John Harger Stewart

Private vocal instruction, New York City

Some Notes on Functional Voice Training

May 30th, 2017 by John Stewart
  • Every voice is a unique gift, therefore do not attempt to make a voice sound like any other.
  • Put esthetic preconceptions or preferences a little in the background, and look for better vocal function.
  • Vocal function: a dynamic balance between head and chest registers, which brings about an efficient (no excess work) “resonance adjustment” or, literally, placement.
  • Registration: chest register’s presence made audible by brightness and weight, head register’s presence by warmth and roundness.
  • Chest register’s duty to stabilize the literal placement of the mechanism, the larynx remaining stable as the voice changes pitch and as well as to approximate the vocal folds.
  • Head register’s duty to change pitch and lengthen the folds.
  • Choose vowel, pitch, intensity and rhythm when vocalizing. Everything else should be by reflex. Some parts of the vocal tract in the act of singing are involuntary, beyond conscious control. It is best to treat the voluntary muscle actions as involuntary or reflexive: correct them through pattern choices. AVOID directives involving calling attention to anything in the mouth, e.g. the tongue. All it does is to bring unnecessary attention and therefore tension. One may give directives about mouth position, i.e. more open or closed, but ONLY up and down, NEVER sideways!

Core versus periphery


I define this as everything you can see a singer doing: breathing, posture, mouth movements, tongue, and exterior of the neck. Of course, posture and breathing must be attended to and corrected, but may not address unseen aspects of constriction. Mouth movements should be minimized; mouth only opening up and down, never sideways. Most vowels except for [u] and can be well formed without using the lips.

Generally speaking, the more open the mouth is the more the chest register’s presence is assured, the more close the mouth the more the head register’s presence.


  • Core is defined as actions in the vocal tract and larynx. These actions are dealt with by choices of vocalizing patterns of vowel, pitches, intensity and rhythm. The teacher’s ear must become finely attuned to the register balance, suggesting patterns to the singer which address and correct the balances, which vary according to pitch, intensity and vowel
  • 2 recommendations about breathing. The breath intake should always be an upbeat in rhythm with the following phrase, and while taking the breath shape the vowel to be sung.
  • It is possible not to stand or breathe well and still sing very well, and the reverse is true: great posture and breathing and yet the sound remains constricted.
  • Definitions of a healthy technique: consistent vowels, 2 ½ octave range for men, 3 for women, over that range the ability to sing at a consistent volume level whether loud or soft, vibrato pulse 5 to 7 times per second not altering the pitch or legato, the ability of the voice to move rapidly including trills, messa di voce (piano to forte and back with no breaks or sudden vowel color shifts), the act (effort, energy expenditure) of singing almost invisible, not mouth distortion whether to differentiate vowels or reach the upper range, of course good posture and efficient breathing
  • For choruses, my idea is to match the vowels and volume without asking a voice to imitate another voice. For certain kinds of music, e.g. densely chromatic 20th century or early, the vibrato can be reduced (a better term) than removed. A healthy voice has a healthy vibrato pulse: straight tone is more fatiguing.
  • Voice teacher’s needs: an ear that can discern a register balance, an eye to perceive physical manifestations of unnecessary activity, a large catalog of vocal patterns to remedy, POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT (!)

More about voice lessons

The main question is always what to do next? This decision is made by the teacher’s observation of the pattern just sung. What was functionally good about it and what could be eliminated or changed? For a beginning teacher the first stage is what to do now? The second stage is in the voice teacher’s mind a huge catalog of possibilities and the third stage is when this catalog becomes shorter as the teacher’s ear, intuition and observation become sharper by virtue of his or her teaching experience. In almost any sound both registers are present: the chest register’s presence revealed by brightness and weight and the head register’s presence by warmth and sweetness. Remembering that the chest register’s job is to create laryngeal stability and to approximate the vocal folds and the head register’s job is to change the pitch. (This is a useful simplification)

About choral warmups

It is useful to improve posture and breathing habits but important to eliminate any stiffness in stance or breathing. Warm up the entire range from bottom to top. Remembering that speaking and singing are different functions of the vocal mechanism, the first stage is to open up, release inhibitions. What I believe is that in a reasonably healthy voice the difference between speaking and singing is the presence of the head register, most purely manifested in falsetto sounds in both For men and women, slow portamentos over at least 2 octaves, not loud, is a good start. Some quick patterns beginning with consonants. Some sirens for both men and women. Pure falsettos. Then begin to refine. Slower patterns. A variety of vowels. In this portion of the rehearsal rather than asking for blend, ask for matching the vowel of your neighbors, also, perhaps volume level. For most mostly untrained voices it is to awaken and incorporate the head register mechanism. With women; to work from the top down to get that thin edgy sound out of the middle, For men, just to extend the range upward, but also useful to work from the top down. (There is basically only an octave difference between the male and female voice. It seems like more because of how we use our voices culturally. But men can sing in a chest dominated sound a bit above middle C, but for women, below the top of the treble clef it’s challenging to bring in more head.