As a voice coach working with developing voices in Musical Theatre, I recently attended an update to the LAMDA Musical Theatre exams seminar. I was interested to find out more about these popular exams and understand how they might benefit my own students.
Whist generally useful, I found one particular update deeply concerning. At a relatively low grade students are now being asked by LAMDA to explain the difference between “head voice” and “chest voice”. I understand that an assessment of knowledge of how the voice works is desirable, but the choice of language has troubling implications that reaches far beyond semantics.
The terms to describe voice qualities have always been a contentious subject and I am aware that my views stated here may divide opinion. The truth in my opinion is that the terms chest voice and head voice are completely SUBJECTIVE as they do not mean the same thing from one person to the next. This makes them very unreliable to use In a teaching and learning setting as they are neither consistent nor measurable.
Whilst I agree that there are some very broad widely accepted acoustic associations that can be attached to the terms i.e – chest – low and loud, head – high and thin. These are not very useful from a teaching perspective as they do not give any clue as to the way humans achieve different vocal qualities.
I would further suggest that by using these terms LAMDA is encouraging voices to create two discernible qualities. This is in contrast what is desirable in most settings – A continuous tone that is balanced and has no outwardly apparent shifts. This will only be achieved by gradual alteration to the position of the vocal folds which is not what the terminology Head and Chest implies.
My final point of challenge is really that the notion of chest voice being the other option to head voice also carries a significant risk to singers who mis-understand that all loud sounds are chest voice. In Contemporary Musical Theatre, belting is now an essential part of the vocal toolkit, but it requires a different physiological position to that of a speech like chest voice. The problems connected with taking the chest voice up to the higher areas brings all kinds of potential issues.
I am frankly quite appalled that in 2016 – The Information Age and where we have so much widely available knowledge on vocal function and how we can train great voices that we would cling on to out of date and mis-informed terms. Organisations such as LAMDA have a responsibility to young performers to make sure they are taking the current thinking and applying it to their syllabi.
I have supplied my views to LAMDA and offered to discuss how the situation can be improved, however there are no plans to make any changes. Not knowing any better is not a defence I’m afraid.
BA(hons) P.Gdip MA CMT
James is a Certified Master Teacher of Estill voice training. He has worked at many of the UKs performance conservatoires including Mountview, Arts Educational school, Tring Park and was recently the Head of Singing at Birmingham School of Acting. James currently runs a MT Sixth form at Arts1 in Milton Keynes – England’s only Educational affiliate in Estill Voice Training.