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Attenuated earplugs: The key to protecting your hearing while practicing music

As a musician, practicing is an essential part of honing your craft. However, the noise level of your instruments can lead to permanent hearing damage over time. That’s why attenuated earplugs have become an essential tool for musicians who want to protect their hearing without sacrificing the quality of their practice sessions.

What are attenuated earplugs?

Attenuated earplugs are a type of hearing protection device that are designed to reduce the volume of sound without distorting the quality of the sound. Unlike traditional earplugs, which can muffle the sound and make it difficult to hear, attenuated earplugs are designed to reduce the decibel level of the sound, while still allowing you to hear the full range of frequencies. This means that you can protect your hearing while still hearing the music clearly.

Musicians typically use attenuated earplugs when rehearsing at loud volume levels with a band, in an enclosed space. Attenuated earplugs come in a variety of dB reduction levels. From as little as nine through to 25 dB reduction.

Why musicians should use attenuated earplugs

Musicians are at a higher risk for hearing loss than the general population. This is because they are exposed to high decibel levels on a regular basis, both in practice sessions and during live performances. Over time, this exposure can lead to permanent hearing damage, including tinnitus and hearing loss. Attenuated earplugs are a simple and effective way to protect your hearing and prevent these issues.

Attenuated earplugs have several benefits for musicians:

  • They reduce the volume of sound without affecting the quality. This means you can still hear the nuances of the music, including the dynamics and tone.
  • They provide consistent protection, regardless of the environment. Whether you’re practicing in a quiet room or performing on a loud stage, attenuated earplugs can provide reliable protection for your hearing.
  • They are comfortable to wear. Attenuated earplugs are designed to fit comfortably in your ear, and they won’t fall out or cause discomfort during long practice sessions.

Tips for using attenuated earplugs

If you’re new to using attenuated earplugs, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Choose the right level of attenuation. Attenuated earplugs come in different levels of attenuation, so it’s important to choose the right level for your needs. A music store or audiologist can help you choose the right level of protection for your specific situation.

Use them consistently. Attenuated earplugs are only effective if you use them consistently, so make sure to wear them during all practice sessions and live performances.

Clean them regularly. Attenuated earplugs can accumulate wax and other debris over time, which can affect their effectiveness. Clean them regularly with soap and water or a specialized cleaning solution.

Attenuated earplugs are an essential tool for musicians who want to protect their hearing while practicing and performing. By reducing the volume of sound without affecting the quality, they provide reliable protection against permanent hearing damage. If you’re a musician, consider using attenuated earplugs in your practice sessions to protect your hearing and ensure that you can continue to make music for years to come.

Better information leads to better singing! Want to talk through some more tips on how to preserve your hearing and voice? Contact me today and let’s chat.

The pros and cons of steaming your vocal cords: What you need to know

As a singer, your vocal cords are one of your most important assets. Taking care of your voice is crucial to maintaining your vocal health and ensuring that you can perform at your best.

One popular method for caring for your vocal cords is steaming. While steaming can have many benefits, it is important to understand the potential risks as well. In this article, we will explore the pros and cons of steaming your vocal cords.

Pros of steaming your vocal cords

1. Rehydrates dried out cords and throat

One of the main benefits of steaming is that it can help rehydrate dry vocal cords and throat. This can be especially helpful if you live in a dry climate or if you have been talking or singing for an extended period.

2. Loosens Mucus

Steaming can help loosen mucus in the throat and nasal passages, making it easier to sing or speak. This can be particularly helpful if you are suffering from a cold or allergy symptoms.

3. Reduces Swelling

If your vocal cords are swollen, steaming can help reduce inflammation and relieve discomfort.

Cons of steaming your vocal cords

1. Can Increase Severity of Viral or Bacterial Infections

Steaming vocal cords when you have a bacterial or viral infection can help increase and spread the severity of the virus to your airway. For this reason, it is not recommended to steam your vocal cords when you are sick.

2. Can cause burns

If the steam is too hot or if you are not careful, you can accidentally burn your vocal cords. This can cause serious injury and may even require medical attention.

3. Not a substitute for proper vocal care

While steaming can be helpful, it is not a substitute for proper vocal care. It is important to stay hydrated, get enough rest, and avoid behaviors that can harm your voice, such as smoking.

Steaming your vocal cords can be a useful tool for maintaining vocal health, but it is important to use caution and understand the potential risks. If you are unsure whether steaming is right for you, consult with a vocal coach or medical professional for guidance. Remember, the best way to care for your voice is to practice good vocal hygiene and take steps to prevent injury and strain.

Should you steam your vocal cords before or after a show?

As a singer, your voice is your instrument, and taking care of it is paramount. Whether you’re a rock or metal singer or any kind of singer that sings with grit or rasp, you want to make sure that your voice is in top shape when you take the stage. One popular method for vocal care is steaming, but is it safe to steam your vocal cords before a show? Let’s explore why steaming your vocal cords before a show is not recommended and why steaming post-show can be helpful for recovery.

Caution: Steaming your vocal cords before a show is not recommended

Steaming your vocal cords before a show is not recommended, and should always be an absolute last choice. The reason for this is that the steam can make your vocal cords more vulnerable to damage, especially if you sing with grit or rasp. This is because these vocal styles rely on a certain amount of tension in the vocal cords, and the steam can soften them, making them more susceptible to injury.

Steaming can also cause swelling of the vocal cords, which can make it more difficult to sing. For these reasons, it is best to avoid steaming your vocal cords before a show.

Steaming your vocal cords post-show: What you need to know

While steaming your vocal cords before a show is not recommended, steaming post-show can be helpful for recovery. After a performance, your vocal cords may be strained, and steaming can help alleviate any discomfort or swelling. Here’s what you need to know.

Use warm, not hot, steam. The steam should be warm enough to be soothing, but not so hot that it burns your vocal cords. Be careful not to get too close to the steam source.

I highly recommend that every vocalist purchase a steamer. While there are different products out there, the one that I recommend is the Vicks Steam Vaporizer, or the Vicks Sinus Inhaler for travelling (I am not sponsored by Vicks, I just really like their products).

RVR pro tip: If your vocal cords are seriously inflamed or dried out, my personal recommendation is to steam for at least 45 minutes with a towel over your head. I personally have four towels that I’ve sewed together to ensure that no steam escapes my inhalation.

Don’t rely solely on steaming for vocal recovery. While steaming can be helpful, it is not a cure-all. It’s important to rest your voice, stay hydrated, and avoid behaviors that can harm your vocal cords, such as smoking or drinking alcohol.

In conclusion, steaming your vocal cords before a show is not recommended and can be harmful to your vocal cords, especially if you sing with grit or rasp. However, steaming post-show can be helpful for vocal recovery, as long as it is done safely and in moderation. If you’re unsure about whether steaming is right for you, consult with a vocal coach or medical professional for guidance. Remember, the best way to care for your voice is to practice good vocal hygiene and take steps to prevent injury and strain.

RVR pro tip: When you steam your vocal cords, regardless of whether it is pre-show or post-show, your vocal cords will be thinned down and will remain thinned down for longer. This means that they won’t have the same mass or thickness your speaking voice will normally enjoy. It is not recommended to speak or yell while your vocal cords are thinned down, because you’ll risk damaging your vocal cords as they won’t support normal, rowdy levels of sound production.

If you’re a professional singer, once you’ve steamed your vocal cords you should try not to speak for the rest of the night. In fact, let the people around you know that you’re going to go into “vocal silent mode”.

Better information leads to better singing! If you’d like to talk more about the best steps to vocal recovery, contact me today for a chat.

Tinnitus: Understanding its impact on singers and musicians

Tinnitus is a common condition that affects millions of people around the world, including singers and musicians. It is characterized by a persistent ringing, buzzing, or humming sound in the ears, which can be distracting and even debilitating in some cases. In this article, we will explore what tinnitus is, how it affects singers and musicians, and what steps you can take to protect your hearing.

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is a condition that causes a persistent ringing, buzzing, or humming sound in the ears. It can affect one or both ears and may be constant or intermittent. The severity of the symptoms can vary from person to person, with some people experiencing mild ringing while others are completely incapacitated by the noise.

Tinnitus can be caused by a variety of factors, including exposure to loud noise, age-related hearing loss, ear infections, and other underlying health conditions. It is important to note that tinnitus is not a disease but a symptom of an underlying condition.

How does tinnitus affect singers and musicians?

Singers and musicians are particularly vulnerable to tinnitus because of their exposure to loud music and noise. Repeated exposure to loud noise can cause damage to the delicate hair cells in the inner ear, which can lead to tinnitus and other forms of hearing loss.

For singers and musicians, tinnitus can have a significant impact on their ability to perform. The persistent ringing or buzzing can be distracting and make it difficult to hear oneself or others accurately. It can also make it challenging to distinguish between different notes and frequencies, which can impact the quality of the performance.

What can we do to protect our hearing?

As singers and musicians, it is crucial to take steps to protect our hearing and prevent tinnitus. Some tips for protecting your hearing include:

Wear earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones when performing or rehearsing in loud environments.

Take regular breaks to give your ears a rest and allow them to recover from exposure to loud noise.

Avoid listening to music or other sounds at high volumes for extended periods of time.

Get regular hearing tests to monitor your hearing and identify any potential problems early.

Consider investing in custom-made earplugs that are specifically designed for musicians and singers.

Next steps

If you are a singer or musician who has been impacted by tinnitus or any kind of hearing condition, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional.

Paule Enso at Rapid Vocal Results is a trained vocal coach who has 30 years of experience working with singers who have all kinds of hearing loss conditions and challenges, including tinnitus. He can help you develop strategies to manage your symptoms and improve your vocal performance.

Contact Paule Enso at Rapid Vocal Results today to learn more.

Vocal conditions and how to prevent them

Vocal conditions and how to prevent them

Hi everybody, this post is a must read for any singer, public speaker or any profession that relies on the effectiveness of their voice to make a living (like school teachers, drill sergeants, executives or salespeople). If you regularly experience vocal discomfort, a loss of voice, pain or an inflamed throat when singing or screaming, this post is for you.

⚠️ Chances are if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, you could be ignoring vital warning signs from your body that are the earliest indicators that you can be causing damage to your vocal cords and/or the supporting muscles, tendons and ligaments that are responsible for proper vocal production.

In the interest of providing you with the very basic need-to-know information, I have compiled a list of the most common vocal cord disorders, with a brief description to help you recognise when you might be overdoing it or require a vocal tune up from a knowledgeable coach or singing teacher.


One of the very first warning symptoms that a singer or public speaker will experience when they are not vocalising and/or supporting their voice correctly is dysphonia. This basically means having the voice sound abnormal.

Dysphonia (hoarseness) is very common and everybody in their lifetime will experience some form of hoarseness or abnormal sound in their voice. The term dysphonia is used to characterise changes in your voice, or changes in the quality of your speaking or singing pitch. This may include changes to your normal volume production capability.

The symptoms of hoarseness may include raspy, weak vocal production or excessive breathiness that makes it difficult or impossible to close the vocal cords all the way up to produce a clean pitch. While it is usual for people to experience a hoarse or raspy voice, or even a tired voice when they’re getting over a cold or a flu, singers and professional public speakers must be more vigilant that they don’t consistently develop these symptoms over the long term from excessive vocal strain.

In the longer term, these are the telltale signs that your vocal cords and your breath support are out of balance and headed for a train wreck.

Nerdy fact 🤓: Dysphonia can be related to muscle tension, vocal tremors in your voice (where the voice just breaks for seemingly no reason at all), and can also be related to vocal cord paralysis. If symptoms persist, see an ear, nose and throat specialist and/or contact an experienced vocal coach as soon as possible.


Laryngitis is usually associated with a raspy or hoarse voice. It is caused mainly by creating too much heat and pressure at the vocal cords. This in turn produces or creates swollen or inflamed vocal cords that are no longer able to close properly to produce clean sung or spoken pitches.

Singers that incorrectly support their voice by singing through their throat are much more prone to developing laryngitis. A very easy way to identify this is by looking for an abnormally breathy voice.

When your vocal cords are inflamed and you’re experiencing Laryngitis, your voice will be very weak and you may end up sounding like your grandma or grandad!

Vocal cord lesions

Vocal cord lesions are typically non-canceous growths that include nodules, polyps and cysts. All of these lesion conditions can cause hoarseness, raspiness, excessive breathiness and more serious symptoms. They can cause excessive fatigue and prevent normal vocal production.

Vocal cord nodules

Vocal nodules are normally non-cancerous callouses that usually form on the mid-point of the vocal cords. These callouses form when the vocal cords are repeatedly brought together through excessive force. This can be caused by incorrectly supporting your voice using excessive volume as a strategy to be heard over the band.

Vocal nodules are formed when the vocal cords are slammed together violently. This kind of reckless singing can lead to serious consequences.

This can be especially bad if you’re a singer with a habit of singing through your throat. These kinds of singers and screamers run the risk of creating permanent callouses on the vocal cords. Once these nodules harden on the vocal cords themselves, they interfere with the vocal cords’ ability to close and correctly sing proper pitches and can also affect the strength of your speaking voice.

Vocal nodules once developed, and once they harden, become increasingly more difficult to resolve naturally and often require surgical intervention. Definitely something to be avoided if possible!

The most obvious sign of vocal nodules is loss of vocal range in an existing singer’s voice, and excessive “breathiness” when singing or speaking.

It is reasonably common for vocal nodules to develop and resolve themselves with the assistance of correct vocal breathing and singing exercises/coordinations. It is much harder to resolve vocal nodules once those callouses have fully hardened and become sizeable.

Nerdy fact 🤓: Female singers between the ages of 20-50 tend to be more susceptible to vocal nodules, however it is very common for both male and female singers and public speakers to develop nodules when they try to produce excessive volume incorrectly from their throats.

Vocal cord polyps

Vocal polyps are usually characterised as a soft, non-cancerous growth. For ease of understanding, you can think of a vocal polyp as a blister. A vocal polyp can include blood within the “blister” and sometimes the blood will disappear over time, leaving the singer with a clear blister on their vocal cords.

Symptoms of vocal polyps are very similar to vocal nodules, because in both cases they interfere with the voice’s normal production. The voice has a lot more excessive air and breathiness, leaving the singer feeling hoarse and raspy (but not the good kind of raspy!).

When you have a vocal polyp and your voice has excessive raspiness, you can’t clean up the voice and the blister will severely interfere with your ability to sing up into the higher notes within your range, because your vocal cords are unable to operate normally.

Unfortunately for smokers, there is a type of vocal polyp called Polypoyd Corditis (Reinke’s edema) , which is exclusively a condition that develops through smoking and/or acid reflux issues.

Nerdy fact 🤓: While causing similar symptoms, vocal polyps differ from nodules because polyps can form on either one or both vocal cords. A polyp has more blood vessels than a nodule and polyps have more variation in size and shape, while typically growing larger than nodules do. Visually, they look like soft blisters, while nodules form hard callouses on the vocal cords.

Vocal cord cysts

Cysts are growths that have a fluid filled sack. They have a semi-solid centre which prevents the vocal cords from being able to open and close with the normal characteristic rippling effect that we associate with maintaining a consistent pitch. Vocal cord cysts are less common than nodules or polyps.

There are two types of vocal cord cysts. There are mucous retention cysts, and there are epidermoid cysts.

Torn vocal cords

When someone consistently places an excessive unhealthy pressure on their vocal cords or the walls of their throat, they will first start off with either mild laryngitis or loss of normal voice. If the unhealthy practices are continued, the singer runs the risk of developing nodules or polyps. In the worst case scenario, they can actually tear vocal cords and damage nerves. The big one for us is the recurrent laryngeal nerve, which is a branch of the vagus nerve (cranial nerve).

As you can imagine, a torn vocal cord is a very serious issue for singers. Without the assistance of an extremely experienced and capable ear, nose and throat surgeon, this is not an injury that a singer can recover from just by having some time off.

An example of a torn or ruptured vocal cord was James LaBrie from the band Dream Theatre. James was on tour in Cuba and had violent food poisoning. In the act of vomiting, James tore or ruptured one of his vocal cords. I believe he still went on stage and performed his set with the band shortly thereafter, and the damage was so bad that they had to cancel shows, with James travelling straight back to the United States to seek urgent medical treatment. It took James 7-8 years to recover from his injury.

Vocal cord paralysis

Paralysis of the vocal cords is defined as when one or both of the vocal cords aren’t able to open and close properly. When one vocal cord is not opening or closing properly, it can be either paralysed, or partially paralysed.

If you have vocal cord paralysis, one or both of the vocal cords might remain open. This is a very severe condition for singers, speakers, or anyone for that matter. If the vocal cords remain open, they leave the air passage and the lungs unprotected from foreign objects from entering the airway.

Vocal cord paralysis can be caused by extended bouts of viral conditions, or by blows to the head, neck or chest. It can also be caused through various lung or thyroid cancers or tumors. In extreme conditions, for example operating with extreme screaming, it is possible to impact the main vocal nerves and impair normal function.

If you are suffering from any kind of vocal condition, or you’ve noticed that you’ve lost strength or vocal range, don’t delay and contact me immediately so that we can identify appropriate forms of coaching treatment, or I can put you in touch with an ear nose and throat specialist.

Better information leads to better singing!

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The benefits of warming up your voice

Sometimes the most professional, big time singers are the worst at following a structured warm up routine. The benefits of warming up your voice prior to your singing practice, rehearsing with the band, recording in the studio or of course performing live are undeniable.

It’s the goal of this post to help you learn from their mistakes and to look after your instrument by maintaining good vocal health. Your vocal cords can only tolerate so much misuse and abuse before they start to break down on you at the worst possible times.

As a vocal coach, it has been my fortune to be backstage with a number of seasoned, experienced, professional singers. I have observed first hand how big time singers are not always the best at following structured warm up routines, and their often haphazard approach to warming up the voice can do more harm than good.

I have seen impressionable, inexperienced singers follow the example of these big names with little or no structured warm up routines before singing. Just because they see and hear their idols not warming up, they think they can get away with committing the same vocal sins.

There are so many reasons to warm up your voice, including:

  1. Establishing correct diaphragmatic support and breathing.
  2. Warming up the vocal cords and exercising the tendons and ligaments that anchor our voice box (larynx) and are instrumental in helping us to enjoy freedom of movement to help us safely reach our lowest and highest notes, as well as everything in between.
  3. Maintaining or repairing minor vocal damage from the night before. An appropriate vocal warmup can help reduce swelling and inflammation in the vocal cords and can help you to achieve better cord closure.
  4. Warming up your voice prior to a gig allows you to refresh the muscle memories for both breathing and vocal coordination to allow you to sing at your best.
  5. An appropriately structured vocal warmup allows you to open up your airway and establish the correct open throat feelings and position to reduce strain on your voice, making it easier to hit those high notes.
  6. It gets your ears and your voice in tune pitch-wise.
  7. Your vocal warmup is your last opportunity to troubleshoot any challenge areas you have in your voice prior to going on stage or recording in a studio.

Popular excuses for not using a structured warmup for your voice

  1. “It’s just a band practice”
  2. “After a couple of songs on stage, my voice just warms up naturally anyway”
  3. “There’s no place to warm up. People will hear me!”
  4. “I usually just have a couple of drinks or a smoke or vape and I’m ready to go”
  5. “I’ve seen professional singers who don’t warm up and they sound great!”

If you’re a singer that doesn’t warm up before they begin singing, what’s the excuse that you use to avoid it?

Let’s shine a light on all of these excuses and see if they stand up under scrutiny:

  1. “It’s just a band practice”… Regardless of whether you’re singing for fun, or singing in front of a paying audience, the level of energy and the intensity that you exert on your voice is going to be very similar. If you are performing in front of a live audience, the majority of singers tend to sing a little bit harder and stronger because the adrenaline is running high. Your voice doesn’t care which of those two scenarios you’re operating in.

    If you are singing high intensity rock or pop (or any style for that matter) and you neglect to warm up your voice, you will risk straining your vocal cords by applying excess force to a cold cord to sing higher. If you’re screaming without a warmup, that’s even worse on your poor voice.
  2. “After a couple of songs on stage, my voice just warms up naturally anyway”… If you’re a singer that falls into this category, those first two songs that you’re straining to hit the high notes by using excessive tension on your cords and adopting the “weightlifting” mentality will contribute to a singing voice that will feel the effects of vocal fatigue later on in your set.

    Any time that you need to push your voice to sing higher or stronger is a good sign that you’re singing on cold vocal cords and you’re risking vocal strain. This is not only in your voice, but in the tendons and ligaments that play such a crucial role in supporting your larynx when you sing.
  3. “There’s no place to warm up. People will hear me!”... Most bars and music venues have bathroom stalls. They sometimes have little side rooms where you can go and do your warmup. Regardless of whether you need to warm up around other people or not, if you’re wearing headphones and singing along to a vocal warmup programme, you will be surprised how fast you forget about worrying what others think of you when you get on with the job of preparing your voice for top level performance.
  4. “I usually just have a couple of drinks or a smoke or vape and I’m ready to go”… I wish I had a dollar for every time I hear singers with a similar response to this. When you smoke or vape, you’re passing gasses across your vocal cords that are guaranteed to remove the protective layers of mucus that we rely on as singers to reduce harmful friction on the vocal cords when we sing.

    You’re not doing yourself any favours here. Yes, you might like to have a smoke before you hit the stage to ease your nerves, but you can achieve the same effect through practicing singer’s breathing exercises that will help you to reduce pre-stage nerves without having a negative impact on your vocal cords.

    As to alcohol, drinks are usually served cold and that’s where most of the problem lies. We want the vocal cords to be nice and warm to be able to perform at our best and you’re about to throw a cold drink down your throat. This is definitely going to mean that your vocal cords will take longer to warm up if you’re drinking a cold drink prior to singing.

    It’s a commonly accepted practice to have a couple of shots of spirits before you hit the stage to “relax your voice” and deal with those pre-show nerves. This is a practice that professional singers like Sammy Hagar (ex lead singer of Van Halen) used to swear by before he hit the stage. The only problem with this is that if your vocal cords are slightly dehydrated to begin with, you’re going to make the situation worse for yourself and you’re going to be singing on a dry throat three or four songs in. You’re far more likely to be reaching for that cold drink to replace lost moisture in your throat, which is only going to make matters worse.
  5. “I’ve seen professional singers who don’t warm up and they sound great!”… A perfect example of this is Joe Elliott from Def Leppard. There are nights when he basically just makes a whole bunch of screaming sounds backstage in an effort to warm up his voice. When you take on an unstructured warmup strategy like this, you run the risk of only warming up some areas of your voice and you can easily neglect the essential, foundational stuff like building good diaphragmatic breath support and establishing open throat technique prior to hitting the stage.

    If you look at the rock singers in particular that are still out there and doing it night after night who have enjoyed long careers performing to arena-sized audiences, these singers tend to fall into one of three simple categories. The first category is people like Glenn Hughes (ex Deep Purple) who is still capable of hitting all of his high notes in his 70s, for iconic songs like Mistreated and Highway Star. Glenn has maintained his phenomenal vocal range and his vocal agility and is a better singer now in his 70s than he was when he was in hsi 20s. This is due to great vocal technique and great vocal maintenance routines for his voice.

    The second category is all the rock singers that were born with above average mass and length in their vocal cords that have tended to take their vocal powers for granted and have neglected to maintain structured vocal exercise and warmup routines prior to touring and during touring. We see an astounding number of these singers now in their 50s and 60s whose voices are breaking down because they have not been properly maintained. Regular vocal maintenance and warmup routines can help to offset unhealthy habits like drinking and smoking because vocal cords as they get older, if they’re not properly maintained, tend to lose their vocal agility and take much longer to repair.

    The third and final category and singers who are experiencing a variety of vocal conditions, including polyps, nodes, cysts and partial vocal cord paralysis. Regular vocal exercise routines, and regular pre-show structured warmup routines can greatly reduce the risk of developing nodules, polyps or cysts on your vocal cords, as well as being able to aid in the treatment and reduction of any existing conditions that may be developing on your vocal cords.

When you do a vocal warm up, it helps to warm up your body as well! Singing any form of high-energy music requires a warm body and a warmed up set of vocal cords to not only help you sing at your best, but to also prevent injuries to both your vocal cords and other muscles or parts of your body, like your jaw. A warm body from a good, structured warmup routine can help to prevent damage from pushing too hard in your stomach area, which is something that happened to Lincoln Park’s Chester Bennington (RIP).

Better information leads to better singing.

The dangers of “go big or go home” mentality for singers

In my experience, singers fall into three main categories regarding the size of their voice:

  • The first category are the singers with the above average vocal cord mass (thickness) and above average strength in their larynx mechanism.
  • The second category are people with average sized vocal cord mass and average strength in their singing mechanism.
  • The last category of course, are people who have undersized vocal cord mass and a lower level of overall strength in their larynx.

There are other categories of course, but for the purpose of this article we’re going to keep it simple by assuming that most singers sit in one of these three categories.

In over 20 years of coaching experience, I’ve observed that the singers with above average vocal cord mass tend to sing with a natural balance to the size of the sounds they are producing. This simply means that their vocal mechanism is able to perform the various coordinations efficiently within the larynx to produce a rich, warm tonal, round sound.

In other words, good singers that are born with above average mass always sing in a way where they have control over the song. There are exceptions to these rules, but for the most part these observations are accurate.

Whereas singers that are born with average mass in their vocal cords tend to try and subconsciously and/or consciously make bigger vocal sounds than their vocal mechanism is able to comfortably support. This will create a number of vocal challenges and difficulties and will literally (in most cases) sabotage and prevent the singer from ever reaching their full vocal potential.

Those people born with smaller than average vocal cords tend to have an even bigger Napoleon complex, in other words the singer with the smaller voice often tries to over compensate and create a bigger sound than what their vocal mechanism can initially handle.

In the short term, this will show up in the singer as sung notes that sound very strained. The notes will sound dull and flat. When you understand a little bit more about the actual mechanics of singing, it’s no surprise that all of this additional, excessive pressure and tension that they’re applying to their vocal cords leads to a disappointing vocal performance. This means less paying customers in the future!

The consequences of making your vocal sounds bigger than they need to be

These consequences include:

The singer always needs to be in control of the song.

  1. Poor cord closure. The goal of every melodic singer is to learn how to use their vocal mechanism correctly to produce the closest thing they can get to a speech-level cord closure on pitch i.e. The notes that they sing need to have the same cord closure as a spoken phrase.
  2. Excessive tension. Making the sound too big and too heavy can very quickly overload the larynx mechanism and your voice will experience restriction in range. You will likely experience tension in your jaw and constriction in your throat.

    This will lead to what I affectionately refer to as the “strangled cat syndrome”. Hopefully no further explanation is necessary because every singer has experienced those exact vocal challenges at some point in their quest to sing higher and extend their vocal range. If this is you, don’t worry – you’re not alone! This is a temporary vocal affliction and it can be resolved through proper coaching instruction and through a better understanding of the role the larynx plays in efficient pitch production and changing vocal registers.
  3. Passing excessive amounts of air through the vocal cords. This results in what we commonly refer to as a “breathy” singer. This is the equivalent of opening your mouth and aiming the air of a blow dryer into your throat. In a very short period of time, that hot air is going to dry out your vocal cords and it’s going to be dryer in there than the Sahara desert!

    While some singers no doubt use this technique to achieve a smoky quality to their vocal tone, the reality is when you pass excessive air through your vocal cords, the air passing through those cords will quickly dry out your voice and remove the protective layer of “mucosa” (the singer’s lubricant that naturally protects our cords and reduces the effect of friction on the vocal cords when we sing). When we remove that protective layer of the singer’s lubricant, our vocal cords are prone to heating up, causing them to swell and become inflamed. This is a very common cause of hoarseness in singers and in some cases can lead to complete loss of voice.

    Singers that prolong this style of singing i.e. who are passing excessive air over the vocal cords, be it unintentionally or intentionally, run the risk of exposing their cords to damage. This includes but is not limited to the growth of nodes (nodules), polyps and cysts on the vocal cords, among other conditions that could affect vocal performance.

    Examples of “breathy” singers are Adele and Sam Smith. Both of whom coincidentally have experienced vocal conditions that have required surgery to remedy.
  4. Limited range. If a singer is makes their vowel and consonant sounds too big, they are running the risk of overloading the vocal mechanism with excessive weight and tension that will prevent the laryngeal tilt, which is the natural mechanism in the voice, from being able to change pitch and register freely and easily as it’s designed to do.

This tends to be less of an issue in the bedroom (in front of the mirror when you’re rehearsing), but it’s a different story when you finally hit the stage and you’ve got that expectant audience in front of you and your “performer’s adrenaline rush” kicks in.

Often the combination of a performer’s adrenaline rush and any pre-show nerves will dramatically increase the potential of you experiencing the “sing big or go home” mentality. That carefully rehearsed song in the bedroom, or the shower, or the lounge where you hit all the notes and you sound like a million bucks suddenly feels like the combination of weightlifting contest and a wrestling match with your larynx.

If you find yourself identifying with the topics raised in this article and you want to take your singing to the next level, let’s have a conversation.

Better information leads to better singing!

The diaphragm explained

Sting, the singer from the rock group The Police once wrote, “Every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you.” Every breath we take starts naturally by using our diaphragm.

Human beings are born into this world with natural diaphragmatic breathing, and through various conditioning agents, i.e. nurture and nature, and through the subconcious modelling of our grandparents, parents and school teachers, it’s very common that by the age of 10, most people have fallen out of using diaphragmatic breathing in favour of inefficient upper chest breathing.

The reason for this is very simple. Diaphragmatic breathing provides a very powerful, efficient fuel and support system to project a loud voice. If you’ve ever been to a primary school during recess, you can be forgiven for putting your hands over your ears to block out the deafening sound of one hundred young kids all screaming, yelling and shouting at once. At five years old, these kids are using their diaphragmatic breathing naturally, and the result is a loud, powerful voice that projects effortlessly.

Obviously this is not an ideal volume level for most households, so kids are often encouraged to learn how to speak without yelling. The majority of children by the age of 10 have been so regularly conditioned to speak quietly and not raise their voice when they get excited. By doing so, they’re learning how to breath inefficiently into the upper chest to achieve a quieter voice. Ironically, this system of upper chest breathing often leads to creating children with higher levels of anxiety, and they also experience a vocal or personal disempowerment.

Diaphragmatic breathing supports higher athletic performance

When an athlete is performing at their personal best, they are relying heavily on natural diaphragmatic support because when your diaphragmatic breathing is engaged, your diaphragm actually expands in your body, making it possible to lift more weight, to run faster, to jump higher, to kick a ball further. You can see how if someone is referred to as a natural athlete, what’s going on as well as the improved physical coordination skills and mental awareness that they usually possess, they are strongly connecting to their diaphragmatic breathing and support system to produce above average results.

Maintaining your diaphragmatic health is essential for everyone, whether you sing or not.

Nerdy anatomy stuff – to satisfy those singers among us that need to know how things work

The diaphragm is a parachute-shaped, fibrous muscle that is located between your chest and abdomen, underneath your sternum. The diaphragm serves to separate the thoracic cavity where your lungs are, and your abdominal cavity where your body’s internal organs (like your stomach) are.

There are three openings within the diaphragm. Under the caval hiatus, there is the Vena Cava and the terminal branches of the right phrenic nerve. Under the oesophagael hiatus you have the oesophagus, the right and left vagus nerves and the oesophagal branches of the left gastric artery vein. Under the aortic hiatus, you have your aorta, your thoracic duct and your Azygous vein.

Quick fact: The right dome of the diaphragm is usually larger than the left dome.

The benefit of singing from the diaphragm

The benefit of singing from the diaphragm is that you immediately begin to recruit natural diaphragmatic support. In the simplest terms possible, it means that the diaphragm initially contracts down on itself. You create more space for your lungs, which makes the breath feel lower and more centered. We can then apply some gentle downward pressure on the diaphragm to slow down the diaphragm’s ability to release back to normal position, which in turn slows down the process of emptying the lungs of air. This is commonly referred to in singing as “engaging diaphragmatic support”.

The benefit of diaphragmatic support is that as the diaphragm contracts during the inhalation cycle, the diaphragm actually expands and becomes thicker. It increases the quality of compression in the air that we are passing through our vocal cords when we exhale. This basically means that the compressed air that is passing through our vocal cords is providing our vocal cords with far more energy than an upper chest breath can muster. The result is additional projection and power in our voice, meaning that we can sing higher notes for longer periods of time due to this improved vocal support.

Another benefit is that diaphragmatic breathing allows us to pass smaller volumes of air over the vocal cords, so that we don’t end up over-filling our lungs at every opportunity. If we over-fill our lungs, all the air that we take into our body needs to go somewhere and it ends up building up in the narrowest part of our lung at the top, which ends up blocking our airway with high pressure air. This causes our vocal cords to get blasted by the equivalent of a powerful tornado and the more that the vocal cords react to this pressure, the tighter they become. This results in the singer experiencing choking or the feeling of contortion in their throat and also in their voice.

So how does it feel? Here’s an RVR coaching tip

When you correctly engage your diaphragm in the inhalation breath, it feels like there is a rubber inner tube around your midsection, just under your sternum. When you lean into this diaphragm support, you start to naturally notice as you sing higher that the notes begin to float up with ease. This reduces the strain or weight that you feel in your throat. Compared to an incorrectly sung, unsupported note, the difference will feel like night and day.

Without diaphragmatic support, as you begin to sing higher, or as you begin to sing with more volume, the muscles in your throat will begin to strain and contract. A singer will commonly feel this as pressure, or weight in their throat. This provides you with a false sense of support that very quickly does more harm than good. This is because as muscles begin to contract, we can’t control the degree of contraction. The muscles will react in an exaggerated manner, reducing the available width in your wind pipe. Once this process starts, you lose control of the degree of pressure than you apply, which can shut your voice down and leave you with the feeling of a constricted airway, similar to what you may experience when lifting heavy weights.

When you sing with false support, all you end up doing is incorrectly engaging the muscles in your throat with a series of unwanted muscle contractions that may support three or four mid-range notes in your voice, and give you a false impression of power. However as soon as we increase our vocal range, the extra demand from these muscles in the throat will suddenly turn into excessive muscle contractions, squeezing the life out of our singing voice. Ironically this will result in choking off both your potential power and your additional natural vocal range.

In comparison, when you engage diaphragmatic support you engage an expanded diaphragm that to an average singer feels like a rubber inner tube around your middle (located at sternum height) that feels very much like a Whoopie cushion. As you gently exert a little bit of downward pressure, or lean into your diaphragm, your voice suddenly experiences a feeling as your notes start to float up and your throat starts to open up and relax. You will enjoy less tension in your throat and the diaphragm being a much bigger, stronger muscle allows you to support your voice with less strain and more ease for longer periods of time.

Singers that engage their diaphragm breathing and produce correct diaphragm support enjoy improved vocal projection. Their voice has more power and they are far less likely to lose their voice trying to sing over a loud band.

To understand natural diaphragmatic breathing, there are three phases of the breathing process that you should be familiar with.

Phase 1: The inhalation

The inhalation coordination starts with an expanded ribcage to create space and release pressure off the lungs, allowing them to fill up as the inspiration (inhalation) process begins. As it begins, the diaphragm is released, which contracts itself downwards and creates additional space for the lungs to begin to inflate.

🤓 Nerdy science fact: Lungs do not inflate themselves. Instead they are inflated through a difference in air pressure, creating a vacuum in the lungs that draws air down the air pipe.

When the diaphragm releases at the beginning of every inhalation breath, it contracts into itself which produces an immediate change in air pressure by increasing the volume of the thoracic cavity. This forms a vacuum in the upper part of the chest. The lungs have more space now and can enjoy more natural expansion. Air is naturally drawn in, as opposed to being sucked in by an upper chest breath.

Your lungs are simply sacks and don’t have the ability to draw air into themselves. The diaphragmatic movement creates a vacuum to draw air into the lungs.

🤓 Nerdy science fact: The diaphragm is actually instrumental in removing human waste from the body. It’s the part of your body that gives the “push” while you’re on the loo!

In direct comparison, an upper chest breath is inefficient because it means we are not creating the same amount of space or pressure difference, causing a smaller amount of air to enter into the top of our lungs, which is the narrowest part. Utilising a diaphragm release, we create more space at the bottom of our lungs, which creates a natural vacuum, which then in turn draws in more air.

Performing this inhalation correctly provides you with the feeling of a lower centre of gravity. If you breath in the top of the lungs, it is much harder to provide a steady stream of air that is required for good phonation (sound), and you are required to force the small amount of air that you have inhaled out of your body.

🤓 Nerdy science fact: It is possible to take in too much air! Upper chest breathing is highly inefficient and when you breath in too fast, you can take in far more air than your phrase requires for singing. This reduces the flexibility of your vocal cords, making it harder to produce a melodic pitch. This is experienced as a heavy feeling in the throat, and stiffness in the upper chest.

Phase 2: Learn how to engage the diaphragmatic support

To correctly engage diaphragmatic support, we need to expand our ribcage from a relaxed position, with our shoulders dropped down. While maintaining an expanded ribcage, we should let go of the abdominal (stomach) muscles. This will recruit the diaphragm to start contracting and begin the inhalation stage of our breath.

When you do this, you should feel that your breath goes down lower into your lungs. You’ll feel a deeper breath, not necessarily by drawing in more air, but by correctly engaging your diaphragm and achieving a natural inhalation breath.

Phase 3: Learn how to sing while correctly engaging diaphragmatic support

To beginner and intermediate singers, this can feel very counter-intuitive. This is because our brain will tell us one order of coordinations, while our diaphragm wants to operate in an entirely different way.

Since the diaphragm is the main respiration muscle of the human body, it makes sense to listen to the diaphragm and follow its natural directions to achieve the best results. Put simply, begin developing a healthy fascination for experiencing a diaphragm release before you make sound.

A really good example for this is to imagine that you’re at the best fireworks display you’ve ever seen (closing your eyes will help with this!). As the rockets shoot up into the sky and explode in a round of breathtaking effects, simply release your diaphragm and make “Oooooooos” and “Ahhhhhhhs”. Make sure that you release your diaphragm before each one of these very simple sounds.

“Oooooooooooh!”, “Ahhhhhhhhhh!”, “Wooooooooooow!”

When this exercise is performed correctly, you will have a very good sense of which physical feelings you should be experiencing in your body that will tell you that you are using healthy diaphragmatic support to improve both your singer’s breathing, and correctly engage your diaphragm to improve the power and projection of your singing voice.

The next topic in this series will be focused on understanding the exhalation phase of breathing, and how singers use the exhalation phase to sing without needing to push sound out of their voice.

Better singing everyone!

The passaggio explained – part 2: How to change from chest voice into mixed voice

In my last post, we discussed what the passaggio is and why we should always use it to help us naturally change vocal registers to provide us with the greatest amount of freedom and ease on our voice.

In this post, I’ll explain the correct sensations that you should be experiencing so that you can practice with confidence and develop the correct vocal coordinations for changing registers in your voice.

A vocal register is defined as “a range of tones in the human voice produced by a particular vibratory pattern of the vocal folds.” Vocal registers are usually grouped by eight notes, which make up an octave. Changes between vocal registers can happen anywhere from 2-3 notes into an octave, to half way or three quarters of the way into an octave, depending on what range a singer’s voice will support.

🤓 Nerdy fact: Did you know that a normal, healthy, average singing voice is designed to connect up to a three-octave range?

The basic vocal registers within the human voice start with “fry” voice, then a low “chest” voice (which is usually quite soft in volume for most singers). Next, we have a belting register in chest voice, followed by either a mixed voice or head voice. Finally, we have two different kinds of falsetto; a “breathy” falsetto and a “reinforced” falsetto.

A reinforced falsetto is the desired falsetto to develop in a singer’s voice because it can connect up to the other vocal registers in the voice and provide us with additional range. This is typically applied to different styles, including by heavy metal, jazz and R’n’B singers.

The last register in the human voice is “whistle” register. Whistle register is the Mariah Carey effect, as heard in the song “Emotions”. Both male and female singers are capable of producing whistle tones, depending on their voice type.

This post is going to focus on helping you to successfully navigate chest voice into mixed voice and this builds a balanced middle-upper voice, which is essential for learning how to reduce the weight in your singing voice if your goal is to sing higher in your range without straining.

If you’re not already familiar with the anatomy of your larynx and its purpose, I highly recommend that you go back and read my previous post before reading on.

In our efforts to stretch our vocal range, the higher you sing in chest voice, the more stress and strain you will experience in your larynx. If we were to ignore the warning signs of all the impending stress that is building up in your voice, the result is that sooner or later your voice is going to crack, wobble or break. It is the most embarrassing thing that can happen to a singer when they sing live or in front of an audience, because the resulting break is clearly audible and does not sound like their previous vocal tone.

Due to the unexpected nature and effect that it has on our voice, many inexperienced singers subconsciously avoid their break area. Your break area is your best friend for identifying where your register changes will naturally take place.

Exercise 1: Identifying your chest to head voice break area

Try this simple exercise. Smile wide, then “yawn” at the back of your throat. In a comfortable part of your speaking range, vocalise on an “Ah” sound. Next, gently slide up in pitch until you experience and hear that crack, wobble or break in your voice. Get to know this area of your voice because this break is actually very helpful in helping you to identify where the chest voice naturally wants to hand off its big, wide vocal tone to the head voice.

The head voice tone is narrower and brighter. It has more of a ringing quality to its tone. The thyroid cartilage is starting to tilt forward, whilst on the inside of the larynx your vocal cords are beginning the process of thinning down and lengthening out. As singers, we want to encourage this activity and learn to isolate the correct micro muscles, tendons and ligaments, and exercise these muscles using specific vocal exercises to educate and encourage these muscles to develop additional strength. This strength will allow them to carry their own weight and this builds a stronger passaggio connection, making it much easier for chest voice to transition into middle voice, and ultimately head voice.

🤓 Nerdy fact: Understanding diaphragmatic breathing and support is essential for providing the correct vocal momentum and air support for register changes.

Gently repeat this exercise 10-15 times to help you get familiar with the sensation of your vocal break.

Once you have discovered where your vocal break is, we need to learn how to stabilise that sound so that the vocal break sound remains constant (your vocal break sound is audibly different to your previous chest voice sound). The vocal break sounds thinner and lighter, and initially may seem challenging to control. Quick tip: add lots of RVR “whiny bitch” (cry) to help you to support that sound. Once you’ve found that break sound, you’ve found the doorway to enter into your passaggio! Be patient and expect lots of trial and error before you can find this doorway to your middle voice.

Four steps to help you use your passaggio (bridge) to connect your chest voice to your head voice:

  1. Adopt the correct posture. Stand up straight, place your hands on your hips without raising your shoulders. This will trick your body into providing better diaphragmatic breathing support.
  2. Create an open airway support system. Smile wide and “yawn” in the back of your throat. You must be able to create and maintain an open airway throughout this exercise to successfully connect your voice between registers. Yawning and smiling are the two fastest things that we can do to trick the body into creating this open airway.
  3. Find your break area. Start with a comfortable pitch in your speaking voice and gently slide up in pitch from the bottom of your chest voice (or wherever you started from) until you hear the break in your voice. This will sound like a lighter register and may initially go from chest voice straight to a falsetto sound. When you hear and experience this break, you have discovered your initial bridging area (passaggio – Italian for passage).
  4. Reduce excess air pressure buildup. Use a diaphragm release to provide the breath support necessary to allow the vocal cords to change pitch. The diaphragm is the main respiration muscle in the human body and is responsible for actioning both the inhale and exhalation breath. We use the diaphragm to create a diaphragmatic support system (think of it like a “Whoopee” Cushion). Taking a correct diaphragmatic breath means that the diaphragm will actually expand to support our lungs, taking a lot of strain out of the voice. When we apply pressure to our Whoopee Cushion, we are stabilising the outgoing flow of air that the voice is singing on. If you don’t know how to release your diaphragm correctly while you are singing (and prior to singing), you are not breathing efficiently the way a singer should.

Once you’ve found the bridging area in your voice, you have discovered the passageway (passaggio) that is designed to thin down the vocal cords and safely transition your chest voice into a mixed voice, head voice, reinforced falsetto, and ultimately the whistle register. Your bridging area might initially feel very weak, unstable and shaky.

This is where it’s important to find a good vocal coach or singing teacher that can not only demonstrate what the passaggio sounds like and how to perform it, but also has an intimate knowledge of how the vocal anatomy works so that they can teach you to develop the correct coordinations for yourself, as well as address the psychological reactions that the brain experiences as we sing higher.

Better singing everyone!

How to sing higher notes: Taking advantage of a narrower larynx setup

In our last post, we started to explore your vocal anatomy.

❌ Vocal myth busted! One of the biggest myths and misunderstandings that singers get tricked into believing (and it works against them) is that as you sing higher, or if you want to make your notes sound stronger, is that you need to stretch out your larynx.

If you’re looking to make it easier to connect the lowest register in your voice to the middle, or the upper register of your voice, it is mission critical to understand the role of the larynx in singing.

The larynx is basically a box of cartilage that houses your vocal cords. We have three larger parts of the larynx, but we’re just going to focus on the cricoid and the thyroid cartilages today, as well as the three pairs of smaller cartilages, which are the arytenoids, the corniculate and the cuneiform. We also have the epiglottis, which is a leaf-like cartilage that is the easiest to damage.

The most important parts are the epiglottis and the arytenoids. During swallowing, the laryngeal muscles contract and the epiglottis moves down to form a lid over the glottis, thereby closing off the vocal cords. This protects your airways against any stray food or drink. We’ve all inhaled at the wrong time while eating or drinking at some point in our lives. The food doesn’t necessarily make it down into the airway because our brain is hard-wired to cough and prevent the food from proceeding further.

🤓 Nerdy science fact: This is the same coordination that takes place before we lift a heavy object. When you lift a heavy object, the epiglottis moves down to form a lid over the glottis, thereby closing off the vocal cords and that column of air that gets trapped inside the body becomes the stabiliser, allowing us to continue to have good form as we lift the object. Therefore if you’re singing a high note and you hold your breath to start pushing, your central nervous system thinks you’re lifting a heavy object, locking down the vocal cords and preventing them from vibrating freely. This is the feeling of being choked or strangled that some singers experience when trying to sing high notes at full volume.

The arytenoid cartilages are able to control and change the position and the amount of tension on the vocal folds i.e. thinning the vocal folds down for higher notes and thickening up the vocal folds for lower notes.

The muscles of the larynx are skeletal muscles that form the walls of the larynx and the contraction or release of these muscles provide the movements that we associate with our breathing, swallowing and phonation (vocal sound) coordinations. The laryngeal muscles are divided into two groups; external (extrinsic) muscles, which act to elevate or depress the larynx during swallowing and the internal (intrinsic) muscles which act to move the internal components of the larynx. Both groups of muscles are vital to our control of our breathing and phonation (vocal sounds).

The external muscles of the larynx move muscles upwards and downwards. These include the suprahyoid and the infrahyoid muscles of the neck.

The internal muscles of the larynx are a group of muscles that activate individual components of the larynx. They are used to control the shape of the glottis and the length and the tension of the vocal cords. The names of these muscles are cricothyroid, thyroarytenoid, posterior cricoarytenoid and lateral cricoarytenoid, and transverse and oblique arytenoids.

The purpose of sharing this information with you is not to turn this blog into a medical anatomy blog. The purpose is to give you an understanding of these muscles so that we can get to the next stage of the conversation, which is how this affects your singing.

Most beginner, intermediate and even some professional rock star singers often fall into the trap of visualising that higher, or bigger notes require a stretched out larynx position. This is actually not the case. It is simply our brain and our ears incorrectly interpreting what they’re hearing and giving you bad advice. It’s important to understand that the psychology of singing plays a big role in impacting our vocal and breathing decisions.

Babies are able to produce high pitches for sustained periods of time and they’re certainly not stretching out their larynx to produce those sounds. The problems start when your brain and your ears get together to use some imagination to come up with a solution, because the stretched out larynx position is going to prevent the correct vocal coordinations from taking place (i.e. the thyroid tilt and the arytenoid muscles are largely responsible for thinning down the vocal cords and safely achieving that higher register in your voice).

I’m going to get you to do an exercise now to prove that stretching out the larynx is not the way to go to achieve a safe change in your vocal register.

Imagine that you are a giant. You’re 12 feet tall. How does a giant’s voice usually sound? Is it high and whiny, or is it very deep and dark in pitch?

I want you to try speaking like that giant. Chances are if you have a good imagination, your voice has dropped 2-3 notes lower than how you would typically speak.

Now try keeping the same larynx position and keep that big giant sound. See how far up in your vocal range you can go before it feels too uncomfortable to continue any further. This is an example of what happens when you stretch out your larynx.

Stretching the cricoid and thyroid cartilage out like this so you achieve an over-exaggerated opera voice is going to naturally prevent the register change taking place in your larynx. This is because you’ve taken away all of the freedom of movement that the larynx requires to achieve a register change between chest and head voice.

The reason that opera singers find it hard to sing above a high D is due to the rules that they have around how they use their larynx. For the most part, their larynx is stretched out and as soon as you create too much stress, your larynx becomes very tight, anchoring you into one register of your voice.

As you sing higher, you need to learn how to release your larynx setup and recreate that setup in a narrower position (all of the required components for register change are inside the larynx).

When you’re singing in a lower range and you make the mistake of stretching your larynx to try to sing higher notes, you’re not making a great connection. You’re just stretching your chest voice too far, which accompanies a thicker mass of the vocal cords. The register will not change automatically. It requires us to make some natural refinements in our singers breathing, as well as a small correction in our larynx setup to allow the larynx to shift to the correct position and allow the voice to change pitch at a natural pace.

In terms of anatomy, it is the top cartilage of the larynx (the thyroid cartilage) that tilts forward when provided with enough space and the appropriate amount of relaxation as we sing higher, and as we learn how to correctly use our diaphragm breathing to reduce the amount of excess pressure in the cords to allow the tilting of the thyroid cartilage.

It is the thyroid tilt that allows us to change register painlessly and naturally, allowing us to reproduce the same notes at a higher octave. There’s a bit of magic going on here because the vocal cords have naturally thinned down due to a combination of the arytenoids, reduction of air passing through the cords and this thyroid tilting process. This is so important because for a lot of singers, even if they can get that thyroid cartilage to tilt, they don’t allow it to tilt far enough and it’s like being straddled on a fence between chest voice and high head voice, half in and half out of the higher register.

It must be underlined right here and right now: Do not use brute force pushing or squeezing to facilitate the thyroid tilt. All you’re going to do is create a bunch of unwanted muscle contractions that will lock your larynx down. The goal here is to create relaxation to create the correct environment for your thyroid cartilage to tilt forward and begin the process of thinning down your vocal cords.

All anatomy is slightly different. An as example, shorter people and taller people have different vocal anatomy. Shorter people have thicker tendons and ligaments to anchors the cartilages of the larynx in place and they have less travel requirements to allow that thyroid cartilage to tilt forward. Taller singers with longer necks are going to need to manage that process more delicately and more precisely to allow the larynx to be in the right position to allow that thyroid cartilage to tilt. It’s no secret that the world’s top singers (especially in males) are usually 5’10” and under (5’5″ for women).

If you’re a taller person, you can learn how to develop the correct coordinations, but it requires more finesse and precision to create the right kind of larynx position to allow this thyroid tilt to happen. This can happen in any healthy voice. With very few exceptions, every average healthy voice is capable of these coordinations and can achieve a 3-octave connected range. Some singers will find these coordinations on their own, but the majority will not without proper coaching.

A wider larynx allows for lower notes. This setup allows you to carry your chest register higher into your voice. Tendons and ligaments provide the anchorage and support of the lower cricoid cartilage.
A narrower, slightly higher larynx position is required to be able to take the weight out of the chest voice and create a mixed voice or head voice register, as well as reinforce falsetto registers. The cricoid cartilage and the thyroid cartilage need to come closer together to pave the way for a smooth thyroid tilt.

Learning the correct muscle coordinations to relax the larynx and allow it to sit slightly higher in a narrower setup is often made more challenging by our own brain because our brain incorrectly says to us, “As we sing higher, we need to stretch the larynx further to get those big sounds out!”. This causes all kinds of unwanted muscle tension, strangling the voice and preventing us from singing into the higher register.

Learning how to ignore your brain’s natural, unhelpful impulses and messages to stretch that larynx out can be a very frustrating process. If you haven’t already worked it out for yourself, I highly recommend that you seek out a good, knowledgeable vocal coach that can fully demonstrate these coordinations and can help you to learn the correct, higher larynx position and the accompanying thyroid tilt.

Getting to know your vocal anatomy

It’s no secret that some singers are just naturally born with complementary vocal anatomy parts that make connecting to the high notes an automatic function of their voice. We often refer to these singers as being “naturals”. However if you have read any of my columns before, or if you’ve browsed my website, you’ll know that no two sets of vocal cords are the same – in simple terms no two sets of vocal anatomy (in terms of diameter and measurements) are the same.

If you’re a singer and you’re struggling to move your voice out of the bottom, or chest, register and you can’t quite find the connection between your chest voice and your head voice, which is that brighter sounding voice that singers use to sing their middle and higher notes, then this post is for you.

We need to get to know the mechanics of the voice to understand clearly what’s going on.

We have lifter and constrictor muscles in our throat. These muscles are largely food processing muscles that allow the throat to change shape for processing food. When we have a drink of water, the lifter and constrictor muscles allow the larynx to lift up as well as drop down, making it easier for us to guide food or water down the esophageal tube to our stomach.

The esophagus is a muscular tube that connects the throat (pharynx) with the stomach. The esophagus is usually up to 8 inches long (about 20cm) and when you swallow food or drink water, the walls of the esophagus squeeze together, reducing its diameter, moving the food down the esophagus and into the stomach. This is kind of like how a python is able to eat its prey. The lifter and constrictor muscles help the esophagus to change its shape and get that food where it needs to go.

The esophagus is behind your wind pipe (trachea), which is the tube that connects your mouth and your nose to your lungs. Together, these form your respiratory system. Below your lungs is a dome-shaped muscle called the diaphragm and it’s the main respiration muscle that starts the natural breathing cycle in human beings.

The diaphragm is responsible for actioning the inhale motion, which is the action that physically draws air into your lungs, as well as the exhale motion.

Singers often encounter struggles when physically changing registers between their warm, wide chest voice to their brighter, bell-like head voice. They feel like they’re being choked or strangled and the throat feels like it has closed down. They might find that their sound has gone from really big and wide, to a strangled, muted sound as they try to sing higher. This is all because the singer has involuntarily engaged the lifter and constrictor muscles and now the body is treating the actions as being food processing-oriented. The back of the throat is closing up and we’ve gone from creating a healthy singer’s environment, to one that is optimum for processing foods and liquids.

Closure of the throat or reducing the diameter of the back of the throat prevents the larynx from having the full range of motion necessary to complete its desired movement, which is to thin down the vocal cords and achieve a higher register (head voice).

Singer’s tip number 1

If you’re encountering resistance in your voice as you sing higher, don’t push and squeeze against the resistance. Vocally you’re going to find yourself between a rock and a hard place if you do. The more you push and squeeze against these lifter and constrictor muscles, the more they’re going to reduce the diameter in the back of the throat and the surrounding area, and the more locked-down your larynx (voice box) will become.

A more ideal solution is to learn how to release the lifter and constrictor muscles when you encounter this resistance, and have those muscles maintain a docile state. They should be both relaxed and flexible. If your larynx is to enjoy the freedom it requires to maintain a full range of motion to reach higher notes, you must learn this skill. Seek out a coach or expert in this area, as learning how to disengage automatic muscle coordinations requires skill to understand how to bypass these automatic reactions from the body.

In a future post, we’ll talk more about how the larynx operates and how to change registers.

Singer’s tip number 2

If you breath from your upper chest, you’re going to build up excess air pressure in your lungs and in your airway. This will also automatically engage those lifter and constrictor muscles, leading to further vocal challenges in navigating your range.

Learning the correct, healthy singer’s breathing coordination is a must for every singer, in every style of singing, whether it’s classical singing or extreme metal (or anything else in between). We need to learn how to use our diaphragm support and diaphragmatic singer’s breathing to create the right supportive environment to allow our larynx to function freely as air passes through it and make vocal sounds (phonation).

In an upcoming post, we’ll focus on understanding how vocal cords are designed to create different registers in your voice. In the meantime, if you’d like to find out more about mastering singer’s breathing, send me a message and let’s chat!