Move Past Straining.

As Celebrity Vocal Coach Jeannie Deva ends her VoiceCouncil ‘Residency’, she shares a way for all singers to eliminate strain on the high notes.

Hello my friends. It has been a pleasure working with you all. To conclude my eight weeks of vocal coach residency here on VoiceCouncil Magazine, I want to talk with you about the two areas I most often noticed need improvement on the Peer Reviews: pitch accuracy and elimination of strain on the “high notes.” The fact is, they are both different sides of the same coin.

In my earlier tips I’ve provided you with exercises that if practiced, will help in this regard. However, knowledge is power, and this week I’m going to give you more knowledge as well as a fast acting exercise on video.

Are You Straining to Sing?

You can hear it in the quality and feel it in your throat when it happens. The muscles tense and pull, your tone gets kind of pinched, pitchy and shrill. And if your voice doesn’t break you can consider yourself lucky.

Perhaps you only experience strain and pitchyness on certain occasions. You might think it’s because you weren’t born to sing in certain keys or just have a naturally low voice or the song is wrong for you (even though you love it). And it’s true; you can lower the key or simply cut out certain songs from your repertoire. Not knowing the cause can make it easy to blame other things. Thus the solution remains elusive and at arm’s length. So, are you ready for the unveiling of the guilty party?

What is Strain?

Strain occurs when your vocal folds (located in the front tube of your throat, lying horizontally just behind your Adam’s apple) cannot vibrate as fully as they need to. At that moment, the muscles that govern them are fighting to do what is needed, in conflict with an opposing tension. It would be as if you tensed the muscles of one of your arms as hard as you could and then tried to raise that same arm upward. The imposed muscle tension is contradicting the necessary and natural function, not allowing you to easily move your arm.

The Five Main Reasons Strain Occurs

1) Your Tongue
Of all the muscles of your body, the tongue is the strongest muscle for its size. You use it more than you usually use most of your other muscles: eating, drinking, swallowing saliva, talking, singing. The root of your tongue is essentially connected to the top of your larynx. The larynx is the cartilage tube running vertically in the front of your throat. Check it out. Your Adam’s apple is part of it. If your tongue is tensed, when you speak or sing it causes a holding or stiffening of your larynx.

Restriction of your larynx adversely affects the working of your vocal folds which means your voice. When your tongue pulls up or pushes down it interferes with the natural position of your larynx. This effects the position and operation of your vocal folds which are housed inside. It is they that must vibrate and create the sounds and pitches of your voice.

2) The War Between Consonants and Vowels
An ancient scholar once said: “Vowels are the soul of a word, consonants its skeleton.”

The sounds of your voice are the sounds of vowels. This can be translated to: vocal sound = vocal folds vibrating = vowels = melody notes. Consonants are made in your mouth by positions of your tongue (front or back of it), lips and, for many, an air flow. You can observe this for yourself by making a “T” or a “P” or an “H” – just to name a few. As you do so, make sure you are only creating the consonant, not the word that is the name of the consonant such as: “Tee” or “Pee” or “ech.”

When speaking or singing, if you overwork your tongue by articulating your words beyond what is needed in their natural pronunciation, you will tighten muscles act against the needed functions of your voice. The result: strain and pitchyness.

In going for any note (and in particular any you are having trouble with), do not go for the consonant. Instead, isolate and sing the vowel sound of that note.

Here’s a video of me coaching a singer with a couple of the fast-acting techniques I’ve developed.

3) Tensing your Stomach
This one is controversial. So many singers have been directed to work their stomachs and so tense this area. Additionally, many singers have been led to believe air comes into their belly or they need to fill their diaphragm with air… simply put, that’s just not true.

In my 35 years of researching the voice and teaching singers, I have found that tension in the stomach muscles translates into tension in the voice. And when I direct a singer to release abdominal tension, singing is instantly easier, pitch improves and the tone becomes fuller and more resonant.

4) Air Overblow
There is such a thing as pushing out too much air as you sing. The higher you sing, the LESS AIR your vocal folds need for their vibration. And if you push in your stomach/abdomen thinking this represents breath support, you may be surprised by what I’m next going to say. By doing so, you are pushing in against lower abdominal organs which in turn are pushing up against your diaphragm which then is pushing up against your lungs.

This inward/upward pressure pushes out a small tidal wave of air which pushes with too much pressure against your vocal folds. To vibrate they need to remain in a certain relation to each other. But the excessive air pressure is trying to push them apart. Your voice muscles react by tensing in resistance to this tidal wave of air, making you strain and often throwing off your pitch.

If you breathe into your back (where the majority of your lungs reside) and then sing without pushing out air, you will find a marked difference in how your voice responds. Just be sure to do this while permitting your abdomen to relax and move naturally rather than “work it.” For some, this can take practice as old manipulative habits are discovered and released.

5) Lack of Conditioning
Frequently singers try to get their voices to do things that they have not really conditioned the muscles of their voice to accomplish – though it is within their physical potential. It is like this with any athlete. You have the muscles. They work a certain way. They have a potential. It is proper exercise, NOT just attempting to use them, that awakens the full potential. If, for example, you were to attempt performing as a hip hop dancer without any muscle development through limbering and strengthening exercises, you would see the correlation.

Well, vocal exercises – depending on what they are and how closely they work with the truth of the body – can definitely help. Your voice is the product of muscle actions which, while small and hidden from view, can be developed. I have spent the majority of my life developing an approach that while based upon physical fact, is not based on style. This permits you to develop your total voice and then “play it” the way you want as the creative, expressive singer that you are or want to be.

For the rest of the story on all of the above as well as fast acting exercises that help you work with your body’s natural breathing and sound-making design, use my book and CD series: The Contemporary Vocalist.

Wishing you the very best!
Jeannie Deva

VoiceCouncil’s Interview with Jeannie Deva

Jeannie Deva is a celebrity master voice and performance coach as well as a recording studio vocal specialist. She has worked with and been endorsed by engineers and producers of Aerosmith, Elton John, Bette Midler, Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones. Seen on E! Entertainment and TV Guide Channels, Jeannie has been interviewed as a celebrity guest on talk shows internationally. She is the author of the globally acclaimed “Contemporary Vocalist” series and “Deva Method Vocal Warm-Ups and Cool-Downs” CD. Certified Deva Method® teachers are located on east and west coasts of the U.S. and in Sydney, Australia. Deva’s private voice studio is located in Los Angeles where she teaches in-person as well as singers around the world via Internet web cam. Clients include Grammy award winners, American Idol Finalists, singers for Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Celine Dion, Sting, Pink, Christina Aguilera and more.