Q&A: What’s up with these crackly high notes?

Question:

I’ve been practicing the trills and “MUMs” and don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong (hopefully) but sometimes when I get past like an A [5], it gets crackly and I’ve noticed my voice sometimes will ever overshoot to whistle tones (which I don’t even know how that’s possible).

Was just wondering if you had any recommendations for practicing…I really have never had a voice teacher that vocalized me this high consistently so maybe its just uncharted territory and discovering how to sing up there, but thought I’d reach out! Maybe its something I’m eating or doing? I rarely drink or smoke so I know that isn’t the problem. Do you recommend that I get scoped just for safety?

Answer:

First off, I think what you’re experiencing sounds pretty normal, especially because you are new to using this part of your voice on a regular basis. That A5 is your third passage- it’s a very common spot for things to “fall apart” for a time while you work on connecting your chest and middle voice to your true soprano head voice. I’ve worked with many women who break into their Mariah Carey notes before they get it put together. So for now, don’t fear!

There’s a few things I’d recommend trying out over the next few days. First- have you tried vocalizing through a straw? I love this because it really does require very little air flow and keeps your cords together (adducted) as you vocalize. Try blowing through a straw into a cup of water. See here, and here.

I’d also try vocalizing on an NG (like the word SINGGGG), have we done this together?

Give it another week and see how you feel. I’m a huge fan of going to get scoped, so if you have the time and $$ to do it, please do. It’s always a good idea. Here’s who I recommend:

Lucian Sulica, may be difficult to get into see on short notice:
https://voice.weill.cornell.edu/about-us/lucian-sulica-md

Paul Kwak, Laryngologist at NYU:
http://nyulangone.org/doctors/1184937914/paul-e-kwak

Keep me posted, and see you soon!

Q&A: Singing With A Cold

Welcome to my new Q&A series, featuring real questions I receive from students via email

QUESTION

Hi Chelsea!
A couple of the “Annie” cast members and I came down with a nasty chest cold last week, and doing the show has been a struggle. I lost my voice last Friday, due to all the coughing on top of singing, and went on vocal rest for a few days. My voice has since come back, but it still just does not quite feel strong enough to sing Star to Be. I have been flipping into my head voice to sing the song, and mouthing the words to the ensemble songs so that I don’t blow my voice back out. I’m still coughing a lot, which I think is putting a lot of stress on my cords. My voice does feel almost 100% normal, but I still want to take it easy. I was wondering if you have any tips as to how I can ease my way back into singing the song full out without hurting myself.
Best,
Isabella

 

ANSWER

Yuck! I’m so sorry, I hate how those things end up going around an entire cast. Good for you for being careful and cautious, that is so important when trying to recover while still having to perform.

The first thing I’d suggest is to do a vocal check-in every morning and see how the swelling is before warming up. This is a great video that talks about that: https://youtu.be/zit6I7EPMto

Then I’d spent lots of time warming up with semi-occluded sounds like the lip buzz, or even better, vocalizing through a straw into a cup of water: https://youtu.be/0xYDvwvmBIM

I’d then sing the song on some of the exercises we use like NAY or NUH/MUM, substituting those for the words. That will be easier on your voice then just blasting into the actual lyrics and hopefully set you up for good vocal balance once you do end up singing the lyrics.

Hydrate, hydrate, sleep lots, and cool down after your show with the straw again.

Good luck! Keep me posted. If you want to do a little lesson/check in via FaceTime soon, lmk! Otherwise, you got this! I hope you’re through the worst of it 👍🏻

What to sing at your next Musical Theatre Audition

Follow the directions

Find out what you are being asked to prepare, and stick to it! 16 or 32 bar requests should be observed as closely as possible. If they ask for a ‘short song,’ that usually means a verse and a chorus of something. There’s no reason to sing all 7 minutes of “Meadowlark”, in fact I guarantee you will get cut off before getting through most of it. Find a cut of a song that shows your voice, tells a story, and adheres to the audition posting.

Do your research

Are you auditioning for a 1970s pop musical? A contemporary folk show? Choose a song that is similar to the show you are auditioning for. It’s always a good idea to familiarize yourself with the other work of the composer/lyricist and often a safe bet to choose an audition piece by them or their contemporaries. Unless expressly asked, don’t sing from the show you are auditioning for. Also, when possible find out who will be attending the audition- will it be the director, musical director, producer? What projects have they recently worked on? Maybe avoid material from those shows to avoid a direct comparison.

Choose a real pop song

More and more shows are Jukebox musicals (meaning the score pulls directly from certain artists’ catalogues like ABBA’s MAMMA MIA and The Four Seasons’ JERSEY BOYS) or are written by pop/rock artists (like Cindy Lauper’s KINKY BOOTS, and Sara Bareilles’ WAITRESS). These shows almost always will ask that you bring in a real pop/rock/country/folk/disco song, in which case- do! Don’t choose a pop song or arrangement that is found in another musical (like the various 80’s classics arranged in the musical ROCK OF AGES). Choose something by a favorite artist of yours that is authentic to the period the show you are auditioning for is set in. Check out my friend Sheri Sanders’ site for everything you need to succeed at a pop audition. www.rock-the-audition.com

Avoid signature songs

These are songs associated with a particular famous artist. For example, “Over the Rainbow” is Judy Garland’s signature song. “People” and “Don’t Rain on my Parade” are Barbra Streisand’s. It is best to steer clear of songs where you will be directly compared to legends. I’d also avoid anything that is currently on, or has been on Broadway in the last 3 years, as well as the huge juggernauts WICKED, LES MISERABLES, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and whatever the new hot show is. At the moment in New York, those are HAMILTON and DEAR EVAN HANSEN. Do yourself a favor, and sing something that ten other people won’t also be bringing in.

Prepare your sheet music!

We’ll go into this in more detail in a later blog post, but suffice it to say- have a clean and clearly marked copy of your sheet music three-hole punched and in a binder. Give your accompanist all the information they need to make it a successful audition for you.

There are exceptions to the rules-

Like if the audition call clearly asks for any of the above pieces, or if you are preparing music from the show at the request of the creative team. Also, the ‘rules’ are more loose or strict depending on whether you are auditioning for your grade school play, community theatre, or a Broadway production. No matter what, it will only help to be as prepared and professional as possible!

Do Skype Lessons Really Work?

Don’t take my word for it!

I was worried starting Skype lessons. Are they really possible? And if so, are they as good as in-person lessons? And the answer is YES! The sound quality is a lot better than you would think and Chelsea is more than capable of hearing what’s going on in my voice. Besides the very occasional technical difficulty, Skype lessons are just as effective as in-person lessons. And as someone who lives across the country from Chelsea, it’s totally worth it. AND I can do it in my pajamas! Total win.  – Hannah Bayles. Singer & Voice Teacher in Provo, UT

I would highly recommend taking Skype lessons with Chelsea. When you’re on the road singing the same material eight times a week, it is very easy to become complacent with your technique. I find Skype lessons incredibly useful because they reinforce my work ethic, and keep me striving to improve my voice in areas I may not sing in every day. Even through the computer, Chelsea’s ear is stellar in recognizing tension in my voice and diagnosing the cause of it, and giving me exercises to free up my cords.  It doesn’t feel like we’re in different time zones at all! – Isabelle McCalla. Currently traveling the country as Jasmine in the National Tour of Aladdin the Musical. 

My 12 year old daughter has loved taking voice lessons via Skype from Chelsea. At first I wasn’t sure if lessons through this medium would be as effective as in person, but I have been proven wrong. Not only has my daughter’s singing range and tone improved, but her confidence in herself and her voice have increased dramatically in just a few months of lessons. As a busy mom I appreciate the convenience of not having to travel and drive to yet another one of my children’s many activities, and my daughter actually prefers singing from the comfort of her own bedroom. It’s familiar ground for her and she is able to relax and let loose. It has been a great experience all around for us. – Amanda Neilson. Westchester County, NY

The advantages to Skype lessons include schedule flexibility. It’s easier to find time in the day for a lesson when you’re taking a lesson at home. I also like to practice what I learned right after class. By saving time traveling to and from the studio, I have an extra hour of my day that I can devote to singing or to whatever I choose. The primary advantage of studio lessons is the nice, friendly atmosphere and I also feel slightly more focused in-person.  Nevertheless, I feel I can get 95% to 100% of what I can get in studio on Skype. Even if I’m slouching while I’m on Skype, Chelsea can tell. Normally, there’s a slight delay so she won’t play the notes of the scale as I sing- she’ll just give a chord to indicate when and where to start. One word of caution- If you are an absolute beginner like I was many years ago and have trouble singing a scale without somebody playing the notes along with you, then Skype lessons will be difficult.  However, right now I have no problem singing a scale or an arpeggio after given a chord so I have no trouble using Skype. As a result I end up using it the majority of the time. –Zev Aber. Singer, guitarist, and tutor in New York, NY.

Tips for a successful Skype lesson: 

Find a quiet place with minimal distractions. A keyboard nearby may be helpful but is not necessary! Check that you have a strong and fast internet connection BEFORE your first lesson. Make a test call to a friend beforehand to check that everything will go smoothly the day of your lesson.

It is a good idea to play any backing tracks you want to use during your lesson on a different device than the device you are using for your Skype connection. If not, whatever audio you play on that device may cancel out all sound for your teacher on the other end!

In which case, you will need:

  1. A device to connect to Skype on
  2. External speakers to play backing tracks through
  3. An additional device to record your lesson on OR Call Recorder- a desktop application you can download that allows you to record your Skype calls.

You may also want to listen to this scale, and this scale beforehand- we’ll use them in our lesson!

Every Vocalize is a Breathing Exercise

I’ve heard from some folks that I perhaps don’t speak enough about the correct use of breath in voice lessons or on this blog, even. As one of the three systems of singing (respiration, phonation, and resonance) it is certainly necessary! But I’ll say this again- Whatever breathing skills you have employed thus far in life will do you just fine in singing. Most of us speak all day without running out of breath and Yoga instructors and deep sea divers are not necessarily incredible vocalists! When you really get to know the voice, most issues with “breath” are actually issues at the level of the vocal folds- proper phonation resists air to create a clear, strong tone. Improper phonation either presses the folds too much resulting in a squeezed sound or feeling, or keeps the folds too lax, resulting in too much air seeping through the folds and a breathy tone.

But hey, you still want to argue about the need for breathing exercises? How about this then: Every vocalize is a breathing exercise.

Think about it. Every vocalize (arpeggio or scale practiced to balance the voice, i.e. a lip trill or the word MUM on an octave and a half scale) requires that you 1. Inhale and 2. over a long or short period of time, moderately blow that air through your vocal tract while your vocal folds gently vibrate together, resulting in pitched sound. Then you do it again, and again, and again! Each vocalization tests your ability to use your air steadily and over as long a period of time as you choose. That sounds like breathing to me!

Sure, if your posture is poor and your breath shallow, things may not go well. So, in a mirror, check that you are standing up straight, chest lifted, with your chin back so that your neck is aligned with your spine. When you inhale, your abs will gently release as your lungs fill with air (as opposed to your shoulders lifting with tension), and when you sing/exhale, your abs may gently pull in. All of this should feel natural- no holding , gripping, or tension involved. After all, if standing perfectly rigid was mandatory for singing, how do Broadway ensembles sing and dance at the same time? Or how does P!nk fly around in a harness upside down and belt high F’s in her stadium tours?

Ya’ll- take a deep breath, relax, and go vocalize.

The Case for High Notes

Are you trying to get in shape? Lose a few pounds perhaps? Feel a bit more svelte and slim? I’ve got the perfect workout plan for you!

Squats.

Yep, squats! Just that. No need for any other exercises or cardio, just squats!

Just kidding. You knew I was kidding, right?

While squats are GREAT for you, if you’re looking for a total body makeover and improved health, squats are only going to get you so far. Same thing if you only ever did bicep curls and ignored the triceps on the opposite side of your arm. Likely you’ll look and feel quite unbalanced.

Guess where I’m going with this- it’s the same with your voice. I’ve met a fair amount of singers who only want, or really ‘need’, to sing in quite a small range, perhaps an octave and a half. For men, this means they could quite possibly stay in chest voice that entire time. And when that’s the case, issues arise.

That’s because our voice is made up of two major muscle groups, chest voice muscles that keep our vocal folds thick and short, and head voice muscles that stretch and thin our folds*. The thinning and stretching process allows our voices to ascend in pitch. At any given time, both of these muscle groups are working to some degree (otherwise we couldn’t change pitch at all) but often one group is doing most of the work.

If you get stuck in the mentality that you only sing low notes and therefore only need to exercise low notes, you are doing your voice a total disservice and may even cause unnecessary harm and distress. Just like the rest of our body, our voices are made up of opposing muscle groups- both need to be worked to have a HEALTHY voice! Without weekly, nay, DAILY working of both low and high registers, you will be left struggling to transition from chest to head voice, with funky bumps in the road all the way up and down. Your sound may even completely cut out or be very breathy in your middle or top registers. And I promise even your low notes will lack the vibrancy and flexibility that you could achieve with daily work in your upper register.

What to do? Get studying with a voice teacher who encourages you to sing through two+ octaves if you are a male (a high C is a VERY reasonable goal to vocalize to!) and three+ octaves if you are female. On your own, try semi-occluded vocal exercises like a tongue or lip trill on longer scales throughout your range. Try some headier vowels like EE and OO. You may need to take some time just stretching our your head voice before you can start blending it with your chest. That’s fine, but move towards connecting the registers as quickly as possible. Isolating one register or another is not a good long-term goal.

GET SINGING! And singing HIGH!

 

*If you want to get science-y, those muscles are called the thyroarytenoid and cricothyroid, respectively.

Technique is about Choices

The only reason for mastering technique is to make sure the body does not prevent the soul from expressing itself.
-La Meri-

The best feeling in the world is feeling completely limitless when singing a song- no obstacle in your way, no note out of reach, no melody too tricky to master. The worst is feeling like you’re barely scraping by in the piece, unable to make choices regarding interpretation or style because you are limited by what your voice can physically produce.

Mastering vocal technique gives you options, it gives you choices. It expands the realm of what is possible. Working on technique does not mean you lose that original sound only you are blessed with- it expands what your God-given voice is capable of!

One other thought on the topic of choices: developing good technique is understanding what variables took you from point A to point Z. Good technique is the sum of so many small things- the shape of your vowels, the looseness of your jaw, the relaxation or engagement of certain muscles, the balance of air flow and vocal fold resistance. What allowed you to get the full, released sound on the word “Love” on a high F? Can you identify the small choices that got you there? Eventually, it becomes intuitive.

Work to technically improve your voice, like a ballerina or basketball player might improve their body and game. You’ll find a world of possibility open to you!

Who’s On Your Team? Find an ENT!

Want to be a professional singer? It’s time to get the right professionals on your team. In addition to working regularly with a voice teacher, I recommend developing a relationship with a Laryngologist – an Ear Nose and Throat doctor who specializes in the voice. I recommend going in and getting a ‘base-line’ scope- the doctor will take video and pictures of your vocal folds ideally when you are feeling your most healthy. Then, if any future vocal issues arise, you and your doctor can refer back to your ‘base-line’ exam and really see what the difference is.

Shouldn’t a voice teacher be able to fix anything that’s wrong in my voice? My friend and mentor, Guy Babusek, shared the following thoughts:

“I have witnessed voice teachers in the past saying things like “I don’t hear any nodules, so you’re fine,” “I can give you some therapeutic exercises that will heal your vocal damage,” or “My diagnosis is you have a polyp and need some vocal rest.” These kinds of comments are always quite concerning to me.

While a voice teacher may have some medical knowledge, a voice teacher (unless otherwise licensed) is not a doctor, and therefore is not qualified to diagnose or treat any medical condition, including that of the voice.

While it’s true certain vocal exercises can have amazing therapeutic effects, I recognize I am not a therapist, I am a voice teacher. Only within the confines of the protocol a doctor has outlined, am I able to recommend vocal exercises to a student who has been suffering with a disorder of the voice.

Please remember, a voice teacher who suggests any type of diagnosis or treatment of a voice disorder is NOT qualified to do so (unless they happen to also be a licensed physician). Any student who is worried they have a disorder of the voice,  should get him or herself to a laryngologist’s office.” …read more here

Looking for an ENT in the NY area? Contact me- I have some great docs I highly recommend! Having issues with your speaking voice or need vocal therapy? I’d love to refer you to a Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) I trust.

Just Give it Time (+ Practice + Dedication + Lessons + Practice + Dedic…)

I guarantee you all of your favorite singers worked for years to get the voice they have today. Whether it was formal training with a teacher, or practicing along to Whitney’s riffs and runs in their bedroom for years on end, no one just #wokeuplikethis.

Guy Babusek said it well in a recent blog post:

“Some students will only book lessons when they have auditions or important gigs coming up. When there are no performances on the horizon, I never see them. This is not a wise way of working with a voice teacher at all. In these cases, there is no time to actually build a solid technique. These singers are trying to cram in years of training into small spurts sporadically. While this is better than no training at all, it is a very ineffective way of working. Solid singing technique is built over time, by taking weekly lessons and vocalizing daily in a systematic manner.”

I can’t agree with Guy more! The best time to start your vocal training was three years ago, but the second best time is NOW. Right this minute! Don’t wait until your dream role audition comes up, or you go into record your debut album next week. A great voice takes REAL time to train.

If you want to be a professional singer, or even just a good amateur singer, take RESPONSIBILITY for the time and effort it takes to accomplish something worthwhile. Recognize you won’t get their on your own. If you value something, give it the time, energy, and even money it deserves. In the case of your voice- book regular lessons and practice every day.

 

I’m Sick! Should I Cancel My lesson?

Last week I jumped on Facebook live to chat about what to do if you’re under the weather and feel like you should cancel your lesson. Hop on over to my Facebook page to see that in full. And we’ve already talked about sickness and singing here on the blog.

Just here for the highlights? Here’s what you need to remember if you’re thinking about cancelling your lesson.

  1. Know the cancellation policy and be prepared to pay for the lesson. For me and my studio, I send out my studio policies after your very first lesson- which includes my cancellation policy:

    For in-person lessons, if you make a cancellation within 48 hours of the lesson, you are responsible for paying the cost of the studio rental fee, which varies from $17 to $22 an hour. This also applies to re-scheduling.

    If you make a cancellation within 24 hours of the lesson, you are responsible for paying the total cost of the lesson.

    Sickness comes up, and I try to be as understanding as possible with my students as sickness arises. However, I hold all my students to this policy and appreciate their understanding of it. After all, they’ve known about it since day one!

  2. Feel something coming on? Cancel while you can. Back to the above- if you feel something coming on, chances are that stuffy nose will get worse before it gets better. Cancel before 48 hours and ensure you don’t have to pay any lesson fees. Be in communication with me- I want you to take care of yourself and get well!
  3. Have a show tonight? Audition tomorrow? Maybe don’t cancel. If you absolutely have to go on stage tonight or have an audition tomorrow that cannot be rescheduled, it may be useful for you to keep your lesson. I work with under the weather professionals often- it is valuable to learn how to warm up and cool down your voice specifically for when you are sick, and also how to get through a piece with congestion or slight swelling in your cords. *This is NOT a long term solution! Overusing your voice when you are not well can cause long term vocal damage. Some rare times, however, you may need to know how to sing when you are not at your best.
  4. There are other things we can do in a lesson besides sing! Come in and listen to and find new repertoire for your audition book. Let’s do a listening lesson, where we can analyze and assess other singer’s voices and find application for yourself. If you’ve already paid for the lesson, there are other valuable things we can do.
  5. You know your body- make the call for yourself. You are responsible for you and your voice- period! If you know you need time to rest and recover, please do. Be prepared to pay the full lesson fee if this is the case. If you have a stuffy nose, but your voice is unaffected, come on in and sing. It is your call and your voice! You only get one, so take care of it.