Tag Archives: exercises

Reaching High Notes – When the Voice is a String Instrument

The voice is fundamentally a wind instrument. We use air to make sound, rather than vibrating strings or hitting objects. However, when we’re trying to reach the high notes in our voice, it’s more helpful to think about a violin than a flute.

elkhart-100fl-fluteWhen you want to make a high note on a wind instrument, we shorten the sound waves by either making the tube smaller. A piccolo has a shorter and narrower than a flute. If you’re tuning a flute or a recorder, you push the head and body together more to sharpen the pitch, and pull it out to flatten it.

Many people try to sing high notes like a flute – they try to make the tube smaller. We tense up in the back of our throats and neck, raise our tongues and generally make all our airways small. This can really succeed in making a high note, but it often sounds pinched or squeezed and not very pleasant at all! It also stops being effective after a certain point. The bone and cartilage makes it impossible to keep making our throats smaller.

ViolinSo what about a stringed instrument? To make the pitch higher on a violin, we fit thinner and thinner strings, and we stretch them tighter. On a violin, all the strings are the same length, but the tension on each will be different. To make any string sound higher, we pull the string tighter – we make it “longer”.

When you want to reach the high notes in your voice as a singer, it’s much better to imagine this process of making your vocal folds longer like a violin string. To make a higher pitch, your vocal folds need to vibrate faster, so we need to increase the tension by lengthening them. Think of it like plucking a rubber band guitar. If you stretch the band more, the pitch gets higher.

Me singingAs you start to sing higher, imagine your vocal folds getting longer. Think about getting taller and longer as you go higher, and open up your throat vertically. At first, this might feel strange, and it might even sound strange because your muscles aren’t used to it. However, you’ll start to find you get a much more pleasing noise on the higher notes, and the range of your voice will increase because you can lengthen and thin your vocal folds much more than you can tighten and constrict your throat.

As you experiment with this, try to keep your tongue low and your mouth quite open as this will mean the sound has plenty of space to resonate in.

To practice singing higher notes and extending your range, try exercises like arpeggios which go from a low, easy to sing pitch, to a high pitch in a single breath. Aim to keep your throat and mouth as open and relaxed on the high notes as on the low ones.

With any luck, starting to sing like a violin will soon help to make those high notes easier to hit and much more pleasant to listen to!

How do you think about your voice when you sing high notes? What exercises help you to extend your range and sound good in your upper register?

Natural Inhalation (Breathing Like Normal)

Breathing upwardsMany people come into singing and discover they don’t know how to breathe. Well. Kinda.

For singing, you need a very specific kind of breath, one which makes use of your whole lung capacity on the way in, and which you can control as you breath out. There are lots of ways to control the air going out, but it’s hard to practice drawing in the air in the right way.

We can try lots and lots of exercises, but one thing is vital – we need to remember we do know how to breathe. We’re not learning a new skill, we’re refining an old one.

Our lungs want to breathe in, and one way to help improve your inhalation is to let them do what they do best. Here’s how to try the “natural inhalation” exercise:

  1. Breathe out as far as you possibly can. Force the air right out.
  2. Relax

It might take a couple of tries to be able to do #2. There should be no active action of breathing in: don’t try and breathe in. Just stop breathing out and don’t hold your breath. When you get it right, you should just feel  your lungs inflate of their own accord.

Vacuum bagIt’s a little bit like the effect of opening up a vaccuum bag which has winter clothes in. They just want to suck all the air back in. The inside of your lungs is made up of lots of tiny chambers, like the gaps between the fibres in your winter coat. Just as the air rushes back into the winter coat, so the air rushes into your lungs. Combine that with the work of your diaphragm which is constantly creating and reducing a gentle vacuum in your lungs, and you have a really good way to get air in and out of the body.

If you find this exercise hard standing up, you could try it lying down. Lie on a firm surface, and let everything relax. Pull your ribcage down by breathing out until it’s as low as you can manage it. Then just relax everything.

When we breathe in as singers, we want to get this mechanism working really effectively. An in-breath should never be forced, it should just be the air rushing in to where it really wants to be.

How about you? What have you found helpful for managing to control your breathing for singing?

(With thanks to Gillyanne Keyes’ The Singing Actor where I first read about this method of controlling the in-breath.)

Exercises for Beginners: Tongue Twisters

Tongue TwisterOne of my favourite kinds of warming up and technical exercises is tongue twisters. They’re great for warming up all of the muscles needed to form words when singing and help singers practice good diction and articulation (i.e. the ability to sing words so that the audience understands what they are).

If you’re new to tongue twisters, or new to singing, start by saying one slowly. Try this one:

How many boards could the Mongols hoard, If the Mongol hordes got bored?

Once you’ve mastered repeating it slowly, speed up gradually. Each repetition should be fractionally faster than the one before. As it gets faster, you’ll need to exaggerate the movements in your face to keep the words clear. Don’t do this where you can see yourself – you’ll end up laughing too much! Stop when the words become too muddled, and then have another go.

Once you’ve got the hang of saying them, the next challenge is to sing them. Pick a comfortable note and sing this one all on the same pitch:

Black background, brown background

Again, keep getting faster until the words become muddled. Repeat a few times before trying the last exercise.

The final way to use tongue twisters is to sing them over a pattern. For example, try singing this tongue twister

Seventy seven benevolent elephants

On a slightly higher note each time you repeat it, so you’re singing it once on each note in the pattern below:

Pentascale in G

Again, keep getting faster and repeating the words and the pattern in a circle until you can’t say the words clearly anymore!

You can use tongue twisters on any warm up pattern – scales, arpeggios, pentascales, pentatonic scales, anything you like!

If you need more ideas for tongue twisters, or want a list for sharing with students, you can grab my free tongue twisters printable by clicking this link: [purchase_link id=”1316″ style=”button” color=”inherit” text=”Purchase”]

Wake Up! Warm Up!

SunOne of the most important things you need to do when practicing singing is to warm up properly. Warming up is not quite the same as vocal exercises, although a good warm up routine will go from physical warm-ups to vocal exercises without feeling like the warm-up stops and the vocal exercises start.

Different people find different things helpful. For example, some people like to practice yoga, or use dance-based warm-ups before singing. However, if you have no idea where to start, here is a simple physical and vocal warm-up to use.

  1. Jogging on the spot helps to get the blood flowing – this is especially important if you are sat down for most of the day. Do this for about 30 seconds.
  2. Make big sweeping circles with one arm and then the other. Be sure to go in both directions – backwards and forwards. Take deep breaths as you do this, letting your belly move rather than your shoulders.
  3. Stretch right up, and then relax down, one joint at a time until you’re hanging right over. Breathe out slowly as you go down. Rest there for a few gentle breaths and then roll back up to standing one vertebrae at a time, breathing out as you go up.
  4. Roll your shoulders backwards and then forwards a few times. Shrug up your shoulders to your ears and then relax them.
  5. Rub your cheeks, jaw muscles and neck with your hands to get the blood flowing.
  6. Stretch up and over to your right with one arm, and then repeat in the other direction.
  7. Give your body a gentle shake out to loosen off all your muscles.
  8. Finish by adjusting your posture to make sure you are standing up tall and balanced with your weight evenly on both feet.
  9. Take a few more deep and slow breaths – you might want to go through a few rounds of square breathing, or other breathing exercises.

Once you’ve warmed up your body, you can start getting your voice going:

  1. Gently, start to siren over a small range of notes. Each time, let the range get bigger until you’re swooping up and down through your whole voice.
  2. Using a hum, or a lip trill, sing up and down some simple patterns in the middle of your voice
  3. Sing some tongue twisters on comfortable notes in the middle of your range.

From this point, you can then move on to start working on the exercises set by your teacher for your practice which will probably include things like singing arpeggios and scales. You should also now sing through your full range properly, as this will help to extend and strengthen the highest and lowest notes.

If you need a reminder to put up in your practice space, or want to share this warm-up routine with your students, you can grab a free printable copy of this blogpost by clicking here: [purchase_link id=”1317″ style=”button” color=”inherit” text=”Purchase”]

 

Excercises for Beginners: Straw Singing

StrawsI have recently rediscovered the childhood magic of the drinking straw. I don’t know what it is about this small, plastic thing that creates such joy, but I love ’em.

Why have I rediscovered straws? Well, I have been looking for some new ideas for technical exercises, and I have discovered that straws can help improve your singing technique.

One of the biggest problems singers have is nasality – allowing air to go through the nose when singing even when it’s not necessary (which it is to say ‘m’ and ‘n’). By using a straw, this can help to focus breathing and direct air and sound away from the nose and through the mouth.

First, let’s try overdoing the nasal sound. Sing a note and try to drive the sound through your nose. It’s going to sound silly! Can you feel the air is rushing much faster than when you sing normally?

Now, grab your straw. First, blow through the straw. All the air should go through the straw, not through your nose at all. You should feel something closing off your nose. That’s your soft palate. You can’t feel it moving as such, but you should feel the effect. Try allowing air to go through your nose on the next breath. Keep alternating between just blowing through the straw and then blowing through the straw and your nose until you can identify what’s different.

Next, we’re going to sing through the straw. Pick a pitch that’s in the middle of your range and comfortable. Sing the note down the straw. Don’t let any air escape through your nose. It should make the straw buzz at your lips.

Now sing the same note, but allow sound to go through your nose too. You should feel the buzz in your nose rather than your lips. Repeat a few times, and then try alternating between singing down the straw and singing with your nose too on the same breath. It’ll sound a bit like “nnn-ooo-nnn-ooo-nnn-ooo”.

Lastly, take good breath and sing down the straw. Then, about halfway through the note, open your lips and switch to regular singing. Don’t move anything else – can you do it without letting any sound come through your nose? Test this by pinching your nose as you sing. If it changes the sound, you’ve let air escape down your nose.

This is not really a daily strength building exercise, but instead it’s a great way to build awareness of how your voice works, and the ability you have to control it.

I hope you find this exercise helpful. For more help with improving your tone and reducing nasality in your singing, do look for a qualified teacher in your local area as they will be able to give you advice and training suited to your body and voice. If you’re based in the Edinburgh area, why not contact me?

Excercises for Beginners: Sirening

sirenOne of the very first exercises I do with a new student is sirening. It’s a great way to warm up your voice and start exercising, as well as a good way to me as a teacher find out a student’s basic range and diagnose problems.

Sirening is really simple. The safest way to try it is to make the sound “ng”, like the end of “ing”. You should be making a vocalised sound, but it’s mostly going through your nose rather than your mouth. Have a try! Take a nice deep breath (see my article on square breathing for tips on good breathing) and then sing the word “sing” and elongate the “ng” part at the end.

DownwardsArrowNext, sing onto the “ng” sound, and then drop the pitch down. Just relax and let it slide on down into your boots. You want the pitch to move just like the arrow to the right. I’ve recorded a clip of me doing this exercise below.

Once you’re happy, try going the other way and sliding up. You want a smooth slide up as high as you can go. Try to imagine you’re throwing your voice up to the sky. Click the recording below to hear me doing this version.


Finally, put it all together. This time, you’re aiming to go as high up as you can and then as low as you possibly can. You want to go up and down a couple of times in each breath, going further and further each time:

That’s why it’s called the siren. And if you’re in any doubt, listen to this clip of me sirening:

 

When you’re confident with the pattern, you can siren on different sounds. It works really well on “ah”.

I hope you’ve found this exercise fun and useful. For more help with exercises to help your singing, do look for a qualified teacher in your local area as they will be able to give you advice and training suited to your body and voice. If you’re based in the Edinburgh area, why not contact me?

Exercises for Beginners: Square Breathing

One of my favourite exercises for beginners, and for warming up with a choir is square breathing. It’s all about developing control of your breath, and extending lung capacity.

From the beginning of any vocal training, it’s really important to work on your breathing. To breathe properly, you need to breath into every part of your lungs, especially the bottom part near your stomach. Your ribcage, back and abdomen will expand when you’re breathing to your fullest extent (this is no time for vanity about having a ‘flat belly’!). You want your shoulders and upper chest to remain as still a possible and not rise up. They’ll likely move a little bit, but it should be hardly noticeable to the eye.

Before you try square breathing, take a few deep breaths, focusing on filling the bottom of your lungs with air. If you’re struggling, place a hand just at the bottom of your ribcage – you should feel it going up and down.

Once you’re comfortable with this, you want to start to inhale and exhale on a rhythm. Count 1-2-3-4 as you breathe in and then 1-2-3-4 as you breath out.

Square breathing

Now, let’s try the exercise itself.

Breathe in for a slow count of 1-2-3-4 and then hold the breathe in for a count of 1-2-3-4, then breathe out to 1-2-3-4 and then wait for 1-2-3-4 before breathing back in again. Look at the handy diagram on the right to get a better idea of how the pattern works.

When I’m conducting a choir, I use hand movements that model this square shape (hence the name square breathing), moving my hand up for in, across for hold, down for out, and across the other way for hold.

As you get used to it, start to increase the count to 8, 12, 16 and more – try not to speed up the counting though! You could also try doing this while walking as that makes it harder because your body is using slightly more oxygen to walk rather than sit or stand. You could also mix and match the numbers so breathe in for 2, hold for 4, out for 8 and wait for 2.

I recommend my students to try to do this exercise every day as part of their practice. It’s something you can do easily in all kinds of situations, so while you might use it as part of a warm-up for singing practice, you could also do it silently in your morning commute, or sat at the back of a dull meeting (one of my students does it during school assemblies). You could even do it in bed as it can encourage physical relaxation.  I wouldn’t recommend doing it while driving, or where you might be called on to speak though!

The muscles in your lungs, just like those everywhere else in your body need to be used to get stronger. Doing this exercise every day will help you to focus on good breathing technique, so it becomes automatic, and it will strengthen your muscles so you can control the outflow of breath when you are singing.

I hope you find this exercise helpful. For more help with improving your breath control for singing, do look for a qualified teacher in your local area as they will be able to give you advice and training suited to your body and voice. If you’re based in the Edinburgh area, why not contact me?