This topic has been coming up a lot recently, and also came up in yesterdays voice intensive, so I wanted to talk about it this week. As an aside, I’ve been trying to write this article for several months. It’s a difficult and somewhat abstract/subjective topic to discuss.
What makes a song “feel high”?
If you’ve EVER tried to sing a song that seems like it’s at the limits of your capacity, or beyond, you’ve experienced that sensation of “that song feels high“… but if we get ‘reductionist’ on this statement, what do we really mean?
The idea of a song feeling high/too high can actually be viewed as multiple issues wrapped up in one:
1) PITCH ONLY – If song A contains higher notes than song B, it’s fair to assert that song A is higher than song B due to the frequencies of the notes involved.
2) SENSATION ONLY – If song A feels physically more strenuous to sing than song B (even if the range is similar), the lack of ease tends to make us perceive song A as higher than song B.
The second component is usually what people mean when they say “that song feels high”. They are not really commenting on the factual range of the song (though that is often a factor), they are commenting that it FEELS more strenuous. Such singers generally mean that to sing the song causes strain, or is physically unpleasant to sing, to one degree or another.
The sensation component is therefore not a comment on the range of the pitches being sung, but is a comment on the physical difficulty of singing for the performer. I.e. when we say a song “feels high” what we typically mean is “this song feels like it’s physically difficult for me to hit those notes“.
But what about songs we don’t register as difficult?
Let’s think for a moment about what is going on. If it’s perceived physical difficulty that makes a song feel hard/high, what makes you feel like a song is comfortable/easy for your voice?
In most instances, when we talk about a song feeling easy we rarely comment on it being too low. This does happen but it’s rare. Comfort and ease relates to an absence of difficulty in singing the song. I.e. the physical sensations are unremarkable in their difficulty, and may even feel relatively pedestrian. This then leaves us free to sing the song.
Maybe from an artistic perspective this means it doesn’t feel exciting enough to the amateur singer, but this is where we need to start. Excitement can always be added through style, but we should never introduce strain or physical difficulty just for the sake of making something seem more exciting.
THIS is the key to great singing. Having a technical facility that so outstrips the demands of the material you want to sing, that everything you want to sing feels comfortable/easy.
If you are constantly finding your voice flagging on certain songs, or your entire set, this is not just a technical issue but is also an issue in your material being too demanding for your voice. Revisit it with the above in mind and see how much additional ease you can impart into your songs. You’ll be amazed at the extra quality you get out of your voice by prioritising this.
This is a great moment to comment on how we build our voices to keep moving in this direction.
The sensations we experience when singing in a comfortable range (typically our chest voice) are the perfect template for developing our upper/full range. If the upper range can be made to feel near identical and as physically comfortable as the normal part of our range, then would we be able to perceive the difference between our upper and lower ranges? When the top can be made to feel identical to the bottom, then we have built our voice to be consistent and uniform, rather than compartmentalised.
This is the point of building good technique into a voice. It’s not about cheating our way to the high notes, or trying to squeak out high notes by reducing (but not removing) difficulty – we’re trying to blend the function, aesthetics and feeling of the bottom into the top – and vice versa. Once we do this, comfort and ease are the norm, and absence of difficulty across a wide range is possible.