Episode 141 – Too Much of a Good Thing

Learning to sing is an evolving process, and you will need to change your approach as you improve.

Exercises to help with common beginner problems can get you “stuck” if you continue with them too long.

In this episode, John discusses two of the most common “helpful” exercises that can become a hindrance for singers.

Episode Transcript

Episode 141 – Too Much of a Good Thing

Hey there, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another edition of The Intelligent Vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious listening time with me. And I also appreciate, hearing from you. I’ve been receiving some very nice emails. You can always email me at [email protected], including one from a new listener, Samuel, who shared with me that he spent the other day listening to me, I guess on a long drive for 10 hours straight. Now, I don’t recommend that for anyone. I certainly would not spend 10 hours, listening to me talk. My wife agrees, nobody should do that. But I really, really do appreciate it. And, last month, the month of November, the downloads on the podcast shot up again, dramatically. So the growth of this podcast I think has at least in this last year I think tripled. So I really, really thank all of you for that well over a hundred thousand downloads.

So I truly do appreciate that. All right. Today if I’m talking a little bit slow, I am still in my first week of having given up coffee, which is– I can’t even believe those words have come out of my mouth as I sip my herbal tea. But yes, I have left the dark wonderful side and I was just way too addicted. I’ve always joked that that coffee is more important than singing, but maybe I like singing a little bit more. I was drinking so much. It was actually starting to drain me. So I’m just a little bit of white knuckles there. The first few days I’m actually starting to feel better, although man, I do miss that warm, lovely smell. Today I’m going to talk about, fittingly enough, too much of a good thing.

So coffee in my life was too much of a good thing. And, previously it was food. So I’m good at too much of a good thing. I’m not really good at moderation. I have found that about myself. I really do admire those of you who can practice moderation. I’m just not a member of your group. Moderation tends to escape me and I go overboard on things. And in the voice, I will find singers– I will have teachers bring students to me where they’re kind of stuck with where the student is at. And this takes nothing away from the teachers there. They’re very, very good but just sometimes it’s just a fresh pair of ears to listen to the problem and get a new perspective on it. So I was working with a student the other day who the teacher had hit some roadblocks in his training and this was a singer who, like most of us and especially male singers, was experiencing the issues of a pulled chest, if you will.

It’s essentially you’re going into that shout reflex as you begin to go up into that transition area of the voice. You’re leaving the lower register. You’re moving to your upper register and you hit that wall. And very often what’s happening is the body is going into a shout condition. We’re all very good at shouting. It’s a hardwired, reflex within us. It’s a survival mechanism. And so to override that very often for a period of time, we have to go to helpful exercises. Now the larynx, that bump at the front of your neck, is often pointed to as the culprit of this register issue. This problem with being able to access your upper notes and the larynx will come up as you go into this shout condition. So one of the keys of breaking this condition is to get a lower larynx.

And what we’ll often do is we’ll just kind of sing with that kind of slightly dopey posture. That allows us to more easily access the upper notes. So singers will really start to focus on the larynx. And that is what this singer had done. He started to find some relief from the strain and getting the lower larynx. The problem is an over-low larynx is great for reducing tension, but the issue is it does it a little too well in the big picture. If you make a very dopey sound and try and squeeze your chords together. You can’t do it. It’s much easier to squeeze on a high larynx. So he was keeping this over-low larynx and then trying to sing with some intensity. And what that was doing was that was just causing him to attempt to squeeze in order to bring the cords together more intensely.

And he was getting, imbalances in that way. Now the initial imbalance of the yell had been removed, but since he had found relief with the lower larynx, he didn’t want to let it go. He felt like if he let that low larynx go, it would impact his ability to access the upper notes and he would start to go back into the strain and the yelling. So, it took me a while to get him in a more neutral laryngeal position. People ask me, should I sing on a low larynx? Should I sing on a high larynx? And I tell them, you should sing on a tuned larynx. A larynx that is adjusted to the pitch and the vowel. The intensity in the color that you want. It’s not a question of higher or lower. You’re going to get different colors, different shades, different intensities, and also different potential issues based on where the larynx is.

But his definitely needed to come up a bit for what it was that he was singing. And as he allowed it to come up and then he felt the new balance, he began to accept it. And by the end of the lesson he was feeling much better, singing F-sharps and even G-sharps above Middle-C. So he was into the male transition and even was starting to get into the male head voice, with some nice intensity and nice tone color. So there’s another temptation when our voice is falling apart. This is the other common one. The too common, too much of a good thing that I see is the over-low larynx and that tends to be more prevalent in men. Men loved to muscle things up and also our transition happens later in our range. The male vocal folds are already under more tension for pitch.

So when that transition comes and we get that acoustic shift from the lower to the upper register, men tend to muscle that up, really start to shout. It’s not only men, but it tends to be more of a male thing that the low larynx exercise really helps. On the female voice, the chords are under less tension because it happens sooner in the female range when they hit that vocal transition. So the female voice will tend to let go, more as they go into the transition and the upper notes. And so it will tend to fall into a falsetto. I believe women have a falsetto, although it’s just not as distinct in their voice as men, but it’s more that female classical tuning. So a good way to get through that is to use these very exaggerated sounds.

Some people call them pharyngeal. Some people will refer to it as twang. Twang is a whole another subject. It’s very interesting term, just even in its history. People talk about the twang of a guitar. People will talk about having a twang in your accent. People will think of a twang as being nasality. But twang has taken on a different meaning within singing and it’s a more subtle thing, and I’ll probably talk about it in another podcast. But it’s essentially, you’re doing some manipulation in your vocal tract, specifically the epiglottis. The epiglottis is this thing that looks a bit like a shoehorn and when you’re breathing, it’s standing up. But when you swallow, it folds down and goes over your wind pipe and it protects your lungs from food and drink and foreign objects.

So if something– and your vocal folds, your false folds and your vocal folds are the last line of defense. So if you’ve had the unfortunate experience of something going down the wrong way, it is your epiglottis was up and then this drink or whatever it is, often if you laugh while you’re trying to eat, and it gets sucked down and then it hits your vocal folds and your vocal folds’ job, their job is to cough that up. And it’s not very much fun. But this epiglottis, if you start to bring it closed just a little bit, you’re essentially, it’s like on a hose, you’re going from a wide stream– You know, there’s little hose adjusters on your garden hose, and then you can change the setting from the wide stream of water to then the jet. And that’s a very focused stream of water.

And it’s essentially doing that. And as it comes up, this epiglottis will move a little bit and it’s going to create a healthy restriction, if you will, a focusing of the sound, within your throat. It gives us more bite and more power for less effort and you can use an exaggerated version of that. If your voice is really falling apart, you can go into these little witchy, bratty, it’s been even called a puppet voice. You’re able to hold on through that transition without falling apart. It’s much easier and it’s so much easier in fact that it’s very tempting to basically sing on that a condition. And this is probably the exercise that I have heard most overused in my travels and working with other teachers and teacher training.

It’s overused because it’s so fantastically effective and when it’s used properly, when you start backing out of that real exaggerated condition to just a slightly exaggerated condition but not to the very low larynx, you keep a level of that twang. It gives you a boost in the upper end of your singing. It’s very effective for belt and for pop. Classical singers, especially male classical singers will use a twang strategy. Not quite as intense as maybe say belt. You want to be careful with how much you employ it unless you’re doing a character voice because what it will do is you end up sounding, Fran Drescher from the Nanny. I think there was a character on Friends was Chandler’s girlfriend, but just getting that real whiny, annoying voice and that was played for comedic effect.

It’s also Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. But if you keep too much of that, it’s not a great sound if you’re trying to sing non-character styles of music. And I find singers reluctant to let go of this. They want to hold on to this exaggeration and these exaggerations just get you stuck because you’re not working on the full richness of your voice. You’re working in this exaggeration and yes, it’s eliminated flipping and it’s allowed you to access your lower and upper registers in an even sound, but the sound is not one that people really want to hear. And it’s not a true reflection of your voice. You’re overusing this exercise. So what you want to do is little by little, if you really need that edgy sound to get through, then you want to go from this higher “nay,” to a little bit of a deeper larynx “nay,” to a little bit then a richer “nay,” and you can keep a little bit of the quality. I’m holding a little bit of the quality as I speak. I’m not going here to a woofy sound. I’m owning a little bit of quality of that twang, and that will give you that boost that you want so you’re not stuck in “nay,” but you can go into “nehy” but not into “nuy.”

See the difference? So you can hold just a little bit of it and then you can play with the degree that you want, depending on intensity and color and all of those things. Basically, there’s no one correct setting for your voice. Your voice is as full palette of sounds. And I don’t want you to get stuck into, there’s only one way of singing. And I made that mistake, many years ago and I’ve gotten better and better and better. And I have found that people, and this can be hard, because especially if you’ve clashed with some people or gotten into arguments, to begin to see where they’re right and to give up previous belief systems that you hold, and that is not easy for anybody and your mind will fight you on that.

But I have found even with teachers that are somewhat controversial and people will tend to just dismiss or mock. If I really look at what they’re saying, they’re still golden there. It may not be everything, but, I can still find gold. And I found people, currently just going through different methods and people that I previously disagreed with where I’ve got to stop and go, wow, you know what no, they actually really have a point there and I missed something. And so don’t get stuck with your voice. Don’t hold on to these exercises because they’ve worked for you for a period of time. That doesn’t mean that you need to hang onto them going forward. You really need to find the full measure of your voice, all the colors of your voice and where that balance is and where you can really sing in the fullest expression of what nature gave you.

And that’s what’s going to make you different. Your specific instrument and not an instrument that’s stuck in exaggeration and exercises, but an instrument that’s fully expressing your natural tone colors and your emotions and your musicality and what you want to communicate. 

Hey, if you want to know more about me, please visit my website, johnhenny.com. Be sure to sign up for my email list. And if you want to learn how to belt, please go to boldly belting.com. I’ve got a full course there. I’ve had, beginners use it. I’ve had professional singers use it. I’m getting really good feedback. people reporting, vocal breakthroughs with that. It’s boldlybelting.com. You can get more information. And until next time, to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye. Bye.