The majority of the work I do with my clients is centered around releasing tightness in their upper body when they sing. What’s interesting to me is that none of my clients have been taught to tighten their throat, but they all have to be taught how to relax. I’ve often asked myself, why is vocal tightness such an instinct? I believe the answer lies in our desire for control. We know what we want our voices to sound like, so we step in and “take charge” by pushing and squeezing the sound out. In our attempt to make things happen as quickly as possible, we choose force as our tool when we should choose rest.
It makes sense. In most everything else in life, the principle of pushing harder actually does result in more success. If I’m trying to complete the last few reps of my bench press, or if I’m competing for a job opportunity, the harder I push myself, the better my results will be.
I meet so many singers who are searching for effective singing techniques that are... un-complicated. One time I almost threw away a song for good because it felt so uncomfortable for me. I thought “this is going to need a miracle.” Finally, I sat down and experimented with baby steps. Then my limitations changed into revelations. You’ve probably had that sinking feeling as well, BUT before you discard a song completely, try these adjustments. Sometimes the simplest tweaks can completely transform your sound and bring a sense of freedom.
OPEN YOUR MOUTH. I get it… Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande make singing sound totally cool and effortless -- without enunciating. But that doesn’t work for everyone or every song. A client earlier this week said she was struggling with pitch control at the end of long notes. Watching her sing, I could immediately tell she was closing off her vowels too early. She sang the word “away,” but used a heavy dipthong at the end, (when there's two vowels in a single syllable.) By changing her “AWAY-EEEE” to a more open-jaw “AWEH,” it improved her pitch. You might not have someone watching you sing while you practice. So... grab a mirror. So many times I “think” I am exaggerating my vowel shapes and tasting the consonants. But as soon as I see myself I realize that what I’m
PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR VOLUME. Are you singing too loud or too soft? Maybe both at different points of the song? I used to sing songs with this big loud sound, but it felt out of control and unbalanced throughout. Remember that volume and impact are independent of each other. When I tone down the volume on certain notes, I am able to embrace different colors and placements within my voice. Applying this to a song is simple, but it will transform a performance! I begin by humming the song as quietly as I would if there were a sleeping baby in the room. Once I am comfortable humming the song at one volume throughout, I add in the lyric line by line making sure to keep it at this same soft volume. Gradually, I increase my volume from there paying attention to when I feel my old habits start to take over. There’s so much more freedom when my power comes from control, rather than volume.
You might be confused about the validity of the million different singing methods out there, ranging from the classically-based opera rulebook, to the mystical “imagine your voice as its own person” kind of thing. (I’ll take this opportunity to correct a popular rumor: no, the larynx does not tilt or swing forward and back inside the neck. But it does slide up and down.)
So how do you know if a technique DOES work? Here’s a guide:
Singing is deeply personal. It’s meant to communicate something that can’t be said with just spoken words alone. Most of us are masters of speaking - in that we know how to let certain bits of information out, while guarding others. But with singing, it’s not so easy to pick and choose what parts of ourselves are exposed, and what parts are guarded. The whole veil pretty much gets lifted as soon as we open our mouths, whether we like it or not. I believe we sing because we deeply desire to lift that veil, yet oftentimes we still try to guard ourselves right in the midst of our attempts to be vulnerable. Freedom for your voice lies right in the middle of your surrender to vulnerability. Exposing the parts of yourself that you feel are ugly is actually one of the most beautiful things you can do.
This surrender can start in the smallest of places. I remember when I first began learning proper singing technique, one of my big paradigm shifts was realizing that singing higher does not mean I have to sing louder. Mind blown! I remember experimenting by raising my pitch very quietly without tightening my throat or raising volume, and I felt my voice wobble a little bit. Immediately I shut my mouth, crossed my arms, and squirmed like a little kid. With my face cherry red, I tried again, only to hear my voice crack and fail. I laughed and squirmed again. I was struck by how deeply vulnerable it felt! I notice this in my clients as well. The idea of letting me hear their voice crack feels like showing me an embarrassing picture of themselves. Little do they know that my whole goal is to get them to release their neck tension/throat tension/emotional tension enough to let their voice wobble and crack. We all want to have strong, sturdy, reliable voices, but we can only get there if we stop trying to force that strength by straining.
There I was standing in front of a live studio audience of hundreds of people waiting to either be impressed with me or feel sorry for me. Tightly gripping the microphone in hopes of finding any kind of stability, I waited for the band (with whom I had limited prior practice) to begin my tune. Cameras rolling! The band started, I started, everyone was listening. As I sang, what came out was unfamiliar, I felt unstable and out of body. I tried to focus and sing what I had practiced, but all I could think about was why not a single one of the four chairs in front of me had turned. My song came to a close and a once cheering crowd turned to an empathetic halt. I received my feedback and the one consistent response from all four of them was “I could tell you were NERVOUS.” Me? Nervous? No way! I had practiced for months. I had been waiting and preparing for this moment and opportunity my entire life. How could I be nervous?
It took me a lot of hard work in the years after this experience to come to terms with my nerves as a performer. This moment was truly an intervention for how I approach being on stage. What I thought I had mastered in years past, I had only just scratched the surface. Nerves are not only a natural human condition, but they can open the door for further self exploration. You know, the whole “do what scares you” sentiment. I do agree, however, here are some tips I’ve learned to limit nerves to nerves of excitement and create a head space that will allow you to perform to the best of your abilities!