You've heard them, I've heard them. Some singers seem like they can do whatever they awant to do with their voice: endless range, dynamic expression, power and strength, yet control and finesse. But you know, the reality for most singers is that they are frustrated, to one degree or another, with a sense that their voice is dictating to them what they can and canâ€™t do. They are not in control of their voice and experience limitations with range, tone quality, stylistic flexibility and the list goes on. Is it really possible for a singer to move beyond these limitations and discover the vocal freedom? Yes! And the key to unlocking vocal skills is the elimination of vocal tension.
Vocal tension is any muscle outside the voice box (larynx) that manipulates the voice and its production. And while these different tension areas do help you can sing a little higher or a little louder, or navigate a difficult passage the limitations that come from these tension areas far outweigh the help they provide. If you can free-up the tension, you may never fear that one occasion where your voice falters when you least expect it.
Your voice box is designed in such a way that all the flexibility you need is provided by its inner-workings. Your full range, all the dynamic contrast, and the style, nuance and color with which you sing is possessed within the voice itself. The key to realizing vocal freedom is identifying the areas of tension holding you back and developing a vocal exercise plan that will move you beyond these limitations.
Identifying the Barriers
There are five main areas where vocal tension can strike: jaw, neck, larynx, face and tongue. Following are several characteristics of each of these tension areas, along with some practical exercises to get you started in your journey toward eliminating the tension areas most pertinent to your voice.
JAW TENSION occurs in the jaw muscles, right at the hinge of the jaw. Mostly it is characterized physically by the jaw thrusting forward and locking itself into place. Singers with jaw tension often experience difficulty maneuvering the voice and changing their vocal production as they move throughout their range. The top part of the range is generally pushed and forced because the voice is not releasing, but rather carrying the weight of the lower range to the upper range.
The best way to alleviate the strain of the jaw muscles is by simply massaging the jaw as you begin vocalizing. Rub the jaw at the hinge, and allow the jaw to relax, feeling almost as if it is disconnected from the rest of your head. (If you drool on yourself then you know your jaw is relaxed!) With the jaw in this relaxed state, slowly begin working your way through the range allowing the voice to release as you sing your way up.
NECK TENSION is probably the area of tension that affects a lot of singers, and is easily detected by the rising of the chin and the stretching of the neck muscles (a singer with neck tension looks like someone struggling to do a pull-up, straining to barely clear the bar with his or her chin). The sound generated by someone singing with neck tension is a strained tone that gets thinner and thinner, and more and more strained the higher the singer goes.
To relax neck tension, roll your head around freely as you vocalize. Be sure that as you are doing this, you don't roll your head to the upright position with the chin up and neck extended described above, on the highest note of the exercise. If anything, you should be looking down on the highest note to ensure there is no reach involved. If you feel funny rolling your head, at least move it to one side or the other when you're going for a high note. This disconnect exercise keeps your muscles focused on something other than tightening up on your larynx.
LARYNGEAL TENSION is characterized by the larynx rising up and constricting the space in the back of the throat. The sound associated with laryngeal tension is thin, whiny and often nasally. Singers who are plagued by this tension area often experience significant vocal fatigue, are usually hoarse within one to two hours of singing, and require anywhere from 24-72 hours to fully recover from a rehearsal, or performance.
The way to relax the larynx and discover the descended position that opens the throat is to yawn. Place your fingers flush across the front of your throat and feel for the front of the larynx a little (or not so little) bump extending out from the rest of the throat. With your hand in this monitoring position, yawn and notice how the voice box drops. This is the position in which you want the voice box to remain as you sing an exercise throughout your range. The sound of this dropped larynx position will be very classical (open and dark) compared to the typical contemporary sound. It is critical that this classical sound be used consistently whenever singing vocal exercises. This will not confine you to singing in a classical style, but will actually increase your ability to sing your song in the modern, cutting-edge style you desire for your voice. You will acquire muscle memory by doing this yawning exercise. You will then have a tool to use in your regular vocal performances.
FACIAL TENSION is present whenever a singer's face is doing something weird in order to sing a high note, navigate a certain passage or achieve any other challenging vocal production.
A great loosener for this tension area is to buzz or roll your lips while singing an exercise. The more vibration you can create, the better the exercise will assist you in removing any tension that may be coming from the face (forehead, lips and cheeks). If you find it hard to loosen your lips, gently place your finger tips to each cheek, and lift slightly to take weight and tension off your cheeks. Now let some air through your lips, while letting them flap or roll. Try to keep the roll or flap frequency to a minimum, not quite like doing the sound of a motor boat, but more like that of a horse flapping its lips.
TONGUE TENSION occurs when the back of the tongue pulls back and pushes down against the top of the larynx. This tension usually results in a dark and muffled sound to the tone. While many singers have never heard of tongue tension, I have yet to come across a singer who didn't have some work to do in this area, no matter how developed and accomplished they were as a vocalist.
Working to eliminate tongue tension is not fun, but if done consistently it will have a tremendous effect on helping you achieve the freedom and flexibility you are capable of. To begin, cut a handi-wipe into a 3- or 4-inch x 1-inch strip. Then stick out your tongue as far as possible and use the wipe strip to hold onto your tongue and try to keep it in that position as you sing a vocal exercise throughout your range. If this is a new exercise for you, you will most likely feel quite a bit of resistance as the tongue tries to retreat back into your mouth so that the back of the tongue (in the throat) can push down against the larynx. Hold the tongue out against this resistance and eventually, with consistent practice, the tongue will stop resisting and relax, freeing the voice box from this tension.
You can also just stick your tongue out, trying to reach your chin, then do this exercise: Stick you tongue out, sing these scale tones: 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-6-5-6-5-4-3-2-1, holding a bit on that first 5. Use an ah vowel when doing this, going chromatically up from a low scale (say A below middle C for males) to a high scale (like D above middle C) or as comfortably as you can do it in your range. Don't allow your tongue to retreat on those higher notes. As I said earlier, with consistent practice, the tongue will relax.
While it's true these tension areas place limitations on your vocal flexibility and creativity, their long-term neglect can be much more serious. Over the long haul, vocal tension can lead to vocal damage that may sideline a singer for months, years or even the rest of their career.
Often times, singers who sing in a contemporary environment are hesitant to dive into the type of vocal training described here because they are afraid their voice will end up sounding too pretty or classical, and lose its contemporary edge. This is simply not the case. As you gradually eliminate these tension areas from your voice and regularly practice vocal exercises with more of a classical sound and technique, your tone will improve, your range will increase, you will gain more control of your voice and you will increase your ability to sing in the cutting-edge style you desire to hear from your voice.
Practice, Practice, Practice ( or How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?)
As a singer, you need to think of yourself as much as an athlete as a musician. Your voice is part of your body, and requires regular, consistent exercise to achieve its full potential. In order to see the kind of results that will keep you motivated to continue working on your voice, you need to practice a minimum of 20 minutes, three to four times per week, singing vocal exercises (not songs) that are specifically designed to help you reprogram muscle memory and coordination, build strength and control, and move beyond the limitations you are experiencing in your voice.
Find a teacher in your area or a proven training method to help you in your journey as a vocalist. Ask friends for recommendations, or search for reviews of vocal teachers or online products. Start a blog on a vocalist-focused website requesting referrals.