What happens when you force your way to the higher notes?

Look, we’ve all been there. We all want to sing higher notes, and we notice that if we can get to note X, X+1 seems somewhat achievable if we just force it a little bit more. Just hit it a bit harder. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, it happens.

But this approach is not harmless nor is it zero cost. It’s a very bad habit to get into, let alone an approach to singing that one learns to rely on. In more extreme cases it can cause damage to voices, especially as we are capable of delivering far more air pressure to our vocal folds than they are capable of withstanding.

I was chatting with a client this week about the problem with forcing notes out, especially under the adrenalin of performing live. It is undoubtedly a big and emotionally charged area, so I wanted to cover a few of the aspects of it here. If you find yourself blasting out higher notes, at least in part to try and make sure you make the notes, you should read on.

Let’s lay the framework for the ideal way of extending our range and making it comfortable:

How we acquire range and power

To sing low notes the vocal folds need to contract and shorten, to sing high notes the vocal folds need to stretch and thin. The larynx which houses the vocal folds has an upper half and lower half. These are made to tilt relative to one another (via laryngeal musculature) to achieve the length and corresponding pitch change.

All our pitch control needs to happen at the larynx/vocal fold level, and in a relaxed manner rather than under pressure. However, a common thing I notice is singers “giving it more welly” when performing live, in order to achieve the pitch.

What is happening here?

As explained briefly above, the vocal folds needs to make particular adjustments. The laryngeal structure actually tilts to permit this pitch. Proper vocal training involves getting the larynx to make those adjustments in a co-ordinated strain-free way, to enable easy pitch and range acquisition.

However, when we drive excess air pressure at the larynx, we aren’t adjusting the vocal folds directed, but we are physically forcing this tilt (and therefore pitch) adjustment to occur. It’s a little like how a harmonica player bends the reeds inside the harmonica. By blowing with significantly more air pressure than normal, the reed doesn’t oscillate at its natural self-determined frequency, but is distorted to hit a higher pitch.

This is NOT how the voice as an instrument is meant to operate. And unlike harmonica players, we can’t just buy a new voice when the old instrument gets a bit too battered from daily use.

Singing higher notes is not power-lifting

A common misconception I see bandied about with singers, performers and even vocal coaches is claiming that singers are “vocal athletes“. While singers are undoubtedly athletes, singers are not meant to be approaching singing like power-lifters. They are not meant to be blowing out muscles or suffering haemorrhages on a regular basis.

Great singing ability is acquired through fine motor control, NOT through explosive effort to FORCE the larynx to tilt to make a certain note. It’s far more genteel than it is power-lifting, and way more of an ultra-marathon than a sprint.

The first problem with singers who regularly adopt this “power-lifting” approach is clearly that damage can be done. This approach only gets more problematic as singers larynges turn to bone with age, as the instrument becomes more rigid and less forgiving to poor technique.

It also leads to lower quality tone, as explained above. Remember, there’s no prizes for singing a difficult song (or note) badly, there’s only prizes for sounding your best.

But there is a second problem that is especially relevant to those who have started to unlock their voice through proper training.

Easy high notes

When I first started trying to improve my voice, I took the approach that most instrumentalists have when they take on practice pieces. If I can play/sing something difficult, however badly, I must have improved my ability overall. So if I can squeak out or force out a really high note, however strained or however bad it sounds, then it should make everything below that easier to achieve. Right?

And if I can make the note, then I can improve it. Surely?

Not even close.

Good, high quality vocal sound (and feel!) is a result of our body and our instrument operating in a strain-free manner.

To achieve this we are training the body to expect and deliver a certain response through exercises. If you achieve a given note in a way that feels easy and strain-free, even if it’s a weaker and more fledgling version of the long-term finished goal, THAT is the kind of sound we can build on. The body will learn that the response it’s aiming for should feel strain-free, and tone and correct vocal function can be developed.

In contrast, if EVERY time we go for a particular note, our body strains or tenses up, or we exponentially increase the amount of air pressure we drive at our instrument, then we are ingraining that particular behaviour into our body and in turn our instrument. The face contorts, mouth widens or jams shut, the shoulders start to rise and tense up, etc.

Not only are we NOT singing the note well, not only does it not sound great, we are training our body to keep doing it that way.

The body is amazing in many ways, but if we insist on teaching it to do something in one particular way, it will learn to keep doing it that way – for better and for worse.

This shuts down range and impedes vocal development

If note X is being forced out, and is dependent on “giving it some welly” to make the note… then what about the note after that? If we’re already giving her all she’s got (Cap’n), how are we going to make the next note? What about the note after THAT? How on earth are we going to keep going?

If we convince our body that every high note should feel like we’ve squeezing out a kidney stone, we’re going to get stuck.

This is especially common with singers who have started to build range through vocal training. We have acquired some new facility, and that can lead us to hammering the next pocket of range in our voice… range we wouldn’t otherwise have access to if not for the process of building the voice in a relaxed way up until that point.

By hammering our way to higher notes, we not only jettison quality, but we effectively introduce a brick wall in how our body and voice responds to songs and training. And every time we force those notes out, we stick another brick in that wall, making it even harder to take down. To fix this requires unpicking of bad habits, which is a slow and tedious process, especially when we can recognise we only recently laid that brickwork ourselves.

The solution lies in offstage practice

Caveat: I get that sometimes you got to do what you got to do, especially as a performing artist, or when mid-flow in a set that you’re really enjoying at home. There will be times the voice isn’t quite right, or the note was always a work in progress, and yet that money note is a non-negotiable part of the current set and commercial obligations.

So put in the hard work offstage. It needs to be even more focused to prevent the bad habits that need to occasionally be indulged in onstage becoming the de facto standard. We need to overwrite those bad habits.

We want to show our body and voice the easiest way to access notes. We need to keep repetitiously showing our instrument what this feels like. If you can access note X in an easy and relaxed manner, then note X+1 will become available, then X+2 etc. But force out note X, and we’re going no further.

Ideally, this is also the way we should be singing songs onstage. In turn, we can then sing easy, and direct our adrenalin to our performance rather than what should be the technical endeavour of singing in tune and sounding great.

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