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.