You can combine different voice qualities to achieve a powerful effect -says Sophie Shear.
Do you find that your voice sounds strong down low, but gets weaker on higher notes?
How do Adam Levine, Bono, Beyoncé and Ariana Grande sound so powerful on those high notes?
The answer is “mixed voice”.
We talked to Sophie Shear, a Commercial Vocal Coach and in-demand vocalist in Nashville, TN U.S.A., to find out how to produce a mixed voice, and achieve the power that so many singers long for.
The Secret Is Resonance
Shear has been able to help countless singers unlock the power of the mixed voice by teaching them about “pharyngeal resonance”.
Now, don’t get turned off by fancy terminology.
The pharynx is a little area in your throat. Take a second to find it on the image.
Pharyngeal resonance refers to a sharp, whiny vocal sound.
Terminology note: You may have heard different teachers in different regions using related terms such as “twang”, “nasal”, or “mix register”. These are often slightly different ways of approaching the same concept.
“All commercial singers are using pharyngeal resonance, they just might not be using it as %100 percent of their sound,” says Shear, “pure pharyngeal resonance is quite whiny and sounds like Bugs Bunny”.
Watch at 5:20 for Bugs Bunny’s classic sound:
Broadway star, Kristin Chenoweth uses pharyngeal resonance famously as Glinda in Wicked, and if you’ve ever heard her in an interview – you’ll hear that she has a lot of pharyngeal resonance in her natural speaking voice:
Pharyngeal resonance is usually used in combination with other vocal qualities, explains Shear, which is why we use the term, “mixed voice”.
When you mix the pharyngeal resonance in with your chest voice, it allows you to sing higher without pressure and strain, because you’ll be transitioning out of pure chest and into a mixed voice.
When you mix it with head voice, it allows you to sound powerful even when you are up high.
Note: True, muscular head voice is different than falsetto, the “false voice” which is much breathier, and harder to sustain.
When you mix all three registers, there’ll be no stopping you!
Everything is connected. There will be transitions, yes, but they will be seamless.
Power Without Weight
“The mixed voice is really about the illusion of power,” says Shear.
In truth, the mixed voice is not as heavy nor as big as it appears to be, according to Shear.
It just sounds powerful because it is piercing, like a trumpet, thanks to that whiny and thin pharyngeal resonance.
Learn Them Separately
It’s like baking. When you make a cake, you measure each ingredient separately before you mix them. Shear teaches singers to get comfortable with the vocal resonances (head, chest and pharyngeal) before learning to mix them.
She teaches that you can adjust the ratios of each quality just like you could add more sugar to your cake to make it sweeter.
“If you are singing Pop / Rock / Country / Soul, then it’s rare to use head voice in pure form – maybe for a few notes right at the top, and pure chest would only be for the few notes at the bottom of your range. The rest of your range should ideally involve some sort of mix”.
Shear’s video lesson below explains pure chest, head and pharyngeal resonances:
Four Steps To Singing In “Mix”
Find Your Pharynx: “Ng”
“The easiest way to help singers find pharyngeal resonance is to have them make an “ng” sound,” says Shear, “the mouth can be open, but the tongue is in contact with the back of the roof of the mouth, so it is a closed-off sound”.
She says to slide up and down through your vocal range, using the “ng” syllable, being sure to keep your volume quite low, and let it get lighter and thinner as you ascend.
Strengthen The Pharyngeal Sound: “Nah nah”
“Pretend you are on the playground, making fun of someone. Say, “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah” or you can also do it with a “nay” as well”.
Shear says your sound should be very childish. As you sing this exercise on higher notes, keep it thin, whiny and not overly loud.
Congratulations! You are now using a sound that will unlock more vocal power.
Test For Too Much Chest Voice
When the voice is in chest register, it sounds similar to talking and is generally a very “normal” sound, but it has a fixed limit to how high you can go with it, “so singers must be able to shift gears, just like a car engine, when singing higher,” says Shear.
Shear explains that singers must avoid the temptation to achieve power by simply yelling or hollering in chest register. Shear says to think of Christina Aguilera: “Christina can sing circles around me, but just listening to her wears us out. Her heavy, forceful tone has actually chopped off several notes from her high-belt range over the years”.
Sing your lowest note, then sing up the scale about an octave. If your voice got louder, you’re most likely using only chest voice and not allowing the pharyngeal resonance to mix in as you go higher.
To avoid this, try to keep your volume the same, and get that whiny sound working as you go higher.
Later, once you have mastered pharyngeal resonance, you will be able to turn up your volume as well as ease back on the whininess to find the right blend.
Despite its harsh sound, pharyngeal resonance is easy on the voice. “If I coached for 8 hours in a day then performed for 4 hours at a gig, I would just die… if I wasn’t using my mixed voice,” Shear says with a mischievous grin.
Apply This Power To A Song
Shear explains her warm-up procedure for an upcoming gig in Nashville, where her set list includes “Love on Top” by Beyoncé.
Any singer can use this method to develop the power of the mix in the context of a song.
“I’m going to make sure my mix is warmed up that day, so I will do the “nah nah nah” exercise. I will be sure to sing it up to the highest note I need for this song and perhaps even past it”.
Shear says the next step is to replace the melody of her song with the “nah nah nahs” from the exercise. Shear explains how she will sing along with the recording on the chorus, but use the “nah” syllable on every note.
“I have to be very sharp, not big and bulky. Beyoncé’s voice is edgy – it’s actually quite small, but it’s razor sharp”.
The next step is to normalize the whiny sound a little, this time singing the chorus with a softer “nuh” syllable, so it won’t be quite so harsh, but will have enough pharyngeal resonance to keep me from straining.
The final step is to sing the chorus again with the lyrics. “I want to retain the quality of the “nah nah nah” as I sing the lyrics” says Shear, “my voice will naturally “land” in the same place, only now I am shaping different consonants or vowels on top of it”.
Shear recommends doing this in front of a mirror to ensure that your jaw is loose as you put the lyrics back into your song.
My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry
Jayna Brown - Stitches
Jayna, it was a pleasure to listen to your voice; you have great musicianship skills and stage presence (this is evident even though you were sitting behind a keyboard in front of a camera). Although pop covers are a great way of getting exposure, they may not allow you to be as creative as you want to be. There were a few ad-lib moments which showed you have the potential to be a very expressive singer. The range you demonstrated is impressive (especially those low notes!) Also, the choice to sing certain sections up the octave allowed us to hear more dynamic in your voice. Can’t wait to see how your voice develops even further.
Why I chose Jayna Brown as a Finalist
We chose Jayna as our finalist because of her accomplished vocal abilities and innate musical expression.
– Comments are from The VoiceCouncil Team.
Coaching artists full time since 2007, Sophie Shear’s gift to “see” what’s happening inside of a voice with her ears is truly remarkable. “She’s amazing. Extended my range like you wouldn’t believe.” In addition to her Complete Vocal Primer CD, Sophie offers private coaching on Skype or in her Nashville studio. See her website.