DISCLAIMER: JamPlay LLC and Chris Liepe are not legally responsible for any injuries, messes or general discomfort caused by any misuses of the information provided in this article. Please use caution and stop singing if at anytime your throat or vocal cords feel uncomfortable. Always hydrate properly and take care of your voice! Please see a doctor and possibly a singing coach if the problem persists.
Action Points for Rock Singers (Part 2)
In the last article in this series, I addressed ways to get your mind in the right place for successful rock singing. I also talked about the typical and proper ways of learning to sing as good ways to learn, but definitely NOT the way most rock singing legends have crafted their golden voices. In this article, I'm going to focus on "finding your support." So many singers (myself included for many years) sing at half power and thus half potential. They also end up injuring themselves or having to baby their voices cause they 'pushed too much the night before.' They also seem to have a brick wall range ceiling. As discussed in the previous article, much of this can be tied to mental limitations the singer places on their own voice due to confidence issues. But, at the same time you're becoming okay with your mistakes and lack of perfection while projecting an image of confidence and command, you need to know how to get the most out of your voice physically! Remember, you want to be a great rock singer! Rock singers sing loud. They scream, grunt, growl, and howl all while appealing to your ears and soul with memorable melodies and great presence. Before we get in to the "how to" section, I have a short story that perhaps some of you will relate to.
When I was about 17, I had a singing experience I will never forget. It was almost right after I started playing guitar, and I hadn't tried singing in front of people by myself much at all. I'd done choirs at school, and sang for family and friends, but as far as playing and singing for people I didn't know... I was totally green! You really couldn't call it a gig, but at least I was playing and singing a little.
I had volunteered with a group to help serve food at a soup kitchen for an afternoon and also let the people in charge know that we'd like to play a few songs for people as they were eating. It was a smaller room and there was no microphone, no amp, no music stand, no nothing! We got the permission to go ahead and do some music so after a good number of people had their meals, we took our places at the far end of the cafeteria-like room and started to play. Of course, we were playing during dinner hour so I didn't expect everyone to drop their forks and listen intently but the first thing I noticed after we started is that nobody seemed to know we were even there. For the second song, we cranked it up a notch acoustically and got a number of heads to turn. Not long after the attention turned toward us, I started to hear comments like, "What??" "...Are you saying something?" "...We can't hear you!" As the only singer, I tried sing louder, project more and silence the seemingly tough crowd. I think we ended up playing five songs or so and after we were done, my voice was totally spent. I had yelled at baseball games, screamed on roller coasters and talked over loud restaurant crowds and never had my voice gotten so weak so quickly. As we were leaving, a long gray-haired, leather skinned man came up to me and said in a sarcastic tone: "You know, maybe someday you'll learn how to sing so people can hear you!" He shook my hand, then turned around and went back to his seat.
I had all sorts of things going through my head as we left the soup kitchen that day. "Give me a break, there wasn't any microphone. If they would have all just shut up, they probably could have heard us a little better. What's an old guy doing, picking on a kid like me?" You can imagine, that experience wasn't a great confidence builder and really wasn't all that fun. To this day, I still feel like I had some valid rebuttals to that man's comment, but that experience really got me thinking about my vocal stamina and volume. How do I make my voice jump out in any setting, cut through a mediocre PA mix, and command the ears of those in the room? There were other people that day at the kitchen that could speak over the dinnertime noise with a bellowing tone that cut through to me on the opposite side of the room, but I couldn't do that with my singing voice. What's more, I could yell at friend across a football field with great intensity, but when it came to singing, I was a little quiet, adolescent mouse.
Around that same time, I was also in to some good rock music and one vocalist in particular stood out to me after that experience at the soup kitchen. Granted, he doesn't 'sing' much but he has enough power to tear the roof off any soup kitchen without a microphone! Zach De La Rocha of Rage Against The Machine is a powerful belting expert. In essence he yells at people across giant football fields with a kickin' band behind him. In my young, inexperienced musical mind, I thought, "Well, if I could just put that kind of energy in to carrying a melody, I'd be all set... wait, I couldn't even sing four songs without losing my voice... I'll just go play my guitar and leave the singing to someone else."
Years later, I began to take singing more seriously again and thought back to that experience in the soup kitchen as well as that 'Rage' singer. I was also taking vocal lessons while in College. I didn't like voice lessons because they didn't seem to teach me anything I really wanted to know. I didn't care about sight singing, or standing up straight. I wanted to be heard, and I wanted to sing over the kind of music I loved listening to.
I did learn a few good things from taking voice lessons though. I learned to find my 'break' which is that place where as you start to sing higher and higher that your voice starts to crack and then sort of 'transfer' in to a different type of voice. For a man, it gets much thinner and sounds sort of feminine. For a woman, the break is less noticeable but still there. The range after the break is lighter, less aggressive and more 'pretty' than powerful. I also learned the very basics of singing with proper support, the kind of bodily support that will allow you to sing aggressively over the top of a band for more than four or five songs. Correct application and sustained use of proper support didn't happen though until I combined what I had learned from a theoretical point of view in voice lessons with my own little vocal boot camp.
While I was driving around the streets of Denver, Colorado or in my parent's basement, or in my apartment in the middle of the day (when, hopefully most people were gone and no babies were sleeping) I would practice yelling, screaming and discovering my voice. This ritual went on for a few years with only a few weird looks or phone calls from the apartment leasing office. It always involved some singing, but it also involved a lot of weird noises, screeches, and stuff that really doesn't sound like its productive, but it really is.
I'm going to describe and show you (with audio samples) some of what this voice-building routine looked like. These vocal experiments continue to be a part of my on-going vocal discovery and have been the very best thing for me in finding my voice apart from the confidence and mental block issues discussed in the first article.
What you are going to hear in these samples is not pretty. In fact, if you wanted to be funny, you could sit in a room with your friends over in the corner with your laptop and play some of these sound bites just to see what kind of looks and reactions you get. Combined with explanations, a critical ear, and a willingness on your part to experiment with your own voice, you may take away some valuable starting points for improving your stamina, support and power.
Here we go on personal vocal discovery!!
Identify Your Chest Voice and Head Voice
Your “chest voice” is what you normally speak in. If you hold a note in your speaking range and you are a normal human being, you will naturally be singing in your chest voice. They call it your “chest voice” because it feels like the primary resonance is coming from your chest area. Most people don't have to “find” this voice because they just naturally do it. The “head voice” is little trickier if you haven't experienced it. We briefly covered this earlier in the article when talking about what I learned in vocal lessons. Your head voice should feel and sound thinner and higher both in pitch and in resonance placement. It doesn't really feel like it's coming from your head, more the area of your upper throat and mouth. If you’re a man and your trying to do a humorous imitation of a woman speaking voice, you’re probably speaking in your head voice. If you're a woman trying to imitate a small child, you're also probably speaking in your head voice.
Here is a sample of spoken work in both chest and head voice:
Find Your Break
Your "break" is the point at which your vocal chords must change positions and let air through differently in order allow you to transfer between your head and chest voice. An easy way to find this once you have identified and are comfortable with your head and your chest voices is to attempt to slide from somewhere low in your chest voice up to where you can't go any higher and then let your voice "break" (or crack) into your head voice. If you aren't supporting your voice very much and you haven't experimented with this exercise, it might sound something like this:
You also will want to practice sliding downward from your head voice to your chest voice like this:
Practice going as low as you can go in your chest voice and as high as you can go in your head voice and for now, embrace the break! You've found it and your learning how it feels. This is good! You'll find that as your doing these exercises, that your break seems to change places in your range depending on how loud your singing. This is normal and can be used to your advantage artistically as you grow as a singer. It can be discouraging though when you want to hit some note in full chest voice but its just too high so you crack in to your head voice and settle less than you wanted to deliver. Listening to this demonstration of how the break changes with less or more air movement will help you get some perspective on the “range” your break can have:
Most people don't use their head voice much because of this annoying crack that happens when they try to transition from their chest voice to their head voice. They simply say "my range stops where my chest voice stops." How sad! People also avoid singing songs where the melody is "in their break" cause it means a ton of voice cracks and wobbly notes. This brings us first to finding your support, and second, controlling or even eliminating your break. That's right! You can eventually train yourself to sing super high and low and loud without anyone hearing you crack and squeak through that dreaded break!! (Working with your break will be the focus of the next article)
Let's first look at support. Now, no one has ever taught me what I'm about to share with you, and I have not heard anyone try to describe proper support in the following manner, but in my time practicing and finding my voice, this way of explaining things has helped me tremendously because I have found that support for your voice can be found and maintained by paying attention to certain voluntary and involuntary muscle movements that we are all familiar with. Even if you have been able to sing with a good amount of volume and support, thinking about these muscles will help you out! So what are they already?? Put your bedside manner aside for the moment and pull your sense of humor close to you. Keep an open mind and have fun listening to some ridiculous, yet hopefully helpful demonstrations.
If you've ever lifted something heavy, as your bending down, and preparing to take on the large object, you've probably let out a Hulk Hogan-like vocalization that sounds something like this:
Go head. Try it! Where ever you are or whatever you're doing, let out a World Wide Wrestling grunt. With this type of expression, there's no other way to get the right sound than to pull the sound from the lowest part of your gut and push the air through your throat and out your mouth. It's not pretty or musical but there are muscles at work there that can be tapped in to when singing. Notice how your abdominal muscles tense as your stomach (NOT your chest) pushes in towards your backbone. Notice also that as you're pushing your air upwards, that your neck doesn't feel restricted except at the very end when your vocal chords abruptly stop the movement thereby creating the sound.
Now, try this: Start by preparing to grunt, follow through with the grunt while focusing your mind on all the muscles in your abdomen. Then, when you abruptly stop the air movement with your vocal chords and hear the vocal tone generated by that stop, turn that tone in to a note. It doesn't have to be a crazy high note. It should be a comfortable one for you to hit. Keep your abdominal muscles tense and continue to channel that air movement up and out. Just keep that note going till you run out of air. Then try it again. Try also doing it with your head voice. It should sound something like this:
Notice that the initial “attack” on the vocal chords from the air being stopped sounds a little higher than the note that eventually results while holding the pitch. This is normal as long as the volume doesn't diminish after the first attack. You don't want it to sound like this:
Ideally, you want the pitch to be as close to the initial attack pitch as possible. At this point, you may discover notes you never knew you had in you. Its kind of fun!
Try it another time, this time, keeping in mind the feeling and pitch of the initial attack and it might sound something like this:
Now this exercise isn't great on your vocal chords so you don't want to spend more than about 5-10 minutes per day initially. Be patient and pay attention to how your voice feels while you're doing it. Then take it beyond just single notes. Learn a simple melody or sing part of a scale while focusing your energy on your lower abdominal muscles. Approaching a note in this way is called a glottal attack. You're pushing air with great force up to your glottis (or vocal folds) and then partially stopping the air movement enough to form a pitch. There are two ways to practice this exercise. Choose a group of notes – any group of notes that you are comfortable with, and apply a glottal attack for each note.
You can also take those same notes and apply the glottal attack for just the first note all the while making sure to keep your mind focused on your abdominal muscles.
The former way of practicing helps you realize and reset with each attempt at forming a note. The latter helps you actually sort of sound like a singer while focusing your mind and energy on the way your muscles are working. I recommend practicing both regularly. If done right and sparingly, they can be a good part of a balanced warm up.
Sometimes, even after attempting this way of approaching a note, its hard to know if the right muscles are being used enough and to their utmost potential. Already, you may be feeling yourself use muscles in a way you never associated with singing – especially if you're doing what you're supposed to be doing and keeping those abdominal muscles flexed through the whole duration of each note/breath. Let's take this a step further and remind ourselves of some other ways some of those same muscles (and more muscles) are used and then tap in to the feeling we get in those muscles while applying our singing voice.
Don't go crazy here, and be careful! I want you to go get your toothbrush and start brushing your tongue. Use your favorite toothpaste. Start by brushing the front of your tongue, then move back towards the back of your throat. Keep doing it! Eventually, if you go far back enough, you will begin to gag. Yes... you are reading an article about developing your singing voice and I am asking you to gag yourself. If you are uncomfortable doing this, you may need to go get your annual checkup at your family doctor's office and have your physician check your gag reflex. (I won't be posting sound sample of me gagging myself).
Most people can only gag 2 or 3 times before they start feeling the urge to throw up, so again, be careful and know when to quit. If you are being attentive to what your muscles in your lower abdomen are doing while triggering this involuntary, natural reaction you'll feel some muscles at work that were not as present in the last exercise we did. You may have not felt them at all. The gag reflex triggers muscles much lower than just your abs. If you think back to your gagging experience, you may remember that there was pressure around your tailbone and perhaps lower. Yes, these muscles are the same muscles you use when you go "number 2." (it could be worse, but remember my comment about bedside manner). Keep an open mind!
I want you to go back to our initial glottal attack exercise and this time, keep in mind the sensation you felt during your gagging yourself that occurred in the muscles around your tailbone. You should feel as if you’re trying to push out some gas. (Maybe don't try this one around your friends). Focus your mental and physical energy on your tailbone and your abdominal muscles. Keep them tight, keep them in the forefront of your mind so that you're only focusing on your muscles. Stand up straight, take a deep breath, and go for it!
Please refer once again to gagging yourself. (You may need to do it once more if the memory is fading) Notice what is happening with your throat. It's opening way up!! If you’re a male, your Adam's apple is dropping as low as it can go. If you're a female, you feel as if the lower part of your neck is staring to become part of your collarbone. Your body does this when gagging because it's making room in case something needs to come up and out. Well, when you're singing, something definitely needs to come up and out... Air!
A lot of singers make the mistake of closing up this passage way (doing the opposite of what it felt like in your throat when you gagged). They may do this because they like the tone that they get, but they don't realize that they are going about getting their tone without understanding how proper air movement works. Good singing is about being SUPER attentive to how your body feels and works. Once you understand some things, you can start pursuing your tone. For now, let's work on airflow and not care if we sound somewhat strange. So, think about how your throat opened up and what it felt like while gagging and open up your mouth and throat. You should sort of feel the urge to burp although there should be no air to actually burp. Now take a deep breath, and do the glottal attack exercise once more. You should sound like a bad parody of an opera singer. Your tone should be ugly and dark as if the sound is generated from way back in your throat. Something like this:
Try this a couple of times until you are able to get the same, powerful sound consistently. Then, using the same drill, with the same support on the same note, practicing transitioning from this ugly opera singer parody tone to the more 'normal' note you had when you were doing the exercise earlier. It should sound something like this:
When you're doing this exercise, your actually changing the position of your vocal chords while raising and lowering your neck position. Now, you're not tensing your neck. Keep your neck muscles relaxed and your abs and butt muscles tense at this point. When doing this correctly, you're rocking your vocal mechanism back and forth and learning what it feels like to manipulate the position of your vocal chords without tensing your neck muscles. This takes some practice so be patient. Learning how this feels and sounds in your own voice is the first step to controlling and disguising your break. We'll go there in the next article! For now, practice the glottal attack exercise and focus on how you are using muscles throughout the core of your body to produce the beginnings of a powerful meant to be heard Rock voice!