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Proper vocal exercises are a lifesaver for the singer. A vocal exercise can diminish certain difficulty levels when warming up or trying to gain new levels of skill.
Unfinished sounds can be particularly useful when used correctly. These exercises can make specific tasks such as extending range or finding balance through difficult vocal transitions much more accessible.
However, there is often a temptation to get “stuck” in these exercises as full, finished sounds add back in levels of difficulty.
In this episode, John explains the proper usage of these exercises and how to be careful not to allow them to creep into your natural singing voice.
Episode 55 – Overusing Vocal Exercises
Hey, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of the intelligent vocalist.
If my voice doesn’t sound 100%, that’s because I’m not. I got hit with a, as my doctor says, a viral infection with flu-like symptoms. Well, flu-like I think is another way of saying “hell”. It was actually pretty miserable. And I know I’m coming on here whining but, you know, I’m getting older. So I like to tell people about my health, whether or not they want to hear it.
As I was going in and out as I had this fever that lasted for days, as I kind of going in and out of this fitful sleep, I somehow figured that I was dying, and felt the need to give myself a grade on my life until this point. What I do remember from that is I gave myself a soft B-/hard C+.
So apparently all my life’s efforts right now my fevered brain has graded with a C+. Hopefully I’ve got some years left that I can maybe push that up to a solid B. I think maybe I have it in me.
But now we come to the actual podcast itself and the reason you’re listening so I will stop bubbling about my health. And I want to talk about utilizing vocal exercises, and actually overusing certain vocal exercises.
Now singing, if you’re listening to this podcast, if ever you’ve tried singing, if you do sing, if you teach singing – singing is hard. It’s hard in a way that is other instruments are not hard.
On your first guitar lesson as long as you have the proper hand strength and a little bit of coordination you could play a nice E chord. And you could start to bang around on that E chord and you can add a little bit of distortion, and that E chord is going to sound pretty good. And if the E chord doesn’t sound great, you’re not going to beat yourself up or be embarrassed because you realize that you just started, that there’s really no innate reason why you should be able to play guitar naturally without working at it.
Yes, singing is such a personal instrument and It’s so much a part of us. That even if we haven’t really worked that or studied, we take a few stabs at it. And we will instantly say “I can’t sing. I don’t have a good voice.” And we found ourselves really fighting with ourselves and struggling.
So as we begin the singing journey, part of the process is to make the process of singing easier, the active singing easier. And one of the harder things that we have to do is to get ourselves balanced in vocal registration.
As the voice moves from the lower register to the upper register, whatever label that you want to put on that, there will ultimately be a shift. You can delay the shift with certain strategies. It becomes a little more dangerous but it can be done. But at some point, the shift is going to present itself. And you’re going to have to negotiate your way through. And your first efforts will not be good because this shift, not only in terms of what the muscles of the folds are doing, what muscle groups are primarily engaged as voice begins to pull and stretch and become thinner. There’s less contact on the folds and there’s less dominance in the muscles within the folds themselves, but the muscles that pull and stretch the cords becomes more dominant.
There’s that, but there’s also an acoustic shift. And to way oversimplify it you’re going to move from more of a dominant throat resonator/amplifier towards more dominant mouth amplifier/resonator. As that happens that will be a process that’s different on intensity levels, different vowel sounds, etc. but it is going to happen in order to really master your voice. It’s really hard. And it becomes really harder when you try to do it on full finished sounds.
So voice teachers have created what we call unfinished sounds. Now an unfinished sound is exactly that – you’re not using the full measure of your voice. You’re not trying to balance all of the different variables at one time. What we can do is we can lessen certain variables so that the process becomes easier.
Now one of the ways to work through the vocal transition to eliminate over-muscle and over-squeezing, and what people call this “pull” or the larynx coming up, and the nervous system and the body trying to hold on to this throat resonator, if you will, and hold on too long, is we can do a really hoopy/hooty dopey sound that dramatically lessens the impact of that vocal transition. And allow you to go through, in a way, without a very very high skill level. So it’s a good tool.
The other takes a completely opposite approach but it’s still an exaggeration. These singers or teachers will call these pharyngeal sounds, bratty sounds, witchy sounds. And what you’re doing is you are raising your larynx in such a way that you are pulling down certain resonances that would otherwise need to be balanced. You are also able to get cord closure within this but the very nature and setup of this sound it makes it very very hard to over-muscle and squeeze. And that sound is more of a NEY-NEY-NEY. So even though my voice is still recovering from being quite ill – did I tell you about my health? Because I’m older I like to talk about my health. But even though I’m recovering and my chances of going through that with a nice full finished sound are not great right now, I may able to do it on this witchy sound. The skill level that I need has been diminished because of the number of elements I need to balance have been diminished. So this becomes a very very useful exercise.
However, it also can become a trap because these exercises, especially the witchy exercise, are very tempting to kind of stay there in a way. Because the ease in which you’re able to through this transition is like “Wow, that feels really easy.” And you know, the dopey sound is such that it’s not really useable. I mean, it’s useable as an exercise, but nobody is going to kind of get stuck or, you know, singing like (in dopey voice I will always love you.) That’s not anything anyone’s going to be tempted to do. It’s just not a great sound.
But that bratty witchy sound there’s enough there, and actually within certain pop styles and certain sounds you want to make. There are elements of it that stylistically workable and stylistically correct. So what I find people would do is they will use this bratty witchy sound and they’ll start to get good results from it. And then they’ll back away from it, but not a whole lot. They’ll kind of stay in this thinner brattier sound. So NEY-NEY may become a little more NAY-NAY which is a little richer, but that’s not the full measure of my voice. I’m a little more NAY-NAY (in deeper sound), but that’s a little harder to do. That takes a little more skill. And so you want to retreat back to that witchy sound, you want to retreat back to that E.
And look, that stylistically what works for the song, if you know that’s the sound you want, if you’re in control of the level of that thinner brighter brattier sound. If you’re controlled of that level to the amount that you want to put in – fantastic. I think, any sound that you make, if it’s on purpose, is within bounds. Now if it’s physically hurting you – got to rethink it. But again, there are great vocal performances that I love that have been recorded that aren’t healthy.
You know, even though you can make extreme sounds in a healthy way, these aren’t being done in a healthy way. But it’s so emotionally right and dead-on, and the song would lose something without it. So if you just have to do it a few times in the studio – that’s fine. You may have to adjust that when you go on the road.
But always just be in control of what you’re doing. I am finding, as I travel around and I work with people and I teach with people, the number one thing that I see singers getting stuck in is this kind of thinner brattier sound. And they don’t realize that they’re still in the exaggeration. They don’t realize that they’re not in the full measure of their voice.
I do run in with people who do get stuck in the opposite way, and they get their larynx over low and it’s over dark. If you try and sing intensely through that, you’re going to have a host of problems as well. But the bratty condition is simply a tool.
You have to be really really careful how much you use exaggerated sounds. And you have to be careful that if any artifacts of the exaggerated sound are staying in what we would consider your centered home-base sound. Everyone kind of has this area that’s more of their sound center. That’s more of, for lack of a better term, their natural voice. And then, we all have the ability to push out of this center. As we push out of this center I just want you to be aware – being aware of the sound you’re making, of the effect that it’s having, how you’re doing it. Not that you have to over-think singing, but you should be able to stop at any moment and say “Okay, this is what I was doing, this is what I was manipulating, this is how far out of this center that I’m choosing to go.”
But for the most part, you don’t want the artifacts within the center. You’ve got to find, ultimately as you keep studying voice and you keep progressing, you’ve got to find your finished sound.
So I encourage you, whether you’re a singer and even as a voice teacher, I think we have to be careful about our favorite exercises. We all have our favorite exercises. We all have exercises that we use as a go-to. And sometimes I personally would not admit to any of these, but perhaps this theoretical teacher, maybe you’re just a little over tired, or maybe you’re just kind of doing things a little bit by route. We constantly have to catch ourselves if habits are creeping in, and you’re going to go to exercises and you got to just stop and, especially when it’s an unfinished sound, you’ve got to watch that it’s not overdone, and warn the student about it. You have to explain what it is that you’re doing and why it is unfinished, and how you’re going to ultimately come out of that sound into the home-base, if you will.
I’ve been criticized for singing home-base by people in Europe who don’t understand baseball. It’s just your home – your home sound.
You know, when I was first teaching and I was working with a student, and she had a very difficult time going through her transition. She was falling apart, and so I give her some of the witchy sounds. And they worked really well. I think I had one or two lessons with her. And then she disappeared. She came back six months later, and she said “You know, I think I’ve really got this.” I said “Great! Let’s hear it.” And she was singing like this (very witchy sound). And it was like “Oh my goodness, no, no, no.”
I did not properly explain that this was an exaggerated sound. And, you know, she went home and did what she thought I was asking of her and kind of round herself up too much in that sound.
Now, these sounds are always useful. When you’re warming up, those deeper larynx, kind of dopey sounds would be great. When you’re just trying to ease in a little more connection, a little more compression, a little more resistance, but you’re not fully ready to sing, those little edgy sounds can be fantastic, those bratty sounds. Just know they’re not finished sound, and don’t get stuck there.
That’s what I really wanted to share today, a bit of a shorter episode. However, if you are interested in teaching voice, a little quick plug – my Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy is now open. I’ve got a little trial special going on right now. You can try it out for 14 days for just $1. You can cancel during the trial period. If you stay, it’s $49 a month. You can cancel it anytime.
I will take you step-by-step in how to teach Contemporary voice, and go through the science and all these other things. If you want, you can get more information at johnhenny.com and just click TEACHER TRAINING in the menu.
At least it is for memory, I will put the link to this in the show notes. I will also have a transcript of this in the show notes. If the podcast is just published, the transcript is usually there within a day or two, for those of you who’d rather read than listen to me babble. But however you get the information, I really really truly appreciate you spending the time to listen to me, or read to me, or just paying attention to me in general. I like having attention paid to me.
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And until next time. To better singing! Thank you so much. Bye.