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!

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.

 

Practicing with Purpose

Feel like you’re not getting anywhere with your practice? HOW you practice is even more important than how often you do it. I learned a lot from reading Daniel Coyle’s book, The Talent Code, which dispels the myth that some people are just born with it and that there’s no hope for the rest of us. Here’s some tips to get more out of your practice, and if you’re interested in learning more, pick up a copy of the book!

  1. Be intentional: Start each practice session with a simple goal, like “today I’m going to make sure I use a real chest voice for my lower notes,” or, “I will keep my vowels narrow through my first and second bridges.” Continue to check in with that goal- are you doing it?
  2. Always start with vocalizing, actual exercises on various scales and sounds: like a lip roll, or syllables like NAY or GEE, whatever works best for you. Vocalizing should make up at least 50% of your practicing! Just singing songs will NOT make you a better singer. Vocal exercises are where the real work is done in improving your voice. It’s comparable to doing bicep curls before attempting a weightlifting competition, or doing plies at the barre before learning a dance combination out in center.
  3. Mix it Up. When learning a new song, sometimes it helps to tackle the hardest part first- perhaps that’s the bridge or the high notes at the end. Learning each song from the beginning may mean you never get to those more challenging spots! Mix it up and practice your new song section by section, rather than the whole thing all at once.
  4. Don’t wear yourself out. 10-20 minutes of practice may be all you need or have the stamina for at one time. Pay attention to how you feel- you should feel like you got a good workout by the end of your practicing (meaning you did real work and made a real effort), but not total exhaustion or like you’ve lost your voice.
  5. Continue lessons with a teacher. It is great to practice at home, but don’t forget that live lessons with a real teacher are meant to keep you on the right path! Online ‘lessons’ found on YouTube or in an app are meant to disperse general information to a general audience. While they may contain some helpful tips, nothing can replace a teacher’s ear and expertise when it comes to improving YOUR individual voice. Rely on your teacher’s feedback for which exercises will help you the most in your at-home practicing.
  6. Stay committed. Practicing once a week is a good start, but twice a week (or five times!) is better. What separates the good from the great is their level of commitment. It takes 10,000 hours to be an expert at something- how far along are you?