"Top Down" (Mixing) vs. "Bottom Up" (Belting) - Why Does It Matter?

This was originally a response to somene's thread on our voice forum, The Visionary Vocalist, titled "How long did it take for your upper range to come in/coordinate/develop?" But I realized this is an entire topic all on it's own.

Our previous conversation was a debate on the boundaries between laryngeal vibratory mechanisms M1 & M2. And that, even if such lines could be drawn, why would they matter? This is a topic I have spent a great deal of time thinking about it.

Greg made the point that researchers are only beginning to scratch the surface of the difference between these mechanisms. And that there is information which somewhat conflicts with the M1/M2 duality. So what's the big deal?

Researchers are shit at helping singers
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Greg is right. About there being exceptions to the clear boundaries between M1 & M2. Though, unfortunately, only one piece of research, to my knowledge, has been done on the topic. Which, honestly, is rather pathetic. I'm sorry but this makes me angry. That researchers would rather dedicate time to studying every minute detail associate with classical singing, as well as invest tremendous amount of time and energy into ideas with zero practical application (I'm looking at you, formant tuning.) Is infuriating. We don't need more studies done on straws, I don't want to hear the word "semi-occluded phonation" ever again!!!!!!

This is part of why I created this forum with Erickson. If they aren’t going to do the research, we will. I don’t know when and I don’t know how and I don't know who will be here when it happens. But I know that we can shove camera down our throats, strap on an EGG device (measures laryngeal vibratory patterns,) and figure it out ourselves. I don’t care if we're approved for peer review or not.

M2 that looks like M1?
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ANYWAY. In this piece of research the "mixed voice" sound shared a great a number of laryngeal vibratory patterns with M2, but had a few pieces of M1 vibratory patterns as well. I did hear from the researcher who conducted the study (on himself like a bad ass) and he said he believed the co-ordination to be M2. Because in order to train it it requires that you come from M2 and build it from there. I believe he is correct.

Top down
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This is the core of most "mixed voice" or "bridging" schools of thought. What some people at TMV call "top down." The idea that you begin with a connection to falsetto and that you slowly build up the strength of your falsetto. Formant tuning is very popular among this school of thought. The idea being that you take your falsetto and line up the formants on the chart to match something resembling M1.

The "top down" school of thought often uses words like "one voice," "connected voice," "disconnected," "full voice," "mixed voice,” “thinning out,” “resonance,” "bel canto," etc. The notion of anatomical registration is disregarded by singers of this methodology. Words like "head voice" and "chest voice" are often defined either as sympathetic resonance sensations or sound timbre. If it sounds “chesty” it is chest voice, if it sounds heady it is “heady” regardless of laryngeal vibratory patterns.

I believe the unconscious reason why singers & teachers of this school define ‘registers’ in this manner is to prevent the student from seeing outside of the box, in a sense. If you recognize your box you risk potentially overthinking the coordination and “breaking.” It is advantageous to students in this school to imagine that the voice operates outside of the constraints of rigidly defined registers.

Researchers who adhere to this school of thought tend to disregard research done on M1 vs. M2. Instead focus is placed on formant tuning & resonance strategies. Semi-occluded phonations (UGH!,) Rossini scales, & bridging exercises are the bread and butter of “mixed voice” teachers.

Bottom up
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I, on on the other hand, came from a "bottom up" methodology. I was indoctrinated by musical theater programs and musical theater teachers during college. They were very much into the idea of yelling or what was often very politely called "soft calling." The idea was to build up our voice from the bottom at a loud volume and then learn to control it.

As opposed to the “top down” school which grants students early access to high notes (teachers often “brag” that they can get a beginner singing a C5 in the first lesson) the “bottom up” school employs a long, arduous process of building up each note one by one. You start with a “break” at E4 and 6 months later your break is now at F4.

“Bottom up” schools use words like chest, chest pulling, belting, calling, soft yelling/shouting, etc. In fact, research has even been conducted on this. Finding that words like “head voice,” “resonance,” “mixed voice,” “connected voice,” etc. are completely missing from the vocabulary of these types of singers. Very little focus is placed on the idea of “resonance” as opposed to the mixed voice school which considers resonance to be a staple concept. This is because instead of tuning formants (resonance) the aesthetic ideal is to muscularly “push” your voice, as opposed to relying on assistance from resonance.

In this school “chest voice” is synonymous with M1. “Head voice” is typically synonymous with M2. Researchers who adhere to this school maintain this "rigid" definitions of laryngeal function & associated terminology.

The Point


Anyway what I’m doing here is trying to create an argument, which is in congruence with the opinion of the ONE researcher on the ONE study done on the topic (horrible sample size, I know,) that we as singers should recognize the existence of these “indoctrinating” schools of thought. That the effects of adhering to the terminology of one school have severe implications on the end product of the students voice.

Whether or not what I am considering to be M2 turns out to be M2 in the coming years… this to me is not necessarily my focus. (I DO think I am right though heheheheh.) Even though I DO think it is important for even a singer of the “top down” school to be at least minimally aware of the anatomical reality of the voice (just the hard research that is out. No bias needed. Just take a look at the evidence, decide for yourself what sounds belong in which box and why, and move on.) Or, such a student can simply say “fuck it” and believe whatever works for them so long as their beliefs are assisting them in their goal.

But! I do not think it is deniable that voices produced by the “top down” school are different in timbre than voices produced by the “bottom up” school. Neither is better or worse. There are incredibly successful, amazing singers produced by each school of thought. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. But, rarely, do singers excel in both methodologies.

However! Singers also have never been given the option of choosing a school (at least not that I’m aware of in any significant way.) Nor have most singers, so far as I know, been given the opportunity to learn both and to understand the contrasting principals behind both. I simply want to create the argument that we should be aware of these things. As to not be “brain washed” (for lack of a better word) by an ideology we never intended to subscribe to.

Vocal Health Concerns
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I believe the most detrimental thing to a singer’s psychological & vocal health is an inability to express themselves. The times I have blown out or even injured by voice were the result of my inability to express myself, to create a sound which i believed represented me. This is incredibly damaging to a student of voice.

If someone wants to learn “belting” (M1 pulling) but is, not by choice, indoctrinated into a “mixing” (M2 blending) school of thought this can have serious consequences. Likewise, if a student’s ideal aesthetic is that which is produced by a “mixing” school but they are subjected to a “belting” instructor, this too will have serious consequences. If a student is straining to produce a sound which is impossible for that mechanism to provide (this was my experience learning under a mixing instructor, by the way) this is far more dangerous then for that student to learn the coordination properly.

I hear the consequences of singers being misplaced every day. Either someone emailing me, desperate because they have been trying to create a sound from M2 sometimes for years which is simply not possible in that mechanism. Or I hear horror stories from singers who were subjected to the torment of a belting instructor when they were not physically or psychologically ready or capable (and, I'm ashamed to admit, in my nativity I have been this teacher before,) or their sound ideal was more in line with that of a mixed voice approach. These singers are, for very good reason, very concerned and critical of the M1 "pulling" approach.

If we are aware of the differences anatomically as well as methodologically between the two schools we both as singers and teachers can adopt an approach that works best for the given situation. If a teacher is not capable of providing adequate instruction in the other school of thought, they should be readily willing to suggest the student to a trusted colleague who IS.

Likewise, the two schools of thought are not mutually exclusive. There have been a number of research articles written about how an operatic soprano (more of a "heady" mix type of a thing, but still relevant to the conversation) received enormous benefits after having taken lessons from a belting instructor.

Likewise, many belters (especially beginners but I've seen it happen at every skill level) get "locked" up, "stuck," or tense from a belting-only approach. These students would benefit from some mixing work... and the consequences of ignoring this issue from the belting instructor can be disastrous. I give SingWise a lot of credit for addressing this problem in her belting article, despite my previous criticisms of it.

Conclusion
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I hope that we, as a community, can get past the embarrassment and shame needlessly associated with the idea using “falsetto” (M2) or a sound which has a relationship to “falsetto” (M2.) I believe this needless shame is what causes both sides to be so defensive. Belters accusing mixers of “cheating” and, likewise, mixers accusing belters of “just shouting” and “ruining” their voices.

We must remember that outside of this niche hyper-analytical & isolated community on the internet… nobody else gives a fuck. Audiences (you know... normal human beings) like talented, expressive singers. That's it! They do not give a flying fuck what you are doing or how you are doing it. It’s all magic to them, trust me! They only want to see us have fun and be the artists we are!

Anyway I hope this was interesting. Just my thoughts as I’ve tried to wrap my head around this confusing world of singing terminology over the last 5-10 years now. Feel free to agree, disagree, tell me to jump off a cliff, etc. =p



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