The Necessity of Chord Connection

Have you ever heard someone sing with a breathiness to their tone? Sometimes singers use breathiness as a way to style a particular phrase or note, but if the singer has a constant breathiness, chances are they have not mastered the art of chord connection. Not having this skill can be a detriment to your performance. Obtaining this skill is a game changer.

Chord Connection

What is chord connection? Simply put, it is the action of connecting your vocal chords from the front to the back. When we breathe, the vocal chords open wide to allow air to pass through to the lungs. To talk or to sing, the vocal chords close and vibrate against one another as we exhale. The main muscle that engages to perform this process is called the arytenoid muscle. It is solely responsible for the production of sound.

When we speak, we produce short bursts of air and sound with little change in pitch. The majority of people are born with this ability. Unless you are a professional speaker, chord connection is not a big deal. However, a singer must maintain these sounds for long periods of time so chord connection is a must.

Vocal chords not completely connecting

Vocal chords with poor chord connection.

The Danger

Think of a car tire with a small hole in it. At first, the tire may perform well as air slowly leaks from it. But after a while, the tire loses so much air that it affects the performance of the entire vehicle. The same things happens to the voice. The voice’s only fuel source is air. If there is a leak in the vocal chords, the singer loses precious power. The result can be taking catch breaths which destroys the motion of the song or even worse, the mind goes into emergency mode and engages muscles in the throat to counteract the loss of air. Doing so can harm and weaken the voice.

How Can I Train?

As said before, the arytenoid muscle is in charge of chord connection. The best exercise for strengthening the arytenoid muscle is the vocal fry. The vocal fry is bringing the chords together, bubbling air through them and maintaining this bubbling while increasing pitch. It sounds complicated but easy to accomplish.

First, we need to feel the arytenoid muscle. The feeling is very subtle so muscle memory is key. Exhale some hot air out, as if you were trying to fog up a mirror. After two seconds of this, sing a pitch on an “Ah” vowel without stopping the warm air. Again, don’t disconnect the breath before you sing. Just go right into the “Ah” from the warm air. Feel the arytenoid? Don’t worry if you don’t feel it the first time. Keep trying and eventually you will feel it.

Next, stop singing and freeze everything. Freeze the jaw, back of the the throat and most importantly, the vocal chords. So you will exhale hot air, sing “ah” without stopping the breath and freeze the muscle. Don’t relax anything in the vocal mechanism. The chords should be completely connected at this point. Now, blow air through your closed chords. The air should be bubbling through the chords with very little pressure. This is a vocal fry. But we’re not done.

In order to give the arytenoid muscle a workout, the chords must stay closed as we rise in pitch. To start, do what I call a break slide. Vocal fry the chords and do a small slide up in pitch. This is a good beginning workout. If the vocal fry continues throughout the slide, that means the chords are staying connected. After accomplishing this, take the slide even higher in pitch. If you can maintain chord connection throughout, try vocal frying some of your favorite exercises. Just remember, if the bubbling stops, the chords have disconnected. Go back and try it again.

The Result

If you are a professional singer, vocal frying will give you an almost immediate change in power and control. If you are a beginner, you will find that your voice responds quicker to training after using these exercises. Don’t give up. Teaching your chords how to vocal fry can be difficult but the rewards are huge. Good Luck!!!!

 


“I’ve Got Rhythm…”

When first taking voice lessons, every student works on the same thing—the production of sound.  Understanding how to produce a quality sound without hurting your vocal instrument is a definite priority.  This can take years to master.  In my case, it was the only thing I worked on for many years, but at the same time I was perfecting my vocal production,  I would have enhanced my training by working on both voice AND rhythm.  Rhythm is the next level in becoming a better singer.  When rhythm becomes a part of your song, you develop a feel for the music.  No beginner singer can understand the feel for a song until they master rhythm.

What is “feel”?

As a teacher, this is difficult to explain as feeling comes from experience.  The best way to describe feel is motion.  When a singer develops an inner rhythm, feeling a constant beat inside themselvesSoul singer, Charles Bradley feeling the rhythm of the song. even when no music is being played, the song starts to have motion.  If you were to watch a classical violinist, they may thrash their head from side to side as they play to give the music motion.  A rock guitarist may lean back to bend a string to give motion to the song.  The most effective thing you can do as a vocalist to put motion into your sound, is to put motion into your body.  If you move, the song will move.  Over a period of time, you will develop a feel for any style of music.

Dental Singing vs. Melodic Singing

Think of the way Celine Dion may sing a song.  The melody is smooth and each word is vocally connected. In contrast, Michael Jackson sings completely different, using consonants and nonsense syllables to emphasize rhythm.  Neither singer is wrong but both use different vocal tools according to the style of the music. Training your voice to sing both rhythmically and melodically is a necessity in the ever-growing trend of sung performances.To train your voice for melodic singing, the singer focuses on targeting and elongating the vowels with perfect vocal production.

Sarah Jane Morrison feeling the rhythm.This is not to say that consonants are ignored, however they are not emphasized or inflected in order to not “chop up” the melody.  This creates a sound flow that is unending until a breath is taken.  To see perfect melodic singing in action, check out prominent barbershop quartets like Keepsake, Acoustix, or Vocal Spectrum.  These groups train themselves to sing so the sound never stops, singing vowel to vowel.  Solo jazz artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Tormé also use this style in many of their recordings.

Dental singing is the polar opposite of melodic singing.  Dental singing relies heavily on word consonants, descriptive words and non-sensical sounds to hit intricate rhythms and create inflection.  The sound is forward, bright and each word is over-annunciated, almost spit out.  Besides being the King of Pop, Michael Jackson was the king of rhythmic singing.  The intricacies of the rhythm he heard in his mind was so complex, he had to sometimes sing non-sensical words to fill the spaces.  Not a stranger to melodic singing, as is obvious with songs like “I’ll Be There” and “Heal the World”, Michael’s signature was in dental singing.

Do You Play?  Integrate Rhythm into Your Practice!

When I first started teaching, many students told me that they played an instrument.  At that time, I never understood how much of a leg up these students had.  When learning how to play an instrument, the first thing you study is how to count.  Without a tempo in your head, it is difficult to play any instrument.  Now when I student tells me they know how to play, I use this in the lesson.  Practice both your instrument and your voice together.  The choreography of the fingers, diaphragm and vocal muscles is a definite way to get a leg up as a vocalist and develop a feel for the music.


Bag O’ Tools

The muscles of the body are funny creatures. Any trainer will tell you when you’re working out, that you must switch up your exercises often. The reason is because the body muscles quickly adapt to any change in their environment. To get the muscles to grow, a body builder has to keep changing the exercises. This will keep the muscles from adapting to routine and cause them to increase in size. The vocal muscles are the same. That is why I always have a collection of methods and analogies called the Bag O’ Tools. Each exercise is meant to trick both the vocal muscles AND the mind.

The Mind Is Not Your Friend

Years ago, when I worked as a singer aboard cruise ships, I attended several seminars given by two psychologists. In one of the seminars, the speakers made a profound statement. “The mind is not your friend.” That really resonated with me. Think about it! Your mind says “you’re not pretty,” “you’re too fat,” “you’re not good enough,” or “you will never succeed.” Rarely do your dreams and mind agree. Consequently, we either become a slave to the mind or we allow our own determination to carry us through.

It is the same with singing. My voice teacher once told me in university that singing is 15% technique and 85% mind.  I completely agree. When I started to teach, I taught students not only how to train their muscles, but also how to dodge the landmines that the mind can lay along your journey to good singing. This is where the Bag O’ Tools comes in. You must have so many methods and tricks inside the bag that your body and mind never have the chance to slow you down.

Why Doesn’t My Voice Work?

One of the biggest frustrations I see with vocalists, both professional and beginner, is that the voice is never consistent. One day, the voice may respond to a certain exercise and the next day it is completely immune to improvement using that same exercise. That’s where the Bag O’ Tools comes in. You must have several exercises and movements available at all times so that you trick the voice into doing what you want it to do. I have at least 20 exercises or movements that I use to accomplish only one task. When one doesn’t work, I use another one. Both teachers and students need to have an arsenal of tricks to fool the mind and properly train the muscle.

Bag O’ Tools

Here are some of the many tricks I use for students:

A bag of work tools.

Lowered Larynx

The Magic “Uh” Vowel–  “Uh” is one of those vowels that automatically opens the throat and lowers the larynx. When faced with a vowel that tends to raise the larynx, like an “Ee” or “Eh” vowel, I have students mix it with “Uh.” So if they sing the word “red” and the larynx rises, I have them mix in “uh” with the “eh” to form more of a “r+eh+uh+d” sound. This immediately drops the larynx. Finding the right formula is the key, though. If not mixed properly, your audience will hear “rud.”

The Big Red Balloon– The higher the note, the larynx tends to rise. To combat this, I tell students to pretend they have a big red balloon in the back of their throat, behind the tongue. This creates space.  As the notes rise in pitch, I tell them to pretend they are pulling the balloon down into the throat. This lowers the larynx and keeps the swallow muscles from engaging. Although it sounds like analogies for children, I have even used this with people in their 50s and 60s. Works like a charm!

The Roman Handshake– There is so much more power in the “pull” than in the “push.” In this exercise, I tell students to grab my wrist as I grab their’s, like a Roman handshake.  When they start towards a high note, I have them pull me towards them. Even some of my 11 year old girls have almost pulled me over. This tricks the mind from engaging the swallow muscles, keeps the throat open and keeps the larynx level.

Head Voice:

Hooty Owl- One of the easiest ways to engage the head voice is too make sounds like an owl. This immediately activates the crico-thyroid muscles and creates a lighter, sympathetic resonance which is much easier to sing.

Sirens- Making a sound like a fire engine siren is a good way to not only engage the head voice, but to take it through your entire range and strengthen it .

Transition:

A Rock in the Water- In one my earlier blog posts, I wrote about the vocal break. One of the greatest ways to strengthen the vocal break is to go around it. I use the imagery of a boat heading towards a rock. The boat doesn’t wait until it gets to the rock to turn, but rather prepares beforehand.  It is the same with the vocal muscles when approaching the break.

Mixed Voice:

Hummed Exercises– Any type of humming causes resonation in the sinus cavity behind the eyes and nose.  This area is also called “The Mask.” Humming any vocal exercise will get you to feel the vibrations in the mask and help to place resonance in this area when singing with the mixed voice.

Nasty Sounds-  I say the word “nasty” because even the word itself creates resonation in the mask. Many times I ask students to make the sounds of a duck or puppy pant to feel vibrations in the mask. When engaging this area becomes innate, the mixed voice can easily be strengthened. Pure Rock n’ Roll!

Not Just for Kids

Although these exercises may sound like lessons to help children, they work on everyone. The mind is a powerful thing and you must use the Bag O’ Tools to your advantage.  I mentioned just some of the techniques I normally use but their are well over 100 tactics that can be used to trick the mind.  Don’t get frustrated if your voice doesn’t respond to the same exercise every day.  Try a new imagery or exercise and always have many to choose from.

 

 

 

 


Captivate Your Audience with Phrasing

Audiences are smart.  They know the difference between good and superior.  You may have listened to a friend sing and thought, “She’s amazing!”  However, you know that she doesn’t have the same kind of talent as Beyonce or any mainstream artist.  To understand the difference between a seasoned performer and someone with potential doesn’t take 30+ years of training.  As a vocalist, it is good to remember that the audiences’ ear is tuned to the incredible AND the incredibly bad.  They may not know exactly why they like or don’t like something, but they can tell.  Every entertainer, both good and bad, is communicating with the audience when they perform. Wowing your audience doesn’t always mean singing high notes at full volume.  One of the many weapons vocalists have in their arsenal to communicate with their audience is phrasing.

What is Phrasing?

As you might have guessed, phrasing has to do with the phrases we sing throughout the song.  A musical phrase is what is sung between two breaths.  Phrasing is both creating motion and emotion with each phrase.  Good phrasing has everything to do with good breathing.  One good example is: “(breath) Oo, I heard it through the grapevine (breath)…”  If the breathing is bad, it chops up the phrase and the feel: “(breath) Oo, I heard (breath) it through the grapevine (breath)…”  It is easy to hear in your head how the extra breath takes away from the feel.  In order to master phrasing, a singer has to first master good breath control.  Once a singer knows how to use the breath to control each phrase and carry that breathe to end of the phrase, some fun elements can start to happen.

Man singing live with guitar exhibiting phrasing.

The First and Last Notes

The first and last notes of each phrase are the most important.  Why?  When I was in university, one of my choral professors told us that singing is like dominoes.  If the first note is bad, the rest of the phrase will be bad.  Conversely, if the first note is good, the phrase will be good.  It’s always important to remember that the first note sets up your technique.  It is the first step on your run.

The last note is about trust.  If the last note is executed artistically, it gets the audience to trust you.  It helps them to think “Oh, she’s got this!” and allows them to relax and let you take them on a journey.  There are so many little things you can do to energize the last note of a phrase but a good rule of thumb is to always remember that the first note helps you. The last note helps them.

Crescendo, Decrescendo and the Bubble

A crescendo is a small increase in volume.  It can be used on one note, throughout several notes, or slowly through an entire phrase.  Crescendo increases the intensity of any phrase and tells the audience that an emotional shift is coming.  Imagine someone getting angry.  They might start off by mumbling about something that bothers them and slowly their voice raises in volume until they are yelling about it.  The emotion and passion involved in this scenario can be the same with a song.  Whether you are singing about love, death, happiness, or sadness, the crescendo can bring an audience with you on a intense journey.

Decrescendos are the polar opposite of crescendos.  Instead of increasing in volume, they decrease.  Although it sounds easier, the decrescendo can be difficult to control.  The lack of air pressure to decrease the volume can sometimes cause the vocal cords to crack or lose phonation.  Proper control from the diaphragm is key in maintaining the right amount of pressure.  The great thing about decrescendos is the surprise element.  The audience rarely sees them coming and when they do, they know that the singer has the wheel.

One of the most commonly used phrasing techniques is what I call a bubble.  A bubble is a small crescendo followed by a small decrescendo, creating a slight lift in the sound.  The reason it’s called a bubble is because, musically written, it looks like this: <>.  This skill can energize any phrase and get the audience on your side.  I use the bubble with many of my students as it is an easy way to develop good phrasing.  By using the breath to control and lift the volume and then reducing the volume, it gives the song motion and tells the audience that you are in complete control.

It Sounds Complicated to Me?

Sometimes just getting out there and singing is the best technique of all.  However, if you have been training for a while and feel your performance isn’t improving, try incorporating phrasing into your songs.  It will give the music motion and passion but most importantly, it will bring the audience into your world.

 

 

 

 


How to Properly Sing Vowels

Learning how to properly sing vowels is a major obstacle for beginner singers. One of the hardest vowels to sing is the Ee vowel. Why? When we were young, we were taught to “Say Cheese” before taking a photo. Saying “cheese” not only forced a huge, toothy grin, but also tensed muscles in the jaw, cheeks and lips. These muscle engagements can cause a lot of stress on the human voice when trying to produce sound. When first learning how to sing, getting away from this habit can take some time. This can be true for many vowels.  For some, the Ee vowel can be easy to sing. Although producing the sound may be a simple task, the difficulty lies in maintaining space as you sing.

What’s so important about space?

Think of an instrument and the sound it makes. No matter what instrument you are thinking about, that instrument makes its signature sound because of its shape. A trumpet makes a loud brassy sound while a tuba makes a low robust sound. A cello makes a round, lower sound while a violin makes a higher, tinny sound. The shape of the instrument always determines its overall sound. The voice is the same except for one major difference: we can change the shape of our instrument at any time. This can be both good and bad. If the shape of our instrument puts strain or hinders the production of sound, we can create some bad habits or even damage our voice.

The most important skill a beginner singer can learn is how to create space. There are many different techniques you can use, but one of the easiest is generating a yawn feeling in the back of throat as you sing. This causes the larynx to drop, which allows the vocal chords to vibrate properly and producing a better sound with greater strength. It will also increase power so you don’t have to work so hard. Space coupled with a good breathing technique is half the battle on your journey to perfect technique.

A little history…

In 1886, a group of doctors and educators formed the International Phonetic Association in Paris, France. Soon after forming, the group created a system called the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The IPA was created to enhance teaching worldwide to better help students with reading and learning foreign languages. Little did they know that creating this system would also help vocalists to more easily sing without creating tension in the voice.

The Tongue and Lip Chart

Within the IPA, the group created a vowel diagram, explaining how the jaws, lips and tongue form each vowel. The vowel diagram can be complicated as it includes every vowel from several different languages, so I use a simple chart called the Tongue and Lip Vowel Chart. The Tongue and Lip Vowel Chart uses the muscles that provide space, the tongue and the lip muscles to produce a controlled sound with minimal tension.

Tongue and Lip Vowel Chart

Tongue and Lip Vowel Chart

Lip Vowels

Because of the natural shape of our vocal instrument, the easiest vowel to sing with the least tension is the Ah vowel. Notice how the Ah vowel is the center of the chart. From there, in order to maintain space, we can continue singing “Ah” but change the vowel with either the lips or the tongue. Try it. Sing “Ah” and slowly bring the lips forward toward a pucker. Notice anything? If you went slowly, the vowel changed from “Ah” to “Oh” and then onto “Oo”. If you closed the lips all the way, you produced a singable “Mm” sound while still maintaining space.

Tongue Vowels

The tongue vowels are a little different and harder to control. For this exercise, put the tip of your tongue on the back of the bottom teeth and relax it. Notice how the back of the tongue doesn’t relax flat, it relaxes high and arched. This is because the bulk of the tongue muscle is in the throat. From there, it spits the tongue up and out, causing an arch in the back.

Now sing “Ah” just as you did with the lip vowels. While maintaining the “Ah” sound, slowly lift the back of the tongue towards the roof of the mouth. By doing this slowly, you should hear an “Eh” vowel and finally an “Ee” vowel. If the tongue touched the roof of your mouth, you probably produced either a “Nn” or “Ng” sound. The good thing about these exercises is that you maintained space and produced vowels with minimal tension.

Try it for yourself

At first, it can be very difficult and awkward, almost like having a fat tongue.  After some practice, you’ll notice how easily you can make an Ee vowel without the kind of tension produced when you say “Cheese.”  For a good tongue workout, try singing “Ee-Ah” on a descending 5544332211 scale.  Try not to move your jaw and remember to form “Ah” the entire time, allowing only the tongue to change the vowel to “Ee.”  When done properly, only the tongue should move.  Creating this and any other vowel by using only the tongue or lips, will take unnecessary tension away from your voice, enabling you to produce a powerful sound with less work.


Color vs. Technique

What does it mean to color a song? Basically, it means using elements of your voice to tell a story.  These elements can include dynamics, breathiness, inflection, style and numerous other features of the human voice.  When I was young, I grew up in the church.  Every service, someone would get up to sing a song.  Most of the performances were the same.  Each singer would work to memorize words and music, fight through their fears and nervousness, and try to reach high notes in the song.  While learning these skills is an important first step in performing a song, they are just that—a first step.  Singing a song is so much more than words and music.  You must tell a story!

Technique

Many students that come to me for the first time have difficulty with singing songs because they try to imitate others singers.  If they sing a Mariah Carey song, they attempt to sing it like Mariah Carey.  It usually ends with a lot of straining and yelling and rightfully so as matching her range and volume takes years of training to develop those types of skill.  What they are trying to do is add style to their voice.

Style is a part of coloring a song but it is the last thing the singer should focus on. The first thing a beginner vocalist needs to work on is technique.  It is the singer’s core strength.  Breathing, space, ease of sound are all a part of technique and it should be the main focus.  You can master these skills in lessons and personal practice, analysing every difficulty and correcting through repetitions and muscle memory.  The more work you put in, the more you will be able to trust the voice and make it happen. However when you step on stage, technique is the last thing you should worry about.  That is where color comes in.

Color

How do we color a song?  There are so many weapons that a singer has in their arsenal to bring the song to life and engage their audience. When singing the blues, a singer might bend certain notes like a guitar player would bend a string.  When singing Rock, maybe a growl in the voice is a good way to inspire your audience.

I have a 16 year old student that is currently singing a Taylor Swift cover.  Some of the lyrics are “Lord, save me. My drug is my baby.  I’ll be using for the rest of my life.” This lyric equates love with drug use. As a teacher, I can’t tell a 16 year old to understand the habits of a drug addict.  I did, however, tell her to be an actor, to look inside the lyrics and become a character that is different from herself.  After that, she brought the song to life, adding breathiness to certain words and using dynamics to tell the story.  This is pure color.  Putting yourself into the story and telling it with the song.  Here are just some tools you can use to tell YOUR story:

Dynamics- This is volume control.  Whether swelling the volume of one descriptive word or crescendoing to a high note, dynamics will send the emotion of the song right to the heart of the audience.

Breathiness- Adding a whispery sound to phrases or words to convey an attitude or emotion.

Descriptive Words- Using the teeth, tongue and lips to spit out certain words (i.e. turn, skin, light) and drive the point home.

Melodic Sound- Singing the phrase beautifully, connecting the vowels of each word and not letting the consonants “chop up” the sound.

Bob Dylan

Head Voice- Lightening the production of your sound to the head voice, rather than a full chest or mix voice,for a word or phrase.

Lilt- Slightly lifting the dynamic for a note, followed by a short silence.  This can leave an audience in suspense.

Grand Pause- Some of the best parts of music are in the silence. Don’t be afraid to let the audience hang for a while.

These are just a few elements you can throw into your song to bring it to life.  There are hundreds of ways to tell your story.  Don’t be afraid to go farther out on the branch.  Your audience will thank you for it.

Be Dedicated to the Process

It is so important to remember that technique is the first priority.  Don’t let acting and color be the only thing that carries you through.  Color without technique is chaos.  Take the time to figure out exactly how your voice works and how to properly work the muscles that have the most difficulty.  When you’re confident in your abilities, then take the time to up your game. Add color to your song.  Become an actor and find the inner emotion of the song. Tell the story!

 

 


Taking the Fear Out of High Notes

Whenever a new student comes to me for voice lessons, their biggest fear is always the same…singing high notes.  Even if they don’t say it, I can see fear in their faces as they sing higher and higher.  In an industry consistently wowed by the belt and high notes, learning how to properly train muscles in the higher register is a must.

How Does the Voice Work?

Our vocal chords are made of tissue that vibrate and create sound as we send air through them.  When we inhale, the vocal chords remain open so that breath can pass through them to the lungs.  If we want to make sound, certain muscles close the vocal chords as the air is exhaled.  The vocal chords then vibrate and create sound.  This process creates a neutral sound, in the middle vocal range, used mostly for talking.  When speaking, the voice can slightly raise or lower in pitch to create inflection but the vibrations remain mostly in the middle vocal range.

How to Create Pitch?

There are two muscle groups that control pitch, the thyro-arytenoid and crico-thyroid muscles.  But who needs all that mumbo jumbo?  Let’s just call them the chest voice and head voice muscles.  As you exhale and the vocal chords close to make sound in your talking voice or middle range, the chest voice muscles engage and start to create pitch. They do this by stretching the vocal chords lengthwise, much like stretching a guitar string.  As you rise higher in pitch, the chest voice muscles pull the chords out longer.  To create lower pitches, the chest voice muscles release and allow the vocal chords to shorten, producing a lower sound.

Here’s the big problem.  The chest voice muscles can also be used to create high notes and that can be devastating for the vocal chords.  As we sing higher and higher, the chest voice muscles stretch the chords.  Beginner singers and untrained singers sometimes use the chest voice muscles to sing past their vocal break and into their high range.  When this happens, the vocal chords start to vibrate at an erratic rate and slap against each other.  After that, the chords swell and we lose our voice.  If this has ever happened to you, you may have noticed that as the song gets higher in pitch, it becomes more difficult.  The throat starts to squeeze, so you push and give more power.  Then, your voice starts to sound like you’re yelling and before you know it, you’ve lost your voice completely.  Most likely, you were using only your chest voice muscles.  Why does this happen?  It’s very simple.  The chest voice muscles are what we use every day when we talk. It’s what we know. They are the muscles we are most familiar with and are very easy to engage.

Singing in the Upper Range

This is where the head voice muscles come in.  Let’s say a professional singer sings a song that starts at the bottom part of their vocal range.  As they continue singing, the notes get higher and higher.  At this point, the chest voice muscles are doing all the work.  But when the notes start to approach the passaggio, something unique happens.  The head voice muscles start to engage.  After that, a gear shift occurs, a combination of both the chest voice and head voice, working together.  Before you know, the singer is slamming high notes and it seems effortless.  With perfect technique, the chest voice muscles pull the chords back as you rise in pitch, then as the voice approaches the passaggio, the head voice muscles begin to pull the chords towards the front, increasing tension on the chords.  In order for the vocal chords to not be overworked, the chest voice and head voice muscles must work together to go up and down through your registers.

Many of my students come in with the same issues—underdeveloped head voice muscles.  When we use only our chest voice muscles, they become overdeveloped and the head voice muscles start to atrophy. It’s like a body builder that works out just one arm.  Many tennis players are like this.  If the player is right handed, the shoulders, biceps, triceps, and forearm become developed while the left side remains undeveloped.  This actually helps a right-handed tennis player because it can create more torque to slam the ball.  For singers, not so.  When the chest voice muscles are overdeveloped, the voice lacks strength and control.

So, How Do I Sing High Notes?

The key is working the head voice muscles.  Some the best exercises to work the head voice muscles are exercises that take the head voice into the lower range.  Although only the chest voice should be working in this area, this gives the head voice muscles an ultimate workout while letting the chest voice muscles take a break.  After a long time of doing this, the head voice muscles catch up with the chest voice muscles in strength and you can begin the process of transitioning your lower and higher registers.

Try singing descending scales, like a 54321, 531 or 8531 scale, that travel from your upper register into your middle register.  As you descend, don’t let the chest voice engage, sing only with the head voice.  In the middle register, this will produce a weak, airy sound.  Don’t worry!  It’s just your head voice muscles gaining strength.  After several weeks of practice, try some transitioning exercises.  This will start you on a path of lightening the voice as you ascend in pitch and in time, just like the professionals, you’ll be slamming high notes too.

 


The Mystical World of the Vocal Break

The Vocal Break

What is the vocal break? Quite simply, the vocal break is the weakest note in your vocal range. It is the note that separates the chest voice and the head voice. Have you ever noticed, as you sing higher and higher, how your voice essentially gives up and produces a light, easy-to-sing sound? The point where your chest voice surrenders to your head voice is called “The Vocal Break.” This light, easy sound is your head voice and it IS easier to sing.  The vibrations and muscle engagement of your chest voice become so great, that your voice must switch to the head voice in order to produce and maintain higher tones.

The Passaggio

Unfortunately, the weakness in your voice doesn’t stop at the vocal break.  The entire area surrounding the vocal break, approximately two notes on either side, is called “The Passaggio”, Italian for “the passage.”  Every singer has two passaggios.  One in the middle register, the primo passaggio, and the other one on the upper register, the secondo passaggio.  In this blog, we will focus on the first or “primo passagio.”

The first passagio can be incredibly frustrating for the beginner singer. This area, spanning five to six notes in the middle of your range, can wreak havoc on the voice if not navigated properly.  Most inexperienced vocalists attempt to muscle through this area.  This can cause a yelling sound that’s not pleasant to the listener’s ears.  Heavy singing through this area can permanently damage the vocal chords in the long run.

A Rock in the Water

How do we navigate through this area?  The training is not easy but the answer is.  When training the voice, heavy singing in the passaggio must be avoided at all times.  As you approach the passaggio, lighten the voice and go around it, along the back wall of the throat.  Decreased volume and change of sound direction in this area will cause certain muscles to engage and help you ease through the weak spot.

I liken it to a rock in the water.  If you were piloting a boat and spotted a rock ahead, you wouldn’t wait until you reached the rock to turn.  You would slowly navigate as far away from the rock and continue along your course.  The passaggio is no different.  If you approach it with a heavy sound and change course too late, the voice will quickly switch or crack, allowing your audience to hear an obvious change.  Rather, the voice should start to lighten and change direction well before you reach the passaggio.  This will give you a smooth transition between your lower and upper registers.

The Area

The vocal break is different for everyone. Below, I have included a general area, depending on your voice part:

Billy Holiday

Bass – Ab3 (just below middle C)

Baritone – B3 (just below middle C)

Tenor – E4 (just above middle C)

Alto – E4 (just above middle C)

Soprano – F#4 (just above middle C)

 

Remember that each of these areas are surrounded with weaker notes.  Approach these areas lightly and direct the sound towards the back of the throat.

 

The Process

When I train vocalists to ease through their passaggio, I do a simple chest voice-head voice-chest voice exercise.  You can try with an easy octave scale, 1358531, or a Rossini scale.  Start in your chest voice or speaking voice.  Let the vibration of the sound follow the back wall of the throat.  As your approach your passaggio, lighten to a head voice and continue on.  As you descend, take the same path along the back of the throat, use your head voice and slowly ease into your chest voice, like a descending parachute.  On the ascent, if your voice cracks or makes an obvious change, engage the head voice sooner.  If the voice cracks or makes an obvious change on the descent, take the head even lower before transitioning into the chest voice.  Visit my Facebook page and let me know how you did.  Happy singing!!!!


Lowered Larynx: Understanding the Balance

The throat has four functions that can affect our singing.  These functions are breathing, swallowing, communication and yawning.  All of these functions are very natural, however there are only three that benefit the voice: breathing, communication and yawning.  The function of swallowing can be detrimental to the voice but can be combated with a lowered larynx.

The Larynx

Let’s test it out!  Place your fingers lightly on your larynx.  For men, it’s easy to find.  It’s the part that sticks out the most on the front of the throat, under the chin.  This is also called the “Adam’s Apple.”  For women, it’s a little more difficult to feel.  It is located roughly in the area of the throat where skin of the head meets the skin of the neck.  Try a yawn.  Notice how the larynx drops and comes back to the middle of the windpipe.  Now try a swallow.  The larynx raises and returns to a relaxed, middle position.  Now say “lowered larynx.”  Notice how the larynx bobs up and down, slightly in the the middle, neither rising too high or descending.  This is the communication function.  Each of these functions places the larynx in a different position.

Communication

Singing is communication.  Think about it.  If we simply say “What time is it?,” the vocal chords and diaphragm (see blog post “Proper Breathing…”) both engage to make shorts sounds to form words and phrases.  If we were to sing this phrase, “What time is iiiiiiiiiit?,” the words and tones are held out.  Although the sounds are lengthened, the function is still the same.

The Problem
Franco Corelli exhibits a lowered larynx, Tosca, 1966.

Franco Corelli, Tosca, 1966

Sometimes the complex muscles of the swallow function can interfere with the delicate muscles of communication.  That’s when we start to have vocal problems.  As we sing, the larynx has a tendency to raise and engage swallow muscles.  These muscles weigh heavy on the vocal chords and “slap” them together as we sing.  Over time, the vocal chords swell and we either lose our voice or permanently damage it.

The Solution to a Lowered Larynx

In order for the communication muscles, and ONLY the communication muscles, to work while we sing, the larynx must stay in a middle position.  How do we do that?  You may notice that the higher the pitch rises when you sing, the higher the larynx rises.  Not to worry.  Although this is a big problem, it’s very common. Remember earlier when the larynx dropped as you yawned?  Yawning can be used to correct a high larynx.  Try the yawn again.  Notice how the back of the throat creates a large space to take in oxygen.  It’s this space that the singer relies on to keep a lowered larynx when notes rise.  This space can also give you a bigger sound so you don’t have to work so hard.

So, the singer has to play a balancing game.  If the note is in the middle range, then they can use a small yawn.  As the note rises, the yawn gets bigger, creating more space.  Beware though.  If the larynx goes too low, it will give you an “oafy” sound, much like the sounds you make if you’ve ever talked while yawning.

 See for Yourself

You can train your larynx to lower as you sing with the simple vowel sound “uh.”  If you are currently working vocal scales with a syllable like “la, la, la,” try it with “luh, luh, luh.”  If “nee, nee, nee…,” try “nuh, nuh, nuh…”  This will open the back of the throat and help you to maintain a lowered larynx.  Remember, the higher the note, the bigger the yawn.


Proper Breathing: The Solution to Many Vocal Obstacles

I have been teaching for 14 years.  Many times I get new students, both professional and beginner, with amazing talent. They come to me because they want to either learn or they’re having problems with certain songs and notes in their higher register.  Most of the time, these problems are immediately fixed by teaching proper breathing technique.

The Problem

Most of us have a problem called shallow breathing.  Shallow breathing is expanding the rib cage, lifting our shoulders and taking a breath. Why do we do this?  The problem is in the mind.  The rib cage is flexible.  Expanding it tells the mind that we have room for more air.  This misconception leads us to use only 50% of lung capacity, which gives us little air to use for singing.  When it’s time to sing a higher note or hold out longer notes, we fail. To avoid embarrassment, the brain engages improper muscles in the throat and we push the sound.  This wears out the vocal cords, causing the cords to either swell or crack.  Over time, this can lead to voice loss or permanent damage.

The Correct Way

Lay down on the bed or floor.  Place your hand on your stomach, just above the belly button.  Now breath.  Notice anything different?  The chest cavity doesn’t move, but the stomach does.  This is called diaphramic breathing and it is an involuntary muscle process that happens when we sleep.  Sleep is the activity in which the body heals itself.  During sleep, we breathe this way, using 100% of the lung’s capacity.  The taking in of oxygen during a rest heals the body throughout the night, enabling us to function properly for the next day.

The Diaphragm

The reason the stomach moves when we breathe is because of a thin muscle that runs underneath the lungsAnatomy of breathing called the diaphragm. This muscle is like a thin, flat piece of rubber.  If you were to stretch a thin, flat piece of rubber and let it go, it would return to the original shape.  The diaphragm is no different.  As it contracts, it pulls out, causing the stomach to expand.  This creates a vacuum in which air is pulled into the lungs.  When the diaphragm relaxes, like that thin piece of rubber, it returns to its original shape, forcing air out of the lungs. The singer must be able to breathe this way in order to have maximum vocal efficiency.

The Art of Proper Breathing

The obvious question is “how do I breathe this way standing up?”  It takes a lot of practice.  A singer must learn this technique and use it constantly when performing.  A normal breathing process is a quick inhale and exhale. The singer must have a quick, deep inhale and slow, extended exhale to support an entire phrase or note as they sing. One method for ensuring a deep, diaphragmic breath is practicing with the lips puckered, like breathing through a straw.  This will engage the diaphragm and will pull the air to the bottom of the lungs.  For more control and a fuller sound, the singer pulls the diaphragm in as they sing, like pulling the belly button to the spine. This creates a strong force of air pressure which enables the singer to maintain strength and control throughout each register.  It is the fuel behind every tone and phrase.

Try it out

If you are having vocal problems, improper breathing may be the culprit.  Give it a shot and see how it goes.  Beware!  You will have more power and the voice may “splat” on you at first.  Don’t worry!  Just pull back on the normal energy you give a particular note or phrase. With diaphramic breathing, the voice will work way more efficiently so you don’t have to.


Learning the SeanyMac Studios Six-Step Process

Taking voice lessons can seem so complicated.  When I was in university, every vocal student drenched themselves in the process of learning voice.  From reading books to constant practice, every voice student abandoned their personal lives and committed every second to vocal technique.  When I started teaching voice lessons, I realized how daunting this could be to new students and drove away students with amazing potential. After that, I created a consecutive Six-Step Process for students.  While the process is not easy to accomplish, every student can see a clear map in front of them and can create their own schedule of practice that doesn’t take away so much from their personal lives.  The SeanyMac Six-Step Process is:

  • Breathing
  • Chest Voice
  • Head Voice
  • Transition
  • Mix
  • Range

Breathing– The power muscles.  Singers learn control and stamina by learning how to breathe.  The breathing muscles are EVERYTHING.

Chest Voice-The chest voice is the same voice we speak with. While it is the easiest to use, it is difficult to control.  When learning how to control the chest voice, students will be able to maintain sound, strengthen vocal muscles, and relax certain muscles in the throat that can poorly influence the voice.

Head Voice- After learning how to properly control the chest voice through

Old style microphoneproper breathing and muscle use, we focus on the upper part of the students’ register by engaging the head voice, also called the falsetto voice. The head voice is the higher, “choral” sound, that is usually easier to sing.  While this voice is easier to sing, controlling and strengthening it takes some practice.

Transition- Every person has what is called a “break” in the middle of your vocal range.  This is one note that separates the chest voice and the head voice.  The break has two tones on either side of it and this whole area (around five notes) is called the passaggio, Italian for “the passageway.  The passaggio is the weakest part of the voice.  Singing back and forth across this area is very difficult so we teach students how to properly navigate so improper muscles do not become engaged.

Mix-This is pure Rock and Roll.  Once transition is accomplished, we teach students how to change their head voice into a mix voice.  A mix voice is singing with the posture of the head voice, very easily, and making it sound like a full chest voice.  After training, the entire vocal range sounds like a full voice. That’s when the fun starts.

Range- Many teachers and students push the higher parts of their voice.  Although that is important, constant work on the upper range tends to thin the voice. At SeanyMac Studios, we work on both ends of the range, strengthening the higher and lower registers together.

You Can Do It

Don’t get frustrated with complicated voice lessons, try the SeanyMac Six-Step Process.  With this technique, you can accomplish so much in a short period of time without having to abandon your personal life.  Come see me in Hong Kong or take a live online voice lesson.  Looking forward to working with you!!!


Tien Chong: The Singer, Season 6

This year, we returned to Hunan, China for season six of The Singer. Tien Chong started taking voice lessons at SeanyMac Studios in Hong Kong at the age of 19. She was asked to audition and after several weeks between Beijing and Hong Kong, Tien made it onto the show. We had a fantastic time and she absolutely nailed it.  Every performance was a new journey into being a performing artist.  The show completely changed her life and she is slowly becoming a household name in China. So proud of her and her journey. Bravo Tien!


April 24, 2017 SANDY LAM WINS THE SINGER SEASON 5

I had the unique opportunity to coach Mando and Cantopop star, Sandy Lam on this year’s season of the popular Chinese television show “The Singer.” Along the four months of filming I got to work with Taiwan star A-Mei and meet many talented artists including Jason Zheng and Tan Jing. In the end, Sandy walked away with first place. It was a wonderful experience that I will never forget. So happy to be working with such talent!