  You could also check out the Find Your Singing Teacher page on Facebook.

And of course, there’s us!  Kim and myself are seasoned, qualified voice teachers, and have loads of experience working with beginners and/or young singers.  If you’re located north of Boston and interested in lessons, contact us!

Spring Cleaning

Spring has arrived here in New England (sort of?)!  Yes, there is still snow on the ground, but soon we will be seeing more green, more sunshine, and even longer hours of daylight!  Yay!

There is something truly invigorating and motivating about coming out the winter stupor and seeing new life bursting forth everywhere.  You suddenly have more energy and a more positive attitude.  You somehow feel like you can do ANYTHING!

It seems natural for us, then, to imitate nature’s “out with the old, in with the new” theme and clean out our own closets/bedrooms/apartments/houses/backyards.  We throw away or donate things we don’t want or use anymore.  We take stock of what we have, set goals and make plans for the warm weather months, and seek out new ways to improve our lives.

If we do this in our homes and with our possessions, why not take on a similar project in our artistic lives?  When was the last time you re-evaluated your attitudes, habits, and goals as a performer?

As performers, we put up with a lot of not-enjoyable things.  We face competition, intense pressure, rejection, drama, and exhaustion, to name a few.  Like the darkness and cold of the winter months, these things can really have a negative effect on your psyche, sometimes without you even realizing it.

So this spring, stop and think about your artistic mindset a bit.  Are there any mentalities, attitudes, or situations you can “clean out” or “throw away?”  Once you’ve done your spring cleaning, replace the old negative stuff with fresh, positive attitudes and goals.

Here are just a few of the things you can eliminate:

1. Negative self-talk.  If you say or think too many negative things about yourself, you will eventually start to believe them.  Trust me, your self-esteem will plummet faster and more dramatically than the descent from the top of a roller coaster.  It is one thing to be honest with yourself about your shortcomings; it is completely another to make yourself feel worthless because of them.

2. Unnecessary excuses.  Stop blaming your failures or bad luck on other people or circumstances.  Instead, learn how to take ownership of your artistic ventures, whether or not they are a “success.”

3. Toxic situations.  If you can’t stand the politics and off-stage drama that permeates the school musical every year, then maybe consider finding a new, healthier opportunity.  If you feel that your chorus’s long rehearsals are using up so much voice that you don’t have enough left to practice your own rep, then consider setting chorus aside for a while to focus your vocal efforts on your personal practicing.

4. Comparing yourself to others.  This a specific and very dangerous brand of negative self-talk.  When you’re envious that you’re not as good as someone else, your focus becomes warped.  It becomes impossible to evaluate your own holistic progress if you are hyper-focused on your competition.  Conversely, if you are constantly muttering about how so-and-so got the lead and, how come? because you are so much better than her, then it means you are either a) insecure, b) conceited, or c) a very sore loser.  It doesn’t matter if you ARE better than so-and-so.  What matters is that you’re too busy letting someone else’s successes get in the way of your own growth, instead of taking ownership of your own artistry.

Once you’ve done your “cleaning,” here are some positive things you can put in place of the old stuff:

1. Short-term, realistic goals.  Instead of dwelling on the negative aspects of your artistry, simply acknowledge them and start taking steps to fix them.  Something like, “I want to fix technique x by the end-of-year recital.”  Be specific and realistic, and enlist the help of your teacher or coach if necessary.

2. Self-honesty.  This means acknowledging your strengths as well as your weaknesses.  Or, if you’re prone to making excuses, it may mean thinking of new ways to combat or deal with the negative circumstances you’ve faced in the past.  Be proactive, not a victim.

3. Seeking out new, positive opportunities.  If you’ve faced a lot of criticism or rejection in a certain area lately – like never getting the leads at school despite auditioning really well – maybe it means it’s time to branch out and look for new opportunities.  Find a place where your particular skills are valued.  This may take a while, but trust me – you WILL find someone who appreciates you, if you continue to work hard and look around enough.

4. Knowing your worth.  Every artist has his strengths and weaknesses.  There will never NOT be something to improve upon.  The key to a healthy self-confidence is to know what your particular, unique skills are, and how to put them to good use.

So, in short, stop being negative and passive, and start being positive and proactive!  Taking ownership of your performing life will help the true, unique YOU continue to shine.  So, happy spring, and happy cleaning!