Whistle register is the perfect buzzword, an ideally fitting way to describe that razor-thin, super high, featherweight, pseudo singing sound, otherworldly and freakish enough to mesmerize listeners. Why is whistle register not found in classical singing? How is whistle register created and who are the singers best known for mastering such a tricky technique?
This post intends to warn singers against training their voices to create the sound known as whistle register.
Permanent Vocal Damage: Run for Your Life!
Literally any person who loves to sing should immediately run (do not walk) away from the idea, from the training, from the peer pressure, from everything associated with vocal sound called whistle register. This warning extends to any other name for using the voice to make the same type of sound as the whistle register.
But why? Doesn’t everyone want to create that super high vocal sound?
This is a big question we can begin to answer. And we can find the healthiest way for you to maximize the upper range of your voice. So deciding against whistle register is not and will never be the end of the world for your singing.
One of the best examples of whistle tone singing surely is this one:
Of course the whistle register is the super high pitches that are basically a vocal squeak. But how is this sound produced? The answer is the whistle register sound is produced by the false vocal cords. And this is a great big no-no for any singer who wants to keep singing!
Mariah Carey Discusses Her Own Vocal Damage
At 2:45, Ms. Carey says that she “has had nodules her whole life.” Although I have not heard this from her doctor, the likelihood here is, as Ms. Carey herself says, the voice was probably damaged by something other than singing, when she was a child. Perhaps it was a birth defect or possibly the vocal damage happened from some other means of vocal abuse, as a young child. She describes learning to speak using the whistle register, because it was the only way she could phonate at all.
This tells us her singing voice has been trained on the false vocal folds. The damage is permanent and her speaking voice is continuously hoarse. The “singing” sound produced by the false vocal folds is a bizarre freak show, at the expense of her entire vocal health. And no matter how much a pop singer might want to copy Mariah Carey, the truth is her career as an entertainer has caused irreversible damage to her voice.
The False Vocal Folds
First let’s be clear about using the word “folds” instead of the word “cords.” We use these two words interchangeably. Whether we call them “vocal folds” or “vocal cords,” the meaning is exactly the same.
The “vocal cords” are actually folds or layers of tissue, including muscle. And that top layer is of course the mucosal lining, which is often discussed in this blog.
Remember the mucosal lining? We must keep it moist, always preventing dehydration. Your singing voice depends in a big way upon the health of the mucosal lining.
In this video, we can tell the difference between the true vocal cords and the false vocal cords. The two white bands are the true vocal cords. The brownish areas appearing to the sides of each white vocal cord are the false vocal cords. In other words, the true vocal cords are much smaller than the false vocal cords.
Purpose of the False Vocal Cords
The false vocal cords actually are located directly above the true vocal cords. Making sound is not the purpose of the false vocal cords. Their main job is to protect the smaller true vocal cords. For example, when swallowing the false vocal cords close over the true vocal cords. Along with the epiglottis, the false vocal cords prevent foods and liquids from falling through the true vocal cords and into the windpipe.
This article gets very technical. But it supports the purpose of this blog post. The Wikipedia article refers to the false vocal cords as the “vestibular folds.” Again, it means the same as “false vocal cords.” On the right side of the page, the image points out the exact location of the “vestibular folds.”
As mentioned, the false vocal cords are not made to create vocal sound. But they certainly can be trained to force vocal sounds. Throaty growling sounds can be produced by the false vocal cords. And of course the whistle register is created solely by using the false vocal cords.
So why not? What’s the problem with training the false vocal cords, if this is how someone really wants to sing?
In simplest terms, using the false vocal cords to phonate (make sound) depends upon forcing and abusing the voice. It is better to ask the question in reverse: Why is it necessary to force sound from the false vocal cords? Have the true vocal cords been damaged?
Common Warning Signs of Vocal Damage
If you are experiencing any of these vocal difficulties, your voice should be examined as soon as possible by a good ENT specialist doctor.
- Chronic hoarse sound quality for longer than about a month, when you have not recently suffered from a cold, from Covid 19, from chronic asthma, from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or from an upper respiratory infection.
- Loss of vocal range, especially your upper range, the top notes. Again, if the problem is persistent and you have not recently suffered from any of the above medical conditions, this can be a sign of an abnormality within your vocal anatomy.
- A general loss of vocal power and/or lack of beauty in your sound, not your usual status.
- Your voice becomes tired much more quickly than is normal for you. Or if you find you are using a lot more breath to sing than is normal for you.
- There is a low-pitched rattling noise simultaneous with your singing sound.
- Your speaking voice is low and husky, not normal for you.
- Any other unusual vocal symptom that you suspect is, or could be, an abnormality of your vocal anatomy.
You should always err on the side of caution and be evaluated by a good doctor as soon as possible. Remember that irreversible damage means your voice is permanently ruined and you might not be able to sing again. Let’s prevent this, please!
Seeking Great Expertise
Finding the best way to understand all of this requires a greater mind. The renowned voice teacher David L. Jones has written a brilliant article. Here is a quote:
Countless singers and teachers are looking for ways to open the upper register of the voice. Some understand this process with positive results. Sometimes without knowing it, others teach damaging techniques that might seem to get positive results at the time but lead to eventual vocal damage. This article is designed to clarify healthy and unhealthy approaches to what many call whistle register, a term sometimes used representing both male and female falsetto.
What are the advantages and dangers of teaching this vocal concept over time? Are there extreme considerations a teacher should observe? What are the warning signs of vocal damage on the horizon? Finally, what can be done to repair the damage if the false cord function is employed in the upper range of the voice? Does the instructor understand the damaging result of using the false cords? All of these questions are critical to the well-being of the singer and they are critical to the process of learning about healthy teaching of the upper voice. Sadly, the truth is that often the well being of the singer is overlooked to protect delicate egos. This needs to change as our understanding of the world of voice science grows and as we learn more and more about the vocal mechanism.
Preventing Irreversible Vocal Damage
Any singer who wants to continue singing is wise to read the above-linked article by David L. Jones. The scientific, anatomical fact is that the false vocal cords are not built for making vocal sound.
There is no question that an unhealthy approach to vocal training can essentially insist upon or force a super high-pitched squeaking noise called the whistle register. And the false cords can also be made to produce the low-pitched growl noises, which some pop singers want for expressive reasons. Moreover, David L. Jones reports case studies of classical singers whose vocal instruments have suffered permanent damage, resulting from forcing singing on the false cords.
The unvarnished truth is you should expect to pay a massive, steep price for your vocal health, and possible irreversible damage to your voice, from using the false vocal cords for phonating.
As mentioned in a prior blog post, unhealthy singing technique will eventually cause damage to the fragile vocal anatomy. Pop singers frequently suffer from vocal damage. Sadly this is too often found to be permanent.
Connecting Your Voice to Your Body: How to Do a Lip Trill
When the false cords are trained to phonate, the sound is disengaged from the body. This is the polar opposite of healthy singing technique and thus it presents serious risk of irreversible damage to your voice.
Regardless of which style of music you sing, the following video is helpful for learning how to create a lip trill. And practicing the lip trill or the tongue trill requires that you engage your lower body. This is how we power our voices to sing our best!
I recommend combining this exercise with the technique of standing at the wall. As discussed here, this technique is simple but incredibly powerful. Try it!
Stand with your back against the wall, with only the back of your head and your heels touching the wall. No other part of your body should touch the wall, for this exercise. Feel the spine straighten, feel the diaphragm widen, and feel the lower ribs open.
Now breathe low, allowing your diaphragm to expand with the lungs (so your abdomen will naturally move outward). Sing a little in this position. You might feel a great deal of new freedom in your singing.
Now come off the wall. Remember the head position, which is on top of the straight spine and slightly back. Important: Do not allow the head to be forward.
When the head is slightly back, floating easily on top of the spine, without tension in the back of the neck, the throat will naturally open in the back, allowing for more resonance in your sound. The best news is your new body alignment instantly makes it so much easier for every aspect of good singing technique to automatically being working properly. So exciting! You must try this!
VOCAL FREEDOM: Connecting Your Singing to Your Body!
Breath control, or if you want to call it breath support, means we take the pressure off the throat. Remember the body alignment you had while standing with your back against the wall. When you have stepped away from the wall, keep that same alignment. Now use your heels to press firmly into the floor. This causes the correct lower muscles (in the pelvic floor) to begin to work, holding back the breath. And this is how we support the breath for singing.
Now you are feeling the power of engaging the lower network of muscles. Specifically we are talking about the muscles between the ribs (intercostals), the muscles of the abdomen and pelvic floor, the muscles of the buttocks and legs, and even the muscles of the feet. These are the muscles which give power and stamina to the singing voice.
So the muscles of the neck and throat do not support the breath. And the muscles of your neck and throat do not make your voice powerful. All of this happens only with engagement of the lower network of muscles. And this is how we engage an audience, like a magnet, pulling listeners into the beauty of our vocal sound.
Your greatest vocal freedom depends upon connecting your voice to your lower body. But this is simply impossible, when using the false vocal cords to phonate.
When we settle for less, we rob ourselves of the maximum beauty, power, and artistic expression of which we are capable. And you’re way too good for that!
Contact me now to discuss how the lessons I provide can help your singing enormously! Email address: Gretchen@SingingAndYou.com.
This post is about singing your ultimate best by saying NO to the whistle register!
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