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Teen-Agency in the Singing Studio - Dr Tracy Bourne

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

Eva* came into my studio at the age of 13 as a charismatic and confident singer-actor with a very strong belt voice up to about C5. She had been having lessons for a number of years with a teacher she really liked but for various reasons, was now learning from me. At her first lesson, we agreed that we would work together to strengthen her mix technique and develop her upper range. We started on some 5 note scales on oo, starting on G4 and Eva burst into tears. She hated the sound of her head register**.

Brown haired teenager wearing a bright, colourful top with green undershirt reading sheet music on a black music stand and singing into a microphone
Image by AMR Image from Getty Images Signature via Canva (One Design Use License)

Eva is like a lot of my younger singers who have been belting confidently for many years. She has a great sound in her chest register, and her strategy to maintain this strength is to lift her chin, take short breaths and tighten her lower jaw. The higher she sings, the louder she sings. But when she gets to a C5, her voice ‘flips’ (sometimes called a break) into a light and breathy head register.

In this situation I would usually spend some time strengthening and extending the singer’s head register as well as helping her find a more ‘neutral’ head and jaw alignment. We would also work on finding a less effortful chest register production. But … Eva is scared of making a bad sound. She hates the ‘weakness’ of her upper register and every time we visit this part of her range, she is visibly disgusted. I can’t convince her that it’s all part of the process and I can’t (and don’t want to) force her to make sounds that make her feel bad about herself. At the same time, I really want to help her find other ways of singing songs that she loves so that she isn’t stuck with a limited vocal range and timbre. I’m also worried that if she keeps singing like this, she may injure her voice. So what should I do?

My solution has been to work with Eva to develop a long-term strategy for improving her technique. We have agreed to focus on an easier chest register production (by relaxing shoulders, taking a deeper breath, adding some rib support, releasing jaw and larynx) and finding a greater sense of ‘airflow’ in this part of her voice. We agreed to visit her head register at each lesson, but only for short periods of time. I agreed to choose songs that are comfortable in her range with maybe just a couple of notes that are tricky for her.

Eva seems happier with this approach. Each week, she is steadily moving towards a healthier and more versatile vocal production, and more importantly, she is enjoying her lessons. Although a little part of me would like to move a bit faster, I think this approach is better for Eva because it gives her more agency over changes to the way her voice sounds. After all: it is her voice.

*Name has been changed

**Note that I use the terms head and chest register because they are most familiar to my students. Other terms might include chest/head dominant, or thick/thin folds, or M1/M2


About the Author

Dr Tracy Bourne

Visiting Fellow, School of Music, Australian National University

Tracy Bourne is a singer, singing teacher, writer and director and a Visiting Fellow at the School of Music, Australian National University. She is Director of Voice at Radford College, Canberra and maintains a busy private singing studio specialising in musical theatre voice.

Tracy originally trained as a classical singer (Qld Con, Melb Con) and studied acting at the Victorian College of the Arts (Company 93). She worked professionally in new opera and theatre in the 1990s and moved to Ballarat in 2000 to take up the position of Lecturer in Singing at Federation University. In 2016, Tracy completed her PhD on the physiology, acoustic and perceptual characteristics of the music theatre voice in male and female singers. She has published in international journals and contributed as an expert teacher to three international books on contemporary vocal training.

ANATS is the peak professional association for singing teachers in Australia. We help teachers of any style of singing to be the best they can be, by provide professional development, advocacy and community for singing teachers and other voice professionals across Australia.

We welcome members from all musical cultures, vocal styles and singing or teaching environments. We are committed to building an inclusive culture that encourages, supports, and celebrates the diverse voices of our industry.

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