Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog: November 2018

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.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Vocal Breaks: What, When, Why and How to Mend Them

Does your vocal register transition feel like this?

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Unwanted vocal breaks are among the most frustrating, maddeningly puzzling and persistent problems a singer can have.

What is a vocal break?

It is a place in your voice where the coordination between muscles in your larynx is interfered with in some way. What you experience is a crack in your voice and big difference in tone quality of your sound above and below the break.

Purposeful yodeling, or the judicious use of a little cry-like style in appropriate places when singing is a very controlled vocal technique and can even give a note a sort of leg up and bust some counterproductive vocal tension. That's actually why some singers have learned to use those little cries, especially in country genres. What we want to focus on is the unwanted cracks in our range.

These are uncontrollable, distracting, embarrassing, range-shortening, tone-sabotaging and pitch stealing little uninvited guests. It is most common in the passaggio, or transition, between chest and head voice. With typical counterproductive strategy, popular genre singers bring unmixed chest voice up too high and classical singers bring head voice down too low to cross richly into the next zone without breaking. Some people even have multiple breaks, or passaggi, along their range.

What causes vocal breaks?

Vocal register breaks are created and made worse by whatever interferes with changes in length, tension and mass of the vocal cords, or with the mechanism that tilts the thyroid cartilage as the singer moves through different pitches. Freeze that tilt and voila… a break will occur, along with vocal strain. What causes this interference? Here are the top 6 culprits I see:
  1. Locking the jaw (this also interferes with the lift of the soft palate). 
  2. Tightening the root of the tongue (which goes along with locking the jaw) 
  3. Freezing the spine (which will tighten lots of other things). 
  4. Tensing shoulders (which will cause tension to flow to jaw, neck, and soft palate). 
  5. Numb facial expression or eye movement (which will limit vocal tone color by freezing movements that lift the soft palate and expand the nasopharynx). 
  6. Choosing to sing or talk too high or too low for current vocal capability, (which will cause pushing leading to chronic stress, tension and strain in the vocal apparatus).

Why do we use dysfunctional vocal technique?

  • To try to keep the voice FROM breaking (unaware that guarding and over-controlling to try and eliminate the problem inadvertently makes it worse) 
  • To try and hit notes that are difficult (again, a bit of a catch-22) 
  • Because of some erroneous vocal training that says to keep the jaw or any of the other body parts I just mentioned perfectly still, (Run, don't walk, from this kind of teaching) 
  • Because we developed bad speech pattern habits - such as talking too low, using a lot of vocal fry (constantly dragging gravel) or speaking without enough breath support (chronically holding your breath or talking from the throat or chest area instead of from the low pelvic floor. Sometimes you feel a “bubble in your throat”, your voice is weak and often cracks. 
  • We try to sing in keys that are too high or low for the current capabilities of the voice, not realizing the vocal dysfunction this is causing.

A few great reasons to re-train your voice to mend unwanted vocal breaks:

Smoothing the transitions in your voice can be attained by gaining more strength, flexibility and most importantly... coordination of the muscles of your vocal apparatus. Among the perks of the blended voice:
  • The vocal cords can freely fluctuate in length, tension and thickness, and the larynx can tilt freely, directed by the automatic nervous system instead of sabotaged by extrinsic muscles of the throat that create tension and muddy the works. 
  • It creates the “mixed or middle voice” which widens your practical vocal range. 
  • It requires you to balance your breath support and control, leading to all kinds of vocal ability increases. 
  • It enables vibration from your larynx to resonate in the open spaces of the nose, sinuses, pharynx, mouth, and as some suggest, the trachea -- resulting in rich tone colors and strain-free high and low notes. 
  • It makes your voice feel GREAT! You will have NO vocal strain. 
  • And...it creates confidence because these techniques you learn will erase the break AND you can do it anytime you want!

5 ways to begin changing dysfunctional (bad) vocal habits:

  1. First become aware of what you are actually doing. Watch yourself perform a song in front of a mirror. Do you see any of those actions I just listed? 
  2. Record yourself talking. Do you hear tension, monotone, cracking, bubble, gravel, lack of breath? Try talking with much more animation and "life" and record it again until your body, spine, face, tongue, jaw are loose and flexible. 
  3. Do corrective wall and mirror work. In front of a mirror, stand with your back against the wall... back of the head and heel touching the wall. Now slowly try to loosen those areas I named on purpose and watch yourself singing or speaking. Notice the effects. 
  4. Out of the pressure of public performance, privately practice doing things a different way. At first it may get worse before it gets better - like it would be if we were learning to walk with a different stride. Relax, relax, relax and trust the process. 
  5. If you have my PPP vocal training course, just listen over and over to the first two Cd's to let the insights sink in.

My specific approach to mending vocal breaks:

Before I developed my vocal training method, I had the worst and most un-mendable (or so I thought) vocal break I've ever heard in anyone. My brilliant Nashville vocal coach Gerald Arthur helped me get my voice back after it was damaged by an endotracheal tube. I still had that pesky break, though with Gerald's help I learned to mask it well and continue on with my vocal career as a session singer, and then a recording artist. Thank you, Gerald!

Not too long after I began teaching voice I was given a book by a student who asked me to explain it to him. The author was vocal coach Jeffrey Allen of California. In his book 'Secrets of Singing' Mr. Allen suggested holding a mental picture of a question-mark shaped path that the voice should take. That imagery opened up a whole world for me.

Check out how my 12 minute voice blending lesson with Julia Bowen

I began experimenting with what that vocal path imagery meant to me and how I could use it with my students. Long story short... this is what mends vocal breaks every day in my office: 
  • Locate and feel your breath power source in your pelvic floor – 
  • Use your power to lift you into the balcony above and behind you. Don’t lift your chin… float it levelly. From there - 
  • Articulate the syllable 'YAH' . Do not move your head forward. Drop your jaw and raise your eyebrow and with a subtle twist of your head and body, gently pull backwards against the wall like you're being space-invaded by someone with bad breath. 
  • Now pull a siren - slur a vowel such as 'oo' from chest to head voice. Be careful not to lift your chin... just twist tall and pull your head back across the transition zone, which should open your throat and ribcage allowing you to 'stretch the vocal wrinkle out'! 
  • Try a little jaw action. Say 'oo-woo-woo' by drop your jaw on the 'woo's'. Now try the siren again, opening your jaw in that chewing motion at the beginning, high note, and end.
If you’re used to pushing your voice, you may find this voice path confusing, often frustrating when first trying to learn it, but it works. If you've been pushing your voice through your break, this will feel like learning to walk all over again. But every one of my students will tell you that no matter what genre you sing, it’s well worth the effort. Every vocal exercise you do should be developing muscle memory to sound your voice using the right technique.

To this day, if I push my voice even a bit instead of pull it, I will find myself back with my old break. But I know how to erase the pesky thing now, and I can do it any time I want- just by choosing to express my voice via the imagery of the right voice path.

For more information on personal lessons and courses in re-training your voice, see Power, Path and Performance vocal training. While you’re there, sign up for your free 5 page report on vocal health, plus my monthly newsletter and updates on the All Things Vocal blog and podcast.

I'd love your thoughts on blending. Has this information helped you?

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