Tag Archives: singing

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 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 MUCH pulling 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

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!!

What is vibrato? Is vibrato “natural” (happens by itself), or is it consciously “caused” somehow by the singer?

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Vibrato or straight tone?

These are good questions. There are many voice teachers who teach otherwise, but straight tone, not vibrato, is actually the most natural way to make a sound.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!  You never hear a baby cry with vibrato, nor do people talk with vibrato (unless you count Katherine Hepburn).  Vibrato must be consciously or unconsciously caused physically by the singer. Even instrumentalists cause vibrato either by mouth motions (embouchure vibrato), hand motions or conscious diaphragmatic pulsations.

For some singers, their musical ears tell them to sing with vibrato and their bodies react and respond, “kicking off” the muscle work to begin the vibrato. They might not even know how they’re making it happen! Singers without a vibrato, on the other hand, will have to make a more conscious effort to train their bodies to produce vibrato. Once the vibrato does begin, though, it soon becomes relatively easy to maintain,to the point we don’t really even think about it. It’s like when we learn to bike ride with our hands on the handle bars at first, but eventually we’re so comfortable with the balance that we can take our hands off of the handle bars with great control.

Vibrato isn’t natural until you can do it naturally. What do I mean by that? Well, I’ll make an analogy with hula-hooping. My oldest daughter and my son took to hula-hooping like ducks to water. After just one day, they knew how to hula-hoop for hours without stopping, and they looked like they were barely moving or even giving it any thought. They both routinely won the hula-hooping contests at school. Now me? I have to work really hard just to get the stupid thing to go around 4 or 5 times! But then, I also didn’t care to work that hard to learn, either. If I wanted to learn (and I lost a few pounds around the waist!) I know I could learn, but I’m not that motivated. Maybe in my retirement…

Ultimately vibrato feels natural, just like hula-hooping feels natural, easy and effortless, but only AFTER someone can do it. Some people find vibrato easily (like my kids with hula-hooping), others have to really experiment allot (like me with hula-hooping!). But anyone can learn, though the process may not look or sound pretty!

Let me give you this as a crude (and somewhat boring) example of what vibrato is:

It’s a bit like an air hose underwater, slowly letting air bubbles out at a consistent rate; say at 5-7 bubbles per second.  Once one bubble is released, there is a little time for the air pressure to build back up, and then it releases the next bubble, and so on. In this example, of course, there is a complete break between each air bubble.

In singing, however, there is a constant, but uneven release of air.  There is slightly more air pressure build-up than is being consistently released.  As a result, there are periodic releases of that extra build up of air – the pulses that become vibrato. The extra back pressure before the release of each pulse, as small as it is, is felt all the way back in the lungs, and then it’s released. The vibrato sound we hear is the pressure-release-pressure-release pulsing that occurs. There is synergistic pressure build-up and release between the vocal folds (chords) and the muscles controlling the upward air flow (abs, diaphragm, and dozens of others). How’s that for boring?

But, at the end of the day, the vibrato process has to be “kicked off”, and then maintained by the singer. For many singers, their ear told them their tone needed a pulse to it, so they put it in, consciously or unconsciously. It’s frustrating to those who have to work at “causing” it to start, but it can be taught and it can definitely be learned.  Once it’s learned well, it will feel “natural”.

I’ve worked with hundreds of students who had no vibrato. Every student with no vibrato that I’ve worked with has achieved a natural vibrato, as long as they practiced the assigned vibrato exercises consistently. Some had to work longer, but they got it. So will you.

Take this vocal technique quiz!

Take this vocal technique quiz. Answer the questions and keep track of your answers. Your answers will be either yes or no.

Do I ever have to “break” or have to change the tone or sound of any notes because they go too high or too low? Does my voice ever “crack” when I sing?
Your vocal tone should remain relaxed and consistent throughout your entire vocal range. Breaking or cracking in your voice happens when the imbalance in your voice can no longer be maintained, and suddenly, snap! It falls into a different sound production, and not necessarily a much better one than where it was.

If the vocal chords (working with the air) aren’t doing their job, then the muscles outside the larynx (the voice box) will try to help.  That’s what causes reaching for notes (high or low), squeezing, or baring down in an attempt to produce the right air/muscle balance at the vocal fold (vocal chord) level. That’s like trying to stand up by flexing your biceps.  One has little to do with the other!  The same balance you feel in your speaking voice will give you control in your singing voice.
Do I have to change the way my voice sounds or is produced so I can sing either in the high range or the low range?
If you have a well balanced voice from top to bottom, there should essentially be no change in the way you produce high or low notes. It will feel as easy as speech.

Does my voice ever feel sore or fatigued after singing (including the day after)?
Your vocal folds (vocal chords) are only about your thumbnail across in length.  They’re actually quite tiny.  In fact, some of the muscles that help control the vocal folds are as small as 1/5 the width of your thumbnail! If those tiny muscles aren’t all working “in concert”, so to speak, the outer larynx muscle have to do quadruple duty to try to have some small influence on the pitch production. It’s those outer muscles that get fatigued.  They have almost no leverage on the voice, so they stay in a constant state of tension if they think they are helping you sing. That’s just plain tiring!

Does it take my voice 1-3 days or more to recover from a performance?
If we have to push those tiny vocal folds (only the length of your thumbnail across) beyond their capacity by yelling, gripping, etc., then those muscles get stiff, just like when we use any muscle we haven’t used in a while (raking leaves, etc.). We feel stiff or sore for the next couple or few days.

Also, the vocal folds have an outer tissue layer (sort of like skin on the outside of the chords). This tissue can get irritated, or even inflamed when they are squeezed and “over-muscled” together. It takes awhile for the inflammation to go down. With a good vocal balance, a healthy and conditioned voice can be used to sing for hours without irritation.

Do I run out of breath too soon when trying to sing longer phrases?
Think in terms of efficiency here. If I have trouble cooling my house in the summer, I might think I have to upgrade my air conditioner.  I might also add more insulation, or energy efficient double-pane windows. But after I spent all of this money, time and energy, my house still isn’t cool! Why? I may have overlooked the obvious. I’m constantly leaving all of the doors and windows wide open, all day!

My point? If my vocal chords aren’t coming together lightly, but with a good seal, then they are going to leak out a bunch of air.  Even if your tone is only slightly airy, you can use up to 2 or 3 times more air than you need to.  So if your vocal chords aren’t doing their job, then just taking a little bit bigger breath or doing all of the diaphragm exercise in the world won’t help your breath “support”. You’ll still run out of breath before the end of the phrase.

A side note here: think about this, breath isn’t “supported”.  I don’t like that terminology because it isn’t a physical reality… a subject and discussion for a different day!)

Does my voice feel/sound weak, breathy or airy?
Usually, too much air is escaping across the chords. Just like a whisper is soft, so is a sung tone that let’s out too much air. The “airy” sound waves that come off of the chords are fuzzy so they dissipate easily. You want to produce clearly delineated sound waves, these can produce far more resonance. An efficient use of the air at the chord level produces more sound.

Is it hard to sing the upper notes? Are they weak or tense or “pushed”?
Again, the outer larynx (voice box) muscles might think that they themselves are doing all of the work. They should do very little at all other than stabilize the larynx. (The same stabilization, by the way, that you use when speaking.) Virtually all that is needed to produce high or low pitches is negotiated between the vocal folds and the air.

Do I ever feel extremely nervous about singing because I’m not sure what my voice is going to do in a performance?
Listen, if I weren’t fairly confident that my vocal technique was balanced and running somewhat on auto-pilot, then I wouldn’t perform. Otherwise, I’m trying to juggle remembering the lyrics, emotional communication, stage presence, tone, pitch, and about 20 other things going on in my head.

We have to develop great vocal technique habits that take pretty much take over, even when everything else seems to be going wrong. There are certainly other factors that need addressing with regard to “stage freight”, but in my experience, vocal technique inefficiencies are the primary cause of our performance fear factor!

Does my voice lack strength or stamina?
I’m sure you know by know that my answer to this question is going to have something to do with a poor vocal balance. True.  But let’s assume for a moment that you have a perfectly balanced voice, then your problem is just conditioning.  The conditioning and strengthening of the voice have much to do with isomeric and flexibility exercising – not power lifting! Projection doesn’t mean pushing! It’s an effect, not a cause. A good vocal balance causes projection.

What were your answers?
If you answered YES to just about any of these questions, there is a more than 95% chance that improving your vocal technique (the way you use your voice) will eliminate the problem. That really is about finding the right teacher.

Just like any great athlete works with coaches and teachers throughout their careers, we too need that extra “pair of ears” to guide us. That being said, unfortunately, very few teachers know how help students find a good balance in their voices. See my article on finding a good voice teacher.

Hope this helps!

Eric Bruner
SingWithPower.com

7 Vibrato Exercises for Perfecting & Mastering Vibrato

Vibrato is…
that smooth, steady pulse you hear in a singer’s voice when he or she is holding out a note. It’s used in virtually every musical style. It almost resembles a subtle wave in the singing tone. It’s used to give warmth and depth to a singer’s sound.

Straight tone is…
used in almost every style of music, as is vibrato. A straight tone has no pulse or wave. It’s has sort of a “flat-line” sound. It’s often used to add intensity to a note.

Tremolo (wobble) is…
when a singer holds out a tone and the pitch is wobbling up and down, actually singing back and forth between two pitches. A vocal wobble (unless specifically called for) sounds sloppy and uncontrolled.

The Perfect Vibrato™ training program takes you step-by-step, helping you master the use of vibrato, as well as the use of straight tone in your singing voice. Perfect Vibrato™ is recorded on 3 CDs, divided into two singing lessons, and further broken down into a total of four sections. Here’s the breakdown:

Lesson 1: Developing the Vibrato

Lesson 1 starts off with a vibrato assessment section. A typical professional sounding vibrato pulses at about 5-7 pulses per second. The vibrato assessment helps you determine where your vibrato speed is, and then how to best proceed with the program for your level.

The second section of this first lesson is developing the vibrato, taking you through 7 different methods to finding your best vibrato, helping you develop your optimal, natural vibrato speed, which is a little different for every person.

Lesson 2: Polishing the Vibrato
The first section of lesson 2 is all about polishing the vibrato. It takes you through dozens of exercises to give a great, finished sound to your voice. This section works on continuing to master your best vibrato. At the same time, you’ll perfect a free, open and powerful straight tone.
The final section pulls it all together! This is the application section. You’ll work on several song phrases, mixing up the use of your newly mastered vibrato and straight tone vocals. You’ll learn to easily move between vibrato and straight tone when stylizing.

How do I sing when I have laryngitis, a sore throat or am sick?

sore-throat-relief

Laryngitis is a general term used by most of us to describe when we “lose” our voices. Usually it’s inflammation or irritation of the vocal folds (vocal cords), although it can also be extreme dryness or the vocal folds, acid reflux, or stiffness of the muscles in and around the vocal folds themselves.

Laryngitis can be caused by many things, one of which is trauma (screaming, yelling, excessive or loud talking, intense coughing due to sickness, over singing, etc). For singers, over singing (singing too high, too long, too loud, etc) is a particular problem.

Laryngitis is a general term used by most of us to describe when we “lose” our voices. Usually it’s inflammation or irritation of the vocal folds (vocal cords), although it can also be extreme dryness or the vocal folds, acid reflux, or stiffness of the muscles in and around the vocal folds themselves.

If caused by trauma, and you can almost pinpoint moment you hurt your voice, stop singing or talking altogether, if possible, for at least 24hrs. If there is next to zero voice there, see an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist. This could be very serious, and continuing to sing or speak on it can cause permanent damage.

If caused by extreme inflammation where it is very painful to speak or swallow, again, take off a day or two and give your voice a chance to get a bit healthier before singing again.

Now, most of the time, we just have stiffness, dryness or irritation of the chords due to overuse, allergies, acid reflux or sickness. When this is the case, we can still sing. We just have to warm up slowly, lowly and spread out. In other words, sing quietly and only singing as high as is completely comfortable, and for short periods of time. (By the way, acid reflux is very serious and needs to be dealt with ASAP, if that’s the problem).

We may only be able to sing a few notes of range, at best, to start. Just sing quietly (no more than a normal spoken level) for a minute or two at most, then give yourself a break for 10-15 minutes or more, and then try again. After awhile, your voice will start to loosen up, although it won’t necessarily return to 100% that day. If you’re patient, you might be surprised at how much of your voice can come back on that same day.

Congestion can be a problem, both nasal and chest congestion. For nasal congestion, try a saline nasal rinse or spray. The saline rinses and sprays will use the same salt content as your own tears. It helps relieve nasal congestion and allow swollen tissue to recede a bit. For chest congestion, a simple over the counter expectorant like Mucinex taken with plenty of water should help. Also, warming up in the shower (slightly steamy) will help with nasal and chest congestion.

A huge help will also be lubrication. Use a throat spray that is aloe vera based. I recommend Entertainer’s Secret. Entertainer’s Secret saved my voice when I discovered that I had acid reflux problems. It is a spritz inhaled across the vocal folds themselves. That’s the only way to directly lubricate the area.

There is a “door” called the epiglottis that shuts off the vocal folds area when we swallow. It keeps us from choking on food or liquid when we swallow, so if we just use a spray for the upper throat to help our voices, it never touches the vocal chords. It would be like pouring oil on the outside of the engine, rather than into the engine. Used liberally, a product like Entertainer’s Secret can help tremendously.

By the way, don’t use a spray that numbs the area if you’re going to be talking or singing. You want to be able to feel if you are hurting yourself. For instance, you wouldn’t use a numbing shot on a sprained ankle so that you can walk around. You’d be further injuring the area, even though you wouldn’t be feeling the pain.

Of course, getting sick is going to be inevitable, but here’s a list of simple things to avoid getting sick:

1. Wash your hands constantly. Kill the germs!
2. Get plenty of sleep.
3. If possible, don’t hang out with sick people or share things like cups, pencils, etc. Basically, don’t touch anything they touch.

Hope this helps!