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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

A countertenor is a male who sings in a female range WITHOUT falsetto (people with a strong falsetto are called falsetists) A male alto is a countertenor, a male mezzo soprano is a lyric countertenor, and a male high soprano is a sopranista

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This doesn't really answer the key question of the techniques of the countertenor. – Dom Nov 5 at 4:34

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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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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