A huge concern with most singers is whether they have the range to support singing the music they like. A lot of confidence is built when you nail the high note at the end of your favorite song. For some, if they don’t have a massive range, they feel like bad singers–even if they are fantastic storytellers with beautiful tone.
So what’s the secret to getting a huge range?
How does singing work?
At its most basic, singing is blowing air past some tiny muscles in your throat, and forming it into a word. To create pitch, the muscles in your throat (vocal cords) come together (adduct) and vibrate to produce a sound frequency. When air blows through adducted vocal folds the mass of the folds come together rapidly because of the Bernoulli effect.
Note: “Vocal cords” and “vocal folds” are used interchangeably.
To make a middle C your vocal cords come together 261 times. The A above is 440 times. The A above that is 880 times. As the frequency produced by your vocal folds increases, the pitch we perceive gets higher.
Seems pretty simple, right? Make higher frequency, produce higher pitch.
So how do we make a higher frequency?
Unlike an instrument like the violin, where to make a higher frequency you just move your finger to make the string shorter, to create a higher frequency with singing the vocal folds need to stretch out and lose mass.
The Unseen Instrument
Because with singing our instrument is in our body, a challenge is knowing what is physically happening with the unseen moving parts as we make sounds. It’s difficult to isolate and manipulate small muscles if we aren’t aware of what they feel like to be used.
A good voice teacher can help you figure out how it feels to use these muscles.
Air, muscle, and word. All three work together to make a resulting sound. In healthy and beautiful singing, the air flow needs to be constant, resistance by the vocal cords consistent, and words congruent.
Start by sliding around the pitch of your speech. If you are really struggling to recognize what it feels to make a higher frequency, pretend to talk to a baby or puppy. Make a pitch slide from the highest pitch you hum to the lowest pitch. Choose a volume from 1-10, and keep the volume of your hum consistent through the whole slide.
Sliding is good practice because it’s the only way for the vocal folds to move. They don’t just teleport from one pitch coordination to another, they glide (glissando) quickly through many micro-pitches. If you can keep a balanced coordination of air/muscle through a glide, you will build good habits through your whole range.
Hum along to a siren to get used to the feeling.
After you get used to the feeling of making a smooth slide through your whole range, try to hold on to that feeling as you switch to singing songs. If the air and muscle stay consistent when you change your word around you will maintain ease across your whole voice. Hums and other nasals are a great starting point for stretching your vocal cords to make higher pitches easily.
Good vowels can help your voice stay balanced
The way you form your vowels amplifies the frequency created at your vocal folds. Good vowels are generally the result of not working too hard. If you pronounce your words the same way in singing as you do for speech, you will probably do a lot of things well.
Often rather than keeping the easy pronunciation of words from speech, when people sing they work hard to manipulate their vowels, and in turn add in unnecessary tension and imbalance.
This is actually the origin of the term and company “Speech Level Singing”. The logic is if you aren’t doing anything wrong with your speech, and singing uses the same instrument as speech, you shouldn’t change much between speaking and singing.
Transitively, learning how to be a better singer can help you become a better speaker.
Try doing the same hum-slide exercise as earlier, then hum a song the same way. When you get to a high note, treat it the same way as you would when just sliding up in the exercise. After a few repetitions, open your mouth and sing the phrase by pronouncing it the same way you would in speech. This way you won’t sabotage your good vowels by trying to change them.
“Singing is the art of minimal changes.”
If the phrase is more difficult with words than humming, you’re probably changing something about how you pronounce the words. Record yourself singing and speaking the same phrase, then compare what you did differently.
With practice, a wider range is achievable by anyone. The best thing to do is keep your intentions simple, focusing on air, muscle, or word. Bringing the rogue component into balance will do wonders for your range, and help you nail the songs you love.