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20 QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

1. How do the vocal cords work?

          First of all, they’re not cords at all, but rather folds of muscle covered in mucous membrane whose primary task is to keep food out of our lungs when eating. These vocal folds have several other functions unrelated to singing: 

  • Valvular: control lung pressure that aids in the lifting of weights and for defecation.
  • Fixative: stabilize the thorax for efficient arm movement
  • Protective: prevent anything other than air from entering the air passages
  • Coughing: repels food and dust from entering larynx and clears passage of mucus
  • Emotional: create sounds like crying ,laughing and moaning
  • Phonatory: voluntary communication

           Your vocal folds fit horizontally in the larynx. They are connected at the front and make a V-shape opening toward the back.  These folds open and close VERY fast to create the vocal sound.  On the note A below middle C, for example, they open and close 220 times per second.  On the note A above middle C, our folds open and close 440 times per second. The high A requires opening and closing at twice that rate: 880 times each second! Amazingly, our brain thinks the pitch, the vocal folds find the correct length, and then they open and close at the correct rate to produce the desired note.

          What are the folds made of?  A vocal fold at its core is comprised of muscle. This muscle acts as the body of the fold.  It’s important because as the muscle contracts or relaxes, the length, thickness, and stiffness are all affected.  These actions change the vocal sound. Above the body of the vocal fold lies the cover – layers of different kinds of tissue.  The uppermost layer is mucous membrane, like in the inside of your mouth.  Below this pink and gooey upper layer is a layer similar to rubber bands. The ‘rubber bands’ become most concentrated at the edge of the vocal fold (the part that touches the other fold when you make sound).  This internal edge is called the ‘vocal ligament’ and is fairly rare in the animal kingdom.  Humans, monkeys, and pigs all have a vocal ligament.  That’s the reason we all can ‘squeal’ on a high pitch. 

3D Video of the larynx and vocal folds

 

 

2. Ok, then what happens after that?

          Your vocal cords sit horizontally inside your voice box and are there mostly to keep food out of your lungs.  Right above them reside your false vocal cords that do not vibrate in normal singing or speech.  Both sets of cords sit within the voice box, aka the larynx.  This complex (and charming) cartilaginous box has a fleshy collar attached to the top of it.  All of this machinery then fits into a larger tube which is your throat.  Your throat (pharynx) can be divided in the three sections, beginning at the bottom: the lower throat section (the hypopharynx), the back of the mouth section (the oropharynx) and the behind-the-nose (nasopharynx) section.

          If you’re still with me, here’s the vital part:  you can squeeze any and all of the fleshy parts and when you do so, you change your vocal sound.  Just don’t squeeze your cords. We have little pressure sensors called mechanoreceptors that allows us to feel if we squeeze the folds too hard.  Over time, by paying attention to the feelings in your cords, you can develop increased ability to feel them. As long as you squeeze only the fleshy stuff above, you should be OK.

 

3. Is it true we take in enough air automatically? Shouldn't I fill to the maximum?

          Most singers take air in automatically simply by opening their mouths and releasing their lower belliesthough some need to 'fill up' to pull air into their lungs.  And no, you don’t have to fill to the maximum each time you breathe in. Neither do you have to be empty before you breathe. You just need to replenish your supply with adequate air for the upcoming phrase.

 

4. I've been told that I should keep my voice box in one place when singing.  Is that true?

          In actuality, the voice-box (larynx) moves up and down all the time.  Even when you’re just listening to someone else speak, your voice-box moves!  It is natural for your voice box to move up for higher notes and down for lower notes.  Even vowels have a favorite laryngeal height. (Touch your voice-box with one finger on one side and your thumb on the other then say ‘ee, ay, ah, oh, oo’ and feel your voice-box move.)

          One goal in good singing is to reduce the lifting action of the voice box, especially when singing higher notes.  Over-lifting creates a ‘strainy’ or ‘reaching’ sound typical of inexperienced singers.  By activating your laryngeal depressors, muscles that connect your voice box to your collarbone, when you sing high, you’ll be able to anchor your voice box in a more stabilized position.  When singing low pitches (especially in any of the pop styles), try pulling up on your voice box as you go down in pitch.

          A good general rule is: move your larynx in opposition to the pitch. A more stabile larynx results in a more even sound. Don’t force your voice box to stay in one position…just control the movement so you don’t strainy on your high notes or too deep on your low notes.

 

5. What are vocal registers?

          Vocal registers is a term which encompasses a dizzying array of characteristics relating to vocal folds and laryngeal muscle activities and how they act for different pitches and volumes. The simplest way to think about registers (as a singer) is that your vocal cord shape changes as pitch changes. When you sing a low pitch, your vocal fold is shorter, and the edge that is meeting and vibrating is taller and the sound is louder and fuller. As you ascend in pitch, the vocal fold stretches, the edges thin and the sound gets lighter and sweeter.

          It’s useful to think this way whether you’re in chest voice (talky sound) or head voice (falsetto, lofty sound). The goal of register blending is to create the illusion that you have an even sound as you sing up and down your range.

          Humans technically have 4 registers: vocal fry, chest, head and (in rare individuals) whistle. There is actually no middle register- you are either in chest or head. Don’t worry too much about registers- just remember to stretch and thin the vocal fold (like pulling rubber bands), as you sing higher and shorten and squoosh your fold to thicken it as you sing lower. The higher you sing, the more sensation you should be able to feel in the back of your voice-box and the lower you sing, the more sensation you should feel in the front of your voice-box.

          Every note you sing is a different ratio of the back and the front feeling. So in order to create an even sound, going up and down in pitch, just change the ratio of the back and front feelings on every note! In other words, every note is a different balance of the two feelings.

 

6. How can I reduce my over-nasal sound?

          Reducing excessive nasality is quite easy.  Simply raise your soft palate in the back of your mouth by imagining that you’re just beginning to yawn then sing.  When your soft palate is raised, it touches against the back of your throat closing off the nose so that your vocal sound cannot resonate through it.  Drop your soft palate, which opens the ‘doorway’ to the nose and you will increase the nasality in your sound.

 

7. I don't seem to be able to sing with vibrato.  Can vibrato be learned?

          Vibrato is one of the most frustrating things to acquire if you have a problem with it! Here are a couple of tips for you to try:

          Lightly touch your larynx on each side of it. When you do straight tone, the larynx stays still, when you do vibrato the larynx should wiggle up and down quite fast.  Since you can't wiggle your larynx with your hand as fast as it needs to go (about 5-7 ups and downs a second) try this instead:  when singing, place your hand some distance from your face (this is hard to describe in writing) and when you sing whack your hand up and down hard, like you're hitting water. Sometimes this initiates the laryngeal movement.

          Sing 2 notes on the piano, semi-tone apart, quickly and feel how your larynx goes down (it should anyhow) for the lower note and up for the higher note. Move up the scale and see if you can ‘jump-start’ the laryngeal movement this way.

          Sometimes singers have vibrato problems because of shoulder and neck tension- try lifting your shoulders up and forward and singing that way (that releases shoulder tension).

 

8. I've been told that I have pitch problems when I sing.  What are the possible reasons and can the problem be fixed?

          Very often pitch problems can be easily fixed. Two causes of pitch problems that are difficult to fix are hearing problems and information processing problems in the brain.  Singers who have hearing damage due to loud noise exposure may require hearing aids. Some scientific studies estimate that approximately 5% of the population have ‘congenital amusia’, a genetic predisposition to having no interest in music and therefore tone deaf.  We suspect that this figure is too high and that most people like music and are tone deaf because of lack of familiarity with the concept of pitches and with the act of making music.

          The good news is that most singers who suspect they are tone deaf are not at all.  Simple causes for pitch problems are: poor posture, excessive head movement, and not enough support. Not listening carefully enough to the melody line of a song (sometimes singers will gravitate to another instrumental line without realizing it) and not listening to one’s own sound as they sing are two other major reasons for pitch problems.

          After fixing up your technique, try listening to the melody line of a song. Turn it off. See if you can clearly hear that melody in your head (while not singing). This is called audiation. If you find you can’t clearly audiate the melody in your head – or if it is in the least bit ‘fuzzy’ – listen to the line again. Keep doing this until the melody is clear in your head. Totally clear. 9 times out of 10, you will sing it correctly out here if it is clear in there.

 

9. How many minutes should I warm up my voice prior to singing?

          Every singer should experiment to decide how many minutes are required to warm up one’s voice.  Many singers spend too much time warming up and are quite vocally tired by the time they get on stage!  We suggest that any warm-up begin with stretching the body, creating good posture, doing breathing exercises, warming up the support jobs using a loud ‘sh’ sound.  Then the singer can move onto a lip trill or other light exercise (or the tongue trill) up and down the range.  Never start by singing loud and high.  Exercise that are louder, higher and more taxing can be done after the lighter ones. 10-20 minutes of warm-up is generally appropriate, but again duration of a warm-up period should be a personal decision based on self-knowledge and experience.

 

10. What are some tips for belting?

          Belting is the ability to take a talky or yelly sound to the top of the range. Pure and simple. Belting is normally considered a loud, resonant sound.   The trick is how to do that without hurting yourself. When you begin on the road to healthy belting, the two most important things to remember are 1) don’t press/squeeze your vocal cords, ever, and 2) make sure you support adequately. Too many wanna-be belters just bear down and blast.

          Another tip which aid in the technique of healthy belting is to imagine that you are calling out to someone across the room, but not with a loud, throaty sound, but rather a 'facey' sound. You should not feel pressure or discomfort in your throat at any time. Correct belting technique is not harmful.

          You can also try using the sensation of breath-holding while singing. In belting, the vocal folds need to clap together quite quickly and that vibrational pattern is aided when you feel like you're singing while holding your breath.

          When carrying a talky or yelly sound up high, you may find it useful to use 'laryngeal lean', a mechanism whereby the small, horseshoe-shaped bone below your tongue pulls forward, or leans forward as you ascend in pitch. You may even feel like your larynx is leaning forward as well. That's the feeling of 'laryngeal lean'. This action only occurs in the belting sound not when you sing in a heady sound.

          Don't push (over-pressurize) your vocal folds. Just shoot the sound out of your mouth with strong support and your voice should project easily into the distance. Adding resonance such as ring, nasality and/or brightness will enhance the projectile effect as well.

          One last thought: belting is both a technique and a style. It's a technique used in rock, R&B, and musical theater by males and females to create a controlled, yelly sound on higher notes. In the musical theater world, belting can also be thought of as a style, with additional elements like super-crisp diction, and strong nasality and ring. 

 

11. Do throat sprays and products help my vocal cords?

          Perhaps you have a favorite tea, potion or spray that you swear helps you sing better. But think about it, these nostrums never touch your vocal folds! They merely moisturize your throat to create a soothing feeling. Some popular ‘voice’ sprays contain deadeners which numb sensation and provide the singer with the illlusion of improvement. Voice doctors discourage use of mint, menthol, and eucalyptus for singers because of the risk that singers might injure themselves because of reduced sensation.

          Steam, however, whether from a humidifier, nebulizer, or just standing in a hot shower, does improve the mobility of the vocal folds. Try having a cup of hot tea and breathe in the steam!

Having said all this, if you have a favorite ‘singer’s helper’ like olive oil, lemon juice, honey, grapes, crackers, lettuce, then by all means, continue to use them. But just remember that the benefit may be simply throat lubrication or the placebo effect.

 

12. What is my vocal range?

          One’s vocal range in terms of biological ability is fairly well set by adulthood. Of the thousands of ranges we’ve checked, the most common distance from lowest note to highest note is 3 1/3 octaves.  Much rarer is 3 1/2 octaves, rarer still is 3 3/4, and extremely rare is 4 or more octaves.

          Finding one’s true range is quite simple really.  To find your lowest note, make an ‘aw’ vowel with a pointy, lowered chin.  Begin in a comfortably low pitch range and descend in a 5-note pattern 5-4-3-2-1.  Don’t use much support, use straight tone and don’t try to project.  Then take a breath and continue downwards in half-steps until you hear your lowest note.  If it’s only a fry sound, you’ve gone too far.  If there’s a sound on your note, it counts as part of your range. Make sure to write the note down somewhere.  Don’t try this in the morning or if you have a cold or allergies.  In both cases, your lowest note will appear much lower than normal.

          To find your highest note, do an ascending lip trill exercise in the pattern 1-3-5-8.  Sing lightly and don’t hold the top note out. If you place one hand on your lower belly and pull it in as you go for your high note, you should feel that your higher notes are easier to get out.  Towards the top of your range, when you think you’re done, try one more trick.  Keep one hand on your lower belly reminding it to go in and with your other hand point upwards to the ceiling as you approach your top note. Yes, it’s silly but it works. If you can hear the note, it’s yours. Write it down.  Now compare your lowest note to your highest note to see if you have the standard 3 1/3 octaves.  If you have more, hallelujah; think of those notes as blessings.

 

13. What am I?

          Lisa: A common question I hear from singers concerns their range classification, also known as ‘What am I?’ To find out, I always begin by checking the singer’s lowest note.  If it’s a woman with a D below middle C, overwhelmingly, she’s a soprano. The most common range is the ‘generic’ soprano range of D below middle C to high F (3 1/3 octaves, natch).  In men, there is much more diversity of range. Having said that, here are some basic guidelines to determine your classification:

 

 
High Soprano (high female voice) F below middle C to A above high C
Soprano (high female voice) D below middle C to F above high C
Mezzo-Soprano (middle female voice) 2 Bs below middle C to high D
Alto (low female voice) 2Gs below middle C to high Bb
High Tenor (high male voice) 2As below middle C to high C
Tenor (high male voice) low F  to high A
High Baritone (middle-high male voice) low D-E to male high F-G
Baritone (middle male voice) low C to male high E
Bass- Baritone (middle-low male voice) low A - male high C
Bass (low male voice) low F- high A 

 

          Remember, what you are is perfect. There are no better or worse vocal types!

 

14. What’s a Passaggio?

          Gina: The term ‘passaggio’ is used a lot around vocal studios and can be confusing, so let’s clarify it. Passaggio just means ‘passage’ in Italian – as these are places where our vocal cords are going through a muscular transition. It is a place where there is a rapid shift in laryngeal muscle activity – which can sound like a ‘break.’

The following chart shows where passaggios are for each voice type (But, they can vary some depending on the individual): 

 

FEMALE

1st

passagio

2nd

passagio

3rd

passagio

4th

passagio

5th

passagio

Soprano (high)

F#4

C#5

Ab5

Db6

Ab6

Mezzo (mid)

F4

C5

F#5

C6

F#6

Alto (low)

E4

B4

E/F5

B5/C6

E6

 

 

MALE

1st passagio

2nd passagio

3rd passagio

Tenor (high)

G3

D4

G4/A4

Baritone (mid)

F3

C4

E/F4

Bass (low)

E3

A3

D/E4

 

          It’s important to know where these notes are in your voice for a couple of reasons. Firstly, often singers will have trouble on the same particular note, and this usually indicates a passaggio. Understanding that there is a concrete explanation for this can help make you feel normal! More importantly, once you figure out which passaggio, if any, are troubling you, you can then use a couple of techniques to handle it quickly and easily. 

          For each passaggio, you will increase your ab support and, if you have control of your bottom belly, you should pull it in. Also, consciously stretching the cords as you ascend to the passagio will allow the muscles to make a gradual change. This creates a smooth and even sound up and down the range. You’ll be amazed at what a difference those two small adjustments make. 

          The second reason it is helpful to know where your passaggios are is because they can help you figure out your voice type. The passaggios, again, are fairly consistent within voice types. That said, I want to downplay the importance of voice types. Our society is very into categorization, but that doesn’t mean you have to be. If you sing a song well, then you can just enjoy the fact that you sing it well – whether it was written for an alto or a soprano or a tenor or a bass. There is no reason to limit yourself or your range or your repertoire. 

 

15. Can I extend my range? 

          Yes indeed. Though your range is somewhat predetermined, like your height or eye color, you can gain beauty and control of more and more of the notes within that predetermined range by practicing healthy, supported singing.  They key, really, is to be able to use the majority of notes in your genetically given range. The vocal cords need to change shape as the pitch moves up and down so an exercise like lip trills done on a regular basis, from your lowest note to your highest note, will train your vocal folds to change shape evenly throughout your range. 

 

16. How do I find out the best keys in which to sing? 

          To find the best key for any song: 1) Make sure that you can sing every note of the melody, 2) Don’t pick a low key just because you’re afraid of high notes, 3) Don’t pick a key with 5 or more flats or sharps in the key signature, 4) Make sure the key you pick fits the mood of the song, 5) Make sure your voice ‘shines.’ If you pay attention, you can feel when your voice is happiest. 

          P.S. Often, students ask, “What is my key?” There isn’t a particular key that is perfect for you in general. The key really depends on how the song is written. Although you may find yourself often happy in a particular key, be sure to check on a song-by-song basis. 

 

17. Will singing in a rough, raspy style hurt my voice? 

          This topic is controversial and intriguing. There are numerous rock singing teachers who are certain that the sounds of roughness and raspiness can be created in a safe manner, but there are many more teachers who are convinced that there is no safe way to create these extreme sounds without some damage occurring. We believe that there are methods, such as pharyngeal squeezing and use of vocal fry which can make a singer sound dangerous with a minimum of vocal fold problems. However, hoarseness is a sign of vocal fold swelling which is not healthy and therefore not acceptable for someone interested in a life-time of vocal health. If you are hoarse after you sing, it’d be best to go have a session with a rock singing expert to see what is going wrong. 

 

18. I am hoarse after just a few minutes of singing. What is going on? 

          Hoarseness rarely presents itself after just a few minutes of singing unless there are underlying physical problems such as reflux, allergies or vocal fold lesions (such as nodules, polyps, cysts or scar tissue). I would suggest having the vocal folds examined by a laryngologist – an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) doctor who specializes in the larynx. 

 

19. How should I prepare the day of an audition or performance? 

          First, prepare well in advance by regularly practicing your technique and any songs that you plan to perform. Make sure you know the obvious things – like your words and what the accompaniment/background track sounds like. Being well-prepared will, of course, make you better – and take away some of those pesky nerves. 

          Now, the day of the audition or performance, I always suggest having a routine to follow. Human beings are creatures of habit and having a routine can mentally and physically put you in the mood for performing. 

          Try this. Wake up at least an hour or two before warming up. Have a boring meal – protein, no dairy, no coffee or caffeine – after having a boring night (no alcohol or smoking the night before). Take a long, hot shower, followed with a nice hot, herbal tea. (Gina suggests ginger tea for clearing any excessive mucus in your mouth and pharynx.) Then, warm-up for 10-20 minutes (depending on what you have found works for you) on your favorite warm-ups. Sing through your song once or twice. Then stop, pack a (boring) snack and a hot tea or water, and go. 

          Often, students will over warm-up and tire out their voices the day of or the day before an audition in a quest to find that perfect run. Let’s save that perfect run FOR the audition instead.   Use your time well in the days and weeks before you perform by practicing regularly. If you try to cram the day or two before your audition, you’ll just trash your voice and performance. 

          If you feel like you just need to practice more the day of, go ahead and practice in your head. That counts. You can also lipsync to the music to practice your movements, emotions, and blocking while still saving your voice for the big day. 

 

20. Any tricks to singing better in general? 

          Yes – think of the sound you want to make! Hear it in your head. Our minds are incredibly powerful. If you clearly audiate (hear it in your head) what you want, your body will most likely make that sound. Audiation is helpful to singers in two ways. 

          Firstly, there are simply times in your life when you can’t practice out loud – you are sick or it’s late at night and you have roommates. Thinking through your song is a perfectly legitimate way to practice. Feel and breathe the song the same way you would if you were singing out loud. Believe it or not, you are still training your body and your muscles. Ask professional athletes, they use this technique all of the time. 

          Secondly, a singer can think ahead in the middle of singing a song to anticipate and therefore adequately be prepared for any difficult parts – just like pianists always scan ahead so that they can mentally prepare for what is coming up. You can begin anticipating with your body, as well. If you see a high note coming up, start engaging those muscles more strongly before you get to it so you feel really prepared for it. Prepare your singing support by firming your top belly out even before beginning a tough phrase (but after breathing for it).   These ‘pre-support’ and ‘scanning ahead’ techniques can work wonders!