Reaching The Breaking Point—Part One
By Jeannie Deva - 12/17/2004 - 04:03 AM EST
Years ago, I learned to “make due” with a very limited vocal range. True, I could really belt out a song, but the song had to stay contained within a small number of notes. After a while, I realized there was more that I wanted to be able to express and for that, needed to have more “high” notes in my vocabulary. However, therein lay the problem. My upper range was a complete embarrassment – and forget about being able to sing smoothly from low to high!
I did not even think it possible to expand my range. I, like so many others, believed that you were born with the voice you had and I would just have to learn to deal with what little range I had at my disposal. When I began to research the voice and create a new approach to voice training, I was my own first client. I was so sure that I could not expand my range and get past my "breaking point" that I did not include this as a goal for myself. I was truly surprised when I began to sing smoothly further and further into previously unknown vocal territory! This led me into additional research, to better understand this phenomenon and its solutions, some of which I will share with you in this article.
Many singers find their lack of range and lack of confidence holds them back from being the expressive singer they wish themselves to be. Still others have come to believe that the "breaking point" in their range is a natural part of a person’s voice. This belief alone causes people to invent ways of hiding or maneuvering around an aspect of their voice they wish was not there. But is it really true that this "breaking point" is a natural part of a person's voice?
To start off, let's define the term "breaking-point." Breaking-point, otherwise known as "register break" is defined as those few notes which are the cross-over from your lower to your upper register. In classical voice training, this is called the "passage" or passagio (passageway between two sections of vocal range). Usually this is one to three notes which suddenly become weak and are difficult to control.
Though there are some variations, this is normally experienced from an E to an F# over Middle C for men. For women it is either the same notes an octave above, or a Bb to a C# above Middle C. Above these notes, the singer may be able to regain a sense of vocal control and recapture some vocal quality. The register of notes above the “breaking-point” is often thought of by men as their "falsetto" range and by women as their "head voice."
The Cause - Physical or Mental?
Singing is both a mental and physical process. When you think you have to do something to achieve a certain note, and if what you think you have to do is actually not what your body needs to do, the conflict can cause tension and a poor result. The outcome will never be as good as it could be if your thoughts are in harmony with your body’s natural and automatic sound functions.
An example of this is thinking you have to reach "up" for higher notes when in fact all the pitches are created in the same location in your throat. In actuality, to achieve faster vibrations (higher pitches), the back of your voice box tilts down into the center of the throat so that the vocal folds can stretch. So thinking "up" is contrary to the physical motion of the voice box, which can confuse your body and cause tension.
When I began to research the voice, I realized that just because you experience something does not mean that it is natural, nor fundamentally true. For example, the experience of a "breaking point" when you sing is not conclusive evidence that it is a natural part of singing. It is simply your experience and deserves further exploration as to why it occurs. Discovering its origin can give you the answers as to what can be done about it. So let’s look at some vocal basics.
Your two vocal folds are housed inside the thyroid cartilage. The front tip of this thyroid cartilage is your Adam's apple. This unit is called your "vocal box." In order to achieve faster vibrations (higher pitches), your vocal box tilts down into the center of the throat so that the folds can lengthen. As they do so, the muscles of the folds become thinner. Simultaneously, the inner rims of the folds press together permitting a shorter section to vibrate. As you sing lower, the box resumes a horizontal position, the folds become thicker, and a longer length of them vibrates. This is similar to fretting strings (shortening them for higher pitches) and the various thicknesses of strings on a string instrument: thicker = slower vibrations and lower pitches, thinner = faster vibrations and higher pitches.
These small variations of movement need to be accomplished smoothly and to different tiny degrees, depending on the pitches intended. It is important to know that this tilting, thickening and thinning process is designed to happen automatically! You don’t have to make this happen with your external throat muscles, jaw movements or tongue positions!
The usual cause of register break is too much air pressure under the vocal folds due to a lack of regulated breath support. Excessive air will push your vocal folds apart. Instinctively, your throat muscles tighten to hold them together. However, for your voice box to tilt downward (which it must do as you sing higher) your external throat muscles must relax. When they relax the excessive air blows your folds apart and voila – the breaking point! Those few transition notes will crack, sound breathy, or be entirely absent depending on how unregulated the air stream is, and how tense the muscles are.
So the keys to singing without register break are: 1) a properly regulated air stream is sent to your vocal folds and 2) the tongue and throat muscles are relaxed and permitted to function naturally and automatically – not manipulated. I can not possible cover all the details of this in an article but I can suggest some exercises to relax your vocal muscles.
Relax That Tongue!
Here are three short exercises to help limber and tone some of the important muscles that control your voice. Take care to accomplish each of the positions and movements of these exercises slowly, relaxing the related muscles as you go.
Exercise 1: Open your mouth slightly. Keep your lips relaxed. Slowly stretch your tongue out, while letting the back of it remain relaxed. When extended as far forward as possible without strain, slowly stretch it over to one side of your mouth. Pause. Now return it to its stretched and forward position. Pause. Slowly stretch it to the other side. Pause. Return it to center and extend forward. Pause. Now slowly retract it back inside your mouth. Swallow.
Exercise 2: Catch the tip of your tongue behind your lower teeth. Keep it there as you roll the body of your tongue forward until you feel a slight stretch of the back of your tongue. Return your tongue inside your mouth, relax it and swallow. Repeat this stretch two more times only. More may create muscle strain.
Exercise 3: Open your mouth slightly. Extend your tongue and let it lie on top of your lower lip. With your tongue stretching forward in this position, sustain an "Ah" tone. Ensure you use an "Ah" as in the pronunciation of "want." Now bring your tongue back to a normal position, pick a higher note and sustain a sung "Ah." Repeat this alternately, several times. You should experience a sense of more space in the back of your throat, with added muscle relaxation and resonance.
Now try singing. It should feel easier and sound more resonant-rich. These three tongue exercises are part of a series of warm-ups and vocal-muscle agility exercises which I have developed over the years. You can do these exercises several times during the day, and especially before singing. After practicing them, you should find your voice sounding richer and a bit fuller and more resonant.
In next month’s column we’ll explore some more “tricks of the trade” for better expansion and control of your vocal range.
Jeannie Deva is the founder of Jeannie Deva® Voice Studios since 1978 and originator of The Deva Method® A Non-Classical Approach for Singers™. Author of the internationally published vocal home-study course: The Contemporary Vocalist book and CDs, and The Deva Method Vocal Warm-Ups and Cool-Downs CD, she has been flown to recording studios internationally as a recording studio vocal specialist and has been endorsed by producers and engineers of the Rolling Stones, The Cars, Aerosmith, and many others. Clients include Grammy Award Winner Aimee Mann, Patty Griffin, Dar Williams, members of the J. Geils band, Broadway cast of Grease, the international touring cast of Fame, Jesus Christ Superstar and many more. While her private voice studio is located in Los Angeles, Jeannie maintains private clients across the US, South America and Europe, giving lessons in person and long distance, by phone. Jeannie Deva® Voice Studios 818-446-0932. JeannieDeva.com
Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved. Jeannie Deva, The Deva Method and A Non-Classical Approach for Singers are service and trademarks owned by Jeannie Deva Enterprises, Inc.
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