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8 Golden Rules for High Intensity Vocals

8 Golden Rules for High Intensity Vocals
Singing loud and bright at the top of your register can add an impressive edge to your performance. Make sure you have these rules in place –says David Combes.

High intensity singing can be the holy grail of commercial music – yet this kind of singing is best developed face-to-face with a knowledgeable coach.

When you work with an experienced singing teacher, you will learn the rules that make this kind of singing both safe and powerful. I review them here in this video:


Warm Up

Develop a good vocal warm-up regime with your singing teacher or vocal coach before you ever approach this area of singing.

After all, you would never sprint a race the moment you woke up in the morning.

This warm up might involved tongue trill-sirens (see 0.55 in the video). As you warm up, you should be asking yourself if your voice is up to high intensity work that day.


Get Engaged with Your Body

Constriction and tension often happens when we fail to think of engaging with entire body, but focus solely on our throat.

Where are you actively engaged in supporting your voice? This doesn’t mean locking your knees, tightening your hips and sticking your chest out.

Instead, find points of balance and check to see if your body is ready for the work it is about to do.


Don’t Force Your Larynx to be Low

When you are doing high-intensity rock vocals, you need to allow your larynx to rise – this doesn’t mean pulling it up (that can lead to constriction), but leaving it free to rise.

Think about shouting across a busy road to get someone’s attention, “Hey!” –often this involves, naturally, a raised larynx. I give some examples of this at 2.55 in the video.



Most people think that a higher and louder note means a higher breath volume and pressure on the exhale – but that is not the case with really intense, high vocals.

When people are singing highly and brightly, the vocal folds are only apart for 30% of a cycle – they are actually closed 70% of the time.

This means that less air is needed than you might think. In fact, If you push a lot of air through, you will actually force the vocal cords into a position that is wrong for high intensity singing.

See my examples in the video to see this process at work at 4.18.


Ensure Your Effort is Appropriate

Remember that the vocal cords are closed for more than half of each cycle when you are singing high notes at a high intensity – you have to work but do not need to think of your throat as a high effort area.

Because you do not need a lot of breath for high intensity singing, the abdominal region also doesn’t need your highest effort; high effort in the abs will press too much air over the cords.

You may want to anchor in your upper back with more effort. I find that certain physical postures help me to engage in this area – see the video for some examples of how to approach this at 6.20.


Focus on “Right” instead of “Loud”

If you approach high intensity singing as a quest for volume, this can lead to difficulties – forgetting the rules above.

If you reverse the process and aim for “right” (with volume as a by-product of this aim), you are more likely to keep on track with good technique.

This is a little bit of a psychological trick that makes some sense – keeping you focused on great technique and getting the emotional delivery right.


Learn to Use Twang

Twang is a technique that uses relatively little effort to produce a bright, sound that is edgy and cuts through.

When you are coming to the end of your warm up, before launching into your high intensity phrase, do some exercises that are really high in twang. I demonstrate some octave leaps in the video at 8.45.

See more on this subject in last week’s article.


Practice Removing Consonants

One way to work yourself into a vocally demanding phrase (after using the first 7 rules) is to remove all of the consonants and pick a favorite vowel, and use that to get into a phrase – on only a vowel sound.

This allows you to practice your twang, phrasing and breathing. Then, add the consonants and words back in. See 8.35 for an example of this approach.

Take care when working on high intensity vocals; I would never work in this area of my voice without first running through things with a good singing teacher or vocal coach before launching in.

My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

James Gordon James Gordon - Mad World

Hi James, thanks for submitting this video, I love the effect of the aqua filter it works really well for this song. There are a couple of things I think you could think about and the first is a really common thing for singers at their guitar – the tempo of the intro. If you listen back there is slight drop in the bpm when you start singing, compared to the intro, which feels a little insecure; try and be ‘in the song’ from the moment you start playing. You also tend to place a few of your vowel sounds a little too far back and focus them in quite tightly, have a listen at 30sec to the phrase ‘bright and early for their daily races’; a more natural and relaxed vowel sound would sound more comfortable. This is also picked up in some of your phrasing which can get a little choppy, this occasionally works for this song but it’s a balancing act. You might want to try singing through complete melodic sections on a fairly bland single vowel, like ‘ah’ or ‘eh’, using just the pitch changes to get any definition into the line of each phrase, marking the note changes gently rather than allowing anything to feel too accented, then try adding the words back in, building in some definition and interpretation without becoming staccato in your delivery.

David Combes

David Combes has backed Beyoncé Knowles, Chaka Khan, Elton John, Annie Lennox, Lionel Richie and many more. He’s sung on several series of “The X Factor” and “Britain’s Got Talent”. His vocals have been in films such as “The Corpse Bride”, “Transformers”, “Pirates of the Caribbean”, “Nine”, and “Pan” (end of 2015). He is also a solo performer and a tutor on the vocal faculty for The University of West London and for The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance. www.davidcombes.com

  • Singing “right” from my experience is more about relaxing into it than anything else and being confident that you really know the song and can if you wish, actually “play” with your delivery of it a little. I like to do some vocal warm-up acrobatics followed by a self rewarding warm drink of tea with milk and a teaspoon of honey. If feeling jaded or tired or off colour for any reason, then an added teaspoon of brandy or whiskey always works wonders for me.

  • George Allen Fry

    Fantastic video! Great presentation and solid tips, really great job of explaining.

  • Yavor Kresic

    Good stuff David. Explained really clearly