Who would’ve though it? We’ve made it to 50 episodes without being booed off. Thank you to everyone who’s stuck with us through the series. There’ll be more to come!
Today’s episode is a Q&A, and the questions have been sent in by a few listeners. For the full answers, tune into the podcast below in video or audio format. For a quick look, see the summarised answers below!
Let’s jump into the questions:
Back at college, I was always told off for being uptight; too held; going to the gym too much for a singer/actress. I was also told that the pilates work I was doing was undoing all of my singing work as I was unable to release enough for breath control. I mean, I know a few singers with insane voices who’s abdominal regions look like they have been vacuum packed at Waitrose. So, should we be calming down on the crunches and trying to get ‘V-Lines’ when we’re also trying to improve our power, airflow and vocal range.
Summary: You’re right in your observations Celia. The wonder of the human body is that you’ll see ripped singers who are free and expressive and some who are tense and limited. Some physiques and ways of training refer tension to the larynx, in some way, easier than others.
Some low calorie dieting techniques that accompany training can have a negative effect on voice production, which is explored in the podcast. Certain behaviours, like breath holding and bracing during lifting, may be linked to laryngeal tension in singing too. In these times we need ways to avoid these behaviours without sacrificing the muscular support needed to perform the exercise.
Looking directly at ab work, there have been singers who have successfully balanced high level singing with extensive core work in the gym. However, there is a risk of tensions building up that ultimately inhibit freedom singing. Aside from referred tensions to the neck and larynx from any other superficial muscle group, there’s the deep abdominal muscles to consider. In our conversations with performance physiotherapists and laryngeal massage experts, excess activity in muscles like the rectus abdominus, and the deeper internal obliques, is linked to laryngeal constriction. Working heavily on abdominal definition could activate these muscles to levels that trash good singing, so we need to be careful with how we exercises and how we live our lives in general. How do we stand? Are we trying to look tight or slim when we’re just waiting at the bar? We all do it, and sometimes that might need to be addressed as a cause of tension.
Saying all that, there are many reports of singing being so much better after a visit to the gym. What does that mean? Well, it means someone needs to study a group of weight lifting, ab crunching singers to establish why some become laryngeally constricted and some don’t. Why not start it off Celia!?
On a final note, there is a technique called SPLAT (Singers Please Lose Abdominal Tension) which is worth researching. It is used extensively in the UK theatre industry and is specifically designed to help with scenarios similar to yours.
I’ve been studying opera with a voice teacher for about 5 years now and am a heavy lyric soprano, growing spinto as I age. I’m 31. I’ve recently started singing some heavy repertoire that requires stronger low notes. I can effortlessly hit the high notes, up to D6, and have a strong middle. However, I lose a fair bit of power, tone and vibrato at the bottom end of my range (maximum low is at G3).
Self-perception can often be misguided. My voice teacher tells me it sounds fine but I feel like I’m swallowing the notes and can barely be heard over a piano, let alone a full orchestra.
Are there any exercises I can do strengthen the very low end of my range? I’d hate to cut out repertoire that I would otherwise rock at because of a few mediocre notes.
Summary: This can be a big subject. As we age our voice can deepen a little bit, and this is especially true for females. However, 31 years old maybe a little early for a natural change in voice type. Could a reason for this change in repertoire could be that it took until now to find out that the soprano stuff was a touch too high in the beginning, and your new classification was your calling all along? Or could it be a sign of affects on the body, like tension or inflammation? There could be any number of reasons for this drop in range, but let’s move on to your question: why are the low notes hard?
If you have been singing soprano for 20 years, there’s a good chance that your chest voice mechanism (specifically, the thyroarytenoid muscle, or TA) has been greatly discouraged in the process of singing and training. In order to have clear voice in the low ranges, even soprano females need to train with chest voice. Many teachers within classical ignore this fact by exclusively training in head voice, often to the detriment of the singers health, long term.
The way forward is to begin to introduce some chest voice in training. In other words, some activation of the TA muscle to bring the vocal folds together with more tension and gain from the energy, and extra pitches, that it gives you.
There are implications to the larynx positioning in female classical singing too. It’s likely to be shaping the throat, along with other contributors, to resonate high notes. The shapes that best give power the lower and middle notes are different, so readjusting the vocal tract to assist this is another skill needed.
Exercises for chest voice would include vowels like AE (as in ‘cat’) and EE (as in ‘feet’) on low and short interval scales. MMM and NG sounds can also help to refine this unused register, however all of these exercises could potentially make your life a little more difficult in the high ranges. Saying that, including chest voice exercises in your training is important in the long run, so it will take an open-minded teacher with a deep knowledge of vocal physiology to coach you through this. It’s not advisable doing this alone so please do seek help, but it is advisable doing it in general.
I’d like for you to talk about singing using more of a mixed voice, rather than chest in the high notes. I don’t want it to sound too different to the chest voice, if you know what I mean! I want to get those high chest sounds without the throatiness.
Summary: We know what you mean Chess! That squeezed, strained sound, along with unnecessary tension, as we ascend towards the middle of the voice. This just so happens to be one of the most common problems for singers in the studio, so you’re not alone. Here needs to start the journey of training so that our vocal registers, and the muscles that create them, start to cooperate.
Listen to the podcast for a few examples of mixed voice, but we’re talking about the sound that’s generated when your intrinsic vocal muscles are finding a balance against each other. That allows for the vocal folds to be thicker (because the thyroarytenoid muscle is at the party) but not so thick that they can’t be stretched out for higher notes. This allows for a singer to still sound ‘chesty’ but raise pitch much easier, and with less potential damage, than if they were exclusively using a chest voice setting.
As far as exercises go, one common go-to for singers is to slightly close the vowel, either by modifying it, closing it, or using a function like rounding the lips. That can break us out of the potential yell as we go up.
Following on from that, we need to be aware of where we are entering a yelly place so we can exercise a different outcome in preparation for the high notes. It can be easy for females singers to take a heavy chest sound to B4 and higher before it cracks, but the truth is we shouldn’t just deal with where it cracks. Encouraging the mixed configuration lower down, using a more closed vowel, can help us to shave off that extra bit of weight that eventually makes us crack higher up.
Something a little more direct would be an SOVT (semi-occluded vocal tract) exercise. These exercises, which include NG sounds and particularly straw phonation, really drive home the mixed configuration setting. Related to this are most consonants, which momentarily occlude the mouth and airflow. This can influence us into a mixed configuration if they’re present in the phrase or exercise.
Ultimately, we need to get know a mixed voice but it’s still a bit mysterious and misunderstood. Vowels and exercises may influence us towards it, but eventually we need to know it well enough to choose it as a vocal register setting, regardless of vowel. That way, we’ll be able to take advantage of the wide palette of vocal colours available to us.
That’s it for now! Thanks again for joining us. If you’d like to keep in touch with us more closely, click on the image below to join our private Facebook group. There’s a lot of chat going in there!
- MFDR – Four letters that help explain vocal power! - July 6, 2017
- Voice Metaphors – Why They Work & Why They Don’t! - April 21, 2017
- The Bottom End – Training Chest Voice & The Low Range - December 22, 2016