Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Top 10 High Note Saboteurs For Singers

High Notes - Are You Hitting or Hurting Them?

High note saboteurs are sneaky and sometimes even dangerous. They can not only prevent you from reaching the notes accurately, they can strain and potentially damage your voice! Let's call out these pesky demons. Yes, there are more, but here are my top 10 for you:

1. Pushing too much breath (inadequate breath control)

The lack of breath control is, I believe, probably the most common saboteur of highs. It happens when you let your passion overpower your control, when you power your voice from too high in your torso, when you're afraid you can't hit the note and when you just don't know to back off. You overblow and cause the vocal cords to press together so tightly that if they do create the note, they'll be sorry they did.

What to do:

NEVER give 100 of your available air pressure. Learn the fine art of breath control from wide ribs. The lower you sense your power coming from, the better (think pelvic floor, or heels). Volume should come from resonation activated by very efficient use of the airstream, not excess breath pressure!

2. Not moving enough breath (inadequate breath support)

A lack of breath support will cause high note fail, too. You need to apply enough power to lift your voice to the note.

What to do:

Support the lift of your diaphragm by contracting your glutes and pelvic floor muscles in such a way that your ribcage expands even wider. To do this, learn the PPP method of pulling instead of pushing for power -- and you can reach high notes with no vocal cord strain at all .

3. Resonance placement is too low

Every note you sing has it's favorite place, or sweet spot, to resonate from along your voice's alternative resonation zones. A common cause of flat and strained, pushed high notes is trying to place and resonate them from mouth level instead of mask level. (I demonstrate on the podcast)

What to do: 

Sense your sound coming down from your mask zone... your eyes, forehead, nose. Allow your voice's resonance to travel... don't try to sing all notes from the same place. The higher the note, the higher it should come from above and behind you.  Sing from above your upper lip, not below or at it. Set up and follow through by lifting the placement (not the pitch - the placement) of the note before the high note, and then re-lifting the note after it.  I recommend a placement lifting exercise I learned from vocal coach Melissa Cross - sing from above a pencil you hold between your teeth.

4. Tight jaw, jutting chin  

Most untrained singers, when attempting a note at the top of their range, tighten the jaw and jut the chin forward to try and stretch vocal cords thin enough to sing high. Totally counterproductive, this action freezes the soft palate down, pulls the larynx up and you'll feel and sound strangled and tight.

What to do:

Drop and loosen your jaw with a slight chewing motion! Try over-pronouncing words like you're talking to a deaf person. Become aware if your chin juts forward by looking in the mirror. Tap your chin as you sing to remind it to drop down instead of go forward.

5. Not aiming at pitch 

If you don't aim at something, the odds are you will not be hitting it. High notes are certainly no exception!

What to do:

First you have to know if you can aim well. You may need to train your ear with some dedicated pitch practice. Secondly, you may not realize that you're not listening well enough to the  center of the pitch you want to hit. Don't listen to swimmy or busy instruments or the bass, focus your ear instead on acoustic instruments such as piano or guitar.

6. Excess phlegm

Mucous-laden vocal cords don't vibrate well, especially at low and high ends of range. 

What to do:

Get to the cause of and the solution for the excess phlegm. Dilute mucous with more hydration. Use pineapple juice or ceyenne pepper to cut the crud. Warm up long enough to shake the frogs off. For more suggestions, my blogpost titled 'How To Get Mucous Off Vocal Cords.

7. Freezing the shape of the vowel

When you get anxious about a high note, the tendency is to freeze your vowel. But if you don't allow your vowel shape to morph, or modify and change shape, your throat and your sound will definitely get tight at both ends of your range. The higher the pitch, the longer and more vertical the shape of your vowels need to be.

What to do:

Give your voice access to movement! This includes active eye language (try lifting your eyebrows for a high note), a flexibly dropped jaw and your head moving, maybe torso twisting slightly backwards, opening your throat at the post nasal drip zone.  In other words, pull your voice with active facial language... and don't forget to elongate your vowel as you go higher.

8. Physical fatigue

It takes a lot of energy to control breath, activate facial and body language, articulate with a loose jaw. Without enough physical stamina, the tendency is to counter-productively overwork the smaller muscles of the tongue, jaw, neck, vocal cords to accomplish high notes instead of the big muscles of the pelvic floor, low abs and back,

What to do:

Get enough sleep, exercise and nutrition to raise your physical stamina to support your vocal stamina. If you have to sing tired, make the conscious effort to use the right big muscle groups instead of the wrong little ones.

9. Dehydrated Vocal Cords

Without enough water, the vocal cords loose flexibility and control. The gel-like layer that vibrates for phonation is compromised. Stretching for high notes can be downright dangerous.

What to do:

Duh. Drink more water and try pineapple juice with it. Make extra hydration your first line of defense.

10. Swollen, Irritated or Damaged Vocal  Cords

Trying to reach high notes on injured vocal cords has sent many a performer into vocal rest, or even vocal surgery. The effects on a vocal career can be temporary or permanently disabling.

What to do:

Don't. Cancel your performance. Think long term, not short term, and protect your vocal health.

OK and I'm going to give you a bonus saboteur...

11. Singing In The Wrong Key! 

You take for granted that where you wrote the song or where someone else sings it is the best key for you. Or you let yourself get talked into the wrong key because the guitarist can play it on open strings!

What to do:

Experiment to find the key where your sweet spot is for the highest note and lowest note of the melody. Maybe buy the guitar player a capo.

If you like this post, you should check out the resource I have for strain-free, powerful singing in all parts of your range. Power, Path and Performance training is available on CD at judyrodman.com/power-path-performance.htm.

Your comments welcome!

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