Category Archives: Vocal Technique

Don’t Skip the Vocal Warm-up

(The topic of the 3 essential elements to a complete vocal warm-up is also addressed in a video I created HERE.)

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We all know that a vocal warm-up prior to singing is a good idea. We also know that NOT eating at McDonald’s is a good idea. We tend to ignore both good ideas. (Ok, maybe I’m projecting concerning the McDonald’s thing.)

It is not only crucial to do a vocal warm-up, it is imperative that it is a complete vocal warm-up.  What do I mean by “complete”? I’m glad I asked!

Vocal warm-up exercises for singers must contain 3 elements to be a complete warm-up. Without ALL 3 elements, then it isn’t a completely effective vocal warm-up. A good warm-up enables singers to sing more comfortably throughout their vocal ranges, prevents strain, and allows their voices to remain free for a longer singing session.

What are these three elements, and what are their importance?

Before answering that question, I’d like to explain what warming up isn’t. It isn’t just singing an easy song or two. It isn’t singing low so you don’t sing into your upper notes too soon. It isn’t something that will wear your voice out because you weren’t saving enough for the performance. It isn’t consciously working on breathing or breathing exercises.  All of these thought processes are incomplete at best, detrimental at worst.

After introducing the three essential elements of a complete vocal warm-up, I will explain why the above mentioned sub-par vocal warm-up ideas don’t fit our criteria for a good vocal warm-up.

The three essential elements of a complete vocal warm-up are:

  1. starting out by slowly ramping up the blood flow into the muscles involved in the singing process, especially those in and immediately surrounding the vocal folds (vocal cords);
  2. stretching the muscles of the vocal folds;
  3. and coordinating the different range areas of the voice by singing with proper physical form.

Let’s address each of these in turn.

First, slowly ramp up the blood flow in and around the muscles of the vocal cords.

For each of the three warm-up elements, I will make analogies to warm-ups done by runners. If runners run too hard or too fast before they warm-up, they will quickly fatigue. Why?

At rest or while doing little work, muscles are “fed” oxygen and nutrients at a certain rate, and the “waste” is carried away at that same rate, creating a good balance. This rate sustains the health of the muscles. Now, when muscles are exercised, they need more oxygen and nutrients to do their job. If not, a muscle will literally start breaking itself down to feed the rest of the muscle. In a way, it begins to cannibalize itself!

If one starts working muscles faster than the blood flow can keep up, the muscles break down, and fatigue occurs. At this point, time is needed to allow the muscles to rebuild themselves or they will continue to break down. In the meantime, the muscles are weaker and they can’t handle the full workload they might otherwise handle had the blood flow been slowly increased to keep up with the demand of the oxygen and nutrient needs of the muscles.

So how does that translate practically for a singer? Start with low volume or less than medium volume level exercises, and give yourself plenty of breaks between exercises. Don’t plow through a bunch of exercises in a row without breaks. Take at least 20-30 seconds between each exercise, more if you feel even the least bit of fatigue sneaking in. In fact, if fatigue is beginning to show up you should stop for one of these mini-breaks even if in the middle of a warm-up exercise. Ease your way in. Video warm-up example exercises can be found for the male voice and female voice at the Sing With Power YouTube channel.

Second, stretch the vocal cord muscles.

With any athlete, stretching is important to achieve full muscle flexibility and range of motion. Muscles that are comfortably stretched are less likely to get pulled or strained.

So, how does one stretch the vocal cords? Sing high.

When singing high notes the vocal cords stretch in length. The stretched, more taut vocal cords produce a faster “buzz”, and therefore a higher pitch. Flexible vocal cords will vibrate more readily in the upper register, needing less air pressure to respond with a clear tone.

So how does that translate practically for a singer? Use exercises such as lip bubbles, tongue trills or “blowfish” which allow a singer to sing high into his or her upper register without strain. Any air pressure buildup that might happen in the extreme ranges is transferred to the lips or tongue, allowing the cords to freely vibrate with very little air pressure, even at the highest pitches. Again, video warm-up example exercises can be found for the male voice and female voice at the Sing With Power YouTube channel.

Third, get rid of the break!

If there is a “break” or “crack” in the voice at any point in the range, there is an imbalance of some kind. Athletes need to have good form, no matter the skill needed. Without good form, it does no good to add more weight, speed or effort. Weight, speed or effort added to an exercise or activity that is out of balance will simply bring it down faster. For a singer that might manifest itself as quicker fatigue, vocal cracking, unwanted scratchiness, or any number of other undesirable results. First perfect the form in the warm-up, THEN move on to a vocal workout. Don’t sing a lot in an unbalanced voice or you will build a “lopsided”, limited voice.

So how does that translate practically for a singer? There are a variety of exercises that are designed to help smooth out and erase vocal breaks or cracks. These are much more easily demonstrated than written about so I would again refer you to the warm-up exercises for the male voice and female voice at the Sing With Power YouTube channel. That being said, the exercise types for the task of erasing the break are focused on evening out the compression and airflow across the “bridge” or vocal break areas (those areas in the singing voice that have a propensity for airflow imbalance). Vocal frys, breathy vocals, shallow sounds or other “contrived” sounds can also be utilized to even out the air pressure across the bridge areas. “Working out” the voice to achieve strength or stamina is premature until a good balance is achieved.

So, armed with a new understanding of the three critical warm-up elements, let us dismantle the common warm-up mantras.

“You need to start out sing low so you don’t strain your voice by singing into your upper notes too soon.” Wrong. If you don’t sing high, you don’t stretch the vocal cord muscles. Low notes don’t stretch the cords. Without the stretching, the muscles will lack the flexibility needed to easily balance the voice across the bridge areas of the entire vocal range. If you sing high with bubbles, tongue trills or blowfish exercises, there will be zero strain, even in the highest range of your voice, even without any singing prior to beginning those exercises.

“The warm-up could wear out your voice for the performance, so one should be careful to not warm-up too much so you have more for the performance.” Well, almost, but no. A warm-up that fatigues the voice isn’t a warm-up! Too much work is being done too early. Either more breaks should be taken throughout the initial exercises and/or less volume should be used. It is important to not push to work out the voice too early, or it will fatigue too soon.  A proper warm-up will extend the time one can comfortably sing, not shorten it.

“It is important to work on breathing exercise as part of the warm-up.” The vast majority of breathing exercises are a complete waste of time and have no bearing on how the vocal folds naturally balance airflow through the vocal range. While singing isn’t exactly like speech, it ain’t much different!! We should train from the vocal cords out, not the outer muscles in. The breath should tell the vocal cords how much air they need any more than the gas tank should tell the engine how much gas to use. Find a good airflow that the cords can comfortably control (hint: start with your speaking voice) and then go from there. The right vocal exercises will automatically coordinate the airflow to the needs of the vocal cords. There is much, much more to completely address this topic, but that is all I will say for now.

Conclusion

Find a small group of exercises you use consistently as your warm-up exercises. There is no need to be particularly creative here. Just as a runner will pretty much do the same thing to warm up his or her entire running life, a singer should stay fairly consistent with a warm-up so as to quickly gauge the state of his or her singing voice when starting out each day.

A good warm-up will extend the practice or performance time of the voice, and allow for greater range and stronger sounds. Don’t settle for a partial warm-up. Be sure that all three essential elements are there in your warm-up:

  • slowly ramping up the blood flow into the muscles involved in the singing process;
  • stretch the muscles of the vocal folds by singing into the upper register with the appropriate exercises;
  • eliminate vocal breaks by coordinating the different range areas of the voice, singing with proper physical form.

Once more, video warm-up example exercises can be found for the male voice and female voice at the Sing With Power YouTube channel.

Happy Singing!

Eric Bruner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Academic Arrogance – Vocal Instruction

In another article, I debunk the myth that somehow, inherent to the style of music, classical or operatic teaching somehow brings about a better technical ability for the student. This idea typically stems from the insecurity and arrogance of many of those in higher education – WITH or WITHOUT said individuals actually having the education.

I will occasionally receive rebuttals from University voice teachers (or even worse, the students of University voice teachers) who want to get into it with me on some of my posts. I choose not to engage those rebuttals in this forum, nor do I even allow the comments if they are not open to discussion that is helpful to the vast majority of people wanting to become better singers, though I will often speak with them “offline”.

Some might say that I am afraid of debate or to be questioned. Not at all! Actually, I have a ridiculous love of the subject of vocal technique and could talk for hours about the intricacies of vocal balances, the mechanics of singing, vibrato, etc., down to the most minute detail. However… that will rarely help anyone sing better!

My purpose in this blog is, for the most part, to teach the practical. I want to discuss topics in a way that is helpful to 95%+ of readers. They just want to sing better! That is why I assume folks are here. That is how I teach and that is how I write. Theory and detailed academic discussion of singing and the voice is fine, and has its place, but not here.

Teaching someone to sing with more ease, freedom, control, and more range is like teaching someone to drive. All that the vast majority of us need to know about a car is to keep the oil changed, keep the fluid levels high, put gas in it, and be sure the tires have enough air. Beyond that, it’s just learning to drive the car and the rules of the road.

The vast majority of singers don’t need to know much of the impractical stuff, just as a driver doesn’t need to know how the engine is put together or how it runs. They just want to turn the key and go!

I have students come to me all the time who have studied with these insecure (cocky) teachers who felt that they needed to teach in such an “accurate” way that it is no longer even useful! They can tell you all the theory of how the voice works and the names of every muscle and muscular process involved in singing, but they can’t even sing well themselves! In fact, one of the worst singers I have ever heard was a person who had his doctorate degree in vocal performance from a big 10 school. It was painful to listen to.

Listen, I can speak in the fancy-schmancy terms as well, and I do at times. Yes, know the processes, and in fact, I have an almost sick enjoyment discussing such detailed minutia, but that doesn’t necessarily help someone sing better. I admit that teachers need to know a bit of this stuff. Of course they do! But I try not to get so bogged down in the details when teaching that it doesn’t help someone sing better.

I shall dismount my high horse, and get back to teaching folks how to sing better, which is what I love to do!! I finished this post just in time for my next lesson in 2 minutes…

Happy Singing!!

Eric Bruner
BecomeAVoiceTeacher.com
SingWithPower.com

 



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Can I directly control the vocal cords for an easier, clearer voice? Yes! (and no)

ImageThe following is an article I wrote in response to several bloggers arguing that the vocal cords CANNOT be manually or consciously pulled together, and that it is only the Bernoulli effect that pulls the back of the vocal cords together. Respectfully, I submit that they are wrong. 

“The Bernoulli effect is absolutely what is involved in the production of tone at the vocal cord (or vocal fold) level. In fact, it is the cause of the sound of our speaking and singing voices (also known as phonation). As the air flows (from the lungs) across the cords, the vocal cords are pulled together, then the little bit of pressure built up is released, and the process starts over again.

This releases sound waves (up to hundred of times per second) which we use when speaking or singing.

However, this effect CANNOT happen without the back of the cords FIRST being pulled close together (adduction) so that the cords are close enough to each other for the airflow to “suck” the cords together, beginning the vibration. The Bernoulli effect will not take effect until and unless the back of the cords are somewhat approximated (brought close together via adduction), otherwise we would phonate (make a sound at the vocal cord level such as in speech or singing) EVERY TIME WE ASPIRATE, breathing in or out. We have to bring them together to ALLOW the Bernoulli effect to take effect, creating sound. Usually, we do this without thinking because we do it so often.
Many will say that one cannot consciously or mechanically bring the back of the cords together. They are wrong. We first “stumble” into it immediately after birth when we start screaming, but we can also consciously activate the cords pulling together. Of course, without proper airflow, bringing the cords together does nothing to produce any usable sound.
One such way to pull the vocal cords together in the back is to make a vocal “fry” or creaky or scratchy sound. When making these sounds, however, the airflow across the cords is somewhat constricted because there is typically TOO MUCHpulling of the back of the cords together, and TOO LITTLE air release across the cords, causing the fry or scratchy sound. This technique is typically used when a singer is releasing too much air across the cords, generally caused because the cords are NOT being approximated and then stabilized by the muscles at the cord level.
These sounds are only meant to help a singer get a feel for controlling adduction while singing. When balanced properly, we don’t have to think about it, such as in the case of speech. The problem? We typically start to intrusively upset the balance of air and vocal chord adduction when using our singing voices because we try to make tones our ears like, instead of tones that are natural to our instruments. For instance, we don’t typically try to control the tone quality of our speaking voices. When speaking, we don’t really give it a thought, but when we sing we’ll often try to produce specific tone qualities that aren’t necessarily natural to our own “instruments”.
Bottom line? Yes, the back of the cords can be manually adducted, but this shouldn’t be something we HAVE to think about unless we are doing something funky to mess with the vocal process that we already experience from our speech voices.
There’s much more on this topic that I could address (to the absolute boredom of most, though quite interesting to those of us sharing a sick fascination with such things), but I’ll bore you no further! 🙂

Happy Singing!!

Eric Bruner
BecomeAVoiceTeacher.com
SingWithPower.com



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Vocal problem: Stuffy nose only when singing high notes

Stuffy nose when singing high notes

Stuffy nose when singing high notes

Here’s part of a question concerning an uncommon vocal problem posted online:

“It’s definitely not a cold. It’s not exactly the same feel of having something physical (for ex. mucus) in the nasal but more like a short duration tense pressure that requires more effort to breathe from the nose after singing high notes. It goes away after a couple of breathes through the nose and comes back right after the high notes again. Of course I don’t breathe from my nose when I sing, but it’s something I notice after I finish a piece or breaks between verses.” 

My answer to this post:

You’re pinching off your nasal passages when singing high (the same muscles you would use to “snort” either in or out). They will tend stay in that contracted, pinched position for a little while after the high note passages, just as you described. Some good warm-up exercises to do should include some scales or arpeggios on a hum, but drop the jaw as you sing higher, keeping the lips still touching. This will help release the muscles under the jaw. Humming necessitates the tone naturally releasing through the nose without pinching. Keep the air coming through the hum unobstructed.


Another good exercise type for your issue is to use an “ng” sound on an arpeggio of your choice with a nguh nguh nguh nguh sound. Again, it will keep the “snorting” muscles from engaging. 

These should work well for you. Happy Singing!!

Eric Bruner

Eric Bruner Vocal Studios

How can I do scream or “screamo” vocals in my singing?

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Screaming singing vocals

The user DaDiscoRanger asks: How can I do scream vocals in my singing?

By “screaming” I’m assuming you mean an aggressive, unclear, somewhat raspy distorted tone in the upper or upper-medium vocal range. There are singers of many styles who use vocal screaming either very often, or just occasionally for effect. What I’m not talking about is “grinding” the voice like a growl. I won’t address this because it is the absolute fastest way a singer can destroy his/her voice permanently… period. That being said, let’s turn to a discussion about screaming.

Asking how to scream without hurting your voice is a bit like asking how to punch yourself in the face without bruising it. Screaming is abusive to the vocal cords, plain and simple.

You might ask, “Well how come (insert famous screaming singer name here) can scream and doesn’t lose his/her voice and he/she’s been doing it for years?”

Good question. Here are a few of the realities that explain it.

1. The reality is that the vast majority of screamers trashed their voices a long time ago. Most of them have had multiple surgeries, and many can no longer sing at all.

2. What their voices MIGHT be able to handle in the recording studio once a year isn’t the same as handling that kind of abuse all the time. Many of these “screamers” (the smart ones) sing with softer and clearer voices outside the studio in order to try to save their voices from permanent damage.

3. Did I mention that most of them have had multiple surgeries for serious vocal damage?!? (Just wanted to make sure you got that!)

4. Each person’s tissue has a different reaction to abuse. For instance, you might slap one person across the cheek and 5 minutes later there isn’t even a red mark. Do the same to someone else and they’ll be bruised for a week! Allot of times the singers you hear do this don’t have tissue that irritates as easily as the average person.

5. They aren’t singing as loudly as you think. If you “pretend” to scream loud, but you are actually singing at a soft or normal volume level holding way back, then you can let the microphone (with allot of reverb behind it) make it sound like a huge screaming voice.

6. If they are doing it “right”, they aren’t building up much air pressure. against the vocal cords. They are releasing the air across the cords.

It’s true that most singers, even the very good ones, sing slightly out of balance (not necessarily screaming) sometimes for emotional effect, but their technique is so good that they “snap back to center” after one or two notes. But even this can be dangerous if done too often because singers will start losing their “technical center”, or perfect vocal balance. Center is what we train toward, and what must be our compelling habit.

Ok, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Now, let’s talk about how to scream with the least possible damage:

1. Start in falsetto. The falsetto is the highest, lightest area of your voice. It’s usually a bit weak and somewhat airy sounding, but it is fairly easy to produce high sounds in falsetto with very little pressure, that’s why falsetto is a good starting point.

2. Add a vocal fry or slight scratchy sound. This will start to pull the chords together, giving the illusion of chest resonance (bottom range resonances) up high.

3. Add volume across the scream, little by little, leaning more against the falsetto feeling than the scratchy feeling. Let the falsetto dominate, leaving in only a little bit of the fry/scratchy feeling. You’ll need very little fry to do the job. Also, never push against the throat by bearing-down, causing air pressure build-up.

Final result: It will almost feel like a breathy voice, falsetto voice and scratchy voice all happening at the same time.

If it feels uncomfortable at first (and it will!), take breaks. I wouldn’t recommend experimenting with this more than 5 minutes a day to start, and always warm-up and relax the voice before you start. Cool down the voice afterward with some nice, low, soft, clear humming. Irritated throat? (Gee, I wonder why?) Gargle warm salt water. Also, before during and after your singing use Entertainer’s Secret throat spray. It’s a non-medicinal, non-numbing throat moisturizer spray. It helps allot. (Never use sprays or lozenges that numb the throat. Pain is a good thing if it warns you to stop hurting yourself!)

Now, remember, I am against screaming because of the potential for serious damage. I’m only giving you these instructions so you mitigate whatever stress you were planning to put on your vocals anyway.

I’d rather have you only punch yourself in the face one time, rather than twice!

Happy Singing!!

Eric Bruner
BecomeAVoiceTeacher.com
SingWithPower.com

 

 



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How do you avoid singing through your nose?

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Nasally singing!

The user unacceptable love asks: How do you avoid singing through your nose?

“I sing really good. I’m doing a recording soon actually! But I tend to sing out of my nose and it has a “nasally” sound to it. So how do I avoid this sound?”

The bottom line is that your swallowing and/or bearing-down muscles think they’re helping you sing, so they are closing your throat and thereby sending the sound into the nasal cavities… but you want to know what to do about it, so…

Because you’ve got the recording coming up, I’ll give you a couple of temporary “patches” to help get those swallowing/bearing-down muscles to let go, which should then give you a less nasally sound. The things I’m going to suggest aren’t necessarily going to give you perfect finished sounds, but they should at least get you into the ballpark. Habits are hard to break, but we have to start somewhere!

First of all, if you drop your jaw into the higher notes, that will deactivate the swallowing muscles quite a bit, so that’s an easy fix on the high notes, especially on the high notes that are held out.

The next thing you can try is to make a “dopey” sound, almost dorky (like Barney the dinosaur) but say a dopey “gug” “gug” “gug” sound. It will sound a bit tubby. Now, the places in the songs that you think you sound especially nasal, practice by replacing the words of the song with that dopey gug sound, so you’ll sing the song but you’ll change all of the words to gug. Do this so that you get the feeling of singing with a lowered larynx (voice box). Once you get used to this lowered larynx feel, sing the words again, keeping in mind the more stable position of the larynx that the gugs gave you.

Finally, try plugging your nose when you sing. Sometimes plugging your nose will give you some immediate feedback as to how the sound is being directed there. Just try not to sound nasally when you sing with your nose plugged. You’ll probably feel the tone shift to coming out of the mouth like when you speak, instead of going into the nasal cavities. For some people, this works quite well.

Hopefully one or more of these will give you a little help until you can find a good teacher to work with long term.

Happy Singing!!

Happy Singing!!

Eric Bruner
BecomeAVoiceTeacher.com
SingWithPower.com

 

 



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Why are choppiness, stridency, and breathiness three common vocal problems?

Why are choppiness, stridency, and breathiness three common vocal problems?

Three fairly common vocal problems are choppiness, stridency, and breathiness. Each tends to be a result of poor or inconsistent coordination between the vocal folds (vocal cords) and the other muscles controlling the air flow.

Breathiness is the most common problem of the three that you mentioned. Basically, there is too much air escaping across the cords, and this makes the sound waves weaker and more disbursed, giving a breathy or fuzzy sound. A clear sound is more efficient because it translates more of the airflow directly into sound waves, and in doing so actually uses far less air to produce a stronger, fuller and more natural sound.

Think of your speech. You have a good balance of airflow to the cords when you speak, which is why you produce a clear, natural sound. If you start to sing in the same range in which you were speaking, but you get a breathy voice or weak voice, it’s NOT because you weren’t thinking about your diaphragm. You weren’t thinking about your diaphragm when you spoke, yet it was a clear sound. So what’s the difference? Well, often when we sing we are trying to control the tone (or unique sound) of our voices. In doing so, we interfere with what should be a very natural air to cord balance.

Certainly, nervousness can play a large part in vocal imbalances, which is a topic for a different article, but let’s talk about choppiness. This is also an airflow problem. Instead of thinking about singing across an entire phrase (which could be either a “musical sentence”, or literal lyric sentence), singers will often incorrectly sing into individual notes or words giving a bouncy or choppy effect. Instead, we should sing through and across words and notes, not into them. To use another speech analogy, when you speak a full sentence, you don’t typically bounce along each word, rather you speak one long constant tone that doesn’t stop until the sentence is over. In singing, we want to do the same thing. Start the musical phrase with the idea that you are singing through and across the phrase until you sing out the back-end of the last word. Simply touch the notes and words as you sing through and across the entire phrase.

When speaking about choppiness, it’s also possible you were referring to another issue which is a vocal tremor or shakiness in the voice. Generally, this can be caused because of vocal fatigue – sometimes a good thing, sometimes a bad thing. For instance, if you were working out in the gym and you were on your very last rep of your bicep curls, your arms might start to tremor a bit because you have pushed the correct muscles to their limit. That is a good thing unless you try to do three more reps, using bad form to do so. Instead, you should take a break before you continue with another set. As a singer, if you tire the right muscles the correct way, you might start to get that shaky sound. Take a break immediately at that point and give it a minute or two to recover before you continue practicing.

That all being said, it’s been my experience that singers get that vocal tremor thing going because they’ve been driving too hard against the cords, causing fatigue far more quickly than if they’d had a better, more relaxed vocal balance. Take a break an go a little easy into the next exercise, backing off of the pressure and volume if that’s the case. If you still get the same result, don’t keep singing through it! Cool down your voice with some easy, smooth exercises and consider yourself done for the day. When you come back to your singing the next day, again, use less pressure and lower volume levels.

Stridency is an over-compression issue, usually accompanied with a high larynx. The tone is “driven” or pressed hard against the cords rather than allowing a more natural flow across the cords. When this driven, “metallic” sound is accompanied with a high larynx, any warmth that would have mitigated the harsh driven sound is gone, leaving an over-bright, thin, harsh and sometime nasally sound – stridency.

Hope this helps.

Happy Singing!!

Eric Bruner
BecomeAVoiceTeacher.com
SingWithPower.com

[I wrote the article in response to a question from the user LiveLaughLove on YahooAnswers]

 

 



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