Whether you sing musical theater, rock, pop, jazz or country, you may have experienced a sensation in your voice where you felt you had to push your “chest” voice (the voice you use to speak) to it’s limits in order to reach higher pitches. In many musical genres this ability is highly valued and a singer is given much praise for their capacity to do this. They work for years with teachers who train them with techniques to take this type of vocal production to it’s furthest possible extreme.
And then there are those voices you hear who seem to be able to effortlessly take this powerful vocal quality up into the stratosphere without breaking a sweat – for example, Barbra Streisand, Josh Groban, Adam Lambert, Kelly Clarkson, Ariana Grande, Patty LaBelle, Beyonce, Pavorotti (OK so he was a little sweaty at times).
Most people believe that either you have this ability or you don’t. Somehow these effortless voices have a God-given miraculous power to sing in a gifted way you’ll never possess. In fact this ability is available to everyone if they have the right instruction.
There are varying definitions and disagreements among vocal instructors for the terms “Belt” and “Mix” but for simplicity’s sake I’ll make clear my own personal definition for this article:
Those singers pushing their chest voices to it’s limit and experiencing a lot of strain and effort I put in the “Belt” category.
Those singers who can take a strong, connected sound up into higher pitches effortlessly I would put in the “Mix” category.
Let’s break it down some more.
When a voice is coordinating in a true “belt” the vocal cords are attempting to take the chest voice coordination up as high as it can go without allowing it to switch to a thinner cord (or thinner vibrating mass). (see my “Chest Voice and Head Voice” blog for further explanation). And when a singer takes it to that limit they will often find that, when they do make the switch, it flips into a falsetto or “heady” sound that is very different from the power of the chest voice. If you’re a guitarist, imagine trying to play your higher notes all on the lowest string – it would only be possible to take the pitch up so high before you’d have to shift up to the next string….but now the shift to the next higher note will be more abrupt because you have to travel so far back down the neck of the instrument. It makes much more sense to make the shift earlier when it’s easier and less abrupt. Also, in order for the vocal folds to create higher pitches in chest voice coordination, the surrounding muscles must become involved to pull and stretch the vocal folds to make them thin enough to make higher pitched sounds. This is about the time when I start taking bets on when a singer’s neck will explode as you can often visibly see the effort it is taking to hit those high notes!
When a voice is coordinating in “Mix”, the vocal folds are making this transition to a thinner cord (reduction in the vibrating mass) around those shifts known as “bridges” or “passagi” – like where your chest voice and head voice naturally separate – and it begins in your head voice range. In an ideal mix there will be no strain present as the singer vocalizes throughout their range: only the action of the vocal membranes vibrating together and resisting the air. The larynx (the cartiledge that houses the vocal folds, also known as “adam’s apple” and “voice box”) should stay in “speech level” position, meaning that it should stay comfortably in the middle while vocalizing – not moving up or down with the pitch. (Take a moment to find your larynx with your fingers – if you swallow you’ll feel it moving up, if you yawn you’ll feel it move down. Now say the sound “ah” from a low pitch to a high pitch and back down again. Does your larynx move up and down with the pitches?) The transition from chest to mix means that the resonance, while starting in the mouth will begin to move behind the soft palate (where your uvula hangs) causing you to experience a phenomenon known as “split resonance” – where the resonance sensation is felt both in chest and head voices at the same time.
Additionally, a Mix Voice should sound like a belted Chest Voice, though it will always feel different than Chest Voice.
*You will need to find this sensation with a vocal instructor who has the skills to take your own unique voice to this coordination. Please note: a singer needs to experience this sensation before they can reach that “aha!” moment and describe it that way. Don’t put the cart before the horse: experience the sensation first, then describe it. Never try and make your voice fit a description. (more about this here)
I will describe some of the steps to finding mix in an upcoming blog but can’t recommend enough that you find an instructor who has the tools to get you there in balance. Everyone comes with their own set of vocal issues and there may be some work to do before your voice is ready for this step.