My name is Natalie Andreou and I’m a vocal coach in London. I’ve also spent a big chunk of time in musical theatre, 8 shows a week, having to belt my face off wearing corsets and high heeled boots!
In this post I’d like to be in solidarity with the singers who struggle to find that thing called ‘chest voice’, or maybe have been avoiding it. I’d also like to share some insight into how you go about figuring it all out.
The ‘chest voice’ wish
A recurring desire that singers bring up in my (virtual) studio is the ability to create something bigger, stronger, more powerful. Something that connects on an authentic level with richness and depth of tone.
Is this you?
You know you can sing well, but something just doesn’t quite click when go for that ‘chestier’ thing. You’ve explored getting in there with various different teachers and haven’t quite hit the nail on the head. Maybe you even feel like you’re getting it going but it feels a bit, well, wrong.
You’re not alone
I’ve worked with a ton of singers with this kind of backstory. There was a particular person who came to me last summer with a real sense of urgency to get her voice moving. She was mid-way through professional musical theatre training and not getting the feedback she wanted. It was clear that she was aiming for ‘chesty’ sound, but was very confused from all the previous advice saying:
- It’s dangerous/causes injury
- You can get by without it
- It’s really hard work down there, so dig your heels in!
Being a bit scared of chest, she understandably left her exclusively choosing her head voice for all styles. Unfortunately, this ended up being the root of her musical theatre feedback problem.
And what’s wrong with head voice?
Nothing at all. The type of music she was performing needed more colour though. Modern musical theatre is like speech moving into song. Story telling. As chest voice is what we associate with a speech-like sound, it’s so important to get a handle of. This would be the similar for a lot of pop and contemporary too.
The infamous ‘belt’ is also a very chest-orientated sound. Without a steady chest, there is no steady belt.
When we dodge our chest voice and use a heady sound in it’s place, we often get in some trouble. If we sing the low songs they usually sound too weak or breathy, so we miss the stylistic mark.
If we want to be loud in head voice we either have to sing reeeaaally high (hello opera!), squeeze and twang it, or blow a gale of airflow through each and every line. It can be exhausting to do that and is peppered with cracks.
What’s the other option?
Face the demon. Just, it’s not a demon at all. It’s was incorrectly given that persona by the classical world. But here’s some news. Classical singers get hurt too!
Matt Edwards, a great voice coach in the US, shares a lot of brilliant information about that in this article. The crux of it is that great classical singers suffer as much with vocal injury as pop singer do.
“We need to stop saying “a lack of classical technique” is why pop singers run into problems and we need to stop spreading the myth that classical singers never get injured.”
What can I do?
There are chest voices exercises all over the internet and they’re mostly pretty relevant, but often finding a steady chest voice isn’t just about doing endless staccato ‘AH’.
Instead, there are a couple of things that I like to check in on when helping with chest. Things which you could consider when working at home:
- Vocal fry – That low, creaky sound (below). Vocal fry is handy to use *sparingly* as an onset to a line or exercise to find a chestier experience. Vocal fry can often feel quite relaxing too, which is a revelation to those who’ve always seen chest as effortful.
It can be difficult to find that deep rumble though, as sometimes it’s either impossible or comes out more high pitched or pained. If this happens, it’s suggesting that the basis for chest voice is struggling and may need a closer look.
- Speak the lyrics – For some singers, they see their singing voice and speaking voice to be completely separate things. It might sound that way for someone stepping out of the pub and into an opera, but to solve the issue of chest it’s much more helpful to see singing as an extension of speech.
I loved this exercise when working with Jeannie Lovetri. Start by speaking the lyrics aloud like a speech. Nothing pretty at all. Then gradually extend the word lengths, a bit like you were speaking in slow motion, to get a sense of legato. Then start moving the pitch around, but STAY WITH THE SLO-MO SPEAKING.
Disclaimer – This exercise is less helpful if you tend to speak gently. You may need to encourage yourself to speak as a character who is a little more ‘brash’.
- Raise your arms – Remember how there’s potential for having to blow a gale of airflow in order to be loud? Well, this move can help you to understand whether your efforts to find chest voice are being held back by that whirlwind.
First, sing something short. Anything. Note the experience. Then sing the same segment with your arms reaching directly above your head. Note the experience again. Was it a changed experience, either positively or negatively? If yes, it might say something about how your upper body, and hence your breath, could be adjusted to allow you to find a more comfortable, richer sound.
You NEED this
Whether it’s in musical theatre or pop and RnB, vocal colour and dynamic are what helps us to do the message AND the style justice. It makes songs interesting, artists intriguing and agents chomping at the bit.
Also, it’s becoming clearer through research that the function of chest voice contributes massively to what makes our voices efficient. In fact, there is a huge need to balance ALL of the vocal registers when creating a safer environment to sing. If any one is missing, be it chest or falsetto, we’re eventually going to suffer on some level.
Even in a positive environment where chest register can be nurtured, language like ‘activate’ ‘support’ and ‘anchor’ all hint at something that requires a lot of physical work. I wanna buck that trend, and show you that singing in a contemporary way and beyond can feel easy.
AND give you all the power you desire.
It’s not an overnight fix and is sometimes frustrating when you’ve already had a bad time with it. But don’t get wrapped up in that. Try some of the exercises above and don’t hesitate to get in touch with me if you find something that bugs you. I’d love to be the one that helps you discover YOUR voice!