The Head Voice
The head tone signifies, for all voices, from the deepest bass to the
highest soprano,--excepting for the fact that it furnishes the
overtones for each single tone of the whole vocal gamut,--youth. A
voice without vibrancy is an old voice. The magic of youth,
freshness, is given by the overtones that sound with every tone.
So to utilize the head voice (resonance of the head cavities) that
every tone shall
be able to carry and shall remain high enough to
reach higher tones easily, is a difficult art, without which, however,
the singer cannot reckon upon the durability of his voice. Often
employed unconsciously, it is lost through heedlessness, mistaken
method, or ignorance; and it can hardly ever be regained, or, if at
all, only through the greatest sacrifice of time, trouble, and
The pure head voice (the third register) is, on account of the
thinness that it has by nature, the neglected step-child of almost all
singers, male and female; its step-parents, in the worst significance
of the word, are most singing teachers, male and female. It is
produced by the complete lowering of the pillars of the fauces, while
the softest point of the palate--behind the nose--is thrown up very
high, seemingly, almost into the head; in the highest position, as it
were, above the head.
The rear of the tongue stands high, but is formed into a furrow, in
order that the mass of the tongue may not be in the way, either in the
throat or in the mouth. In the very highest falsetto and head tones
the furrow is pretty well filled out, and then no more breath at all
reaches the palatal resonance.
The larynx stands high--mine leans over to one side. (See plates of
The vocal cords, which we cannot feel, now approach very near each
other. The pupil should not read about them until he has learned to
hear correctly. I do not intend to write a physiological work, but
simply to attempt to examine certain infallible vocal sensations of
the singer; point out ways to cure evils, and show how to gain a
correct understanding of that which we lack.
Up to a certain pitch, with tenors as well as with sopranos, the head
tones should be mixed with palatal resonance. With tenors this will be
a matter of course, though with them the chest tones are much abused;
with sopranos, however, a judicious mixture may be recommended because
more expression is required (since the influence of Wagner has become
paramount in interpreting the meaning of a composition, especially of
the words) than in the brilliant fireworks of former times. The head
voice, too, must not be regarded as a definite register of its own,
which is generally produced in the middle range through too long a
persistence in the use of the palatal and nasal resonance. If it is
suddenly heard alone, after forcing tones that have preceded it, which
is not possible under other circumstances, it is of course noticeably
thin, and stands out to its disadvantage--like every other sharply
defined register--from the middle tones. In the formation of the voice
no register should exist or be created; the voice must be made even
throughout its entire range. I do not mean by this that I should sing
neither with chest tones nor with head tones. On the contrary, the
practised artist should have at his command all manner of different
means of expression, that he may be able to use his single tones,
according to the expression required, with widely diverse qualities of
resonance. This, too, must be cared for in his studies. But these
studies, because they must fit each individual case, according to the
genius or talent of the individual, can be imparted and directed only
by a good teacher.
The head voice, when its value is properly appreciated, is the most
valuable possession of all singers, male and female. It should not be
treated as a Cinderella, or as a last resort,--as is often done too
late, and so without results, because too much time is needed to
regain it, when once lost,--but should be cherished and cultivated as
a guardian angel and guide, like no other. Without its aid all voices
lack brilliancy and carrying power; they are like a head without a
brain. Only by constantly summoning it to the aid of all other
registers is the singer able to keep his voice fresh and youthful.
Only by a careful application of it do we gain that power of endurance
which enables us to meet the most fatiguing demands. By it alone can
we effect a complete equalization of the whole compass of all voices,
and extend that compass.
This is the great secret of those singers who keep their voices young
till they reach an advanced age. Without it all voices of which great
exertions are demanded infallibly meet disaster. Therefore, the motto
must be always, practice, and again, practice, to keep one's powers
uninjured; practice brings freshness to the voice, strengthens the
muscles, and is, for the singer, far more interesting than any musical
If in my explanations I frequently repeat myself, it is done not
unintentionally, but deliberately, because of the difficulty of the
subject, as well as of the superficiality and negligence of so many
singers who, after once hastily glancing through such a treatise,--if
they consider it worth their while at all to inform themselves on the
subject,--think they have done enough with it.
One must read continually, study constantly by one's self, to gain
even a faint idea of the difficulty of the art of singing, of managing
the voice, and even of one's own organs and mistakes, which are one's
second self. The phenomenon of the voice is an elaborate complication
of manifold functions which are united in an extremely limited space,
to produce a single tone; functions which can only be heard, scarcely
felt--indeed, should be felt as little as possible. Thus, in spite of
ourselves, we can only come back again to the point from which we
started, as in an eddy, repeating the explanations of the single
functions, and relating them to each other.
Since in singing we sense none of the various activities of the
cartilage, muscles, ligaments, and tendons that belong to the vocal
apparatus, feel them only in their cooeperation, and can judge of the
correctness of their workings only through the ear, it would be absurd
to think of them while singing. We are compelled, in spite of
scientific knowledge, to direct our attention while practising, to the
sensations of the voice, which are the only ones we can become aware
of,--sensations which are confined to the very palpable functions of
the organs of breathing, the position of the larynx, of the tongue,
and of the palate, and finally, to the sensation of the resonance of
the head cavities. The perfect tone results from the combined
operations of all these functions, the sensations of which I undertake
to explain, and the control of which the ear alone can undertake.
This is the reason why it is so important to learn to hear one's self,
and to sing in such a way that one can always so hear.
Even in the greatest stress of emotion the power of self-control must
never be lost; you must never allow yourself to sing in a slovenly,
that is, in a heedless, way, or to exceed your powers, or even to
reach their extreme limit. That would be synonymous with roughness,
which should be excluded from every art, especially in the art of
song. The listener must gain a pleasing impression from every tone,
every expression of the singer; much more may be given if desired.
Strength must not be confounded with roughness; and the two must not
go hand in hand together. Phenomenal beings may perhaps be permitted
to go beyond the strength of others; but to the others this must
remain forbidden. It cannot become a regular practice, and is best
limited to the single phenomenon. We should otherwise soon reach the
point of crudest realism, from which at best we are not far removed.
Roughness will never attain artistic justification, not even in the
case of the greatest individual singers, because it is an offence.
The public should witness from interpretative art only what is good
and noble on which to form its taste; there should be nothing crude or
commonplace put before it, which it might consider itself justified in
taking as an example.
Of the breath sensation I have already spoken at length. I must add
that it is often very desirable in singing to breathe through the
nose with the mouth closed; although when this is done, the raising of
the palate becomes less certain, as it happens somewhat later than
when the breath is taken with the mouth open. It has, however, this
disadvantage, that neither cold air nor dust is drawn into the larynx
and air passages. I take pleasure in doing it very often. At all
events, the singer should often avail himself of it.
We feel the larynx when the epiglottis springs up (stroke of the
glottis, if the tone is taken from below upward). We can judge
whether the epiglottis springs up quickly enough if the breath comes
out in a full enough stream to give the tone the necessary resonance.
The low position of the larynx can easily be secured by pronouncing
the vowel oo; the high, by pronouncing the vowel [=a]. Often
merely thinking of one or the other is enough to put the larynx,
tongue, and palate in the right relations to each other. Whenever I
sing in a high vocal range, I can plainly feel the larynx rise and
take a diagonal position. (See plate.)
The movement is, of course, very slight. Yet I have the feeling in my
throat as if everything in it was stretching. I feel the pliability of
my organs plainly as soon as I sing higher.