Most people have a fear of singing high notes. Have you ever noticed your throat squeezing when you sing higher in your range? The reason is simple. You are probably using the wrong muscles to engage your voice. When this happens, the throat closes tighter and the fear of not being able to hit the note creeps into your mind. This snowball effect makes it impossible to sing in your higher range.
In order to communicate, the voice will work properly. As breath is provided from the diaphragm, through the lungs and past the vocal cords, we produce sound. These sounds are then formed into words from the shapes created by the pharynx (back of the throat), tongue and lips. This is the engagement of speech and is not difficult to produce. Sometimes, in order to convey emotion in our speech, we may raise the volume or even the pitch of our voice. However, the pitches we make in everyday speech are usually in the middle of our range and easy to create. This is rarely the case when we sing as the pitches of most songs go out of our speaking range. It is important to remember that a lot the sounds we create in singing are unnatural, rarely used in everyday speech. Therefore, we must train the tissues and muscles of the pharynx and the respiratory system.
The Wrong Muscles
When I was younger, I used to work in construction. My boss always used to say, “The right tool for the right job.” This simply meant that every task required a certain tool and to use the tools appropriately (e.g. Don’t use a butter knife to fasten a screw. Use a screwdriver.) The same is true for the voice. The reason our voice feels squeezed as we sing is because are using the swallow muscles to manipulate the vocal cords. The swallow muscles are important but are commonly misused. To understand this mistaken use of muscle, we must first understand how the swallow muscles work.
When we swallow, there are three constrictors in the front of our throat that work in succession from top to bottom. The reason for this is to squeeze food down into our esophagus as we swallow. Try it yourself. It is a very odd feeling. You will feel the first constrictor engage voluntarily, however the second and third will work on their own immediately after. This engagement is swallowing. Unfortunately, these muscles can engage when we sing.
Why Does This Happen?
When we are born, our voice works perfectly. This is because our only defense when we are in distress is to call out for a parent. As we age, our voice changes and deepens. This is because our larynx and tissue inside the larynx lengthens. When this happens, our muscles scramble to gain control of this “new instrument” and without proper training, our swallow muscles can influence this control. For most people, this is not a problem, however if you have a job that requires constant communication (e.g. speaker, singer, pastor, etc.) this can be a real problem. As your voice inflects to create attitude or you sing higher notes, the swallow muscles kick in and squeeze the throat. Remember, this is a natural engagement for swallowing. However, this squeezing hurts the vocal cords and makes it impossible to sing in our higher range.
How To Fix It
Proper training is essentially rehab. When you train your voice, you are teaching to operate as it did when you were a baby. The only difference is the voice is now deeper and more full. One of the best things a singer can do is to understand the position of the larynx. The larynx is located in the front of the neck. For males, it is the Adam’s apple. For females, it is a little more difficult to feel. The location of the larynx is roughly where the skin of the chin meets the skin of the neck. Keep your fingers on your larynx as you sing. If the larynx goes high, try create space in the mouth as you sing. Keep the tongue forward and flat. If you can control the larynx and keep it in the middle of the neck, you will be on your way to rehabbing the voice back to proper strength and operation.