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I am curious about the countertenor voice. What are the techniques for countertenor vocal production?

It would be helpful if the answer compared to the standard techniques of vocal production, particularly the shape of the oral cavity and the role of the vocal cords.

For example, is this a regular type of falsetto singing, or are the vocal cords operating in a different mode altogether from head voice and falsetto?

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It's not falsetto, it's a form of head voice, I think, otherwise it would be airy and would need microphone amplification. Like the one used by sopranos, but of course, being the male voice thicker, this head voice starts lower than in females. –  user10029 Mar 24 '14 at 2:25
Have you stopped beating your wife? That's the kind of question "is this a type of falsetto singing where the vocal cords are vibrating at a harmonic" is. Vocal cords are not "vibrating at a harmonic" when singing falsetto. –  User8773 Mar 24 '14 at 14:14
Falsetto makes it harder to achieve full closure in the lower range but that is something that can be overcome with practice. Particularly in the middle and high range, microphone amplification is unneeded. The total dynamic range of falsetto is smaller than that of head or chest voice, but particularly in the higher ranges, this is impacting the low rather than the high loudness, which is why you'll find male altos more frequently as soloists than as choir members. I had to change my folksy/chanson self-accompaniment from fingerpicking style guitar to accordion when switching to alto. –  User8773 Mar 24 '14 at 14:30
@David Thanks, I've corrected the question. You clearly know a lot about this -- care to contribute an answer? –  NReilingh Mar 25 '14 at 1:23

3 Answers 3

In consideration of your question, I came across extensive blogs on vocal pedagogy by Ian Howell, a professional countertenor and educator in Boston. Since I'm not familiar with his work, I cannot tell you whether his writings are authoritative or not, but he has written extensively on the physiology of the countertenor voice and what is being done with the vocal folds (cords). Here is a blog post with thoughts on your question.

Countertenor Technique: An Introduction to Concepts by Ian Howell

Countertenors are more common today than ever before. They have always been around in the British tradition, where you frequently find men singing alto in choirs. You also find British countertenors in small all-male vocal ensembles like the King's Singers and Chanticleer in the USA. But you hear countertenors more and more in contemporary Baroque ensembles ("early music" or "historically-informed performance" or groups that perform on "period instruments"). I work with one such nationally-renowned professional Baroque chamber orchestra in the USA (I do their publicity and marketing) and I have met a few countertenors. I'm working on a concert with a famous countertenor that will be given on May 5, 2013. I may have the opportunity to ask our countertenor (who has perfromed lead roles in opera houses all over the New World and Europe) a few questions.

Generally the term "countertenor" is only used for singers doing classical music, particularly, as I mentioned, either the Baroque music originally written for castrati, or certain music of any historical period in the British tradition. However, the basic techniques can be found all over rhythm and blues and rock music. Smokey Robinson, Prince, and Justin Hawkins of the British rock group The Darkness, among many others, at times certainly make use of a falsetto register and vocal timbre that is not far removed from what classical countertenors achieve. Justin Timberlake and Freddie Mercury have been known to swoop into that range. You can make the argument that Brian Johnson of AC/DC (who has a deep bass speaking voice) is a kind of counter-tenor. He only ever sings in falsetto. There are many other singers in pop music who at least dabble in this.

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Please someone correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that countertenors or, "singing" countertenor is not actually a type of vocal technique, but rather a classification of vocal range.

Much in the same way that one may be classified as a Soprano or Baritone, Countertenor is another voice classification. This term is also used sometimes interchangeably with "male alto" or as Bernstein puts in his Chichester Psalms that a Countertenor may be substituted by boy soprano.

To my knowledge this is not a type of falsetto singing, which is one of the reasons why true Countertenors are so rare. This type of male voice comes from the long since banned Italian tradition of castrating male choir members at puberty. By doing this, men were able to maintain a boyish purity of tone with the presence and volume of a full adult. The resulting sound is quite mesmerizing. Having heard a recording of one of the last true castrati, I can say it is a mysterious sound. But, that is besides the point.

Countertenors may also sometimes be referred to as Irish tenors, and their general tessitura would be more akin to an Alto's range as opposed to a traditional Tenor's range.

Because it is a voice classification, and not a specific vocal technique that can be reproduced, you cannot learn to be a Countertenor any more than you can learn to be a Soprano. Yes, you may learn to be able to fake parts using a falsetto, but there will be a lack of warmth and presence evident in the a Countertenor's voice.

As you may know, voice classification is contingent upon the natural resonating tendencies of and individual's vocal chords. Some resonate more openly, and thus have deeper voices. With training, you can train the vocal folds to be more responsive, thus increasing your range, however, in my experience / knowledge you cannot change the natural tessitura of your given voice.

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Well, castradi are banned but we still have countertenors. And present-day countertenors don't seem to have speaking voices that sound like children. For example, David Hurley of the King's Singers sounds like this when speaking. –  NReilingh Apr 19 '13 at 6:04
You are wrong. Countertenors are normal basses or tenors who study how to sing in falsetto. There are university music school programs in developing the countertenor technique. There are in fact a very few adult men in the world who can sing in the alto range, but all the professional countertenors I know of are actually basses or tenors who have developed a falsetto technique. –  Wheat Williams Apr 19 '13 at 11:54
Ian Howell, countertenor and music teacher, has a blog where he states: "Countertenors are neither exclusively born nor made; any man can learn to better his countertenor voice." –  Wheat Williams Apr 19 '13 at 11:59
Thank you for the information Wheat - my knowledge in this area is incomplete. I have had little personal experience with countertenors. You mention technique is taught at universities? Which ones? –  jjmusicnotes Apr 25 '13 at 7:39
As opposed to "contralto", "countertenor" is a 20th century term, I think by Alfred Deller. Contralto is a female alto voice that can act convincingly in voice inversions with a tenor. "Countertenor" is basically employed for any kind of male voice singing solidly in the alto range. Vocal techniques, sound character and fundamental disposition differ widely between practitioners: some are indeed using a high natural chest voice, some natural basses or baritones use full falsetto, and some work across the vocal break with a well-controlled mixed and head voice. –  User8773 Mar 24 '14 at 14:23

Ok here's the correct definition of a countertenor. A countertenor is a "Alto", which generally has a texture between Tenor ~ Contralto, and primarily uses their head voice to sing. There are plenty of Female-Alto's, BUT THE "ALTO" CLASS IS ONLY ALLOWED AS A MALE CLASS, NOT A FEMALE ONE.

Anyway, range will obviously vary because texture isn't directly connected to range. Most commonly, countertenors range from tenor or lower, but there are rare singers who have ranges up in the alto/contralto area (and higher of course if you look at sopranist type voices).

Now onto technique. The countertenor uses head voice for most of their singing. The shape of the mouth is going to be very small, as is all head voice singing. And the vocal cords will be at a higher laryngeal position, and oscillating more towards the center of the arytenoids, than you would see in a classical male technique. Where as in a normal male technique, the voice is not as high placed in the larynx and the vocal cords oscillate in a fuller manner.

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