You’re probably not being told everything you need to be the best singer you can be.
Singing is at once an intricate art and a complicated science. We often forget about the science part, because it’s not usually the most visible facet of singing– when we hear incredible singers, we are typically drawn to the depth of their emotional performance, not so much their ironclad technique and mastery of their bodily “instrument.”
Any vocal teacher worth their salt should spend time discussing both the science and the art. Proper understanding of human anatomy and physiology as it relates to the voice will be necessary to produce sound in a healthy, pleasing way. Strict scentific understanding alone nonetheless won’t make someone a great performer if they’re unable to harness and use artistic expression to their benefit. The science is in many ways rather instinctual to humans– we’re born able to produce sound and typically start singing even before we start speaking. As we age, we tend to become less free with our emotions and more reserved, and so the emotional work of singing can become the most pressing matter for many voice teachers. Many new voice students need a lot of help expressing themselves with some small technical pointers along the way. This generally yields passable enough results. Besides, most students aren’t seeking long term careers in singing, and don’t really have enough use for the complicated scientific teaching as would make the effort to teach and learn such principles worthwhile.
This unbalanced treatment, however, means that many beginner and even intermediate singers never fully understand the science behind their voices, and therefore get overly wrapped up in the emotional side of things. We put so much weight on emotion and see so much emotional power in great performers that without scientific understanding of the voice, we assume emotion will be enough to power us through nearly anything. “Pushing” or straining is associated with heightened emotion, and assumed to be the necessary “secret sauce” to make difficult voice work happen. This is not the case.
Strain is commonly associated with tension in the body. Tension is also associated with expressing yourself, so it makes sense that young singers would feel the need to strain to express themselves fully– after all, emotional expression throughout your daily life will involve varying amounts of tension in the face, body, and voice. When you want to come across extremely sad or angry in performance, you might find yourself instinctively tensing muscles in your arms, shoulders, chest, and especially face. Mime a staunchly negative emotion yourself, right now. How does it feel? Do you tense your jaw, or feel your eyebrows come together? Do you feel the need to puff up your chest, or brace your arms to defend yourself, or attack?
This might be a remarkable portrayal of the emotion you’re trying to express. On stage, this might play beautifully. Perhaps you’re singing a song as a character who has been cheated on, or is fighting to defend their honor. You get caught up in the emotion, and tense yourself up to express it, and then that big high note in the song comes along– and one of two things will happen.
The first possibility is that you’ll hit the note, but it won’t feel good. You’ll probably come in a bit flat or sharp. Maybe you’ve managed by sheer force of will to sing it passably, but are now experiencing some significant vocal pain. It doesn’t have the ringing clarity you wanted, and it generally wasn’t ideal. You’ve managed at a cost.
The second possibility is that you’ll miss the note entirely. Instead of a somewhat breathy or off-pitch tone, you fail entirely to produce the right pitch. Your voice breaks, the note comes out entirely wrong, and the resulting sound is totally out of your control. You might hurt yourself, or be able to continue, but the big moment is now bust.
Let’s say you’re not acting at all. You’re in a voice lesson, trying your best to hit the high note in a new piece. You’re not tense, but you’re still struggling. Try as you might to make the right note come out– and you are trying– you keep coming in flat, or cracking, or both. You’re putting all your strength and energy into that note, and you keep coming up short. Why?
You might have heard some of the following advice:
- “Don’t strain for the high notes.”
- “If you’re afraid of the note, you won’t hit it.”
- “Relax more.”
- “Keep up the support.”
- “Think of keeping it light.”
- “Let the note float out.”
- “Don’t raise your larynx.”
- “Imagine the note is low, not high.”
While all of these tips are technically good and correct, they might not be the most helpful. As singers, we hear them and nod along, but often (due to that lack of scientific background on the voice) don’t fully understand what the advice is really about.
Here’s what you need to know, as simplified as I can make it.
Inside your neck sits your larynx– the “door” to the trachea (your windpipe) that makes up the Adam’s Apple in men. Directly behind it is the esophagus, and they both attach to the pharynx (essentially the opening of the throat). The esophagus handles food, and the larynx handles air. The epiglottis is a small “flap” that closes or opens the proper routes for food upon swallowing. If something you eat “goes down the wrong pipe,” it means your epiglottis somehow failed to prevent food from entering the larynx, and you cough to expel it. The larynx is of especial interest to singers because it houses the vocal folds.
The body of the larynx is composed of two pieces of cartilage– the thyroid cartilage and the cricoid cartilage. Here’s an illustration from teachmeanatomy.info.
The vocal cords themselves are suspended between the arytenoid cartilages and the thyroid cartilage. The arytenoid cartilages are capable of “rocking” on the cricoid cartilage, which causes the vocal cords– two delicate muscles– to stretch or contract accordingly. When the cords stretch, the sound they produce is higher. When they contract, the sound is lower. On the exterior of the larynx, small muscles connect the thyroid and cricoid cartilages. These are aptly named the cricothyroid muscles. When these contract, the thyroid cartilage tilts forward slightly, which causes the vocal folds to stretch. The contraction of the cricothyroid muscles is necessary for the vocal folds to stretch to their fullest capacity. Therefore, they’re very important– as we will come to recognize in vivid detail.
The larynx is suspended by a complex web of muscles in the neck. Some of the muscles pull the the larynx up, and some pull it down. During speaking and singing, it is natural for the larynx to move somewhat. Typically, when new singers attempt high notes, they’re inclined to “search” for the note by raising the larynx. When singing low, we are inclined to do the opposite. Any excess muscular action in one direction or the other will create strain in the throat. When all of these muscles are relaxed, or operating antagonistically (ie, the muscles that pull the larynx down are engaged to counteract the muscles that naturally pull it up while singing high notes), the larynx remains in a neutral position. This is of particular importance because of the motion of the cricothyroid muscles I previously mentioned.
When the larynx is being tugged in either direction, the cricothyroids are fighting lots of force exerted on the larynx. They are incapable of contracting fully, which means the thyroid cartilage cannot pivot forward. Thus, the vocal folds cannot stretch or contract to the capacity necessary to produce the pitch we’re aiming for.
This is what vocal teachers mean when they say to avoid strain or tension. By moving the larynx excessively, which is most obviously detectable to us as a strained feeling in the neck caused by intense muscular action, singers render themselves completely, mechanically unable to sing their highest notes. The vocal folds need to stretch adequately in order the produce a pitch, and when the cricothyroid muscles are inhibited by opposing muscular forces, the folds simply cannot stretch as needed. Through intense strain, you might attempt to force them to stretch, but this can cause significant pain and damage to the vocal folds themselves. This is like trying to lift a heavy object using the muscles in your arms or back instead of the more capable muscles in your legs. You might manage with brute force, but you’ll likely injure yourself.
This might be what happened to our theoretical on-stage performer who fails to hit their big high note. There’s still a bit more to this puzzle, though. What of our lesson-bound singer who resisted strain, and still failed to reach their desired pitch despite their efforts? Let me explain. Don’t worry, it’s a little less technical this time.
The vocal folds are small, delicate muscles. When breathing, they are open to allow air to pass through the larynx. When we hold our breath, they are the mechanism that closes in the throat to trap the air below. (Try it right now– you can physically feel them come together.) To produce sound, the vocal folds modulate somewhere in between fully open and fully closed. They come together, but still allow air to pass between them. This causes them to vibrate, producing the voice.
“Breath support” is the practice of managing the breath as it escapes from the lungs. In order to maintain stamina while singing, full, uninhibited inhalation is necessary– this is where good posture and cardiorespiratory fitness becomes important for singers. However, although pulling lots of air in is necessary for good breath support, this doesn’t mean that forcing lots of air out is likewise required. While many think of good breath support as using a lot of air, this isn’t really the case– simply using the air efficiently should be your focus.
This misconception creates trouble for singers who are not properly trained. They think they need to “push” the sound out, especially when faced with difficult high notes, which results in pushing out a lot of air. Remember, though– the vocal folds are delicate, and working at a delicate balance between their open and closed positions. A heavy blast of air will be too much for them to handle, and instead of vibrating closely together the folds will blow apart entirely– causing a voice break.
When untrained singers equate an uninformed idea that “breath support = just using a ton of air” with proper singing technique, they handicap themselves by rendering themselves momentarily incapable of sound production. This might go with the over-the-top importance placed on emotional performance I mentioned at the start of the article. Loud, powerful, emotional singing will be associated by untrained singers with using excessive air. That big, emotional high note they’re aiming for won’t happen at all unless they learn that proper breath support is about focusing and managing airflow, rather than forcing it.
Here are the problems facing our theoretical performers. When they are trained to believe emotion is the end-all in singing, rather than an important partner to proper technique, they will overuse big emotion and tend to “push” for notes. This typically results in excess strain, which at best causes poor tone quality or intonation and at worse limits the action of the vocal folds, putting high notes out of the realm of mechanical possibility for the singer. They might also, in an effort to come across louder and more powerful, push with too much air, which will stop the vocal folds from vibrating and cause a voice crack.
So how can performers avoid these issues?
First, learn to recognize when these problems are coming into play. If the theoretical situations described sound familiar, perhaps these issues are the culprit.
Next, work to counteract problems through practice. There are many guides online for learning to keep a neutral larynx while singing. Learning proper breath support, especially for higher pitches, will take some time. Generally, remember that the name of the game is using air well or focusing the air rather than using lots of air. A good voice teacher will be indispensable for these efforts.
Finally, learn to minimize overacting in performance where it inhibits sound production. While every singer should be an actor, and every vocal performance must involve emotional weight to be meaningful to an audience member, remember that emotion is not the sole driver of the voice. There are mechanical processes involved in sound production that singers must be mindful of, and over-indulging or over-utilizing emotion rather than staying in control of the voice and body will cause the voice to suffer.
When a singer understands how the voice works and is able to marry their technical ability with emotional weight and artistic expression, they will be able to travel far. A balanced understanding of both modalities is necessary while performing. Don’t be a slave to emotion– use it well to enhance your technically sound performance. You’ll hardly struggle with that high note for long.