Every singer has a goal. For some, it’s being able to sing exciting, strong high notes. For others it’s singing the most difficult songs with ease; others long to sing lightning fast riffs. Clients come into the studio with their goals firmly locked into place and with the sweat stains and muscle cramps to show for it. However, when I invariably ask them to perform the opposite vocal feat, I get questioning stares. Why would anyone practice the seemingly opposite task? “Isn’t that a waste of valuable time I could be spending working toward my goal?” you rightfully ask. Not in the least. In fact, practicing the opposites is the way of rapid vocal growth.
Want High Notes? Rx: Low Notes
Your highest range is of great importance and, thus, gets the lion’s share of attention in our personal vocal practice; however, there are some wonderful lessons to be learned from our lower range. When reaching for our high notes over and over again, we sometimes pinch the larynx, or voice box. This comes from the body’s instinct to force the larynx upward to reach a note rather than allowing the vocal folds to stretch. A by-product of the lift-and-pinch technique is diminished breath flow. So now you’re squeezing, pinching, lifting, AND holding your breath. Take a lesson from the opposite end of your range. The larynx is infinitely more relaxed singing your lower notes. With time and practice you’ll be able to recreate the sensation of singing lower when you’re actually singing higher, but for now try this:
Practice down the octave. It’s not a forever fix, but it can help in a pinch (see what I did there?). Practice the higher phrases of your song down the octave to save your vocal energy while still working out your approach to the words, dynamics, etc.
Trick your mind. The mind will convince you that some notes are too high to sing, but if your behavior says otherwise perhaps your mind will follow. Try sitting down at the exact moment you’re supposed to sing higher, or try pointing towards a focal point across the room at about navel level during a harrowingly high phrase.
Want a Strong Chest Voice? Rx. Breathy Head Voice
Chest voice is our vocal folds at their ‘thick’ setting. It gives us the rich, strong power we want to put into our singing. But, much like the bodybuilder hitting the weights everyday, working chest voice alone will leave us feeling bulky, slow, and heavy. Practice the opposite: loose breathy head voice. It’s our vocal folds’ “thin” setting, which means they’ll be much more pliable and stretchable than chest voice. Stretchy vocal folds mean a wide range.
Try downward motion exercises. Exercises that raise in pitch are generally chest voice builders, while downward motion exercises are head voice builders.
For example, instead of repeatedly practicing the same arpeggio:
1 - 3 - 5 - 8 - 5 - 3 - 1
Start at the top and work down:
8 - 5 - 3 - 1
Any downward motion will do. For an added bonus, try dragging your head voice down into chest voice range as low as you can without switching back to chest voice.
Let your voice crack. Let your voice crack. I write it twice because it is imperative to your overall vocal health (Check out Justin’s video on the subject). A “crack,” “break,” or “immediate audible jolt into the world of vocal puberty” is a good thing. It’s your body’s way of relieving tension from too much chest voice tension. A strong voice that can crack into head voice at will is a healthy voice, so when you’re going for your strong note try to float perilously close to the “cracking” zone.
Try your hand at cracking your voice with quick octave leaps (1 - 8 - 1). If you feel your throat tightening to reach the higher pitch, try to channel your inner yodeler and crack.
Want Long Legato Phrases? Rx. Staccato
Legato, or smooth, flowing singing is beautiful. It’s great for building gradual momentum and power in a line or phrase, and who can deny the power of a legato run or melisma? (I mean, Candice Glover, anyone?) But without balance it can lead to sluggish, heavy singing. Practice the opposite: staccato phrases. Staccato is the musical opposite to legato. Staccato exercises are fantastic for agility, releasing tension, and helping the vocal folds become thinner.
Add Staccato to your legato exercises. There are a number of ways to practice your staccato skill. Try adding a staccato pass into your legato exercise.
1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 5 - 5 - 5 - 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1
Sing 1-4 on MEE, then at the repeated 5’s sing HEE. Keep the breath on the HEEs full yet short. It may be tough at first, but keep at it. You’ll soon feel the benefits of the quick staccato.
Use Staccato to loosen tight phrases. Build your own exercise out of tough words or notes. If you happen to be singing the standard “My Funny Valentine,” the climax of the song is arguably the word “stay.” It’s at a crucial point emotionally, as well as vocally. Instead of muscling your way through it every time, try infusing some staccato as an exercise to help you thin your vocal folds: “Stay-hay-hay-hay-hay.” Then try removing the staccato and sing the word as written. Much better, eh?
It’s All About Balance, People
In logging jillions of hours of practice hitting those high notes or making those riffs sharp, singers can develop a lopsided technique. Balance is everything in building the healthiest, strongest voice possible, so remember to practice singing the opposites.