Functional Vocal Training

Functional vocal training is founded on the belief that a correct technique must be an extension of free organic movement; that such movement is the expression of a life process subject to nature’s laws; and that training procedures adopted must be based upon principles which conform to those laws. This premise is not widely accepted, most training methods preferring to concentrate on functional effects, rather than functional causes. This error has led to another misjudgment, even more serious; confusing the PROCESS of learning to sing with the ART OF SINGING. Procedures designed to restructure a faulty vocal technique, therefore, cannot have validity until a clear distinction is made between art, aesthetics and function.

“Forward” Placement

To feel the tone in the mask, ‘forward,’ or at some point at the top of the head as many suggest involves no functional principal and offers nothing constructive to the training program. Specific symptoms of vibration are the result, not the cause, of muscular movement and the right ‘feel’ of the tone can only be experienced after the physical adjustment which gave rise to that sensation has first been made.


The pedagogic theories espoused by Cornelius Reid over the course of a seventy year teaching and writing career are based on the works of the early teachers of the eighteenth century.  The main focus of those masters was the vocal registers, the chest voice and the falsetto.  To this Reid has added the insights provided by physiological research as to how the vocal mechanism works.  In his research he discovered that the most efficient way to train the vocal mechanism was not by the institution of overt control systems, but by working indirectly.  Since the muscles that bring the vocal folds into tension are involuntary, the entire mechanism must be treated as such.

Considered from this perspective, Reid’s training philosophy is founded on what amounts to an ecological principle, where the vocal mechanism is regulated and controlled by changes in the environmental conditions to which it is being exposed.

How is the correct environment chosen?  By listening to the tonal product.   Mechanically, the singing voice naturally divides into two distinguishably different qualities, or registers, known as the chest voice and the falsetto.  The purpose of technical training is to develop and blend these two qualities so that the voice becomes a seamless entity.  By working registrationally it is possible to equate what is heard with the probable balance of tension operative within the laryngeal musculature.  On the basis of this analysis, a vocal exercise is created that is the most beneficial environment capable of serving the student’s growth needs.

How does this operative principle manifest itself?  It becomes apparent by observing a series of equivalencies.  For example: The vocal folds adjust their length, mass and tension to accommodate numerous combinations of the three basic tonal elements, pitch, intensity and vowel.  Change the pitch and/or intensity and the vocal folds will adjust their physical dimensions accordingly.  As a result, the antagonistic contractions of the muscle systems will correspondingly shift their ratio of tension to accommodate those changes.  Change the vowel, and both the configuration of the vocal tract and the conformation of the vocal folds will also change, each change having a direct bearing on quality.

The equivalencies noted above can be worked into an exercise construct that invokes the above-mentioned principle. Thus, a specifically designed exercise will predictably result in a special type of vocal fold conformation whose dimensions will, in turn, be determined by the proportional amounts of tension assumed by the tensors of the vocal folds.  It is within these relationships that the operative principle by which the vocal registers are governed is to be found.

Nasal Resonance vs. Nasality

    There is a fundamental functional distinction to be made between what seems to be nasal resonance and nasality. Nasal resonance (one of the ‘mere appearances’ referred to by Garcia) finds the throat relatively open with the so-called ’head’ register dominant. Under these conditions symptoms of vibration do appear to concentrate in the ‘masque,’ the area of the sinuses and the antrim. Symptoms, however, must never be confused with causes. Genuine resonance can only be achieved when the technique is open-throated and free of interfering tension, never by ‘placing’ the tone ‘forward’ or into the nasal passages. A common pedagogic error is to attempt to establish this freedom through resonance rather than registration.

Nasality is quite another matter. Without exception it is associated with throat constriction, and the proportion of nasality always corresponds exactly to the degree of constriction present in the tone. Few singers possess a technique of singing where the throat is really free and open and nasality is one of the more common vocal faults.    

The Chest Voice

    As summed up by eighteenth century authorities the ultimate goal of training was not only register unification, but success in combining the registers in such a way as to make the voice appear not only to be of one register, but to reflect the influence of the natural or chest voice.   To quote Giambatista Mancini, “It is a rare case when the two registers are both united into a chest register in one person. This total union is generally produced only by study and the help of art.” Given this emphasis on the chest voice, it is important to understand the dynamics of this register in detail.

Mechanics of the Falsetto

Whether a quality is perceived as being false or legitimate is dependent upon the way in which the configuration of the glottis is regulated by tension assumed by the arytenoid system.  When the response of the arytenoids is of such a kind that they are incapable of thickening the vocal folds as intensity is increased, the tonal product will express itself in terms of a variety of different types of false tone qualities.

The essential mechanical difference among the numerous types of falsetto is that each reflects a substantial difference in the balance of tension distributed between the openers and the closers of the vocal folds.  As cricothyroid (stretchers) tension is countered exclusively by the posterior cricoarytenoids (openers) the falsetto will be pure. When tension shifts to the lateral cricoarytenoids (closers), the result will be an occlusion of the vocal folds, the falsetto will gradually lose its falseness as the tone quality  becomes more full-bodied and complete.

A Teacher’s Obligation

It is a teacher’s obligation to release a singer’s instinct.  By definition, any overt control or manipulative effort can do nothing but hinder that process.  A singer studies singing so as to remove all impediments to his innate sense of singing.  The approach to releasing the singer’s instinct is to discover the faults and remove them one by one.  When all faults are removed the voice indeed sounds as if it is an instinctual utterance.