Break Time!

Written by on in Vocalising

Namaste, Dear Music Lover,

It’s true that we like to title posts here a bit provocatively. This is to draw you in and to pique your interest. It doesn’t always have that effect, but we hope that now as you’ve begun to read this, you’ll read the entire post and benefit from what we want to share with you here.

Most casual readers visiting blogs will interpret “Break Time” to mean something like, “Take a break now!” However, in this post, the “break” to which we refer is not about a rest period (and true: getting rest is a topic that I raise often), because we know that going, going, going in any occupation without allowing oneself to rest & recuperate is potentially harmful. We know that there is no such thing as an average or routine reader; our goal is to give you tools and inspiration so that should you believe that a future in playback singing might interest you, you’ll have a leg up on the competition.

I must add one more caveat: for anyone to think that it’s possible to actually make a significant living in recording and performing live versions of movie songs probably should have her or his head examined, lol. In other words the few of us who are blessed to do it often count our blessings; it’s an insanely competitive field of endeavor. (So that’s the semi-cynical take on my admonition to everyone that seeking support for one’s mental health challenges should never be even slightly denigrated or viewed as if it’s evidence of other possible flaws). If you’re hurting, please #GetYourselfATherapist!

If your heart is set on playback singing, by all means give it a go (or two). But please, seek help if you can use some at any point. There’s nothing good about living in a blue funk or depressed state (and not every singer’s voice or nature is suited to this very-specialised occupation). Even great voices don’t fit well in every band or every movie!

Actors too often struggle with work rejection as well—even some quite famous ones have succumbed to the downward spiral associated with feeling abandoned by a super-competitive industry that’s far too busy to reflect upon its own insensitivity to those not being cast in current movies (aka cast aside). Being very unhappy for weeks or longer puts constant undue stress on the body, hence also upon all aspects of life! Please remember:

Stress is a killer! But fear not, Dear Music Lover. This post is all about “the break” that each of us has in our voice—that pitch, when reached, which causes the vocal folds (aka vocal cords) to shift from one mode of vibration to another. Like a vibrating string, the vocal cords can vibrate in fundamental mode, moving the string across its full length, or they can vibrate in higher multiples of that length (one-half, one-third, one-quarter, etc., also called partials or harmonics).

In a singing voice, the difference between placing a high note in head voice versus falsetto most likely only involves the one-half adjustment, that with practice becomes quite easy to switch into. We also note that when any singer switches into falsetto voice, their enunciation also tends to suffer. That’s because the effort required to change to ‘imitation high voice’ can reduce clarity (that would otherwise be evident). While those offering sage advice tend to phrase advice quite plainly “do this, not that,” I’ll add the most obvious as a caution here that is not funny, it’s potentially quite tragic: never harm yourself over a job. No job is worth your life!

Another way to understand “the break” (for voice) is to recall exactly where the voice shifts from normal (chest voice) to falsetto (imitation high head/throat voice). Some teachers call it “a crack” in your range, and whatever it’s called, surely this is one often troubling aspect of learning how to sing with that all-important pitch control. As a singer’s pitch rises, the voice reaches a point that when exceeded makes sustaining it at higher and higher pitches quite difficult.

This doesn’t mean that the singer cannot sing higher pitches, but usually she or he will find it far easier to hit those notes using the falsetto (Italian for imitated) portion of the voice. Note that the rather impressive yet incredibly high pitches called whistle notes also result from the techniques of further using the higher harmonics. One way to think of it is like doubled falsetto, although as in playing any “wind instrument,” other fractions may apply. Hence such techniques can be taught and used (we hope, only most sparingly by skilled vocalists, lest overuse devolves into tawdry theatrics).

Since my pun-loving web team would feel unfulfilled unless I put this in here, one other sense of the word “break” also applies to artists. It simply refers to getting an opportunity to show your talent (as noted in Sec. 3, Item 4. of the linked Gulzar story).

In certain music genres, the falsetto [male, usually—see below for why] voice is valued very highly, and singers who excel in their falsetto range (approximately their top octave or two)—now, if the term octave is not known to you, please also begin to learn basic musical termsoctave means 8 [diatonic scale] notes higher, or double the pitch/vibration frequency), and falsetto is liked especially by audiences favoring certain styles that feature it, for example: R&B/soul music, certain folkloric styles, and the occasional some-call-them novelty pop numbers.

Want to go off the deep end with this business of vocal registers and what is termed vocal fry? Check out videos on Tuvan throat singing on YouTube. To see famous instances of whistle notes check out Mariah Carey singing some of her crazy high-note hits. Note: one definition of poor taste is too much novelty. Fortunately, Mariah ji uses vocal seasoning to her [good] taste.

Actually, two additional things come to mind… firstly, my last post was on “crossover styles” (also called “mixed styles”) and secondly, I mentioned speaker cabinet “crossovers”.

The following will be my briefest-ever “Shop Talk” explanation, so brief that if one skips the next paragraph, one fully misses it!

Shop Talk” Nugget:

Crossovers used in loudspeaker cabinets (and they’re not mostly about cabinet acoustics, but rather the “speakers” themselves, also called “drivers”) are actually used to handle the break between the range of the “woofer” or “bass driver” and the “tweeter” or “treble driver”. In other words, no singular structure is ideal for both low (longer-wavelength) AND high (shorter-wavelength) pitches! All the “crossover network” [circuitry] itself does is it acts as a low-pass filter to send the lower pitches to the woofer(s), and as a high-pass filter to send higher pitches [out of the optimal range of the bigger, heavier woofer(s)] to the tweeter(s). (I use (s) to indicate that each loudspeaker cabinet could have multiples of each for better, fuller sound production.) One could think of the regular voice as using only the vocal cords’ fundamental register while falsetto or even whistle notes use a higher (usually 1/2- or 1/4-length) vibration mode.

So crossovers of various types play important roles (in multiple senses) for music production. They can refer to more than mixed or borrowed styles! I mention this technical point as an aside here, because it resembles what a singer must do in deciding where to “place” their sung notes—that is, in which register (octave, basically) of their voice. In the case of falsetto, it’s often described as a sort of forced “head voice” (or register) characterized by airy tone.

Another way that male singers tend to approach falsetto is as if they’re imitating a female voice (hence the imitative quality). But gender stereotypes aren’t particularly helpful (nor are they especially valid in present time). As hinted above, simply having technology is not licence to overuse it. (Too late to tell some U.S. rockers who drenched their 1980s songs with the clunky peculiar sounds of early drum machines!) I wonder how many reading this knew that whistle notes first found their way into music history as recorded by R&B legend Minnie Riperton in her song “Lovin’ You” (as a literal nod to its background birdsong).

Another (quite barbaric, sadly) thing that very few singers even know about is that once upon an era in Europe, young male singers thought to have the most lovely tone were actually physically harmed by having their testes removed (!—it’s quite gruesome, though also quite true—!). These “special boy singers” were then of course both treated as great artistes, but were sadly destined to permanent sterility. So harmed, they were termed castrati,or countertenors.

That horrendous phenomenon went on for many many years until somehow reason or justice prevailed and the practice was abandoned [after being outlawed for some period during which countless additional victims were afflicted; an ironic twist that combined public admiration for those destined to live out their lives as boys with their private anguish over the other consequences]. (We should also note that the ancient “religious” practice of virgin girl blood sacrifices has also ended. We truly hope it has!)

So given the preceding recitation, we see that: Not all aspects of being a singer are historically sound and sensible! Fortunately, I cannot think of any ones that were/are worse than the cruelty of forcing male children into the situation of being a eunuch. Humans have castrated many other animals as well, to “tame their masculine temperaments”. Farmers and others employing animals for manual labour tasks could “justify” such practices (although animal rights groups like PETA differ on the subject). I will simply add that any practice which could be described as animal cruelty is at least as cruel to human animals.

Namaste,

♫ AM ♫

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