One of the most prevalent myths about singing is that singing high is difficult. As a consequence, we develop fears and dysfunctions around this that make singing high difficult. I’d like to debunk this myth and allow you effortless access to an unlimited pitch range. NB: This article refers to singing higher pitches rather than singing when high!
We are socialised from a young age to believe that singing high is the most supreme achievement, even the goal, of an impactful musical performance.The ‘big’ notes, regardless of their pitch accuracy, meaning and quality, become the benchmarks by which we judge a singer – and supposedly assess a song’s difficulty.
A five-year old doesn’t know what’s easy or difficult about singing – they just do it. So it should be post-puberty. However, after male and female voices break, we find we cannot sing as high as we used to. Out of desperation we push, strain and get louder to try hitting the notes we once sang effortlessly. At this point many stop singing.
The insecurity of not knowing good vocal technique is likely compounded by record companies exaggerating artists like Mariah Carey’s actual pitch range.This, along with post production and studio effects can make us ‘mere mortals’ feel inadequate by comparison. Claiming that Carey has an eight octave range is untrue (including whistle tones). My range is just over three octaves: C below middle C and a high C#-D.This feels like, and is, plenty to play around with.
Remember, it’s not how big it is, it’s what you do with it. We can colour notes with more twang and brightness of tone which make them ‘sound’ higher (just as singing with a deep/open throat makes the same pitch sound lower).
You needn’t feel strain or stress when singing the extremities of your range, it’s fun. Feel low notes rumbling warmly in your belly and a zingy bright buzz in the top of the head for the high notes. Warming up the voice with gradually ascending scales and arpeggios massages the high-end of your range so that you feel more comfortable there. You get the chance to test-drive, experiment and familiarise yourself with tools and technique you need more of the higher you sing (e.g. twang, body-anchoring, silent giggle,’ng’).
Typically we’ve developed fear-based habits when approaching high notes:we tense and lift shoulders, clench the jaw, stiffen the tongue, lift the chin, push, get louder, use more air, look up at an imaginarily impossible note or ‘flip’, give up on the note so it’s breathy and weak – the exact opposite of what we should do.
Change your attitude towards singing high by using and committing to the following physical tools, concepts and visualisations. Imagine your vocal range is a buffet table laid out for a wedding feast. The top notes are the profiteroles that sit in the center, further back so that you have to reach over and forward to grab them. Imagine your range as horizontal rather than vertical, especially when singing large intervallic leaps – look down on the note from above, think of it as ‘low.
Singing through the ‘ng’ focus point in the forehead lands you on top of the note like a mothership beaming down an alien, or a darts player sighting the dart before throwing it. Guessing the note and hoping you’ll find it ‘up there somewhere’, this is like feeling around blindly for an object in darkness. Hear the note in front of you first, the same way you’d go straight to an object when it’s visible.
Pushing, forcing, overshooting and shouting nigh notes tend towards going sharp, break and feel sore. Fear of not being able to make notes because they’re ‘out of range’, under-energising, breathiness,’sliding up’ and tension tend towards going flat. This is just the fear talking.
Imagine you’re a horse going over a show-jump: if we’ve confidently run through the course (practised), we will have successfully cleared the jumps (high notes) and won’t stop abruptly before the jump, bucking the rider.
Vocal cords like the stretch involved when singing high, just like stretching in the morning to wake up or doing yoga. Stretching the whole body opens up cavities that resonate the sound – the higher we sing, the more open the chest, mouth, head, tummy need to be. Give high notes loads of headroom/space.
Consequently, posture is all-important. Scruff the back of the neck (pull the base of the skull up and back), dig in the heel of your back foot, pull shoulders down and lean back, lift cheeks, hang jaw, bring the base of the tongue forward, bite down, snarl or shiver to lift the soft palate, engage lower back muscles by trying to burst balloons under each armpit, imagine that you’re lying back in a hammock and think of high notes as light and easy. That’s just for starters!
Using the superpower combo of ‘twang’ and ‘openness’ gives strength, projection and intensity to your voice. The higher we sing, the more twang and openness required. Twang gives a roughness, excitement and urgency to the voice regardless of pitch that is usually only felt right at the top of our range as an ‘over-riding’/precarious sound/sense. Serendipitously, twang uses zero air. If we need extra rocket boosters: suck air inwards as you sing.
Get quieter on high notes. Concentrate on the naturally accented words in the phrase ‘meaning wise’ (rather than just accenting the higher pitches). Make the fluent expression of the phrase paramount (e.g. singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow with the accent on ‘some’ rather than ‘where’… you’ll feel what I mean.