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.

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.

 

Voice Teacher or Vocal Coach?

You’re looking for a voice teacher/singing teacher/vocal coach/performance coach/accompanist/piano player. Are these all the same person? Are they different? Does it matter? To help me answer this question, I asked two of my friends and colleagues to help me out with this post.

Here’s a secret for you: I’m not a great pianist! My students already know this about me. If there aren’t chord symbols in their sheet music (I’m a top notch pop music faker!), we’ll use an instrumental track or I’ll play the melody line. But fortunately for me, and for them, this doesn’t limit my ability to teach rock solid vocal technique, play through all of our exercises, and get through most all of the music we look at in lessons.

What should a voice teacher do?

As a singing/voice teacher, my primary goal is to improve my client’s actual singing ability, or their vocal technique. This means that in lessons we are working to increase range, stamina, strength, and quality of tone. We go through exercises and then apply that technique to music. While this often includes artistry and interpretation, audition preparation, and learning new music, the first focus is always on proper singing technique.

However, if a client of mine has a lot of new music they need to simply learn, or sheet music cuts to prepare for an upcoming audition next week (or tomorrow), I send them to one of my friends, Jeremiah Ginn or Bronwyn Tarboton.

Jeremiah and Bronwyn are both talented accompanists and vocal coaches, along with being talented actors and singers themselves. This, combined with their musicianship and piano playing ability make them excellent vocal coaches. “As a vocal coach I usually work with people to prepare for specific upcoming auditions…. I make sure they are as prepped as possible for all aspects of the audition including teaching them their music, getting them familiar with the accompaniment, cutting and marking their music, communicating with the pianist, interpreting the music and lyrics, and bringing out different vocal styles etc.” says Bronwyn.

What makes a good vocal coach?

So, what makes a great vocal coach? Jeremiah suggests: “You need to be great musician first and foremost. Since my primary job is to help you learn music, the ability to sight read, to have great piano technique… Apart from that I think you also need experience as a teacher, and as a storyteller. Other than helping you musically, I’m there to help you tell a story with your music. So it’s important to be trained in acting, and hopefully have some experience on stage.”

Bronwyn adds, “Instead of working on new vocal skills, it’s about taking the skills and abilities they [singers] already have and honing them for a certain audition. In a day or even a couple days there isn’t much time to develop new abilities, but I can help them showcase their strengths and highlight what they have to offer in the audition.”

I asked each of them when they might recommend that their clients work with a voice teacher. Brownyn said, “In order to actually become a better singer it’s important to work with a voice teacher and have time to practice and internalize new concepts, so that by the time you get to the coach or audition, the things you worked on with your voice teacher are second nature.” 

Jeremiah agrees. He states “a voice teacher is there to be a technician. The voice teacher should be able to help the student master their vocal technique, solve problems with their voice, and help them to become the best singer they can be. I think that the vocal coach then comes in after the work with the vocal teacher has been done to refine and polish the performance. But without the solid base in technique, the vocal coach cannot do their job.” 

Can a teacher be both?

Some voice teachers happen to be great coaches and pianists, and some coaches have enough vocal technique experience to be good voice teachers. However, this is the exception and not the rule. In my experience, a person is almost always more suited to one thing or another. I’ve had a few young singers begin lessons with me recently who have been amazed at the significant difference in their voices, even after just one or two lessons. If a voice teacher is able to implement correct vocal technique, students should be able to immediately recognize significant vocal progress. And not just audible progress, but they should physically feel the difference. They’ve often said something like, “I realize now that the lessons I was having with my previous teacher were mostly about learning new music. We didn’t actually work on any vocal technique.” It is an unfortunate circumstance when teachers with some singing experience and the ability to play piano claim to be voice teachers, and their students don’t know that they aren’t reaping the full benefits they would receive by working with an actual vocal technician.

How can you work with both a coach and teacher?

How can you reap the benefits of working with both a coach and a teacher? Recently, Jeremiah has been joining me in lessons with one of my current students who is preparing for a tricky role in Sondheim’s COMPANY. With both of us working together, the singer gets immediate vocal direction from me, and musical and performance direction from Jeremiah, who also provides full accompaniment as we go along.

Whether they call themselves a voice teacher, singing teacher, vocal coach, or accompanist, now you know the difference! Do your research when looking for a voice teacher, as well as when working with a vocal coach.  In order to truly improve your singing ability, make sure you’re working with an actual voice teacher who can make a real difference in your voice, and a vocal coach who is skilled at teaching music and getting a great performance out of you.