Your questions answered on speaking, singing, performance, auditions, vocal style and anything voice related
Is it possible to teach anyone to hold a tune?
Yes. Most people who have difficulty trying to hold a tune – what we prefer to call ‘pitch-matching’ – don’t understand the link between hearing a sound and feeling themselves making it. They need to learn physically how to produce or reproduce the sounds they hear.
The only exception to this is people with a condition called ‘amusia’, in which case they really cannot hear the difference between high and low sounds.
In the Singing Express series for kids we talk about the four stages of pitch matching. Jeremy wrote an article on the four stages of pitch matching and tuning for the Music Teacher magazine, which you can read here.
I just managed to catch a bit of you on Cerys 6 music show. I wondered if you’d mind me asking a question? I just sing for pleasure and not performing. I had a lot of colds last year which I’ve found have weakened my voice – I struggle to hit the right notes and I can be a bit crackly. Do you think my voice will come back through the right exercises? Is there any advice you can give – such as special care to protect my voice?
A heavy cold (and lots of coughing) can disturb your vocal folds, and sometimes it can take weeks to get back to full vocal health. Use some gentle buzzing exercises (Exercise 02 in the This Is A Voice book). You can also use the straws and bubbles exercise which has the double effect of soothing and gently strengthening your voice (Exercise 12 in This Is A Voice).
Who knew we should laugh before we go on stage?
Absolutely! Research using visualisation of the larynx during laughing has shown that it helps to release false vocal fold narrowing, so you get a wider space in the throat.
That’s as long as you don’t wheeze when you laugh like Muttley the Dog in the Wacky Races cartoon. If you’re a Muttley-style laugher, use the silent H exercise (No. 3 in our This Is A Voice book) instead.
Hi, just been listening to the Cerys show which was very informative. I’m a frustrated rock singer, I don’t get the chance to sing anywhere except in the van to and from work. Is this going to be bad for me in anyway that you can see?
No – singing in the van is fine and we often recommend that people use the car/van to warm up their voice, or even to practise if they live in a quiet neighbourhood.
There are only two possible problems:
if you concentrate more on your singing than your driving you might miss signals from other traffic/pedestrians
if you match your driving style to the emotion of the music you are singing. Gillyanne finds that if she goes for high notes, she also puts the accelerator down!
I am a 20-year old male, and I have a bari-tenor voice type with a very deep, very fast vibrato. I enter my belt around a G, and can carry that up to an F above high C seamlessly in a strong “head” voice. My belt voice is very bright and very sharp, which is ideal for singing dramatic numbers with sustained “money” notes higher in the ranger.
1) I enter my belt voice at around a G; however, that particular note (as well as G#) are my hardest notes to achieve. My belt is weakest there because it is so near my passaggio… everything above and below sounds fine. Is there anything you can suggest to help me become more comfortable with those notes?
2) Sometimes I find it very difficult to make vibrato with my belt voice quality. I know that vibrato is a naturally-occurring phenomenon, but I at least have SOME control over it when it is in my normal range. How can I control my vibrato in my belt voice? I assume that it is probably due to that fact that I am used to applying breath-controlled vibrato in my normal range whereas there is very little breath in my belt voice. Still, I haven’t figured out how to achieve vibrato any other way. Help?
3) I have trouble singing quickly-moving or lyric passages that lie in my belt range. Any suggestions?
Gillyanne says: It is always tricky to give advice about specific vocal questions in written form when I have not heard the singer.
In your introduction you mention entering your belt around high G and then moving up to high F in a strong ‘head’ voice. This is confusing, since belt voice and ‘head’ voice (made with thinner vocal folds) are not the same thing. My responses are made in this context.
1) Yes, as a high baritone G is likely to be your pivot note into falsetto, or belt, depending on the effect you want to make performance. I suggest raising your larynx as part of the approach for your belt note. Work out the route pitch-wise and raise the larynx before the belt note, as a preparation. You mention having a ‘deep’ vibrato (I assume you mean wide in terms of pitch fluctuation), which might indicate that you are inclined to low larynx singing. If this is the case, conscious raising of the larynx as you approach your belt note will be important for you.
2) Yes, there is a longer closed phase for each vibratory sequence of the vocal folds in Belt, so less air is allowed through. I have found that the ‘Howl Belting’, which I describe in Singing and the Actor is useful for adding vibrato to belt. Think ‘loud energised moaning’ with a high larynx, plus all of the usual support that belting requires. I suggest that, here, vibrato comes from the larynx being in a slightly different position than in classic belting, rather than being a breath vibrato.
3a) Do you mean that you have trouble singing fast moving passages in your belt voice? Belting is usually reserved for money notes, and a string of them doesn’t increase their worth! You may need to change the vocal set you are using so that the vocal folds can manoeuvre more easily, yet still give the impression of ‘going full-out’. This is the difference between perceived effort (high) and actual effort (lower).
If you want to sing fast-moving passages in your belt range (as opposed to your belt sound) do the following:
Check out what type of consonants you are having to sing: fricatives and stops present special challenges for belters because the breath use is changing. This can either increase back pressure on the vocal folds or cause too much air to pass through them in moving from the consonant to the vowel, Take each problem note out of context, sing it on a vowel first (any vowel), then the target vowel of the text, then add the first consonant and notice what changes. We show you how to tackle some of these problems in the Belting Explained double DVD.
Jeremy says: Pay particular attention to your jaw. When people ‘lock’ in high-note singing, there is usually tension in the jaw hinge, or a jutting jaw, as the singer makes the effort to hold everything in a ‘good’ place. The consonant exercise described by Gillyanne is excellent for noticing if you are only able to sing these notes with a fixed jaw position. Effort can be maintained in the surrounding scaffolding (back of the neck, roof of the mouth, lats) and in maintaining the height of the larynx, but the articulators need to remain flexible.
3b) Does lyric mean sustained in this context? Again, belting needs only to be used for money notes, so if you need to sustain in the upper range, use a different vocal set, such as a thicker fold twang with higher larynx, or a slightly easier ‘moan’, to reduce the pressure on the vocal folds.
Let us know how you get on.
Am I right in thinking that falsetto is a quality that can be achieved at any pitch in the range? I have always defined it as that weak, hooty sound also but there seem to be different permutations of it in terms of vocal fold thickness? Yes, no?
Our experience is that it isn’t possible to achieve a falsetto quality on any pitch in the range – it tends to favour the upper notes and becomes too weak to be of much use lower down. And it doesn’t have to be a weak, hooty sound, although one of the tell-tale signs is a lack of harmonics in the middle of the sound. Some female opera singers use a falsetto-based setup and create enough power to cut through an orchestra.
One of the key elements of falsetto is a more lax vocalis muscle – the muscle that forms part of the vocal fold. This causes the vocal folds to move with a different type of vibration. On one of our Voicebox Videos, Modal To Falsetto 2 – Breathy Speech, you can see the difference in vocal fold behaviour between a breathy, non-falsetto sound, and a non-breathy falsetto sound. The falsetto is looser and less resistant to the breath, and the surrounding vocal tract is more relaxed. Most volume boosting in falsetto is done higher up in the vocal tract using resonance changes.
Falsetto is the setup that most untrained singers default to when the going gets too tough!
Question 1. In the silent laughing smile is it normal that my cheekbone raise a bit like in smiling? (Are the muscles in the face the same as a real laugh/approximatively)
Question 2. I took singing lesson from a school and they taught me when singing, the mouth has to be narrow vertically, especially in the high notes but with the silent laugh it seems that the space in my mouth is wider horizontally. So am I doing it alright?”
The silent laugh technique uses real laughing muscles and movements to get you to feel and activate the false vocal fold deconstriction (moving the false vocal folds away from the mid-line and opening your throat). If you get a smile in the lips and cheekbones while you find that movement that’s ok, but you can relax and release the cheekbone muscles once you have got the deconstriction – the two areas don’t need to be connected.
Once you’ve got used to the feeling of opening your throat for singing (the false vocal folds are inside your larynx), you can release any tension in the lips or cheeks as it is not necessary – your lips and cheeks need to be moveable to create words and resonance while maintaining the opened false vocal folds.
The second question is a little trickier to answer. The mouth does not have to be in any particular shape to sing. After all you are singing words, and even that depends on what dialect you are singing in – a version of Italian English for classical singing, “Motown” vowels, Country and Western vowels, Standard American vowels – they’re all different.
Many voice training programs use mouth shape to change resonance on different pitches because they are looking for a particular thing (matched sound, warmth, brightness or darkness etc). But the silent laugh technique can work with any mouth shape or resonance space, as the widening of the false vocal folds happens directly above the true vocal folds, and before the soundwaves hit the tongue and mouth space.
Having said that, my own experience of the silent laugh is that there is a feel of a slight widening right at the back of the throat/mouth cavity, almost as if the very back of the tongue got slightly wider. So I do feel a space that is fractionally wider at the back. Nothing else in the mouth or above the tongue needs to change. This should help you with opening your throat for singing and for speaking.
You can test this by singing a note, then constrict and release on that same pitch. The vowel shape/sound/”darkness” should stay the same, but the sound should get first tighter/more turbulent, then clearer and more “open” without the vowel changing. If the vowel changes, you’re probably moving the body of the tongue. In our new book This Is A Voice we use the silent H technique to widen the false vocal folds, which we think is more user-friendly than the silent laugh and also avoids the problem of the smiling face.
I have just discovered this excellent site and would be very grateful if you could give me some advice. I am a classically trained singer, but I have always enjoyed singing pop songs using my chest range. Now, at 34 I have decided to earn a living singing in clubs and pubs. Although I enjoy this style of singing very much, do think it will eventually damage or restrict my ‘classical’ voice?
This is a tricky question to answer without hearing exactly what you are doing in both your classical and pop singing.
It really depends how you use your chest voice. If you use it in the same way as you might use chest voice in classical singing (ie strong and dark up to about E or F above middle C, then above that it feels like serious weightlifting), then yes, you might actually do some damage in the long term.
If however you are using a “chest voice” (as opposed to “head voice”) type of sound, but it moves easily up to Bs and Cs above middle C, then you’re probably going to be ok.
The reason I’m saying this is because of the way different singers use the term “chest voice”. The operatic chest voice tends to be a different “mix” to the one used by pop, rock and jazz singers. The operatic version is designed to match the power and depth of the upper ranges, and so tends to have more things in it. Without getting too technical, and speaking very generally, operatic chest voice has more “pull down” or depth, “turn” or “tilt”, and more mouth cavity space in it, usually with a flatter tongue.
What we refer to on the website as clear-strong or speech quality has comparatively less depth, less “turn” and is a more straightforward sound, speaking easily. As it moves up above the F above middle C the sound and feel gets closer to calling than singing (hence “speech” quality). For classical singers finding it for the first time, their comments usually include “but I’m not singing”, “that’s just like talking on pitch”, “I’m not projecting” and “that feels completely different”. We show you how to do this in our training Webinars Taking Chest Voice Higher and Taking Chest Voice Higher – Mixing
Remember that the operatic chest voice is designed to be projected acoustically without enhancement (most of the time), whereas almost all the musical styles known as contemporary commercial (pop, rock, jazz, blues etc etc) and musical theatre use a sound system of some kind. Therefore the training and voice production for these sounds are different.
Incidentally, not all pop is sung in “chest”, but we’re presuming you know that already!
This strong-clear setting is only one of the many sounds that pop, rock, jazz and musical theatre singers use, although it tends to be the basis of most of the vocal setups in those styles. We help singers all the time in our studio to move between different vocal setups without harm, and to find and maintain different muscle memories when they sing. The voice is an immensely flexible instrument, and can make and hold many different positions safely. And remember, singing is also about identifying with the sound or style of the material, so aptitude and attitude play a part.
And in answer to your question, if you find a healthy, uncluttered sound like the one described above, then no, it won’t adversely affect your classical voice.
In fact, we usually find that when classical singers find their clear-strong (modal or chest) voice, it actually enhances their classical voice.
I have been taught classical singing since 8 years ago. My voice is heavy, I sing in choir and vocal quartet as an alto. I have two vocal problems:
1) I can’t sing piano and pianissimo in notes above E an octave above middle C. In fact I can’t keep my throat open to sing piano and pianissimo and I need to sing forte to produce sound in high tessitura! (I can sing bocca chuisa up to high C without pain!)
2) Sometimes I can’t control my vibrato during singing, specially while singing piano.
Is it true that singing pianissimo is like singing falsetto and there is no resonance?
How can I learn a correct pianissimo without breathiness?
This set of questions on singing quietly is complicated, because the answer depends on exactly what you are doing when you sing.
If you have difficulty singing quietly above that E, and your throat closes up, it is likely that your vocal tract is too long for the notes and tones you are trying to achieve. Around that note there is a “gear change” for female singers. Your larynx is probably being held down to add darkness and depth to your sound (probably with the tongue muscles pushing down from above). You will end up “weightlifting” with your voice to get higher or softer, causing your vocal folds to work harder than they need to. This may also cause you to have a more unstable vibrato as the vocal mechanism is under intense stress being held down while singing high and soft.
From your description of the two problems, I would recommend exercises to raise the back of the tongue. This will allow your larynx to rise slightly at this crucial pitch (E5). I would also recommend you practise tilting the thyroid cartilage without lowering the larynx. ‘Tilting’ and holding the breath back should give you a clearer, cleaner sound and reduce the breathiness.
Our book of voice exercises This Is A Voice contains several exercises that would work well for you – exercises 4, 5 and 6 (stretching the back and releasing the root of the tongue), exercise 73 (the whinge setting – to tilt the thyroid cartilage and stretch the vocal folds), and exercise 78 (Vowel tuning to “e”).
I have a question about vibrato. Whilst I understand what it is, and have heard many people’s voices with vibrato of different types, I still have no vibrato in my own voice. I have been told that I sing with a fixed larynx, and that you get vibrato by tilting your larynx. However I have no idea how to do this!! Any feedback would be most gratefully received, as this is, I feel, what is really missing from my singing voice.
This is a question that occurs frequently in my private classes – how do we do vibrato?
Firstly, let’s define vibrato. The even movement of apparent pitch around the main note. Vibrato can occur mainly around, mainly above or mainly below the intended pitch (each gives a different effect). Slow or wide vibrato tends to sound unpleasant, but different audiences will accept different amounts in different genres.
It is ironic that with most singers who have “no vibrato” in their voice, asking them to hold a note completely without vibrato will often help to produce vibrato. Sometimes vibrato feels like a tiny “letting go”, so experiment with holding a note absolutely straight, then let go slightly.
You don’t say how old you are. Teenagers, both male and female, will usually go through a stage of change where they are unable to access thyroid tilt. If this is you, don’t panic, you will be able to access it in a few months. Remember also that different styles of music require different sounds and emotions – what might be an acceptable vibrato in gospel might not work for rap (too many fast words).
The subject of vibrato is quite a complex one, as there are at least three different mechanisms that can assist in making it – breath fluctuation, larynx movement and “thyroid tilt”. You can discover more details about these and different exercises for accessing vibrato by clicking on this link: Pant, Wobble and Cry – getting emotion into your voice.
“I have a problem with breathy sound and breath control. I believe that it’s weight-related. However, last year, I noticed that my breath control gets even worse as I sing in my upper tessitura. The higher I sing, the more air I hear rushing out. It was my understanding that I should use less, not more air the higher I sing. What could be causing this problem?”
“Do you have any article on how to overcome breathy singing tones? Thanks.”
Jeremy and Gillyanne answer these together: Both of these questions relate to breathiness in the sound, and breathiness can have several causes. (We cover this in our “Inside The Singing Voice” Retreat).
In answer to the first question: People who are overweight may have postural problems and poor muscle tone in the muscles of the abdominal wall. Either of these might affect your breath use generally. See Singing and the Actor Chapter 4 for advice on this subject.
If the breathiness only occurs in the upper register, there could be a different cause – that you may be in a falsetto setup. The vocal folds need to be longer and thinner in general for higher pitches, but there are two ways to stretch and thin the folds: crico-thyroid tilt (sounds and feels like whining) and falsetto. We find the former more efficient. If you are in a falsetto setup it is more likely that your vocal folds not resisting the breath, allowing more to escape.
Use an ng glide or the puffy cheeks exercise (in This Is A Voice) and slide from bottom to top without increasing the volume. Check your head and neck alignment, and “ease” your voice over any change points. Notice if you start pushing breath at any particular pitch. You can also experiment with holding the air back slightly. And remember that in general, high notes need more muscle support and less breath support.
The second question is a little more tricky to answer, in that it does not appear to be range-specific. Breathiness in general is usually caused by imperfect vocal fold closure. It takes one set of muscles to open the folds, and two sets to close them. There are various exercises that we recommend, which target different vocal imbalances. These include monitoring effort levels, using modal voice exercises (the clear-strong exercises in This Is A Voice), and identifying vocal energy.
Glottal onsets can be useful for closing the vocal folds before the start of the sound – use gentle glottals, not hard attacks. Jeremy will often get a client to do exactly what they don’t want to do. So singing with more breath can often help identify where the breath is coming from, and what is causing the breathy sound.
Beware of confusing breathy sound with the sound of constriction, and remember to check into your chuckle!
Any advice for increasing vocal range?
This is a complex question, because it’s not just about adding extra notes! Singers want to be able to control their notes (tone, tuning, tension) wherever they are in their range. The best way to add notes that you can control is to work the notes just underneath your highest sound – the more you can control the volume, tone and ease of those notes, the more likely you are to extend further.
Use exercises 13 and 14 in the singing warm ups from the This Is A Voice book to gently work and increase your vocal range.
You can also check out Jeremy’s article on Easy Top Notes here
How would you rate Linda Ronstadt as a singer? Some say she had the best female voice in rock
Linda had a clean, clear voice that she could use with softness and strength. And she was able to change vocal style easily from Country to Rock to Classical crossover. She was also one of the first women to have two top-five hits at the same time – no mean feat in the male-dominated charts of the time.
We’re involved with the Voice Messages Documentary being made at the moment that will feature a rare interview with Linda Ronstadt following her diagnosis with Parkinson’s Disease. Vocal Process is providing one of the main “perks” for the documentary’s IndieGogo campaign. We’re giving away one of our voice training Webinars (worth £27/$40) to contributors to this campaign. Click on the link above to find out more about the campaign, or go here to see your choice of Webinars.
Could you give a brief description of Janis Joplin’s voice?
Our take of Janis Joplin’s voice – small voice but singing with a big heart! She could sing quietly, using a slightly breathy cooing sound and then move into ‘rip your heart out’ mode on the higher notes. Sometimes she used so much heart that her high notes would crack and distort.
I heard you talk about making cover numbers your own, wouldn’t Janis Joplin fit this category perfectly?
Yes, definitely. She always put her own stamp on a song
Advice for a deep and flat voice. How can I improve?
This is tricky to answer without hearing you as there could be several different causes of a ‘flat’ voice.
Check the tongue and jaw position first. If a singer is singing with the feeling of a ‘yawn’ then the tongue will be pulled back and down and the jaw opened wide. This can deepen the voice but it damps down the brighter colours and can also cause the singer to sing flat.
Use Exercises 4 and 5 in the This Is A Voice book to bring the tongue forward. Then practise singing on an EE vowel to raise the tongue, and sing with the jaw less open
I wonder if you would have any ideas about a throat problem I’ve had for years. Sometimes when I sing in chest voice (not head voice) I get a kind of snapping break, like an elastic band snapping, though clearly nothing has actually snapped. It makes me cough and I often then can’t carry on using my voice for an hour or so without getting this snap/cough problem. I also get it if I talk for too long or too loudly…
This is a tricky question to answer without hearing the problem. The most likely reason for the ‘snapping’ in chest voice is that you are keeping your vocal folds too thick for the pitch you want to get, so they just give up and come off the note with a crack. One lesson might well help address this for you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
I heard you on the radio saying that singing uses different parts of the brain?
Absolutely. When we organise our thoughts into words and form vowels and consonants that is mostly the cognitive side of the brain (left) but for singing we also need melodic shape and that requires the creative side of the brain (right). In fact, singing is good for us because it uses both hemispheres of the brain.
We will often ask students to experiment with different sounds in their speaking voice, before taking those sounds into singing. This can help them discover new vocal setups cognitively before they add their personal creativity.