by Orville Heyn

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Range is an essential and often overlooked component of music. Unknowingly, we refer to it all the time. Pitch, dynamics, intensity, duration, tempo, timber, stamina and physical aptitude with regard to flexibility and strength are all subject to it. Not to mention the vast range of emotions both performer and audience can experience during a performance. A singer may discover that certain vowel shapes are out of his reach and can only be achieved through the use of tension. An individual learning how to play her instrument from a meditative space may discover that the depth from which she plays varies from day to day, especially in the beginning. And yet range is even more than that. We often use range as a tool for undermining our self-esteem. Because of its invisible nature, we are seldom aware that we are doing this. Why does this happen?

The Three Faces of Range

Potential Range: Regardless of the aspect of personal ability that you may choose to focus on (i.e. pitch, dynamics, etc.), your potential range will always be greater than what you expect it to be. By definition, it will always be the range that you cannot fully know. Even so, most of us will experience flashes of it at one time or another.

As a singer, my technical background is routed in an Italian classical approach while my stylistic bent is towards Jazz and contemporary music. After two decades of singing and training, I have an intimate understanding of the subtleties of my voice. For instance, even though I do not possess perfect pitch, there are certain notes that I can identify while singing because of how they feel rather than what they sound like. These notes mark transition points in my voice. One such note is the 'high B'. At one time this note represented the top of my singable range in full voice. (Full voice refers to the production of tone without the use of falsetto or without blending the registers.)

One day a few years back I was doing some warm-up exercises when I sang what I believed to be my 'high B'. Sure of myself, I approached the piano and played the 'B' expecting to hear the same note. I ended up singing the 'high C' instead. For some people the 'high C' may not be a big deal, but I always found that note to be tenable at best, quite opposite of the clear and effortless manner in which I experienced it on that day. Because of my previous difficulty with that note, I realized in that moment that I had always viewed myself as a flawed tenor. And in a single moment that belief was dispelled. This is the power of potential range. The range that we can never fully know, that is at once both mysterious and seemingly boundless. The ability to access and experience these flashes can have a profound effect on an individual's learning process.

Expected Range: This is the face of range we are all too familiar with. Whenever we use our instruments, we maintain a certainty of its existence through an endless stream of internal chatter and judgment. Most of the time we are completely oblivious of this internal voice. It is this facet of range that causes more strife for the individual musician than any other single issue with the possible exception of personal trauma.

Once again, using pitch as a model, I can recognize this range at work. My expected range with regard to pitch is 'A2' (an octave and a minor 3rd below 'middle C') to 'B' (a major 7th above 'middle C'). These are the notes that I have sung in shows, concerts, and rehearsals and while either practicing or warming-up. These are the notes that I am overly attached to, the notes that I expect myself to be able to sing anytime I go to practice. Even if you do not know what the outer limits of your voice are with regard to pitches, you will probably carry around a rough sense of its boundaries.

As a teacher, I sometimes put in long hours working with individuals. One Saturday, I taught for four hours straight before taking a break. My last two students were on vacation, so I had the rest of the afternoon to myself. The morning's lessons had gone so well that I found myself energized, inspired, and in the mood to practice, something I don't usually do on Saturdays because of the number of lessons I teach. I was preparing to start when the thought surfaced. "You've been teaching and using your voice for four hours. You'll never be able to do a proper warm-up; your voice is too tired."

"That's right," I thought. "I am a little tired and so is my voice." The more I indulged in that thought the more tired I became until I almost completely lost that mood of inspiration that was with me five minutes earlier.

This is an example of the effect your expected range can have on you. It constructs blocks that can rob you of energy and momentum. The logic of that voice sounded something like this. "You have been teaching for four hours straight and now your throat is too tired to be able to sing all the notes I expect you to sing. (A2 - B) So why bother even practicing if you're just going to disappoint yourself by failing to use your FULL RANGE." How many times have you chosen not to practice because you didn't think you could fulfill some aspect of expected range, whether it be pitch, stamina, flexibility or even power? Fortunately, in that particular instance I did not fall prey to the trap. I remembered the existence of the third face of range.

Actual Range: Regardless of the facet of playing you happen to be focusing on, actual range will always be whatever you can execute effortlessly in any given moment. This concept of range embraces self-acceptance. Actual range is always changing and must be assessed in the moment.

Your actual range will vary depending on the time of day, on how much sleep you've had, and on how much you have used your instrument. It can be affected by illness, by what you eat and drink as well as by environmental conditions, varying from temperature to allergens. Range with regard to pitch will even be affected by the acoustic properties of the various rooms you play in. Even state of mind can affect your actual range.

I take you back to that Saturday when I was faced with the dilemma of to practice or not. I chose to practice. I recognized that I did not need to fulfill the desires of my mind by trying to live up to some expected range. I chose instead to act as if I only had a range of pitch equalling a 'perfect 5th.' All other notes ceased to exist. When I glanced back at the piano it was as if I were seeing the skinniest piano ever constructed. It was still the same height but the keyboard only had eight notes for a complete range of a 'perfect 5th'. I had to accept this new limited range in order to get past my ego. It was a truly devastating blow to my ego, letting go of the need to sing all of the notes that it expected of me.

Potential Range (unknown)
<<< ? ----------------------------------------------------------- ? >>>

Expected Range (fixed)
A2 ------------------------------------- B

Actual Range (always changing)
C1 ---------------- mid. C

The result was that I spent a small chunk of time practicing when ordinarily I probably wouldn't have. Or if I had, using expectation as my guide, it would have been forced. Instead, my voice surprised me and opened up. I had access to my upper register within ten minutes, even though logic told me that it wasn't possible given the circumstances of my practice session. Did I sing the 'high B' on that day? No. Did it matter to me? No.

Even so, expected range does more than just block us from accessing our actual range. It acts as a barrier to one's own potential range. That was reaffirmed for me on the day when I first sang the 'high C' with clarity and effortlessness. The secret that lies hidden within your actual range is the possibility of a surprising encounter with a flash of your true potential. This can only be fully realized when the individual expects nothing.

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© 2003 All Rights Reserved.   Orville Heyn