Changing your mind is human

Changing your mind is part of human growth

As you grow and mature as an adult, you get the opportunity to explore, understand and learn in a different way than the process you were given as a young child. New things are discovered, and old things are put into a wider context or debunked as simplistic or inaccurate.

Everyone carries a unique “map” of the world as they see it, based on what they’ve been told and what they’ve experienced. And this includes discovering for yourself that something that you have held dear is not accurate.

Knowledge is said to be power, but knowledge put into practice is also a catalyst for change.

So how can we at Vocal Process go from “teaching falsetto with raised plane” on Estill courses in 1997 to “falsetto isn’t caused by raised plane” in 2023? Knowledge, information, and a deeper understanding of physiology, plus the difference between cause and effect.

Here’s my story

It’s 1994. Jo Estill has just told me on a course what she saw on endoscopy: that when moving from “Speech Quality” to “Falsetto Quality” there was a movement of the back of the vocal folds, a “change of plane up” if you like. Here’s what I was given to understand:

  1. Look, there’s a plane change. I wonder what’s causing it. It must be the arytenoids pulling back to raise the back of the vocal folds. So that must be posterior cricoarytenoids (PCA).
  2. This falsetto sound is breathy and I can see the vocal folds don’t meet. So falsetto is caused by the arytenoids pulling backwards and it’s always going to be breathy.
  3. Therefore anything that isn’t breathy, anything that’s a clear sound, must not be falsetto – it must be something else.

Very quickly this started to trouble me. I remember having conversations about this with Gillyanne, with the other Vanguard licensees and with Jo back in the mid 90s. Because countertenors. Because Frankie Valli. Because Prince. ALL doing a clear sound in their upper range that is different from what baritones do. All of whom can sing in a baritone sound if they want to.

I have some questions…

1. Hey, we see a movement of the arytenoids when flipping or yodelling. I wonder what’s causing it? Are we saying it’s the arytenoids pulling backwards? Well they’re in the right place but arytenoids don’t move by themselves, it’s muscle tensioning/releasing that moves cartilages. The only muscles that are in the right place to do that from behind are PCA (posterior cricoarytenoids), and they’re designed to open the vocal folds for breathing. And you definitely don’t want to phonate on an opening movement, wouldn’t that cause a functional voice problem?

2. Let’s play “What if”. What if it’s something else? When we phonate in chest voice or modal or M1, the vocalis (Thyroarytenoid or TA) inside the vocal fold is active, and that pulls the arytenoids down and forwards towards the thyroid. So are we saying that flipping into falsetto is caused by the PCA pulling back AGAINST TA? That doesn’t make sense. If we have two opposing muscles going at the same time, that would make that falsetto flip much harder to do. It certainly doesn’t feel like I’m adding something, it feels like I’m taking something away.

3. Why are we’re worrying about the arytenoids at all? What if I look at the vocal folds themselves? What if the TA stopped pulling the arytenoids down, and switched off? Surely the arytenoids would go back to their standard position? Wouldn’t that look like something has flipped back, where in fact they’ve stopped being pulled forwards? Same effect but a very different cause. Letting go of the TA would match the feel of the flip or crack into falsetto, certainly.

4. I wonder if there’s any voice science research on this? Ah. There’s loads. I was at Natalie Henrich’s lecture at the Pan European Voice Conference in 2005, and there are pages of the stuff in Journal of Voice and in the physiology books. It looks like it’s generally accepted that M1 (modal) has an active TA and M2 (falsetto) has an inactive TA. Nothing to do with the arytenoids or PCA at all.

5. Oh, that makes sense. So if PCA isn’t directly involved, the arytenoids don’t have to swing apart. Which means the vocal folds can still stay together against the breath. Still looks like they don’t touch on endoscopy. Let’s watch the stroboscopy. Ah, they do touch. They don’t appear to touch as strongly and with a different movement than in M1. That’ll be to do with the change of texture when the TA stops being active. But they do still touch.

So what if…

6. Now this is starting to make sense. If TA is active in M1, or modal, or chest voice, you need a strongish flow of air to make the vocal folds move because they’re denser, thicker, more solid. If you KEEP the same airflow and release TA, the vocal folds won’t be as resistant to the air, so you might get a breathy sound because the folds are pushed apart by that volume of air. BUT you have a choice in controlling your airflow. What if you experiment with airflow, reducing it to match the new texture of the vocal folds? That would explain centuries of classical teaching about holding air back, inhalare la voce, rib reserve to reduce exhalation pressure, there’s so much to this.

7. Christian Herbst talks about the possibility of adducted or abducted falsetto or modal. So you can produce a clear, non-breathy sounds in both M1 and M2, as well as breathy version in either.

8. What if we focus on supraglottal pressure? If we add the effects of supraglottal pressure (downstream effects) back down onto the vocal folds, we can adjust the behaviour of the (top of) the vocal folds from above and create a bit more resistance that way.

9. Now I’m getting it. Countertenors are singing in M2 (falsetto) vocal fold vibration, holding the air back and making resonating spaces to create back-pressure and acoustic adjustments for projection, very similar to what operatic mezzos do. When I listen to countertenors dipping down to notes below the stave, they don’t seem to create the same sound as a baritone on the same note. They seem to be keeping the same resonating space but just changing the vocal folds to M1 (modal). Keeping the resonating space will help them match their C5 sound when they go below C4. Whereas baritones are matching the other way (from lower to higher).

10. And Frankie Valli and Prince are also making sense now, they’re singing in M2 similar to the countertenors but without that big resonating space. They don’t need acoustic projection, or a conventionally darker sound, because microphones. And in their music genres it’s fine to do high/bright.

11. This is probably why classical female singers don’t automatically know how to belt. Because they’re using breath and resonance strategies that work for a falsetto vibration (hold the air back, make a big space, balance the downstream effects), but that don’t work for a higher modal sound. Now we’re talking.

Are people still saying posterior cricoarytenoids are responsible for falsetto? Illogical, captain.


This is the story of my vocal process and why I don’t teach “raised plane” or “if it’s breathy it must be falsetto”. Because now I know that’s not the case. Now I’ve worked that out, I wouldn’t be in integrity if I carried on teaching old beliefs. New knowledge, new thinking, new sharing.

Maybe I should share my thought process on “thick” & “thin” folds? Or “tilting”?




Join us

You can find out more about modal, falsetto and everything in between in our online Vocal Registers Package in the Learning Lounge here.

Or join us on the 12 Hours To Better Singing Teaching online course here

If you really want to know how we diagnose now, work with us in person. Click here to book a mentoring session with either of us and get personal, targeted techniques for your voice.

We’re happy to help


Suggested reading

Roubeau, Cevrie-Muller and Arabia-Guidet; Electrographic study of the changes of voice registers 1987

Harris, Harris, Rubin, Howard; The Voice Clinic Handbook 1998

Miller DG; Registers in singing, empirical and systematic studies in the theory of the singing voice (Doctoral thesis) 2000

Castellengo, Chuberre, Henrich; Is Voix Mixte the vocal technique used to smooth the transition across the two main laryngeal mechanisms, an independent mechanism? 2004

Henrich; Mirroring the voice from Garcia to the present day: Some insights into singing voice registers 2006

Herbst; Investigation of glottal configurations in singing (Doctoral thesis) 2011

Herbst, Howard, Svec; The sound source in singing: basic principles and muscular adjustments for fine-tuning vocal timbre 2019

Kayes; The problem with falsetto – AOTOS keynote speech 2017

Fisher; Modal, falsetto and everything in between? 2020