Narrowing your Vowels

Good singers are narrowing their vowels on high pitches all the time, and we as listeners don’t usually hear any difference!

If you are having trouble with high notes, and frequently getting stuck in your low “chest” voice, try narrowing your vowels which will change the resonance.   Narrowing the vowels will allow the resonance (that is stuck in the mouth on wide vowels) to move to the pharynx (back of the throat) and up into the head resonance. This should allow you the opportunity to sing that high note with a nice ring, and stop any strain you are feeling in the throat.

But how, exactly, do you narrow vowels?

One of the easiest ways to narrow your vowels is to first sing your song with the sound “nuh”. Think about what the sound feels like in your cheeks, nose, and mouth. Now, switch to the actual word in the song,  being sure to put the word where the “nuh” is resonating.

Did that help you get the high notes?

Other important factors include getting good cord closure by thinning the edges as you ascend in pitch. Remember to think “cry” or “puppy dog whimper”. A new suggestion I saw recently from another vocal coach was with the Italian phrase “mama mia”  (with a strong Italian inflection). This can definitely add a nice cry to your voice!

And, if you are still have trouble, try thinking “oh, poor me”… to help keep the larynx in a normal position. This phrase should stop you from widening your mouth too much which should help with narrowing vowels. (The position of the larynx is an entire topic of its’ own. Check out Mark Baxter’s video here……love it! )

Well, what do you think? Are you able to reach those high notes a little easier now?

I love the idea of “speech level” and “allow”

Speech level singing can get a bad rap these days.

For me, having my first lesson with a SLS instructor over 10 years ago, was true validation. Two main things happened for me:

1. I finally had a coach who was working my entire range at one time. Two and a half octave scales, going up or down by semi-tones, had me singing through five passagios in one exercise! I heard and felt improvement in my voice within the first day.

2. I finally found a teacher who encouraged vowels that didn’t sound classical.

Now, I’m not saying that forming classical-sounding vowels is a bad thing, I’m simply stating that I am not a classical singer, and had never encountered a teacher who allowed me to sound this way. I had been taught belting, and that just felt wrong. I now know that belting doesn’t need to be shouting. Healthy belting is done by mixing your registers.

More on vocal folds, laryngeal tilt, twang and pop singing

I want to thank Jenny for getting me back to posting on my blog. I’ve been so “crazy” busy with teaching and performing…..I forgot how much I love answering your questions.

Jenny was asking for clarification about the thickness of vocal folds in the great pop singers….below is my response.

Hi Jenny

The true definition of “belting” does not include mixing. It is a chest register coordination with thick folds.

The definition of “mixing” is allowing the voice to ascend in pitch through the passaggio (for women around G above middle C). The vocal folds thin out as the voice ascends in pitch. To do this without being breathy, the larynx will tilt as the voice goes higher.

You mention the great pop belters, so I assume you are referring to the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Christina Aguilera. You say it is obvious that they are singing with thick fold. Please note, it may sound like they are always singing with thick folds, but, they are mixing with varying degrees of vocal fold thickness. Their larynx is tilted and their cords have stretched (thinned or stiffened) as they ascend in pitch. (Exception: Christina Aguilera sometimes sings in full chest voice with thick folds, and is able to sing in a beautiful mix as well. She is very aware of what she is doing…it’s a stylistic choice).

The reason these singers sound like they are only singing with thick folds is because they have good vocal cord closure and breath control and support…two EXTREMELY important components to singing in a good mix.

You mention the wide vowel and forward placement. This is absolutely correct and the #1 coordination defining a “pop or rock” sound. The tongue is free in the back of the mouth allowing for “twang” and a speech-level sound. This is why they simply sound like they are talking on pitch…..because they are!

I always remind my students of the illusion of “powerful” singing. If any one of these singers were to sing their #1 hit song in your living room without a microphone, you would say….is that it? Is that all there is? Yes, that’s all it is!

Thank you so much for your question and the opportunity to respond. Good luck! Susie

Stuck in chest?

There are all kinds of singers with all kinds of voices. What kind are you? Knowing your habits is a huge step to improving your singing.

Learning how to “mix” from the bottom up, and from the top down, is the most important coordination for your voice. We learn how to do this in the exercises, but more often than not, when we sing a song, we go straight back to our original habits.

One way to move forward is to practise the “call”. Check out Ian Castle from here……and good luck with those high notes!!

Kelly Clarkson’s breathing

Dear Ms Bee 
Can you tell me why female singers (like Kelly Clarkson in Mr know It All) gasp out in on mic and have poor breath control/support /management? Are they really out of breath after singing in studio and would it be hard to do same song in concert if done say 5th song in concert? How do they calm breathing down after concert and where can I find information on that subject. I hope you can help.

Hi there and thanks for your question.

There are a few reasons for noisy breathing…I, myself, am a noisy breather, and constantly have to work at minimizing it. I am also what you would call a breathy singer. Many pop/rock/jazz singers are breathy singers. Kelly Clarkson is a breathy singer. This is their trademark sound and possibly why we love their voice.
First, please note, that being a noisy breather does not necessarily mean a singer has poor breath support or management.
You will notice that noisy breathing is almost always only heard with singers performing rock/pop/country….. in other words, a speech-like style. You will not hear noisy breath with classical or musical theater singing. There are reasons for this.
Typically, musical theater and classical singers maintain a mid to low larynx, flat or depressed tongue, and a high soft palate. This allows for a very open throat. They are trained to do this, and this is why they sound the way they do. The sound is resonating in a very open area. There is a lot of space in the back of the throat when they breath in.
However, with pop/rock/country/jazz style, good singers will typically have a mid to high larynx position, a higher tongue, and the soft palate is usually at mid level (speech level). Not near the same space in the back of the throat as noted above. And let’s not forget the uvula hanging down off the soft palate too. This can make for an easy environment of noisy breathing.
High Pitches:  Words sung on high pitches that are above the first passagio and into the second passagio can cause a singer many challenges including tension in the jaw, tongue, throat, and also noisy breathing. Note that maintaining a “speech-like” coordination in this area isn’t considered good technique.  Instead, the sound should be allowed to resonate further back into the soft palate as you sing higher. This, of course, changes the sound of the singer which isn’t necessarily desirable.
Singers who CAN maintain a “speech-like” coordination above the first and second passagio have been known to sell millions of records! Is it wise for them to do this? Is it easy for them to do this without injury? The answer is obviously no….but it can be done safely with attention to much detail. It’s no different than an athlete maintaining top form for his game.
The trick for singers with noisy breathing is to be aware. I try to maintain as high a soft palate as I can when I breath in. I try and find the balanced coordination where I can maintain a less noisy intake of air and still produce the sound I want to put out. This involves engaging my ENTIRE body to find the balance, and a huge part of it is, indeed, breath support.
It is much easier to sing ballads with no breath noise because there is time after each phrase to coordinate and maintain balance. With up-tempo songs, you must breath in quicker, and it is much more challenging especially on high pitches usually found in the chorus.
Remember what I said about a “speech-like” voice in this area? It’s difficult to form words at these pitches and still be able to resonate off the hard palate. If the singer raises the soft palate the sound may resonate further back and possibly stop resonating on the hard palate, and this may not be the sound the singer wants.
Again, the breath noise can easily happen because when the singer quickly breaths in, the conditions are poor. The breath is passing quickly through a narrow passage and hitting the soft palate, uvula, and high tongue.
I hope this makes sense. Thanks again for your question. Susie

Thinning out those cords

This is the challenge.

We do the exercises, day after day, hour after hour…..nothing is changing. What’s up?

What’s up is likely a combination of two things: Old habits and undiscovered territory.

It takes time and commitment to get to the next level of new discovery. Are you putting in your time? Are you willing to do what it takes?

Then allow yourself to back up for a minute. Get in tune with your body and your voice. Allow yourself to thin out your cords…one pitch at a time.

Is it easy….no, not necessarily. But is it possible. Absolutely!

In the beginning, you must practise thinning our your cords every day……many times throughout the day. Your voice is made up of very small muscle movements. The vocal cords cannot learn to thin out if you only practise for a short time everyday. You must commit to training regularly throughout the day. I suggest 3 times….morning, afternoon and evening to see good results.

Give it a try. Let me know how it goes!

Does the mixed voice resonate in the throat?

Hi Jeff, Thanks for writing.

Yes, a mixed voice definitely resonates in the throat. If you put your finger on your larynx, you will feel it vibrate. However, the chest voice alone resonates in the throat as well….and this is not mixing….so beware.

The true test for mixing is having ability to ascend and descend through your entire range without a break and without strain. Learning to mix well means teaching the cords to thin and stretch as you sing higher. The only way the cords can do this well is if the larynx is in the proper position. The best way to get the larynx (and the cords) in the correct position is to practice sounds that cause it do that coordination.

Here are some sounds to practise. I suggest a range from middle C to G for the male voice….and increase the range as this gets easier. Your goal should be to keep it light and crisp at first. Pay attention to the “edges” of your sound. This is a tough area of the voice for a male to get the cords to really thin out. Careful you are not just in head voice (falcetto). If so, start slightly lower. Ideally, you will be in a mix if you “allow” both registers to exist. It may feel like you are “sitting on a fence”. To manage your control, find the volume that allows you to balance this sensation. It may seem “small”. That’s OK.

1. The puppy dog whimper
2. Meow
3. Nay, nay, nay (speech level singing)
4. Hung …….. hold out the ung in a hum
5. A buzzy hum

6. Miren (slide with siren and “m”

Again, thanks for writing. Let me know how it goes. Susie

How to sing louder in a mixed voice

If you follow speech level singing dialogue online about “mixing”, then you have probably read, somewhere, sometime, suggestions that a mixed voice can’t be powerful.

Au Contraire! The mixed voice is very powerful.

Let’s review what is the “mixed voice”. The mixed voice is simply the ability of the singer to ascend and descend in pitch throughout all vocal registers with good cord closure, adequate resonance, and correct vowel placement.

That’s it.

The magic formula now is to allow this to remain consistent while you are singing songs. No going back to old habits. Instead, focusing on what’s going on “below the throat”.

Breath control is the number 1 force behind power. Intake and output of breath is key to finding your level of “power” for your voice at its’ current level of ability right now. It’s when you overstep your level of control to make your voice appear powerful, that takes you back to old habits.

If you are running out of breath while you sing, this can be a good thing. It’s telling your body to find ways (below the throat) to either get more air in, or stop letting so much air out. Awareness of your back, ribs, stomach and groin area are fundamental.

With proper momentum of your breathing, you can find the balance and control where you will not have the sensation of being breathless after long phrases in a song.

Beware, you may not be content with your level of perceived “power” with your current level of breath control. That’s why it’s best to have a good vocal coach join you on your journey to find “power” in your “mix”.


Exercising the larynx

I think it is very important for singers to get to know their larynx. The larynx is the mechanism that houses your vocal cords. You can put your finger on the bump on your throat and find your larynx. Good singers have a larynx that is flexible. It can move up and down, and tilt forward.

You can easily make the larynx move up by swallowing. It will move up to close off your windpipe so food doesn’t enter when you eat.

Getting the larynx to go down isn’t so easy. For some, it is a coordination they have never experienced, and therefore the muscles required for this coordination have never been used properly.

The possibility of using the wrong muscles when trying to lower larynx are strong. Therefore, I highly recommend seeing a professional vocal coach to ensure you are practising correctly.

Here at Bee Music Studios, all singers learn to control their larynx. We don’t sing our songs with a low larynx, but we do learn the co-ordinations and exercise the muscles that keep the larynx down. We get to know what it feels like. We enjoy the rich, deep, beautiful tones that a lower larynx can provide. This co-ordination is very important for mixing, and for singing your high notes with beautiful tone and resonance.

Here is a video of Justin Stoney from Voice Lessons to the World. He says it all. Take a look.

The Breathy Voice

Many singers are told and believe a breathy voice is harmful. This isn’t necessarily true.

Bottom line, too much of any one thing can be harmful. But having the control over a breathy voice can be a great thing. You need lots of breath to belt and to sing long phrases. The key is the ability to allow that breath to pass through the vocal cords in a controlled manner.

Singers who “pull chest” quite often are not allowing enough air too pass through the cords as they ascend in pitch. In other words, they may squeeze the cords to stop the air creating over-compression. These singers tend to get louder as they sing higher.

Next time you are singing the chorus of your song, try to add a little more air. If you “flip” into falcetto, it could mean you need to work on the control of adding more breath. Try to sing with less volume.  Involve your chest and abdomen in the physical control needed to control your breath. Try and find that balance where you feel the same freedom at the bottom of your range as you do at the top.

Questions? Why not drop me a line. Susie