Acting Out Musical Theatre

Choral singing – Extending your vocal range (lower)

I am often asked how I sing so low. (I am a bass.) The short answer is that I just open my mouth and sing the notes.

Of course, there is a bit more to it than that. A naturally low voice helps, but my normal range is not that much lower than most good basses. I sing a comfortable D below the bass cleff most days, but there are a few choral pieces which demand lower notes. Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil (Vespers) has B-flats and Cs in most of the movements, for example, and a handful of the basses in our choir were able to work down to that range for performances a couple of years ago.

So, how did we do it?

The first thing we had to do was get over the idea that those notes are going to sound pretty. Much of the “pretty” sound of a sung note is its resonance, and unless you have an unusually shaped head (and a large one) the chances are you won’t have the resonance needed to make those notes sound as nice as something in the middle of your range.

With that in mind, we can approach the extremely low notes with a new freedom. Now, just because they aren’t pretty doesn’t mean you don’t have to sing the notes in tune, but we’ll see how that’s done, too.

A common term for the very low notes in the male voice is fry-tones. That’s because they sound like bacon frying on a hot skillet – a controlled series of pops from the vocal cords. To achieve that sound you need to place the voice very far forward – go for a bright AH sound – and completely relax the jaw, tongue, and throat.

A good exercise for placing the voice is to do some downward glissandos. Start on a comfortable note, say a D in the middle of the cleff, and slide down a fifth to the G on the bottom line. You want to start the top note on a brite EEE sound and end it on the AH sound, still bright and forward. Then go back and do it again, this time starting on the C-sharp and ending on F-sharp. Repeat this pattern until you can’t go any lower, then do one more.

The more you practice this exercise, the stronger your lower notes will become. And, as you practice this, listen carefully to the sound you are making. Work on tuning it with the piano so you learn to hear the intonation in that range. One word of caution, though. Don’t push it. Don’t expect your range to increase dramatically in just one or two sessions. This takes some time, usually a period of several weeks to achieve noticeable changes in your range.

Now here’s one of the great things about this. If you can sing the note in tune with the rest of the choir they will supply the resonance and make it sound like a beautiful low pipe on an organ.

This technique can be applied to all the voices, though the effectiveness is not as great with the other voice parts as it is for the low basses. Still, next time your choir director asks you to sing something really low you can just open your mouth and sing it.