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Posted July 31, 2020
By Camille van Niekerk
Why do people talk about mixed voice as if it’s the holy grail? What is it in the first place? How can I tell if I’ve found my mix? All great questions – and believe me, I understand how confusing this topic can be. In this article, I’ll do my best to demystify the mixed voice for you and give you some practical tips to find and strengthen your mixed coordination.
First of all: what is the mixed voice?
Mixed voice is a balance or a “blend” of both chest voice function and head voice function. It is NOT a completely distinct vocal register – and that’s where I think most of the confusion lies. Chest voice (AKA “chest register” or “chest function”) is what you use when you speak and when you sing pitches that are low in your range. In chest voice, the TA (thyroarytenoid) muscle pair is primarily responsible for phonation (the vocal folds vibrating to produce sound). The TA muscles draw the vocal folds together, an action we sometimes call “compression” or “cord closure”. The vocal folds are shorter and thicker, resulting in a characteristically full, vibrant, heavy sound.
To produce higher pitches, your vocal folds stretch and thin out. At a certain point in your range (called your “passaggio”), the TA muscles abruptly “hand over” to the CT muscles. You may experience this as a “crack”, “break”, “yodel”, or “flip” from strong, heavy chest voice to light, airier head voice. The CT (cricothyroid) muscles stretch your vocal folds longer and are primarily responsible for phonation in head voice. For many beginning singers, head voice is often “weak”, overly breathy, and underdeveloped. This is because most of us don’t use head voice in daily life! Those muscles and coordinations have simply not received the exercise that your chest voice muscles have.
Mixed voice – or mixed coordination – occurs when you sing with a balance of both chest and head voice function. Rather than abruptly “switching” from TA to CT muscle dominance, you are able to more smoothly “hand over” from one register to the next.
Why is mixing so important?
Developing mixed coordination is so important because: (1) it helps to “bridge” the otherwise abrupt transition between chest voice and head voice, and (2) it allows you to maintain a good amount of chest voice strength on higher pitches than you could safely and easily sing in “full” chest voice.
Your passaggio or “vocal break” never goes away. But mixed coordination allows singers to “disguise” it, creating the illusion of a seamless voice from their lowest to highest pitches.
How do I find my mix?
First off, you’ve probably already accessed mixed coordination at some point in your singing! Additionally, some singers (even untrained beginners) are natural “mixers”. But let’s break it down with two approaches, or two “pathways” into mixing.
1. Chest/mix: Access mixed coordination from chest voice by singing on a nasalized consonant with a tall, narrow mouth position.
An example exercise to try: sing a 1-3-5-3-1 (major triad) pattern on the syllable NO or MUM. Start in a comfortable chest voice range (ie: D3-F#3-A3-F#3-D3 for male singers and A3-C#4-E4-C#4-A3 for female singers). Walk the pattern up one half-step at a time.
The goal here is to stay “mostly” in chest voice, but to let your sound lighten without “breaking” into full head voice. Make sure that your jaw is relaxing down, and that your mouth stays narrow. If you let your mouth spread wide (for example, singing “NOW” instead of “NO”), you run the risk of getting into shouty, “pulled” chest voice territory – which is where vocal damage can more easily occur.
Many singers like to visualize their “mix” as resonating (vibrating) in the front of their face. You may hear teachers talk about “forward placement” or singing “in the mask”. They may even instruct you to feel vibration in your nose or upper lip as “proof” that you’re mixing properly. (If that confuses you, forget it! But if it helps, great.)
The tricky thing about a chest/mix is that it’ll still feel a lot like chest voice! So how can you tell if you’re mixing or not? Listen for a tone quality that is slightly thinner, brighter, lighter, or more nasal than your “full” chest voice. It should sound more like a “call” and less like a shout or yell. It will still require a good amount of effort, and you’ll need to support those chest/mix notes with a low breath, and gentle “down and out” engagement in your lower abdomen. But listen for that “lightening” of the sound as your most reliable clue. Additionally, you should be able to sing higher in chest/mix than full chest voice.
2. Head/mix: Access mixed coordination from head voice by singing on nasalized consonants OR plosive consonants (like G/B) with a neutral vowel or an energized, “twang”-y vowel (like A as in CAT or AY as in HAY).
Syllables to try in your upper register include NAY, NAH (with A is an CAT), GUHG, BUHB, and any similar combination. The goal in finding a head/mix is to start in head voice, then increase cord compression and add some low body engagement. Find any comfortable head voice pitch, singing on an AH (as in father). See if you can increase volume by engaging your low abdomen with slight outward pressure, rather than “pushing” from the throat. Add an initial G or B sound (GUH/BUH) to encourage firmer cord closure, and feel the natural subglottic pressure those consonants produce. You can also increase the strength of your sound by using naturally energetic, bright vowels like EE, AY (as in HAY) and A as in CAT. Many singers like to use the syllable NAY or NYAH in this range. Aim for a clean, focused tone that is supported and strong – that feels like head voice with more “weight”.
The magic of mixing
Many singers (and even teachers) present mixed voice as a secret weapon, a magical register that will completely eliminate your vocal break and allow you to belt any pitch you want. And in my experience, that’s just not the case! Rather, mixed coordination is a balance of your chest function and head function – and for that reason, there isn’t just one way to mix, or one mix sound. It depends on the singer’s voice and the balance of chest voice function to head voice function they’re using. Once you learn to mix, you can increase compression for a more “chesty” sound and decrease for more “head voice” sound. That’s the true beauty and “magic” of mixing: the ability to sing with different tone quality on a wide variety of pitches, rather than being “locked in” to either full chest voice or full head voice for set pitches.
How to tell if you’re mixing
If it doesn’t feel exactly like either chest voice or head voice, it’s probably a mix! But because mix combines both coordinations, it’s difficult to tell based solely on feel or sound. If you’re completely unsure, work with a voice teacher to help you find your mix. It’s worth it!
More exercises to build your mix
1. Sing any wide-range exercise on a lip trill, then on a MUM. The lip trill lines up your vocal folds, and the MUM helps you get into your mix with minimal effort.
2. Slide over your passaggio on a nasalized “NOHN”, letting the sound become brighter and lighter as you ascend in pitch, but not allowing it to “flip” into head voice.
3. Extend your head voice function by singing lower than you normally would in head voice. Give your vocal folds the opportunity to sing lower pitches in a lighter coordination to lay the groundwork for mixing.
4. Listen to your favorite artists and identify when they’re mixing. Listen for a “not quite chest voice but not quite head voice” sound. The easier you identify mixed coordination, the easier it will be to know when you’re mixing. Ariana Grande and Sam Smith, for example, are two singers who mix very often.
Best of luck, and happy mixing!
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