The Folly of Falsetto

Eric Lewis for Conté Nast
I recently attended a professional event where falsetto was discussed as being a primary tool in acquiring correct vocal function in classical vocal technique. It gets the vocal folds to stretch and isn't that a good thing? In fact, entire vocal pedagogies have been founded on it. Well, I thought: I'm the odd man out since I don't see the merit of the argument. Why would that be? Because it has nothing whatsoever to do with il bel canto.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a purist who thinks falsetto singing is wrong. In fact, I have a young tenor student who could make a pile of cash on Broadway singing in Jersey Boys, since he can sing falsetto with the best of them. However, he'd rather mine the American Songbook and the art of Tony Bennett, which suit him perfectly.

We all make our aesthetic choices. What we should refrain from doing, however, is confusing those choices with historical vocal pedagogy. 

When you sing in falsetto you are breaking a cardinal rule of the Old Italian School, which finds the larynx remaining in its position for singing. This "singing position" is acquired by first speaking, then singing, clear, deep and resonant vowels on lower pitches which lower the larynx slightly, this lowering being a result of audition rather than manipulation. "Singing position" is dependent on chest function, that is, the action of the thyroarythenoids within the larynx, even if that function is greatly lessened during mezza voce singing. This is why falsetto means "false" in Italian. It doesn't contain this function, so it can never give the singer his position for singing!

Both men and women were taught to keep their singing position, which has everything to do with the function of the vocal folds. If the singing position isn't attained, you may be singing quite nicely, but it won't be bel canto.

What accompanies singing position? The aural awareness of "open throat" and "voice placement." Like the legs of a stool, each support the other, and cannot exist alone.