In singing, we differentiate between the "head voice" and the "chest voice." The chest voice is, for most of us, the range that feels natural; the voice we use to speak with. The head voice is the higher part of our range, often less resonant but possibly offering a purer, clearer sound. [Note: I am talking about women's voices. It is a little different for men.] There are usually a few notes between the solid head and chest voices that could go either way. For some of us, these notes end up in a nether region sounding awkward or, in my case, like Fay Wray being squeezed by King Kong. These notes are called the "passagio."
When I used to sing in public, passagio wasn't much of a problem, and not just because I was younger. My main function then was to back up more accomplished singers, and there are lots of ways to hide imperfect patches when the spotlight is on someone else.
A few years ago, though, I returned to voice classes, and not only do I have to learn and perform solos for my class, I now get "gigs" singing in nursing homes and senior centers. So I have been struggling mightily with my passagio.
My teacher frames the issue in terms of commitment. I can sing these notes either in my head or my chest, she tells me; what I can't do is waver somewhere in the middle, not moving decisively in either direction.
So I have been working on making a firm decision on each of these notes as it occurs in a song, based on the surrounding notes and the tone/mood of the song, and following through. It's harder than it might sound, especially when singing a familiar song in a new key, but when I can maintain my focus it pays off well.
I have been thinking about this in light of a recent conversation with a friend whose young adult daughter has moved back in with her. "I love her to death, but it's a really difficult adjustment," she told me. "I can't wait until she gets her own place again."
"As someone looking at the empty nest in a few years," I responded, "I have to say, it sounds kind of nice to have your kid back."
She laughed. "You think she's my kid. I think she's my kid. She thinks she's my roommate, not accountable to me for her comings and goings.
"When she lived at school, I didn't worry about her. Now, when she's not home at 4AM, I know it. If I call her cell and she doesn't answer, I know she's not asleep in her room, and my imagination takes off."
I think my friend and I are both in "passagio" stages. Our kids are no longer children, dependent on us for basic care, automatically accepting our rules, but they haven't yet attained full independence, and we haven't yet stopped worrying about their health and safety as we did when they were younger.
It's an awkward phase. But it's nice to think that Ben's imminent departure could bring with it a measure of comfort and relief, of having reached the solid part of my head voice. In the meantime, I'm working on minimizing those Fay Wray moments, and making the transition as graceful as possible.