When you get serious about singing, it’s not uncommon to go through periods of feeling like you are getting worse instead of improving.

The path of learning to sing is not a straight one, and we often need to take detours that can lead to frustration.

In this episode, John discusses why we may need to take a step back in our singing before we get better, but also how not to get stuck there.

Episode Transcript

Episode 161- Getting Worse Before You Get Better

Hey there, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of The Intelligent Vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious listening time with me. Ah, this morning, I crossed over the halfway point of writing my new book. Now I am more than halfway done with the first draft, which is pretty exciting. This is now my third book, but it is going to be the first book that is focused exclusively on singers, and really, beginning and intermediate singers, although advanced singers will hopefully find something useful in there as well. But this book, I’m really spending time to boil down difficult concepts and make them really easy to understand and being careful to only give enough information for the singer to be able to start, or the potential singer to start working on their voice right away and starting to feel improvement. So watch for the book in the coming months.

Now, what I’ve done with my previous two books is– this is only for my email list, so if you’re not on my email list, please go to johnhenny.com and sign up. But I give members of my email list the opportunity to read my newest book for free and before it is published in return for feedback, so you don’t have to pay anything to get the book. You get to read it before anyone else and you also get to put in feedback, and I look over all the feedback, corrections. Very often it’s great to crowd source this because people find errors that the editors will miss, I certainly miss, and even the editor has missed. So it’s great to get the feedback. I really appreciate it. Just a wonderful community of listeners I have for this podcast. So when I say that I appreciate you listening, I really do mean it. And again, I’m so thankful for the growth the podcast is having. And this book is really a distillation of so many things I’ve talked about, but really focused on voice technique and just getting your voice working quickly, getting some quick breakthroughs.

Now, on that topic, I want to talk about something that’s not so great news about working on your voice and that is the fact that for many of us, we will get worse before we get better when we really start working on our voice.

We can get this initial burst of improvement and this feeling of a breakthrough an encouragement, but then we feel like things just start getting worse and the harder we work, the worse things get. And that is partially a byproduct of your improved knowledge and awareness, and the fact that you are just listening on a deeper, more critical level. When you really start hearing how the voice works and you start working on your own voice, the flaws of your voice become more apparent. And I often see this, when singers first go into the recording studio and really working their voice on a serious level, and getting into that deeply critical listening phase of singing something, listening back, singing something, listening back, then comping tracks, the flaws are really magnified. And I’ve had people who are just crushed by the experience, they’ll come to me and they’ve done recording sessions and it really just derailed their confidence. And it’s something that you need to push through. You need to understand this is part of the process and the learning process. And as painful as it is, this deep critical listening is all part of becoming a better singer, of really seeing the flaws and knowing what to work on. But the process is hard. And as you get better ears, it will feel like you are regressing, you are getting worse, when, in fact, you are actually getting better.

It’s just you’re more able to spot the flaws. So that is often a big part of this feeling of getting worse. But the other part is, you’re actually getting a little worse and it’s a good thing. What is going to happen is, you’re likely going to go in to a voice teacher or start working online program, taking things really seriously, and you’re going to see some big issues. And the main vocal issue that most singers initially contend with is dealing with the shouting reflex.

Our nervous system is hardwired to make us great shouters. Our ancestors of long ago who weren’t able to call out a warning when a beastie was coming to eat them didn’t make it into the gene pool. So we evolved to be very good at shouting, and that reflex will kick into our nervous system very easily. Now, the ability to sing and to soothe beasties that would want to eat us didn’t seem to be a thing. So we didn’t evolve to be naturally great singers. But we’re great shouters, and this shouting reflex will kick in on the higher notes. And even if you don’t feel yourself shouting, if you’re just flipping and going light, what you’re doing is likely going into the shouting coordination and then just backing off the vocal folds or backing off the compression.

Because you know if you press, you’re just going to go into shouting, and sustained shouting doesn’t feel good. And our vocal folds don’t put up with a whole lot of shouting, and some of our vocal folds are more sensitive than the folds of other people. And that’s just your genetics and we can’t really fix that. So if you have a more sensitive voice, you really have to watch out for the shouting reflex. So when we first start trying to break this shouting reflex, what we need to do, generally, is narrow down vowels. So we’re not going on very wide AE’s and UH’s, which are great vowels for shouting but we’re more closed down on OO’s and EE’s, and we have to get lighter. 

We have to back up off the compression, and so we’re in this very light vocal production. And even when we start to sing in a little more, people who’ve pulled a lot of chest can be very afraid of going back to that coordination, and so they stay in very closed narrow vowels. They shade everything very closed, and this just creates very dull singing. It creates a weaker upper register. Because shouting is strong, it is loud, it’s just, again, stressful on the voice and it’s limited in its range. So when we back away from that, we lose power, we lose intensity and often, because the larynx will rise when we go into the shout condition, it comes up because the the throat resonator is over-involved in boosting the energy. It’s grabbing at parts of the sound wave that are starting to be out of its range. It starts to constrict and squeeze to get little more acoustic energy out of it. The mouth goes really wide, the jaw’s down really wide, the neck is– I mean, we’re really pushing the system.

So the first order of business is often to get that larynx to drop. The bottom line is, you cannot squeeze and shout on a lower larynx. If you do this little experiment, if you get your Patrick Star voice on, “Hey, Spongebob,” and you just give me a gheh, gheh, gheh, and then try and squeeze that gheeehh, you can’t. Boy, if you get that larynx up, more towards Spongebob territory, you can squeeze the heck out of it. So teachers will get voice students on a lower larynx, and you will feel a certain amount of relief on this lower larynx. And the lower larynx starts to become a holy grail, and the student just does everything they can to keep this low larynx.

But what that does is that robs you of acoustic energy. It’s a great tool when you’re first learning to extend your range, when you’re first learning to sing through that break area. But if you get stuck there, your singing will get worse. Your singing will be weak. Your singing will be dull, and you’ll very often start to develop a bit of a vocal squeeze. Now, we can’t really squeeze on the super exaggerated Patrick Star version. But if your larynx is a little over low, little too low, your vocal tract is there for a little too long so it can’t boost the upper frequencies we want for higher pitches, and especially more intense higher pitches. And the voice will then often flip into that whoop timbre that Ken Bozeman talks about. Ken Bozeman is a professor of singing who has written some amazing books on vocal acoustics, and he calls it whoop timbre. And this whoop timber is weak. So in order to not totally flip, the singer ends up squeezing a little bit. Not as much as the shout, right? That’s alleviated, that red-lining eyes-bugging-out-of-your-head shout that can really hurt your voice. But it’s just enough squeeze that it doesn’t sound good, because again, we’re trying not to fall apart.

And so, this over-low larynx will make your singing not so great. Over-narrow vowels will make your singing not so great. This under-compression of the vocal folds, this fear of starting to get some intensity, will make your singing not so great. It’s just going to sound dark. It’s going to sound kind of weak, maybe a little squeezy. And then we start to overthink. Now, on my YouTube channel, which again has been a rather odd experiment for me, but I’ve had people completely go off on me because they think, because I’m talking about the voice in technical terms, that I’m incapable of even enjoying music emotionally.

I was accused of being the scientist from the Muppets, and this idea has some merit. Not that I can’t listen to music emotionally. Trust me, I can get incredibly emotional listening to music, and I will often turn off my voice teacher brain and my critical brain, and just simply enjoy music.

But when I turn it on, yeah, I can get very, very critical, and hearing all the mechanics and the acoustics and that’s fun for me as well. And so I’ll play between the two. But when you’re learning to sing and you’re suddenly spending a lot of time thinking about your voice, you can get stuck there. And you can start to lose the joy of singing, and this is something I hear singers complain about when they go into lessons. Singing just isn’t fun, and when they go to sing, the brain is just racing and worrying, and ‘Did I do that vowel right? And am I in my mix? And did I drop my jaw enough? Am I over compressing?’ And this is not where you want to be when you are performing.

And when you are in the practice room, and you’re breaking down a song, and you’re working technique, and you’re working the mechanics, you also need to take some time to just sing and let yourself go and turn off the critical mind and just experience the energy and vibration of sound waves of emotion, of performance, of communication. And let yourself go there. If you resist going there because you might be wrong, you’re going to note time for checking your growth. So this period of sounding not so good will be a bit extended and you will sacrifice your ability of communicating with an audience, and I don’t want that for anyone.

I’ve said this before, but no one cares about vocal technique except voice teachers and other singers. Your typical listener doesn’t care. They just want to be communicated with. They don’t care how you do it. Either sounds good and it moves them emotionally, or it doesn’t. And you can have a technically perfect singer, but if they’re not communicating, if they’re not emotionally connected, no one will care except for some voice teachers and other singers. I myself can hear great vocal technique and appreciate it for its own sake. But it doesn’t move me emotionally and it’s not one I’m going to listen to for enjoyment. And actually, some of my favorite singers are not technically great singers, but they do communicate.

So don’t get stuck in this process of learning to sing. Accept that you may not sound as good to yourself for a little while, that you’re hearing and understanding will usually be a few steps of where your voice is, so don’t get down on yourself for that.

It’s good to keep some recordings of your singing and practicing tucked away so that you can go back and hear what you sounded like six months ago, a year ago. But don’t get stuck in the technical. Don’t overwork the technical. Don’t lose sight of balance and the center. Understand when you’re singing an exaggerated exercise, and don’t get stuck in the exaggeration. And don’t lose your connection to music. Don’t lose your emotion. Again, technique is not the highest level of singing. Communication is the highest level of singing.

Hey, if you want to know more about me, please visit my website johnhenny.com and be sure to get on my email list. Also, I have a free warmup course, warming up with a straw, which is all the rage so check that out. You can get that on my homepage. Also, if you’re interested in teaching voice, consider checking out my Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy. Just click on teacher training at the top of my website there in the menu and you can get all the information. It’s all online. It’s all done at your own pace. And you can join voice teachers from all around the world who are improving their skills and building up quite nice businesses for themselves. So do check that out. And until next time, to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye bye.