First Things First: Always Warm up Before You Sing!
Just like playing sports, singing uses muscles. So, just like it’s important to warm up before running and jumping around, it’s important to warm up your voice before singing.
The content of your warm up matters, too. A quality warm up consists of five to fifteen minutes of gentle vocal exercises designed to prepare your vocal cords for the “main event” (even if the “main event” is just a rehearsal or a voice lesson). It’s generally best to sing along with a piano or a recording (search YouTube for some awesome exercises, for example), and it’s always important to sing within whatever range is appropriate for your voice. (This means you, too, mezzo sopranos! Straining for the high notes will not magically turn you into a soprano.)
More specifically, a warm up should include a variety of brief exercises. Any combination is okay (and variety is never a bad thing!), but here is a list of some “key” technical aspects that you may want to frequently emphasize in your warm ups:
- Breath support (e.g., lip trills)
- Full range (e.g., ascending and descending scales)
- Articulation (e.g., la ka ta ga ma, tongue twisters, etc.)
- Vowels (e.g., la, le, li, lo, lu)
- Switching registers (e.g., octave or interval training to practice switching between chest/mixed/head voices)
- Rapid pitch changes (both ascending and descending)
- Smooth legato (both ascending and descending)
That’s a long list, yes, but keep in mind that even a short two-minute warm up is better than nothing. (You wouldn’t stick a pizza in the oven without preheating it first, would you? Same idea. Preheat for a tastier pizza. Warm up for a more stunning voice.)
Before you begin to sing — or even before warming up, if you prefer — a good trick you can use to loosen up your vocal cords is to yawn a few times. This helps to relieve tension in the larynx (the part of your throat where your vocal cords can be found), which gives you more control over the sound that you produce.
Tension, in general, is something to avoid when singing. Scan your body: Is your tongue relaxed? (Even the base of your tongue?) What about your face? Your jaw? Your neck? Your shoulders? Believe it or not, even having tension in your arms can affect your singing voice. This is because so many muscles are attached to one another. Tension in muscle A impacts muscle B, which impacts muscle C…and so on… and the result is vocal cords that are less willing to be coaxed into producing the beautiful sound you desire.
Hitting the High Notes
(Note: While it is fine to experiment with high notes, always do so while staying within a range that is appropriate for your voice type. Never force it. If you experience pain/discomfort, you are doing something wrong.)
Stretching up into the upper register without sounding “squeaky” and “forced” is a concern for just about every vocalist. For some people, the fix is as simple as going back to the previous tip and relaxing your vocal cords. For others, the issue is confidence: High notes require a rapid stream of air, so singing hesitantly or quietly won’t provide the power that is needed to create a full tone in the upper register.
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes or sounding silly; paradoxically, it is often these exact fears that get in the way. Keep in mind the following rule of thumb: “If you’re going to sing a wrong note, at least be confident about it. It’s better to be confidently wrong than just plain old wrong.”
If relaxing and improving your confidence don’t solve your problem, another thing to try is raising the soft palate (the softer, rearmost part of the roof of your mouth). It helps to visualize it being pulled upward as you attempt this. If you can’t quite figure out how to make it move, notice what happens to your soft palate when you yawn. That yawning arch is exactly what you want to aim for.
A weird mental strategy that you may also find helpful is imagining your voice as coming from two separate vocal cord areas, aligned vertically with one above the other. [Fun fact: There is actually some truth to this. If you ever take an anatomy class, you will learn that there is a difference between the true vocal folds (cords) and the false vocal folds (cords).] Think of the lower vocal cords as being the source of your lower pitched notes, and think of the higher vocal cords as being the source of your higher pitched notes. When you are trying to hit the high notes, then, focus on switching from using your lower vocal cords to using your higher vocal cords.
As a last resort, try tipping your chin down (perhaps while imagining that the top of your head is attached to a string being pulled upward). Although your natural inclination is probably to raise your chin, it is actually the lowering of the chin that will help you hit the higher notes. Unfortunately, however, the associated movement of your head/neck can also slightly affect your tone, so do this only when other methods have failed.
Finally, always be sure to take it “slow and steady” as you venture into your uppermost range. Start with a pitch you are comfortable with, and start singing upward until you arrive at the range you want to work in. As you improve, that range may get higher and higher; however, it’s important not to push your voice before it’s ready. There’s a fine line between training your vocal cords and torturing them. The former will make you a better singer; the latter will damage your voice.
Mixing Head and Chest Voices
For those unfamiliar with the terms: “Chest” and “head” refer to where the voice is felt to be coming from. Many people also notice a difference in vibration, or resonation. Lower notes feel like they are vibrating around in your chest area; higher notes feel “lighter” and seem to be coming from your head.
Once you’ve built up some confidence and skill in both your lower ranges (your “chest voice”) and your upper ranges (your “head voice”), you’ll probably notice that there is a middle range (formally known as the passaggio, which is an Italian word meaning “bridge” or “passage”) in which your voice sort of just “peters out.” It doesn’t matter whether you start in your head voice and descend or you start in your chest voice and ascend; from either direction, you eventually hit the weak, croaky land of the passaggio. This is incredibly frustrating, especially when trying to sing something that dives into and out of the passaggio range over and over again.
The solution to this dilemma is surprisingly intuitive: Try to achieve a “mixed” voice. This requires a lot of practice. However, one way to speed up the process at least a little is to work on a) extending the lower range of your head voice and b) extending the upper range of your chest voice. Essentially, the goal is to create a greater “overlap” between the ranges of your head voice and your chest voice.
Eventually, this “overlap” area will become your mixed voice, and your passaggio Achilles' heel will become virtually unnoticeable to the untrained listener. A mature mixed voice sounds just as strong as the head voice or chest voice, and it is to be originating from (or resonating within) the area of the nose. This makes sense, as it is the area between the head and chest voices, just as the mixed voice is the voice between the head and the chest voices.
To summarize, here is an overview of the major tips that have been addressed in this article:
- Always warm up before you sing.
- Relax the vocal cords and eliminate tension in your body to improve vocal control and voice quality.
- To hit high notes, try raising the soft palate, singing with confidence, using vocal cord imagery, and tipping your chin down.
- Using your mixed voice to hit “middle range” notes takes a lot of practice, but it helps to work on extending your head and chest voices to create greater overlap between the two.